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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

Theodoric's Ancestors

Ostrogoths and Visigoths--Nations forming the Gothic Confederacy--Royal
family of the Amals--Gothic invasion in the Second Century--Hermanric
the Ostrogoth--Inroad of the Huns--Defeat of the Ostrogoths--Defeat of
the Visigoths--The Visigoths within the Empire--Battle of
Adrianople--Alaric in Rome.

Towards the end of the second century of the Christian Era a great
confederacy of Teutonic nations occupied those vast plains in the south
of Russia which are now, and have been for more than a thousand years,
the homes of Sclavonic peoples. These nations were the Ostrogoths, the
Visigoths, and the Gepidae. Approximately we may say that the Ostrogoths
(or East Goths) dwelt from the Don to the Dnieper, the Visigoths (or
West Goths) from the Dnieper to the Pruth, and the Gepidae to the north
of both, in the district which has since been known as Little Russia.
These three nations were, as has been said, Teutons, and they belonged
to that division of the Teutonic race which is called Low-German, man;
that is to say, that they were more nearly allied to the Frisians, the
Dutch, and to our own Saxon forefathers than they were to the ancestors
of the modern Swabian, Bavarian, and Austrian. They worshipped Odin and
Thunnor; they wrote the scanty records of their race in Runic
characters; they were probably chiefly a pastoral folk, but may have
begun to practise agriculture in the rich cornlands of the Ukraine. They
were essentially a monarchic people, following their kings, whom they
believed to be sprung from the seed of gods, loyally to the field, and
shedding their blood with readiness at their command; but their monarchy
was of the early Teutonic type, always more or less limited by the
deliberations of the great armed assembly of the nation, which (in some
tribes at least) was called the Folc-mote or the Folc-thing; and there
were no strict rules of hereditary succession, the crown being elective
but limited in practice to the members of one ruling and
heaven-descended family.

This family, sprung from the seed of gods, but ruling by the popular
will over the Ostrogothic people, was known as the family of the Amals.
It is true that the divine and exclusive prerogatives of the family have
been somewhat magnified by the minstrels who sang in the courts of their
descendants, for there are manifest traces of kings ruling over the
Ostrogothic people, who are not included in the Amal genealogy. Still,
as far as we can peer through the obscurity of the early history of the
people, we may safely say that there was no other family of higher
position than the Amals, and that gradually all that consciousness of
national life and determination to cherish national unity, which among
the Germanic peoples was inseparably connected with the institution of
royalty, centred round the race of the divine Amala.

The following is the pedigree of this royal clan, as given by the
historian of the Goths,[5] and with those epithets which the secretary
of Theodoric[6] attached to the names of some of the ancestors of his
lord. (The names of those who wore the crown are marked in italics.)

Gapt (possibly=Gaut, the eponymous
hero of the Gothic nation)


Amal (the fortunate)

Hisarna (=the man of iron)

OSTROGOTHA (the patient)


Athal (the mild)

Achiulf Odwulf

Ansila Ediulf Vultwulf Hermanric

Walaravans Hunimund
(the beautiful)

Winithar (the just) Thorismund
(the chaste)


Walamir Theudemir Widemir
(the faithful) (the affectionate)


These fifteen generations, which should carry back the Amal ancestry
four hundred and fifty years, or almost precisely to the Christian Era,
seem to have marked the utmost limit to which the memory of the Gothic
heralds, aided by the songs of the Gothic minstrels, could reach. The
forms of many of the names, the initial Wala and Theude, the
terminal wulf, mir, and mund will be at once recognised as purely
Teutonic, recalling many similar names in the royal lines of the Franks,
the Visigoths and the Vandals, and the West Saxons.

In the great, loosely knit confederacy which has been described as
filling the regions of Southern Russia in the third and fourth centuries
of our Era, the predominant power seems to have been held by the
Ostrogothic nation. In the third century, when a succession of weak
ephemeral emperors ruled and all but ruined the Roman State, the Goths
swarmed forth in their myriads, both by sea and land, to ravage the
coast of the Euxine and the AEgean, to cross the passes of the Balkans,
to make their desolating presence felt at Ephesus and at Athens. Two
great Emperors of Illyrian origin, Claudius and Aurelian, succeeded, at
a fearful cost of life, in repelling the invasion and driving back the
human torrent. But it was impossible to recover from the barbarians
Trajan's province of Dacia, which they had overrun, and the Emperors
wisely compromised the dispute by abandoning to the Goths and their
allies all the territory north of the Danube. This abandoned province
was chiefly occupied by the Visigoths, the Western members of the
confederacy, who for the century from 275 to 375 were the neighbours,
generally the allies, by fitful impulses the enemies, of Rome. With
Constantine the Great especially the Visigoths came powerfully in
contact, first as invaders and then as allies (foederati) bound to
furnish a certain number of auxiliaries to serve under the eagles of the

Meanwhile the Ostrogoths, with their faces turned for the time northward
instead of southward, were battling daily with the nations of Finnish or
Sclavonic stock that dwelt by the upper waters of the Dnieper, the Don,
and the Volga, and were extending their dominion over the greater part
of what we now call Russia-in-Europe. The lord of this wide but most
loosely compacted kingdom, in the middle of the fourth century, was a
certain Hermanric, whom his flatterers, with some slight knowledge of
the names held in highest repute among their Southern neighbours,
likened to Alexander the Great for the magnitude of his conquests.
However shadowy some of these conquests may appear in the light of
modern criticism, there can be little doubt that the Visigoths owned his
over-lordship, and that when Constantius and Julian were reigning in
Constantinople, the greatest name over a wide extent of territory north
of the Black Sea was that of Hermanric the Ostrogoth.

When this warrior was in extreme old age, a terrible disaster befell his
nation and himself. It was probably about the year 374 that a horde of
Asiatic savages made their appearance in the south-eastern corner of his
dominions, having, so it is said, crossed the Sea of Azof in its
shallowest part by a ford. These men rode upon little ponies of great
speed and endurance, each of which seemed to be incorporated with its
rider, so perfect was the understanding between the horseman, who spent
his days and nights in the saddle, and the steed which he bestrode.
Little black restless eyes gleamed beneath their low foreheads and
matted hair; no beard or whisker adorned their uncouth yellow faces; the
Turanian type in its ugliest form was displayed by these Mongolian sons
of the wilderness. They bore a name destined to be of disastrous and yet
also indirectly of most beneficent import in the history of the world;
for these are the true shatterers of the Roman Empire. They were the
terrible Huns.

Before the impact of this new and strange enemy the Empire of
Hermanric--an Empire which rested probably rather on the reputation of
warlike prowess than on any great inherent strength, military or
political--went down with a terrible crash. Dissimilar as are the times
and the circumstances, we are reminded of the collapse of the military
systems of Austria and Prussia under the onset of the ragged Jacobins of
France, shivering and shoeless, but full of demonic energy, when we read
of the humiliating discomfiture of this stately Ostrogothic
monarchy--doubtless possessing an ordered hierarchy of nobles, free
warriors, and slaves--by the squalid, hard-faring and, so to say,
democratic savages from Asia.

The death of Hermanric, which was evidently due to the Hunnish victory,
is assigned by the Gothic historian to a cause less humiliating to the
national vanity. The king of the Rosomones, a perfidious nation, had
taken the opportunity of the appearance of the savage invaders to
renounce his allegiance, perhaps to desert his master treacherously on
the field of battle. The enraged Hermanric, unable to vent his fury on
the king himself, caused his wife, Swanhilda, to be torn asunder by wild
horses to whom she was tied by the hands and feet. Her brothers, Sarus
and Ammius, avenged her cruel death by a spear-thrust, which wounded the
aged monarch, but did not kill him outright. Then came the crisis of the
invasion of the Huns under their King Balamber. The Visigoths, who had
some cause of complaint against Hermanric, left him to fight his battle
without their aid; and the old king, in sore pain with his wound and
deeply mortified by the incursion of the Huns, breathed out his life in
the one hundred and tenth year of his age. All of which is probably a
judicious veiling of the fact,[7] that the great Hermanric was defeated
by the Hunnish invaders, and in his despair laid violent hands on

The huge and savage horde rolled on over the wide plains of Russia. The
Ostrogothic resistance was at an end; and soon the invaders were on the
banks of the Dniester threatening the kindred nation of the Visigoths.
Athanaric, Judge (as he was called) of the Visigoths, a brave, old
soldier, but not a very skilful general, was soon out-manoeuvred by these
wild nomads from the desert, who crossed the rivers by unexpected fords,
and by rapid night-marches turned the flank of his most carefully
chosen positions. The line of the Dniester was abandoned; the line of
the Pruth was lost. It was plain that the Visigoths, like their Eastern
brethren, if they remained in the land, must bow their heads beneath the
Hunnish yoke. To avoid so degrading a necessity, and if they must lose
their independence, to lose it to the stately Emperors of Rome rather
than to the chief of a filthy Tartar horde, the great majority of the
Visigothic nation flocked southward through the region which is now
called Wallachia, and, standing on the northern shore of the Danube,
prayed for admission within the province of Moesia and the Empire of
Rome. In 376 an evil hour for himself Valens, the then reigning Emperor
of the East, granted this petition and received into his dominions the
Visigothic fugitives, a great and warlike nation, without taking any
proper precautions, on the one hand, that they should be disarmed, on
the other, that they should be supplied with food for their present
necessities and enabled for the future to become peaceful cultivators of
the soil. The inevitable result followed. Before many months had elapsed
the Visigoths were in arms against the Empire, and under the leadership
of their hereditary chiefs were wandering up and down through the
provinces of Moesia and Thrace, wresting from the terror-stricken
provincials not only the food which the parsimony of Valens had failed
to supply them with, but the treasures which centuries of peace had
stored up in villa and unwalled town. In 378 they achieved a brilliant,
and perhaps unexpected, triumph, defeating a large army commanded by
the Roman Emperor Valens in person, in a pitched battle near Adrianople.
Valens himself perished on the field of battle, and his unburied corpse
disappeared among the embers of a Thracian hut which had been set fire
to by the barbarians. That fatal day (August 9, 378) was admitted to be
more disastrous for Rome than any which had befallen her since the
terrible defeat of Cannae, and from it we may fitly date the beginning of
that long process of dissolution, lasting, in a certain sense, more than
a thousand years, which we call the Fall of the Roman Empire.

In this long tragedy the part of chief actor fell, during the first act,
to the Visigothic nation. With their doings we have here no special
concern. It is enough to say that for one generation they remained in
the lands south of the Danube, first warring against Rome, then, by the
wise policy of their conqueror, Theodosius, incorporated in her armies
under the title of foederati and serving her in the main with zeal and
fidelity. In 395[8] a Visigothic chief, Alaric by name, of the
god-descended seed of Balthae, was raised upon the shield by the warriors
of his tribe and hailed as their king. His elevation seems to have been
understood as a defiance to the Empire and a re-assertion of the old
national freedom which had prevailed on the other side of the Danube. At
any rate the rest of his life was spent either in hostility to the
Empire or in a pretence of friendship almost more menacing than
hostility. He began by invading Greece and penetrated far south into
the Peloponnesus. He then took up a position in the province of
Illyricum--probably in the countries now known as Bosnia and
Servia--from which he could threaten the Eastern or Western Empire at
pleasure. Finally, with the beginning of the fifth century after Christ,
he descended into Italy, and though at first successful only in ravage,
in the second invasion he penetrated to the very heart of the Empire.
His three sieges of Rome, ending in the awful event of the capture and
sack of the Eternal City in 410, are events in the history of the world
with which every student is familiar. Only it may be remarked that the
word awful, which is here used designedly, is not meant to imply that
the loss of life was unusually large or the cruelty of the captors
outrageous; in both respects Alaric and his Goths would compare
favourably with some generals and some armies making much higher
pretensions to civilisation. Nor is it meant that the destruction of the
public buildings of the city was extensive. There can be little doubt
that Paris, on the day after the suppression of the Commune in 1871,
presented a far greater appearance of desolation and ruin than Rome in
410, when she lay trembling in the hand of Alaric. But the bare fact
that Rome herself, the Roma AEterna, the Roma Invicta of a thousand coins
of a hundred Emperors,--Rome, whose name for centuries on the shores of
the Mediterranean had been synonymous with worldwide dominion,--should
herself be taken, sacked, dishonoured by the presence of a flaxen-haired
barbarian conqueror from the North, was one of those events apparently
so contrary to the very course of Nature itself, that the nations which
heard the tidings, many of them old and bitter enemies of Rome, now her
subjects and her friends, held their breath with awe at the terrible

Alaric died shortly after his sack of Rome, and after a few years of
aimless fighting his nation quitted Italy, disappearing over the
north-western Alpine boundary to win for themselves new settlements by
the banks of the Garonne and the Ebro. Their leader was that Ataulfus
whose truly statesmanlike reflections on the unwisdom of destroying the
Roman Empire and the necessity of incorporating the barbarians with its
polity have been already quoted. There, in the south-western corner of
Gaul and the northern regions of Spain, we must for the present leave
the Western branch of the great Gothic nationality, while our narrative
returns to its Eastern representatives.

Next: The Might Of Attila

Previous: Introduction

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