Rampant Barbarians: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 10 Part 2

The battered remains of the army acclaimed Gallus, a senior officer, as the new emperor.  It fell to him to negotiate with Cniva and to be the man who would have to actually agree to let the Goths leave with their loot and their prisoners.  If that wasn’t bad enough, he also had to agree to pay the barbarians a substantial tribute.  Paying tribute. The Roman Empire paying tribute. Imagine the humiliation.

Back in Rome the Senate selected its own emperor in the form of the surviving son of Decius, a youth called Hostilian. It is to the credit of Gallus that he deftly avoided the risk of a civil war by suggesting a workable compromise of himself and Hostilian sharing the throne.  This at least was an item of good news.  Enjoy it- there won’t be any more for a while.

The partnership did not have long to run because Hostilian died shortly afterwards.  It isn’t known for sure what killed him.  A plague had broken out in the city so that would be an obvious culprit.  Gallus had a year of peace, but his name had become associated with the shame of the defeat. Rumours circulated. Had he killed Hostilian?  Had he delibrately orchestrated the death of Decius from which he had benefitted?  Come to that, with all this money involved, was he taking a cut?

Paying taxes is never popular. Even paying taxes to pay for defence in a dangerous world doesn’t go down that well.  Paying taxes to line the pockets of your barbarian enemies must have really stuck in the gullet. If those barbarians, as they inevitably did, simply turn up the next year asking for more and the emperor simply sits in Rome out of the way, well that is the PR nightmare to end them all.

With bands of barbarians raiding far and wide, even into the vicinity of Rome itself, something had to be done.  Aemilianus, the governor of the frontier province of Pananonia took it into his own hands to do something.  He rallied the troops, and attacked the barbarians decisively defeating them. The money that had been collected to pay off the Goths was instead distributed to the army as a donative.  Not surprisingly, the combination of an air of success coupled with up front hard cash made Aemilianus the toast of the troops who decided to declare him emperor.

So the Maesian legions once again marched into Italy to install their favourite on the throne.  The troops under the command of Gallus weighed up the situation.  The Maesians were hardened veterans with their tail up after a recent victory.  On top of that, Aemilianus was offering financial inducements.  And what was the sense of swimming against the tide, especially on behalf of someone as suspect as Gallus.  So they killed Gallus and went over to Aemillianus.  It sounds mercenary. It sounds cynical.  But at the end of the day only Gallus (and his son naturally) died rather than the thousands that might have been killed in a pitched battle.

Gallus did have one loyal follower.  Valerian had now ended up leading the Rhine legions.  He responded to the emperor’s call for help by marching to Italy to defend his sovereign.  He arrived too late to help, but he did arrive with enough forces to take revenge.  He advanced on Aemilianus’ troops.  This time the calculation was that Valerian was likely to win, and so this time it was Aemilianus that ended up getting killed by his own supporters before any fighting took place.

So Valerian came to the throne in much more auspicious circumstances than most of his recent predecessors.  He could genuinely claim to have been acting out of loyalty, and had also been lucky enough to avoid the spilling of Roman blood directly. His recent topping of of the popularity poll in the Senate when he had nearly become the censor suggested widespread support.  His age, at 63, was maybe a little on the old side.  But his career to date was distinguished.  He also had a son to ensure the succession.  Things looked, for a while, like they might turn out okay.

But they didn’t turn out okay.  In the reign of Valerian the empire was attacked on all sides by the most dangerous enemies it had had to cope with since the time of Hannibal.  In the West a new confederation grew up called the Franks.  These have often been thought of as a particular tribe, but it is more likely that they were simply a grouping together of like minded adventurous barbarians out to carve what they could from the empire.  The name itself is a clue.  Frank means free.  Indeed, it still has that meaning in modern english.  When you speak freely you speak frankly. The Franks were probably no more than a group of German warriors uniting freely in the hope of bounty.

The Franks made their first appearance in history at this time, and rapidly made their mark.  They crossed the Rhine into Gaul, and devastated the area that we now know by their name, France.  When they had done with looting Gaul, they crossed the Pyrenees and did the same in Spain. Then they seized some boats and crossed to Africa and attacked the Roman colonies there.

The most feared tribe of ancient Germany had been the Suevi. They had a national pagan cult based on human sacrifice in a sacred grove in the forest of Sonnenwald.  This was considered to be the origin of the nation and there were numerous subtribes who all owed allegiance to this common heritage.  Interestingly, one of the more obscure tribes lumped in with the Suevi by Tactitus was the Anglii. It was this tribe that was to later lay the foundations of the English language in which you are listening to this podcast.  About the time of Caracalla the disparate tribes of the Suevi came together in a single confederation.  This was named the Allmen, i.e., All Men, reflecting its multitribal nature.  Modern day speakers of English and German can still understand the origin of the name and it gave the modern French their name for German:Allemand.

The Romans called this megatribe the Allemani and they got to know them rather better than they probably wanted to. The Allemani advanced across the Danube in great numbers and swarmed into Italy helping themselves to anything that was both valuable and portable. They got as far as the locality of Rome itself.

The popular idea of the fall of Rome is of a city surrounded by uncivilized barbarians who break in through the gates and smash the place up leaving behind a smoking ruin.  As we are going to see the real story is a good deal more complicated.  But if the Allemani had indeed successfully attacked Rome, that is pretty much what it would have been like. And it might have happened.  Rome was not particularly well defended when the Allemani invaded Italy. The main Roman forces were elsewhere and were not able to come to the aid of the capital city. And Roman cities were falling to barbarian attack all over the place at this time.

But in the event, the Senate showed some initiative.  They had the Praetorian Guards as the nucleus of an army.  By pressing able bodied men into service they were able to put together a bigger body of soldiers than the invaders. The barbarians were probably more warlike and battle hardened and might have been able to beat the Romans in a pitched battle.  But they chose to retreat with their loot instead. Time and again when reading about this era you get the idea that the barbarians would risk anything in the pursuit of gain, but weren’t really that keen on fighting if they were challenged.  They certainly had no strategic plan to beat the empire, they were just taking advantage of any weakness where they found it.

Interestingly, the emperor was not that happy with the display of spirit of the Romans. It was a bit too threatening.  If the Senate could resist the barbarians, what was to stop it standing up to the emperor as well.  Edicts were rushed out forbidding senators from military occupations and direct contact with the guards. A very revealing attitude.

Meanwhile, the Goths were not content with having killed an emperor, destroyed his army and extracted a tribute from the one time mistress of the world.  Having reached the Black Sea they acquired a fleet.  (I imagine they stole it rather than building it.)  So they then set out to attack Asia Minor by sea.  They first hit on a small distant town called Pityus, a long way off the beaten track.  The garrison defended it with spirit and the Goths were forced to leave empty handed. The effectiveness of the defence was attributed to a commander called successianus.  I imagine there is a website called that somewhere. In any event he was moved – promoted in fact- and the Goths resumed the attack and this time succeeded.

So the Goths had taken a small out of the way town, with it has to be said, some setbacks. What next?  Well how about attacking a really major urban centre with a strong defences and a large garrison some three hundred miles away.  Trebzond was where they went next.

Trebzond really was a major target. It was a significant port, substantially enlarged by Hadrian.  It would later be the very last city controlled by the Roman Empire after the fall of Constantinople. It is one of the largest cities in Turkey even today with over a million inhabitants.  It was noted as a major settlement by Xenephon in the 4th Century. In fact just about the only time in its history it hasn’t been a flourishing and prosperous trading centre was in the couple of hundred following the Goths’ visit in 258.  How they managed to capture the place is still baffling. But for some reason the very large garrison, which may well have actually outnumbered the attackers, thought better of getting into a fight and escaped leaving the the Goths to plunder the place and murder the inhabitants.

The Goths really hit the jackpot in Trebzond. The wealth of the surrounding countryside had been transferred there under the reasonable but totally wrong impression that it was the safest place to store valuables.  And to really polish things off, there was a fleet available in the harbour to carry their new found wealth back to the Goths’ homeland, rowed by recently captured prisoners.  Sometimes a plan just comes together.

Not surprisingly, the Goths were back the next year with even more boats and men. They selected the other end of Asia Minor this time.  There can’t have been much worth taking left where they had been before. They sailed down to the Bosphorus. The narrow strait that links the Black Sea and the Mediterranean was defended by a strong fortress at Chalcedon.  It was manned by a large detachment of troops who outnumbered the attackers.  The Goths would have been in trouble but they had a stroke of luck.  Rather than face the Goths, the defenders ran away.

This left the Goths in a strategic position in the heart of the empire able to strike where they wished, and with a store of arms and supplies.  It also gave them a secure base to operate from if the Romans counter attacked.  This last point was purely academic, the Romans did no such thing. The first destination on the list was Nicomedia, a very large and opulent city. Three hundred years of peace had left it, and its neighbours, ill prepared for war.  The Goths took full advantage.  They went on to pillage the area with hardly any opposition.  The biggest setbacks they experienced were due to the weather rather than the enemy.

And the following year a third and even bigger fleet set out across the Black Sea.  This one was 500 strong and may have carried as many as 15,000 barbarians.  This sounds an impressive number, but bear in mind that at its height the Roman army was over 400,000 strong. At this stage the empire was still pretty much the size it had been under Hadrian. Even this Gothic expedition should have been an easy enough matter to deal with  if the leadership had been in place. 

But the leadership was not in place, and the Goths sailed into the Aegean Sea unopposed.  There was some attempt to defend the Greek cities by improving their fortifications.  But despite this the Goths sacked Athens leaving their fleet in the historic port of Piraeus.  Here they suffered one of their few serious setbacks. Some soldiers and peasants fleeing from Athens managed to burn the Goths fleet while it lay at anchor.

The Goths retaliated by burning down towns and cities in Greece. They then moved north with the intention of hitting Italy itself.  At this there was finally a military response appropriate to the threat.  In fact, faced with a decent sized army and with a bit of crafty diplomacy to split the barbarians, the Goths suddenly seemed much less formidable than they had been. They switched tactics to running away.  This was difficult because to get back to their base in the Ukraine they had to get through the defences on the Danube.  A determined effort would have trapped them allowing them to be destroyed. But the determined effort was not made and they managed to slip through.

Another group managed to get hold of some ships and return by sea.  They managed to get in a bit more mischief on their return voyage. In Ephesus was situated one of the seven wonders of the world, the temple of Artemis.  (Gibbon calls it the temple of Diana – they are the same goddess, but I have never come across anyone else calling it by this name.)  The temple had taken 120 years to build and was adorned with beautiful statues and ornaments. It was appreciated by Greek and non-Greek alike. The Persians, the Macedonians and the Romans had ‘revered its sanctity and enriched its splendour.’ The Goths burnt it down.

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4 Responses to Rampant Barbarians: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 10 Part 2

  1. “Great is Diana of the Ephesians!” See the King James translation ofActs chapter 19

  2. If you knew that off the top of your head I am impressed RWMG. Thanks for the comment. To all other readers please accept this correction. Nobody else calls it the temple of Diana except Gibbon and the most widespread text in the English language. My apologies, that had somehow escaped my notice.

  3. I knew the quote and that it was from the KJV Acts, but I admit I had to look up which chapter.

    But generally English writers of the 18th and 19th century, even into the early 20th century, seem to have habitually used the Roman names for the gods even in Greek contexts.

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