The Byzantine court during the reign of the ineffectual Arcadius in the late fourth century was run by two men. The emperor’s favourite at court was the corrupt and worldly Eutropius who ran the civil administration of the empire largely for his own benefit. The army was run by the Goth Gainas.
Alaric died suddenly after a short fever. He was somewhere around forty years old. For all his urbane sophistication and his desire to become a Roman, he was given a truly barbarian funeral. The course of the river Busento was diverted and his body buried under its bed. Then the river was restored to its normal course and the captives who had worked on it were killed. The location of his body has remained a secret ever since. The secret of what exactly he was doing in southern Italy has remained just as obscure. Gibbon assumes that his interest in Sicily was as a stepping stone to Africa. Africa fed Rome, so if he wanted to control one he had to control the other. Maybe this marks his ambition to become in effect the ruler of the Roman world. Or maybe his reasoning was that Africa represented a defendable home for his people with the resources that they needed.
I am working through the chapters of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire translating the majestic sweep of the original narrative into modern English. There are times when this gets tough, and this is one of them. Gibbon is a great writer and this is one of his greatest sections. I will do my best, but please bear with me here. Right, on with the story.
While the invasion by Alaric threw Italy into a crisis, Germany was in turmoil. There was increasing pressure from the Huns in the East – Gibbon traces its origin all the way back to China, which is probably fanciful but I suppose isn’t impossible. From this emerged a new barbarian leader who rapidly became an enemy of Rome. Alaric was a Christian who understood the empire intimately. In contrast the new leader was an out and out barbarian. His name was Radagaisus and he was not just a pagan, but a sincere one who regularly sacrificed to his gods. He treated the civilised world with contempt rather than envy. It was widely believed that he had taken a vow to reduce the city of Rome to rubble and to sacrifice the senators to his heavenly supporters.
Since the time of the first emperor. Augustus, there had been a rough equilibrium between the empire and the German tribes. The empire had been too big for the Germans to defeat, but too overextended to threaten their independence. But with the Huns now about to wipe out the Germans the position had changed. The equilibrium was wrecked. The Goths understood the change in the situation sooner than anyone else.
The origin of the Huns is obscure. Gibbon traces it back to early first century when they were known as the Tanjou and lived on the borders of China just north of the Great Wall. This was not a coincidence. The Tanjou were a force to be reckoned with. They had put together a vast coalition of steppe peoples via diplomacy, war and straight forward intimidation. They had become powerful enough that they threatened to overthrow the ruling dynasty in China itself. The first wall built by the Chinese was a specific response to this threat.
Power is always relative. The Roman Empire had lost some territory to the Persians, but this did not hugely reduce its resources. It remained the big beast in the jungle. For the Persians however, acquiring some new provinces enhanced their capabilities considerably over where they had been before the peace treaty. They were still at a severe disadvantage in an all out fight with the Romans, but they posed a much bigger threat than they used to. This meant the forces deployed to defend against them had to be larger and they had to be treated with a greater degree of diplomatic finesse.