The Coming of the Witch People
Seldom has a man lived in stranger or more stirring times than Athanaric the Goth. A rough, rude barbarian, born on Gothic soil and bred in the hatred of all that was Roman, he was destined to die in a Roman city and be given at his death honors which were the means of bringing his people into friendly alliance with Rome. Nowhere in all history is there a stranger tale.
Surely no human power could move the man who had made the greatest Roman on earth, the emperor of all the world, come to him. So Athanaric must have thought in his pride, and the story is that in the years after the conference on the river he grew more and more cruel. His hatred of the Romans increased, and he punished with horrible brutality all the gentler spirits among his own people who sought to better in any way the rough, rude barbarism in which he had been bred. To him all civilization was of the Romans, and therefore to be despised.
But a more than mortal force was guiding the destinies of the nations. Athanaric was living at the beginning of the period of the wandering of the peoples, when a strange spirit of restlessness seized many tribes and nations, and they left their homes and crowded one upon another, pushing their neighbors hither and thither. Europe was in those centuries a chaos of languages and races and peoples, from which there came forth our modern nations of Spain and Italy, France, Germany, and Austria, Russia and Turkey. It was this tide which caught Athanaric in its grasp, and swept him, hurled him, almost against his will or plan, into the arms of Rome; and this is how it befell.
There came to Athanaric in his mountain domain tales of a strange, savage people from the east who were ravaging and destroying the homes of his Gothic kinsfolk many hundred miles eastward in the regions north of the Caspian and the Black seas. Athanaric marveled that any people, however strong, should be able to conquer these fierce and warlike tribes; but he did not dream that he would ever hear more of them. Soon they would be stopped in their march and driven back to their distant homes. Probably they had been already, for news traveled slowly, and the word had come by one tribe and another more than two thousand miles.
In another year, however, the reports arrived more frequently. A frightened chieftain came twenty days' journey to gain a promise that Athanaric would give him his aid, should the Huns march westward and attack his kingdom.
"Why do you fear?" questioned Athanaric. "They have still by your own story eight hundred miles, more than eighty days' journey for such a wandering army, before they can reach your borders. Surely they will be turned back long before that."
"Ah, but they come like the wind, those Huns," replied the chief. "Night and day they live upon their horses. On their backs they take their meat and drink; they even sleep on them and journey thus by night."
"By great Odin, you are all driven senseless by your fear," thundered Athanaric in scorn. "I am ashamed of you. What if they do come on horses? What if they are good fighters? Have you not driven back many tribes? Have you not held your lands against many enemies? Where is the courage of our forefathers? What would they think of those who hold the name of Goth if they saw them cringing before a wandering people from China?"
"You do not know; you do not understand," replied the chief. "Once I spoke as you do; once I taunted my kinsfolk with cowardice. But now I know." "But what is it that you know?" cried Athanaric. "You shake your head and look wise, but you do not say. What is it that makes these Huns so terrible to you that you lose your manhood and become as frightened children?"
Then the chief told him. This was no human folk, it seemed, that was fighting its way nearer and nearer. It was a witch people, born of witch women and evil spirits. Men could not meet them in fair fight, for the awful ugliness of their faces cast a spell upon the strongest men and made them turn and flee rather than gaze upon them. Moreover, there was no stopping their progress, for an evil spirit was leading them. Certain of the Gothic wise men had heard the story of how the Huns came in their wanderings to the banks of the strip of water that separates Asia and Europe. They would have halted and turned another way, toward northern China or the plains of Russia. "Ali! would that they had halted!" sighed the Gothic chief. "But a stag suddenly appeared before them and entered the waters. As he swam across he kept looking back as if inviting them to follow. So they came and found that what they had thought to be a deep and trackless sea was a shallow strait. An evil spirit brought them, and mortal power will not be able to turn them back."
Athanaric laughed the story to scorn.
"You are the ones who are bewitched," he told the chief, "and by your own foolishness."
The chief went back to his own land, and Athanaric put the story from his mind, wondering only that so brave a man should have been so deceived. But before long he was forced to heed, for his valleys were filled with a constant stream of men, women, and children, who were fleeing from this terror that was behind them. Whole tribes had been seized with panic at the coming of the Huns, and were hastening in blind, unreasoning terror, on, on, on to the river. That was their cry as they passed through the land. "The river, the river! On the other side of the river we shall be safe."
"But the Romans dwell on the other side of the river. They are your enemies; they will make you slaves," protested Athanaric and his people.
The flying tribes did not stop to reply. They had but one thought,—to put the river between them and this terrible witch people. The Romans might enslave them; but the Huns would do worse, for they had the evil eye. Month after month it went on, and though they had not seen the Huns, yet the fear of them began to creep into the hearts of Athanaric's own people. Neighboring tribes fled into the arms of the Romans, throwing themselves, as they said, on Roman mercy. Roman mercy! that was a strange word in the mouths of the Goths, and it came to be a sad word, for it took from them all that they held dear. No man might cross the river and come under the protection of Rome who did not first give up every weapon in his possession. It took from them their sons and their daughters, who were sold away in slave markets. It left them nothing, indeed, but their lives and the lands on which they lived. The long-haired Goths might well have cut their flaxen locks when they set foot on the western bank of the river, for they were meaningless as a badge of freedom on Roman soil.
So it went on during many years, for peoples do not move in a day, and the Huns would pause in their ravages for one year, or two, when they came to a rich and fertile valley, and then the wandering spirit would seize them and they would press on. Athanaric met them in battle not once but many times, for his were the bravest people of the Goths, as they were the most fierce and cruel, and they fought with spirit even though their hearts were filled with a nameless fear. But they were defeated and driven farther and farther into the mountain fastnesses, until the time came when Athanaric alone of all the Gothic chiefs had not asked protection from the Romans. The other tribes turned against him, looking with jealousy on his lands, till the proud old chief was sore beset on every side.
That was the chance for Rome. The emperor (it was the one who succeeded Valens) sent from Constantinople, the eastern capital of the Empire, an embassy to pay respect to Athanaric for his great name and fame, and to offer to him an honorable treaty. Athanaric waited long before he yielded. His people with one accord urged him to accept. If he refused, they would be between two enemies, the Huns, who were ever coming nearer, and their Gothic kinsfolk who had turned against them. Moreover, it was an honorable treaty, written in fair terms. So they persuaded him, and Athanaric yielded. He was an old man and weary of war and fighting. His promise to his father that he would never set foot on Roman soil had grown dim with the years, and he told Himself that times were changed by the coming of the Huns, and that his father would have done the same in his place.
The emperor came out several miles from the city to meet the old barbarian chief, and gave him royal escort.
"Lo, now I behold what I have so often heard with unbelief," the old man exclaimed, as he gazed in wonder at the splendid city.
Turning his eyes this way and that, and beholding its glorious situation, its great harbors crowded with vessels, the strength and beauty of its walls and buildings, and the men of many nations who thronged its streets, he marveled, and exclaimed again in wonder, "The emperor is without doubt a god upon earth, and he who lifts a hand against him is guilty of his own blood."
The Romans feasted the old man and entertained him with all magnificence. Whether he was content in the emperor's palace—this old Roman hater—we do not know. Whether he saw that his father was right, and mourned his broken promise, he never told. After a few months' residence in Constantinople he died, and the emperor made for him a funeral of extraordinary magnificence. The flower of the Roman army bore the old chief to his grave, and the emperor himself in his royal purple robes rode before the bier.
Roman friendship proved, as the father of Athanaric had foretold, an evil thing for a barbarian people. The simple Goths were so pleased by the honor that had been paid to their chief that they were easily led into a closer league than ever before with the Romans. The emperor had given a gorgeous funeral; he gained an army of many thousand men, and it was through the yielding of Athanaric, through his consenting to set foot on Roman soil, that the evil was wrought.
Wise men of the Goths saw, when it was too late, that they had gone too far; but by that time their people were scattered here and there, fighting Roman battles and obeying the commands of Roman generals, and there was none to gather them. For a whole generation they served the Romans, and then from their midst there rose a leader to deliver them, the great Alaric, Alaric the Bold.