Gateway to the Classics: The Story of the Middle Ages by Samuel B. Harding
The Story of the Middle Ages by  Samuel B. Harding

The Wanderings of the West-Goths

U P to this time the Goths had entered only a little way into the lands of the Empire. Now they were to begin a series of wanderings that took them into Greece, into Italy, into Gaul, and finally into the Spanish peninsula, where they settled down and established a power that lasted for nearly three hundred years.

Their leader, Alaric, was wise enough to see that the Goths could not take a city so strongly walled as Constantinople. He turned his people aside from the attack of that place, and marched them to the plunder of the rich provinces that lay to the South. There they came into lands that had long been famous in the history of the world. Their way first led them through Macedonia, whence the great Alexander had set out to conquer the East. At the pass of Thermopylae, more than eight hundred years before, a handful of heroic Greeks had held a vast army at bay for three whole days; but now their feebler descendants dared not attempt to stay the march of Alaric. The city of Athens, beautiful with marble buildings and statuary, fell into the hands of the Goths without a blow. It was forced to pay a heavy ransom, and then was left "like the bleeding and empty skin of a slaughtered victim."

From Athens Alaric led his forces by the isthmus of Corinth into the southern peninsula of Greece. City after city yielded to the conqueror without resistance. Everywhere villages were burned, cattle were driven off, precious vases, statues, gold and silver ornaments were divided among the barbarians, and multitudes of the inhabitants were slain or reduced to slavery.

In all the armies of the Roman Empire, at this time, there was but one general who was a match for Alaric in daring and skill. He too was descended from the sturdy barbarians of the North. His name was Stilicho, and he was not sent by the Emperor of the West to assist the Eastern Emperor. He succeeded in hemming in the Goths, at first, in the rocky valleys of Southern Greece. But the skill and perseverance of Alaric enabled him to get his men out of the trap, while his enemies feasted and danced in enjoyment of their triumph. Then the Eastern Emperor made Alaric the ruler of one of the provinces of the Empire, and settled his people on the eastern shores of the Adriatic Sea. In this way he hoped that the Goths might again be quieted and the danger turned aside. But Alaric only used the position he had won to gather stores of food, and to manufacture shields, helmets, swords, and spears for his men, in preparation for new adventures.

When all was ready, Alaric again set out, taking with him the entire nation of the West-Goths—men, women, and children—together with all their property and the booty which they had won in Greece. Now their march was to the rich and beautiful lands of Italy, where Alaric hoped to capture Rome itself, and secure the treasures which the Romans had gathered from the ends of the earth. But the time had not yet come for this. Stilicho was again in arms before him in the broad plains of the river Po. From Gaul, from the provinces of the Rhine, from far-off Britain, troops were hurried to the protection of Italy. On every side the Goths were threatened. Their long-haired chiefs, scarred with honorable wounds, began to hesitate; but their fiery young King cried out that he was resolved "to find in Italy either a kingdom or a grave!"

At last while the Goths were piously celebrating the festival of Easter, the army of Stilicho suddenly attacked them. The Goths fought stubbornly; but after a long and bloody battle Alaric was obliged to lead his men from the field, leaving behind them the slaves and the booty which they had won. Even then Alaric did not at once give up his plan of forcing his way to Rome. But his men were discouraged; hunger and disease attacked them; their allies deserted them; and at last the young King was obliged to lead his men back to the province on the Adriatic.

For six years Alaric now awaited his time; while Stilicho, meanwhile, beat back other invaders who sought to come into Italy. But the Western Emperor was foolish, and thought the danger was past. He listened to the enemies of Stilicho, and quarreled with him; and at last he had him put to death. At once Alaric planned a new invasion. Barbarian warriors from all lands, attracted by his fame, flocked to his standard. The friends of Stilicho, also, came to his aid. The new generals in Italy proved to be worthless; and the foolish Emperor shut himself up in fear in his palace in the northern part of the peninsula. Alaric meanwhile did not tarry. On and on he pressed, over the Alps, past the plains of the Po, past the palace of the Emperor, on to the "eternal city" of Rome itself.

In the old days, the Romans had been able to conquer Italy and the civilized world, because they were a brave, sturdy people, with a genius for war and for government. But long centuries of unchecked rule had greatly weakened them. Now they led evil and unhealthy lives. They neither worked for themselves, nor fought in their country's cause. Instead, they spent their days in marble baths, at the gladiatorial fights and wild beast shows of the theaters, and in lounging about the Forum.

In the old days Hannibal had thundered at the gates of Rome in vain; but it was not to be so now with Alaric. Three times in three successive years he advanced to the siege of the city. The first time he blockaded it till the people cried out in their hunger and were forced to eat loathsome food. Still no help came from the Emperor, and when they tried to overawe Alaric with the boast of the numbers of their city, he only replied: "The thicker the hay the easier it is mowed."

When asked what terms he would give them, Alaric demanded as ransom all their gold, silver, and precious goods, together with their slaves who were of barbarian blood. In dismay they asked: "And what then will you leave to us?" "Your lives," he grimly replied.

Alaric, however, was not so hard as his word. On payment of a less ransom than he had at first demanded, he consented to retire. But when the foolish Emperor, secure in his palace in Northern Italy, refused to make peace, Alaric advanced once more upon the doomed city, and again it submitted. This time Alaric set up a mock-Emperor of his own to rule. But in a few months he grew tired of him, and overturned him with as little thought as he had shown in setting him up. As a great historian tells us of this Emperor, he was in turn "promoted, degraded, insulted, restored, again degraded, and again insulted, and finally abandoned to his fate."

In the year 410 a.d. , Alaric advanced a third time upon the city. This time the gates of Rome were opened by slaves who hoped to gain freedom through the city's fall. For the first time since the burning of Rome by the Gauls, eight hundred years before, the Romans now saw a foreign foe within their gates—slaying, destroying, plundering, committing endless outrages upon the people and their property. To the Romans it seemed that the end of the world was surely at hand.

At the end of the sixth day Alaric and his Goths came forth from the city, carrying their booty and their captives with them. They now marched into the south of Italy, destroying all who resisted and plundering what took their fancy. In this way they came into the southernmost part. There they began busily preparing to cross over into Sicily, to plunder that fertile province. But this was not to be. In the midst of the preparations, their leader Alaric—"Alaric the Bold," as they loved to call him—suddenly sickened. Soon he grew worse; and after an illness of only a few days, he died, leaving the Goths weakened by the loss of the greatest king they were ever to know.

Alaric's life had been one of the strangest in history; and his burial was equally strange. His followers wished to lay him where no enemy might disturb his grave. To this end they compelled their captives to dig a new channel for a little river near by, and turn aside its waters. Then, in the old bed of the stream, they buried their beloved leader, clad in his richest armor, and mounted upon his favorite war horse. When all was finished, the stream was turned back into its old channel, and the captives were slain, in order that they might not reveal the place of the burial. And there, to this day, rest the bones of Alaric, the West-Gothic King.

Of the West-Goths after the death of Alaric, we need say very little. The foolish Emperor of the West remained foolish to the end; but his advisers now saw that something must be done to get rid of the barbarians. The new leader of the Goths, too, was a wise and moderate man. He saw that his people, though they could fight well, and overturn a state, were not yet ready to form a government of their own. "I wish," he said, "not to destroy, but to restore and maintain the prosperity of the Roman Empire." Other barbarians had meanwhile pressed into the Empire; so it was agreed that the Goths should march into Gaul and Spain, drive out the barbarians who had pushed in there, and rule the land in the name of the Emperor of the West. This they did; and there they established a power which became strong and prosperous, and lasted until new barbarians from the North, and the Moors from Africa, pressed in upon them, and brought, at the same time, their kingdom and their history to an end.

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