The Northern Way

The Roman and the Teuton

Lecture 4

Page 1

THE GOTHIC CIVILIZER

Let us follow the fortunes of Italy and of Rome. They are not only a type of the fortunes of the whole western world, but the fortunes of that world, as you will see, depend on Rome.

You must recollect, meanwhile, that by the middle of the fifth century, the Western Empire had ceased to exist. The Angles and Saxons were fighting their way into Britain. The Franks were settled in north France and the lower Rhineland. South of them, the centre of Gaul still remained Roman, governed by Counts of cities, who were all but independent soveriegns, while they confessed a nominal allegiance to the Emperor of Constantinople. Their power was destined soon to be annihilated by the conquests of Clovis and his Franks---as false and cruel ruffians as their sainted king, the first-born son of the Church. The history of Gaul for some centuries becomes henceforth a tissue of internecine horrors, which you must read for yourselves in the pages of M. Sismondi, or of Gregory of Tours. The Allemanni (whose name has become among the Franks the general name for Germans) held the lands from the Maine to the Rhætian Alps. The Burgunds, the lands to the south-west of them, comprising the greater part of south-east Gaul. The West Goths held the south-west of Gaul, and the greater part of Spain, having thrust the Sueves, and with them some Alans, into Gallicia, Asturias, and Portugal; and thrust, also, the Vandals across the straits of Gibralter, to found a prosperous kingdom along the northern shore of Africa. The East Goths, meanwhile, after various wanderings to the north of the Alps, lay in the present Austria and in the Danube lands, resting after their great struggle with the Huns, and their crowning victory of Netad.

To follow the fortunes of Italy, we must follow those of these East Goths, and especially of one man among them, Theodoric, known in German song as Dietrich of Bern or Verona.

Interesting exceedingly to us should this great hero be. No man's history better shows the strange relations between the Teutons and the dying Empire: but more; his life is the first instance of a Teuton attempting to found a civilized and ordered state, upon experience drawn from Roman sources; of the young world trying to build itself up some sort of dwelling out of the ruins of the old. Dietrich failed, it is true. But if the thing had been then possible, he seems to have been the man to have done it. He lived and laboured like what he was----a royal Amal, a true son of Woden. Unable to write, he founded a great kingdom by native virtue and common sense. Called a barbarian, he restored prosperity to ruined Italy, and gave to it (and with it to the greater part of the western world), peace for three and thirty years. Brought up among hostile sects, he laid down that golden law of religious liberty which the nineteenth century has not yet courage and humanity enough to accept. But if his life was heroic, his death was tragic. He failed after all in his vast endeavours, from causes hidden from him, but visible, and most instructive, to us; and after having toiled impartially for the good of conquerors and of conquered alike, he died sadly, leaving behind him a people who, most of them, believed gladly the news that a holy hermit had seen his soul hurled down the crater of Stromboli, as a just punishment for the inexpiable crime of being wiser than his generation.

Some have complained of Gibbon's 'hero-worship' of Dietrich---I do not. The honest and accurate cynic so very seldom worshipped a hero, or believed in the existence of any, that we may take his good opinion as almost final and without appeal. One author, for whose opinion I have already exprest a very high respect, says that he was but a wild man of the woods to the last; polished over skin-deep with Roman civilization; 'Scratch him, and you found the barbarian underneath.' (1) It may be true. If it be true, it is a very high compliment. It was not from his Roman civilization, but from his 'barbarian' mother and father, that he drew the 'vive intelligence des choses morales, et ces inspirations élevées et heroïques,' which M. Thierry truly attributes to him. If there was, as M. Thierry truly says, another nature struggling within him----is there not such in every man? And are not the struggles the more painful, the temptations more dangerous, the inconsistencies too often the more shameful, the capacities for evil as well as for good, more huge, just in proportion to the native force and massiveness of the soul? The doctrine may seem dangerous. It is dangerous, like many truths; and woe to those who, being unlearned and unstable, wrest it to their own destruction; and presume upon it to indulge their own passions under Byronic excuses of 'genius,' or 'muscular Christianity.' But it is true nevertheless: so at least the Bible tells us, in its wonderful delineations of David, 'the man after God's own heart,' and of St. Peter, the chief of the apostles. And there are points of likeness between the character of Dietrich, and that of David, which will surely suggest themselves to any acute student of human nature. M. Thierry attributes to him, as his worse self, 'les instincts les plus violents; la cruauté, l'astuce, l'egoïsme impitoyable.' The two first counts are undeniable---at least during his youth: they were the common vices of the age. The two latter I must hold as not proven by facts: but were they proven, they would still be excusable, on the simple ground of his Greek education. 'Cunning and pitiless egotism' were the only moral qualities which Dietrich is likely to have seen exercised at the court of Constantinople: and what wonder, if he was somewhat demoralized by the abominable atmosphere which he breathed from childhood? Dietrich is an illustration of the saga with which these lectures began. He is the very type of the forest child, bewitched by the fine things of the wicked Troll garden. The key to the man's character, indeed the very glory of it, is the long struggle within him, between the Teutonic and the Greek elements. Dazzled and debauched, at times, by the sinful glories of the Bosphorus, its palaces, its gold, and its women, he will break the spell desperately. He will become a wild Goth and an honest man once more; he will revenge his own degradation on that court and empire which he knows well enough to despise, distrust and hate. Again and again the spell comes over him. His vanity and his passions make him once more a courtier among the Greeks; but the blood of Odin is strong within him still; again and again he rises, with a noble shame, to virtue and patriotism, trampling under foot selfish luxury and glory, till the victory is complete; and he turns away in the very moment of the greatest temptation, from the bewitching city, to wander, fight, starve, and at last conquer a new land for himself and for his nation; and shew, by thirty years of justice and wisdom, what that true Dietrich was, which had been so long overlaid by the false Dietrich of his sinful youth.

Look at the facts of his history, as they stand, and see whether they do not bear out this, and no other, theory of his character.

The year was 455, two years after Attila's death. Near Vienna a boy was born, a Theodemir one of the Gothic kings and his favourite Erleva. he was sent when eight years old to Constantinople as a hostage. The Emperor Leo had agreed to pay the Goths 300 pounds of gold every year, if they would but leave him in peace; and young Dietrich was the pledge of the compact. There he grew up amid all the wisdom of the Romans, watching it all, and yet never even learning to write. It seems to some that the German did not care to learn; it seems to me rather that they did not care to teach. He came back to his people at eighteen, delighted them by his strength and stature, and became, to all appearance, a Goth of the Goths; going adventures with six thousand volunteers against the Sarmatæ, who had just defeated the Greeks, and taken a city---which he retook, but instead of restoring it to the Emperor, kept himself. Food becoming scarce in Austria, the Ostrogoths moved some into Italy, some down on Illyria and Thessaly; and the Emperor gracefully presented them with the country of which they had already taken possession.

In every case, you see, this method went on. The failing Emperors bought off the Teutons where they could; submitted to them where they could not; and readily enough turned on them when they had a chance. The relations between the two parities can be hardly better explained, than by comparing them to those between the English adventurers in Hindostan and the falling Rajahs and Sultans of the last century.

After a while Theodoric, or Dietrich, found himself, at his father's death, sole king of the Ostrogoths. This period of his life is very obscure: but one hint at least we have, which may explain his whole future career. Side by side with him and with his father before him, there was another Dietrich---Dietrich the One-eyed, son or Triar, a low-born adventurer, who had got together the remnants of some low-caste tribes, who were called the Goths of Thrace, and was swaggering about the court of Constantinople, as, when the East Goths first met him, what we call Warden of the Marches, with some annual pay for his Goths. He was insolent to Theodemir and his family, and they retaliated by bitter hatred. It was intolerable for them, Amals, sons of Odin, to be insulted by this upstart. So they went on for years, till the miserable religious squabble fell out---you may read it in Gibbon---which ended in the Emperor Zeno, a low-born and cunning man, suspected of the murder of his own son by the princess Ariadne, being driven out of Constantinople by Basiliscus. We need not enter into such matters, except as far as they bear on the history of Dietrich the Amal. Dietrich the One-eyed helped Basiliscus---and then Zeno seems to have sent for Dietrich the Amal to help him. He came, but too late. Basiliscus' party had already broken up; Basiliscus and his family had taken refuge in a church, from whence Zeno enticed him, on the promise of shedding no blood, which he did not: but instead put him, his wife and children, in a dry cistern walled it up and left them.

Dietrich the Amal rose into power and great glory, and became 'son-in-arms' to the Emperor. But the young Amal longed for adventures. He offered to take his Ostrogoths into Italy, drive out Odoacer, and seat on the throne of the West, Nepos, one of the many puppets who had been hurled off it a few years before. Zeno had need of the young hero nearer home, and persuaded him to stay in Constantinople, eat, drink, and be merry.

Whereon Odoacer made Romulus Agustulus and the Roman Senate write to Zeno that they wanted no Emperor save him at Constantinople; that they were very happy under the excellent Odoacer, and that they therefore sent to Zeno, as the rightful owner, all the Imperial insignia and ornaments; things which may have been worn, some of them, by Augustus himself. And so ended, even in name, the Empire of Rome. All which the Amal saw, and, as will appear, did not forget.

Zeno gave the Amal all that the One-eyed had had before him, and paid the Ostrogoths yearly as he had paid the One-eye's men. The One-eyed was banished to his cantonments, and of course revolted. Zeno wanted to buy him off, but the Amal would not hear of it; he would not help the Romans against his rival, unless they swore perpetual enmity against him.

They did so, and he marched to the assistance of the wretched Empire. He was to be met by Roman reinforcements at the Hæmus. They never came; and the Amal, disgusted and disheartened, found himself entangled in the defiles of the Hæmus, starving and worn out; with the One-eyed entrenched on an inaccessible rock, where he dared not attack him.

Then followed an extraordinary scene. The One-eyed came down again and again from his rock, and rode round the Amal's camp, shouting to him words so true, that one must believe them to have been really spoken.

Perjured boy, madman, betrayer of your race---do you not see that the Roman plan is as always to destroy Goths by Goths? Whichever of us falls, they, not we, will be the stronger. They never met you as they promised, at the cities, nor here. They have sent you out here to perish in the desert.'

Then the East Goths raised a cry. 'The One-eyed is right. The Amal cares not that these men are Goths like ourselves.'

 Then the One-eyed appeals to the Goths themselves, as he curses the Amal.

 'Why are you killing your kinsmen? Why have you made so many widows? Where is all their wealth gone, they who set out to fight for you? Each of them had two or three horses: but now they are walking on foot behind you like slaves,---free-men as well-born as yourself:---and you promised to measure them out gold by the bushel.'

Was it not true? If young Dietrich had in him (and he shewed that he had in after years) a Teuton's heart, may not that strange interview have opened his eyes to his own folly, and taught him that the Teuton must be his own master, and not the mercenary of the Romans?

Endnotes

1. Dr. Sheppard, p. 297. Back

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