Moving forward to the early second century AD; Trajan fought and defeated the Dacians (101-106 AD), following an earlier campaign by Domitian, and raised a column about it in 109AD. This was the last expansion of the Empire, and proved a war too far. Immediately north of the Dacians were the Goths, who had moved upriver on the Vistula and found themselves at the Carpathians. They expanded into the northern parts of Dacia. By around 250AD this had become a threat to Rome, and its new emperor, Decius, led an army into Dacia to repel the Goths.
It didn’t work. Decius was killed in the marshes on the north bank of the Danube. The Goths went on to raid various parts of the empire, even crossing into Asia Minor and abducting Roman citizens in Cappadocia as slaves. Rome had removed a buffer state when they’d have been better advised to strengthen it.
Amongst the captives from Cappadocia were Christians, and whilst they had started as slaves of the Goths, their offspring gradually became Goths (while still able to speak Greek and Latin). About a hundred years after being abducted, one of those new Goths, Wulfilaz, turned up in Constantinople. His name is recorded variously as Ulphilas or Wulfila, and he was a Christian priest. We will catch up with him later on.
When Constantine took control of the eastern empire, he established a treaty (foedus) with the Danubian Goths, the group later known as the Visigoths. This was something very much to their advantage; the right to trade with Roman Moesia at any point along the Danube; the ability to absorb all and any young men the Goths could spare into the Roman Army, where they would spend twenty years as a soldier; if they came back it would be as men in their late 30s or above, and if they chose not to return there was the offer of a cash sum, Roman citizenship and the ability to marry a Roman citizen girlfriend and settle as a burgher of the town. The third advantage of the foedus was a regular ‘gift’ of high quality Roman pottery and metalware, of which the king would keep some and give the rest to his higher nobles and so on down the line, securing loyalty in this way.
This pact served both Romans and Goths well. The Romans had to pay for the ‘gifts’ (i.e. bribes) to the Goths, but that was a lot cheaper than fighting them. The real damage was to Roman egotism. The bribes also provided a structure of chieftain generosity and reciprocal service typical of a Germanic war band.
The Emperor Decius
Wulfilaz appeared in Constantinople in 340, and was allowed to create a translation of the Bible into Gothic, using a mix of Latin and Greek letters with some Gothic runes. By his own admission, he omitted the Book of Kings in the Old Testament because the Goths were warlike enough without encouragement. He returned to Gothland under the protection of Fritigern, but later took a community of Gothic Christians back within the empire in about AD347/8 under the protection of Constantius II; who was an Arian, and so Wulfilaz’s group adopted Arianism, which was legitimised at the Church Council of Rimini; it was probably close to the Christianity they’d practised in Cappadocia when it was still underground.
The Goths ran into difficulty because they were drawn into a dispute over who should be eastern emperor; Valens, the brother of Valentinian, who had been picked by his brother, who had been appointed and acclaimed by the army, rubberstamped by an obliging Senate, was unpopular with Procopius, a cousin of the former emperor Justin. Somehow Procopius persuaded the Gothic leadership that he was the rightful emperor.
Procopius (also claimed as Valens, but probably too young to be him)
In the Germanic system of royal inheritance, Procopius might have succeeded, because that system established a royal pedigree, and anyone within the royal lineage could seek to be king. The principal targets were stability and legitimacy. It was obviously necessary to avoid children, the ill, mad and illegitimate inheriting, and (as was later shown) women were best placed as ‘peaceweavers’. The next one down the age range was usually best, so brothers and cousins often inherited ahead of sons, particularly ones of dubious mental health, which is why Hamlet was sidelined for Claudius in the myth Shakespeare took from Saxo Grammaticus.
Procopius put his case to the Tervingi Goths, under their leader Athanaric, in terms they used and understood, but which was never used by the Romans once the Julio-Claudians had exterminated themselves.
It would have been smart for Valens to have told the Goths to do what their foedus required and rewarded their renewed loyalty, but he was exceptionally dumb, so he punished them, ending the open trading along the Danube, cutting it to one place, and closing the army to Gothic recruits, thereby trapping youths of fighting age in Gothland kicking their heels resentfully. By doing this he impoverished the Gothic farmers and built up a reservoir of young men who blamed their rulers. By ending the bribes, Valens was able to cut taxes in the Eastern Empire, the first emperor to do so in a century, and was praised for it by the orator Themistius, although he may not have known about it, since Themistius spoke Greek by no Latin and Valens the reverse, so they probably smiled politely at each other as the Empire destroyed itself.
The struggles of Christian Goths and the adverse reaction of the ‘pagan’ Athanaric towards Rome is seen in the martyrdom of Sabbaz (St Saba) in AD374 by drowning. Within two years, this 38 year old Arian Goth had been made a Roman saint, another cause of war with the Arian emperor Valens. An official hagiography The Passion of St Saba has been discussed by Peter Heather in his book The Goths in the Fourth Century (1991). No doubt such murders by Athanaric eased the decision of Fritigern’s Goths to emigrate to the Roman Empire in AD376, less than two years later, at just the moment that Bishop Basil of Caesarea in Moesia. We can see some similar push factors to the murders by ISIS of Christians and Yazidis in recent times in Syria and Iraq.
Unknown to Valens, the Huns had parked themselves to the north of Gothland, having found a way across the Pripet Marshes at the mouth of the Volga. The Goths had a new power to crawl to, so some of them, under Athanaric, asserted that they no longer needed the Romans, now they could get what they wanted by offering services to the Huns. Other Goths – those nearer to the Danube, possibly no further than 30 miles from the river – thought if they offered themselves as even more dogged than before in devotion to Rome, they might receive their old favoured position once more.
Those southern Goths were led by Fritigern, and they sought refuge within the Roman Empire. It sounded reasonable, but it was the beginning of the end.
They petitioned Valens to let them enter the empire, and this was permitted. The numbers – perhaps 50,000 – were rather more than had been intended, These were however not all men of fighting age, and included women, children, the elderly and the sick. In that respect, they resembled the sort of migrants fleeing conflict seen in the movements of 2014.
Valens allowed them to be placed in transit camps, where they were ripped off and half-starved for some time by the local governors, Lupicinus and Maximus, who sold them food at high prices, claiming there was a famine. They led their menfolk out to acquire illegally what they could not legitimately obtain. They hoped to get to Adrianople (modern Edirne on the Turkish-Greek border), where some Goths had already settled (echoed by modern migrants desire to get to Britain or Germany because they have relatives there). But Valens had already killed their relatives in the city. With some irony, as I write, the Turks are stopping astern migrants at Edirne from entering Greece.
On 9 August 378, Valens led Roman troops against the local Goths and lost, possibly burning to death in an agricultural worker’s hut as he fled the battlefield. Fritigern lived on for some time, and over time, the successful Goths were settled in Thrace and many of the young men joined the Roman army, helping Theodosius I win the Battle of the Frigidus on 8 September 394; by doing so, they showed the Western Imperial Army could be beaten, as the army of Valens had been.
Most of those who followed Alaric in the early fifth century were born within the empire and were therefore full Roman citizens. We have no evidence to say that any of those ‘Visigoths’ spoke a word of anything except Latin and Greek. They had been absorbed and transmitted their energy to the Romans.