The Northern Way

The Roman and the Teuton

Lecture 3

Page 4

Three anecdotes will illustrate sufficiently the policy of Theodosius toward his inconvenient guests. Towards the beginning of his reign, when the Goths, after the death of the great Fridigern, were broken up, and quarreling among themselves, he tempted a royal Amal, Modar by name, by the title of Master-General, to attack and slaughter in their sleep a rival tribe of Goths, and carry off an immense spoil to the imperial camp. To destroy the German by the German was so old a method of the Roman policy, that it was not considered derogatory to the 'greatness' of Theodosius.

The old Athanaric, the Therving---he who had sworn never to set foot on Roman soil, and had burnt them who would not fall down and worship before Woden's waggon, came over the Danube, out of the forests of 'Caucaland,' and put himself at the head of the Goths. The great Cæsar trembled before the heathen hero; and they made peace together; and old Athanaric went to him at Constantinople, and they became as friends. And the Romani nominis umbra, the glamour of the Roman name, fell on the old man, too feeble now to fight; and as he looked, says Jornandes, on the site of the city, and on the fleets of ships, and the world-famous walls, and the people from all the nations upon earth, he said, 'Now behold what I have often heard tell, and never believed. The Kaiser is a God on earth, and he who shall lift his hand against him, is guilty of his own blood.' The old hero died in Constantinople, and the really good-natured Emperor gave him a grand funeral, and a statue, and so delighted the simple Goths, that the whole nation entered his service bodily, and became the Emperor's men.

The famous massacre of Thessalonica, and the penance of Theodosius, immortalized by the pencil of Vandyke, is another significant example of the relation between Goth and Roman. One Botheric (a Vandal or other Teuton by his name) was military commandant of that important post. He put in prison a popular charioteer of the circus, for a crime for which the Teutonic language had to borrow a foreign name, and which the Teutons, like ourselves, punished with death, though it was committed with impunity in any Roman city. At the public games, the base mob clamoured, but in vain, for the release of their favourite; and not getting him, rose on Botheric, murdered him and his officers, and dragged their corpses through the streets.

This was indeedkinein to Skuqikon; and Theodosius, partly in honest indignation, partly perhaps in fear of the consequences, issued orders from Milan which seem to have amounted to a permission to the Goths to avenge themselves. The populace were invited as usual to the games of the circus, and crowded in, forgetful of their crime, heedless of danger, absorbed in the one greed of frivolous, if not sinful pleasure. The Gothic troops concealed around entered, and then began a 'murder grim and great.' For three hours it lasted. Every age and sex, innocent or guilty, native or foreigner, to the number of at least 7,000, perished, or are said to have perished; and the soul of Botheric had 'good company on its way to Valhalla.'

The Goths, doubtless, considered that they were performing an act of public justice upon villains: but the Bishops of the Church looked at the matter in another light. The circumstances of treachery, the confusion of the innocent with the guilty, the want of any judicial examination and sentence, aroused the sense of humanity and justice. The offence was aggravated by the thought that the victims were Roman and orthodox, the murderers barbarians and Arians; St. Ambrose, with a noble courage, stopped the Emperor at the door of the Basilica of Milan, and forbad him to enter, till he had atoned for the fatal order by public penance. The Cæsar submitted nobly to the noble demand; and the repentance of Theodosius is the last scene in the downward career of the Cæsars, which can call forth a feeling of admiration and respect.

In January of 395 Theodosius died; and after him came the deluge.


The Empire was parted between his two worthless sons. Honorius had the west, Arcadius the east; while the real master of the Empire was Stilicho the Vandal, whose virtues and valour and mighty stature are sung (and not undeservedly) in the pompous verses of Claudian. Of the confusion which ensued; of the murder (well-deserved) of Rufinus, the infamous minister whose devout hypocrisy had so long cajoled Theodosius; of the revolt and atrocities of Gildo in Africa, you must read in the pages of Gibbon. These lectures confine themselves, at present, to the history of the Goths.


In January 395, I said, Theodosius died. Before the end of the winter the Goths were in arms, with Alaric the Balth at their head. They had been refused, at least for the time, the payment of their usual subsidy. e had been refused the command of the Roman armies. Any excuse was sufficient. The fruit was ripe for plucking. The wrongs of centuries were to be avenged. Other tribes crost the Danube on the ice, and joined the Goths; and the mighty host swept down through Greece, passing Thermopylæ unopposed, ransoming Athens (where Alaric enjoyed a Greek bath and a public banquet, and tried to behave for a day like a Roman gentleman); sacking Corinth, Argos, Sparta, and all the cities and villages far and wide, and carrying off plunder inestimable, and troops of captive women.

Stilicho threw himself into the Pelopannese at Corinth to cut off the Goths, and after heavy fighting, Alaric, who seems to have been a really great general, out-manœuvred him, crost the Gulf of Corinth at Rhium, with all his plunder and captives, and got safe away into northern Greece.

There Arcadius, the terrified Emperor of the East, punished him for having devastated Greece, by appointing him Master-General of the very country which he had ravaged. The end was coming very near. The Goths lifted him on the shield, and proclaimed him King of the West Goths; and there he staid, somewhere about the head of the Adriatic, poised like an eagle in mid-air, watching Rome on one side, and Byzant on the other, uncertain on which quarry he should swoop.

He made up him mind for Rome. He would be the man to do the deed at last. There was a saga in which he trusted. Claudian gives it in an hexameter,

      'Alipibus Italiæ ruptis penetrabis ad urbem'

Yes, he would take The City, and avenge the treachery of Valens, and all the wrongs which Teutons had endured from the Romans for now four centuries. And he did it.

But not the first time. He swept over the Alps. Honorius fled to Asta, and Alaric besieged him there. The faithful Stilicho came to the rescue; and Alaric was driven to extremities. His warriors counselled him to retreat. No, he would take Rome, or die. But at Pollentia, Stilicho surprised him, while he and his Goths were celebrating Easter Sunday, and a fearful battle followed. The Romans stormed his camp, recovered the spoils of Greece, and took his wife, decked in the jewels in which she meant to enter Rome. One longs to know what became of her.

At least, so say the Romans: the Goths tell a very different story; and one suspects that Pollentia may be one more of those splendid paper victories, in which the Teutons were utterly exterminated, only to rise out of the ground, seemingly stronger and more numerous than ever. At least, instead of turning his head to the Alps, he went on toward Rome. Stilicho dared not fight him again, and bought him off. He turned northward toward Gaul, and at Verona Stilicho got him at an advantage, and fought him once more, and if we are to believe Rosino and Claudian, beat him again. 'Taceo de Alarico, sæpe victo, sæpe concluso, semperque dimisso.' 'It is ill work trapping an eagle,' says some one. When you have caught him, the safest thing very often is to let him go again.

Meanwhile poured down into Italy, as far as Florence (a merely unimportant episode in those fearful days), another wave of German invaders under one Radogast, 200,000 strong. Under the walls of Florence they sat down, and perished of wine, and heat, and dysentery. Like water they flowed in, and like water they sank into the soil: and every one of them a human soul.
Stilicho and Honorius went to Rome and celebrated their triumph over the Goths, with (for the last time in history) gladiatorial sports. Three years past, and then Stilicho was duly rewarded for having saved Rome, in the approved method for every great barbarian who was fool enough to help the treacherous Roman; namely, by being murdered.

Alaric rose instantly, and with him all the Gothic tribes. Down through Italy he past, almost without striking a blow. Ravenna, infamous, according to Sidonius, for its profligacy, where the Emperor's court was, he past disdainfully, and sat down before the walls of Rome. He did not try to storm it. Probably he could not. He had no such machines, as those with which the Romans battered walls. Quietly he sat, he and his Goths, 'as wolves wait round the dying buffalo;' waiting for the Romans within to starve and die. They did starve and die; men murdered each other for food; mothers ate their own babes; but they sent out embassies, boasting of their strength and numbers. Alaric laughed, ----'The thicker the hay, the easier it is mowed.' What terms would he take? 'All your gold, all your silver, the best of your precious things. All your barbarian slaves.' That last is significant. He would deliver his own flesh and blood. The Teuton man should be free. The trolls should drag no more of the forest children into their accursed den. 'What then will you leave us?' 'Your lives.'

They bought him off with a quaint ransom: 5000 pounds weight of gold, 30,000 of silver, 4000 robes of silk, 3000 pieces of scarlet cloth, and 3000 lbs. of pepper, possibly spices of all kinds. Gold, and finery, and spices---gifts for children, such as those Goths were.

But he got, too, 40,000 Teuton slaves safe out of the evil place, and embodied them into his army. He had now 100,000 fighting men. Why did he not set up as king of Italy? Was it that the awe of the place, the prestige of the Roman name, cowed him? It cowed each of the Teutonic invaders successively. To make themselves emperors of Rome was a thing of which they dared not dream. Be that as it may, all he asked was to be received as some sort of vassal of the Emperor. The Master-Generalship of Italy, subsidies for his army, an independent command in the Tyrolese country, whence he had come, were his demand.

Overblown with self-conceit, the Romans refused him. They would listen to no conditions. They were in a thoroughly Chinese temper. You will find the Byzantine empire in the same temper centuries after; blinded to present weakness by the traditions of their forefathers' strength. They had worshipped the beast. Now that only his image was left, they worshipped that.

Alaric seized Ostia, and cut off their supplies. They tried to appease him by dethroning Honorius, and setting up some puppet Attalus. Alaric found him plotting; or said that he had done so; and degraded him publicly at Rimini before his whole army. Again he offered peace. The insane Romans proclaimed that his guilt precluded him for ever from the clemency of the Empire.

Then came the end. He marched on Rome. The Salarian gate was thrown open at midnight, probably by German slaves within; and then, for five dreadful days and nights, the wicked city expiated in agony the sins of centuries.
And so at last the Nibelungen hoard was won.

'And the kings of the earth who had lived delicately with her, and the merchants of the earth who were made rich by her, bewailed her, standing afar off for the fear of her torment, and crying, Alas! alas that great Babylon! for in one hour is thy judgment come.'

St. John passes in those words from the region of symbol to that of literal description. A great horror fell upon all nations, when the news came. Rome taken? Surely the end of all things was at hand. The wretched fugitives poured into Egypt and Syria---especially to Jerusalem; perhaps with some superstitious hope that Christ's tomb, or even Christ himself, might save them.

St. Jerome, as he saw day by day patrician men and women who had passed their lives in luxury, begging their bread around his hermitage at Bethlehem, wrote of the fall of Rome as a man astonished.

St. Augustine, at Hippo, could only look on it as the end of all human power and glory, perhaps of the earth itself. Babylon the great had fallen, and now Christ was coming in the clouds of heaven to set up the city of God for ever. In that thought he wrote his De Civitate Dei. Read it, gentlemen---especially you who are to be priests---not merely for its details of the fall of Rome, but as the noblest theodicy which has yet proceeded from a human pen.


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