EMPEROR THEODOSIUS AND THE GOTHS

Goths

Roman Army at Adrianople.

Following Valens’s defeat and death, the empire’s government of the East, closely identified with the person of the emperor, ceased to exist. The ministers and the insignia of power and even the imperial treasury had traveled with Valens wherever he went, and all those people and riches were scattered, fleeing through the Balkan Mountains. No authority in Constantinople was capable of assuming power, even if only provisionally, and for once no general decided to take advantage of the situation by usurping the throne.

Only in the West were there an emperor and a government. In fact, there were two emperors: Gratian, who was a young man of nineteen, and his little brother Valentinian II. As soon as Gratian learned of the enormity of the Roman defeat and the death of his uncle, he and his army retraced their steps in great haste and took up positions in lllyricum, resolved to defend the empire should the barbarians come their way. It was up to Gratian and his ministers to choose a new emperor of the eastern empire, and they needed a few months to find the right candidate, but in January 379, Theodosius, one of Gratian’s generals, was, with the consent of the army, proclaimed emperor of the East.

Much the same process had occurred when Valens was nominated: First the army of the West acclaimed Valentinian, and only afterward did he decide to appoint his younger brother to govern in the East. From a political point of view, the East was indeed the younger brother of the West, for several reasons: The empire had been born in the West, Rome was in the West, the richest senators wrere those from the West; the western units of the army traditionally contained the most seasoned warriors, and they were also the ones that most easily succeeded in imposing their candidates for the imperial throne. Moreover, the West was synonymous with Latin, and Latin was still the language of the army and the law. But Easterners were starting to reject this status of political minority; for some time, they had known that theirs was the most populous, wealthiest, and most civilized part of the empire. Constantine had simply recognized that fact when he transferred the capital to the shores of the Bosporus. In the dissatisfaction that the Greek East felt at the political and military hegemony of the Latin West lay the seeds of competition—if not hostility—between the two parts of the Roman Empire; those seeds would not fail to produce fruit, and soon.

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Theodosius is the last great protagonist of this story: the man who, in the years after Adrianople, worked harder than anyone else to fill the breach and redress the situation as far as possible.

Like almost all emperors, Theodosius was a career army officer; he came from the Far West, from Spain, and he was only thirty-two years old, but he already had experience to spare. His father, Theodosius the Elder, had been Rome’s most famous general in the days of Valentinian and had fought in half the world, from Britain to Africa. His son had grown up accompanying him on his various campaigns until, at a very early age—twenty-six or twenty-seven—he was appointed governor of one of the frontier provinces. At the time, Theodosius, a young man with all the right connections, seemed destined for swift promotion and a brilliant career; but in the Roman Empire, careers sometimes ended suddenly and badly. Valentinian started to mistrust Theodosius the Elder, who was too popular with his soldiers, exactly the type of general who might attempt a coup d’etat, and so the emperor relieved him of his command and subjected him to a political trial. Then Valentinian died, but his sons, likewise unwilling to keep so awkward a man as Theodosius the Elder on their hands, had him condemned to death and executed. His son was spared on condition that he retire to private life, and he had gone to live on his estates in Spain.

All this had happened in 376. Two years later, Gratian found himself obliged to choose a candidate to rule the eastern empire, one with shoulders broad enough to bear up under a frightful load. Moreover, the emperor’s choice had to be popular with the army, otherwise, Gratian’s own throne might begin to wobble. His selection of Theodosius, who met these requirements, quickly proved to be an astute move. Theodosius was cruel when necessary, but he had a political sensibility; he knew how to accept compromise when it was inevitable, but he also knew how to solve a problem at its root when he thought the situation required it. For example, he brutally simplified the religious question. When named emperor, he was not yet even a Christian, but he quickly got himself baptized and lined up with the Catholics, not the Arians. As Arianism was almost unknown in the West, this was probably an obligatory choice for a Westerner, but Theodosius drew political conclusions from it. The new emperor would put an end once and for all to the religious disputes which sowed discord among his subjects and which, in Valens’s time, had weakened the very authority of the emperor; he would no longer allow these theological arguments, so typical of Greek intellectuals, to split the East. One year after taking power, Theodosius published an edict three lines long, in which he decreed that his subjects were bound to follow the only true religion, namely Catholicism. All other Christian sects were stripped of their authority; they could no longer possess religious buildings or practice their faith in public, and should anyone object, not only would God punish him in the next life, but the state would see to his punishment in this one as well.

The edict in which Theodosius imposed Nicene Catholicism as the state religion of the empire was issued at Thessalonica in 380, and it was emblematic of the new emperor’s summary way of working and of his capacity for drastically simplifying problems. The Arians were the edict’s primary targets, and in practice it condemned their church to death by slow strangulation.

With the pagans, Theodosius was at first a bit more cautious, but when he felt strong enough to do so, he took drastic measures against them, too. Sacrifices had long been forbidden, but in 391 the emperor definitively suppressed all pagan cults, closed their temples, and forbade under penalty of death any form of polytheistic worship; the following year, he extended the prohibition to the private worship of the Lares and Penates, the Roman household gods.

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Unable to use so unilateral an approach in handling the crisis with the Goths, Theodosius showed himself capable of much greater flexibility. Obviously, the war was not over, and therefore his first goal was to reconstitute the army and resume operations against the Goths. The barbarians had to be made to understand that, despite their great victory at Adrianople, the Roman Empire was not yet defeated. Without losing any time, Theodosius promulgated some extremely harsh laws: Enlistment officials were required to sign up all conscripts at once, without allowing themselves to be swayed by exemptions or bribes; all proprietors of great estates had to furnish their quota of men, taking them from among the peasants who worked their land; all deserters, and all those who were obligated by law to perform military service but had so far, one way or another, managed to avoid it, had to report to their units or face a death sentence. The enlistment officials were authorized to draft, without any formalities, all soldiers’ sons, all vagrants, all unemployed men without a permanent residence, and also all immigrants capable of bearing arms. The emperor threatened death by burning as the punishment for any administrator of a large estate who concealed the presence of an immigrant among his workers; all immigrants were to be reported and consigned to the enlistment officials.

With these drastic measures, Theodosius succeeded, for better or worse, in putting the army back on its feet; at the same time, he was hiring Hunnish and even Gothic mercenaries. Although the Goths had entered the empire in different groups and merged into a single army under Fritigern’s command, they continued to be an aggregation of tribes, some of them with no connections at all to one another; many of those tribes had remained on the other side of the Danube, withdrawing to mountainous regions where they were able to keep the Huns at bay. Theodosius did not hesitate to open negotiations with their leaders, offering advantageous terms to any of them willing to furnish him with mercenaries to fight against the other Goths, and some of the leaders accepted the deal. One in particular, Athanaric, had once been very popular among the Goths, had fought against the Romans, and then had been more or less shoved aside, not least because he was old. Theodosius invited him to Constantinople, received him with all honors, and had his statue erected in the Hippodrome, next to those of Roman politicians; and although Athanaric died shortly afterward, many warriors had accompanied him to Constantinople, and they agreed to serve in the Roman army.

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The army as rebuilt by Theodosius was not necessarily capable of succeeding where Valens’s army had failed. The veterans who fell at Adrianople were not easy to replace, and the quality of the new units surely did not reach the level of those that had been destroyed. But Theodosius used the army not so much to defeat the Goths as to force them to negotiate and to accept a reasonable compromise. Even though Adrianople had been a crushing victory, the victors were still in a precarious situation. The Gothic leaders’ strategic abilities were of little use if their men could not manage to take any cities; without fortified cities to serve as bases and winter quarters, the barbarians could be masters of Thrace, they could advance to the suburbs of Constantinople, but they could not say they had conquered the country. However well armed they might have been, they were still just vagabond marauders, and what was worse, the authority that Fritigern had won for himself in the moment of danger had partly dissolved the morning after the victory, when it seemed that anything was possible, and many chieftains had decided to strike out on their own.

Theodosius and Gratian conducted their operations prudently, reoccupying lost territory a little at a time, guaranteeing the security of Constantinople, and trying to show the Goths that the empire was still able to make them pay a heavy price. It was half a bluff, but in the end it was successful. One after another, the leaders of the various groups let themselves be persuaded to make peace, in exchange for the same concessions, more or less, that Valens had promised in the beginning and then taken back. Some of the leaders received cultivable land, enough for the families of their men to settle on, in the same territories they themselves had laid waste during years of pillage and atrocities; other chieftains received officers’ appointments and stipends in the army, and their men were persuaded to enlist. At last, in 382, Theodosius scored a coup by convincing Fritigern, who was still in command of the largest Gothic band, that he should agree to talks.

The envoy sent to negotiate with Fritigern was Saturninus, who had directed operations against the Goths the year before Adrianople and was one of the generals who escaped the massacre by a whisker. Saturninus negotiated a treaty that at least in appearance satisfied everyone, and he was received in triumph upon returning to Constantinople. The following year, in recompense, the emperor appointed him consul.

The rhetorician Themistius, who a few years earlier had publicly congratulated Valens for making peace with the Goths, was charged with delivering an encomium in honor of Saturninus. In this oration, humanitarian rhetoric encountered before can be heard to vibrate anew, as if nothing had changed. Themistius lauded the government for having found a political solution to the problem, for receiving the Goths in peace instead of trying to annihilate them: “Philanthropy has prevailed over destruction. Would it perhaps have been better to fill Thrace with corpses instead of farmers? The barbarians are already transforming their weapons into hoes and sickles and cultivating the fields.” This was the ideology of the “melting pot,” viewing the barbarians as destined to be integrated into the empire as so many had been admitted in the past. Their descendants, Themistius said, “can’t be called barbarians; for all intents and purposes, they’re Romans. They pay the same taxes we do, they serve with us in the army, they’re governed in the same way and subject to the same laws. And before long, the same thing will happen with the Goths.”

In practice, Theodosius’s solution to the Gothic problem had been in the air for a long time and more than once had been on the point of implementation before going awry. Valens had let the Goths into the empire with the idea of enlisting them in the army, and although the inefficiency and corruption that characterized the military authorities’ treatment of the refugees had driven them to rebellion, Valens had always remained open to the prospect of a negotiated peace; indeed, just a few hours before being killed at Adrianople, the emperor had been involved in discussions with Fritigern’s envoys, trying to find a solution. In 382, Theodosius did exactly what could have been done six years before, though he could not easily cancel out everything that had happened in the interval—the years of pillaging and atrocities, the destruction of an army, the death of an emperor, and the siege of the imperial capital. After Adrianople, enrolling Gothic warriors in the imperial army was much more difficult, as was explaining to the civilian population that the Goths were really just refugees, people who should receive humane treatment, a useful workforce.

And yet the ruling classes of the empire gave this a try, and one can either admire their goodwill or be astonished by their cynicism. To the politicians who collaborated with Theodosius, the acceptance of the Goths, despite everything that had happened, posed no problem at all; official speeches and the verses of the court poets all harped on the same string. A Gaulish rhetorician, Pacatus, enthused over all the new Roman soldiers, barbarians, yes, but so willing to learn: “O wonderful and memorable! Those who once had been enemies of Rome, now marching under Roman commanders and Roman banners, following the standards they used to fight against, filling as soldiers the cities they had formerly emptied and devastated as enemies. The Goth, the Hun, and the Alan, learning to express themselves according to the rules and taking their turn on guard duty and fearful of being criticized in their officers’ reports.” The tale of the barbarian who throws away his animal skins and learns to dress like a civilized person and obey orders and observe discipline was told again and again by the authors of Theodosius’s time, and the implication was clear: Exchanging those bestial clothes for garb befitting a citizen and learning to live according to the rules made one a Roman. All the rhetoric about the universality of the empire, about its capacity for assimilation, was trotted out to demonstrate that Theodosius had made the right choice. And, to be clear, it wasn’t all empty rhetoric; to a certain degree, that capacity for assimilation genuinely existed. The empire really was absorbing the barbarians, even though, as it did so, it inevitably changed.

The most striking example of how the Roman army absorbed and integrated the Goths is given by a group of gravestones found in the latter half of the nineteenth century in a paleochristian cemetery near Portogruaro, in the Veneto, where once stood a Roman city with a name of good augury, Concordia. A considerable number of these gravestones, almost forty, are dedicated to soldiers in Theodosius’s army, soldiers from many different regiments—so many that people at first wondered why they had all been buried in this one particular place. Later research suggested that toward the end of his reign, in 394, Theodosius had fought a great battle more or less in that area against one of the usual usurpers, and part of his army probably remained encamped near Concordia for a long time, so we may conclude that the gravestones go back to that period. Since they come from a Christian cemetery, all the gravestones presumably memorialize soldiers who were Christians. Many regimental names are of the fanciful variety typical in the late empire—the Bracchiati, the Armigeri—and many have the names of barbarian tribes: The Heruli seniores, for example, or the Batavians, the unit held in reserve at the battle of Adrianople, whose troops had saved their skins by running away in time.

If you read the inscriptions on all these gravestones, they give the impression that the army was a very compact society, where everyone was linked to everyone else by ties of camaraderie or kinship, and also by religious bonds. In many cases, the inscription states that the dead man’s gravestone has been paid for by his comrades-in-arms or by fellow villagers or countrymen serving in the same regiment; the frequent mention of wives demonstrates that the military was a real microcosm, in which men lived with their families. Moreover, the tone of these inscriptions is decorous and devout, and they offer many dedications and regards “to the best of colleagues,” “to the holy church of the city of Concordia.” But a close look at the names of the soldiers reveals that they were almost all barbarians. They all have Flavius as a first name, because it had been the name of the imperial family since the reign of Constantine, and every immigrant who was granted citizenship received that name; following Flavius, almost every soldier has a Germanic and in many cases even a Gothic name, such as Flavius Andila, a noncommissioned officer in the Bracchiati, or Flavius Sindila, who served in the Herulian regiment.

This was the positive face of integration, the proof that Theodosius’s policy could succeed: The Goth became a Roman soldier, swore loyalty to the empire, learned to comply with military discipline and to appreciate his stipend and his pension; and the army, which was a community, seemed like the perfect machine for handling this integration process. It absorbed barbarians, ground them down, and transformed them into Roman veterans, into the men whom emperors in their public discourses addressed as “comrades in arms” and who constituted the real pillar of the empire.

 

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