Roman Medicine and Medical Knowledge

The Roman Empire > Roman Medical Knowledge and Practices >

The Barbarians and Christianity

Theodoric the Ostrogoth, like almost all the great Teutonic swarm-leaders, like Alaric the Visigoth, like Gaiseric the Vandal, like Gundobad the Burgundian, was an Arian Christian. On the other hand, the Emperors, Zeno, for instance, and Anastasius, and the great majority of the population of Italy and of the provinces of the Empire, were Catholic.

Political bearings of the Arianism of the German invaders of the Empire--Vandals, Suevi, Visigoths, Burgundians--Uprise of the power of Clovis--His conversion to Christianity--His wars with Gundobad, king of the Burgundians--With Alaric II., king of the Visigoths--Downfall of the monarchy of Toulouse--Usurpation of Gesalic--Theodoric governs Spain as guardian of his grandson Amalaric.


The position of Theodoric in relation both to his own subjects and to the Empire was seriously modified by one fact to which hitherto I have only alluded casually, the fact that he, like the great majority of the Teutonic invaders of the Empire, was an adherent of the Arian form of Christianity. In order to estimate at its true value the bearing of religion, or at least of religious profession, on politics, at the time of the fall of the Roman State, we might well look at the condition of another dominion, founded under the combined influence of martial spirit and religious zeal, which is now going to pieces under our very eyes, I mean the Empire of the Ottomans. In the lands which are still under the sway of the Sultan, religion may not be a great spiritual force, but it is at any rate a great political lever. When you have said that a man is a Moslem or a Druse, a member of the Orthodox or of the Catholic Church, an Armenian or a Protestant, you have almost always said enough to define his political position. Without the need of additional information you have already got the elements of his civic equation, and can say whether he is a loyal subject of the Porte, or whether he looks to Russia or Greece, to France, Austria, or England as the sovereign of his future choice. In fact, as has been often pointed out, in the East at this day "Religion is Nationality".

Very similar to this was the condition of the ancient world at the time when the general movement of the Northern nations began. The battle with heathenism was virtually over, Christianity being the unquestioned conqueror; but the question, which of the many modifications of Christianity devised by the subtle Hellenic and Oriental intellects should be the victor, was a question still unsettled, and debated with the keenest interest on all the shores of the Mediterranean. So keen indeed was the interest that it sometimes seems almost to have blinded the disputants to the fact that the Roman Empire, the greatest political work that the world has ever seen, was falling in ruins around them. When we want information about the march of armies and the fall of States, the chroniclers to whom we turn for guidance, withholding that which we seek, deluge us with trivial talk about the squabbles of monks and bishops, about Timothy the Weasel and Peter the Fuller, and a host of other self-seeking ecclesiastics, to whose names, to whose characters, and to whose often violent deaths we are profoundly and absolutely indifferent. But though a feeling of utter weariness comes over the mind of most readers, while watching the theological sword-play of the fourth and fifth centuries, the historical student cannot afford to shut his eyes altogether to the battle of the creeds, which produced results of such infinite importance to the crystallising process by which Mediæval Europe was formed out of the Roman Empire.

As I have just said, Theodoric the Ostrogoth, like almost all the great Teutonic swarm-leaders, like Alaric the Visigoth, like Gaiseric the Vandal, like Gundobad the Burgundian, was an Arian. On the other hand, the Emperors, Zeno, for instance, and Anastasius, and the great majority of the population of Italy and of the provinces of the Empire, were Catholic. What was the amount of theological divergence which was conveyed by these terms Arian and Catholic, or to speak more judicially (for the Arians averred that they were the true Catholics and that their opponents were heretics) Arian and Athanasian? As this is not the place for a disquisition on disputed points of theology, it is sufficient to say that, while the Athanasian held for truth the whole of the Nicene Creed, the Arian--at least that type of Arian with whom we are here concerned--would, in that part which relates to the Son of God, leave out the words "being of one substance with the Father", and would substitute for them "being like unto the Father in such manner as the Scriptures declare". He would also have refused to repeat the words which assert the Godhead of the Holy Spirit. These were important differences, but it will be seen at once that they were not so broad as those which now generally separate "orthodox" from "heterodox" theologians.

The reasons which led the barbarian invaders of the Empire to accept the Arian form of Christianity are not yet fully disclosed to us. The cause could not be an uncultured people's preference for a simple faith, for the Arian champions were at least as subtle and technical in their theology as the Athanasian, and often surpassed them in these qualities. It is possible that some remembrances of the mythology handed down to them by their fathers made them willing to accept a subordinate Christ, a spiritualised "Balder the Beautiful", divine yet subject to death, standing as it were upon the steps of his father's throne, rather than the dogma, too highly spiritualised for their apprehension, of One God in Three Persons. But probably the chief cause of the Arianism of the German invaders was the fact that the Empire itself was to a great extent Arian when they were in friendly relations with it, and were accepting both religion and civilisation at its hands, in the middle years of the fourth century.

The most powerful factor in this change, the man who more than all others was responsible for the conversion of the Germanic races to Christianity, in its Arian form, was the Gothic Bishop, Ulfilas (311-381), whose construction of an Alphabet and translation of the Scriptures into the language of his fellow-countrymen have secured for him imperishable renown among all who are interested in the history of human speech. Ulfilas, who has been well termed "The Apostle of the Goths", seems to have embraced Christianity as a young man when he was dwelling in Constantinople as a hostage (thus in some measure anticipating the part which one hundred and thirty years later was to be played by Theodoric), and having been ordained first Lector (Reader) and afterwards (341) Bishop of Gothia, he spent the remaining forty years of his life in missionary journeys among his countrymen in Dacia, in collecting those of his converts who fled from the persecution of their still heathen rulers, and settling them as colonists in Moesia, and, most important of all, in his great work of the translation of the Bible into Gothic. Of this work, as is well known, some precious fragments still remain; most precious of all, the glorious Silver Manuscript of the Gospels (Codex Argenteus), which is supposed to have been written in the sixth century, and which, after many wanderings and an eventful history, rests now in a Scandinavian land, in the Library of the University of Upsala, It is well worth while to make a pilgrimage to that friendly and hospitable Swedish city, if for no other purpose than to see the letters (traced in silver on parchment of rich purple dye) in which the skilful amanuensis laboriously transcribed the sayings of Christ rendered by Bishop Ulfilas into the language of Alaric. For that Codex Argenteus is oldest of all extant monuments of Teutonic speech, the first fruit of that mighty tree which now spreads its branches over half the civilised world.

With the theological bearings of the Arian controversy we have no present concern; but it is impossible not to notice the unfortunate political results of the difference of creed between the German invaders and the great majority of the inhabitants of the Empire. The cultivators of the soil and the dwellers in the cities had suffered much from the misgovernment of their rulers during the last two centuries of Imperial sway; they could, to some extent, appreciate the nobler moral qualities of the barbarian settlers--their manliness, their truthfulness, their higher standard of chastity; nor is it idle to suppose that if there had been perfect harmony of religious faith between the new-comers and the old inhabitants they might soon have settled down into vigorous and well-ordered communities, such as Theodoric and Cassiodorus longed to behold, combining the Teutonic strength with the Roman reverence for law. Religious discord made it impossible to realise this ideal The orthodox clergy loathed and dreaded the invaders "infected", as they said, "with the Arian pravity". The barbarian kings, unaccustomed to have their will opposed by men who never wielded a broadsword, were masterful and high-handed in their demand for absolute obedience, even when their commands related to the things of God rather than to the things of Cæsar; and the Arian bishops and priests who stood beside their thrones, and who had sometimes long arrears of vengeance for past insult or oppression to exact, often wrought up the monarch's mind to a perfect frenzy of fanatical rage, and goaded him to cruel deeds which made reconciliation between the warring creeds hopelessly impossible. In Africa, the Vandal kings set on foot a persecution of their Catholic subjects which rivalled, nay exceeded, the horrors of the persecution under Diocletian. Churches were destroyed, bishops banished, and their flocks forbidden to elect their successors: nay, sometimes, in the fierce quest after hidden treasure, eminent ecclesiastics were stretched on the rack, their mouths were filled with noisome dirt, or cords were twisted round their foreheads or their shins. In Gaul, under the Visigothic King Euric, the persecution was less savage, but it was stubborn and severe. Here, too, the congregations were forbidden to elect successors to their exiled bishops; the paths to the churches were stopped up with thorns and briers; cattle grazed on the grass-grown altar steps, and the rain came through the shattered roofs into the dismantled basilicas.

Thus all round the shores of the Mediterranean there was strife and bitter heart-burning between the Roman provincial and his Teutonic "guest", not so much because one was or called himself a Roman, while the other called himself Goth, Burgundian, or Vandal, but because one was Athanasian and the other Arian. With this strife of creeds Theodoric, for the greater part of his reign, refused to concern himself. He remained an Arian, as his fathers had been before him, but he protected the Catholic Church in the privileges which she had acquired, and he refused to exert his royal authority to either threaten or allure men into adopting his creed. So evenly for many years did he hold the balance between the rival faiths, that it was reported of him that he put to death a Catholic priest who apostatised to Arianism in order to attain the royal favour; and though this story does not perhaps rest on sufficient authority, there can be no doubt that the general testimony of the marvelling Catholic subjects of Theodoric would have coincided with that already quoted (See page 128.) from the Bishop of Ravenna that "he attempted nothing against the Catholic faith".

Still, though determined not to govern in the interests of a sect, it was impossible that Theodoric's political relations should not be, to a certain extent, modified by his religious affinities. Let us glance at the position of the chief States with which a ruler of Italy at the close of the fifth century necessarily came in contact.

First of all we have the Empire, practically confined at this time to "the Balkan peninsula" south of the Danube, Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt, and presided over by the elderly, politic, but unpopular Anastasius. This State is Catholic, though, as we shall hereafter see, not in hearty alliance with the Church of Rome.

Westward from the Empire, along the southern shore of the Mediterranean, stretches the great kingdom of the Vandals, with Carthage for its capital. They have a powerful navy, but their kings, Gunthamund (484-496) and Thrasamund (496-523), do not seem to be disposed to renew the buccaneering expeditions of their grandfather, the great Vandal Gaiseric. They are decided Arians, and keep up a stern, steady pressure on their Catholic subjects, who are spared, however, the ruthless brutalities practised upon them by the earlier Vandal kings. The relations of the Vandals with the Ostrogothic kingdom seem to have been of a friendly character during almost the whole reign of Theodoric. Thrasamund, the fourth king who reigned at Carthage, married Amalafrida, Theodoric's sister, who brought with her, as dowry, possession of the strong fortress of Lilybæum (Marsala), in the west of Sicily, and who was accompanied to her new home by a brilliant train of one thousand Gothic nobles with five thousand mounted retainers.

In the north and west of Spain dwell the nation of the Suevi, Teutonic and Arian, but practically out of the sphere of European politics, and who, half a century after the death of Theodoric, will be absorbed by their Visigothic neighbours.

This latter state, the kingdom of the Visigoths, is apparently, at the end of the fifth century, by far the most powerful of the new barbarian monarchies. All Spain, except its north-western corner, and something like half of Gaul--namely, that region which is contained between the Pyrenees and the Loire, owns the sway of the young king, whose capital city is Toulouse, and who, though a stranger in blood, bears the name of the great Visigoth who first battered a breach in the walls of Rome, the mighty Alaric. This Alaric II. (485-507), the son of Euric, who had been the most powerful sovereign of his dynasty, inherited neither his father's force of character (485-507) nor the bitterness of his Arianism. The persecution of the Catholics was suspended, or ceased altogether, and we may picture to ourselves the congregations again wending their way by unblockaded paths to the house of prayer, the churches once more roofed in and again made gorgeous by the stately ceremonial of the Catholic rite. In other ways, too, Alaric showed himself anxious to conciliate the favour of his Roman subjects. He ordered an abstract of the Imperial Code to be prepared, and this abstract, under the name of the _Breviarium Alaricianum_[92] is to this day one of our most valuable sources of information as to Roman Law. He is also said to have directed the construction of the canal, which still bears his name (Canal d'Alaric), and which, connecting the Adour with the Aisne, assists the irrigation of the meadows of Gascony. But all these attempts to close the feud between the king and his orthodox subjects were vain. When the day of trial came, it was seen, as it had long been suspected, that the sympathies and the powerful influence of the bishops and clergy were thrown entirely on the side of the Catholic invader.

[Footnote 92: Sometimes called the Breviarium Aniani, from the name of the Registrar whose signature attested each copy of the Breviarium.]

Between the Visigothic and Ostrogothic courts there was firm friendship and alliance, the remembrance of their common origin and of many perils and hardships shared together on the shores of the Euxine and in the passes of the Balkans being fortified by the knowledge of the dangers to which their common profession of Arianism exposed them amidst the Catholic population of the Empire. The alliance, which had served Theodoric in good stead when the Visigoths helped him in his struggle with Odovacar, was yet further strengthened by kinship, the young king of Toulouse having received in marriage a princess from Ravenna, whose name is variously given as Arevagni or Ostrogotho.

A matrimonial alliance also connected Theodoric with the king of the Burgundians. These invaders, who were destined so strangely to disappear out of history themselves, while giving their name to such wide and rich regions of mediæval Europe, occupied at this time the valleys of the Saone and the Rhone, as well as the country which we now call Switzerland. Their king, Gundobad, a man somewhat older than Theodoric, had once interfered zealously in the politics of Italy, making and unmaking Emperors and striking for Odovacar against his Ostrogothic rival. Now, however, his whole energies were directed to extending his dominions in Gaul, and to securing his somewhat precarious throne from the machinations of the Catholic bishops, his subjects. For he, too, was by profession an Arian, though of a tolerant type, and though he sometimes seemed on the point of crossing the abyss and declaring himself a convert to the Nicene faith. Theudegotho, sister of Arevagni, was given by her father, Theodoric in marriage to Sigismund, the son and heir of Gundobad.

The event which intensified the fears of all these Arian kings, and which left to each one little more than the hope that he might be the last to be devoured, was the conversion to Catholicism of Clovis,[93] the heathen king of the Franks, that fortunate barbarian who, by a well-timed baptism, won for his tribe of rude warriors the possession of the fairest land in Europe and the glory of giving birth to one of the foremost nations in the world.

[Footnote 93: I call the Frankish king by the name by which he is best known in history, though no doubt the more correct form is either Hlodwig or Chlodovech. It is of course the same name with Ludovicus or Louis I do not know whether the barbarian sound of Hlodwig offended the delicate taste of Cassiodorus, but in the "Various Letters" he addresses the king of the Franks as Ludum. It seems probable that there was some harsh guttural before the L which Gregory of Tours endeavoured to represent by Ch (Chlodovech), while Cassiodorus, receiving the name from the Frankish barbarians, thought it safer to leave it unrepresented (Ludum). In any case his n must have been due to some defective understanding of the final sound.]

As we are here come to one of the common-places of history, I need but very briefly remind the reader of the chief stages in the upward course of the young Frankish king. Born in 466, he succeeded his father, Childeric, as one of the kings of the Salian Franks in 481. The lands of the Salians occupied but the extreme northern corner of modern France, and a portion of Flanders, and even here Clovis was but one of many kinglets allied by blood but frequently engaged in petty and inglorious wars one with another.

For five years the young Salian chieftain lived in peace with his neighbours. In the twentieth year of his age (486) he sprang with one bound into fame and dominion by attacking and overcoming the Roman Syagrius, who with ill-defined prerogatives, and bearing the title not of Emperor or of Prefect, but of King, had succeeded amidst the wreck of the Western Empire in preserving some of the fairest districts of the north of Gaul from barbarian domination. With the help of some of his brother chiefs, Clovis overthrew this "King of Soissons". Syagrius took refuge at the court of Toulouse, and the Frankish king now felt himself strong enough to send to the young Alaric, who had ascended the throne only a year before, a peremptory message, insisting, under the penalty of a declaration of war, on the surrender of the Roman fugitive. The Visigoth was mean-spirited enough to purchase peace by delivering up his guest, bound in fetters, to the ambassadors of Clovis, who shortly after ordered him to be privily done to death. From that time, we may well believe, Clovis felt confident that he should one day vanquish Alaric.

About seven years after this event (493) came his memorable marriage with Clotilda,[94] a Burgundian princess, who, unlike her Arian uncle, Gundobad, was enthusiastically devoted to the Catholic faith, and who ceased not by private conversations and by inducing him to listen to the sermons of the eloquent Bishop Remigius, to endeavour to win her husband from the religion of his heathen forefathers to the creed of Rome and of the Empire. Clovis, however, for some years wavered. Sprung himself, according to the traditions of his people, from the sea-god Meroveus, he was not in haste to renounce this fabulous glory, nor to acknowledge as Lord, One who had been reared in a carpenter's shop at Nazareth. He allowed Clotilda to have her eldest son baptised, but when the child soon after died, he took that as a sign of the power and vengeance of the old gods. A second son was born, was baptised, fell sick. Had that child died, Clovis would probably have remained an obstinate heathen, but the little one recovered, given back, as was believed, to the earnest prayers of his mother.

[Footnote 94: More accurately Chrotchildis.]

It was perhaps during these years of indecision as to his future religious profession, that Clovis consented to a matrimonial alliance between his house and that of the Arian Theodoric. The great Ostrogoth married, probably about the year 495, the sister of Clovis, Augofleda, who, as we may reasonably conjecture, renounced the worship of the gods of her people, and was baptised by an Arian bishop on becoming "Queen of the Goths and Romans". Unfortunately the meagre annals of the time give us no hint of the character or history of the princess who was thus transferred from the fens of Flanders to the marshes of Ravenna. Every indication shows that she came from a far lower level of civilisation than that which her husband's people occupied. Did she soon learn to conform herself to the stately ceremonial which Ravenna borrowed from Constantinople? Did she too speak of civilitas and the necessity of obeying the Roman laws, and did she share the "glorious colloquies" which her husband held with the exuberant Cassiodorus? When war came between the Ostrogoth and the Frank, did she openly show her sympathy with her brother Clovis, or did she "forget her people and her father's house" and cleave with all her soul to the fortunes of Theodoric? As to all these interesting questions the "Various Letters", with all their diffuseness, give us no more information than the most jejune of the annalists. The only fact upon which we might found a conjecture is the love of literature and of Roman civilisation displayed by her daughter, Amalasuentha, which inclines us to guess that the mother may have thrown off her Frankish wildness when she came into the softening atmosphere of Italy.

We return to the event so memorable in the history of the world, Clovis' conversion to Christianity. In the year 486 he went forth to fight his barbarian neighbours in the south-east, the Alamanni, The battle was a stubborn and a bloody one, as well it might be when two such thunder-clouds met, the savage Frank and the savage Alaman. Already the Frankish host seemed wavering, when Clovis, lifting his eyes to heaven and shedding tears in the agony of his soul, said: "O Jesus Christ! whom Clotilda declares to be the son of the living God, who art said to give help to the weary, and victory to them that trust in thee, I humbly pray for thy glorious aid, and promise that if thou wilt indulge me with the victory over these enemies, I will believe in thee and be baptised in thy name. For I have called on my own gods and have found that they are of no power and do not help those who call upon them". Scarcely had he spoken the words when the tide of battle turned. The Franks recovered from their panic, the Alamanni turned to flight. Their king was slain, and his people submitted to Clovis, who, returning, told his queen how he had called upon her God in the day of battle and been delivered.

Then followed, after a short consultation with the leading men of his kingdom, which made the change of faith in some degree a national act, the celebrated scene in the cathedral of Rheims, where the king, having confessed his faith in the Holy Trinity, was baptised in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, the poetical bishop uttering the well-known words: "Bow down thy head in lowliness, O Sicambrian; adore what thou hast burned and burn what thou hast adored". The streets of the city were hung with bright banners, white curtains adorned the churches, and clouds of sweet incense filled all the great basilica in which "the new Constantine" stooped to the baptismal water. He entered the cathedral a mere "Sicambrian" chieftain, the descendant of the sea-god: he emerged from it amid the acclamations of the joyous provincials, "the eldest son of the Church".

The result of this ceremony was to change the political relations of every state in Gaul. Though the Franks were among the roughest and most uncivilised of the tribes that had poured westwards across the Rhine, as Catholics they were now sure of a welcome from the Catholic clergy of every city, and where the clergy led, the "Roman" provincials, or in other words the Latin-speaking laity, generally followed. Immediately after his baptism Clovis received a letter of enthusiastic welcome Into the true fold, written by Avitus, Bishop of Vienne, the most eminent ecclesiastic of the Burgundian kingdom. "I regret", says Avitus, "that I could not be present in the flesh at that most glorious solemnity. But as your most sublime Humility had sent me a messenger to inform me of your intention, when night fell I retired to rest already secure of your conversion. How often my friends and I went over the scene in our imaginations! We saw the band of holy prelates vying with one another in the ambition of lowly service, each one wishing to comfort the royal limbs with the water of life. We saw that head, so terrible to the nations, bowed low before the servants of God; the hair which had grown long under the helmet now crowned with the diadem of the holy anointing; the coat of mail laid aside and the white limbs wrapped in linen robes as white and spotless as themselves.

"One thing only have I to ask of you, that you will spread the light which you have yourself received to the nations around you. Scatter the seeds of faith from out of the good treasure of your heart, and be not ashamed, by embassies directed to this very end, to strengthen in other States the cause of that God who has so greatly exalted your fortunes. Shine on, for ever, upon those who are present, by lustre of your diadem, upon those who are absent, by the glory of your name. We are touched by your happiness; as often as you fight in those (heretical) lands, we conquer".

The use of language like this, showing such earnest devotion to the cause of Clovis in the subject of a rival monarch, well illustrates the tendency of the Frankish king's conversion to loosen the bonds of loyalty in the neighbouring States, and to facilitate the spread of his dominion over the whole of Gaul. In fact, the Frankish kingdom, having become Catholic, was like the magnetic mountain of Oriental fable, which drew to itself all the iron nails of the ships which approached it, and so caused them to sink in hopeless dissolution. Seeing this obvious result of the conversion of the Frank, some historians, especially in the last century, were disposed to look upon that conversion as a mere hypocritical pretence. Later critics[95] have shown that this is not an accurate account of the matter. Doubtless the motives which induced Clovis to accept baptism and to profess faith in the Crucified One were of the meanest, poorest, and most unspiritual kind. Few men have ever been further from that which Christ called "the Kingdom of Heaven" than this grasping and brutal Frankish chief, to whom robbery, falsehood, murder were, after his baptism, as much as before it (perhaps even more than before it), the ordinary steps in the ladder of his elevation. But the rough barbaric soul had in its dim fashion a faith that the God of the Christians was the mightiest God, and that it would go well with those who submitted to him. In his rude style he made imaginary bargains with the Most High: "so much reverence to 'Clotilda's God,' so many offerings at the shrine of St. Martin, so much land to the church of St. Genovefa, on condition that I shall beat down my enemies before me and extend my dominions from the Seine to the Pyrenees". This is the kind of calculation which the missionaries in our own day are only too well accustomed to hear from the lips of barbarous potentates like those of Uganda and Fiji. A conversion thus effected brings no honour to any church, and the utter selfishness and even profanity of the transaction disgusts the devout souls of every communion. Still the conversion of Clovis was not in its essence and origin a hypocritical scheme for obtaining the support of the Catholic clergy in Gaul, how clearly so ever the new convert may have soon perceived that from that support he would "suck no small advantage".

[Footnote 95: Especially Dahn ("Urgeschichte der germanischen Völker", iii., 61).]

The first of his Arian neighbours whom Clovis struck at was the Burgundian, Gundobad. In the year 500 he beseiged Dijon with a large army. Gundobad called on his brother Godegisel, who reigned at Geneva, for help, but that brother was secretly in league with Clovis, and at a critical moment joined the invaders, who were for a time completely successful. Gundobad was driven into exile and Godegisel accepting the position of a tributary ally of his powerful Frankish friend, ruled over the whole Burgundian kingdom. His rule however seems not to have been heartily accepted by the Burgundian people. The exiled Gundobad returned with a few followers, who daily increased in number; he found himself strong enough to besiege Godegisel in Vienne; he at length entered the city through the blow-hole of an aqueduct, slew his brother with his own hand, and put his chief adherents to death "with exquisite torments". The Frankish troops who garrisoned Vienne were taken prisoners, but honourably treated and sent to Toulouse to be guarded by Alaric the Visigoth, who had probably assisted the enterprise of Gundobad.

The inactivity of Clovis during this counter-revolution in Burgundy is not easily explained. Either there was some great explosion of Burgundian national feeling against the Franks, which for the time made further interference dangerous, or Gundobad, having added his brother's dominions to his own, was now too strong for Clovis to meddle with, or, which seems on the whole the most probable supposition, Gundobad himself, secretly inclining towards the Catholic cause, had made peace with Clovis through the mediation of the clergy, and came back to Vienne to rule thenceforward as a dependent ally, though not an avowed tributary, of Clovis and the Franks. We shall soon have occasion to observe that in the crisis of its fortunes the confederacy of Arian states could not count on the co-operation of Gundobad.

To form such a confederacy and to league together all the older Arian monarchies against this one aspiring Catholic state, which threatened to absorb them all, was now the main purpose of Theodoric. He seems, however, to have remained meanwhile on terms of courtesy and apparent harmony with his powerful brother-in-law.

He congratulated him on a second victorious campaign against the Alamanni (about 503 or 504), and he took some trouble to comply with a request, which Clovis had made to him, to find out a skilful harper who might be sent to his court. The letter[96] which relates to this transaction is a curious specimen of Cassiodorus' style. It is addressed to the young philosopher Boëthius, a man whose varied accomplishments adorned the middle period of the reign of Theodoric, and whose tragical death was to bring sadness over its close. To this man, whose knowledge of the musical art was pre-eminent in his generation, Cassiodorus addresses one of the longest letters in his collection (it would occupy about six pages of an ordinary octavo), only one or two sentences of which relate to the business in hand. The letter begins: "Since the king of the Franks, attracted by the fame of our banquets, has with earnest prayers besought us to send him a harper (citharoedus), our only hope of executing his commission lies in you, whom we know to be accomplished in musical learning. For it will be easy for you to choose a well-skilled man, having yourself been able to attain to that high and abstruse study". Then follow a string of reflections on the soothing power of music, a description of the five "modes" [97] (Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian, Ionian, and Lydian) and of the diapason; instances of the power of music drawn from the Scriptures and from heathen mythology, a discussion on the harmony of the spheres, and a doubt whether the enjoyment of this "astral music" be rightly placed among the delights of heaven. At length the marvellous state-paper draws to a close, "But since we have made this pleasing digression[98] (because it is always agreeable to talk about learning with learned men) let your Wisdom choose out for us the best harper of the day, for the purpose that we have mentioned. Herein will you accomplish a task somewhat like that of Orpheus, when he with sweet sounds tamed the fierce hearts of savage creatures. The thanks which we owe you will be expressed by liberal compensation, for you obey our rule, and to the utmost of your power render it illustrious by your attainments".

[Footnote 96: Var., ii., 40.]

[Footnote 97: Toni]

[Footnote 98: "Voluptuosa digressio".]

Evidently the court of Theodoric was regarded as a centre of light and civilisation by his Teutonic neighbours, the lords of the new kingdoms to the north of him. King Gundobad desired to become the possessor of a clepsydra or water-clock, such as had long been used in Athens and Rome, to regulate the time allotted to the orators in public debates. He also wished to obtain an accurately graduated sun-dial. For both he made request to Theodoric, and again[99] the universal genius Boëthius was applied to, Cassiodorus writes him, in his master's name, a letter which gives us some interesting information as to the past career of Boëthius, and then proceeds to give a specification of the required machines, in language so magnificent as to be, at any rate to modern mechanicians, hopelessly unintelligible. Then a shorter letter, to accompany the clock and dial, is written to King Gundobad. This letter, which is written in a slightly condescending tone, says that the tie of affinity between the two kings makes it right that Gundobad should receive benefits from Theodoric: "Let Burgundy under your sway learn to examine the most curious objects, and to praise the inventions of the ancients. Through you she is laying aside her old barbarian tastes, and while she admires the prudence of her King she rightly desires the works of wise men of old. Let her mark out the different intervals of the day by her actions: let her in the most fitting manner assign the occupation of each hour. This is to lead the true human life, as distinguished from that of the brutes, who know the flight of time only by the cravings of their appetites".

[Footnote 99: Strictly speaking not "again" but "previously", for the letter about the water-clock precedes the letter about the harper.]

A time, however, was approaching when this pleasant interchange of courtesies between the three sovereigns, Ostrogothic, Frankish, and Burgundian, was to be succeeded by the din of wan Alaric the Visigoth, alarmed at the victorious progress of the Frankish king, sent a message to this effect: "If my brother is willing, let him consider my proposal that, by the favour of God, we should have an interview with one another". Clovis accepted the offer, and the two kings met on an island in the Loire near Amboise.[100] But either no alliance could be formed, owing to religious differences, or the treaty so made was too weak for the strain which it had to bear, and it became manifest before long that war would soon break out between "Francia" and "Gothia".

[Footnote 100: We have no date given us for this meeting, and the whole sequence of events between the Burgundian and Visigothic wars of Clovis (500-507) can only be stated conjecturally.]

Theodoric exerted himself strenuously to prevent the impending struggle, which, as he too surely foresaw, would bring only disaster to his Visigothic allies. He caused his eloquent secretary to write letters to Clovis, to Alaric, to Gundobad, to the neighbours of the Franks on their eastern border, the kings of the Heruli, the Warni, and the Thuringians. To Clovis he dilated on the horrors which war brings upon the inhabitants of the warring lands, who have a right to expect that the kinship of their lords will keep them at peace. A few paltry words were no sufficient cause of war between two such monarchs, and it was the act of a passionate and hot-headed man to be mobilising his troops while he was sending his first embassy. To Alaric he sent an earnest warning against engaging in war with Clovis: "You are surrounded by an innumerable multitude of subjects, and you are proud of the remembrance of the defeat of Attila, but war is a terribly dangerous game, and you know not how the long peace may have softened the warlike fibre of your people". He besought Gundobad to join with him in preserving peace between the combatants, to each of whom he had offered his arbitration. "It behoves us old, men to moderate the wrath of the royal youths, who should reverence our age, though they are still in the flower of their hot youth".[101] The kings of the barbarians were reminded of the friendship which Alaric's father, Euric, had shown them in old days, and invited to join in a "League of Peace", in order to check the lawless aggressions of Clovis, which threatened danger to all.

[Footnote 101: There is some difficulty in understanding this remark about the relative ages of the sovereigns If we put the date of the letters at 506 (and a later date is hardly possible, nor one more than two or three years earlier), though Gundobad might well be over sixty, Theodoric himself could be only fifty-two, while on the other hand the "regii juvenes", Clovis and Alaric, were about forty. But senex and juvenis are expressions often used with no great exactness; and I conjecture that the cares and struggles of Theodoric's early manhood had made him an old man before his time.]

The diplomatic action of Theodoric was powerless to avert the war; possibly even it may have stimulated Clovis to strike rapidly before a hostile coalition could be formed against him.

At an assembly of his nation (perhaps the "Camp of March") in the early part of 507, he impetuously declared: "I take it grievously amiss that these Arians should hold so large a part of Gaul. Let us go and overcome them with God's help, and bring the land into subjection to us". The saying pleased the whole multitude, and the collected army inarched southward to the Loire. On their way they passed through the territory owned by the monastery of St. Martin of Tours, the greatest saint of Gaul. Here the king commanded them to abstain religiously from all depredations, taking only grass for their horses, and water from the streams. One of the soldiers, finding a quantity of hay in the possession of a peasant, took it from him, arguing that hay was grass, and so came within the permitted exception. He was, however, at once cut down with a sword, the king exclaiming. "What hope shall we have of victory if we offend the blessed Martin?" Having first prayed for a sign, Clovis sent his messengers with gifts to the great basilica of Tours, and behold! when these messengers set foot in the sacred building, the choristers were singing an antiphon, taken from the 18th Psalm: "Thou hast girded me with strength unto the battle, thou hast subdued under me those that rose up against me".

Meanwhile, Alaric, taken at unawares, short of men and short of money, was endeavouring to remedy the latter deficiency by a depreciation of the currency. To swell his slender battalions he evidently looked to his father-in-law, Theodoric, whose peace-making letter had ended with these words: "We look upon your enemy as the common enemy of all. Whoever strives against you will rightly have to deal with me, as a foe". Yet notwithstanding this assurance, no Ostrogothic troops came at this time to the help of the Visigoths. In the great dearth of historical material, our account of these transactions has to be made up from scattered and fragmentary notices, which do not enable us to explain this strange inaction of so true-hearted an ally. It is not imputed to him as a fault by any contemporary authority, and it seems reasonable to suppose that not the will, but the power, to help his menaced son-in-law was wanting. One alarming change in the situation had revealed itself since Theodoric ordered his secretary to write the letters recommending an anti-Frankish confederacy of kings. Gundobad the Burgundian was now the declared ally of Clovis, and promised himself a share of the spoil. So powerful an enemy on the flank, threatening the communications of the two Gothic states, may very probably have been the reason why no timely succour was sent from Ravenna to Toulouse.

Clovis and his Frankish host, hungering for the spoil, pressed forwards, and succeeded, apparently without opposition, in crossing the broad river Loire. Alaric had taken up a strong position at the Campus Vogladensis (Vouillé: dep. Vienne), about ten miles from Poitiers. Here he wished to remain on the defensive till the expected succours from Theodoric could arrive, but his soldiers, confident in their power to beat the Franks unassisted, began to revile their king's over-caution and his father-in-law's delay, and forced Alaric to fight.[102] The Goths began hurling their missile weapons, but the daring Franks rushed in upon them and commenced a hand-to-hand encounter, in which they were completely victorious. The Goths turned to flee, and Clovis, riding up to where Alaric was fighting, slew him with his own hand. He himself had immediately afterwards a narrow escape from two of the enemy, who, coming suddenly upon him, thrust their long spears at him, one on each side. The strength of his coat of mail, however, and the speed of his horse saved him from a disaster which might possibly even then have turned the tide of victory.

[Footnote 102: This statement as to the battle being forced on, contrary to the wishes of Alaric, rests only on the authority of Procopius, not a contemporary author, and not very well informed as to the events of this campaign.]

The result of this battle was the complete overthrow of the Visigothic kingdom of Toulouse. In a certain sense it survived, and for two centuries played a great part in Europe as the Spanish kingdom of Toledo, but, as competitors for dominion in Gaul, the Visigoths henceforward disappear from history. There seems to have been a certain want of toughness in the Visigothic fibre, a tendency to rashness combined with a tendency to panic, which made it possible for their enemies to achieve a complete triumph over them in a single battle. (376) Athanaric staked his all on one battle with the Huns, and lost, by the rivers of Bessarabia. (507) Alaric II., as we have seen, staked his all on one battle with the Franks, and lost, on the Campus Vogladensis. (701) Two centuries later Roderic staked his all upon one battle with the Moors, and lost, at Xeres de la Frontera.

All through the year 507 the allied forces of Franks and Burgundians seem to have poured over the south-west and south of Gaul, annexing Angoulème, Saintonge, Auvergne, and Gascony to the dominions of Clovis, and Provence to the dominions of Gundobad. Only the strong city of Aries, and perhaps the fortress of Carcassonne (that most interesting relic of the early Middle Ages, which still shows the handiwork of Visigothic kings in its walls), still held out for the son of Alaric.

In 508 the long delayed forces of Theodoric appeared upon the scene under his brave general, Tulum, and dealt some severe blows at the allied Frankish and Burgundian armies. In 509 another army, under Duke Mammo, crossed the Cottian Alps near Briancon, laid waste part of Dauphiné, and probably compelled a large detachment of the Burgundian army to return for the defence of their homes. And lastly, in 510, Theodoric's general, Ibbas, inflicted a crushing defeat on the allied armies, leaving, it is said, thirty thousand Franks dead upon the field. The number is probably much exaggerated (as these historical bulletins are apt to be), but there can be no doubt that a great and important victory was won by the troops of Theodoric. The immediate result of this victory was the raising of the siege of Aries, whose valiant defenders had held out against storm and blockade, famine and treachery within, Franks and Burgundians without, for the space of two years and a half. Ultimately, and perhaps before many months had passed, the victory of Ibbas led to a cessation of hostilities, if not to a formal treaty of peace, between the three powers which disputed the possession of Gaul. The terms practically arranged were these. Clovis remained in possession of far the largest part of Alaric's dominions, Aquitaine nearly up to the roots of the Pyrenees, and so much of Languedoc (including Toulouse, the late capital of the Visigoths) as lay west of the mountains of the Cevennes. Theodoric obtained the rest of Languedoc and Provence, the first province being deemed to be a part of the Visigothic, the second of the Ostrogothic, dominions, Gundobad obtained nothing, but lost some towns on his southern frontier--a fitting reward for his tortuous and shifty policy.

In the meantime something like civil war had been waged on the other side of the Pyrenees for the Spanish portion of the Visigothic inheritance. Alaric, slain on the field of Vouillé, had left two sons, one Amalaric, his legitimate heir and the grandson of Theodoric, but still a child, the other a young man, but of illegitimate birth, named Gesalic. This latter was, on the death of his father, proclaimed king by some fraction of the Visigothic people. Had Gesalic shown courage and skill in winning back the lost inheritance of his father, Theodoric, whose own descent was not legitimate according to strict church law, would not, perhaps, have interfered with his claim to the succession. But the young man was as weak and cowardly as his birth was base, and the strenuous efforts of Theodoric, seconded probably by many of the Visigoths who had first acclaimed him as king, were directed to getting rid of this futile pretender. Gesalic, defeated by Gundobad at Narbonne (which, for a time, became the possession of the Burgundians), fled over the Pyrenees to Barcelona, and from thence across the sea to Carthage. Thrasamund, king of the Vandals, aided him with money and promised him support, being probably deceived by the glozing tongue of Gesalic, and looking upon him simply as a brave young Visigoth battling for his rightful inheritance with the Franks. A correspondence followed between Ravenna and Carthage, in which Theodoric bitterly complained of the protection given by his brother-in-law to an intriguer and a rebel; and, on the receipt of Theodoric's letter, Thrasamund at once disclaimed all further intention of helping the pretender and sent rich presents to his offended kinsman, which Theodoric graciously returned. Gesalic again appeared in Barcelona, still doubtless wearing the insignia of kingship, but was defeated by the same Duke Ibbas who had raised the siege of Aries, and, fleeing into Gaul, probably in order to claim the protection of the enemy of his house, King Gundobad, he was overtaken by the soldiers of Theodoric near the river Durance, and was put to death by his captors. Thus there remained but one undisputed heir to what was left of the great Visigothic kingdom, the little child Amalaric, Theodoric's grandson. He was brought up in Spain, but, apparently with the full consent of the Visigothic people, his grandsire assumed the reins of government, ruling in his own name but with a tacit understanding that Amalaric and no other should succeed him.

(510-525) There was thus for fifteen years a combination of states which Europe has not witnessed before or since, though Charles V. and some of his descendants were not far from achieving it. All of Italy and all of Spain (except the north-west corner, which was held by the Suevi) obeyed the rule of Theodoric, and the fair regions of Provence and Languedoc,[103] acknowledging the same master, were the ligament that united them. Of the character of the government of Theodoric in Spain, history tells us scarcely anything; but there is reason to think that it was as wise and beneficent as his government of Italy, its chief fault being probably the undue share of power which was grasped by the Ostrogothic minister Theudis, whom Theodoric had appointed as guardian to his grandson, and who, having married a wealthy Spanish lady, assumed a semi-royal state, and became at last so mighty that Theodoric himself did not dare to insist upon the recall which he had veiled under the courteous semblance of an invitation to his palace at Ravenna.

[Footnote 103: East of the Cevennes.]

Thus then the policy of Theodoric towards his kinsmen and co-religionists in Gaul had failed, but it had not been a hopeless failure. He had missed, probably through no fault of his own, through the rashness of Alaric and the treachery of Gundobad, the right moment for saving the kingdom of Toulouse from shipwreck, but he had vindicated in adversity the honour of the Gothic name, and he had succeeded in saving a considerable part of the cargo which the stately vessel had carried.

Navigate Within This Book:

History of Rome