The Triumph of the Barbarians



PERSIA was but one sector of a 10,000-mile frontier through which, at any point and at any moment, this Roman Empire of a hundred nations might be invaded by tribes unspoiled by civilization and envious of its fruits. The Persians in themselves were an insoluble problem. They were growing stronger, not weaker; soon they would reconquer nearly all that Darius I had held a thousand years before. West of them were the Arabs, mostly penniless Bedouins; the wisest statesman would have smiled at the notion that these somber nomads were destined to capture half the Roman Empire, and all Persia too. South of the Roman provinces in Africa were Ethiopians, Libyans, Berbers, Numidians, and Moors, who waited in fierce patience for the crumbling of imperial defenses or morale. Spain seemed safely Roman behind its forbidding mountains and protecting seas; none surmised that it would become in this fourth century German, and in the eighth Mohammedan. Gaul now surpassed Italy in Roman pride, in order and wealth, in Latin poetry and prose; but in every generation it had to defend itself against Teutons whose women were more fertile than their fields. Only a small imperial garrison could be spared to protect Roman Britain from Scots and Picts on the west and north and from Norse or Saxon pirates on the east or south. Norway’s shores were a chain of pirate dens; its people found war less toilsome than tillage, and counted the raiding of alien coasts a noble occupation for hungry stomachs or leisure days. In southern Sweden and its isles the Goths claimed to have had their early home; possibly they were indigenous to the region of the Vistula; in any case they spread as Visigoths southward to the Danube, and as Ostrogoths they settled between the Dniester and the Don. In the heart of Europe—bounded by the Vistula, the Danube, and the Rhine—moved the restless tribes that were to remake the map, and rename the nations, of Europe: Thuringians, Burgundians, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Frisians, Gepidae, Quadi, Vandals, Alemanni, Suevi, Lombards, Franks. Against these ethnic tides the Empire had no protective wall except in Britain, but merely an occasional fort and garrison along the roads or rivers that marked the frontier limit (limes) of the Roman realm. The higher birth rate outside the Empire, and the higher standard of living within it, made immigration or invasion a manifest destiny for the Roman Empire then as for North America today.

Perhaps we should modify the tradition that speaks of these German tribes as barbarians. It is true that in calling them bar bari the Greeks and Romans meant no compliment. The word was probably brother to the Sanskrit var-vara, which meant a rough and letterless churl;1 it appears again in Berber. But it was not for nothing that for five centuries the Germans had touched Roman civilization in trade and war. By the fourth century they had long since adopted writing and a government of stable laws. If we except the Merovingian Franks, their sexual morals were superior to those of the Romans and the Greeks.* Though they lacked the civility and graces of a cultured people, they often shamed the Romans by their courage, hospitality, and honesty. They were cruel, but hardly more so than the Romans; they were probably shocked to find that Roman law permitted the torturing of freemen to extort confessions or testimony.3 They were individualistic to the point of chaos, while the Romans had now been tamed to sociability and peace. In their higher ranks they showed some appreciation of literature and art; Stilicho, Ricimer, and other Germans entered fully into the cultural life of Rome, and wrote a Latin that Symmachus professed to enjoy.4 In general the invaders—above all, the Goths—were civilized enough to admire Roman civilization as higher than their own, and to aim rather at acquiring it than at destroying it; for two centuries they asked little more than admission to the Empire and its unused lands; and they shared actively in its defense. If we continue to refer to the German tribes of the fourth and fifth centuries as barbarians, it will be in surrender to the convenience of custom, and with these reservations and apologies.

South of the Danube and the Alps the swelling tribes had already entered the Empire by peaceable immigration, even by royal invitation. Augustus had begun the policy of settling barbarians within the frontier, to replenish vacant areas and legions that the infertile and unmartial Romans no longer filled; and Aurelius, Aurelian, and Probus had adoped the plan. By the end of the fourth century the Balkans and eastern Gaul were predominantly German; so was the Roman army; many high offices, political as well as military, were in Teutonic hands. Once the Empire had Romanized such elements; now the immigrants barbarized the Romans.5 Romans began to wear fur coats in barbarian style, and to let their hair flow long; some even took to trousers, evoking outraged imperial decrees (397, 416).6

The cue for the great invasion came from far-off Mongolian plains. The Hsiung-nu, or Hiung-nu, or Huns, a division of the Turanian stock, occupied in our third century the region north of Lake Balkash and the Aral Sea. According to Jordanes, their chief weapon was their physiognomy.

By the terror of their features they inspired great fear in those whom perhaps they did not really surpass in war. They made their foes flee in horror because their swarthy aspect was fearful, and they had … a shapeless lump instead of a head, with pinholes rather than eyes. They are cruel to their children on the very day of their birth. For they cut the cheeks of the males with a sword, so that before they receive the nourishment of milk, they must learn to endure wounds. Hence they grow old beardless, and with faces scarred by the sword. They are short in stature, quick in bodily movement, alert horsemen, ready in the use of bow and arrow, broad-shouldered, and with firm set necks always erect in pride.7

War was their industry, pasturing cattle was their recreation. “Their country,” said a proverb, “is the back of a horse.”8 Armed with arrows and knives, equipped with courage and speed, driven by the exhaustion of their lands and the pressure of their eastern enemies, they advanced into Russia about 355, overcame and absorbed the Alani, crossed the Volga (372?), and attacked the almost civilized Ostrogoths in the Ukraine. Ermanaric, the centenarian Ostrogothic King, fought bravely, was defeated, and died, some said, by his own hand. Part of the Ostrogoths surrendered and joined the Huns; part fled west into the lands of the Visigoths north of the Danube. A Visigothic army met the advancing Huns at the Dniester, and was overwhelmed; a remnant of the Visigoths begged permission of the Roman authorities on the Danube to cross the river and settle in Moesia and Thrace. The Emperor Valens sent word that they should be admitted on condition that they surrender their arms, and give up their youths as hostages. The Visigoths crossed, and were shamelessly plundered by imperial officials and troops; their girls and boys were enslaved by amorous Romans; but after diligent bribery the immigrants were allowed to keep their arms. Food was sold them at famine prices, so that hungry Goths gave ten pounds of silver, or a slave, for a joint of meat or a loaf of bread; at last the Goths were forced to sell their children into bondage to escape starvation.9 When they showed signs of revolt the Roman general invited their leader Fritigern to a banquet, plotting to kill him. Fritigern escaped, and roused the desperate Goths to war. They pillaged, burned, and killed until almost all Thrace was laid waste by their hunger and their rage. Valens hurried up from the East and met the Goths on the plains of Hadrianople with an inferior force mostly composed of barbarians in the service of Rome (378). The result, in the words of Ammianus, was “the most disastrous defeat encountered by the Romans since Cannae” 594 years before.10 The Gothic cavalry prevailed over the Roman infantry, and from that day till the fourteenth century the strategy and tactics of cavalry dominated the declining art of war. Two thirds of the Roman army perished, Valens himself was seriously wounded; the Goths set fire to the cottage in which he had taken refuge, and the Emperor and his attendants died in the flames. The victorious horde marched upon Constantinople, but failed to pierce the defenses organized by Valens’ widow Dominica. The Visigoths, joined by Ostrogoths and Huns who crossed the unprotected Danube, ravaged the Balkans at will from the Black Sea to the borders of Italy.

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