Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

10. Barbarian Rome |
Those hideous people from the dark forests

Barbarian Rome is drawn from Chapter Ten, beginning on page 258, of Volume Three, By This Sign of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

The barbarians strike ever deeper into the empire, looting towns, bashing down the aged and infants, and seizing hosts of citizens for slavery and misery

Barbarian Rome - Those hideous people from the dark forests

Barbarian Rome - Those hideous people from the dark forests
Constantine’s bridge on the Danube was an awesome engineering feat, stretching nearly a mile and a half across the great river. The emperor saw it as a means of subduing the unruly inhabitants of Dacia (today’s Romania). But the Goths warily surveying the bridge’s construction, probably view it as an opportunity for easier raiding.

To the peoples who populated the Roman towns and cities behind the broad arc of the empire’s northern frontier, Constantine’s greatest merit had little to do with his legislative program, his unifying of the imperial administration, or his dalliance (as many saw it) with Christianity. What mattered above all else was a single accomplishment. He stopped for more than thirty years the indescribably horrible phenomenon of the barbarian raid. Indescribable, that is, in the sense that it was hardly ever described. The records give it little more than bare mention. This or that town was raided by the Alamanni. Sometimes it would be sizable cities, Athens or Ephesus, struck by the Visigoths.

It is not by mere chance that little if any detail was added. After all, security against attack was supposedly guaranteed by the Pax Romana (the peace that had been brought by the Roman empire). Keeping the enemy from the gates was the emperor’s first responsibility. Every raid represented an imperial failure. “Where were the legions?” people would understandably ask. Furthermore, any realistic account might well occasion widespread panic. Finally, in the aftermath of such a raid, who was left to write about it? Most survivors were trudging north with their captors into a lifetime of certain slavery and probable misery. Historians, therefore, have been left to reconstruct such incidents out of their known effects.

The raid would almost certainly occur at night, when the approach of the marauders was least detectable. The target town, chosen for its known affluence and unprepared because it would expect closer communities to be hit first, might be many miles from the Rhine or Danube frontier.

People would have serenely retired on a certain pleasant summer evening. Lamps were blown out, families in bed. The baths would have closed at dusk, the many inns near midnight. The night watchmen, when there were such, would be on the lookout for petty thieves or burglars. If the town had walls, they were probably neglected and crumbling at many points. It might have a little garrison of sleepy soldiers, a small contingent of a legion whose main force was many miles away, often fighting in a distant country.

Suddenly, perhaps about two in the morning, the sleeper would be awakened by shouts in the street. Leaping from his bed, he peers from his doorway. Neighbors are doing the same. A din and clatter is coming from the big houses in the wealthy part of town, up on the hill. The clamor grows nearer and louder. There comes the smell of smoke. The householder rouses his wife and his children.

Something terrible must be happening. A barbarian raid? Surely not–the frontier is a hundred or more miles distant. But the streets are crowded now, stark terror written on every face. Babies cry. Women scream. “Run!” people shout. “It’s the tribes! The German tribes! They’ve broken through!” But run where? Hide where? Now the noise and screaming is coming from every direction. What to do?

Then they appear–huge, bearded, filthy men, some in rough armor, some in reeking animal skins, some spattered with human blood! They’re shouting, bellowing, some actually seem to be singing. They had moved first on those big houses, seizing the occupants, rolling wagons up to the doorways, lugging out the contents. Everything that seems of value is being seized, while the occupants are dragged or kicked outside onto the street. There, a careful assessment goes on. The aged and infirm are run through or bashed over the head, to lie gasping out the last of their lives. Men who try to resist are clubbed down, then dragged to their feet–blood streaming down their faces–and bound.

If these men live they may make good farm laborers or domestic servants, possibly even clerks. The market for educated slaves is always excellent. Children, wide-eyed and struck dumb with terror, face a chancy future. If they look capable of walking back to the border, they are bound. If not, they are hit over the head while their mothers shriek wildly. Many women are similarly tied. They may at least serve for household labor, and attractive ones can be sold to the brothels. Girls, younger women and pretty boys are treated more gently; they must not be damaged. Virgins command the best prices of all.

By morning, the remaining citizens have been assembled in the public square, dazed and traumatized, their town burning around them. They are experiencing a living nightmare. They may never see their loved ones again, even if they happen to be still alive. The life they have known heretofore is over. The long trek north is about to begin. It may last for weeks. Those too sick or frail to continue will be left to die or summarily murdered.

When the records laconically note that the barbarians raided into Thrace or Bithynia or Gaul or northern Italy, this is the sort of thing they are referring to. This is the horror that Constantine was able to halt for three decades or more, which may be why he was known at the time and ever after as Constantine the Great. What enabled him to do so was his profound understanding of the people with whom he was dealing, that myriad assortment of tribes who lived north of the Danube and east of the Rhine, all known collectively as “the Germans.”

Roman citizens had long been aware of these Germani, denizens of the immense unknown territory beyond the frontier, where thousands of square miles of dark, deep forest and dank, miasmic marshland stretched toward the frigid northern seas. This was a country they considered unhealthy in every sense. The Roman historian Gaius Cornelius Tacitus, writing about a.d. 90, speculated in his Germania that its inhabitants must certainly have originated there. Why would anyone fortunate enough to be born elsewhere, he reasoned, ever want to move to such a place?

Current ethnographers disagree with Tacitus. They say the ancestors of the Germani actually came from still farther north, from the Scandinavian peninsula; traces of agriculture in southern Scandinavia have been dated to neolithic times, circa 3,000 b.c. Forming into larger tribes and warrior bands, they may gradually have worked their way south, clearing spaces in the forests to plant crops and raise livestock. According to one Greek source now lost, around 200 b.c. two confederations of Germanic tribes, the Cimbri and the Teutones, embarked upon a mass migration southeastward through what would one day become Bohemia, Slovenia and Croatia, then west again. Along the way, they smashed three Roman armies; only in southern Gaul were they finally stopped.

Such exploits built the Germani a formidable reputation for strength, courage and–above all–savagery. When Julius Caesar defeated several contingents of them in eastern Gaul between 58 and 55 b.c., this was the word he used to describe his beaten enemies: feri, savages. He considered the Germani subhuman, so irredeemably barbaric that they could never be civilized by contact with Rome, as the Celts had been. This claim, however, would prove untrue. As Caesar must have known even then, some Germani had already managed to find their way into Gaul and were learning quickly.1

Over the next several centuries, many more would legitimately join them, to render notable service, particularly in the army. That their brethren beyond the Rhine and the Danube were savage and dangerous to the peace of the empire, however, probably no one knew better than these immigrants. Besides, the barbarian depredations were impossible to predict accurately. “Germani” (which roughly means “having the same parents”) was simply a Roman name for the entire lot. The reality, as the Romans well knew, was a shifting conglomeration of separate groups, which, given favorable conditions, could coalesce into formidable and menacing federations.

Broadly speaking, ethnographers classify the Germani as Western Teutonic (which includes such peoples as the Franks, Alamanni, Carpi and Saxons) and Eastern Teutonic (chiefly the Goths, Vandals and Heruli). Such knowledge would have brought no comfort, however, to the victims of their devastating raids across the Rhine-Danube frontier, which increased and intensified in the third century. Terrified citizens of the provinces saw these large-skulled, strong-limbed warriors as veritable giants. (They did in fact top the average height of the Romans by several inches.)

Heavy gold rings emphasized thick necks and bulging biceps. Tacitus describes their fierce eyes of piercing blue, luxuriant mustaches and wild, flowing hair–yellow to flaming red. (They greased it with rancid, stinking butter and were known to dye it even redder.) They attacked in a disorderly but furious rush, like wild beasts or demons, shrieking battle cries and brandishing great iron-pointed spears.

However, the Romans did admire some Germanic traits, which they considered reminiscent of their own revered ancestors, the honorable and upright founders of the Roman republic. They were hardy, bold, courageous and independent, according to Tacitus, in tune with the forces of nature, devoted to their families and moral in sexual matters. They set great store by chastity, he writes, which would be in marked contrast to the profligate habits by then typical of decadent Roman society. Germani warriors were raiders but apparently not known as rapists. They married late, usually not until the early twenties, and may have been expected to remain chaste until then–possibly to safeguard their strength.

Germanic women would seem to have lived a life of daunting drudgery, having responsibility for all the domestic work, child care and farm work, while their husbands concentrated on hunting and war. Nevertheless, man and wife appear to have been in some sense partners. Concubinage was reportedly rare, and the historian Harry Elmer Barnes observes in The History of Western Civilization that the Germans “seem to have given women greater consideration than did many barbarous peoples.” Tacitus approvingly reported that adultery was strictly forbidden among them, especially for women. An adulterous wife would have her head shaven and be driven from the community, or even put to death.

Mute evidence of this may be a pitiful corpse discovered in a Danish peat bog: a young girl, blindfolded and bound, with the blond hair on half her skull shaven, and on the other half cut to two inches. She might have been executed for some other crime, however. These northern peat bogs, a rich source of marvelously preserved bodies and artifacts, seem to have been used at times to drown criminals, but they were usually penned in wicker cages. Or possibly she was a sacrifice.

The peat bogs were almost certainly used for another kind of sacrifice, one which sheds a very interesting light on Germanic mores. Booty of every sort–captured gold and silver, armor, weapons, harnesses, even horses–was thrown into them (and also into rivers) as offerings of thanks for victory to the god of war, Tyr perhaps, or later Odin (sometimes called Wodan). Some tribes, with similar intent, hanged selected prisoners from trees. In a variation of this latter practice the Cimbri reportedly suspended prisoners above brass water pots. The priestesses would slit their throats and discern auguries according to the patterns formed by the blood on the water.

Such may at times have been the fate of defeated Roman legionaries, but the barbarian warriors did not discriminate. They treated their own kind just the same. Tacitus tells how two peoples in west-central Europe, the Chatti and the Hurmunduri, went to war over disputed territory. Each tribe petitioned the war gods for victory, vowing in return to sacrifice the enemy and their equipment. The Hurmunduri won, and scrupulously honored their vow. As the ancient authors agree, the Germani generally exhibited–for better or for worse–all the typical traits of the barbarian: bravery and cruelty; hospitality and treachery; individualism, yet intense devotion to the family and kinship ties upon which their societies, and their lives, depended.

They were fond of carousing, gambling and contests of strength. In wartime, they would usually obey their elected chiefs, who probably were chosen for military prowess by councils of fighting men. However, their individualism strongly inclined them towards a rudimentary form of democracy; important decisions were made by “the whole people”–although by this was probably meant the assembly of warriors. (That the term included women, for example, is highly unlikely.) But the glory of war remained the dominant theme in Germanic life, either from necessity (quest for land, pressure from other tribes, need for trade or booty), or from choice. How else were the restless young warriors to perfect their craft and prove their mettle?

The glittering wealth of the Roman Empire was a powerful lure for warrior bands, and knowledge of it spread far and wide. By a.d. 200, Germani of one sort or another were situated all along the right bank of the Rhine, a region of forests, villages and isolated farmsteads. On the Roman side, not far beyond the frontier, were cities with comfortable houses, elegant inns, public baths and amphitheaters. Tales of cities yet more magnificent were carried deep into the barbarian lands by intrepid merchants trading wine and silver drinking cups for amber, furs and blond-haired slaves. Also known to the tribes in those years was the fact that the Romans, custodians of all this wealth, were fighting among themselves, so that the legions were often diverted from the border to fight for rival caesars.

Moreover, certain West German tribes were forming larger, more permanent and therefore more dangerous federations–in particular, the Alamanni and the Franks. The word Alamanni, which means simply “all the men,” has survived into modern times as “Allemagne,” the French name for Germany. Coming from the Elbe River region, they decisively entered the historic record in 213 in an encounter with the emperor Caracalla, who inflicted upon them a massive, but not fatal, defeat. They were soon back at the border in force to raid the provinces of Germania Prima and Raetia.

Meanwhile, other Germani calling themselves Franks, were massing against the lower Rhine frontier between Cologne and the river mouth. The name meant “free,” in the sense that they were a newly formed federation of tribes not subject to Rome. The Salii and Chatti were major components of the alliance, which also seems to have included such other tribes as the Bructeri, Chamavi and Sugambri. In medieval times, the descendants of this Frankish conglomerate would control an empire covering present-day France and western Germany, lay much of the foundation of Western culture, and bequeath their name to modern France.

Eastward, a yet greater menace was poised to strike, however, in the form of another Germanic people, who would carve their name deeply into seven hundred years of European history: the Goths. According to their legends, wrote the sixth-century Gothic historian Jordanes in his Getica, they too had originated in Scandinavia. Led by a king named Berig, they crossed in three ships to the southern Baltic coast, naming their landing place Gothiscandza, the Gothic Shore. This was likely the estuary of the Vistula, where the Goths proceeded to drive out the inhabitants, probably the Vandals and Burgundians. Later, they fought their way south by stages along the east bank of the river, and by 200 had succeeded in occupying a large territory north of the Black Sea, between the Don River on the east, and the Roman frontier on the west.

It was not immediately obvious to contemporaries just who these well-armed migrants were. The Romans thought at first they might be one or more known tribes, like the Gotones, Taifali or Gepidae. The Goths probably had incorporated significant elements of other peoples as they journeyed, and according to Jordanes, the Gepidae actually figured in the Gothic legend. The name Gepidae implied “slow” or “lazy,” Jordanes explained, and they were so called because they had sailed in the third ship from Scandinavia and arrived last. The Greeks thought the newcomers must be Scythians, and so called them for years, although the Scythians were long gone from that region.2

In their new home on the Black Sea, the Goths divided into two sections, those east of the Dniester River, the area of present-day Ukraine, eventually becoming known as the Ostrogoths (eastern Goths), and those west of the Dniester, modern Romania, as the Visigoths (western Goths). They came most forcibly to Roman attention early in the third century, when unknown and particularly ferocious raiders from the north destroyed the towns of Olbia and Tyras on the Black Sea coast. Well before the end of the century, their raiding parties had reached Greece and Asia Minor.

Other Germanic peoples were moving in beside the Goths: the Taifali (although they too may have been part of the Goth migration), the Heruli, the Urugundi, the Borani. All these, plus earlier inhabitants such as the Carpi, the Bastarnae and the Vandals, also proved happy to take part in joint raiding ventures.

What made the Goths such extremely effective fighters has long intrigued historians. They seemingly surpassed most of their Germanic cousins in the making and maintaining of effective military alliances, and rapidly developed an impressive number of non-military skills and trades. In The Early Empires of Central Asia, the renowned twentieth-century ethnologist William Montgomery McGovern surmises that the Goths absorbed into their society many of the Sarmatians they supplanted, thereby absorbing certain aspects of Scythian and Sarmatian culture.

Later Gothic art is practically indistinguishable from Sarmatian, says McGovern, and it in turn influenced other Germanic art. The Goths also adopted such aspects of the semi-nomadic Scythian-Sarmatian culture as living in tent-wagons, and acquired some of their predecessors’ knowledge of, and fascination with, horses. But even the Ostrogoths never did abandon farming for a purely pastoral economy. Fifth-century Roman accounts describe them as prosperous farmers, not nomads, who raised cattle but lived in villages and also planted crops. Several Latin authors refer to the Visigoths as “plowmen.”

By 300, some of the Visigoths had become proficient carpenters, potters, smiths and workers in precious metals. They learned shipbuilding as well, probably from the Greco-Roman colonies on the Black Sea, and developed a small harbor near the mouth of the Danube. With customary speed, they added this technology to their fighting technique, but likely took up fishing as well. Some became merchants, competing with Roman traders in grain, wine, cloth, luxury items like glassware, and slaves. And they enlisted in the imperial forces where some learned a great deal before returning home.

Fighting remained the chief business of barbarians, and their pressure right along the Roman frontier rarely relaxed, east or west. “The history of the third century,” wrote Herwig Wolfram in The Roman Empire and its Germanic Peoples, “unfolded with dreadful monotony: usurpations at home, Germanic attacks in the West, Gothic advances in the East, and all this punctuated by the never-ending Persian wars.”

On the upper Rhine frontier, the increasingly powerful Alamannic confederacy, probably enhanced by strays from the Marcomanni wars, was twice defeated in the first half of the century. But about 258, returning in force, they broke through the border fortifications between the Main and Danube, overpowering the Roman garrisons. This time they stayed, settling in the lands they had conquered, which left the province of Raetia open to their further raiding. What frightened the Romans much more, however, was that another immense horde of Alamanni almost simultaneously crossed the Alps into Italy, and part of it actually reached Rome. The Senate quickly assembled a makeshift force to defend the city, at which point Gallienus arrived with several legions and routed the barbarians near Milan. But that section of the frontier was obviously no longer secure; Italy itself lay open to the raiders.

Meanwhile, the Frankish confederacy was making repeated assaults on the lower Rhine frontier. For five years, from 253 to 258, Gallienus defeated them time and again, but lacked sufficient military strength to consolidate his victories. Then he was called away to deal with further Alamanni attacks, leaving his son Cornelius in charge. All might yet have been well if Cassianus Postumus, another ambitious general, had not assassinated Cornelius and been proclaimed emperor by his troops. This put the legions holding the Rhine and Danube segments of the frontier into turmoil–and the Franks poured through the gap, raiding their way almost unhindered right through Gaul and into Spain.

That was a feat quite typical of barbarian hordes; the distances they could travel, and the pace, roused awe and fear in their enemies. Furthermore, some had now taken to the seas, greatly increasing their range. The Saxons, a Germanic tribe from the southwest Baltic, began raiding the coasts of Gaul and Britannia, and the Franks shortly did likewise.3 In the East, the Goths assembled fleets that enabled them to visit wholesale destruction on the cities of Asia Minor and Greece.

Such terror did these raiders inspire, writes nineteenth-century historian Henry Bradley, that these cities, although many were fortified and garrisoned, hardly attempted to defend themselves. They had doubtlessly heard of the fate of Philippopolis in Thrace, which tried to resist a siege by the legendary Gothic king Kniva in 250. When the emperor Decius failed to relieve the city, the Thracian governor Titus Julius Priscus declared himself emperor and tried to join the Goths. Whereupon the attackers sacked the town, killed thousands of its citizens, murdered Priscus, and made off with their customary huge masses of booty and prisoners.

The Visigoths now seemed practically unstoppable, on land or on sea. The rich city of Chalcedon on the Bosporus fell before their first major combined sea and land operation in 256. On the same trip, they immediately moved on to pillage Nicomedia, Nicea and Prusa. Resuming their maritime raids a decade later in 267, they again hit Chalcedon and Nicomedia, burned to the ground the Temple of Diana at Ephesus (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World), and spread havoc through Cappadocia and Galatia.4 By the time they were driven away by Odenath, king of the Roman colony of Palmyra, the raiders already had hundreds of prisoners aboard their ships–very possibly including the grandparents of one Ulfila, a name that would later resonate in Gothia.

One year later another and bigger fleet of Herul and Visigoth ships, said to number between five hundred and two thousand, sailed down the coast of Greece, and with a land army (minimally estimated, according to the records, at 320,000 Goths, Bastarnae and other tribes) rampaged south as far as Sparta. Having subdued Athens, Bradley wrote, they emptied the extensive libraries of that city and prepared to burn great heaps of manuscripts. The story goes that one old chief stopped them, saying “Let the Greeks have their books, for so long as they spend their days with these idle toys, we need never fear they will give us trouble in war.”

However, Bradley added, one educated Greek–the historian Dexippus–was just then leading a band of citizens in setting fire to some of the Goth ships in the Athenian harbor of Piraeus. A Roman fleet had also arrived at this point to challenge the Goth fleet. So had the emperor Gallienus, at the head of an army that repeatedly engaged the Visigoth hosts as they headed north, killing a reported fifty thousand of them. But Roman victories were hard-won and far-between in that era. In fact, says The Cambridge Ancient History Vol. XII, the fate of the provinces beyond the Rhine-Danube border had been sealed in June 251.

That was when the canny strategist Kniva trapped the emperor’s army on marshy ground and nearly annihilated it, killing both Decius and his son Herennius Etruscus. Both men died bravely, but their defeat was disastrous for the Romans. Gallus, succeeding Decius as emperor, had to agree to let Kniva and his still considerable host carry home all their plunder and prisoners. He was also forced to offer them a heavy annual subsidy to dissuade them from further depredations. The remainder of the third century became one continuous struggle against attacks by the Goths and their allies. All the Danube provinces suffered terribly, especially Dacia, the most exposed. Thus, in 271, the Emperor Aurelian, hard-pressed on other fronts, decided that Dacia was no longer defensible. He ordered all Roman settlers back south of the Danube, where reinforcements were needed, in any event, to replace lost population and repair the barbarian devastation. The Dacian legions he transferred to Moesia, to defend the new frontier. The Visigoths promptly moved in, and the former Dacia got a new name: Gothia.

By the fourth century, the subsidies Rome was paying to assorted barbarian confederacies (which besides coin and gold might include shiploads of grain, clothing and other commodities) were a ruinous drain on the economy. (One cynic reportedly suggested that an occasional raid might be preferable, at any rate in financial terms.) With or without a subsidy, sometimes Rome could negotiate a foedus, a treaty involving such things as mutual defense and trade concessions, with a more amiably inclined neighbor. Peoples covered by such treaties were called federates, and these arrangements met with varying degrees of success.

Trading across the border was carefully regulated, writes historian E. A. Thompson. Germanic merchants had to enter at certain checkpoints, pay a toll, turn over their weapons, and travel with a military escort. Any export to a possible enemy of such items as weapons, armor, horses, other beasts of burden, iron and bronze was strictly forbidden, and at times punishable by death. The Romans also jealously guarded the technology, both industrial and military, which initially so awed the wide-eyed barbarians, and the technicians who built and operated these things.5 Commodities proved easier to restrict than human beings, however, what with prisoners of war, deserting soldiers and increasing numbers of barbarians within the Roman army.

A certain “barbarization,” most notably in the provinces and the army, was in fact going on. A barbarian could become a citizen if he formally surrendered, and many did. In any case, Rome had to keep importing Germani as farmers to restore agricultural production in lands left desolate by barbarian raids. It became standard practice to recruit them both for the regular army and as auxiliary units. Moreover, they rose to ever higher ranks; in 268, for example, Gallienus bestowed a consulship on the Herulean chief Naulobatus.

That was at the height of the barbarian incursions, when the legions were repeatedly withdrawn from the frontier to champion the cause of one Roman general against another, when twenty-two out of twenty-six emperors were killed by Roman troops over the space of about two-score years, when the hideous phenomenon of the raid kept every settlement within a hundred miles and more of the northern frontier in a state of terror, when good farms everywhere lay burnt and abandoned, when food production fell, and when depopulation was the empire’s most grievous economic problem.

By ending dynastic turmoil, Diocletian was able to bring the frontier under control. However, with his retirement in 305, instability returned, and the conflict between Constantine and his rivals in the early fourth century was taken by the Franks as opportune for a massive assault into Gaul. In response, Constantine loosed against the Franks a vicious attack over the Rhine and into their territories, in which tens of thousands of them perished. Two of their senior chiefs were taken prisoner and then literally, as well as theatrically, fed to the lions in an exhibition calculated to impress the barbarian mind. The Franks pleaded for peace and signed a treaty that appointed them the imperial policemen on the lower Rhine, and Gaul was left alone for the next thirty or more years.

Against the Alamanni, Constantine bridged the Rhine near Cologne, giving him a path directly into their heartland. He stationed a legion there that could use the bridge, and opened a big fort on the right bank at Divitia. However, his toughest problem, and he knew it, was the people known as the Visigoths, who threatened the empire along the Danube. These celebrated the outbreak of the final showdown between Constantine and Licinius by launching a major raid over the river in 323 into the Roman provinces of Scythia, Thrace and Moesia. They were repulsed with very heavy losses.6

But Constantine was by no means persuaded that the Visigoths had been subdued, and five years later he bridged the Danube and its marshlands about four miles southwest of the city of Corabia in Romania with what was, at eight thousand feet, the longest bridge in the Roman world. He then drove a road north from the bridge deep into Visigoth territory. In so doing, he reoccupied the old province of Dacia, which the emperor Trajan had created in the third century and the emperor Aurelian had abandoned as untenable in the fourth. Constantine’s revival of a Roman settlement there was, however, to prove very short-lived.

His suppression of the Goths began in 332. The Visigoths were by then engaged in a war with the neighboring Sarmatians. These, getting the worst of it, pleaded for help from Rome. Constantine, doubtless using the bridge, threw Roman forces in on the Sarmatian side, cutting the Visigoths off from behind, and so isolated them, say the Roman records, that his troops watched a hundred thousand of them starve to death. Then the Visigoths sued for peace and meant it. As usual, Constantine’s terms were generous, and the Visigoths left the settlements alone for the next thirty years.

Meanwhile, the Sarmatians, finally rid of the Visigoth menace, themselves began raiding the imperial towns. But this time, Constantine scarcely needed to intervene. In their desperate war with the Visigoths, the Sarmatians had made the mistake of arming their slaves. These now rose in revolt from behind them, while the Visigoths attacked them from the other side. In the end, the slaughter was so terrible that Constantine effectually rescued three hundred thousand Sarmatians and resettled them in the frontier provinces, now enjoying a period of peace.

It’s typical that the Visigoths should remember Constantine and his era fondly, though he thrashed them more soundly than any previous emperor. They remembered him as “Gothicus,” the title he bestowed upon himself in 315. His son, Constantine II, became “Alamannicus” for his subsequent role in keeping them under control. Constantine himself maintained a Gothic bodyguard, established Gothic legions, instituted what were known as the “Gothic Games,” made the first treaty ever with the Goths, and made peace with the Goths a cornerstone of his northern policy.

The pagan Romans, however, did not remember fondly Constantine’s record on the northern frontier. Because of the spreading barbarian settlements in the Roman territory, the historian Zosimus describes Roman life in the late empire as “an island of survivors in a sea of barbarism,” and blames Constantine’s policy for hastening the fall of the empire. True, says Constantine’s twentieth-century biographer Michael Grant (The Emperor Constantine), his resettlement policy helped repopulate deserted areas, immobilized potential enemies, strengthened depleted army garrisons, and increased agricultural production. Nevertheless, these huge barbarian settlements did not become Roman, but preserved their own culture at a critical moment when Rome itself was increasingly uncertain of its identity.

In another respect, however, both Rome and the barbarians were acquiring an altogether new culture. All through the era of the raids, Christianity had been filtering in among the dreaded Goths themselves. Although the process is impossible to trace in detail, some fourth- or fifth-century historians provide intriguing glimpses, and occasionally there emerges from the mists of time and political-religious controversy an individual who unquestionably played a major role–sometimes in full public view, sometimes secretly in the background. Just such a fascinating tale concerns the life of one Ulfila (or Urfila or Ulfilas or Wulfilas; the name is spelled in at least four ways), the Apostle to the Visigoths, about whom modern secular historians still carry on lively dispute.

The story begins in Cappadocia, one of the provinces along the northern coast of Asia Minor. When the Visigoth raiders began pillaging forays into these parts after 256, they penetrated Rome’s most thoroughly Christianized regions. Many of the captives they carried back across the Danube to Gothia were strong Christians, and literate as well. Among these captives, says the fifth-century Christian historian Philostorgius, was a couple from a Cappadocian village near the city of Parnassus, who would figure in the ancestry of Ulfila either as parents or possibly grandparents.

Thus Ulfila was born in a Gothic village in Dacia in 310 or 311, into a family that was likely mixed Goth and Greek. He was given a Gothic name, but raised a Christian. There were significant numbers of Christians scattered through Dacia, historians agree; some were of slave descent like Ulfila, and others were Goths whom the captives had persuaded and baptized. The historian Socrates (c. 380—450) wrote that in youth, Ulfila was a disciple of a Gothic bishop named Theophilus (who incidentally is known to have attended the Council of Nicea in 325) and became a lector (reader) in his church.

Unquestionably Ulfila was well educated. Besides speaking his native Gothic, he was fluent in Latin and Greek and could read and write both these languages. No one could then read or write Gothic because it had no alphabet, so Ulfila later invented one, using Greek characters and some Latin ones. Then he proceeded to translate the entire Bible into Gothic, with one omission. He left out the Book of Kings, Philostorgius explains, because it was “a mere narrative of military exploits, and the Gothic tribes were especially fond of war, and were more in need of restraints to check their military passions than of spurs to urge them on to deeds of war.”

Of the rest of Ulfila’s Old Testament translation, the only surviving fragment is the Book of Nehemiah, but his Gothic language New Testament fared better. Most of the Gospels and the Pauline letters can still be seen, preserved at Uppsala University in Sweden. They are fragments of a sixth-century Ostrogothic copy, called the Codex Argenteus because it is written with silver ink on purple parchment (argentum is the Latin word for “silver”).7

Ulfila certainly recorded the Gothic liturgies on parchment as well, and he is known to have published polemical and didactic treatises in all three languages. But all this was merely one of his activities. According to a memoir written by Auxentius of Durostorum, a pupil of Ulfila’s and later bishop of Silistria, he early began to function both as an active evangelist and as a key diplomat between the Romans and the rulers of the Visigoths.

Philostorgius also backs this claim. In 336 or 337, he wrote, Ulfila was included in a diplomatic mission dispatched to Constantinople by an unnamed Visigothic chieftain, for a purpose also unspecified. Such approaches by the Visigoths to Roman authorities were customary in times of crisis or governmental change, when they needed to test the waters or ensure that their treaties still held. Constantine died May 22, 337, and the succession was in grave doubt. Who would be emperor, and would he confirm the foedus, or

treaty, which Constantine had signed with the Visigoths in 332?

Auxentius and Philostorgius further agree that on the same trip, the influential Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia consecrated the young Ulfila as bishop to the Goths. This claim has been the subject of considerable controversy; some ancient chroniclers omit mention of it. But the Visigoths were already known on occasion to include a Christian priest in their deputations to the Christian emperors. What could be more natural than for that anonymous chief to believe that a promising young ecclesiastic like Ulfila might be able to gain the ear of the powerful Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia?

The testimony of Auxentius and Philostorgius certainly implies that a deal was made in which Ulfila gained a bishopric and Eusebius gained an effective evangelist to a barbarian nation; already some imperial authorities may have regarded the converting of pagans to Christianity as sound policy for Rome. As for the anxieties of that anonymous chieftain, in 337 the emperor Constantine passed beyond earthly concerns. But his son, Constantius II, who was his leading successor and was also much influenced by Eusebius of Nicomedia, did in due course reaffirm the treaty of 332.

Furthermore, another logical component to this deal suggests itself–one that would go far to explain why Ulfila, throughout most of his life, almost certainly embraced Arianism, and why the Visigoths as a nation would tenaciously do likewise. In view of his ancestry, and of the fact that his mentor Bishop Theophilus stood against the Arians at Nicea, Ulfila likely began as an orthodox Christian. But Bishop Eusebius was an Arian, as were many other bishops of that era, and several emperors. Thus acceptance of Arianism may have been part of the price of Ulfila’s episcopacy.8

In any event, after his consecration, he returned to Dacia, and for the next seven years, vigorously preached Christianity with notable success, since relations between Goths and Romans were relatively peaceful at this time. The number of Christians among the Visigothic tribes, both orthodox and Arian, had undoubtedly grown, both by natural increase, and because some missionaries are known to have been working among them; but there was yet no hint whatsoever, says The Cambridge Medieval History, “of a conversion of the nation. . . . Their conversion only begins with the appearance of Ulfila.”9

Pagan Goths seem to have cheerfully accepted the Christians who lived among them and for a time, all went well. However, twice in Ulfila’s lifetime Christians in Gothia suffered persecution, separated by two decades: in 348 and from 369 to 372. It is believed that the chief Visigoth leader, Athanaric, a strong traditionalist who refused ever to be called “king,” decided that these Christians, by undermining the ancestral Gothic faith, were putting at risk the unity, morale and very existence of his people. However the order came about, the persecution was so severe that Ulfila and most of his followers fled into Roman-controlled Moesia, where Emperor Constantius II allowed them to settle near Nicopolis ad Istrum (modern Trnovo in Bulgaria).

Ulfila was never again to live in Gothia, but his settlement was just inside the Danubian border. Socrates for one claimed that he continued to send missionaries both to the followers of his own subchief Fritigern, the Visigoth leader second in importance to Athanaric, with whom he presumably had influence, and also to Athanaric’s people. This very possibly was an important factor in the outbreak of the second persecution of Christians, which took place about 370. It can hardly be coincidental, however, that between 367 and 369, the emperor Valens was conducting punitive attacks on the Visigoths, and severely beating them. And because Valens had also cut off their trading privileges, they were running short of food.

This second purge was far worse than the first, the Gothic records attest; at one point a whole group of Christians were burned in their church. But the hostility seems to have come from the Visigoth leadership, not from the population of the villages. In one account, The Life of St. Saba, a Christian openly defies the orders of a Visigoth chief, winning great sympathy from his pagan neighbors. Saba (or Sabas) had been a fervent believer since childhood, a hardworking and clearly well-liked villager, who lived simply and witnessed to his faith. When the order came down in 372 that everyone must prove his loyalty by eating meat sacrificed to the tribal idols, Saba’s neighbors proposed to secretly substitute unsacrificed meat. On principle, he simply refused. So they had to drive him out of the village. However, they soon let him back. In a subsequent outburst of persecution, they all (including the Christians among them) resolved to swear there were no Christians in their village. Not Saba. “Let no one swear on my behalf,” said he, “for I am a Christian.”

So they expelled him once again, and again let him back. Finally, just after Easter in 372, there came henchmen from one of the tribal chiefs. They strung out Saba between two wagon ends and tortured him all day, but could make no mark on him. Tired out, they fell asleep. Next morning, a village woman, up early to prepare the family breakfast, untied him. When his torturers awoke, there was the saint, helping the woman with her work. Finally, they carried him away to the river Musaeus (the modern Buzau) to drown him, and there (safely out of sight of their chief) they too wanted to release him. But Saba would allow no such thing. “Do your duty,” he sternly admonished them. So they finally drowned him.

Though Saba perished, along with many others, the Visigoth nation was nevertheless reaching a religious turning point, and a major secular turning point as well. Fearful worldly events would now engulf them, and in the next six decades crucially affect many of Europe’s other Germanic peoples. As to their faith, exactly why it so quickly and radically changed is probably impossible to discover, but within the next two decades, the Visigoths would suddenly be known far and wide as an Arian Christian people.

Socrates recounts a mass conversion of Fritigern’s followers in 369. This date is dismissed by most other historians, past and present, who prefer 376 at the earliest. Nor does anyone else speak in terms of a simultaneous adoption of the new faith by all of Fritigern’s people. Any description of a massive communal baptism in the Danube is also notably lacking, but that something of the sort happened, either about 376 or very soon afterward, can hardly be doubted.

It would not be out of love for Rome, however, that Fritigern and his followers took such a step. The Visigoths are said to have retained deep regard for the emperor Constantine, and admiration for his military prowess. After a passage of years, his successors also inflicted upon them punishing military defeats, in retaliation for their resumed raiding activities. But the cancellation of their trading privileges by Valens had also brought them close to starvation. Such bitterness ensued that in 369, when Athanaric had to acquiesce in a disadvantageous peace treaty with Valens, the chief refused to set foot on Roman soil. It was forbidden, he declared, by his father’s orders and a terrible oath of his own. Since the emperor after that could hardly go into Gothia and maintain any semblance of dignity, the two had to meet on a boat in the middle of the Danube.

Seven years later, however, the proud Visigoths had suddenly changed their tune. From Fritigern came urgent pleas to Valens, begging the emperor to allow the whole Visigothic people to cross the Danube onto Roman soil. All of them who were left, that is. They were fleeing a new and hideous menace, he said, an enemy more terrible, more horrifying, more powerful than any they had ever met, nor even heard of in their tribal memories. Some warriors, led by Athanaric, had elected to fight. The rest were sure this enemy could not be beaten. In the event, Athanaric and his men soon fled as well.

This was the first reported arrival in Europe of the nomadic warriors known as the Huns. The sheer terror which they visited upon the peoples whom they attacked is difficult to exaggerate. The Visigoths saw them as inhuman monsters, devils and demons. These fearsome creatures, writes Jordanes, “made their foes flee in horror . . . because they had a sort of shapeless lump, not a head, with pinholes rather than eyes.” Earlier descriptions credited them with possessing “red hair, green eyes and white faces.” Gothic legend told of their ancestry, how an early Gothic king had expelled from the tribe certain witches, driving them into the Scythian desert, where they mated with evil spirits and brought forth this race of ferocious quasi-men.

However fanciful these claims may have been, the people so described unquestionably ranked among the world’s most powerful warriors. Intrepid and indefatigable horsemen, whether descended from demons or not, they could ride like demons and shoot like them too. By the end of the fourth century they had wiped out the Sarmatians and conquered the Ostrogoths and their allies to the east, and virtually all the Germani of Europe were fleeing in terror before them.

Strangely, Valens acceded to Fritigern’s request for safe passage. Thus, in the spring of 376, panicked Visigoths crossed the river in the thousands, on boats and rafts and hollowed tree trunks. So numerous was this host, recounts the Cambridge Medieval History, that it covered the country on the Roman side “like the rain of ashes from an eruption of Etna.” Not only were they allowed to enter Roman territory; even less explicably, they were given land in adjoining Thrace and granted the right to maintain their own laws and customs. They also kept their weapons. This was contrary to established policy and entirely without precedent. No barbarian group had ever before been permitted to settle as a separate people inside Rome’s boundaries.

Historians of the time agree that this is when the reception of Christianity by the Visigoth nation most likely occurred–or at the least was dramatically inaugurated–and probably by Fritigern. They do not suggest whether Fritigern’s old friend Ulfila, now in his early sixties and presumably watching affairs from his own Moesian settlement, may have played any part in this momentous development. But some speak of a priest who decisively intervened, circa 370, in negotiations between Valens and Fritigern. And to believe that Fritigern’s decision finally to embrace Christianity was made solely on the spur of the moment stretches credulity.

Whether Bishop Ulfila, Apostle to the Goths, played a role in such a finale, he had already fully earned his title. By providing his people with an alphabet (and he must have taught at least some of them to use it as well), he made them literate. They could read, and what they read first was the Bible. The Bible would ultimately lead them to Christ, and Christ would lead them to civilization and the concept of law. In the coming centuries, this same path would be followed by peoples all over the world.

But that massive crossing of the Danube by the Visigoths in 376 creates a yet more indelible line in human history. It is exactly here that the classical ages are demarked from the Middle Ages. As this polyglot horde of terrified humanity traverses the river, ancient history comes to an end and Medieval History begins.

This is the end of the Barbarian Rome category article drawn from Chapter Ten, beginning on page 258, of Volume Three, By This Sign. To continue reading more about Barbarian Rome from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at