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.

The Might Of Attila The Theodoric Of Saga facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail