Research rabbit holes, Steve Reeves movies, and a brief history of the Gothic War


While the article below is included because enough work went into that I’d hate to see it go to waste, it’s also included as a cautionary tale. Like my epic recounting of the Labors of Hercules, which was an excerpt from an abandoned book project about sword and sandal films, this was part of a mad scheme to construct a legitimate ancient history book out of a series of reviews of fantastical, mostly B-movie epics of exceedingly dubious accuracy. I started this project using two movies: Last Woman of Shang (1964), a big-budget film from Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers, set during the Shang Dynasty (1766 BC to 1122 BC); and Goliath and the Barbarians (1959), a rousing sword and sandal actioner from Italy starring American bodybuilder Steve Reeves, fresh off his success in a couple of Hercules films, and Cuban bombshell Chelo Alonso.

Here’s the historical context you need to review Goliath and the Barbarians: the film is set during the Lombard invasion of the tattered remnants of the Western Roman Empire in 568 AD. And as you will see, that sentence does indeed appear. But let this be a lesson. I decided, sitting in the library surrounded by reference material, that you couldn’t really understand the Lombard invasion without understanding the Migration Period, which began in the 4th century AD, and the utterly insane jumble of wars, alliances, betrayals, and shifting alliances that characterized the waning days of the Roman Empire and the early transition into medieval Europe.

None of this is important to Goliath and the Barbarians, but as my conceit was to use such films as a springboard for actual history I dove in and was almost immediately crushed by the weight of my own ambition. This is partially because the particular period I picked is profoundly confusing, partly because I have a day job and couldn’t dedicate myself entirely to this mad scheme, and partly because I’m sort of lazy and easily distracted. So in the end, I gave up what I still think would be a pretty fun project.

But not before I’d taken a first-draft tour of the tumultuous century from roughly 350 AD to 450 AD—the arrival of the Goths on the outskirts of the Roman Empire to the arrival of Attila the Hun, at which point I ran out of steam and ended on a cliffhanger that will likely never be fulfilled, like a TV show that didn’t realize it was about to be canceled. I didn’t even get to writing about Goliath and the Barbarians (let alone Last Woman of Shang). It’s good, and the score for the American version, by Les Baxter is phenomenal.

I wanted to showcase the writing somehow, even though it is, as I said, a first draft, lacking in footnotes and missing a lot of the jokes I planned to insert. So it’s not as funny as I intended it to eventually be. It was all I could do just to sort out the Constantiuses, Constantines, and Valentinians. Not to mention that I’m pretty sure I lose the thread at various points and introduce a number of historical inaccuracies, though no more than did Goliath and the Barbarians.

So what you have below is the first bit of a very unpolished, unproofed, at least partially unreliable history—which, come to think of it, is most history. If nothing else, I hope you learn a thing or two about Alaric. That dude fuckin’ hated Emperor Honorius.

The Coming of the Barbarians

Goliath and the Barbarians was the third of five sword and sandal epics in which Steve Reeves starred in 1959, released on June 30, just a little over a week after his second such film, The White Warrior, released on June 21. Like The White Warrior, Goliath and the Barbarians is technically not an ancient world epic in the vein of Reeves’ two spectacularly popular Hercules films. But also like The White Warrior, and most of Reeves’ subsequent films, it still kind of is.

The film is set during the Lombard invasion of the tattered remnants of the Western Roman Empire in 568 AD, placing it centuries after the era in which Hercules was bounding across the globe in search of adventure and people he could accidentally slay while in a drunken haze, but no great effort is put into differentiating Reeves’ character, the noble woodcutter Emiliano, from his iconic turn as the Greek demigod.

The greater period in which Goliath and the Barbarians takes place is known broadly as the Migration Period, and it began roughly in the 4th Century A.D. Rome, the mighty powerhouse of western civilization, was in its very prolonged death throes. This caused a period of great instability and upheaval, as the deaths of empires tend to do, and set off a vast wave of migration across Europe, sparked by the desire to distance one’s people from the crumbling mess and the desire to conquer lands Rome was no longer powerful enough to defend. This was the era of great hosts from the north and east descending upon the decrepit empire. Most famous, and most aggressive, among the many peoples flowing into Roman lands were the Huns and the Goths — rather fond of warring with one another before each set their sites on the spoils of Rome.

Rome and the Germanic Goth tribes had been at war since before the ascension of Julius Caesar, who cemented his power over the Roman military largely thanks to his campaigns in the north. By the time of Attila, the Roman solution to the border was less militaristic and more diplomatic. The tribes—which were often more advanced and complex than the term “barbarians” implies—were negotiated with, attained a certain autonomy, and also served as a buffer (and source of soldiers) against even unrulier distant neighbors. This peace was shattered when an official from the Visigoths, one of the most powerful Germanic tribes, was murdered while ostensibly under the protection of Roman lieutenant Lupicinus, sparking what became known as the Gothic War, which ebbed and flowed between 376 and 382 AD.

Goths had been flowing into the empire since roughly 376 AD, seeking refuge from a hollerin’ bunch of ruffians known as the Huns, who had been careening all over central Asia and eastern Europe. The emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire at the time, Valens, was actually happy to see them. He was in need of soldiers, and the Goths would be an excellent source. Standard operating procedure in Rome had been to absorb migrant populations into the empire, recruit a large number of them into the army, then disperse the rest across the empire in small groups, so that no sense of a unified migrant population could be sustained, thus making their assimilation into Rome quicker and more complete and the threat they posed to Roman power negligible. Valens saw no reason this wouldn’t work when it came to the Goths. But things didn’t exactly go as planned. 

For starters, Valens was so desperate for military manpower that he forewent the age-old method of breaking the population up into smaller groups. The Goths were allowed to settle en masse. Because he planned to draft many of the men into the army, and because he was low on funds and materials to equip an army, another old rule — the confiscation of weapons — was largely disregarded as well. Part of the Roman agreement was to provide food for the migrants while they awaited relocation to their permanent settlements in Thrace, but Roman logistics proved inadequate for the task. Food shortages were rampant, and they were exacerbated by the graft of Roman officers, who would sometimes neglect to distribute victuals in favor of selling them for their own personal enrichment.

Particularly problematic in this regard was a guy named Lupicinus. In an effort to quell growing discontent among the Goths, Lupicinus attempted to march them further south, but this only opened the door for more Goth migrants to cross into Roman territory. What’s more, Lupicinus treated the Goths rather shabbily when they reached their destination of Marcianople, which would be in modern-day Bulgaria. Lupicinus forbade Goths from doing business with local merchants, further inflaming food shortages and fanning discontent. When it was reported that a group of Goths had mugged and murdered Roman soldiers, Lupicinus reacted by seizing the Gothic leaders (in town for a meeting with Lupicinus) and executing their assistants.

This went down poorly. The Goths, led now by a man named Fritigern, graduated from discontent to open rebellion, slaughtering Lupicinus’ army (but not Lupicinus himself) at the Battle of Marcianople in 376. The Gothic War had begun.

The Gothic War

The war went badly for Emperor Valens. Gothic hordes, bolstered by slaves of Rome who found themselves suddenly free and with an axe to grind, pillaged the territories of Eastern Rome, amassing a vast train of wagons that served as a sort of mobile fortress. What’s more, a significant portion of Roman legions were made up of Goths, and they seemed more enthusiastic about going to war with Rome than about waging war against their kin.  It was only by appealing to the Emperor of the Western Roman Empire, Gratian, that Valens was able to avoid complete calamity.

After a vicious engagement known as the Battle of the Willows in 377, the two sides retreated to their respective fortresses to recover. The Romans hoped the coming winter would decimate the Gothic ranks, and that might have been the case had not the Goths struck up bargains with groups of Hun mercenaries. Even then, Rome might have prevailed had Valens not been a victim of bad intelligence and worse hubris.

Expecting to meet a Gothic host of modest size, impatient at waiting for Gratian to mop up his own barbarian war in the West and join him, and hungry for a sliver of personal glory, Valens decided to march out, against Gratian’s advice, to engage Fritigern’s force. Once again, things went badly for Rome. Valens’ legions were battle-weary and poorly rested. The Goths, despite the hope that winter would starve them, were in pretty good shape. And there were a lot more of them than Valens had been led to believe.

This Battle of Adrianople took place in August of 378. It was a bloodbath. By the end, some two-thirds of the army of Eastern Rome was destroyed, and Emperor Valens vanished, presumed slain or sneaking off into the woods wearing a fake mustache and a hat. Disastrous though the battle was, the city of Adrianople did not fall to the subsequent Gothic siege. Nor did the capital of the Eastern Empire, Constantinople, which although emperor-less, was well-fortified and reinforced by fierce local Arab garrisons.

Thrust suddenly into the role of de facto emperor, military commander Julius, panicked. Fearing additional settlements of Goths scattered across the Eastern Empire might rally to Fritigern’s banner, he ordered whole populations massacred. This did little to quell the hostilities.

Eventually, a man by the name of Theodosius ascended to emperor of the East, but he enjoyed little success against Fritigern. Depleted of soldiers, Theodosius resorted to drafting farmers, who were none too pleased, and hired more mercenaries. He marched south to confront a host of Goths, but his army disintegrated along the way, the victim of mass desertion and the fact that many of the mercenaries got a better deal from the Goths. 

With the East in shambles, Gratian finally got serious about throwing the weight of the Western Roman army into the fray. Still the Gothic army persisted, and with victory elusive for both sides, they finally sat down to talk peace. On October 8, 382 AD, the Gothic War came to an end. Fritigern’s Therving Goths settled in Roman territory as a unified people—but part of Rome and subject to military service. They soon became known as Visigoths. Fritigern himself is never mentioned as part of the peace process and was never heard from again. It was a grueling road to arrive at where they were likely to have arrived years earlier had Lupicinus not made a fateful decision during dinner one night in 376. With the war over and the Goths now part of the Empire, it seemed like things might settle down. They didn’t.

The city of Rome hadn’t been the political seat of the Western Empire since 286 AD, when the capital moved to Mediolanum (modern-day Milan).  But Rome was Rome, politicians in residence or not. It was the spiritual home, first of the Republic and then of the Empire. It was the scrappy little city that became a giant and had not been conquered in nearly 800 years, not since Gallic king Brennus sacked the town around 390 BC, when it was still getting started (and which you can learn about via Amazons of Rome, 1961 and Brennus, Enemy of Rome, 1963). The Empire may have been reeling, and it may have been exhausted both in the East and West from warfare, but as long as the city of Rome still shone, so too did the Roman Empire. That all came crashing down in 410 AD.

Goth Rock

After the death/disappearance from the historical record of Fritigern, a man by the name of Alaric was declared king of the Visigoths. Although Visigoths existed in a more-or-less autonomous state within the Roman Empire, Alaric chafed at Roman oversight. In 392, he got bored and led an expeditionary force against the armies of Eastern Emperor Theodosius to see what Visigoth chances might be in a fight. They weren’t good. Alaric was defeated and, in one of those bizarre twists that happen so often in ancient history, he found himself leading a Visigoth army in the service of Theodosius against, incredibly, the Western Roman Empire. 

For all the tangling with Goths and Huns that had plagued the East, first under Valens and then Theodosius, at least Constantinople knew who its emperor was. In the West, the political climate was about what you’d expect from an empire hundreds of years old. During the Gothic Wars, Gratian was the emperor of note, but he hadn’t always been the only emperor. Valentinian I ascended to emperor of Rome in 364 AD. It was his idea to split the vast, unwieldy empire into two halves, anointing his brother, Valens, emperor in the East. Whilst embroiled in an uprising in Britain, Valentinian declared his son, Gratian, co-emperor. Valentinian died, it seems of pure rage, during negotiations around a conflict involving a Germanic tribe called the Quadi, on November 17, 375, leaving Gratian sole emperor in the west. Well, except for his baby half-brother.

Upon Valentinian’s death, a group of soldiers egged on by generals Aequitius and Maximinus, who likely feared Gratian’s own military prowess would diminish their influence, declared the four-year-old emperor, naming him Valentinian II. Wanting to avoid a dust-up with conniving officials, Gratian basically waved his hand and proclaimed, “Fine. Whatever,” allowing his step-mother and baby half-brother to install themselves in Mediolanum while he went on galavanting from war to war, effectively still the sole emperor of the West and, when Valens fell during the Gothic War, emperor of a once-again unified (if only by happenstance, and then only briefly) Roman Empire. But Gratian recognized Rome was too massive for one man to rule and so anointed Theodosius emperor in the East. 

Meanwhile, poor Valentinian II, with his mother Justina acting as a proxy empress, was tossed around by the winds of imperial court intrigue and religious feuds between ascendant Christians and the last remnants of old, Pagan Rome. On top of that, he had to contend with a would-be usurper named Magnus Maximus, the commander of the Roman legions in Britain. Magnus Maximus declared himself emperor in 383 and established his base in Gaul (later to be France) and Hispania (later…oh, you can figure that one out).

Maximus seemed less wary in Valentinian the boy emperor and Justina than he was Gratian, the former mighty military man and grand emperor who had, Maximus felt, grown indolent and careless. In fact, a lot of people, especially soldiers, had had about enough of Gratian, who they felt, post-Gothic War, had gone a little too barbarian, favoring Scythian archers as his personal guard and even dressing up in Scythian attire. Additionally, a Christian religious leader named St. Ambrose, who was also causing headaches for Valentinian, was manipulating Gratian in a bid to abolish entirely the vestiges of Pagan Roman worship.

When Maximus raised his rebellion, Gratian was in no position to defy him. The once-proud emperor fled. He didn’t get far. In Lyon, he was apprehended by forces loyal to Maximus and put to death on August 25, 383. Valentinian II and Justina read the writing on the wall and also fled, more successfully, to the protection of Theodosius in Constantinople. To cement their alliance, Theodosius married Valentinian’s sister, Galla. With that taken care of, Theodosius marched West to reclaim the other half of the Empire from Maximus. 

It was a successful but ultimately futile campaign. Valentinian II was restored to his place as emperor. Magnus Maximus surrendered and was put to death. Justina passed away. Ambrose found the young emperor, who set up a new seat of power in Vienne, Gaul, beyond his grasp. Theodosius was, in effect, calling the shots for the entire Roman empire. To “watch over” the Western Emperor, Theodosius appointed his trusted general, Arbogast, who set about sidelining Valentinian as much as possible, preventing him from gathering much in the way of honor or accolades.

Upset at seeing his power siphoned off to Arbogast, Valentinian officially dismissed the general from his post in the Western Empire. Arbogast reacted with laughter, even going so far as to tear up the proclamation in public. Having nowhere else to turn for allies, Valentinian reached out to that Christian firebrand, St. Ambrose. But there was precious little Ambrose could do for the luckless young emperor. On May 15, 382 AD, Valentinian was found hanged in his own residence. His good, close pal Arbogast swore it must have been suicide.

If Theodosius thought that was that, he was soon to discover his Man in the West wasn’t as much his man as he assumed. Theodosius named his own son, Arcadius, as emperor of the Western Empire, but crafty old Arbogast was only having that for so long. He named his own emperor, Eugenius, in open defiance of the man to whom he had once been so loyal — or at least loyal enough to hang a kid in the bedroom. Theodosius responded by elevating yet another person, the eight-year-old Honorius, to emperor of the West. The gauntlet was thrown, and once again civil war seized the empire. Among the generals who marched under the banner of Theodosius was the Visigoth king (of a sort), Alaric. At the Battle of the Frigidus River in September of 394 AD, in what is now Slovenia, Eugenius was defeated and his head put on display. Arbogast, in a coincidental turn of events, committed suicide. Actual suicide; not Valentinian II “suicide.”

Theodosius was once again the sole emperor of the Western and Eastern Roman Empires…but not for long. He died just four months later, splitting the empire between his children, Honorius and Arcadius. Neither proved to be particularly effective leaders. Arcadius was easily manipulated in the East; and in the West, Honorius has the honor of being known as the emperor who allowed the sacking of Rome. That sacking was led by Alaric. 

During the Battle of the Frigidus River, Alaric distinguished himself on the battlefield as a man of great bravery and cunning. Yet he felt he was snubbed by the Roman high command, his men used as cannon fodder (or whatever; spear fodder, I guess). When Theodosius died on January 17, 395, Alaric felt that marked the end of the Visigoths’ peace pact with Rome. He gathered a united force of Goths and marched off to lay siege to Constantinople, where a weak boy-emperor made the city ripe for the plucking. 

And then, across the hills, came riding the Huns from the steppes of central Asia and far eastern Europe.

Hunnish, I’m Home!

The first major Hun push into Roman territory came in 395, when they took advantage of the fact that Roman Emperor Theodosius —the last emperor of a unified Western and Eastern Rome — had most of Rome’s remaining military might tied up in the western portion of the empire in the war against Eugenius. This enabled the Huns to sweep through vast swathes of Eastern Roman territory and claim it as their own. After the death of Theodosius, Arcadius suddenly found himself with two powerful enemies throwing stuff at the walls of Constantinople, even as Romans squabbled amongst themselves over who was the rightful guardian of the two boy-emperors. 

Alaric and his fightin’ Visigoths proved the easier of the two threats to quell, primarily by offering them new tracts of land in Thessaly. Temporarily satisfied, Alaric led his merry band on a wild stampede of pillaging across Macedonia. A Roman general named Stilicho was dispatched from time to time to put the kibosh on Alaric’s reign of rowdy behavior in old Greece, but no decisive battle ever took place between the two.

Stilicho, who hailed from the Western Empire, was even declared, eventually, an enemy of the Eastern Empire, possibly because he had secretly made a pact with the man he was supposed to be fighting, Alaric. Seemingly unable to best the wily Visigoth, who was still using the ol’ wagon train fortress method of tearing around Roman territory, in 398 AD the embattled Arcadius offered him terms for peace. Alaric was finally named magister militum per Illyricum — a made man. A Roman military commander. And they never had a problem with him again. Right???

The Huns’ frolic came to an end in 398 as well, when the eunuch Eutropius, one of the more interesting characters in a history replete with interesting characters, successfully organized a resistance, composed of Romans and Goths, to turn back the Huns, though no record exists of any major victory that explains the Huns’ willingness to give up the fight. Unfortunately for Rome, one thing led to another, which led to Alaric being stripped of his title in 400. Additionally, crowds in Constantinople were whipped into a frenzy that became a riot, and then a slaughter. By the end of it, hundreds or thousands (the figures in ancient history are never terribly precise) of Goths were dead. Aurelianus, sort of the unofficial leader in the East, forged an alliance with the Huns, who reacted to their failure to conquer Constantinople by hiring themselves out as mercenaries, doing things like defending Constantinople.

You know who didn’t take any of this well? Alaric. But rather than strike at the Eastern stronghold with its new Hun buddies, he set his sights westward, taking advantage of the fact that his old enemy Stilicho was busy with a different bunch of marauding barbarians, the Vandals. Alaric’s forces campaigned as deep into Italy as Mediolanum, the Western capital, before Stilicho wrapped up his fight with Vandals, hired a bunch of them to be in his army, and chased Alaric and the Visigoths away. Stilicho and Alaric poked at each other in a series of battles, including the Battle of Verona in 402, in which Alaric was handed his first major defeat — though it cost Stilicho much blood to accomplish. Even then, Alaric was able to mount a strategic retreat and regroup. Honorius, fearing renewed hostilities directed at Mediolanum, relocated the seat of Western Roman government to Ravenna, a move that put him in a more defensible city but also isolated him from the greater portion of his Western Empire.

In yet another one of those incredible turns of events, Alaric and Stilicho eventually allied themselves with one another so they could pick on the enemy who plagued them both: the Eastern Roman Empire. In a tweak of the nose to Constantinople, Stilicho returned Alaric’s title of magister militum of the territory of Illyricum, but before the two newly minted allies could really prod the East, an entirely different gang of Goths came storming down, led by a warrior-king named Radagaisus. Among his many grievances against the Western Roman Empire was the expanding dominion of Christianity. Radagaisus vowed to sacrifice every Christian Roman senator to the ancient gods and burn Rome to the ground.

Stilicho put Alaric on the back burner and rode off with a host of Vandals and Huns, among others, to meet this new challenge. Among the commanders of this motley Roman army was a Hun named Uldin. For the better part of half a year, Radagaisus rampaged across northern Europe until Stilicho, Uldin, and a Goth named Sarus routed Radagaisus’ forces near the city of Florentia. Radagaisus himself fled but was captured and executed in August of 406. 

During this entire little war, Alaric had been kicking up his heels in Illyricum. In 407, Stilicho and Alaric finally got back together to plan their invasion of the East. But no sooner had they done that manly “grasp each other’s forearms” handshake than yet another threat distracted Stilicho. This time it was a guy who would be known as Constantine III. As more and more “barbarians” migrated into Roman territory, certain segments of the Roman population felt under pressure. The land and the infrastructure simply could not support this many people. Following the Magnum Maximus playbook, a Roman general in Britannia, named Flavius Claudius Constantinus, declared himself emperor of the West and set up shop in Gaul. Loyal to him was an army of battle-hardened veterans from the British legions.

Alaric, who had just about had it with sitting in the waiting room while Stilicho took invasions from other barbarians, launched himself a mini-rampage that ended when Stilicho brokered a deal between the Visigoths and the Roman senate, a deal which angered the emperor, Honorius, even though the sum Alaric demanded was a pittance by Roman standards. His hostilities against the Eastern Empire temporarily extinguished, Alaric marched off to do battle with Flavius Claudius Constantinus, aka Constantine III. Or did he?

Of course he didn’t! Because Alaric never got the tribute that was promised to him. In yet another one of those instances of awful timing that seemed to pile up during this short period in history, Arcadius died in May of 408. Set to succeed him as emperor was Theodosius II, Arcadius’s son. Like his father before him, he was too young to be an effective emperor. Honorius planned to travel east despite the ongoing skirmishes with Constantine III, but Stilicho convinced the emperor to stay put; Stilicho himself would travel to Constantinople to ensure that Theodosius II was properly enthroned.

What Stilicho didn’t anticipate was that he had amassed a good many clever enemies, and they used Stilicho’s journey to spread rumors that it was a mission of usurpation. Stilicho, the whispers maintained, planned to depose Theodosius II and name his own son Eastern Emperor. What transpired then is what is known among historians of the ancient world as “a shit show.” Officials identified as loyal to Stilicho were rounded up and executed. Honorius, sour on Stilicho already, was all too willing to believe the worst. When Stilicho returned to Ravenna to sort the mess out, he was arrested and abruptly executed.

No one remembered that Alaric was still on hold, awaiting his tribute. And no one realized that Stilicho, it turned out, was the one man holding the fraying strands of the Roman Empire together.

The Sacking of Rome

Honorius cut a deal with Constantine III, making them co-emperors. That didn’t last long. Just as he was hatching that deal, yet another usurper arrived on the scene, this one named Maximus of Hispania. Just as Constantine III got a handle on one front, a whole new enemy would pop up on one of his flanks. His preoccupation with campaigning through Gaul and Italy cost him Britain. Having taken most of his soldiers with him to support his imperial claim, the Romans of Britain—whom he was meant to be protecting—were easy pickings for Saxon pirates. The abandoned Romans reacted by rebelling against Constantine III, depriving him of what had been his original base of power.

In the end, there were simply too many enemies from too many directions, including that of Raveena, where his co-emperor Honorius had found an able general in the form of Constantius III (not to be confused with Constantine III) with whom Constantine III would do battle. Constantius III took advantage of the fact that the armies of Constantine III and Maximus had been beating one another bloody, swooped in, and tied the whole thing up. Constantine III was beheaded. Maximus faded into the background, taking advantage, no doubt, of the fact that there were so many competing emperors and invading barbarians that he could just sort of slip out the back door and blend in with the crowd.

Stilicho had been replaced by a man named Olympius who possessed a rabid anti-Germanic streak. Under his stewardship, there was a series of pogroms across Western Rome in which Germanic citizens and soldiers were massacred. Those who escaped the terror found their way to good ol’ Alaric. Enough was enough for the endless put-upon and cold-shouldered Visigoth king. While Honorius was busy with the thousand or so usurpers plaguing the empire, Alaric mounted a campaign that met with such weak resistance throughout northern Europe that historians have referred to it as being “festive.”

In late 408, Alaric and the gang arrived outside of Rome. Trapped inside the city at the time was a woman named Serena — the wife, it happened, of Stilicho. She was denounced without evidence as a spy and saboteur and strangled to death. Because what you really wanted to do was give Alaric one more thing to be pissed off about. He officially laid siege. Under siege, Rome became a filthy hellhole. Food was scarce. Bodies lie rotting in the street. Despite the firm ensconcement of Christianity as the state religion, panicked citizens turned to old Pagan rituals. Anything, no matter how bizarre, to help break the siege.

In the end, it wasn’t the Christian god or the Pagan that broke the siege. It was tribute. Alaric might have asked a paltry sum back in the day to go to war against Constantine III, but this time he made Rome pay dearly. Aside from a wealth of gold, silver, and raw materials, he got a bunch of newly freed slaves, many of them one-time members of Radagaisus’ invasion force, who were happy to pick up a sword and wave it in Rome’s stupid face. Satisfied with the payment, Alaric broke off the siege in December of 408, and he was never a problem again…until January of 409.

Anti-Alaric sentiments were flamed by that dastardly Olympius. Rather than take the opportunity to forge a more stable peace with Alaric, Honorius massed what he called an army — some 6,000 men — and sent them to garrison Rome in preparation for poking Alaric with a sharp stick yet again. Instead of reaching Rome, however, the army under the command of a man named Valens (no relation to Valens), ran headlong into Alaric’s host, which may have numbered as many as 40,000. So 6,000 set out for Rome. Around 100 made it.

After that catastrophe, the Pope himself was pleading with Honorius to give it a rest and make good with Alaric, especially since word on the street was that Alaric’s brother, Ataulf, had a Gothic horde of his own and was about to link up with Alaric. But not even Pope Innocent I could sway Honorius and Olympius from their obsession with putting down Alaric. Olympius led a force, partially composed of Hun mercenaries, to intercept Ataulf, but that didn’t work out.

Oh yeah. What about the Huns?

In 409, a group of Huns — there was no centralized governing body as far as can be told from historical records — set their sights on Rome once again. Led by Uldin, who had helped Stilicho defend the empire against Radagaisus, they raided around until Rome slid enough bribes the way of his underlings to effectively undermine his campaign. Other groups of Hun raiders in Roman territory found themselves fighting Roman-commanded legions of Hun mercenaries, making the whole thing about as confusing as trying to force a layer of actual history onto the plot of a sword and sandal film. And then came Attila, but let’s hold off on him for a while.

After failing to prevent the union of Ataulf and Alaric’s Gothic armies, Olympius was disgraced and fell from power, replaced by a man named Jovius. Jovial Jovius had no beef with Alaric and had even been friends with Alaric’s best frenemy, Stilicho. He picked up negotiations with Alaric but found his progress stymied by Emperor Honorius, who was still hellbent on waging war with the Goths. When Alaric heard that Honorius had mustered an army that included 10,000 Huns, he modified his demands. Hopeful that this new deal would be acceptable, Jovius communicated it to Honorius only to discover that no deal, however modest, was going to stop Rome from going to war. So with a sigh, Jovius swore his oath to Honorius, and Rome went to war — without, it turned out, those rumored 10,000 Huns.

Or rather, war went to Rome. Before Honorius was able to muster any sort of sizable army, Alaric besieged Rome again. This time, Romans themselves parlayed with the Visigoths, not relishing another bout of famine and disease in the name of an emperor far away in Ravenna. Jovius was dispatched to see what this business was all about, but upon arrival, decided to throw his lot in with Alaric and the Romans, because seriously, fuck Honorius. Alaric had appointed a senator named Priscus Attalus as the new emperor because what Western Rome really needed during this time was one more emperor.

Attalus was more worried about northern Africa than northern Italy. Most of Rome’s supplies came from north Africa, where the governor was loyal to Honorius and threatening to plunge Rome into famine despite their pact with Alaric. A force was dispatched to North Africa to grapple with that situation while Alaric led a second force toward Ravenna. At this turn of events, Honorius was suddenly much keener on peace, but Attalus wasn’t having any of it unless it meant, among other things, Honorius being stripped of his imperial title and exiled. Jovius, apparently one to carry a grudge, also piped up and demanded that Honorius be mutilated, but Attalus hushed him on that one.

Things were looking bad for Honorius, even if he wasn’t going to be mutilated. He decided the best course of action was to follow in the footsteps of Valentinian II, east toward the relative safety of Constantinople. But when he opened his door to flee, who was raising their hand to knock on it at that precise moment but 4,000 willing and able soldiers from the East, there to support Honorius in his struggle. It’s almost like, who even remembered there was an Eastern Roman Empire? Even Alaric seemed to forget about them, leaving them to fight an occasional skirmish with some Huns but otherwise unmolested during this tumultuous period in the West.

Emboldened by the arrival of this fresh fighting force, and by the defeat of Attalus in North Africa, Honorius rediscovered his fighting spirit. Hoping to avoid famine in Rome, Alaric prepared to send a Gothic force south to deal with this Heraclian fellow in North Africa. Disappointly for the battle-hungry Alaric, Attalus forbade this excursion, fearing what might transpire if the Goths got themselves a foothold in fertile Africa, upon which so much of the Roman empire depended. Alaric and Jovius, tired of their puppet emperor trying to act like an actual emperor, stripped Attalus of his power.

In the summer of 410, Alaric and Honorius thought they’d give negotiation one more go. At this point, although twice besieged and even controlled, the city of Rome had not technically been conquered and occupied. “Peace” negotiations with Honorius were about to change that.

A meeting was arranged twelve miles outside of Ravenna. When Alaric arrived, instead of Honorius and a negotiating party waiting for him, he was ambushed by an old enemy: Sarus, who had led the Gothic contingent alongside Stilicho and the Vandals and Uldin and the Huns back when Radagaisus was still a thing. Although Sarus had been allied with Stilicho, and Stilicho had been allied with Alaric, remember also that Stilicho had at one time been an enemy of Alaric. And if his former ally Stilicho had found himself on the wrong side of Honorius, what the hell did Sarus care? He wasn’t that close to Stilicho, and the man he really hated was Alaric’s brother, Ataulf. And maybe also Alaric, who Sarus might have hated because maybe Sarus was thinking he’d become king of the Visigoths, but then there was Alaric.

If there is one takeaway to be had from the history of the world, it’s that eventually all alliances make no goddamn sense.

Unfortunately for Honorius, Alaric survived the ambush. By this point, the Visigoth king had reached maximum “this fuckin’ guy!” with Honorius. He returned to Rome, but this time he did not stop at the front door. On August 24, 410, the Visigoths entered the city. Three days of mayhem, pillaging, and violence ensued. For the Visigoths, it was just due for years of being yanked around by Honorius. For the citizens of Rome, it was a nightmare not of their own making. After all, they’d been willing to play ball with Alaric. But that didn’t factor into the coming days. 

Historical buildings were ransacked, tombs desecrated, and valuables carried off. Romans were enslaved, raped, or put to the sword. The Emperor’s own sister, Galla, was captured and held hostage. It was a calamity the likes of which had not befallen the city in 800 years, even if it was restrained by the standards of other ancient world pillagings. Roman commoners, for example, were not in as much danger from the Goths as wealthy Roman citizens. Buildings, although stripped of valuables, were generally left standing. Still, thousands of refugees streamed out of the city and toward provinces in Africa, where they were met at the docks (so to speak) by a vengeful Heraclian, his dust-up with the deposed puppet emperor Attalus still fresh on his mind. Ever magnanimous, Heraclian found work for the refugees—mostly as slaves and prostitutes.

Three days later, the Visigoths stampeded out of Rome and headed south, pillaging along the way. Alaric’s mind was set on Sicily and, after that, Africa and that sumbitch Heraclian. He had learned by now that the man who controls Africa, controls Italy. But Alaric would never see African soil. A storm wreaked havoc with his armada. And then, just like that, Alaric was dead. 

Like Alexander the Great before him, Alaric—who had lived such a bold life, full of warfare and adventure—died of fever. His brother, Ataulf, was elected king, and Ataulf did not share Alaric’s appetite for African conquest. Instead, he turned his people toward Gaul. He married Galla in 414. And in 415, Ataulf too was dead, murdered in the bath by a follower of Sarus—who had died in a manner more befitting the lifestyle these men led. In 412, after a falling out between him and Honorius, one thing led to another, and that led to Sarus — as the legend goes — leading a doomed force into battle against Ataulf. Ataulf had 10,000 soldiers with him. Sarus had 28.

After the assassination of Ataulf, Sarus’ brother, Sigeric, was named king of the Visigoths. His reign lasted an epic seven days before he, too, was assassinated by Ataulf loyalists who regarded Sigeric as a usurper. Next came Wallia. By the end of his reign in 418, peace had been negotiated between the Visigoths and Honorius. Galla was returned to the Roman court, later to get married again—to Constantius III, who somehow was still out there. Wallia laid the groundwork for the Visigoth empire in Gaul, where the people would find fun new enemies in the form of the Vandals of Hispania.

Honorius died of edema in August of 423. He had neglected to name an heir. A man named Joannes was nominated Emperor, but that only lasted until Theodosius II, still chilling as Eastern Emperor back in Constantinople, elected Valentinian III, son of Galla Placidia and Constantius III, as Emperor. The long wars with the Visigoths were over, but the trouble had only just begun for the Western Roman Empire, which continued to unravel. In the East, things looked better — but peace was not in their future.

Not with a man named Attila standing on the other side of the Danube, gazing across at the riches of Constantinople.

The Coming of Attila

He was a man born into the world to shake the nations, the scourge of all lands, who in some way terrified all mankind by the dreadful rumors noised abroad concerning him. He was haughty in his walk, rolling his eyes hither and thither, so that the power of his proud spirit appeared in the movement of his body. He was indeed a lover of war, yet restrained in action, mighty in counsel, gracious to suppliants and lenient to those who were once received into his protection.

Who Attila was and where he came from is a topic of debate. The records of his life and exploits are almost entirely written from the point of view of his enemies, his own people preferring the oral tradition of epic sagas recited through the generations. All lost to time. Of the writings about him, only fragments remain from the time in which he lived, and those have been passed through so many hands that one cannot depend on their contents, which were likely dubious even in their time. What is well-known, however, is the mark he left on a stretch of the world spanning from western Asia to modern-day France. His people, the Huns, came from somewhere east of the Volga River, which flows through central Russia and into the Caspian Sea. They were Scythian nomads, some histories claimed; descendants of the Xiongnu, said others, nomads from Mongolia who warred with and were defeated by the Han Dynasty and driven west, across the steppes. Still others more fancifully claimed the Huns were Gog and Magog, their arrival heralding the Biblical End of Days.

Whoever they were, they were exceptional archers and horsemen, fierce and skilled in battle, and by the 4th century AD, they were knocking on the eastern door of the Roman Empire. Their advance is what initially drove the Goths westward, sparking the Gothic War and the confusing jumble of strife that led to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. So too did the Huns drive the Alans, a nomadic people from modern-day northern Iran, before them and into western Europe. What drove the Huns themselves ever westward remains a mystery, though the most likely candidate is climate change — one of the greatest drivers of migration, human and otherwise, since the dawn of time.

Rome regarded the Huns as both a threat and an opportunity. The threat was obvious, etched into the face of every refugee fleeing west into Rome for fear of the Huns. But the Huns were not a unified force, not a singular, organized army. They conquered and pillaged, but they were not building an empire. Rome found that Hunnish armies, when faced with a challenge the size of Constantinople, for example, were willing to hire themselves out as mercenaries rather than simply go rampaging about. At the time, the Goths driven westward by the Huns were considered a greater threat to Rome than the Huns who had driven them, so Rome was happy to beef up its legions with Hun warriors. Ye oldde times being what they were, Goths also hired Hunnish mercenaries, meaning one could have a battle in which Huns in the employ of Rome did battle with Huns in the employ of the Goths — who themselves ended up fighting one another, since some groups of Goths integrated quicker into Roman society (and Roman military service) than others. All things considered, while the Huns may have occasionally gone a-raidin’, their lack of a central authority figure meant they were less of a concern in the long run than the Goths.

Of course, if the Huns did get a central authority figure…

The first Hun named by name in Roman histories was Uldin, who fought the Gothic king Radagaisus (if you remember him) in the name of Rome—or at least in the name of Roman money. Uldin was eventually such a thorn in the side of his sometimes-allies (but come on, Uldin said—who doesn’t love ransacking Thracia?) that the Eastern Roman Empire conspired to corrupt enough of Uldin’s underlings that he no longer had a dependable base of power. Alas, Rome didn’t have much time to spend patting itself on the back. Into the vacuum left by the undermining of Uldin stepped two brothers, Ruglia and Octar. Like everyone, they were fond of hassling Rome, but neither had the impact of their successors—Ruglia’s nephews, Bleda and Attila. 

Bleda and Attila assumed dual leadership of the widely dispersed Huns in 434 AD and wasted no time putting the screws to the Eastern Roman Empire. In no mood for a protracted slugfest after decades of war, intrigue, political usurpers, and Alaric, Constantinople cut a deal with the Huns, allowing the East to breathe a brief sigh of relief while the Huns focused their attention on what they seemed to do best: fighting with Germanic tribes. Unfortunately, the Romans also went back to what they seemed to do best, which was failing to make good on the tribute they owed. In 440, the brief respite was ended when Constantinople missed payment to the Huns. Bleda and Attila stormed across the Eastern Empire, stopping only briefly when the Romans pulled a “no, seriously, the check is in the mail,” in 441. In 443, having checked their empty mailbox with mounting fury day after day, the Huns were back on the warpath, slicing their way through one weak Roman army after another until they found themselves on the very doorstep of Constantinople. With the sack of the city of Rome fresh in everyone’s memory, Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius II ponied up the tribute.

Bleda died in 445, with the cause of death possibly being an acute case of Attila—but that’s only a rumor, impossible to verify. Whatever the case, that left Attila the sole ruler of the increasingly vast Hunnish sprawl. By 447, he was at it again with his favorite punching bag, Constantinople, winning victory after victory and advancing as far into Roman territory as Thermopylae, where once 300 Spartans held off a host of a million Persians. The advance of Attila’s seemingly undefeatable army, however, was hobbled by two things. First, there was disease. Second, by this point, the Huns and all of those other raiders, had had pretty much picked the cupboards of the Empire bare. It had been wracked by political turmoil and natural disaster as well as Huns. There just wasn’t much plunder left to plunder. Until the banquet became meager, Attila and his Huns had been satisfied with hassling the Eastern Empire, leaving the battered and beleaguered Western Empire alone. Attila even formed an alliance against the Goths with Western Emperor Valentinian III, who had succeeded Honorius. It seemed like things were going about as well as they ever went during the 5th century.

But then, one spring day in 450, a messenger delivered a ring to Attila…

One thought on “Barbarians at the Gate: The Complete Incomplete Epic

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