Barbarian Invasion on the Danube

In the winter of 375/6, rumour reached Rome’s Danube frontier that heavy fighting was under way in eastern Germania north of the Black Sea. Ammianus Marcellinus reports: ‘In the beginning the news was viewed with contempt by our people because wars in those districts were not ordinarily heard of by those living at a distance until they were either over, or had at least died down for a time.’ You could hardly blame the imperial authorities for not taking the matter too seriously. The migration of the Goths and other Germani in the mid-third century had prompted a political reconfiguration that had led to a hundred years of relative stability in the region. Moreover, the trouble then had come from the north-west (present-day Poland and Byelorussia), not the north-east (modern Ukraine). The last time the north-east had posed a problem was when the Sarmatians had swept all before them in the fifty years either side of the birth of Christ, three centuries earlier. But the Romans quickly learned the error of their ways.

In the summer of 376, a vast throng of people – men, women and children – suddenly appeared on the north bank of the River Danube asking for safe haven in Roman territory. One source, not our best, reports that 200,000 refugees appeared beside the river; Ammianus, that there were too many to count. They came with innumerable wagons and the animals to pull them, presumably their plough-oxen, in the kind of huge procession that warfare has generated throughout history. There were certainly many individual refugees and small family groups, but the vast majority were Goths organized in two compact masses and with defined political leaderships. My own best guess is that each was composed of about 10,000 warriors. One group, the Greuthungi, had already moved a fair distance from lands east of the River Dniester, in the present-day Ukraine, hundreds of kilometres from the Danube. The other comprised the majority of Athanaric’s Tervingi, now led by Alavivus and Fritigern, who had broken away from their former leader’s control to come here to the river.

If the size of the immediate problem for Roman frontier security was bad enough, the refugees’ identity was even more ominous. Though the first reports had concerned fighting a long way from the frontier zone, the two large bodies of Gothic would-be immigrants camped beside the river were from much closer to home. The Tervingi, in particular, had been occupying lands immediately north of the Danube, in what is now Wallachia and Moldavia, since the 310s at the latest. Whatever was going on in the far north-east was no local skirmish; its effects were being felt throughout the region north of the Black Sea.

The Romans quickly learned what lay behind all the mayhem. Again in Ammianus’ words: ‘The seed-bed and origin of all this destruction and of the various calamities inflicted by the wrath of Mars, which raged everywhere with extraordinary fury, I find to be this: the people of the Huns.’

Ammianus was writing nearly twenty years later, by which time the Romans had a better understanding of what had brought the Goths to the Danube. Even in the 390s, though, the full effects of the arrival of the Huns were far from apparent. The appearance of the Goths beside the river in the summer of 376 was the first link in a chain of events that would lead directly from the rise of Hunnic power on the fringes of Europe to the deposition of the last western emperor, Romulus Augustulus, almost exactly one hundred years later. None of this was even remotely conceivable in 376, and there would be many twists and turns on the way. The arrival of Goths on the Danube marked the start of a reshuffling of Europe-wide balances of power, and it is to this story that the rest of the book is devoted. We must begin, like Ammianus, with the Huns.

From the ‘Ice-Bound Ocean’

The origins of the Huns are mysterious and controversial. The one thing we know for certain is that they were nomads from the Great Eurasian Steppe. The Eurasian Steppe is a huge expanse, stretching about 5,500 kilometres from the fringes of Europe to western China, with another 3,000 kilometres to its north and east. The north–south depth of the steppe ranges from only about 500 kilometres in the west to nearly 3,000 in the wide-open plains of Mongolia. Geography and climate dictate the nomadic lifestyle. Natural steppe grasslands are the product of poorish soils and limited rainfall, which make it impossible, in general terms, for trees and more luxurious vegetation to grow. The lack of rainfall also rules out arable farming of any sustained kind, so that the nomad makes a substantial part of his living from pastoral agriculture, herding a range of animals suited to the available grazing. Cattle can survive on worse pasture than horses, sheep on worse pasture than cattle, and goats on worse than sheep. Camels will eat anything left over.

Nomadism is essentially a means of assembling distinct blocks of pasture, which between them add up to a year-round grazing strategy. Typically, modern nomads will move between upland summer pasture (where there is no grass in the winter because of snow and cold) and lowland winter pasture (where the lack of rain in summer means, again, no grass). In this world, grazing rights are as important in terms of economic capital as the herds, and as jealously guarded. The distance between summer and winter pasture needs to be minimal, since all movement is hard both on the animals and on the weaker members of the human population. Before Stalin sedentarized them, the nomads of Kazakhstan tended to move about 75 kilometres each way between their pastures. Nomadic societies also form close economic ties with settled arable farmers in the region, from whom they obtain much of the grain they need, though some they produce themselves. While part of the population cycles the herds around the summer pastures, the rest engage in other types of food production. But all the historically observed nomad populations have needed to supplement their grain production by exchanging with arable populations the surplus generated from their herds (hides, cheese and yoghurt, actual animals and so on). Often, this exchange has been one-sided, with the arable population getting in return no more than exemption from being raided, but sometimes the exchange has been properly reciprocal.

Nomadism, or part-nomadism, has never been the preserve of any particular linguistic or cultural population group. Across the Great Eurasian Steppe many peoples have, at different times, adopted nomadic lifestyles. In the first three centuries AD the western end of the steppe – from the Caspian Sea to the Danube – was dominated by Iranian-speaking Sarmatian and Alan nomads. These had ousted Scythian nomads, also Iranian-speaking, in the last two or three centuries BC. By the sixth century AD at the latest, Turkic-speaking nomads were dominant from the Danube to China, and a Mongol-speaking nomad horde would cause untold devastation in the high Middle Ages. Other population groups, too, took to nomadism. The Magyars who arrived in central Europe at the end of the ninth century spoke – as their Hungarian descendants still do – a Finno-Ugrian language that suggests they may have come from the forest zone of north-eastern Europe, the only other region where such languages are spoken.

Where the Huns fit into this sea of cultural possibilities is unclear. Ammianus Marcellinus knew more about them than did our other Roman sources, but he didn’t know much. His best shot is that they came from beyond the Black Sea ‘near the ice-bound ocean’. They were not literate, so leave us no records of their own to go on, and even their language affiliation is mysterious. Failing all else, linguists can usually decode basic linguistic affiliations from personal names, but even this doesn’t work with the Huns. They quickly got into the habit of using Germanic names (or perhaps our sources preserve the Germanicized versions or Germanic nicknames given them by their Germanic neighbours and subjects), so that the stock of properly Hunnic personal names is much too small to draw any convincing conclusions. They were probably not Iranian-speaking, but whether they were the first Turkic-speaking nomads to explode on to the European scene, as some have argued, remains unclear. With such pathetic sources of information, Hunnic origins can only remain mysterious, but a little spice has been added by a famous controversy over whether the Huns were in fact the nomadic Hsiung-Nu, well known from imperial Chinese records.

In the centuries before and after the birth of Christ, the Hsiung-Nu – under the leadership of their Shan-Yu5 – harassed the north-west frontiers of Han China, extracting from it huge quantities of tribute in silks, precious metals and grain. They also contested the control of some of its important western territories, particularly the Tarim Basin where the Silk Road (which started to operate in the last century BC) reaches China. Under pressure from Han armies, they split in AD 48 into northern and southern branches. The southern Hsiung-Nu were subsequently brought into the Chinese orbit, becoming an important force within the imperial system. The northerners remained external, independent and highly troublesome until AD 93, when the Chinese government paid another nomadic group, the Hsien-Pi, to launch a devastating attack upon their homelands. Many northern Hsiung-Nu (reportedly 100,000 households) were absorbed into the victorious Hsien-Pi confederation, but others fled ‘to the west’. That’s the last we ever hear of the northern Hsiung-Nu in the Chinese records.

The Huns we’re concerned with appear suddenly in Roman records in the third quarter of the fourth century. The problem inherent in the superficially attractive equation of these people with the Hsiung-Nu is this: we have gaps between the Chinese and Roman records of nearly 300 years (AD 93 to about 370) and 3,500 kilometres to account for. Moreover, the Huns known to the Romans had a completely different form of political organization from the Hsiung-Nu’s. After AD 48, both branches of the latter had their own Shan-Yu, but the Huns arrived in Europe with a multiplicity of ranked kings and no sign of one dominant figure. The surviving ethnographic descriptions – such as they are – also raise objections. The Hsiung-Nu customarily wore their hair in a long pony-tail; the Huns did not. The two groups used similar weaponry, and bronze kettles are customarily found among their archaeological remains. Given this, there may be some connection, but it clearly won’t do just to say that the Hsiung-Nu had started running west in AD 93 and kept going until they hit Europe as the Huns. The Great Eurasian Steppe is a vast place, but it didn’t, even then, take 300 years to cross. Equally, like most nomadic empires, that of the Hsiung-Nu was a confederation, comprising a smallish Hsiung-Nu core and many other subject groups. The ancestors of our Huns could even have been part of the confederation, therefore, without being ‘real’ Hsiung-Nu. Even if we do make some connection between fourth-century Huns and first-century Hsiung-Nu, therefore, an awful lot of water had passed under an awful lot of bridges during 300 years worth of lost history.

Roman sources also give us only a very general idea of what brought the Huns to the fringes of Europe. For Ammianus, it was enough just to point out that they exceeded ‘every measure of savagery’ and ‘were aflame with an inhuman desire for plundering others’ property’. The most commonly repeated story in the Roman sources claimed their landing up at Europe’s gates was partly an accident. Some Hunnic hunters, out after game one day, trailed a hind through a marsh into new lands of which they had previously been ignorant. This kind of tale rubbed off on early twentieth-century commentators, who tended to suppose that the Huns had for centuries been engaged in nomadic wanderings in different parts of the Eurasian Steppe, and one year just happened to wander on to the fringes of Europe. But this was before anthropologists understood quite so clearly that nomads do not wander around at random, but move cyclically between carefully designated pastures. Given that grazing rights are a key element in nomad subsistence, and guarded so jealously, shifting from one set of pastures to another could never be an accident.

Unfortunately, we can only guess at the motives behind the Huns’ decision to shift their centre of operations westwards. The story of the hind concludes with the hunters telling the rest of the Huns of the wonders of the new land they’d found, and Ammianus, too, picked out the motive of economic gain. The idea that it was the wealth of the northern shores of the Black Sea that attracted Hunnic attentions is perfectly plausible. While less extensive, the grazing lands of the western steppe are rich, and have attracted many a nomad group over the years. The area north of the Black Sea was occupied by client groups of the Roman Empire, who benefited economically from different relationships with the Mediterranean world, and there is no reason to doubt that Huns also felt its call. At the same time, in the case of some later nomad groups for whom we have more information, a move on to the western edge of the steppe was often associated with the desire to escape a more powerful nomad confederation operating towards China. The Avars, who would have much the same kind of impact on Europe as the Huns, but two centuries later, were looking for a safe haven beyond the reach of the western Turks, when they appeared north of the Black Sea. At the end of the ninth century, likewise, the nomadic Magyars would move into Hungary because another nomad group, the Pechenegs, was making life intolerable for them further east. In the case of the Huns, we have no firm indication that a negative as well as a positive motivation was at work, but we can’t rule it out. Further east, in the later fourth century, the Guptas were pushing on to the Silk Road from northern India, and by the early to mid-fifth century the Hephthalite Huns were ruling the roost somewhere between the Caspian and Aral Seas. As early as the 350s, this reconfiguration of the balance of power was reverberating further east on the steppe, causing the Chionitae to move into the fringes of the Persian Empire, east of the Caspian Sea.8 It may also have played a role in the Huns’ decision to shift their grazing lands westwards.

Mysterious as the Huns’ origins and animating forces may remain, there is no doubt at all that they were behind the strategic revolution that brought the Goths to the Danube in the summer of 376. It is normally assumed that at that time they were fleeing from Huns who had suddenly exploded en masse on to the northern Black Sea littoral. It is further assumed that these Huns were virtually breathing down the Goths’ necks as they scrambled for the Danube in the hope of securing asylum inside the Empire, and that, once the Goths had reached Roman territory, the Huns immediately became the dominant power in the lands adjacent to the river. This is what you will find stated more or less explicitly in most modern accounts: Huns arrive suddenly (375/6); Goths leave in panic for the Empire (376); Huns become dominant beside the Danube (from 376).

This pattern is based on the account given by Ammianus, who paints a highly convincing picture of Gothic panic: ‘The report spread widely among the other Gothic peoples that a race of men hitherto unknown had now arisen from a hidden nook of the earth, like a tempest of snows from the high mountains, and was seizing or destroying everything in its way.’ We need to look past the rhetoric, however, at what Ammianus is actually telling us. After first subjugating the Alans, the Huns then started attacking the Gothic Greuthungi. The resistance of the Greuthungi was led by Ermenaric, who eventually gave up and seems to have allowed himself to be ritually sacrificed for the safety of his people. Ammianus’ wording is a little vague, but the reflex, documented among several ancient groups, to hold their political leadership responsible for the fate of the group, is an interesting one. When times got tough, it was seen as a sign from the gods that the old leader had offended them and needed to be sacrificed in propitiation of the offence. Ermenaric was succeeded by Vithimer, who carried on the fight but was eventually killed in battle.

At this point, control of the Greuthungi passed to two military leaders, Alatheus and Saphrax, who ruled in the name of Vithimer’s son Vitheric. Having decided to retreat to the banks of the River Dniester, they were met there by a force of Tervingi under Athanaric. But Athanaric was now attacked from the rear by some Huns, who had found an alternative ford over the river, and retreated back to his heartlands closer to the Carpathian Mountains. There he attempted to stem the Hunnic tide by constructing a fortified line against them. In my view, this was probably the old Roman walls on the River Olt, the Limes Transalutanus. But the plan came to naught. The Tervingi were harassed by more Hunnic attacks as they worked on the defences, which damaged their confidence in Athanaric’s leadership. Most of the Tervingi broke with him at this point, and under new leaders, Alavivus and Fritigern, came to the Danube to request asylum inside the Roman Empire. The Greuthungi of Alatheus and Saphrax opted for a similar strategy, following the Tervingi to the river.

Some of these events unfolded very quickly. From the death of Vithimer in battle, the action is pretty continuous down to the arrival of both Tervingi and Greuthungi on the banks of the Danube. Even in its entirety, this sequence needn’t have occupied any great length of time. If, as seems likely, the Goths arrived sometime in late summer or early autumn 376, then Vithimer’s death need be placed no more than a year before. In principle, even a few months would have been sufficient for the intervening events, which would place Vithimer’s death between mid-375 and early 376. Given that a good time for agriculturalists to move on is after they’ve taken in the harvest, it was perhaps most likely late summer or early autumn 375 that the Greuthungi took to the road.

This somewhat breathless last act, however, followed a more measured drama. It is impossible to date precisely, because Ammianus gives us only vague indications of time; but what he does tell us is suggestive. He states, first of all, that Ermenaric resisted the storm brewed up by the Huns ‘for a long time’ (diu). We also hear that Ermenaric’s successor Vithimer fought ‘many engagements’ (multas . . . clades) against the Huns until he was killed in battle. There is obviously no way to be sure how long all this took, but the swift denouement which followed Vithimer’s death clearly ended a longer struggle, and it was the Greuthungi’s decision to move that precipitated the final crisis. How far back in time the preceding struggle might have gone on is a matter of judgement, but the nature of Hunnic operations does have a bearing on the argument.

To secure their entry to the Empire, first of all, Gothic embassies left the banks of the Danube to seek out the emperor Valens and put their case. Valens, however, was in Antioch – which meant a round trip of over 1,000 kilometres; even so the ambassadors were not deterred. Once they reached Antioch, the two parties had to confer and decisions had to be made, then communicated back to the Roman commanders on the Danube. All of this must have taken well over a month, during which time the mass of Goths continued to sit beside the river, more or less patiently, waiting for the green light to cross. There is no record of any Hunnic attacks upon them during this period. Furthermore, the Huns who attacked Athanaric came in small groups, sometimes weighed down by booty: raiders, therefore, rather than conquerors. The Huns’ political organization at this date didn’t run to an overall leader but comprised a series of ranked kings with plenty of capacity for independent action. When he was trying to fend off the Greuthungi’s Hun-generated military problems, for instance, Vithimer was able to recruit other Huns to fight on his side. In 375/6, there was no massive horde of Huns hotly pursuing the fleeing Goths: rather, independent Hunnic warbands were pursuing a variety of strategies against a variety of opponents.

What was happening, then, was not that a force of Huns conquered the Goths in the sense we normally understand the word, but that some Goths decided to evacuate a world that was becoming ever more insecure. As late as 395, some twenty years later, the mass of Huns remained further east – much closer, in fact, to the northern exit of the Caucasus than to the mouth of the Danube. And it was other Gothic groups, in fact, not the Tervingi or Greuthungi, who continued to provide Rome with its main opposition on the Lower Danube frontier for a decade or more after 376. The Romans had to deal with a heavy assault on the same front launched by a second force of Greuthungi under one Odotheus in 386; and still more Goths – perhaps the leftover Tervingi who hadn’t followed Alavivus and Fritigern to the Danube – were operating somewhere in the Carpathian area at much the same time.

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