Barbarian Invasion on the Danube

By MSW Add a Comment 28 Min Read
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

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.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply Cancel reply

Exit mobile version