Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire




Gibbon's The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire

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Chapter XXXIX: Gothic Kingdom Of Italy.

Part II.

Among the Barbarians of the West, the victory of Theodoric

had spread a general alarm. But as soon as it appeared that he was satisfied with conquest and desirous of peace, terror was changed into respect, and they submitted to a powerful mediation, which was uniformly employed for the best purposes of reconciling their quarrels and civilizing their manners. ^33 The ambassadors who resorted to Ravenna from the most distant countries of Europe, admired his wisdom, magnificence, ^34 and courtesy; and if he sometimes accepted either slaves or arms, white horses or strange animals, the gift of a sun-dial, a water-clock, or a musician, admonished even the princes of Gaul of the superior art and industry of his Italian subjects. His domestic alliances, ^35 a wife, two daughters, a sister, and a niece, united the family of Theodoric with the kings of the Franks, the Burgundians, the Visigoths, the Vandals, and the Thuringians, and contributed to maintain the harmony, or at least the balance, of the great republic of the West. ^36 It is difficult in the dark forests of Germany and Poland to pursue the emigrations of the Heruli, a fierce people who disdained the use of armor, and who condemned their widows and aged parents not to survive the loss of their husbands, or the decay of their strength. ^37 The king of these savage warriors solicited the friendship of Theodoric, and was elevated to the rank of his son, according to the barbaric rites of a military adoption. ^38 From the shores of the Baltic, the Aestians or Livonians laid their offerings of native amber ^39 at the feet of a prince, whose fame had excited them to undertake an unknown and dangerous journey of fifteen hundred miles. With the country ^40 from whence the Gothic nation derived their origin, he maintained a frequent and friendly correspondence: the Italians were clothed in the rich sables ^41 of Sweden; and one of its sovereigns, after a voluntary or reluctant abdication, found a hospitable retreat in the palace of Ravenna. He had reigned over one of the thirteen populous tribes who cultivated a small portion of the great island or peninsula of Scandinavia, to which the vague appellation of Thule has been sometimes applied. That northern region was peopled, or had been explored, as high as the sixty- eighth degree of latitude, where the natives of the polar circle enjoy and lose the presence of the sun at each summer and winter solstice during an equal period of forty days. ^42 The long night of his absence or death was the mournful season of distress and anxiety, till the messengers, who had been sent to the mountain tops, descried the first rays of returning light, and proclaimed to the plain below the festival of his resurrection. ^43

[Footnote 33: See the clearness and vigor of his negotiations in Ennodius, (p. 1607,) and Cassiodorus, (Var. iii. 1, 2, 3, 4; iv. 13; v. 43, 44,) who gives the different styles of friendship, counsel expostulation, &c.]
[Footnote 34: Even of his table (Var. vi. 9) and palace, (vii.

  1. The admiration of strangers is represented as the most rational motive to justify these vain expenses, and to stimulate the diligence of the officers to whom these provinces were intrusted.]

[Footnote 35: See the public and private alliances of the Gothic monarch, with the Burgundians, (Var. i. 45, 46,) with the Franks,

  1. 40,) with the Thuringians, (iv. 1,) and with the Vandals,
  1. 1;) each of these epistles affords some curious knowledge of the policy and manners of the Barbarians.] [Footnote 36: His political system may be observed in Cassiodorus, (Var. iv. l ix. l,) Jornandes, (c. 58, p. 698, 699,) and the Valesian Fragment, (p. 720, 721.) Peace, honorable peace, was the constant aim of Theodoric.] [Footnote 37: The curious reader may contemplate the Heruli of Procopius, (Goth. l. ii. c. 14,) and the patient reader may plunge into the dark and minute researches of M. de Buat, (Hist. des Peuples Anciens, tom. ix. p. 348 - 396.)

Note: Compare Manso, Ost Gothische Reich. Beylage, vi.

Malte- Brun brings them from Scandinavia: their names, the only remains of their language, are Gothic. "They fought almost naked, like the Icelandic Berserkirs their bravery was like madness: few in number, they were mostly of royal blood. What ferocity, what unrestrained license, sullied their victories! The Goth respects the church, the priests, the senate; the Heruli mangle all in a general massacre: there is no pity for age, no refuge for chastity. Among themselves there is the same ferocity: the sick and the aged are put to death. at their own request, during a solemn festival; the widow ends her days by hanging herself upon the tree which shadows her husband's tomb. All these circumstances, so striking to a mind familiar with Scandinavian history, lead us to discover among the Heruli not so much a nation as a confederacy of princes and nobles, bound by an oath to live and die together with their arms in their hands. Their name, sometimes written Heruli or Eruli. sometimes Aeruli, signified, according to an ancient author, (Isid. Hispal. in gloss. p. 24, ad calc. Lex. Philolog. Martini, ll,) nobles, and appears to correspond better with the Scandinavian word iarl or earl, than with any of those numerous derivations proposed by etymologists." Malte- Brun, vol. i. p. 400, (edit. 1831.) Of all the Barbarians who threw themselves on the ruins of the Roman empire, it is most difficult to trace the origin of the Heruli. They seem never to have been very powerful as a nation, and branches of them are found in countries very remote from each other. In my opinion they belong to the Gothic race, and have a close affinity with the Scyrri or Hirri. They were, possibly, a division of that nation. They are often mingled and confounded with the Alani. Though brave and formidable. they were never numerous. nor did they found any state. - St. Martin, vol. vi. p. 375. - M. Schafarck considers them descendants of the Hirri. of which Heruli is a diminutive, - Slawische Alter thinner - M. 1845.]

[Footnote 38: Variarum, iv. 2. The spirit and forms of this martial institution are noticed by Cassiodorus; but he seems to have only translated the sentiments of the Gothic king into the language of Roman eloquence.]
[Footnote 39: Cassiodorus, who quotes Tacitus to the Aestians, the unlettered savages of the Baltic, (Var. v. 2,) describes the amber for which their shores have ever been famous, as the gum of a tree, hardened by the sun, and purified and wafted by the waves. When that singular substance is analyzed by the chemists, it yields a vegetable oil and a mineral acid.]

[Footnote 40: Scanzia, or Thule, is described by Jornandes (c. 3,

  1. 610 - 613) and Procopius, (Goth. l. ii. c. 15.) Neither the Goth nor the Greek had visited the country: both had conversed with the natives in their exile at Ravenna or Constantinople.]

[Footnote 41: Sapherinas pelles. In the time of Jornandes they inhabited Suethans, the proper Sweden; but that beautiful race of animals has gradually been driven into the eastern parts of Siberia. See Buffon, (Hist. Nat. tom. xiii. p. 309 - 313, quarto edition;) Pennant, (System of Quadrupeds, vol. i. p. 322 - 328;) Gmelin, (Hist. Gen des. Voyages, tom. xviii. p. 257, 258;) and Levesque, (Hist. de Russie, tom. v. p. 165, 166, 514, 515.)] [Footnote 42: In the system or romance of Mr. Bailly, (Lettres sur les Sciences et sur l'Atlantide, tom. i. p. 249 - 256, tom.

  1. p. 114 - 139,) the phoenix of the Edda, and the annual death and revival of Adonis and Osiris, are the allegorical symbols of the absence and return of the sun in the Arctic regions. This ingenious writer is a worthy disciple of the great Buffon; nor is it easy for the coldest reason to withstand the magic of their philosophy.] [Footnote 43: Says Procopius. At present a rude Manicheism (generous enough) prevails among the Samoyedes in Greenland and in Lapland, (Hist. des Voyages, tom. xviii. p. 508, 509, tom.
  1. p. 105, 106, 527, 528;) yet, according to Orotius Samojutae coelum atque astra adorant, numina haud aliis iniquiora, (de Rebus Belgicis, l. iv. p. 338, folio edition) a sentence which Tacitus would not have disowned.]

The life of Theodoric represents the rare and meritorious

example of a Barbarian, who sheathed his sword in the pride of victory and the vigor of his age. A reign of three and thirty years was consecrated to the duties of civil government, and the hostilities, in which he was sometimes involved, were speedily terminated by the conduct of his lieutenants, the discipline of his troops, the arms of his allies, and even by the terror of his name. He reduced, under a strong and regular government, the unprofitable countries of Rhaetia, Noricum, Dalmatia, and Pannonia, from the source of the Danube and the territory of the Bavarians, ^44 to the petty kingdom erected by the Gepidae on the ruins of Sirmium. His prudence could not safely intrust the bulwark of Italy to such feeble and turbulent neighbors; and his justice might claim the lands which they oppressed, either as a part of his kingdom, or as the inheritance of his father. The greatness of a servant, who was named perfidious because he was successful, awakened the jealousy of the emperor Anastasius; and a war was kindled on the Dacian frontier, by the protection which the Gothic king, in the vicissitude of human affairs, had granted to one of the descendants of Attila. Sabinian, a general illustrious by his own and father's merit, advanced at the head of ten thousand Romans; and the provisions and arms, which filled a long train of wagons, were distributed to the fiercest of the Bulgarian tribes. But in the fields of Margus, the eastern powers were defeated by the inferior forces of the Goths and Huns; the flower and even the hope of the Roman armies was irretrievably destroyed; and such was the temperance with which Theodoric had inspired his victorious troops, that, as their leader had not given the signal of pillage, the rich spoils of the enemy lay untouched at their feet. ^45 Exasperated by this disgrace, the Byzantine court despatched two hundred ships and eight thousand men to plunder the sea-coast of Calabria and Apulia: they assaulted the ancient city of Tarentum, interrupted the trade and agriculture of a happy country, and sailed back to the Hellespont, proud of their piratical victory over a people whom they still presumed to consider as their Roman brethren. ^46 Their retreat was possibly hastened by the activity of Theodoric; Italy was covered by a fleet of a thousand light vessels, ^47 which he constructed with incredible despatch; and his firm moderation was soon rewarded by a solid and honorable peace. He maintained, with a powerful hand, the balance of the West, till it was at length overthrown by the ambition of Clovis; and although unable to assist his rash and unfortunate kinsman, the king of the Visigoths, he saved the remains of his family and people, and checked the Franks in the midst of their victorious career. I am not desirous to prolong or repeat ^48 this narrative of military events, the least interesting of the reign of Theodoric; and shall be content to add, that the Alemanni were protected, ^49 that an inroad of the Burgundians was severely chastised, and that the conquest of Arles and Marseilles opened a free communication with the Visigoths, who revered him as their national protector, and as the guardian of his grandchild, the infant son of Alaric. Under this respectable character, the king of Italy restored the praetorian praefecture of the Gauls, reformed some abuses in the civil government of Spain, and accepted the annual tribute and apparent submission of its military governor, who wisely refused to trust his person in the palace of Ravenna. ^50 The Gothic sovereignty was established from Sicily to the Danube, from Sirmium or Belgrade to the Atlantic Ocean; and the Greeks themselves have acknowledged that Theodoric reigned over the fairest portion of the Western empire. ^51
[Footnote 44: See the Hist. des Peuples Anciens, &c., tom. ix. p.


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Fall of Roman Empire
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