|The Story of the Middle Ages|
|by Samuel B. Harding|
|Relates the history of the Middle Ages simply, directly, and entertainingly. The material is well-arranged and the selection of topics is excellent. Special attention is given to presenting the life of the peopleópeasant, noble, and court. A unique and valuable book. Ages 11-14 |
BREAKING THE FRONTIER
F you look at the map of Europe you will see two great
rivers,—the Rhine and the Danube,—flowing in
opposite directions across the continent, one emptying
into the North Sea and the other into the Black Sea.
Their mouths are thousands of miles apart; yet when you
follow up the course of each, you find that they come
nearer and nearer, until, at their sources, the
distance between them is no greater than a good walker
might cover in a day. Thus these two rivers almost
form a single line across the whole of Europe. Each in
its lower course is broad and deep, and makes a good
boundary for the countries on its banks. The Roman
armies in the old days often crossed these rivers and
indeed gained victories beyond them; but they found it
so hard to keep possession of what they conquered
there, that in the end they decided not to try. So for
many years the Rhine and the Danube rivers formed the
northern boundary of the Roman Empire.
In the last chapter you have read something of the
Germans who lived north and east of this boundary.
Among these peoples there was one which was to take the
lead in breaking through the frontier and
bring-  ing about the downfall of the great empire of Rome. This
was the nation of the Goths.
In the latter part of the fourth century after Christ,
the Goths dwelt along the shores of the Black Sea and
just north of the lower course of the Danube River.
There they had been dwelling for more than a hundred
years. According to the stories which the old men had
told their sons, and the sons had told their children
after them, the Goths at one time had dwelt far to the
North, on the shores of the Baltic. Why they left their
northern home, we do not know. Perhaps it was because
of a famine or a pestilence which had come upon the
land; perhaps it was because of a victory or a defeat
in war with their neighbors; perhaps it was because of
the urging of some great leader, or because of an
oracle of their gods.
At any rate, the Goths did leave their homes by the
Baltic Sea, to wander southward through the forests of
what is now Western Russia. After many years, they had
arrived in the sunnier lands about the Danube. There
they had come in contact with the Romans for the first
time. For a while there had been much fighting between
the two peoples; but at last the Goths had been allowed
to settle down quietly in these lands, on condition
that they should not cross the river Danube and enter
the Roman territory. And there they had dwelt ever
since, living peaceably, for the most part, alongside
their Roman neighbors and learning from them many
The greatest thing that the Goths learned from the
Romans was Christianity. Little by little they ceased
worshiping Thor and Woden, and became Christians.
was chiefly due to one of their own men, named Ulfilas,
who spent a number of years at Constantinople, the
Roman capital of the world. There he became a
Christian priest; and when he returned to his people he
began to work as a missionary among them. Ulfilas had
many difficulties to overcome in this work; but the
chief one was that there was no Bible, or indeed any
books, in the Gothic language. So Ulfilas set to work
to translate the Bible from the Greek language into the
Gothic. This was a hard task in itself; but it was
made all the harder by the fact that before he could
begin he had to invent an alphabet in which to write
down the Gothic words. After the translation was made,
too, he had to teach his people how to read it. In all
this Ulfilas was successful; and under his wise and
patient teaching the Goths rapidly became Christians.
At the same time they were becoming more civilized, and
their rulers were beginning to build up a great kingdom
about the Danube and the Black Sea. Suddenly, however,
an event happened which was to change all their later
history, and indeed the history of the world as well.
This was the coming of the Huns into Europe.
The Huns were not members of the great Aryan family of
nations; and indeed the Germans and the Romans thought
that they were scarcely human at all. They were
related to the Chinese; and their strange features and
customs, and their shrill voices, were new to Europe.
An old Gothic writer gives us a picture of them.
"Nations whom they could never have defeated in fair
fight," he says, "fled in horror from those frightful
faces—if, indeed, I may call them
 faces; for they are
nothing but shapeless black pieces of flesh, with
little points instead of eyes. They have no hair on
their cheeks or chins. Instead, the sides of their
faces show deep furrowed scars; for hot irons are
applied, with characteristic ferocity, to the face of
every boy that is born among them, so that blood is
drawn from his cheeks before he is allowed to taste his
motherís milk. The men are little in size, but quick
and active in their motions; and they are especially
skillful in riding. They are broad-shouldered, are
good at the use of the bow and arrows, have strong
 necks, and are always holding their heads high in their
pride. To sum up, these beings under the forms of men
hide the fierce natures of beasts."
The Goths were brave, but they could not stand against
such men as these. The
EAST-GOTHS, who dwelt about the
Black Sea, were soon conquered, and for nearly a
century they continued to be subject to the Huns. The
WEST-GOTHS, who dwelt about the Danube, fled in terror
before the countless hordes of the new-comers, and
sought a refuge within the boundaries of the Roman
Empire. As many as two hundred thousand fighting men,
besides thousands of old men, women, and children,
gathered on the north bank of the Danube, and
"stretching out their hands from afar, with loud
lamentations," begged the Roman officers to permit
them to cross the river and settle in the Roman lands.
The Roman Emperor, after much discussion, granted their
request; but only on hard conditions, for he feared to
have so many of the Goths in the land. The Gothic
boys, he said, must be given up to the Romans as
hostages, and the men must surrender their arms. The
situation of the Goths was so serious that they were
forced to agree to these terms; but many of them found
means to bribe the Roman officers, to let them keep
their arms with them. At last the crossing began; and
for many days an army of boats was kept busy ferrying
the people across the stream, which at this point was
more than a mile wide.
In this way the West-Goths were saved from the Huns;
but they soon found that it was only to suffer many
injuries at the hands of the Roman officers.
emperor had given orders that the Goths were to be fed
and cared for until they could be settled on new lands;
but the Roman officers stole the food intended for
them, and oppressed them in other ways. Some of the
Goths, indeed, fell into such distress that they sold
their own children as slaves in order to get food.
This state of affairs could not last long with so
war-like a people as the Goths. One day, in the midst
of a banquet which the Roman governor was giving to
their leader, an outcry was heard in the palace-yard,
and the news came that the Goths were being attacked.
At once the Gothic leader drew his sword, saying he
would stop the tumult, and went out to his men.
From that time war began between the Romans and the
West-Goths. About a year after this (in the year
378 A.D.) a great battle was fought near Adrianople, a
city which lies about one hundred and forty miles
northwest of Constantinople. The Emperor Valens was
himself at the head of the Roman army. His flatterers
led him to believe that there could be no doubt of his
success; so Valens rashly began the battle without
waiting for the troops that were coming to assist him.
The Romans were at a disadvantage besides. They were
hot and tired, and their horses had had no food; the
men, moreover, became crowded together into a narrow
space where they could neither form their lines, nor
use their swords and spears with effect. The victory
of the Goths was complete. The Roman cavalry fled at
the first attack; then the infantry were surrounded and
cut down by thousands. More than two-thirds of the
Roman army perished,
 and with them perished the Emperor
Valens—no one knows just how.
The effects of this defeat were very disastrous for the
Romans. Before this time the Goths had been doubtful
of their power to defeat the Romans in the open field.
Now they felt confidence in themselves, and were ready
to try for new victories. And this was not the worst.
After the battle of Adrianople the river Danube can no
longer be considered the boundary of the Empire. The
Goths had gained a footing within the frontier and
could wander about at will. Other barbarian nations
soon followed their example, and then still others
came. As time went on, the Empire fell more and more
into the hands of the barbarians.
These effects were not felt so much at first because
the new Emperor, Theodosius, was an able man, and wise
enough to see that the best way to treat the Goths was
to make friends of them. This he did, giving them lands
to till, and taking their young men into the pay of his
army; so during his reign the Goths were quiet, and
even helped him to fight his battles against his Roman
enemies. One old chief, who had remained an enemy of
the Romans, was received with kindness by Theodosius.
After seeing the strength and beauty of the city of
Constantinople, he said one day: "This Emperor is
doubtless a god upon earth; and whoever lifts a hand
against him is guilty of his own blood."
But the wise and vigorous rule of Theodosius was a
short one, and came to an end in the year 395. After
that the Roman Empire was divided into an Eastern
 Empire, with its capital at Constantinople, and a
Western Empire, with its capital at Rome. After that,
too, the friendly treatment of the Goths came to an
end, and a jealous and suspicious policy took its place.
Moreover, a new ruler, named Alaric, had just been
chosen by the Goths. He was a fiery young prince, and
was the ablest ruler that the West-Goths ever had. He
had served in the Roman armies, and had there learned
the Roman manner of making war. He was ambitious, too;
and when he saw that the Empire was weakened by
division, and by the folly of its rulers, he decided
that the time had come for action. So, as an old
Gothic writer tells us, "the new King took counsel with
his people and they determined to carve out new
kingdoms for themselves, rather than, through idleness,
to continue the subjects of others."
Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics