By Periklis Deligiannis
Earlier related article: BIRTH OF THE STORMERS OF ROME: ON THE GOTHIC ETHNOGENESIS AND MIGRATIONS
After the carnage of the Roman army in the Battle of Adrianople (AD 378), the new emperor Theodosius checked as possible the Visigoths until AD 382 when he came to an agreement with them, formally accepting their settlement in the Roman territory as foederati (dependent allies). The Goths joined en masse the Eastern Roman army which was decimated after the defeat at Adrianople. They soon acquired considerable political influence in the court of Constantinople. It is characteristic that a Goth, the famous Gainas (Gaenas), came up to all the offices - one by one - of the military hierarchy and ultimately tried to seize the imperial throne, but without success. The Eastern Romans (Early Byzantines) realized the mortal danger of the Goths that was threatening the Empire and reacted violently. An intense anti-Germanic feeling prevailed in Constantinople and in a few years most Goths had been expelled from the administration and the military. Later, the Byzantines settled many Goths in Asia Minor (in the territory of the later thema of Opsikion) who were gradually Hellenized and were called Gotthograeci (Gotho-Greeks).
Until recently the modern historians used to believe that the historical Visigoths were the descendants of the Western Goths of Gutthiunta and that the Ostrogoths originated from the Eastern Goths of Hermanaric. During the last decades it was ascertained that these correlations were not correct. The Visigoth tribal union was formed around the time of the battle of Adrianople, possibly in the eve of the battle, when the Thervingi combined forces with a portion of the Greuthungi who had escaped from the Hunnish yoke and with other barbarian groups. The Ostrogoth tribal union was formed a few decades later (around AD 400) when the rest scattered Greuthungi and other Gothic-German and Sarmatian groups (namely the Goths of the Amali Dynasty and later the Goths of Theuderic-Strabo, of Radagaesus, some Alan groups and others) joined forces. However, most modern books, studies and disquisitions continue to use anachronistically the ethnic terms Visigoths and Ostrogoths for the historical events before 378.
Upper map: The Medieval migrations of the Germanic Peoples.
Below: Roman Dacia was evacuated in AD 271, under the pressure of the Goths. The map notes them as ‘Visigoths’ but in fact they were the Goths and others of the Gutthiunta tribal union.
Theodosius’ death ‘sparked’ a new Visigoth revolt (395) under their young king Alaric (Ulrich in modern German), a strong and bold personality. Alaric led his men in raids on the Helladic areas, destroying and plundering many cities and towns from Thrace in the North to the Peloponnese in the South. In AD 400, when he finally perceived the indomitable power of the Eastern Empire, he decided to move his people to Italy, the core of the weaker Western Empire. However, the Visigoths were repulsed twice by the actions of a ‘close relative’ of them, Stilicho (Stilichon) the Vandal, a general of the Western Empire who had substantially become an unofficial viceroy of the empire. Finally, Alaric agreed to the settlement of his people in the provinces of Dalmatia and Pannonia. The assassination of the perceptive Stilichon (AD 408) opened the route of invasion to the Visigoths. Alaric marched to Italy and conquered major cities, one after the other (Aquileia, Bononia and others) until he appeared in front of the walls of Rome. In 24 August of the year AD 410, the Gothic army conquered the “Eternal City” that had remained impregnable for 797 years (from 387/6 BC, when the Celtic Senones had conquered and plundered her).
The Visigoth capture and sack of Rome was a disastrous event in Roman History, the most disastrous according to some historians. The Western Roman World (already in decay) was shattered. The Visigoths undisturbed, held plunder, captivity, murder and other atrocities against the population for three days. Then they withdrew, taking with them a large part of the treasures of Rome and many prisoners, among them the sister of the Emperor Honorius. Only the churches of St. Peter and St. Paul escaped destruction by order of Alaric who was a Christian (in fact, an Arian Christian). The Visigoth king led his people in southern Italy, with the ultimate goal to conquer the rich provinces of Sicily and Africa. However, the vessels of his fleet were destroyed near Messina. In the end of 410, the great Goth king died in the town of Cosentia (South Italy).
The new Visigoth king Adaulf remained in Italy two more years, pillaging, slaughtering and capturing the people, until he moved his Goths to Gaul. The Visigoths had understood that despite their great victories, they could not stay in Italy because they would face a strong counterattack of the Western Empire and probably of the Eastern Empire as well (who didn’t want such a formidable enemy near her Helladic provinces). In Gaul and then in Spain, the Visigoths continued their destructive work until their next king, Wallia, concluded a peace treaty with the Roman patrician Constantius, chargé d’affaires of the Emperor Honorius (416). Wallia freed the emperor’s sister and became a foederatus warlord of the Empire. Meanwhile, two of the Vandal tribes, the Silingae (Silings) and the Hastingi (Hastings), had settled in Spain together with a part of the Sarmatian (Iranian) Alans, where they were conducting looting and other atrocities.
[Note: Yes, the British readers guessed correctly: The historic site of Hastings where in 1066 the Normans won the great battle for England, got its name from a group of Hasting Vandals who had followed the Anglo-Saxon invaders in Britannia (5th cent. AD)].
Honorius ordered Wallia to attack the Vandals and the Alans. The Visigoth army acting with real extremity, exterminated almost all the Silingae and many Alans (417-418). The survivors joined the Hastings. Later, the Hasting Vandals and the Alans crossed the Pillars of Hercules (Strait of Gibraltar) and settled in North Africa, eventually conquering Carthage that became their capital (429). Meanwhile the Visigoths following the imperial instructions, evacuated Spain and settled in Southwestern Gaul, where they founded the so-called Gothic Kingdom of Tolosa (modern Toulouse).
The Roman army fought gallantly in the battle of Adrianople, however did not escape its overwhelming defeat. Two centuries later, the Eastern Roman/Byzantine army of Belisarius took an ‘informal revenge’ for the defeat at Adrianople, decimating the Ostrogoths (although the main ancestors of the Ostrogoths had not fought in Adrianople). Reenactment of Late Romans by the Historical Association Britannia.
The Visigoths did not cause problems again in the Empire. On the contrary, they fought together with Aetius against the Huns of Attila, in the great and bloody battle of Campus Mauriacus (or Catalaunian Fields, AD 451). The Visigoths fought bravely, suffering heavy casualties – among them their gallant king Theodoric. In the battle, the Visigoths encountered the Ostrogoths who were vassals of the Huns, as well as the other Eastern Gothic peoples (Gepids, Heruli and others). Since 443, another Gothic tribe, the Burgundians, had settled in Southeastern Gaul. In the same century, the Jutes (Jot/Got) of Jutland (most probably a Gothic tribe) became a component of the Anglo-Saxons who invaded Britain, together with some Vandals and Scandinavian Goths (of modern Sweden).
After the dissolution of the Hunnish State of Attila (454), the Ostrogoths settled in Pannonia and Moesia. In 476, the Western Empire came to an end when Odoacer, a Scirian commander of mercenaries, deposed the last emperor and proclaimed himself king of Italy. In reality, he established an East Germanic/Gothic kingdom because he based his power mainly on Heruli warriors. The Byzantine/Eastern Roman Empire, desiring to remove the threatening Ostrogoths of her territory, had no choice but to manipulate their invasion in Italy. After all, Italy was no longer Roman. In Italy, the Ostrogoths clashed with their Gothic/Germanic kinsmen, the warriors of Odoacer (488-493). After fierce battles and the final surrender of the besieged capital Ravenna to the Ostrogoths, their king Theodoric killed Odoacer and his son. Italy, Pannonia, Dalmatia and Sicily made up the new Ostrogothic kingdom. Meanwhile, the Gothic Gepids founded a powerful kingdom in Dacia and the Visigoths began to expand in the Iberian Peninsula. In AD 507, the aggressive Franks expelled the Visigoths from their Tolosan territory and until 531 they were expelled completely from Gaul. Three years later, the Franks destroyed and annexed the Burgundian kingdom. The Burgundians were gradually absorbed by the Gallo-Roman population. The Visigoths were confined to Iberia. Their kingdom comprised 75 % of the Peninsula while they were concentrated mainly in modern Segovia province and in the neighboring provinces of Madrid, Toledo (which was their capital), Palencia, Burgos, Soria and Guadalajara. Until 600 AD they abandoned their Gothic language, adopting the Neo-Latin dialect of Iberia.
In the next article on the History of the Goths, I shall deal with the last phases of their history, the destruction of the Ostrogoth and Vandal kingdoms by the Byzantines/Romans and the Visigoth kingdom by the Arabs, the fate of all the Gothic branches, and their modern descendants.
(1) Wolfram , Herwig: DIE GOTEN: VON DEN ANFAENGEN BIS ZUR MITTE DES SECHSTEN JAHRHUNDERTS: ENTWURF EINER HISTORISCHEN ETHNOGRAPHIE, Muenchen, 1990.
(2) Wolfram , Herwig: DAS REICH UND DIE GERMANEN: ZWISCHEN ANTIKE UND MITTELALTER, Berlin, 1990
(3) Maenchen-Helfen Otto: THE WORLD OF THE HUNS, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, 1973
(4) Gerhard, Albert: GOTEN IN KONSTANTINOPEL,Muenchen.