The Northern Way

The Roman and the Teuton

Lecture 3

Page 2


'I have taken in hand,' said Sir Francis Drake once to the crew of the immortal Pelican, 'that which I know not how to accomplish. Yea, it hath even bereaved me of my wits to think of it.'

And so I must say on the subject of this lecture. I wish to give you some notion of the history of Italy for nearly one hundred years; say from 400 to 500. But it is very difficult. How can a man draw a picture of that which has no shape; or tell the order of absolute disorder? It is all a horrible 'fourmillement des nations,' like the working of an ant-heap; like the insects devouring each other in a drop of water. Teuton tribes, Sclavonic tribes, Tartar tribes, Roman generals, emperesses, bishops, courtiers, adventurers, appear for a moment out of the crowd, dim phantoms ---nothing more, most of them---with a name appended, and then vanish, proving the humanity only by leaving behind them one more stain of blood.

And what became of the masses all the while? of the men, slaves the greater part of them, if not all, who tilled the soil, and ground the corn---for man must have eaten, then as now? We have no hint. One trusts that God had mercy on them, if not in this world, still in the world to come. Man, at least had none.

Taking one's stand at Rome, and looking toward the north, what does one see for nearly one hundred years? Wave after wave rising out of the north, the land of night, and wonder, and the terrible unknown; visible only as the light of Roman civilization strikes their crests, and they dash against the Alps, and roll over through the mountain passes, into the fertile plains below. Then at last they are seen but too well; and you discover that the waves are living men, women, and children, horses, dogs, and cattle, all rushing headlong into that great whirlpool of Italy: and yet the gulf is never full. The earth drinks up the blood; the bones decay into the fruitful soil; the very names and memories of whole tribes are washed away. And the result of an immigration which may be counted by hundreds of thousands is this---that all the land is waste.

The best authorities which I can give you (though you will find many more in Gibbon) are---for the main story, Jornandes, De Rubus Greticis. Himself a Goth, he wrote the history of his race, and that of Attila and his Huns, in good rugged Latin, not without force and sense.

Then Claudian, the poet, a bombastic panegyrist of contemporary Roman scoundrels; but full of curious facts, if one could only depend on them.

Then the earlier books of Procopius De Bello Gothico, and the Chronicle of Zosimus.

Salvian, Ennodius and Sidonius Apollinaris, as Christians, will give you curious details, especially as to South France and North Italy; while many particulars of the first sack of Rome, with comments thereon which express the highest intellects of that day, you will find in St. Jerome's Letters, and St. Augustine's City of God.

But if you want these dreadful times explained to you, I do not think you can do better than to take your Bibles, and to read the Revelations of St. John the Apostle. I shall quote them, more than once, in this lecture. I cannot help quoting them. The words come naturally to my lips, as fitter to the facts than any words of my own.

I do not come here to interpret the Book of Revelations. I do not understand that book. But I do say plainly, though I cannot interpret the book, that the book has interpreted those times to me. Its awful metaphors give me more living and accurate pictures of what went on than any that Gibbon's faithful details can give.

You may see, if you have spiritual eyes wherewith to see, the Dragon, the serpent, symbol of political craft and the devilish wisdom of the Roman, giving authority to the Beast, the symbol of brute power; to mongrel Ætiuses and Bonifaces, barbarian Stilichos, Ricimers and Aspars, and a host of similar adventurers, whose only strength was force.

You may see the world wondering after the beast, and worshipping brute force, as the only thing left to believe in.

You may see the nations of the world gnawing their tongues for pain, and blaspheming God, but not repenting of their deeds.

You may see the faith and patience of the saints---men like Augustine, Salvian, Epiphanius, Severinus, Deogratias of Carthage, and a host more, no doubt, whose names the world will never hear---the salt of the earth, which kept it all from rotting.

You may see Babylon the great fallen, and all the kings and merchants of the earth bewailing her afar off, and watching the smoke of her torment.

You may see, as St. John warns you, that---after her fall, mind---if men would go on worshipping the beast, and much more his image---the phantom and shadow of brute force, after the reality had passed away---they should drink of the wine of the wrath of God, and be tormented for ever. For you may see how those degenerate Romans did go on worshipping the shadow of brute force, and how they were tormented for ever; and had no rest day or night, because they worshipped the Beast and his image.

You may see all the fowl of the heavens flocking together to the feast of the great God, to eat the flesh of kings and captians, horse and rider, bond and free.---All carrion-birds, human as well as brute---All greedy villians and adventurers, the scoundreldom of the whole world, flocking in to get their share of the carcass of the dying empire; as the vulture and the raven flock in to the carrion when the royal eagles have gorged their fill.

And lastly, you may see, if God give you grace, One who is faithful and true, with a name which no man knew, save Himself, making war in righteousness against all evil; bringing order out of disorder, hope out of despair, fresh health and life out of old disease and death; executing just judgment among all the nations of the earth; and sending down from heaven the city of God, in the light of which the nations of those who are saved should walk, and the kings of the earth should bring their power and their glory into it; with the tree of life in the midst of it, whose leaves should be for the healing of the nations.

Again, I say, I am not here to interpret the Book of Revelations; but this I say, that that book interprets those times to me.

Leaving, for the present at least, to better historians than myself the general subject of the Teutonic immigrations; the conquest of North Gaul by the Franks, of Britain by the Saxons and Angles, of Burgundy by the Burgundians, of Africa by the Vandals, I shall speak rather of those Teutonic tribes which actually entered and conquered Italy; and first, of course, of the Goths. Especially interesting to us English should their fortunes be, for they are said to be very near of kin to us; at least to those Jutes who conquered Kent. As Goths, Geats, Getæ, Juts, antiquarians find them in early and altogether mythic times, in the Scandinavian peninsula, and the isles and mainland of Denmark.

Their name, it is said, is the same as one name for the Supreme Being. Goth, Guth, Yuth, signifies war. 'God' is the highest warrior, the Lord of hosts, and the progenitor of the race, whether as an 'Eponym hero' or as the supreme Deity. Physical force was their rude notion of Divine power, and Tiu, Tiv, or Tyr, in like manner, who was originally the god of the clear sky, the Zeus or Jove of the Greeks and Romans, became by virtue of his warlike character, identical with the Roman Mars, till the dies Martis of the Roman week became the German Tuesday.

Working their way down from Gothland and Jutland, we know not why nor when, thrusting aside the cognate Burgunds, and the Sclavonic tribes whom they met on the road, they had spread themselves, in the third century, over the whole South of Russia, and westward over the Danubian Provinces, and Hungary. The Ostrogoths (East-goths) lay from the Volga to the Borysthenes, the Visigoths (West-goths?) from the Borysthenes to the Theiss. Behind them lay the Gepidæ, a German tribe, who had come southeastward with them, and whose name is said to signify the men who had 'bided' (remained) behind the rest.

What manner of men they were it is hard to say, so few details are left to us. But we may conceive them as a tall, fair-haired people, clothed in shirts and smocks of embroidered linen, and gaiters cross-strapped with hide; their arms and necks encircled with gold and silver rings; the warriors, at least of the upper class, well horsed, and armed with lance and heavy sword, with chain-mail, and helmets surmounted with plumes, horns, towers, dragons, boars, and the other strange devices which are still seen on the crests of German nobles. This much we can guess; for in this way their ancestors, or at least relations, the War-Geats, appeared clothed in the grand old song of Beowulf. Their land must have been tilled principally by slaves, usually captives taken in war: but the noble mystery of the forge, where arms and ornaments were made, was an honourable craft for men of rank; and their ladies, as in the middle age, prided themselves on their skill with the needle and the loom. Their language has been happily preserved to us in Ulfilas' Translation of the Scriptures. For these Goths, the greater number of them at least, were by this time Christians, or very nearly such. Good Bishop Ulfilas, brought up a Christian and consecrated by order of Constantine the Great, had been labouring for years to convert his adopted countrymen from the worship of Thor and Woden. He had translated the Bible for them, and had constructed a Gothic alphabet for that purpose. He had omitted, however (prudently as he considered) the book of Kings, with their histories of the Jewish wars. The goths, he held, were only too fond of fighting already, and 'needed in that matter the bit, rather than the spur.' He had now a large number of converts, some of whom had even endured persecution from their heathen brethren. Athanaric, 'judge,' or alderman of the Thervings, had sent through the camp---so runs the story---the waggon which bore the idol of Woden, and had burnt, with their tents and their families, those who refused to worship.

They, like all other German tribes, were ruled over by two royal races, sons of Woden and the Asas. The Ostrogoth race was the Amalungs---the 'heavenly,' or 'spotless' race; the Visigoth race was the Balthungs---the 'bold' or 'valiant' race; and from those two families, and from a few others, but all believed to be lineally descended from Woden, and now much intermixed, are derived all the old royal families of Europe, that of the House of Brunswick among the rest.

That they were no savages, is shewn sufficiently by their names, at least those of their chiefs. Such names as Alaric, 'all rich' or 'all powerful,' Ataulf, 'the helping father,' Fridigern, 'the willing peace-maker,' and so forth---all the names in fact, which can be put back into their native form out of their Romanized distortions, are tokens of a people far removed from that barbarous state in which men are named after personal peculiarities, natural objects, or the beasts of the field. On this subject you may consult, as full of interest and instruction, the list of Teutonic names given in Muratori.

They had broken over the Roman frontier more than once, and taken cities. They had compelled the Emperor Gratian to buy them off. They had built themselves flat-bottomed boats without iron in them, and sailed from the Crimea round the shores of the Black Sea, once and again, plundering Trebizond, and at last the temple itself into Diana at Ephesus. They had even penetrated into Greece and Athens, plundered the Parthenon, and threatened the capitol. They had fought the Emperor Decius, till he, and many of his legionaries, were drowned in a bog in the moment of victory. They had been driven with difficulty back across the Danube by Aurelian, and walled out of the Empire with the Allemanni by Probus's Teufels-Mauer,' stretching from the Danube to the Rhine. Their time was not yet come by a hundred years. But they had seen and tasted the fine things of the sunny south, and did not forget them amid the steppes and snows.

At last a sore need came upon them. About 350 there was a great king among them, Ermanaric, 'the powerful warrior,' comparable, says Jornandes, to Alexander himself, who had conquered all the conquered tribes around. When he was past 100 years old, a chief of the Roxolani (Ugrians, according to Dr. Latham; men of Ros, or Russia), one of these tribes, plotted against him, and sent for help to the new people, the Huns, who had just appeared on the confines of Europe and Asia. Old Ermanaric tore the traitor's wife to pieces with wild horses: but the Huns came nevertheless. A magic hind, the Goths said, guided the new people over the steppes to the land of the Goths, and then vanished. They fought with the Goths, and defeated them. Old Ermanaric stabbed himself for shame, and the hearts of the Goths became as water before the tempest of nations. They were supernatural creatures, the Goths believed, engendered of witches and demons on the steppes; pig-eyed hideous beings, with cakes instead of faces, 'offam magis quam faciem,' under ratskin caps, armed with arrows tipped with bone, and lassos of cord, eating, marketing, sleeping on horseback, so grown into the saddle that they could hardly walk in their huge boots. With them were Acatzirs, painted blue, hair as well as skin; Alans, wandering with their waggons like the Huns, armed with heavy cuirasses of plaited horn, their horses decked with human scalps; Geloni armed with a scythe, wrapt in a cloak of human skin; Bulgars who impaled their prisoners--savages innumerable as the locust swarms. Who could stand against them?

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