The Earliest Gothic Incursions

Because of this complicated problem of names in the sources, we cannot say with any certainty when the Goths began to impinge upon the life of the Roman empire, let alone precisely why they did so. The first securely attested Gothic raid into the empire took place in 238, when Goths attacked Histria on the Black Sea coast and sacked it; an offer of imperial subsidy encouraged their withdrawal. In 249, two kings called Argaith and Guntheric (or possibly a single king called Argunt) sacked Marcianople, a strategically important city and road junction very near the Black Sea. In 250, a Gothic king called Cniva crossed the Danube at the city of Oescus and sacked several Balkan cities, Philippopolis – modern Plovdiv in Bulgaria – the most significant. Philippopolis lies to the south of the Haemus range, the chain of mountains which runs roughly east-west and separates the Aegean coast and the open plains of Thrace from the Danube valley. The fact that Cniva and his army could spend the winter ensconced in the Roman province south of the mountains gives us some sense of his strength, which is confirmed by the events of 251. In that year, Cniva routed the army of the emperor Decius at Abrittus. Decius had persecuted Christians, and Lactantius, a Christian apologist of the early fourth century, recounts with great relish how Decius ‘was at once surrounded by barbarians and destroyed with a large part of his army. He could not even be honoured with burial, but – despoiled and abandoned as befitted an enemy of God – he lay there, food for beasts and carrion-birds’.

The Black Sea Raids

Gothic raids in Thrace continued in the 250s, and seaborne raids, launched from the northern Black Sea against coastal Asia Minor, began for the first time. What role Goths played in these latter attacks is unclear, as is their precise chronology. The first seaborne incursions, which took place at an uncertain date between 253 and 256, are attributed to Boranoi. This previously unknown Greek word may not refer to an ethnic or political group at all, but may instead mean simply ‘people from the north’. Goths did certainly take part in a third year’s seaborne raids, the most destructive yet. Whereas the Boranoi had damaged sites like Pityus and Trapezus that were easily accessible from the sea, the attacks of the third year reached deep into the provinces of Pontus and Bithynia, affecting famous centres of Greek culture like Prusa and Apamea, and major administrative sites like Nicomedia. A letter by Gregory Thaumaturgus – the ‘Wonderworker’ – casts unexpected light on these attacks. Gregory was bishop of Neocaesarea, a large city in the province of Pontus, and his letter sets out to answer the questions church leaders must confront in the face of war’s calamities: can the good Christian still pray with a woman who has been kidnapped and raped by barbarians? Should those who use the invasions as cover to loot their neighbours’ property be excommunicated? What about those who simply appropriate the belongings of those who have disappeared? Those who seize prisoners who have escaped their barbarian captors and put them to work? Or, worse still, those who ‘have been enrolled amongst the barbarians, forgetting that they were men of Pontus and Christians’, those, in other words, who have ‘become Goths and Boradoi to others’ because ‘the Boradoi and Goths have committed acts of war upon them’.

Ten years later, these assaults were repeated. Cities around the coast of the Black Sea were assaulted, not just those on the coast of Asia Minor, but Balkan sites like Tomi and Marcianople. With skillful seamanship, a barbarian fleet was able to pass from the Black Sea into the Aegean, carrying out lightning raids on islands as far south as Cyprus and Rhodes. Landings on the Aegean coasts of mainland Greece led to fighting around Thessalonica and in Attica, where Athens was besieged but defended successfully by the historian Dexippus, who would later write an account of these Gothic wars called the Scythica. Though only fragments of this work survive, Dexippus was a major source for the fifth- or early sixth-century New History of Zosimus, which survives in full and is now our best evidence for the third-century Gothic wars. As Zosimus shows us, several imperial generals and emperors – Gallienus, his general Aureolus, the emperors Claudius and Aurelian – launched counterattacks which eventually brought this phase of Gothic violence to an end. Gothic defeat in 268 ended the northern Greek raids, while Claudius won a smashing and much celebrated victory at Naissus, modern Niš, in 270.

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