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The Goths and Later Germanic Invaders

Little is known about the early history of the Goths before they came into contact with the Romans. What little evidence we have indicates that they probably came from Scandinavia. In the first millennium B. C., they crossed the Baltic Sea and migrated into Northeastern Europe in the area occupied by Poland today. Later, they moved again and made their home in the area north of the Black Sea. Nobody knows for sure what caused these migrations but they became known as the Wanderings of the Peoples. Anthropologists speculate that changes in climate caused the land to produce less food and forage for animals during this period and the excess population had to look for new homes.

The Roman historian Tacitus describes the Germans, of whom the Goths are a group, as a people with nomadic lifestyle and a love for warfare. They looked down on farming as a way of life and actually considered the hardworking farmer lazy because he was not willing to make a living by warfare and plunder. According to Tacitus, the Germans considered laziness to be "acquiring by honest toil that which you might procure by the shedding of blood". It is interesting to note that racism was just as much a part of the human experience 1900 years ago as it is today. In this case, it was a short, olive skinned people who were the dominant culture and the tall blond and redheaded people were considered brutish, ugly and oversized, lacking in intelligence, difficult to civilize, and overly fond of warfare, murder, and pillaging. In spite of his comments, Tacitus does show admiration for the energetic and freedom - loving German people.

The Germans against whom Julius Caesar and the early emperors of Rome fought were different tribes who had been living in the lands across the Rhine frontier before the Goths made their impact on European history. These tribes include the Alemanni and Helvetii we read about in the writings of Caesar and Tacitus. This also holds true for the Germans about whom Tacitus wrote. The Goths were not known to the Romans until over a hundred years after the time of Tacitus. The hunter - gatherer society of the Goths and their aversion to a settled agricultural lifestyle was something they held in common with the Germans about whom Tacitus writes, however. The German tribes against which Marcus Aurelius spent much of his reign defending the empire, living in an army camp and on campaign with his troops may have included some of the first Goths the Romans were to see.

The Goths were well known to the Romans by the middle of the Third Century. The Roman emperor Trajan Decius and his son Herennius Etruscus were killed in battle against the Goths in A. D. 251. Later, a Roman Emperor earned the title "Gothicus" for the way he repeatedly hammered the Goths relentlessly between 268 and 270. This emperor, Claudius II Gothicus, was also killed by the Goths indirectly. The Goths had brought a new epidemic of plague with them, and the stalwart emperor died along with millions of his subjects from the horrible disease. Following the reigns of Aurelian and Probus, The Roman Empire enjoyed a period of security, prosperity, and peace under Diocletian and the family of Constantine. Though there was sporadic fighting with the Goths on the borders of the empire, the Goths did not pose a serious threat to the Roman Empire until 378.

Sometime during the period in which they occupied land north of the Black Sea, the Goths divided themselves into Ostrogoths and Visigoths. Both groups of these German people would travel a different road throughout history and would dominate much of Europe for two hundred fifty years.

The migrations of another people, the Huns, brought pressure upon both Ostrogoths and Visigoths to seek a new home. The Huns were a fierce, warlike nomadic people who came out of the Eastern steppes in what is now Russia and Mongolia. They rode short little ponies and could stay in the saddle for days. They were excellent warriors who could accurately shoot an arrow or use their lariat to rope an enemy while their ponies carried them along at a full gallop. The Goths lived in dread of these short horsemen who annihilated them in every engagement. As a result, Fritigern, King of the Visigoths, begged the Roman emperor Valens to allow his people to settle on empty Roman land in exchange for military service as federated troops in the Roman army. Valens' imperial agents and military officers mishandled the crossing of the Danube, exploiting and humiliating the proud Goths. The Visigoths did not have long to wait for revenge. They utterly defeated the Roman army at Adrianople in 378 and killed Valens as well. For the next several years, there was not much the Romans could do, or dared to do about the Visigoths in the Danubian provinces.

After Theodosius I ascended the throne in 379, he set about devising a plan to deal with the Visigoths, doing the best he could under the circumstances. He offered them land on which to settle and enrolled them as federated troops. The process was a long one of negotiation and selecting military leaders whom he could trust. The most famous and effective of these was Flavius Stilicho, who welded the different groups of barbarian and federated groups, as well as the few Italians who remained in the Roman military into a magnificent fighting machine. This new Roman army was put severely to the test at the battle of the River Frigidus in 394. The Theodosian army attacked the well dug in army of Arbogast and the puppet Eugenius. The odds were not good for Theodosius as he was advancing from the East and in a vulnerable position. A violent wind storm which legend says was sent by God blew dust and rain in the faces of Arbogast’s army and Theodosius won a decisive victory. Stilicho and a young Visigothic general named Alaric who was to dominate the military scene for the next sixteen years played a major part in this battle.

Soon after Theodosius' death in 395, Alaric began making trouble for the Roman Empire with the his army of Visigothic troops. At times he appeared to be functioning as a federated Roman general and at other times as a Visigothic king. In A. D. 410, he took the city of Rome and actually marched an army of Visigothic troops through the gates of The Eternal City. Alaric stayed for three days to loot and pillage, though he had such respect for the city he had humbled that he did not allow his troops to massacre the population and destroy the buildings. Some buildings were burned, however.

During the Fifth Century, the Western Roman Empire was gradually dismantled by Visigoths, Ostrogoths, and Vandals. In many cases, Roman territory was not seized by an invading foreign army. Usually it was a high ranking Gothic or Vandal commander in Roman military service who set himself up as governor of a province while a weak Roman emperor did little to stop him. In 418, the Visigoths were actually given large tracts of the best land in Gaul to form their independent kingdom of Toulouse.

The situation continued to get worse for the Western Roman empire throughout the rest of the Fifth Century. Rome was again sacked in 455 by Germans, this time it was Gaiseric the Vandal. He stayed for two weeks and did much more damage than Alaric had done forty five years before. Gaiseric had invaded the rich Roman province of Africa in 429. His descendants held the province until the Eastern Roman general Belisarius drove the Vandals out in 533 and reclaimed Africa for the emperor Justinian.

It was the German master general Odovacer who in A. D. 476 finally put an end to the farce that the Western Roman empire had become over the last twenty one years. He didn't wage a mighty battle or sack a city, killing a brave Roman emperor who defended his throne to the last. He just provided a nice villa for a young boy and told him to retire there because he was no longer emperor. Odovacer sent the imperial regalia, diadem, orb and sceptre to the Eastern Emperor Zeno in Constantinople.

In 493, Zeno sent the Ostrogothic general Theoderic to depose Odovacer and rule Italy in the name of the Eastern Roman empire. Theoderic founded a dynasty that lasted until 526.

In the early Fifth Century, a Visigothic kingdom had been established in Spain. When the Moors drove them out in 711, the Visigoths finally disappeared from history as a separate people and were assimilated into the Frankish kingdoms of Europe which later became modern France and Germany.
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