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The Southward Migration of the Ostrogoths

The Ostrogoths swarm southward putting ever more pressure on the dying Roman Empire.

Struggles with the Swabians, Sarmatians, Scyri, and Huns--Death of Walamir--Theudemir becomes king--Theodoric defeats Babai--The Teutonic custom of the comitatus--An Ostrogothic Folc-mote--Theudemir invades the Eastern Empire--Macedonian settlement of the Ostrogoths.


The young Theodoric, who was now in his nineteenth year, was sent back by Leo to his father with large presents, and both the recovered son and the tokens of Imperial favour brought joy to the heart of the father. There had been some changes in the Ostrogothic kingdom during the boy's absence. There had been vague and purposeless wars with the savage nations around them,--Swabians, Sarmatians, Scyri--besides one final encounter with their old lords, the Huns. These last, we are told, they had driven forth so hopelessly beaten from their territory, that for a century from that time all that was left of the Hunnish nation trembled at the very name of the Goths. But in a battle with another people of far less renown, the barbarous Scyri beyond the Danube, Walamir, while cheering on his men to the combat, was thrown from his horse and being pierced by the lances of the enemy was left dead on the field. His death, it is said, was avenged most ruthlessly on the Scyri, and Theudemir, the brother who was next him in age, became chief king of the Ostrogoths.

Scarcely had Theodoric returned to his home when, without communicating his purpose to his father, he distinguished himself by a gallant deed of arms. On the south-east of the Ostrogothic kingdom, in the country which we now call Servia, there reigned at this time a Sclavonic chief called Babai, who was full of pride and self-importance because of a victory which he had lately gained over the forces of the Empire. Theodoric had probably heard at Constantinople the other side of this story: on his journey to the north-west he had passed through those regions, and marked the pride of the insolent barbarian. Sympathy with the humiliated Empire, but, far more, the young warrior's desire at once to find "a foeman worthy of his steel", and to win laurels for himself wherewith he might surprise his father, drove him into his new enterprise. Having collected some of his father's guardsmen, and those of his people with whom he was personally popular, or who were dependent upon him, he thus mustered a little army of six thousand men, with whom he crossed the Danube.[26] Falling suddenly upon King Babai, he defeated and slew him, took his family prisoners, and returned with large booty in slaves and the rude wealth of the barbarian to his surprised but joyful father. The result of this expedition was the capture of the important frontier city of Singidunum (whose site is now occupied by Belgrade), a city which Babai had wrested from the Empire, but which Theodoric, whatever may have been his inclination to favour Constantinople, did not deem it necessary to restore to his late host.

[Footnote 26: The words of Jordanes (which are important on account of their bearing on the passage of Tacitus quoted below) are: "Ascitis certis ex satellitibus patris et ex populo amatores sibi clientesque consocians pæne sex mille viros cum quibus inscio patre emenso Danubio super Babai Sarmatarum regem discurrit" (Getica, lv.).]

This incident of the early manhood of Theodoric is a good illustration of the Teutonic custom which Tacitus describes to us under the name of the comitatus, a custom which was therefore at least four centuries old (probably far older) in the days of Theodoric, and which, lasting on for several centuries longer, undoubtedly influenced if it did not actually create the chivalry of the Middle Ages. The custom was so important that it will be better to translate the very words of Tacitus concerning it, though they occur in one of the best-known passages of the "Germania".

"The Germans transact no business either of a public or private nature except with arms in their hands. But it is not the practice for any one to begin the wearing of arms until the State has approved his ability to wield them. When that is done, in the great Council of the nation one of the chiefs, perhaps the father or some near relation of the candidate, equips the youth with shield and spear. This is with them like the toga virilis with us, the first dignity bestowed on the young man. Before this he was looked upon as part of his father's household--now he is a member of the State. Eminently noble birth, or great merit on the part of their fathers, assigns the dignity of a chief[27] even to very young men. They are admitted to the fellowship of other youths stronger than themselves, and already tried in war, nor do they blush to be seen among the henchmen.[28] There is a gradation in rank among the henchmen, determined by the judgment of him whom they follow, and there is a great emulation among the henchmen, who shall have the highest place under the chief, and among the chiefs who shall have the most numerous and the bravest henchmen. This is their dignity, this their strength, to be ever surrounded by a band of chosen youths, an honour in peace, a defence in battle. And not only in his own nation, but among the surrounding states also, each chief's name and glory are spread abroad according to the eminence of his 'train of henchmen'[29] in number and valour. Chiefs thus distinguished are in request for embassies, are enriched with costly presents, and often they decide a war by the mere terror of their name".

[Footnote 27: Dignationem principis; the true rendering of this sentence is very doubtful.]

[Footnote 28: I think upon the whole "henchmen" is the best translation of this difficult word "comites", "Companions" is too indefinite; "comrades" implies too much equality with the chief.]

[Footnote 29: Comitatus.]

"When they stand on the battle-field, it is held a disgraceful thing for the chief to be surpassed in bravery by his henchmen, for the henchmen not to equal the valour of their chief. Now too it will mark a man as infamous, and a target for the scorn of men for all the rest of his life, if he escapes alive from the battle-field where his chief needed his help. To defend him, the chief; to guard his person; to reckon up one's own brave deeds as enhancing his glory: this is the henchman's one great oath of fealty.[30] The chiefs fight for victory, the henchmen for their chief. If the state in which they are born should be growing sluggish through ease and a long peace, most of the noble young men seek of their own accord those nations which are then waging war, both because a quiet life is hateful to this people, and because they can more easily distinguish themselves in perilous times, nor can they keep together a great train of henchmen, except by war and the strong hand. For it is from the generosity of their chief that each henchman expects that mighty war-horse which he would bestride, that gory and victorious spear, which he would brandish. Banquets, too, and all the rough but plentiful appliances of the feast are taken as part of the henchman's pay; and the means of supplying all this prodigality must be sought by war and rapine. You would not so easily persuade them to plough the fields and wait in patience for a year's harvest, as to challenge an enemy and earn honourable wounds; since to them it seems always a slow and lazy process to accumulate by the sweat of your brow what you might win at once by the shedding of blood".

[Footnote 30: Præcipuum sacramentum.]

These words of Tacitus, written in the year 98 after Christ, describe with wonderful exactness the state of Ostrogothic society in the year 472. We are not expressly told of Theodoric's assumption of the shield and spear in the great Council of the nation, but probably this ceremony immediately followed his return from Constantinople. Then we see the gathering together of the band of henchmen, the sudden march away from the peaceful land, growing torpid through two or three years of warlessness, the surprise of the Sclavonic king, the copious effusion of blood which was the preferred alternative to the sweat of the land-tiller, the return to the young chief's own land with spoils sufficient to support perhaps for many months the "generosity" expected by the henchmen.

There is one point, however, in which the description of the Germans given by Tacitus is probably not altogether applicable to the Goths of the fifth century: and that is, their invincible preference for the life of the warrior over that of the agriculturist. There are some indications that the Germans, when Tacitus wrote, had not long exchanged the nomadic life of a nation of shepherds and herdsmen (such as was led by the earlier generations of the Israelitish people) for the settled life which alone is consistent with the pursuits of the tiller of the soil. Hence the roving instinct was still strong within them, and this roving instinct easily allied itself with the thirst for battle and the love of the easy gains of the freebooter. Four centuries, however, of agriculture and of neighbourhood to the great civilised stable Empire of Rome had apparently wrought some change in the Goths and in many of the other Teutonic nations. The work of agriculture was now not altogether odious in their eyes; they knew something of the joys of the husbandman as well as of the joys of the warrior; they began to feel something of that "land-hunger" which is the passion of a young, growing, industrious people. Still, however, the songs of the minstrels, the sagas of the bards, the fiery impulses of the young princeps surrounded by his comitatus pointed to war as the only occupation worthy of freemen. Hence we can perceive a double current in the ambitions of these nations which often perplexes the historian now, as it evidently then perplexed their mighty neighbour, the Roman Augustus, and the generals and lawyers who counselled him in his consistory. Sometimes the Teutonic king is roused by some real or imagined insult; the minstrels sing their battle-songs; the fiery henchmen gather round their chief; the barbarian tide rolls over the frontier of the Empire: it seems as if it must be a duel to the death between civilisation and its implacable foes. Then suddenly

  "he sinks

To ashes who was very fire before".

Food, not glory, seems to be the supreme object of the Teuton's ambition. He begs for land, for seed to sow in it, for a legal settlement within the limits of the Empire. If only these necessary things are granted to him, he promises, and not without intending to keep his promise, to be a peaceable subject, yes and a staunch defender, of the Roman Augustus. Had the Imperial statesmen truly understood this strange duality of purpose in the minds of their barbarian visitors, and had they set themselves loyally and patiently to foster the peaceful agricultural instincts of the Teuton, haply the Roman Empire might still be standing. As it was, the statesmen of the day, men of temporary shifts and expedients, living only as we say "from hand to mouth", saw, in the changing moods of the Germans, only the faithlessness of barbarism, which they met with the faithlessness of civilisation, and between the two the Empire--which no one really wished to destroy--was destroyed.

Even such a change it was which now came over the minds of the Ostrogothic people. There was dearth in Pannonia, partly, perhaps, the consequence of the frequent wars with the surrounding nations which had occurred during the twenty years of the Ostrogothic settlement. But even the cessation of those wars brought with it a loss of income to the warrior class. As the Gothic historian expresses it: "From the diminution of the spoils of the neighbouring nations the Goths began to lack food and clothing, and to those men to whom war had long furnished all their sustenance peace began to be odious, and all the Goths with loud shouts approached their king Theudemir praying him to lead his army whither he would, but to lead it forth to war".

Here again it can hardly be doubted that Jordanes, writing about the fifth century, describes for us the same state of things as Tacitus writing about the first, and that this loudly shouted demand of the people for war was expressed in one of those national assemblies--the "Folc-motes" or "Folc-things" of Anglo-Saxon and German history--which formed such a real limitation to the power of the early Teutonic kings. "Concerning smaller matters", says Tacitus,[31] "the chiefs deliberate; concerning greater matters, the whole nation; but in such wise that even those things which are in the power of the commonalty are discussed in detail by the chiefs. They come together, unless any sudden and accidental emergency have arisen, on fixed days determined by the new or full moon; for these times they deem the most fortunate for the transaction of business. An ill consequence flowing from their freedom is their want of punctuality in assembling; often two or three days are spent in waiting for the loiterers. When the crowd chooses, they sit down, arrayed in their armour (and commence business). Silence is called for by the priests, who have then the power even of keeping order by force. Then the king or one of the chiefs begins to speak, and is listened to in right either of his age, or his noble birth, or his glory in the wars, or his eloquence. In any case, he rather persuades than commands; not power, but weight of character procures the assent of his hearers."

[Footnote 31: Germania, xi.]

"If they mislike his sentiments they express their contempt for them by groans, if they approve, they clash their spears together. Applause thus expressed by arms is the greatest tribute that can be paid to a speaker".

Before such an assembly of the nation in arms, the question, not of Peace or War? but of War with whom? was debated. It was decided that the Empire should be the victim, and that East and West alike should feel the heavy hand of the Ostrogoths. The lot was cast (so said the national legend),[32] and it assigned to Theudemir the harder but, as it seemed, more profitable task of warring against Constantinople, while his younger brother Widemir was to attack Rome.

Of Widemir's movements there is little to tell. He died in Italy, not having apparently achieved any brilliant exploits, and his son and namesake was easily persuaded to turn aside into Gaul, where he joined his forces to those of the kindred Visigoths, and became absorbed in their flourishing kingdom. This branch of Amal royalty henceforward bears no fruit in history.

More important, at any rate in its ultimate consequences, was the march of Theudemir and his people into the dominions of the Eastern Cæsar. They crossed the Save, and by their warlike array terrified into acquiescence the Sclavonic tribes which were settled in the neighbourhood of Belgrade.

[Footnote 32: Kopke "Anfange des Konigthums", (p. 146) throws doubt on this story of the decision by lot, and there seems something to be said on his side.]

Having pushed up the valley of the Morava, they captured the important city of Naissus (now Nisch), "the first city of Illyricum". Here Theudemir tarried for a space, sending on his son with a large and eager comitatus farther up the valley of the Morava. They reached the head of that valley, they crossed the watershed and the plain of Kossova, and descended the valley of the Vardar. Monastir in Macedonia, Larissa in Thessaly were taken and sacked; and a way having thus been made by these bold invaders into the heart of the Empire, a message was sent to Theudemir, inviting him to undertake the siege of Thessalonica. Leaving a few guards in Naissus, the old king moved southward with the bulk of his army, and was soon standing with his men before the walls of the Macedonian capital. The Patrician Hilarianus held that city with a strong force, but when he saw it regularly invested by the Goths and an earthen rampart drawn all round it, he lost heart, and, despairing of a successful resistance, opened negotiations with the besiegers. The result of these negotiations (accompanied by handsome presents to the king) was that Theudemir abandoned the siege, resumed the often adopted, perhaps never wholly abandoned, position of a foederatus or sworn auxiliary of the Empire, and received for himself and his people the unquestioned possession of six towns[33] and the surrounding country by the north-east corner of the Ægean, where the Vardar discharges itself into the Thermaic Gulf.

[Footnote 33: The best known of these towns are Pella, Pydna, and Bercea.]

Thus ingloriously, thus unprofitably ended the expedition into Romania, which had been proposed amid such enthusiastic applause at the great Council of the nation, and pressed with such loud acclamations and such brandishing of defiant spears upon the perhaps reluctant Theudemir. The Ostrogoths in 472 were an independent people, practically supreme in Pannonia. Those broad lands on the south and west of the Danube, rich in corn and wine, the very kernel of the Austrian monarchy of to-day, were theirs in absolute possession. Any tie of nominal dependence which attached Pannonia to the Empire was so merely theoretical, now that the Hun had ruled and ravaged it for a good part of a century, that it was not worth taking into consideration; it was in fact rather an excuse for claiming stipendia from the Emperor than a bond of real vassalage. But now in 474 this great and proud nation, crowded into a few cities of Macedonia, with obedient subjects of the Empire all round them, had practically no choice between the life of peaceful provincials on the one hand and that of freebooters on the other. If they accepted the first, they would lose year by year something of their old national character. The Teutonic speech, the Teutonic customs would gradually disappear, and in one or two generations they would be scarcely distinguishable from any of the other oppressed, patient, tax-exhausted populations of the great and weary Empire. On the other hand, if they accepted (which in fact they seem to have done) the other alternative, and became a mere horde of plunderers wandering up and down through the Empire, seeking what they might destroy, they abandoned the hope of forming a settled and stable monarchy, and, doing injustice to the high qualities and capacities for civilisation which were in them, they would sink lower into the depths of barbarism, and becoming like the Hun, like the Hun they would one day perish. Certainly, so far, the tumultuous decision of the Parliament on the shores of Lake Pelso was a false step in the nation's history.










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