Saturday, December 23, 2017

DocuNotes: Barbarians - The Goths

Originally aired on 2004, History Channel’s miniseries Barbarians tells the story of the people who made their names in the Medieval Age, from Rome to Asia. And in their first episode, narrator Clancy Brown tells the story of a people who brought the demise of the imperial city of Rome – the Goths.

“In an orgy of murder and plunder, the civilized Romans fall under the sword of violent band of barbarians. They are the Goths and their fury fueled by decades of Roman treachery and abuse.”
- From the Introduction of Barbarians, The Goths

The story of the Goths began with the coming of another group of barbarians – the Huns. In 375, in the Balkans, the Goths lived their peaceful lives until this Asian nomads from the Steppes descended upon them for violence and plunder. The Huns migrated from Asia as the Chinese Han Dynasty built their Great Wall for their protection. They attacked the Goths who lived quietly engaging in farming and trade with Rome.

Gothic society was an agricultural and tribal society. They viewed their homelands as sacred. They had no King or central government but their loyalty laid in clan chieftains. A single leader elected by a tribal assembly only emerged during times of crisis. And during the Hun crisis, the Goths choose Fritigern to lead them.
Screenshot from the show depicting Fritigern, a Gothic leader
Fritigern saw Rome as the safest sanctuary for the Goths. With hope of protection from the powerful Empire, they packed whatever they could and went to the Danube River that served as the Rome’s border. The choice worried many as they uprooted themselves from their sacred homelands where they lived for generations. They feared for their way of life and relied on their pagan religion and shamans to uplift their spirits. It was not a simple and easy choice but better compared to death or enslavement by the Huns.

Their mass exodus to the Roman Empire shocked the ruling Emperor Valens. But the Emperor saw the “barbarians” as fresh source of manpower for the army and decided to accept them. He promised the Goths safety, food, supplies, and possibly farmlands in exchange for their service in the Roman Army. And so Fritigern and his people moved into the Roman province of Thrace.
Screenshot showing a map depicting
the exodus of the Goths to the Roman Empire
But as they thought their plight ended when they crossed to the Roman Empire, they were mistaken. Rome did not accept all Goths. They choose who and when to allow them entry to the Empire. They prevented a mass exodus of the Goths to maintain control. Those who entered, saw themselves brought to camps where they stayed for some time, watched and forbidden to leave without permission.
Screenshot of Goths converting to Christianity
In this camps, Gothic culture blended with Romans. Many Goths converted to Christianity including Firtigern. But other sinister activities also transpired in the camps. Roman officials abused the Goths by withholding the food and supplies promised to them. They sold dog meat to the Goths for children that they be sold as slaves. Gothic parents either sold themselves to slavery or allowed their children to be slaves. The Goths started to resent the Romans and prepared for the future by arming themselves secretly.

“For months, the Goths placed their trust in the Emperor’s promise of food and land, but so far suffer only exploitation.”

During this exodus, the Goths suffered from Romans and families saw their young and old die first. More perished as they leave the camps towards Marcianople where the Emperor promised them food and supplies. But when the Fritigern and the Goths arrived in the city in 378, the Romans denied their entry and supplies. Hungry, frustrated, and on the brink, the Goths rioted and attacked the city.

“In Marcianople, the rampaging Goths drew first blood and it will soon flow like a river across the Roman Empire.”

After Marcianople, the Goths unleashed their fury to the Roman countryside pillaging and plundering every village and town they sighted. Their rampaged brought the attention of Emperor Valens who in the summer of 378 marshalled his army against the Goths. Fresh from their campaigns against the Persians, Emperor Valens felt confident that his army would defeat the ragtag army of barbarians.

The Goths readied to face the Romans in battle. Both armies had armored, steel swords, and heavy cavalry, all of which once Rome’s advantage. The Goths difference was they were “motivated by enduring hatred of the Romans.” The barbarians also burned the fields to deny the Romans supplies and made their march more discomforting as heat soared with the summer air. In August 9, 378 both sides met outside Adrianople.
Screenshot of Roman and Gothic armies meeting in Adrianople
In the Battle of Adrianople, the Romans seemed to be winning until the Goths broke their right flank and started an encirclement. A quote from Ammianus said:

“The barbarians poured on in huge columns, trampling down horse and men and crushing our ranks as to making orderly retreat impossible. Our men are too closely packed to have any hope of retreat that some perished at the hands of their own comrades. In this slaughter, so many were laid low that the field was covered with the bodies of the slain. The ground was so drenched with blood that they slipped and fell.”  
 - Ammianus
In the horrendous battle, Rome suffered its worst defeat in centuries. They lost a lot of men, generals, and also the Emperor Valens whose corpse nobody found.

With such defeat Rome had no choice but to settle with the Goths. In 382, the new Emperor Theodosius settled with the Goths and gave them the lands bordering the Danube, in modern day Bulgaria. Goths moved also to Roman cities and towns. Yet, the treaty seemed hallowed as Roman citizens continued to discriminate the Goths seeing them as “vulgar and dangerous”. Goth’s defeat and humiliation of the Romans in Adrianople continued to be remembered by the Romans and a reason for mistrust.

Part of the agreement for the lands, Goths also must serve in the Roman army. Gothic men fell by the thousands fighting Rome’s war with the Vandals, Huns, and Persians. In civil war against a barbarian usurper in the Western Roman Empire, Gothic casualties were atrocious and made one Gothic leader realized the exploitation of his people. This leaders was Alaric.
Screenshot of a depiction of Alaric
He and the Goths served under Rome. They learned from the training, tactics, and strategies of the Romans. Moreover, they too also acquired Roman technology and weaponry making them a formidable force. And in 395, Alaric unleashed the Goths in the Roman province of Greece with the aim of getting more land and gold as well as higher position in the Roman army to improve the conditions of Goths. For 2 years they rampaged in the region when Roman Emperor Arcadius finally conceded.

But the concession, in Alaric’s view, seemed to be an opportunity to get better deals. And he saw this in the Western Roman Empire. Fragmented and attacked by Vandals and Franks from the north, the Western Roman Empire was a fruit too sweet for Alaric to ignore. Alaric demanded lands from the Western Roman Emperor Honorious and showed his might in August 408. He marched his army into Italy, setting his sights to Rome itself.

As Alaric marched to Rome, refugees and freed slaves joined his army bolstering his numbers. This plunder-thirst army sacked Rome, the once might impregnable and center of civilization, in 410. An entry from St. Augustine on the sacking quoted:

“All the devastation, murder, spoliation, arson, and cruelty that were inflicted during the disaster of Rome followed the usual custom of war.”
– St. Augustine

But the fall of Rome did not meant the rise of Alaric as the new Emperor of Rome. He died at the end of 410 in Southern Italy said to have succumb to fever. Stories told that his followers dammed a river, laid him to rest in the river bed, and then released the water to hide his tomb. Alaric’s legacy was not just the sacking of Rome but the “joining of the Gothic people” that led to a kingdom, a long sought after homeland.

In the end, the Goths, the once scorned by the Romans, became the preservers of Roman culture. A group of Goths called the Visigoths established an Empire in modern day Spain and Southern France and ruled by powerful Christian Kings. They “provided a resounding echo of Roman culture” through their arts, law, and Romanesque buildings.

The history of the Goths provided a lesson in history:
“…there larger lesson is that oppression seer rebellion, and when pushed too far, even the weak and shattered can rise to challenge their oppressor. In the process, they can transform themselves and the future of their world. This is the lesson history teaches us over and over again."
- Conclusion of Barbarians - The Goths

See also:

Barbarians. "The Goths." Directed by Robert Gardner. Written by Jonathan Grupper and Steven Zorn. History Channel. January 19, 2004. 

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