[Back] [Blueprint] [Next]


[Click on the footnote number and you will jump down to the note. Click again on that number and you will jump back up to where you were in the text.]


From A Source Book of Mediæval History by Frederic Austin Ogg; American Book Company, New York; pp. 32-41.




3. The Visigoths Cross the Danube (376)

THE earliest invasion of the Roman Empire which resulted in the permanent settlement of a large and united body of Germans on Roman soil was that of the Visigoths in the year 376. This invasion was very far, however, from marking the first important contact of the German and Roman peoples. As early as the end of the second century B.C. the incursions of the Cimbri and Teutones (113-101) into southern Gaul and northern Italy had given Rome a suggestion of he danger which threatened from the northern barbarians. Half a century later, the Gallic campaigns of Cæsar brought the two peoples into conflict for the first time in the region of the later Rhine boundary, and had the very important effect of preventing the impending Germanization of Gaul and substituting the extension of Roman power and civilization in that quarter. Roman imperial plans in the north then developed along ambitious lines until the year 9 A.D., when the legions of the Emperor Augustus, led by Varus, were defeated, and in large part annihilated, in the great battle of the Teutoberg Forest and the balance was turned forever against the Romanization of the Germanic countries. Thereafter for a long time a state of equilibrium was preserved along the Rhine-Danube frontier, though after the Marcomannic wars in the latter half of the second century the scale began to incline more and more against the Romans, who were gradually forced into the attitude of defense against a growing disposition of the restless Germans to push the boundary farther south.

During the more than three and a half centuries intervening between the battle of the Teutoberg and the crossing of the Danube by the Visigoths, the intermingling of the two peoples steadily increased. On the one hand were numerous Roman travelers and traders who visited the 33 Germans living along the frontier and learned what sort of people they were. The soldiers of the legions stationed on the Rhine and Danube also added materially to Roman knowledge in this direction. But much more important was the influx of Germans into the Empire to serve as soldiers or to settle on lands allotted to them by the government. Owing to a general decline of population, and especially to the lack of a sturdy middle class, Rome found it necessary to fill up her army with foreigners and to reward them with the lands lying mainly near the frontiers, but often in the very heart of the Empire. The over-population of Germany furnished a large class of excellent soldiers who were ready enough to accept the pay of the Roman emperor for service in the legions, even if rendered, as it often was, against their kinsmen who were menacing the weakened frontier. From this source the Empire had long been receiving a large infusion of German blood before any considerable tribe came within its bounds to settle in a body. Indeed, if there had occurred no sudden and startling overflows of population from the Germanic countries, such as the Visigothic invasion, it is quite possible that the Roman Empire might yet have fallen completely into the hands of the Germans by the quiet and gradual processes just indicated. As it was, the pressure from advancing Asiatic peoples on the east was too great to be withstood, and there resulted, between the fourth and sixth centuries, a series of notable invasions which left almost the entire Western Empire parceled out among new Germanic kingdoms established by force on the ruins of the once invincible Roman power. The breaking of the frontier by the West Goths (to whom the Emperor Aurelian, in 270, had abandoned the rich province of Dacia), during the reign of Gratian in the West and of Valens in the East, was the first conspicuous step in this great transforming movement.

The ferocious people to whose incursions Ammianus refers as the cause of the Visigothic invasion were the Huns [see. p. 42], who had but lately made their first appearance in Europe. Already by 376 the Ostrogothic kingdom of Hermaneric, to the north of the Black Sea, had fallen before their onslaught, and the wave of conquest was spreading rapidly westward toward Dacia and the neighboring lands inhabited by the Visigoths. The latter people were even less able to make effectual resistance than their eastern brethren had been. Part of them had become Christians and were recognizing Fridigern as their leader, while the remaining 34 pagan element acknowledged the sway of Athanaric. On the arrival of the Huns, Athanaric led his portion of the people into the Carpathian Mountains and began to prepare for resistance, while the Christians, led by Fridigern and Alaf (or Alavivus), gathered on the Danube and begged permission to take refuge across the river in Roman territory. Athanaric and his division of the Visigoths, having become Christians, entered the Empire a few years lager and settled in Moesia.

Ammianus Marcellinus, author of the account of the Visigothic invasion given below, was a native of Antioch, a soldier of Greek ancestry and apparently of noble birth, and a member of the Eastern emperor’s bodyguard. Beyond these facts, gleaned from his Roman History, we have almost no knowledge of the man. The date of his birth is unknown, likewise that of his death, though from his writings it appears that he lived well toward the close of the fourth century. His History began with the accession of Nerva, 96 A.D., approximately where the accounts by Tacitus and Suetonius end, and continued to the death of his master Valens in the battle of Adrianople in 378. It was divided into thirty-one books; but of these thirteen have been lost, and some of those which survive are imperfect. Although the narrative is broken into rather provokingly here and there by digressions on earthquakes and eclipses and speculation on such utterly foreign topics as the theory of the destruction of lions by mosquitoes, it nevertheless constitutes an invaluable source of information on the men and events of the era which it covers. Its value is greatest, naturally, on the period of the Visigothic invasion, for in dealing with these years the author could describe events about which he had direct and personal knowledge. Ammianus is to be thought of as the last of the old Roman school of historians.

Source — Ammianus Marcellinus, Rerum Gestarum Libri qui Supersunt, Bk. XXXI., Chaps. 3-4. Translated by Charles D. Yonge under the title of Roman History during the Reigns of the Emperors Constantius, Julian, Jovianus, Valentinian, and Valens. (London, 1862), pp. 584-586. Text in edition of Victor Gardthausen (Leipzig, 1875), Vol. II., pp. 239-240.

In the meantime a report spread extensively through the other nations of the Goths [i.e., the Visigoths], that a race of men, hitherto unknown, had suddenly descended like a whirlwind 35 from the lofty mountains, as if they had risen from some secret recess of the earth, and were ravaging and destroying everything that came in their way. Then the greater part of the population (which, because of their lack of necessities, had deserted Athanaric), resolved to flee and to seek a home remote from all knowledge of the barbarians; and after a long deliberation as to where to fix their abode, they resolved that a retreat into Thrace Visigoth’s ask
permission to
settle within
the Empire
was the most suitable, for these two reasons: first of all, because it is a district most abundant in grass; and in the second place, because, by the great breadth of the Danube, it is wholly separated from the barbarians [i.e., the Goths], who were already exposed to the thunderbolts of foreign warfare. And the whole population of the tribe adopted this resolution unanimously. Accordingly, under the command of their leader Alavivus, they occupied the banks of the Danube; and having sent ambassadors to Valens,1 they humbly entreated that they might be received by him as his subjects, promising to live peaceably and to furnish a body of auxiliary troops, if any necessity for such a force should arise.

While these events were passing in foreign countries, a terrible rumor arose that the tribes of the north were planning new and Rumors of
Gothic move-
ments reach
unprecedented attacks upon us,2 and that over the whole region which extends from the country of the Marcomanni and Quadi to Pontus,3 a barbarian host composed of various distant nations which had suddenly been driven by force from their own country, was now, with all their families, wandering about in different directions on the banks of the river Danube.

At first this intelligence was treated lightly by our people, because 36 they were not in the habit of hearing of any wars in those remote regions until after they had been terminated either by victory or by treaty. But presently the belief in these occurrences grew stronger, being confirmed, moreover, by the arrival of the foreign ambassadors who, with prayers and earnest entreaties, Their coming
represented as
a blessing to
the Empire
begged that the people thus driven from their homes and now encamped on the other side of the river might be kindly received by us. The affair seemed a cause of joy rather than of fear, according to the skilful flatterers who were always extolling and exaggerating the good fortune of the Emperor; congratulating him that an embassy had come from the farthest corners of the earth unexpectedly, offering him a large body of recruits, and that, by combining the strength of his own nation with these foreign forces, he would have an army absolutely invincible; observing farther that, by the payment for military reinforcements which came in every year from the provinces, a vast treasure of gold might be accumulated in is coffers.

Full of this hope, he sent several officers to bring this ferocious people and their wagons into our territory. And such great The crossing of
the Danube
pains were taken to gratify this nation, which was destined to overthrow the empire of Rome, that not one was left behind, not even of those who were stricken with mortal disease. Moreover, having obtained permission of the Emperor to cross the Danube and to cultivate some districts in Thrace, they crossed the stream day and night, without ceasing, embarking in troops on board ships and rafts, and canoes made of the hollow trunks of trees. In this enterprise, since the Danube is the most difficult of all rivers to navigate, and was at that time swollen with continual rains, a great many were drowned, who, because they were too numerous for the vessels, tried to swim across, and in spite of all their exertions were swept away by the stream.

In this way, through the turbulent zeal of violent people, the 37 ruin of the Roman Empire was brought on. This, at all events, is neither obscure nor uncertain, that the unhappy officers who Number of the
were intrusted with the charge of conducting the multitude of the barbarians across the river, though they repeatedly endeavored to calculate their numbers, at last abandoned the attempt as useless; and the man who would wish to ascertain the number might as well attempt to count the waves in the African sea, or the grains of sand tossed about by the zephyr.4

4. The Battle of Adrianople (378)

Before crossing the Danube the Visigoths had been required by the Romans to give up their arms, and also a number of their children to be held as hostages. In return it was understood that the Romans would equip them afresh with arms sufficient for their defense and with food supplies to maintain them until they should become settled in their new homes. So far as our information goes, it appears that the Goths fulfilled their part of the contract, or at least were willing to do so. But the Roman officers in Thrace saw an opportunity to enrich themselves by selling food to the famished barbarians at extortionate prices, and a few months of such practices sufficed to arouse all the rage and resentment of which the untamed Teuton was capable. In the summer of 378 the Goths broke out in open revolt and began to avenge themselves by laying waste the Roman lands along the lower Danube frontier. The Eastern emperor, Valens, hastened to the scene of insurrection, but only to lose the great battle of Adrianople, August 9, 378, and to meet his own death. “The battle of Adrianople,” says Professor Emerton, “was one 38 of the decisive battles of the world. It taught the Germans that they could beat the legions in open fight and that henceforth it was for them to name the price of peace. It broke once for all the Rhine-Danube frontier.” Many times thereafter German armies, and whole tribes, were to play the rôle of allies of Rome; but neither German nor Roman could be blinded to the fact that the decadent empire of the south lay at the mercy of the stalwart sons of the northern wilderness.

Source — Ammianus Marcellinus, Rerum Gestarum Libri qui Supersunt, Bk. XXXI., Chaps. 12-14. Translated by Charles D. Yonge [see p. 34], pp. 608-615 passim. Text in edition of Victor Gardthausen (Leipzig, 1875), Vol. II., pp. 261-269.

He [Valens] was at the head of a numerous fore, neither unwarlike nor contemptible, and had united with them many The Goths ap-
proach the Ro-
man army
veteran bands, among whom were several officers of high rank — especially Trajan, who a little while before had been commander of the forces. And as, by means of spies and observation, it was ascertained that the enemy was intending to blockade with strong divisions the different roads by which the necessary supplies must come, he sent a sufficient force to prevent this, dispatching a body of the archers of the infantry and a squadron of cavalry with all speed to occupy the narrow passes in the neighborhood. Three days afterwards, when the barbarians, who were advancing slowly because they feared an attack in the unfavorable ground which they were traversing, arrived within fifteen miles from the station of Nice5 (which was the aim of their march), the Emperor, with wanton impetuosity, resolved on attacking them instantly, because those who had been sent forward to reconnoitre (what led to such a mistake is unknown) affirmed that the entire body of the Goths did not exceed ten thousand men. . . .6


When the day broke which the annals mark as the fifth of the Ides of August [Aug. 9] the Roman standards were advanced with haste. The baggage had been placed close to the walls of Adrianople, under a sufficient guard of soldiers of the legions. The treasures and the chief insignia of the Emperor’s rank were within the walls, with the prefect and the principal members The battle
the council. 7 Then, having traversed the broken ground which divided the two armies, as the burning day was progressing towards noon, at last, after marching eight miles, our men came in sight of the wagons of the enemy, which had been reported by the scouts to be all arranged in a circle. According to their custom, the barbarian host raised a fierce and hideous yell, while the Roman generals marshalled their line of battle. The right wing of the cavalry was placed in front; the chief portion of the infantry was kept in reserve. . . .8

And while the arms and missiles of all kinds were meeting in fierce conflict, and Bellona,9 blowing her mournful trumpet, was raging more fiercely than usual, to inflict disaster on the Romans, our men began to retreat; but presently, aroused by the reproaches of their officers, they made a fresh stand, and the battle increased like a conflagration, terrifying our soldiers, numbers of whom were pierced by strokes of the javelins hurled at them, and by arrows.


Then the two lines of battle dashed against each other, like the beaks of ships and, thrusting with all their might, were tossed to and fro like the waves of the sea. Our left wing had advanced actually up to the wagons, with the intent to push on still farther if properly supported; but they were deserted by the rest of the cavalry, and so pressed upon by the superior numbers of the enemy that they were overwhelmed and beaten down like The fury of
the conflict
the ruin of a vast rampart. Presently our infantry also was left unsupported, while the various companies became so huddled together that a soldier could hardly draw his sword, or withdraw his hand after he had once stretched it out. And by this time such clouds of dust arose that it was scarcely possible to see the sky, which resounded with horrible cries; and in consequence the darts, which were bearing death on every side, reached their mark and fell with deadly effect, because no one could see them beforehand so as to guard against them. The barbarians, rushing on with their enormous host, beat down our horses and men and left no spot to which our ranks could fall back to operate. They were so closely packed that it was impossible to escape by forcing a way through them, and our men at last began to despise death and again taking to their swords, slew all they encountered, while with mutual blows of battle-axes, helmets and breastplates were dashed in pieces.

Then you might see the barbarian, towering in his fierceness, hissing or shouting, fall with his legs pierced through, or his right hand cut off, sword and all, or his side transfixed, and still, in the last gasp of life, casting around him defiant glances. The plain was covered with corpses, showing the mutual ruin of the combatants; while the groans of the dying, or of men fearfully wounded, were intense and caused much dismay on all sides. Amid all this great tumult and confusion our infantry were exhausted by toil and danger, until at last they had neither strength left to fight nor spirits to plan anything. Their spears were broken by 41 the frequent collisions, so that they were forced to content themselves with their drawn swords, which they thrust into the The Romans
put to flight
dense battalions of the enemy, disregarding their own safety, and seeing that every possibility of escape was cut off from them. . . . The sun, now high in the heavens (having traversed the sign of Leo and reached the abode of the heavenly Virgo10) scorched the Romans, who were emaciated by hunger, worn out with toil, and scarcely able to support even the weight of their armor. At last our columns were entirely beaten back by the overpowering weight of the barbarians, and so they took to disorderly flight, which is the only resource in extremity, each man trying to save himself as best he could. . . .

Scarcely one third of the whole army escaped. Nor, except the battle of Cannæ, is so destructive a slaughter recorded in our annals;11 though, even in the times of their prosperity, the Romans have more than once been called upon to deplore the uncertainty of war, and have for a time succumbed to evil Fortune.


1  Valens was the Eastern emperor from 364 until his death in the battle of Adrianople in 378. His brother Valentinian was emperor in the West from 364 to 375. Gratian, son of Valentinian, was the real sovereign in the West when the Visigoths crossed the Danube.

2  That is, upon the writer’s people, the Romans.

3  The Marcomanni and Quadi occupied a broad stretch of territory along the upper Danube in what is now the northernmost part of Austria-Hungary. Pontus was a province in northern Asia Minor.

4  Mœller (Histoire du Moyen Age, p. 58), estimates that the Goths who now entered Thrace numbered not fewer than 200,000 grown men, accompanied by their wives and children. The Italian Villari, in his Barbarian Invasions of Italy, Vol. I., p. 49, gives the same estimate. The tendency of contemporary chroniclers to exaggerate numbers has misled many older writers. Even Mœller’s and Villari’s estimate would mean a total of upwards of a million people. that there were so many may well be doubted. The Vandals played practically as important a part in the history of their times as did the Visigoths: yet it is known that when the Vandals passed through Spain, in the first half of the fifth century, they numbered not more than 20,000 fighting men, with their wives and children.

5  Nice was about thirty miles east of Adrianople.

6  The Visigoths under Fridigern finally took their position near Adrianople and Valens led his army into that vicinity and pitched his camp, fortifying it with a rampart of palisades. From the Western emperor, Gratian, a messenger came asking that open conflict be postponed until the army from Rome could join that from Constantinople. But Valens, easily flattered by some of his over-confident generals, foolishly decided to bring on a battle at once. Apparently he did not dream that defeat was possible.

7  After the battle here described, which occurred in the open plain, the victorious Goths proceeded to the siege of the city itself, in which, however, they were unsuccessful. The taking of fortified towns was an art in which the Germans were not skilled.

8  When both armies were in position Fridigern, “being skilful in divining the future,” says Ammianus, “and fearing a doubtful struggle,” sent a herald to Valens with the promise that if the Romans would give hostages to the Goths the latter would cease their depredations and even aid the Romans in their wars. Richomeres, the Roman cavalry leader, was chosen by Valens to serve as a hostage; but as he was proceeding to the Gothic camp the soldiers who accompanied him made a rash attack upon a division of the enemy and precipitated a battle which soon spread to the whole army.

9  The goddess of war, regarded in Roman mythology as the sister of Mars.

10  Signs of the zodiac, sometimes employed by the Romans to give figurative expression to the time of day.

11  The number of Romans killed at Cannæ (216 B.C.) is variously estimated, but it can hardly have been under 50,000.


[Back] [Blueprint] [Next]
Valid CSS!