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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 Southward Migration

Struggles with the Swabians, Sarmatians, Scyri, and Huns--Death of
Walamir--Theudemir becomes king--Theodoric defeats Babai--The Teutonic
custom of the comitatus--An Ostrogothic Folc-mote--Theudemir invades the
Eastern Empire--Macedonian settlement of the Ostrogoths.

The young Theodoric, who was now in his nineteenth year, was sent back
by Leo to his father with large presents, and both the recovered son and
the tokens of Imperial favour brought joy to the heart of the father.
There had been some changes in the Ostrogothic kingdom during the boy's
absence. There had been vague and purposeless wars with the savage
nations around them,--Swabians, Sarmatians, Scyri--besides one final
encounter with their old lords, the Huns. These last, we are told, they
had driven forth so hopelessly beaten from their territory, that for a
century from that time all that was left of the Hunnish nation trembled
at the very name of the Goths. But in a battle with another people of
far less renown, the barbarous Scyri beyond the Danube, Walamir, while
cheering on his men to the combat, was thrown from his horse and being
pierced by the lances of the enemy was left dead on the field. His
death, it is said, was avenged most ruthlessly on the Scyri, and
Theudemir, the brother who was next him in age, became chief king of the

Scarcely had Theodoric returned to his home when, without communicating
his purpose to his father, he distinguished himself by a gallant deed of
arms. On the south-east of the Ostrogothic kingdom, in the country which
we now call Servia, there reigned at this time a Sclavonic chief called
Babai, who was full of pride and self-importance because of a victory
which he had lately gained over the forces of the Empire. Theodoric had
probably heard at Constantinople the other side of this story: on his
journey to the north-west he had passed through those regions, and
marked the pride of the insolent barbarian. Sympathy with the humiliated
Empire, but, far more, the young warrior's desire at once to find a
foeman worthy of his steel, and to win laurels for himself wherewith he
might surprise his father, drove him into his new enterprise. Having
collected some of his father's guardsmen, and those of his people with
whom he was personally popular, or who were dependent upon him, he thus
mustered a little army of six thousand men, with whom he crossed the
Danube.[26] Falling suddenly upon King Babai, he defeated and slew him,
took his family prisoners, and returned with large booty in slaves and
the rude wealth of the barbarian to his surprised but joyful father. The
result of this expedition was the capture of the important frontier city
of Singidunum (whose site is now occupied by Belgrade), a city which
Babai had wrested from the Empire, but which Theodoric, whatever may
have been his inclination to favour Constantinople, did not deem it
necessary to restore to his late host.

[Footnote 26: The words of Jordanes (which are important on account of
their bearing on the passage of Tacitus quoted below) are: Ascitis
certis ex satellitibus patris et ex populo amatores sibi clientesque
consocians paene sex mille viros cum quibus inscio patre emenso Danubio
super Babai Sarmatarum regem discurrit (Getica, lv.).]

This incident of the early manhood of Theodoric is a good illustration
of the Teutonic custom which Tacitus describes to us under the name of
the comitatus, a custom which was therefore at least four centuries
old (probably far older) in the days of Theodoric, and which, lasting on
for several centuries longer, undoubtedly influenced if it did not
actually create the chivalry of the Middle Ages. The custom was so
important that it will be better to translate the very words of Tacitus
concerning it, though they occur in one of the best-known passages of
the Germania.

The Germans transact no business either of a public or private nature
except with arms in their hands. But it is not the practice for any one
to begin the wearing of arms until the State has approved his ability to
wield them. When that is done, in the great Council of the nation one
of the chiefs, perhaps the father or some near relation of the
candidate, equips the youth with shield and spear. This is with them
like the toga virilis with us, the first dignity bestowed on the young
man. Before this he was looked upon as part of his father's
household--now he is a member of the State. Eminently noble birth, or
great merit on the part of their fathers, assigns the dignity of a
chief[27] even to very young men. They are admitted to the fellowship of
other youths stronger than themselves, and already tried in war, nor do
they blush to be seen among the henchmen.[28] There is a gradation in
rank among the henchmen, determined by the judgment of him whom they
follow, and there is a great emulation among the henchmen, who shall
have the highest place under the chief, and among the chiefs who shall
have the most numerous and the bravest henchmen. This is their dignity,
this their strength, to be ever surrounded by a band of chosen youths,
an honour in peace, a defence in battle. And not only in his own nation,
but among the surrounding states also, each chief's name and glory are
spread abroad according to the eminence of his 'train of henchmen'[29]
in number and valour. Chiefs thus distinguished are in request for
embassies, are enriched with costly presents, and often they decide a
war by the mere terror of their name.

When they stand on the battle-field, it is held a disgraceful thing for
the chief to be surpassed in bravery by his henchmen, for the henchmen
not to equal the valour of their chief. Now too it will mark a man as
infamous, and a target for the scorn of men for all the rest of his
life, if he escapes alive from the battle-field where his chief needed
his help. To defend him, the chief; to guard his person; to reckon
up one's own brave deeds as enhancing his glory: this is the
henchman's one great oath of fealty.[30] The chiefs fight for victory,
the henchmen for their chief. If the state in which they are born should
be growing sluggish through ease and a long peace, most of the noble
young men seek of their own accord those nations which are then waging
war, both because a quiet life is hateful to this people, and because
they can more easily distinguish themselves in perilous times, nor can
they keep together a great train of henchmen, except by war and the
strong hand. For it is from the generosity of their chief that each
henchman expects that mighty war-horse which he would bestride, that
gory and victorious spear, which he would brandish. Banquets, too, and
all the rough but plentiful appliances of the feast are taken as part of
the henchman's pay; and the means of supplying all this prodigality must
be sought by war and rapine. You would not so easily persuade them to
plough the fields and wait in patience for a year's harvest, as to
challenge an enemy and earn honourable wounds; since to them it seems
always a slow and lazy process to accumulate by the sweat of your brow
what you might win at once by the shedding of blood.

These words of Tacitus, written in the year 98 after Christ, describe
with wonderful exactness the state of Ostrogothic society in the year
472. We are not expressly told of Theodoric's assumption of the shield
and spear in the great Council of the nation, but probably this ceremony
immediately followed his return from Constantinople. Then we see the
gathering together of the band of henchmen, the sudden march away from
the peaceful land, growing torpid through two or three years of
warlessness, the surprise of the Sclavonic king, the copious effusion of
blood which was the preferred alternative to the sweat of the
land-tiller, the return to the young chief's own land with spoils
sufficient to support perhaps for many months the generosity expected
by the henchmen.

There is one point, however, in which the description of the Germans
given by Tacitus is probably not altogether applicable to the Goths of
the fifth century: and that is, their invincible preference for the life
of the warrior over that of the agriculturist. There are some
indications that the Germans, when Tacitus wrote, had not long exchanged
the nomadic life of a nation of shepherds and herdsmen (such as was led
by the earlier generations of the Israelitish people) for the settled
life which alone is consistent with the pursuits of the tiller of the
soil. Hence the roving instinct was still strong within them, and this
roving instinct easily allied itself with the thirst for battle and the
love of the easy gains of the freebooter. Four centuries, however, of
agriculture and of neighbourhood to the great civilised stable Empire of
Rome had apparently wrought some change in the Goths and in many of the
other Teutonic nations. The work of agriculture was now not altogether
odious in their eyes; they knew something of the joys of the husbandman
as well as of the joys of the warrior; they began to feel something of
that land-hunger which is the passion of a young, growing, industrious
people. Still, however, the songs of the minstrels, the sagas of the
bards, the fiery impulses of the young princeps surrounded by his
comitatus pointed to war as the only occupation worthy of freemen.
Hence we can perceive a double current in the ambitions of these nations
which often perplexes the historian now, as it evidently then perplexed
their mighty neighbour, the Roman Augustus, and the generals and lawyers
who counselled him in his consistory. Sometimes the Teutonic king is
roused by some real or imagined insult; the minstrels sing their
battle-songs; the fiery henchmen gather round their chief; the barbarian
tide rolls over the frontier of the Empire: it seems as if it must be a
duel to the death between civilisation and its implacable foes. Then

he sinks
To ashes who was very fire before.

Food, not glory, seems to be the supreme object of the Teuton's
ambition. He begs for land, for seed to sow in it, for a legal
settlement within the limits of the Empire. If only these necessary
things are granted to him, he promises, and not without intending to
keep his promise, to be a peaceable subject, yes and a staunch defender,
of the Roman Augustus. Had the Imperial statesmen truly understood this
strange duality of purpose in the minds of their barbarian visitors, and
had they set themselves loyally and patiently to foster the peaceful
agricultural instincts of the Teuton, haply the Roman Empire might still
be standing. As it was, the statesmen of the day, men of temporary
shifts and expedients, living only as we say from hand to mouth, saw,
in the changing moods of the Germans, only the faithlessness of
barbarism, which they met with the faithlessness of civilisation, and
between the two the Empire--which no one really wished to destroy--was

Even such a change it was which now came over the minds of the
Ostrogothic people. There was dearth in Pannonia, partly, perhaps, the
consequence of the frequent wars with the surrounding nations which had
occurred during the twenty years of the Ostrogothic settlement. But even
the cessation of those wars brought with it a loss of income to the
warrior class. As the Gothic historian expresses it: From the
diminution of the spoils of the neighbouring nations the Goths began to
lack food and clothing, and to those men to whom war had long furnished
all their sustenance peace began to be odious, and all the Goths with
loud shouts approached their king Theudemir praying him to lead his
army whither he would, but to lead it forth to war.

Here again it can hardly be doubted that Jordanes, writing about the
fifth century, describes for us the same state of things as Tacitus
writing about the first, and that this loudly shouted demand of the
people for war was expressed in one of those national assemblies--the
Folc-motes or Folc-things of Anglo-Saxon and German history--which
formed such a real limitation to the power of the early Teutonic kings.
Concerning smaller matters, says Tacitus,[31] the chiefs deliberate;
concerning greater matters, the whole nation; but in such wise that even
those things which are in the power of the commonalty are discussed in
detail by the chiefs. They come together, unless any sudden and
accidental emergency have arisen, on fixed days determined by the new or
full moon; for these times they deem the most fortunate for the
transaction of business. An ill consequence flowing from their freedom
is their want of punctuality in assembling; often two or three days are
spent in waiting for the loiterers. When the crowd chooses, they sit
down, arrayed in their armour (and commence business). Silence is called
for by the priests, who have then the power even of keeping order by
force. Then the king or one of the chiefs begins to speak, and is
listened to in right either of his age, or his noble birth, or his glory
in the wars, or his eloquence. In any case, he rather persuades than
commands; not power, but weight of character procures the assent of his

If they mislike his sentiments they express their contempt for them by
groans, if they approve, they clash their spears together. Applause thus
expressed by arms is the greatest tribute that can be paid to a

Before such an assembly of the nation in arms, the question, not of
Peace or War? but of War with whom? was debated. It was decided that the
Empire should be the victim, and that East and West alike should feel
the heavy hand of the Ostrogoths. The lot was cast (so said the national
legend),[32] and it assigned to Theudemir the harder but, as it seemed,
more profitable task of warring against Constantinople, while his
younger brother Widemir was to attack Rome.

Of Widemir's movements there is little to tell. He died in Italy, not
having apparently achieved any brilliant exploits, and his son and
namesake was easily persuaded to turn aside into Gaul, where he joined
his forces to those of the kindred Visigoths, and became absorbed in
their flourishing kingdom. This branch of Amal royalty henceforward
bears no fruit in history.

More important, at any rate in its ultimate consequences, was the march
of Theudemir and his people into the dominions of the Eastern Caesar.
They crossed the Save, and by their warlike array terrified into
acquiescence the Sclavonic tribes which were settled in the
neighbourhood of Belgrade.

Having pushed up the valley of the Morava, they captured the important
city of Naissus (now Nisch), the first city of Illyricum. Here
Theudemir tarried for a space, sending on his son with a large and eager
comitatus farther up the valley of the Morava. They reached the head
of that valley, they crossed the watershed and the plain of Kossova, and
descended the valley of the Vardar. Monastir in Macedonia, Larissa in
Thessaly were taken and sacked; and a way having thus been made by these
bold invaders into the heart of the Empire, a message was sent to
Theudemir, inviting him to undertake the siege of Thessalonica. Leaving
a few guards in Naissus, the old king moved southward with the bulk of
his army, and was soon standing with his men before the walls of the
Macedonian capital. The Patrician Hilarianus held that city with a
strong force, but when he saw it regularly invested by the Goths and an
earthen rampart drawn all round it, he lost heart, and, despairing of a
successful resistance, opened negotiations with the besiegers. The
result of these negotiations (accompanied by handsome presents to the
king) was that Theudemir abandoned the siege, resumed the often adopted,
perhaps never wholly abandoned, position of a foederatus or sworn
auxiliary of the Empire, and received for himself and his people the
unquestioned possession of six towns[33] and the surrounding country by
the north-east corner of the AEgean, where the Vardar discharges itself
into the Thermaic Gulf.

Thus ingloriously, thus unprofitably ended the expedition into Romania,
which had been proposed amid such enthusiastic applause at the great
Council of the nation, and pressed with such loud acclamations and such
brandishing of defiant spears upon the perhaps reluctant Theudemir. The
Ostrogoths in 472 were an independent people, practically supreme in
Pannonia. Those broad lands on the south and west of the Danube, rich in
corn and wine, the very kernel of the Austrian monarchy of to-day, were
theirs in absolute possession. Any tie of nominal dependence which
attached Pannonia to the Empire was so merely theoretical, now that the
Hun had ruled and ravaged it for a good part of a century, that it was
not worth taking into consideration; it was in fact rather an excuse for
claiming stipendia from the Emperor than a bond of real vassalage. But
now in 474 this great and proud nation, crowded into a few cities of
Macedonia, with obedient subjects of the Empire all round them, had
practically no choice between the life of peaceful provincials on the
one hand and that of freebooters on the other. If they accepted the
first, they would lose year by year something of their old national
character. The Teutonic speech, the Teutonic customs would gradually
disappear, and in one or two generations they would be scarcely
distinguishable from any of the other oppressed, patient, tax-exhausted
populations of the great and weary Empire. On the other hand, if they
accepted (which in fact they seem to have done) the other alternative,
and became a mere horde of plunderers wandering up and down through the
Empire, seeking what they might destroy, they abandoned the hope of
forming a settled and stable monarchy, and, doing injustice to the high
qualities and capacities for civilisation which were in them, they would
sink lower into the depths of barbarism, and becoming like the Hun, like
the Hun they would one day perish. Certainly, so far, the tumultuous
decision of the Parliament on the shores of Lake Pelso was a false step
in the nation's history.

Next: Storm And Stress

Previous: Theodoric's Boyhood

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