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Heodoric's Tomb
Italy Under Odovacar
Roman Officials--cassiodorus
Rome And Ravenna
Storm And Stress
The Arian League
The Conquest Of Italy
The Might Of Attila
The Southward Migration
The Theodoric Of Saga
Theodoric's Ancestors
Theodoric's Boyhood

The Might Of Attila

The Ostrogoths under the Huns--The three royal brothers--Attila king of
the Huns--He menaces the Eastern Empire--He strikes at Gaul--Battle of
the Catalaunian plains--Invasion of Italy--Destruction of
Aquileia--Death of Attila and disruption of his Empire--Settlement of
the Ostrogoths in Pannonia.

For eighty years the power of the Ostrogoths suffered eclipse under the
shadow of Hunnish barbarism. As to this period we have little historical
information that is of any value. We hear of resistance to the Hunnish
supremacy vainly attempted and sullenly abandoned. The son and the
grandson of Hermanric figure as the shadowy heroes of this vain
resistance. After the death of the latter (King Thorismund) a strange
story is told us of the nation mourning his decease for forty years,
during all which time they refused to elect any other king to replace
him whom they had lost. There can be little doubt that this legend veils
the prosaic fact that the nation, depressed and dispirited under the
yoke of the conquering Huns, had not energy or patriotism enough to
choose a king; since almost invariably among the Teutons of that age,
kingship and national unity flourished or faded together.

At length, towards the middle of the fifth century after Christ, the
darkness is partially dispelled, and we find the Ostrogothic nation
owning the sovereignty of three brothers sprung from the Amal race, but
not direct descendants of Hermanric, whose names are Walamir, Theudemir,
and Widemir. Beautiful it was, says the Gothic historian, to behold
the mutual affection of these three brothers, when the admirable
Theudemir served like a common soldier under the orders of Walamir; when
Walamir adorned him with the crown at the same time that he conveyed to
him his orders; when Widemir gladly rendered his services to both of his
brothers.[9] Theudemir, the second in this royal brotherhood, was the
father of our hero, Theodoric.

The three Ostrogothic brethren, kings towards their own countrymen, were
subjects--almost, we might say, servants--of the wide-ruling king of the
Huns, who was now no longer one of those forgotten chiefs by whom the
conquering tribe had been first led into Europe, but ATTILA, a name of
fear to his contemporaries and long remembered in the Roman world. He,
with his brother Bleda, mounted the barbarian throne in the year 433,
and after twelve years the death of Bleda (who was perhaps murdered by
order of his brother) left Attila sole wielder of the forces which made
him the terror of the world. He dwelt in rude magnificence in a village
not far from the Danube, and his own special dominions seem to have
pretty nearly corresponded with the modern kingdom of Hungary. But he
held in leash a vast confederacy of nations--Teutonic, Sclavonic, and
what we now call Turanian,--whose territories stretched from the Rhine
to the Caucasus, and he is said to have made the isles of the Ocean,
which expression probably denotes the islands and peninsulas of
Scandinavia, subject to his sway. Neither, however, over the Ostrogoths
nor over any of the other subject nations included in this vast dominion
are we to think of Attila's rule as an organised, all-permeating,
assimilating influence, such as was the rule of a Roman Emperor. It was
rather the influence of one great robber-chief over his freebooting
companions. The kings of the Ostrogoths and Gepidae came at certain times
to share the revelries of their lord in his great log-palace on the
Danubian plain; they received his orders to put their subjects in array
when he would ride forth to war, and woe was unto them if they failed to
stand by his side on the day of battle; but these things being done,
they probably ruled their own peoples with little interference from
their over-lord. The Teutonic members of the confederacy, notably the
Ostrogoths and the kindred tribe of Gepidae seem to have exercised upon
the court and the councils of Attila an influence not unlike that
wielded by German statesmen at the court of Russia during the last
century. The Huns, during their eighty years of contact with Europe, had
lost a little of that utter savageness which they brought with them from
the Tartar deserts. If they were not yet in any sense civilised, they
could in some degree appreciate the higher civilisation of their
Teutonic subjects. A Pagan himself, with scarcely any religion except
some rude cult of the sword of the war-god, Attila seems never to have
interfered in the slightest degree with the religious practices of the
Gepidae or the Ostrogoths, the large majority of whom were by this time
Christians, holding the Arian form of faith. And not only did he not
discourage the finer civilisation which he saw prevailing among these
German subjects of his, but he seems to have had statesmanship enough to
value and respect a culture which he did not share, and especially to
have prized the temperate wisdom of their chiefs, when they helped him
to array his great host of barbarians for war against the Empire.

From his position in Central Europe, Attila, like Alaric before him, was
able to threaten either the Eastern or the Western Empire at pleasure.
For almost ten years (440-450) he seemed to be bent on picking a quarrel
with Theodosius II., the feeble and unwarlike prince who reigned at
Constantinople. He laid waste the provinces south of the Danube with his
desolating raids; he worried the Imperial Court with incessant
embassies, each more exacting and greedy than the last (for the favour
of the rude Hunnish envoy had to be purchased by large gifts from the
Imperial Treasury); he himself insisted on the payment of yearly
stipendia by the Emperor; he constantly demanded that these payments
should be doubled; he openly stated that they were nothing else than
tribute, and that the Roman Augustus who paid them was his slave.

These practices were continued until, in the year 450 the gentle
Theodosius died. He was succeeded by his sister Pulcheria and her
husband Marcian, who soon gave a manlier tone to the counsels of the
Eastern Empire. Attila marked the change and turned his harassing
attentions to the Western State, with which he had always a sufficient
number of pretexts for war ready for use. In fact he had made up his
mind for war, and no concessions, however humiliating, on the part of
Valentinian III., the then Emperor of the West, would have availed to
stay his progress. Not Italy however, to some extent protected by the
barrier of the Alps, but the rich cities and comparatively unwasted
plains of Gaul attracted the royal freebooter. Having summoned his vast
and heterogeneous army from every quarter of Central and North-eastern
Europe, and surrounded himself by a crowd of subject kings, the captains
of his host, he set forward in the spring of 451 for the lands of the
Rhine. The trees which his soldiers felled in the great Hercynian forest
of Central Germany were fashioned into rude rafts or canoes, on which
they crossed the Rhine; and soon the terrible Hun and his horde of
many-nationed spoilers were passing over the regions which we now call
Belgium and Lorraine in a desolating stream. The Huns, not only
barbarians, but heathens, seem in this invasion to have been animated by
an especial hatred to Christianity. Many a fair church of Gallia Belgica
was laid in ashes: many a priest was slain before the altar, whose
sanctity was vain for his protection. The real cruelties thus committed
are wildly exaggerated by the mythical fancy of the Middle Ages, and
upon the slenderest foundations of historical fact arose stately
edifices of fable, like the story of the Cornish Princess Ursula, who
with her eleven thousand virgin companions was fabled to have suffered
death at the hands of the Huns in the city of Cologne.

The barbarian tide was at length arrested by the strong walls of
Orleans, whose stubborn defence saved all that part of Gaul which lies
within the protecting curve of the Loire from the horrors of their
invasion. At midsummer Attila and his host were retiring from the
untaken city, and beginning their retreat towards the Rhine, a retreat
which they were not to accomplish unhindered. The extremity of the
danger from these utterly savage foes had welded together the old Empire
and the new Gothic kingdom, the civilised and the half-civilised power,
in one great confederacy, for the defence of all that was worth saving
in human society. The tidings of the approach of the Gothic king had
hastened the departure of Attila from the environs of Orleans, and,
perhaps about a fortnight later, the allied armies of Romans and Goths
came up with the retreating Huns in the Catalaunian plains not far
from the city of Troyes. The general of the Imperial army was Aetius;
the general and king of the Visigoths was Theodoric, a namesake of our
hero. Both were capable and valiant soldiers. On the other side,
conspicuous among the subject kings who formed the staff of Attila, were
the three Ostrogothic brethren, and Ardaric, king of the Gepidae. The
loyalty of Walamir, the firm grasp with which he kept his master's
secrets, and Ardaric's resourcefulness in counsel were especially prized
by Attila. And truly he had need of all their help, for, though it is
difficult to ascertain with any degree of accuracy the numbers actually
engaged (162,000 are said to have fallen on both sides), it is clear
that this was a collision of nations rather than of armies, and that it
required greater skill than any that the rude Hunnish leader possessed,
to win the victory for his enormous host. After a battle ruthless,
manifold, gigantic, obstinate, such as antiquity never described when
she told of warlike deeds, such as no man who missed the sight of that
marvel might ever hope to have another chance of beholding,[10] night
fell upon the virtually defeated Huns. The Gothic king had lost his
life, but Attila had lost the victory. All night long the Huns kept up a
barbarous dissonance to prevent the enemy from attacking them, but their
king's thoughts were of suicide. He had prepared a huge funeral pyre, on
which, if the enemy next day successfully attacked his camp, he was
determined to slay himself amid the kindled flames, in order that
neither living nor dead the mighty Attila might fall into the hands of
his enemies. These desperate expedients, however, were not required. The
death of Theodoric, the caution of Aetius, some jealousy perhaps between
the Roman and the Goth, some anxiety on the part of the eldest Gothic
prince as to the succession to his father's throne,--all these causes
combined to procure for Attila a safe but closely watched return into
his own land.

The battle of the Catalaunian plains (usually but not quite correctly
called the battle of Chalons) was a memorable event in the history of
the Gothic race, of Europe, and of the world. It was a sad necessity
which on this one occasion arrayed the two great branches of the Gothic
people, the Visigoths under Theodoric, and the Ostrogoths under Walamir,
in fratricidal strife against each other. For Europe the alliance
between Roman and Goth, between the grandson of Theodosius, Emperor of
Rome, and the successor of Alaric, the besieger of Rome, was of
priceless value and showed that the great and statesmanlike thought of
Ataulfus was ripening in the minds of those who came after him. For the
world, yes even for us in the nineteenth century, and for the great
undiscovered continents beyond the sea, the repulse of the squalid and
unprogressive Turanian from the seats of the old historic civilisation,
was essential to the preservation of whatever makes human life worth
living. Had Attila conquered on the Catalaunian plains, an endless
succession of Jenghiz Khans and Tamerlanes would probably have swept
over the desolated plains of Europe; Paris and Florence would have been
even as Khiva and Bokhara, and the island of Britain would not have yet
attained to the degree of civilisation reached by the peninsula of

In the year after the fruitless invasion of Gaul, Attila crossed the
Julian Alps and entered Italy, intending (452) doubtless to rival the
fame of Alaric by his capture of Rome, an operation which would have
been attended with infinitely greater ruin to

the seven-hilled city's pride,

than any which she had sustained at the hands of the Visigothic leader.
But the Huns, unskilful in siege work, were long detained before the
walls of Aquileia, that great and flourishing frontier city, hitherto
deemed impregnable, which gathered in the wealth of the Venetian
province, and guarded the north-eastern approaches to Italy. At length
by a sudden assault they made themselves masters of the city, which they
destroyed with utter destruction, putting all the inhabitants to the
sword, and then wrapping in fire and smoke the stately palaces, the
wharves, the mint, the forum, the theatres of the fourth city of Italy.
The terror of this brutal destruction took from the other cities of
Venetia all heart for resistance to the terrible invader. From
Concordia, Altino, Padua, crowds of trembling fugitives walked, waded,
or sailed with their hastily gathered and most precious possessions to
the islands, surrounded by shallow lagoons, which fringed the Adriatic
coast, near the mouths of the Brenta and Adige. There at Torcello,
Burano, Rialto, Malamocco, and their sister islets, they laid the humble
foundations of that which was one day to be the gorgeous and
wide-ruling Republic of Venice.

Attila meanwhile marched on through the valley of the Po ravaging and
plundering, but a little slackening in the work of mere destruction, as
the remembrance of the stubborn defence of Aquileia faded from his
memory. Entering Milan as a conqueror, and seeing there a picture
representing the Emperors of the Romans sitting on golden thrones, and
the Scythian barbarians crouching at their feet, he sought out a
Milanese painter, and bade the trembling artist represent him, Attila,
sitting on the throne, and the two Roman Emperors staggering under sacks
full of gold coin, which they bore upon their shoulders, and pouring out
their precious contents at his feet.

This little incident helps us to understand the next strange act in the
drama of Attila's invasion. To enjoy the luxury of humbling the great
Empire, and of trampling on the pride of her statesmen, seems to have
been the sweetest pleasure of his life. This mere gratification of his
pride, the pride of an upstart barbarian, at the expense of the
inheritors of a mighty name and the representatives of venerable
traditions, was the object which took him into Italy, rather than any
carefully prepared scheme of worldwide conquest. Accordingly when that
august body, the Senate of Rome, sent a consul, a prefect, and more than
all a pope, the majestic and fitly-named Leo, to plead humbly in the
name of the Roman people for peace, and to promise acquiescence at some
future day in the most unreasonable of his demands, Attila granted the
ambassadors an interview by the banks of the Mincio, listened with
haughty tranquillity to their petition, allowed himself to be soothed
and, as it were, magnetised by the words and gestures of the venerable
pontiff, accepted the rich presents which were doubtless laid at his
feet, and turning his face homewards recrossed the Julian Alps, leaving
the Apennines untraversed and Rome unvisited.

Even in the act of granting peace Attila used words which showed that it
would be only a truce, and that (452) if there were any failure to abide
by any one of his conditions, he would return and work yet greater
mischief to Italy than any which she had yet suffered at his hands. But
he had missed the fateful moment, and the delight of standing on the
conquered Palatine, and seeing the smoke ascend from the ruined City of
the World, was never to be his. In the year after his invasion of Italy
he died suddenly at night, apparently the victim of the drunken debauch
with which the polygamous barbarian had celebrated the latest addition
to the numerous company of his wives.

With Attila's death the might of the Hunnish Empire was broken. The
great robber-camp needed the ascendancy of one strong chief-robber to
hold it together, and that ascendancy no one of the multitudinous sons
who emerged from the chambers of his harem was able to exert. Unable to
agree as to the succession of the throne, they talked of dividing the
Hunnish dominions between them, and in the discussions which ensued they
showed too plainly that they looked upon the subject nations as their
slaves, to be partitioned as a large household of such domestics would
be partitioned among the heirs of their dead master. The pride of the
Teutons was touched, and they determined to strike a blow for the
recovery of their lost freedom. Ardaric, king of the Gepidae, so long the
trusty counsellor of Attila, was prime mover in the revolt against his
sons. A battle was fought by the banks of the river Nedao[11] between
the Huns (with those subject allies who still remained faithful to them)
and the revolted nations.

[Footnote 11: Situation unknown, except that it was in Pannonia, that
is, probably in Hungary, somewhere between the Save and the Danube.]

Among these revolted nations there can be but little doubt that the
Ostrogoths held a high place, though the matter is not so clearly stated
as we should have expected, by the Gothic historian, and even on his
showing the glory of the struggle for independence was mainly Ardaric's.
After a terrible battle the Gepidae were victorious, and Ellak, eldest
son of Attila, with, it is said, thirty thousand of his soldiers, lay
dead upon the field. He had wrought a great slaughter of his enemies,
and so glorious was his end, says Jordanes, that his father might well
have envied him his manner of dying.

The battle of Nedao, whatever may have been the share of the Ostrogoths
in the actual fighting, certainly brought them freedom. From this time
the great Hunnish Empire was at an end, and there was a general
resettlement of territory among the nations which had been subject to
its yoke. While the Huns themselves, abandoning their former
habitations, moved, for the most part, down the Danube, and became the
humble servants of the Eastern Empire, the Gepidae, perhaps marching
southward occupied the great Hungarian plains on the left bank of the
Danube, which had been the home of Attila and his Huns; and the
Ostrogoths going westwards (perhaps with some dim notion of following
their Visigothic kindred) took up their abode in that which had once
been the Roman province of Pannonia, now doubtless known to be
hopelessly lost to the Empire.

Pannonia, the new home of the Ostrogoths, was the name of a region,
rectangular in shape, about two hundred miles from north to south and
one hundred and sixty miles from east to west, whose northern and
eastern sides were washed by the river Danube, and whose north-eastern
corner was formed by the sudden bend to the south which that river
makes, a little above Buda-Pest. This region includes Vienna and the
eastern part of the Archduchy of Austria, Graetz, and the eastern part of
the Duchy of Styria, but it is chiefly composed of the great
corn-growing plain of Western Hungary, and contains the two considerable
lakes of Balaton and Neusiedler See. Here then the three Ostrogothic
brethren took up their abode, and of this province they made a kind of
rude partition between them, while still treating it as one kingdom, of
which Walamir was the head. The precise details of this division of
territory cannot now be recovered,[12] nor are they of much importance,
as the settlement was of short duration. We can only say that Walamir
and Theudemir occupied the two ends of the territory, and Widemir dwelt
between them. What is most interesting to us is the fact that
Theudemir's territory included Lake Balaton (or Platten See), and that
his palace may very possibly have stood upon the shores of that noble
piece of water, which is forty-seven miles in length and varies from
three to nine miles in width. To the neighbourhood of this lake, in the
absence of more precise information, we may with some probability assign
the birth-place and the childish home of Theodoric.[13]

Next: Theodoric's Boyhood

Previous: Theodoric's Ancestors

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