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Gothic Invasion 250-251 CE

Gothic Invasion 250-251 CE

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Who were the Goths and Vandals?

The Goths and the Vandals were two of the Germanic groups that clashed with the Roman Empire throughout Europe and North Africa from the third to the fifth centuries A.D. Because nearly all of the surviving information about the Goths and Vandals comes from Roman sources, history has taken a largely negative view of these groups as brutish and uncivilized �rbarians” who helped bring down Rome’s great empire in Europe. Today, to “vandalize” someone else’s property means to cause damage or destruction, while “Goth” is applied to a subculture known for its dark, gloomy aesthetic. But while both the Goths and the Vandals sacked and plundered Rome (in 410 and 455 A.D., respectively), neither group left the great city in ruins or massacred its inhabitants. In fact, the Goth kingdoms founded in Gaul (modern-day France), Iberia (modern-day Spain) and Italy would adopt Catholic Christianity and other aspects of Roman culture, helping to preserve those traditions long after the Western Empire’s decline and fall.

Little is known about the origins of the Goths before the Romans encountered them they may have come from Scandinavia, according to some sources, or from modern-day Poland. From the first Gothic invasion of Roman territory in 238, tensions ran high between the Romans and the warrior people they viewed as inferior and even subhuman. Still, many Goths served as Roman soldiers, adapting the Roman life, and the two groups traded with each other. Around 375, a new group known as the Huns appeared north of the Danube and began pushing other groups–including both the Goths and Vandals𠄿urther into Roman territory. Tensions between Goths and Romans exploded early in the fifth century, when Goth leader Alaric laid siege to Rome and sacked the city in 410. Alaric’s descendants, known as the Visigoths (western Goths), settled in Gaul and Iberia the last Visigoth kingdom, in Spain, fell to the Moors in 711. In Italy, the Ostrogoths (eastern Goths) established dominance by the end of the fifth century, but would fall to the Byzantine Empire within a few decades.

Like the Goths, the Vandals may have originated in Scandinavia before migrating south. They first breached the Roman frontier in 406, with the Roman Empire distracted by internal divisions, and began clashing with both Visigoths and Romans in Gaul and Iberia. Under the fierce warrior king Genseric, the Vandals took advantage of Roman weakness in North Africa and established their kingdom there, with its capital at Carthage, by 440. With Genseric’s forces marching on Rome in 455, the desperate Romans sent Pope Leo I to plead for mercy in exchange for free entry, the Vandals agreed not to burn the city or massacre its citizens. After Genseric died in 477–still undefeated on the battlefield–his empire would decline amid squabbling by his descendants. Byzantine force invaded in 534 and took the last Vandal king, Gelimer, captive in Constantinople.


The Ostrogoths, or eastern Goths, lived in the area near the Black Sea (modern-day Romania, Ukraine and Russia).

Like Goths elsewhere, the Ostrogoths made frequent incursions into Roman territory until their own territories were invaded by Huns from farther east. But after the death of Attila, the Ostrogoths were free to expand into Roman lands.

Under the leadership of Theodoric the Great, the Ostrogoths successfully dominated the rulers of the Italian peninsula, expanding their territories from the Black Sea into Italy and farther west.

But after a series of military campaigns against the Byzantine emperor Justinian and other rivals, the Ostrogoths largely faded from history.

Battle of Adrianople

Throughout July and August of 378 the Romans gained the upper hand and rounded up the Gothic
forces. The majority of the Goths were finally brought to bay near the town of Adrianople. The Western and Eastern emperors had agreed to work together to deal with the Goths. Western emperor Gratian with his army was on his way to join Valens when Valens decided to attack the Goths without Gratian and his army. Moving from Adrianople against the Gothic wagon
camp on August 9, Valens’s attack began before his infantry had finished deploying. As the Roman cavalry charged the camp, the Gothic cavalry, having been recalled from their raids on the surrounding countryside, returned and charged the Roman cavalry and routed it from the battlefield. The combined force of Gothic infantry and cavalry then turned on the Roman infantry
and slaughtered it. The Goths killed two-thirds of the Roman army, including the emperor.

395 to 397

The historian Zosimus claims Alaric, upset that he lacked a proper military title, marched on Constantinople to try to get it. According to Claudian, Rufinus, (de facto head of the Eastern Empire at the moment) bribed Alaric with Balkan provinces to sack, instead. Looting, Alaric advanced through the Balkans and via Thermopylae into Greece.

In 397, Stilicho led naval forces against Alaric, forcing the Gothic troops to Epirus. This act provoked Rufinus, so he persuaded eastern Emperor Arcadius to declare Stilicho a public enemy. He withdrew and Alaric received a military position, perhaps magister militum per Illyricum.

Gothic Migration: Barbarians at the Roman Gate

The 3rd-century Great Ludovisi sarcophagus depicts a battle between Goths and Romans. (Image Unknown/Public domain)

Gothic Migration

In 376, the Goths appeared along the Danube River frontier and petitioned Valens, the emperor of the eastern half of the empire, for permission to cross the river and enter the realm. Though the Goths are often spoken of as a barbarian tribe, that’s technically not correct. The Goths and other tribes—the Vandals and Franks, for example—were collections of different tribes.

This is a transcript from the video series The Early Middle Ages. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

A tribe is a group of people who claim common descent from a single ancestor, whether real or mythical all of the Goths did not claim descent from one individual. Rather, they were a frequently shifting, always changing confederation of different tribes who really thought of themselves as Goths only after coming into contact with the Romans, who affixed this label to them.

The Goths originally came from northern Poland. Although the Romans believed they hailed from Scandinavia, recent archaeological excavations suggest that they came from elsewhere. They resided in northern Poland until about A.D. 100, at which point they began to migrate southward toward the Black Sea, where the weather was much more pleasant and the farmland more fertile.

Commerce and Coexistence on the Danube

They reached the Black Sea in c. 250, and at that point, were very close to the boundaries of the Roman Empire, which helps to explain their raids of the Roman Empire in the 250s, 260s, and 270s. However, following the accession of Diocletian and his restoration of the Roman frontiers, relations between the Goths and the Romans had been relatively peaceful. There was always the occasional punch-up, but mostly, the two groups were relatively happy to coexist with one another as long as the Danube River separated them.

The Gothic invasions of the Roman Empire in the 3rd century. (Image: Newsleep/Public domain)

For more than a century before 376, the Goths had been exposed to Roman culture in various ways and had come to appreciate that culture. We know that the Romans traded with the Goths who lived across the Danube River because many archeological excavations discovered empty Roman wine jugs in Gothic territory either the Romans were hurling their empties across the width of the Danube, or the Goths were learning to enjoy drinking wine. A fair number of Roman coins on the Gothic side of the Danube River were discovered as well, and we know that on occasion the Romans would recruit soldiers from among the Goths, hiring mercenaries who would serve as far away as Syria and Palestine.

Christians Among the Barbarians

Another sign of Roman influence on the Goths, even before the Goths entered the empire in 376, was the existence of some Christians among the Goths. There were not many Christians yet the Goths were still predominately a pagan group in 376, but you could find a handful of Christians. For example, there is one Goth named Ulfila, who was, in fact, a descendant of Romans captured in the raids of the 3rd century who had, nonetheless, become Gothic by ethnicity.

Ulfila was a Christian Goth bishop charged with ministering to those Christians who were living among the Goths. (Image: unknown author, German history book/Public domain)

Ulfila was, as a Christian Goth, dispatched by the barbarians as an ambassador to Constantinople, and there around 340 he was consecrated as a Christian bishop and charged with ministering to those Christians who were living among the Goths. Ulfila even translated the Bible into the Gothic language, although he only won a few new converts among the Goths upon his return to them.

When the Goths asked for politely asked for permission to enter the Roman Empire in 376, therefore, they were not an entirely alien group. There was more than a century of coexistence between Romans and Goths behind this request, and they were not coming as invaders they were coming as migrators.

Refugees, Migrants, or Invaders?

The Goths’ intention was not to take over the Roman Empire. What drove them to ask for permission to cross the Danube River and enter the Roman Empire was a fear of the Huns. Huns were central Asian nomads who had been moving westward for some time and had been placing a great deal of military pressure on the Goths. In response, the Goths wanted to put the Danube River between themselves and the Huns. In a sense, the Goths were refugees in 376, seeking the protection of the Roman Empire.

Why would the Romans have allowed the Goths to enter, though? In some respects, the Romans had every reason not to allow the Goths to enter in 376, because for all of the wine jugs and coins that we can find in the Gothic territories across the Danube, the Goths were still different.

Trousers, Butter, and Beer

They were still Germanic barbarians, and, in many respects, unlike the Romans. To a Roman, the Goths and all Germanic barbarians looked funny, smelled funny, sounded funny. They looked funny, in part, because their clothing was odd. It was heavy and bulky they had not lost their Polish roots, and they tended to wear heavy furs. They also wore clothing that was sewn and fitted, such as trousers. The barbarian legacy to Europe was mostly trousers.

To Romans, who preferred loose clothing that you draped around yourself, tunics—not togas those were purely ceremonial by this point in time—trousers looked strange. Wouldn’t it have been better to have had something that you didn’t have to buy a new pair of every two years because you had expanded in size?

In addition to wearing these strange leggings, the hair of the Goths seemed odd. It was long, straggly, and some of it was on their faces. Aside from the radical Julian the Apostate, Romans preferred to be clean-shaven and they preferred short hair.

Germanic governing assembly, 193 C.E. (Image: By The original uploader was Wolpertinger at German Wikipedia/Public domain)

Even worse, barbarians styled their hair by using rancid butter, no longer good for cooking, which kept your hair in place but gave off a very distinctive odor. One snide Roman poet of the 5th century penned the immortal line: “Happy the nose that cannot smell a barbarian.”

In addition to putting strange substances in their hair that the Roman nose found offensive, the barbarians cooked in an odd fashion, which Romans remarked upon. They didn’t fry everything in oil the way that a good Roman did instead, they preferred to cook with animal fat and butter, which were products available in Poland.

Although they acquired a taste for wine, their preferred beverage was brown and noxious—beer, made from grain. However, perhaps worst of all, worse than their clothing or their cuisine, was the language spoken by the barbarians. They did not speak the beautiful, mellifluous Latin that Romans so prized. Instead, they spoke the undeniably harsh and grating Germanic dialects, of which English is a descendant. Indeed, the Roman term “barbarian” derived from the Roman conception of foreigners’ speaking habits. To Roman ears, a Germanic conversation sounded like this: “Bar-bar-bar-bar-bar-bar-bar-bar.” It was unintelligible gibberish but also very guttural, and so the term “barbarians,” the people who said “bar-bar” all the time, came to be the label affixed by Romans to the Goths.

Common Questions About Gothic Migration

The Goths , or Visigoths , were not so much defeated as they simply disappeared by blending into the culture of the Roman people whom they had conquered.

The Goths may have come from Scandinavia, settling on the southern shore of the Baltic Sea and eventually spreading across the Roman empire .

The Goths first came to the Roman empire to seek protection from the brutal Huns. At first the relationship between the Romans and Goths was amicable, but as the number of Gothic refugees increased, the Romans turned on them, viewing and treating them as “barbarians.” In retaliation, the Goths went to battle with the Romans, whom they greatly outnumbered, and won.

Many Goths , who originally were mostly pagan, converted to Christianity upon entering the Roman Empire to assimilate into Roman culture and begin a favorable relationship with the Romans . In other cases, Catholic missionaries converted the Goths .

Decius’s response [ edit | edit source ]

The sack of Philippopolis invigorated Decius, who intercepted several parties of Germans, and repaired and strengthened his fortifications along the Danube, intending to oppose Cniva’s forces. The Romans in time, with their superior numbers, surrounded the Goths, who attempted now to retreat from the empire. But Decius, seeking revenge and confident of victory, attacked the Goths at a small town called Forum Terebronii. The Roman army was caught in a swamp when they attempted to attack the Gothic army, and both the emperor Decius and his son Herennius Etruscus were slain in this battle, known as the Battle of Abrittus.

Evidence Shows A Greek Stand against the Goths in the 3rd Century CE – In The Pass Of Thermopylae

Ancient history covers an incredibly vast span of time. We know the specific details of only a small percentage of the battles fought during this era. Sometimes we just have an idea that a war occurred during a certain stretch of time, with no knowledge of specific battles.

For example, we have written evidence of a 260 CE battle between Roman-Greek forces against invading Goths, but it was only readable through advanced scanning processes developed over the last few years. It is rather unsurprising that the defense of Greece against the Goths was fought at Thermopylae, a common battlefield throughout the long years from 480 BCE to 1941.

Using spectral imaging, researchers uncovered fragments of a copy of an ancient Greek text detailing the Gothic invasion of Greece a century before they won the battle of Adrianople. The Goths seemed to be wandering through the area looking for a place to settle, but kept on the lookout for possible loot. They found it in Greece, a wealthy land that seems to have been lightly defended.

This invasion by the Goths was likely to be successful because the Romans were going through the Crisis of the Third Century, where dozens of emperors claimed the throne, and the empire was split into three independently warring sections. Because of this Empire-wide crisis, the Goths were able to lay siege to the very important city of Thessaloniki in northeastern Greece, according to the new sources.

Special imaging unlocked the texts of these pages. credit to Christopher Mallan and Caillan Davenport for the images and translations.

The source is courtesy of an 11th-century copy of a work by the Greek writer Dexippus, who lived and wrote during the same period as the Gothic invasion. Dexippus wrote that Thessaloniki was well defended, with a lot of reinforcements, so after a few assault attempts, the Goths set their sights on the fertile and wealthy lands of Attica and the famed city of Athens. The quickest way through Greece was through the ‘hot gates’ of Thermopylae, so named for the hot Sulphur springs in the area.

The historical center of Thessaloniki was too well fortified for the marauding Goths.

A Roman army under the command of Marianus set up in the legendary pass to oppose the Goths. The composition of the defending Roman force is unclear, though we have some strong hints from the sources and the struggles of the period. Dexippus refers to the defenders as Greeks, which makes one think that the force was little more than a militia or local army comprised entirely of Greeks. With civil wars occurring all around the empire, it is possible that no regular Roman army could be marshalled for Greece’s defense.

Dexippus could simply be referring to the men as Greeks because they were defending that region, but it is quite likely that this army was composed of native soldiers of Greece. This theory is strengthened when we consider that the commander refers to them as Greeks and that the men are described as having a wide variety of weapons, indicating that they were not regular forces.

Dexippus records a rousing and inspirational speech from general Marianus to his men. He spoke to them of the famed deeds of the 300 Spartans, and the value of holding the pass. At one point in the fragmented speech, Manlius said: “For your ancestors, fighting in this place in former times, did not let Greece down and deprive it of its free state.” Inspiring words for what seems to have been a ragged band of unprofessional forces.

Unfortunately, we do not know for certain the outcome of the battle as the fragments we have cut off before Marianus even finishes his speech. In all likelihood, the Goths won the battle at Thermopylae. They seemed to have far greater numbers, and the source mentions them attacking Thessaloniki in ordered “battle columns”, so we can expect that a fairly disciplined and well-led Gothic army won the day at Thermopylae.

A helpful graphic showing the changing shoreline at Thermopylae. it’s easy to see why it was such a popular point to defend mainland Greece.

The battle may have been a holding action, so often performed at the narrow pass, and the Goths may have had to push through or perish. They likely ravaged several small towns of Greece and were perhaps confined to Attica and unable to breach Athens.

This same group of Goths (though possibly another group) would later wander out of Greece where they would face an organized Roman army under Emperor Gallienus (or possibly Claudius II). Here, at the battle of Naissus, the Goths were soundly defeated.

Unfortunately, we have almost nothing to go on in terms of troop totals, or even specific dates. What we do know is that the Gothic invasion of the third century was possibly an even greater incursion than the fourth-century one that culminated in the battle of Adrianople and the death of Emperor Valens.

We do know that about ten years before the Gothic battle of Thermopylae, the Roman Emperor Decius and his son Herennius Etruscus were both killed by the Goths during the battle of Abritus, during an earlier invasion. We just don’t have the exact details, but though many people call out the battle of Adrianople as the first signs of the fall, or, at least, the decline, of Rome, the reality might be that the Roman grip on long-held lands may have loosened a century earlier.

The Sassanids were unable to take the city, and took a Roman as captive and tortured him until he revealed another route they could use. The Sassanids raided Caesarea during the night, killing every Roman soldier.

According to Percy Sykes, "He[Shapur] captured Caesarea Mazaca, the greatest city in Cappadocia but probably from lack of a standing army, again made no attempt to organize and administer, or even to retain, his conquests. He merely killed and ravaged with barbarous severity". Ώ]


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