When assimilation goes bad, empires fall.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A people find themselves fleeing into southern Europe, forced from their homelands by war and unspeakable violence. Their culture is obviously at odds with those of the region that they are moving into. Their peoples are a tribal society with a strong authoritarian bent. They are well recognized as blood thirsty warriors themselves. Oh, and did I mention that they REALLY did not like Christians?

It is said that a wooden image was placed on a wagon, and that those instructed by Athanaric to undertake this task wheeled it round to the tent of any of those who were denounced as Christians and ordered them to do homage and sacrifice to it; and the tents of those who refused to do so were burned, with the people inside.

When the chief men in Gothia began to be moved against the Christians, compelling them to eat sacrificial meat, it occurred to some of the pagans in the village in which Saba lived to make the Christians who belonged to them eat publicly before the persecutors meat that had not been sacrificed in place of that which had, hoping thereby to preserve the innocence of their own people and at the same time to deceive the persecutors. Learning this, the blessed Saba not only himself refused to touch the forbidden meat but advanced into the midst of the gathering and bore witness, saying to everyone, ‘If anyone eats of that meat, this man cannot be a Christian’, and he prevented them all from falling into the Devil’s snare.

Heard that one, huh? Well for those who haven’t, it is the middle decades of the Fourth Century AD. Several tribes of Goths have left their homelands heading west, avoiding death, destruction and subjugation by the Huns.

So here were these multitudes, unable to return to their homes yet their path blocked by the Roman Empire. Never ones to let their past actions stand in their way, they sent envoys to Emperor Valens entreating him to allow their peoples to move into Thracia.

After long deliberation by common consent they finally sent ambassadors into Romania to the Emperor Valens, brother of Valentinian, the elder Emperor, to say that if he would give them part of Thrace or Moesia to keep, they would submit themselves to his laws and commands. That he might have greater confidence in them, they promised to become Christians, if he would give them teachers who spoke their language.  When Valens learned this, he gladly and promptly granted what he had himself intended to ask. He received the Getae into the region of Moesia and placed them there as a wall of defense for his kingdom against other tribes.

On one hand, Emperor Valens was being presented with a fait accompli. The Goths were going to cross into Thracia whether he wanted them to or not. He had neither the forces nor the fortitude to stop them.


In 376 as many as 1 million Goths gathered on the northern bank of the Danube, requesting permission to enter the Empire. Valens was in Antioch (modern day south-central Turkey) and his military forces were preoccupied with conflicts on the Persian frontier. Being in no position to actually prevent the Goths’ migration across the frontier, Valens “permitted” their entry. Under the leadership of two judges, Fritigern and Alavius, these Goths were settled in Thrace.

One could also claim that the good Emperor was being magnanimous, doing charitable work and spreading the word of the Church in the process. Bringing the wretched out of the cold, miserable wilderness and enlightening them through “civilization.” If only! If one is to believe Professor Strauss (who also has a nice Blog that is kept up to date), the Emperor’s actions were just about everything but noble. In his counterfactual essay titled “The Dark Ages Made Lighter“, he opens this way:

He was no humanitarian. Valens knew that the Visigoths were dangerous warriors but he planned to co-opt them and add them to his armies, which already had a Visigoth contingent. He needed more soldiers to fight Persia. He also knew that Visigothic refugees would bring wealth with them, which his officials could skim off, if not plunder outright – corruption being a depressing reality of Late Roman administration. In return, he insisted that the Visigoths lay down their arms when they crossed the Danube. The Visigoths agreed, but Valens should have known better.

Of course, not only did they keep their weapons but also their sacred objects to keep practicing their religion. Perceived, and actual, slights would eventually explode into conflict. This conflict would play out inside the borders of the Empire now – an external threat internalized.

Soon famine and want came upon them, as often happens to a people not yet well settled in a country. Their princes and the leaders who ruled them in place of kings, that is Fritigern, Alatheus and Safrac, began to lament the plight of their army and begged Lupicinus and Maximus, the Roman commanders, to open a market. But to what will not the “cursed lust for gold” compel men to assent? The generals, swayed by avarice, sold them at a high price not only the flesh of sheep and oxen, but even the carcasses of dogs and unclean animals, so that a slave would be bartered for a loaf of bread or ten pounds of meat. When their goods and chattels failed, the greedy trader demanded their sons in return for the necessities of life. And the parents consented even to this, in order to provide for the safety of their children, arguing that it was better to lose liberty than life; and indeed it is better that one be sold, if he will be mercifully fed, than that he should be kept free only to die.

Lupicinus would attempt to terminate the leadership of the refugees before open revolt occurred. Fritigern recognized the Roman commander’s duplicity and was able to escape the trap that had been set for him. Emperor Valens had set up the dominoes and Fritigern would get them tumbling and set a course of events that would ultimately put and end to Empire.

What followed was the Gothic War of 376 – 382, punctuated by the defeat (and death) of Valens at the Battle of Adrianople in 378. The massacre of two thirds of Valens army was the most stunning defeat that Rome had ever suffered at the hands of northern barbarians.

The end of the Gothic War in 382 would find the Empire forced to accept the Gothic tribes within their borders on the Goth’s terms. No longer required to assimilate, they would keep their own laws and culture. Momentum would carry the Roman Empire on for several more decades, but again and again it would find itself torn apart by internal strife and pressed on it extents by the inability to prevent the influx of other barbarian tribes.

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