Who Will Watch the Watchers?


By the late fourth century, the Roman empire stretched across Europe and Asia and contained many diverse cultures and races. Despite that, officials still had reservations about embracing the barbarian people of Germany and inducting them into the army. Those who revered the illusion of a classic Rome resented that the world was changing rapidly. It would yet again change for the worse with the invasion of the Huns and a few benchmark decisions that, now looking back, were probably not in the best interest of the empire.

It all started in 375 when the Huns attacked the Ostrogoths in the Black Sea region. The Visigoth king Fritigern believed his people would be targeted next, and he appealed to Emperor Valens for help. He asked the emperor to allow his people to settle in Roman territory just south of the Danube. Valens resisted at first, but then he relented on the condition that the Visigoths would disarm. In exchange, Rome would provide food for the new refugees. It seemed a mutually beneficial solution. But Valens had not counted on the hatred of his own people, especially the hatred veteran Roman soldiers held toward the Germanic people. Once the Visigoths had settled, they had to endure mistreatment by their Greek neighbors and the Roman soldiers. They also had to endure hunger. Valens had known there was not enough extra food, but had made the deal despite this.

The following year, Fritigern and his Visigoths revolted. The culturally linked Ostrogoths joined them in their struggle. Valens was killed. Later, Emperor Theodosius persuaded the Ostrogoths to leave Roman territory as the Huns moved eastward. He provided settlements for the Visigoths in what is today Bulgaria. Theodosius also offered them new lives as soldiers in the Roman army. Being a Roman soldier paid enough to feed their families, and many Goths accepted. With the increasing pressure on the borders generated by the Huns, the integration of the Germanic people into the eastern and the western armies took place at a rapid rate. The Latin and Greek soldiers resented the new arrivals. The empire had been fighting the barbarians for more than 400 years. This longtime hatred of Germanic and Steppe peoples would not simply vanish because they were suddenly allowed to serve in the army.

In 395, the Visigoths elected Alaric as their king. Many considered Alaric an activist for his people. When supplies once again ran low, he led them farther into Europe in search of food and grazing land. At the same time, another disgruntled barbarian decided to rise up against Rome. Radagaisus marched his Vandal-Burgundian army across the Danube and into the Alps. They had to be stopped. Stilicho, the Frankish-Roman military commander, set out to subdue them. He did so without a battle. Rather than stamping these people out, he incorporated many of them into the army.

Alaric and his Visigoths took advantage of the distraction caused by Radagaisus and moved into northern Italy. Stilicho turned his sights on the Visigoths. Radagaisus saw his chance to make a nuisance of himself once again. In 405, while Stilicho busied himself against Alaric, Radagaisus and his Vandals made way for Hispania and settled on Roman lands. Alaric did not want to be left out in the cold, so he and his people followed the Vandals onto the Iberian peninsula in hopes of gaining new lands and better opportunities.

Rome was outraged. Someone needed to take the fall for this massive blunder. The emperor in the west, Honorus, decided that Stilicho was the cause of all of Rome’s problems with the barbarians and ordered his assassination. Tensions grew within the army until it finally split between the two rival factions. The split was along ethnic lines between the long-term Roman citizens and the new Germanic recruits. Roman soldiers began murdering the families of their German counterparts. The Germans left to join Alaric. Without the Germans to fill the ranks, Italy was without an active army.

The situation was less than agreeable. For the next four years, Alaric and the barbarian tribes continued to settle in Hispania and even northern Italy. Without an active army, the emperor resorted to bribery to keep Alaric from sacking Rome itself. But Alaric didn’t necessarily want to destroy Rome. What he really wanted was to be a part of the empire. He wanted his men to be reintegrated into the army, he wanted provisions, land his people could live peacefully on, and he wanted all the benefits of being a citizen of Rome. Honorus refused. It turned out to be a poor choice. Honorus fled to Ravenna.

Rome elected a new emperor for the west. Attalus proved to be far more accepting of the barbarians. He believed that the integration was inevitable and would benefit Rome. He agreed to Alaric’s demands of reintegration and food. There was just one problem. Rome had no extra provisions. When Attalus failed to meet Alaric’s demands, the Visigoths led an attack on Rome. By this time, the Roman army was totally dependent on Germanic troops. There were simply not enough Romans left who would or could fight to protect the city. In 475, the barbarian chief Odoacer replaced the Roman emperor with himself. By filling their army with Germanic recruits, the western Romans forgot the hard-learned lesson that the army controls who is emperor. Had they not depended on the often troublesome barbarian tribes for defense against effectively more barbarian tribes, perhaps Rome and the Western Roman empire might have survived. But instead, the citizens of Rome let others become their defenders and soon found that those defenders became their masters.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!