I should never dust my bookcase. Nothing good can come of it. Tricked by the elves into a marathon misadventure of dusting over the weekend, I unearthed a few books that haven’t seen the light of day since the Eisenhower administration. A history of this, a panegyric by that. The joy of syntax. It’s a mystery I get through life without a daily sedative. By Saturday night I was so immersed in Tales of the Vandals that I had forgotten to eat. My literary exploitations led me into dark woods where I had forgotten whether my reality is a continuation of troubled dreams. I feel like an aging shaman who has neither the skill nor ability to negotiate the worlds with the artistry I once knew.
P’haps I’ve hit on something universal in the human experience. We pay a price for our morals, and whether we spend our lives wriggling on the pin or find a cure to balance our ills most things remain a graft of ongoing ethical enquiry.
Take the Vandals, for instance. Like all Germanic tribes of the early middle ages, they played a critical role in the perpetuation of Rome’s downfall. But were they really the ruthless, mindless drones of destruction that history would have us believe? The older I get, the more suspicious I become of any history recorded before the Renaissance. I make no distinction between the calibre of authorship, the way the account was recorded, and by whom. I might be slightly more forgiving of some Greco-Roman epic tales (and take everything Homer has written verbatim, obvs), but seriously, we should be wary of anything written by men in cloaks. One of my biggest bugbears is the legacy of Migration-era Germanic tribes and the way their actions have been bastardised by Christian scribes with an axe to grind. If it isn’t the Saxons and Jutes rampaging across Britain and destroying the “Celtic” traditions of native Britons (don’t get me started on that) then it’s those pesky Vikings raping and plundering their way through every nun in Christendom, or the wicked Goths who sacked Rome in 410 AD. The acme of civilisation brought to its knees by the great heathen army. Oh diddums. Now don’t misunderstand, I am very fond of the Romans (I Claudius? Hello?) but I feel that history has been discriminatorily forgiving of their exploits in relation to other cultures. The Goths, in particular, do not deserve their legacy.
We know the story. A rampaging army of marauders sacked the ancient city of Rome. It was the bloodiest assault in Rome’s history; a brutal violation of the mighty empire’s capital. The Romans fall under the swords of a violent band of barbarians bent on revenge. The Goths. But have you ever wondered what prompted their campaign of carnage and plunder? I didn’t either. I had never given the Goths a second thought, until a few months ago when I revisited one of my books on dead languages (as you do) and read a chapter on the Gothic language, a Germanic tongue that has been extinct since the 9th century. It made me sad, and increasingly intrigued, when I pondered the destiny of a people who are no more. Did you know, for instance, that so despised were they by the Church that their name was used as a pejorative to describe a new style of crass and “barbaric” architecture? No, Gothic architecture had nothing to do with the historic Goths; but it is a testament to their legacy, engineered by the medieval Catholic Church, that their name was used in this way. Delve a little deeper into the history and, as ever, things are not what they seem. So what behest the Goths to launch into an ostensibly suicidal campaign against the mighty Romans?
The answer is that their actions were fuelled by decades of Roman treachery and abuse. A history of persecution and lies. The Goths rose at last against their oppressors, rallying on a mission of self-preservation. Their story is a classic tale of a people pushed to the brink, and I want to tell you about it.
The Goths were a peaceful farming people who lived in the Balkans, by the Black Sea. Towards the end of the 4th century, their peaceful existence came under threat by invaders from the east, the Huns, who had been drifting west from China for centuries. By this time they had reached the Danube, the ancestral land of the Goths, and border to the Roman Empire. The Huns came out of nowhere, and in their relentless bid for plunder their savagery knew no bounds. Goth villages were caught by surprise and had no defence against the crushing might of the Huns’ steeds. With their society under attack on an unprecedented scale, the Goths needed decisive leadership, but they had no single king. Rather they owed their allegiance to individual clan chieftains and elected a leader through a tribal council only in times of danger. And indeed, during this time of upheaval, a single leader emerged. His name was Fritigern, and his actions would not only change the destiny of his people, but have a direct consequence on the fate of early European history. Fritigern elected to flee into the protection of the most formidable realm the world has ever seen, the Roman Empire.
The decision to leave their ancestral lands was not a simple one. The Goths were uncertain about life under Valens, the Christian emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, and concerned about being made to serve in the Roman army as part of his protection. But the alternative was death—or at best, slavery at the hands of the Huns. And so, the die was cast. Pun very much intended, for all parties involved. They packed up what they could and moved towards the Roman border, placing their faith and their hope at the tender mercy of Valens. I can picture it clearly, the emperor seated upon a jewel-encrusted pew in Constantinople, smacking his lips in distaste at the pagan savages petitioning him for help against another band of pagan savages. “Heathens,” he hisses, “let them accept Christ before any assistance is rendered.” Indeed, it was expected of all Roman soldiers from the earliest days of the Empire to accept the emperor as their patron, and his gods (or in this case, God) as theirs. There is evidence to suggest that worship of Mars, the god of war, might have been the most prolific cult in ancient Rome due entirely to his worship amongst the ever-expanding Roman legions.
Valens granted the Goths permission to cross into Roman territory, south of the Danube river, and assured them that their exodus would be rewarded. In the Empire’s embrace, they would receive food and supplies and eventually, new farmlands to settle. This was the Goths’ greatest hope; to re-establish their peaceful lives of farming and trade and to live without the ever-present fear of attack. But awaiting them was a dangerous crossing, and on the other shore a harsh reality. For what appeared to be the end of their plight was only the beginning. The Romans they believed were to be their saviours instead proved to be cruel, manipulative and self-serving taskmasters.
The Goths were not allowed entry en masse; Rome simply did not have the mechanism to feed this many people along its frontier. Some of the Goths (presumably able-bodied men) were admitted and placed in holding sites where they were processed post haste to serve in the Roman legions. There was a shortage of food; there were enough supplies for the Roman garrison but they did not have enough for very many more. Other Goths were held in camps, indefinitely. According to Roman officials, the Empire “ran out of food”. This was a show of strength for Valens, whose real interest in the matter was twofold: (i) a fresh source of troops to enlist on Rome’s military campaigns, and (ii) a demonstration of imperial power; to show, especially to his critics in the Western Roman Empire, that he alone governs Rome. The management of its frontiers was a crucial element of that. The Goths were used as a card in Valens’ political machinations and were now not only dispossessed and defenceless, but also starving to death.
To rebel against the Romans meant certain death. That fact had been driven home to conquered people for almost five centuries of Roman rule; there was no missing that message. Some Goths converted to Christianity in a bid to inspire Valens’ good favour. Their conversion began to transform the Gothic culture, blending it with the Roman military traditions they witnessed all around them in the camps. This transformation would steer the history of Europe. The Romans wasted no time in exploiting their new refugees. First they were deprived of their grain ration, and then the local officials began to profiteer to the point where starving Goths were offering themselves into slavery in order to be fed, or selling off their older children, so that their younger children could be fed. It got so bad that Roman soldiers were offering a portion of dog meat in exchange for one Gothic child. But the Romans were unaware that, over time, hardened by their conditions and gradual assimilation into Roman military culture, the Goths were not exactly helpless. Clearly, they had kept an eye to the future, because while they were supposed to surrender their weapons after crossing the Danube into Roman territory, many did not. Can you imagine it; a few thousand pissed off Goths with a hidden arsenal of weapons and newly-honed military training c/o the Roman army. Maybe Valens should have paid closer attention.
Weakened and starving, the Goths moved in a death march across an empty landscape to the Roman city of Marcianople, where Fritigern was assured his people would be given food and supplies. But when they reached the city gates, the Romans denied the Goths entry under pain of death. Starving, desperate and betrayed once again, the peaceable Goths exploded into violence. Pushed to the brink and with nothing to lose, they vented their fury against the most formidable force in the world. At Marcianople, the rampaging Goths drew first blood, and it would soon flow like a river across the Roman Empire. The riots at Marcianople spread as the Goths convulsed the Roman provinces in fierce rebellion, demanding the provisions the Empire had promised them. Maddened by hunger and betrayal, the Goths were not remotely interested in brokering peace with the Romans, who had used and abused them time and again. Contemptuous of the Roman protectorate, the Goths plundered village after village. Everyone expected Rome to martial a force and drive out the Goths who had now occupied a series of Roman provinces, including Thrace (birthplace of the gladiator Spartacus, who also led a rebellion against the Romans 400 years prior).
In August 378, Emperor Valens marched his infantry nine miles from their basecamp at the city of Adrianople to finally face down Fritigern and his Goths. What he didn’t realise, however, was that the Goths were now heavily armed, fully-fed by their provincial raiding, and acquired a few guerrilla tactics along the way. To add to the stifling August heat, the Goths set the fields ablaze to make the Romans even more uncomfortable than they already were after a nine mile march. The Goth armies of the revolt, motivated by years of Roman betrayal and oppression, were a more dangerous force than Valens expected. At the beginning of the battle, where the two lines of infantry confronted each other, it looked like it might go well for the Romans after all, but then totally unexpectedly the right flank of the Roman army was hit by the Gothic cavalry. It became a total massacre; the Romans were surrounded, trapped, unaided, unshielded, with no escape path because no such route had been provided for.
The battle of Adrianople became the Roman army’s worst defeat in nearly 400 years. More than two-thirds of the Romans perished that day along with officers, generals, and chillingly, emperor Valens himself.
Thirty years later, following more treaties with the Romans that would result in even greater evils and treacheries, the Goths would sack Rome. And the rest, as they say, is history.
I am staring at the screen, hoping to evoke a Delphian muse to afford this dark chapter of our history with a mollifying conclusion, but all I feel is a dull ache and this blasted sadness that feels as old as the hills. Because the more knowledge I acquire in the pursuit of ethical enquiry, the less convinced I become of our ability to learn from our mistakes and prevent the unthinkable from becoming the inevitable and another black blotch on the history of our species. For all our “enlightenment” it seems that our efforts are forever foiled and denied by a faceless tyranny that habits the darker crevices of the human psyche, and none of us are guiltless of falling into these depths. Not one of us.
But then sometimes, somehow, we are caught out on the perimeter of that most natural of quests, which is perhaps the most defining feature of our humanity, and find a white rapture of peace and reconciliation.