How to Sack an Empire: On Goths, Huns, and the Fall of Rome

Dan Jones Maps the Fault Lines of Collapse

For those alert to signs hidden in the fabric of the world, the Roman Empire’s collapse in the west was announced by a series of omens. In Antioch, dogs howled like wolves, night birds let out hideous shrieks, and people muttered that the emperor should be burned alive. In Thrace, a dead man lay in the road and fixed passersby with an unnerving, lifelike glare, until after a few days the corpse suddenly disappeared. And in the city of Rome itself, citizens persisted in going to the theater, an egregious and insanely sinful pastime, which, according to one Christian writer, practically invited the wrath of the Almighty.

Human beings have been superstitious in all ages, and we are especially good at adducing portents when we have the benefit of hindsight. Hence the opinion of the historian Ammianus Marcellinus, who looked back on the end of the fourth century into which he was born and reflected that this was a time when fortune’s wheel, “which is perpetually alternating prosperity and adversity,” was turning fast.

In the 370s, when Rome’s fatal malady set in, the Roman state—monarchy, republic and empire—had existed for more than a millennium. Yet within little more than one hundred years, by the end of the fifth century A.D., every province west of the Balkans had slipped from Roman control. In the ancient heartlands of empire, Roman institutions, tax systems, and trade networks were falling apart. The physical signs of Roman elite culture—palatial villas, cheap imported consumer goods, hot running water—were fading from everyday life.

The eternal city had been sacked several times, the western crown had passed between a succession of dimwits, usurpers, tyrants, and children, until eventually it had been abolished; and territory that formerly comprised the core of a powerful megastate had been parceled among peoples whom the proudhearted citizens of Rome’s imperial heyday had previously scorned as savages and subhumans. These were the “barbarians”: a derogatory word that encompassed a huge range of people, from itinerant nomadic tribes quite new to the west and ignorant or dismissive of Roman mores, to long-standing near neighbors, whose lives were heavily influenced by Roman-ness but who had not been able to share in the fruits of citizenship.

The rise of the barbarians was a complex process, involving long- and short-distance migration, a collision of political systems and cultures, and a general collapse in imperial institutions. Although Rome would live on largely untouched in the east, where it thrived in mutant form as Greek-speaking Byzantium, the future of the Roman west now lay in the hands of the newcomers. The age of the barbarian had dawned.

*

The antique world can be said to have crumbled—and the Middle Ages begun—on the banks of the river Volga in the year 370 A.D. In that year there appeared at the riverside crowds of people known collectively as the Huns, who had left their homelands thousands of miles away on the grasslands—or “steppe”—north of China. The origins of the Huns will forever be sketchy, but their effect on the history of the west was profound. When they first appeared, the Huns were what we would today call climate migrants or even refugees.

But in the fourth century they did not come to the west to solicit sympathy. Rather, they arrived on horseback, carrying composite reflex bows that were unusually large and powerful and could shoot arrows accurately to an exceptional range of 150 meters, piercing armor at 100 meters. Such weapons were beyond the craftsmanship of any contemporary nomadic people, and the Huns’ expertise in mounted archery earned them a reputation for brutality and slaughter, which they enthusiastically played up. They were a nomadic civilization led by a warrior caste, with access to revolutionary military technology, a people who had been toughened by countless generations of life on the unforgiving Eurasian steppe, for whom migration was the only way of life and violence a basic fact of survival. They would shake the Roman world to its core.

The Huns were related in some way to a nomadic group who populated and dominated the Asian steppe as rulers of a tribal empire from the third century B.C. These nomads fought against the Chinese Qin and Han dynasties, and Chinese scribes dubbed them “Xiongnu,” or “howling slaves.” The name stuck, and was transliterated as Xwn or Hun. Although the Xiongnu empire collapsed in the second century A.D., many tribes survived, and the scattered descendants of the imperial Xiongnu still retained the name two hundred years later. Xiongnu, Xwn, or Hun: who called them what, when, and where is only vaguely knowable given the patchy sources of the time. But whichever way the word was rendered, it carried a sense of implied horror, the fear and loathing traditionally borne by sedentary civilizations toward alien nomads.

By the late 300s the Huns no longer commanded an empire, but they were still a political force. And it was not only Chinese observers who sharpened their pens against them. Around A.D. 313 a merchant from central Asia called Nanaivande wrote about the appalling damage a band of Huns had done to towns in northern China, including Luoyang, where the imperial “palace was burnt and the city destroyed.” A generation later—after a splinter group of Hunnic tribes moved out into new parts of the world, heading toward Europe—western writers also composed screeds elaborating on Hunnic misdeeds. Ammianus Marcellinus called the Huns “quite abnormally savage.” Certainly they were physically distinctive, often binding their children’s skulls so that their heads grew long and conical. Squat-bodied, hairy, coarse, and inured to life in the saddle and under canvas, wrote Ammianus Marcellinus, the Huns “are not subject to the authority of any king, but break through any obstacle in their path under the improvised command of their chief men.”

The Huns’ expertise in mounted archery earned them a reputation for brutality and slaughter, which they enthusiastically played up.

What caused the Huns to move east in the fourth century has long perplexed historians. Unfortunately, like most tribal nomads of their time, the Huns were illiterate—a people with no record keeping or chronicle culture. They can no longer speak to us in their language, so we will never know their side of the story, and most of our information about them comes from people who hated them. Literary types like Ammianus Marcellinus considered the Huns a scourge of the gods; their appearance in the west was, in his telling, simply a manifestation of “the wrath of Mars.” What human factors prompted their rise did not detain him very long; insofar as the Huns had any choice in the matter, Ammianus Marcellinus said only that they were “consumed by a savage passion to pillage the property of others.” Neither he nor any other writers at the time thought to investigate why the Huns appeared on the Volga in A.D. 370. The fact was, they did.

Yet there is one source that can give us a clue about what drove the Huns from their home on the Asian steppe and turned them toward the west. It is not a chronicler or an itinerant Silk Road merchant, but the rugged, spiny Chinese mountain tree known as the Qilian juniper or Przewalski’s juniper (Juniperus przewalski). This hardy plant, which thrives in the mountains, grows slowly but steadily to around twenty meters in height. Individual trees often live for more than one thousand years, and as they grow they preserve in the rings of their trunks precious information about the history of their world. In this case, the Qilian juniper tells us about the amount of rain that fell in the east during the fourth century A.D.

According to tree ring data provided by Qilian juniper samples from Qinghai province on the Tibetan Plateau, it seems that between A.D. 350 and 370, eastern Asia suffered a “megadrought”—which remains the worst drought recorded in the last two thousand years. The skies simply dried up. Northern China endured conditions at least as severe as those of the American dust bowl in the 1930s, or the Chinese drought of the 1870s—when between nine and thirteen million people starved to death. During that nineteenth-century drought, a missionary named Timothy Richards wrote a harrowing account of conditions among ordinary folk: “People pull down their houses, sell their wives and daughters, eat roots and carrion, clay and leaves . . . If this were not enough to move one’s pity, the sight of men and women lying helpless on the roadside, or if dead, torn by hungry dogs and magpies should do, and the news . . . of children being boiled and eaten up, is so fearful as to make one shudder at the thought.”

Things were probably similar among the Huns in the 300s. The grass and scrub of the steppe would have turned to mean, biting dust. For the Huns, who depended on grazing animals for their meat, drink, clothing, and transport, this was an existential disaster. And it would have presented a stark choice: move, or die. They chose to move.

*

In A.D. 370 various bands of Huns began to cross the Volga, which empties into the Caspian Sea on the border between modern Russia and Kazakhstan. This in itself was not an immediate threat to Rome. When Julius Caesar had crossed the Rubicon in 49 B.C. he was about 350 kilometers away from the imperial capital; the Huns crossing the Volga were approximately ten times farther away from central Italy, and more than 2,000 kilometers from the eastern capital in Constantinople. It would be decades before they asserted themselves directly as a first-rank power in the Roman world. Yet in the 370s it was not the Huns who were the problem. It was the people they displaced.

Once across the Volga (in lands roughly equivalent to modern Ukraine, Moldova, and Romania) the Huns came into contact with other tribal civilizations: first the Iranian-speaking Alans and then the Germanic tribes known collectively as the Goths. Exactly what took place between these two groups on their first encounters was not reliably recorded. But the Greek writer Zosimus gave the picture in broad strokes. After defeating the Alans, the Huns invaded the Goths’ lands, he said, “with their wives, children, horses, and carriages.” Although as Zosimus understood it, the Huns were so crude and uncivilized that they did not even walk like humans, “by wheeling, charging, retreating in good time and shooting from their horses, they wrought great slaughter” among the Goths, who were compelled to leave their homes and head toward the Roman Empire, where they “begged to be received by the emperor.”

In other words, a climate emergency in eastern-central Asia fed a secondary migrant crisis in eastern Europe. Drought moved the Huns, and the Huns moved the Goths, so that in 376, huge bands of terrorized Gothic tribespeople showed up on the banks of another major Roman boundary river: the Danube. There may have been ninety thousand or one hundred thousand refugees in total, although estimating numbers with any real accuracy is impossible. Some were armed; many were desperate. And all were looking for respite within the Roman Empire—which represented, if not paradise, then at least a Hunless zone where stability was the norm and the military offered citizens and subject peoples protection in a time of crisis.

Humanitarian crises are never pretty, and 376 was no exception.

Humanitarian crises are never pretty, and 376 was no exception. The task of dealing with an influx of Goths—deciding who should enter the empire, on what terms, and where they should be settled—fell to the eastern emperor, Valens (r. A.D. 364–78). A nervous individual who owed his position as ruler in Constantinople to his late brother (and erstwhile co-emperor) Valentinian I, Valens had spent much of his reign trying to reconcile his apparently boundless military obligations with his limited resources. He was constantly preoccupied with either internal rebellion or conflict with the Sassanid Persians on his borders in Armenia and elsewhere. The Persians had hitherto been by far the most serious menace to Rome’s eastern security, and the rivalry between the two empires dominated Middle Eastern politics. Even so, Valens could not ignore the arrival of a large band of indigent outsiders from the realm of the barbarians. It presented him with a practical as well as a moral dilemma. Was it better to admit the bedraggled Goths or turn them back and leave them to be butchered or enslaved by the Huns? To allow them to cross the Danube would bring major challenges: it would be no easy task to maintain public order and a regular food supply while controlling the spread of disease.

On the other hand, desperate migrants have throughout history been a reliable source of cheap labor, and the Roman army was always in need of new recruits. If Valens allowed the Goths to enter the empire, he might be able to press their menfolk into military service against Persia, and levy taxes on the rest. The situation was delicate—but not without promise.

In 376 Gothic envoys found Valens in Antioch and formally requested admission for their people. The emperor pondered for a while and then said he would allow some of the Goths to cross the Danube, after which they could settle their families in Thrace (modern Bulgaria and eastern Greece), so long as they sent their menfolk to join the military. Orders went to the frontier granting passage across the water to the Gothic tribe known as the Thervingi; but a rival tribe, the Greuthungi, were to be kept out. This evidently struck Valens as a reasonable fudge, and according to sources including Ammianus Marcellinus, he was delighted with the outcome: “The affair seemed a matter for rejoicing rather than dread.” It seemed he had turned a profit from a tragedy.

On the Danube, the Roman fleet began a major relief effort, which brought perhaps 15,000–20,000 of the Goths across the river “on boats and rafts and canoes made from hollowed tree trunks.” But it did not take long for the Gothic migrant crisis to turn sour. It is easy, with hindsight, to argue that Valens made a catastrophic historical blunder in his approach. Yet this was a situation that might have defeated even an Augustus or a Constantine I. And one thing was certain: once the policy of admitting vast numbers of refugees into the empire had been set, it proved impossible to reverse.

*

There was recent history between Romans and Goths. Between 367 and 369 Valens had fought a series of wars against Gothic tribes. These had been settled by negotiation, but the damage done by Roman troops in Gothic lands, combined with economic sanctions, had left bad feeling on both sides. (It is indeed quite likely that war against Rome had played a significant part in weakening the Goths prior to the arrival of the Huns.) And so it did not take much for a state-led refugee settlement program to turn into an episode of foul exploitation in which “crimes [were] committed for the worst motives . . . against hitherto innocent newcomers.”

According to Ammianus Marcellinus, the Roman officials in charge of the Danube crossings—named Lupicinus and Maximus—took advantage of starving migrant Thervingian families by forcing them to sell their children into slavery in return for parcels of dog flesh. Along with cruelty came ineptitude. Besides abusing the Thervingian Goths, Lupicinus and Maximus also failed to ensure that other refugees, the barbarians non grata, stayed out. Guerilla crossings, which dodged Roman river patrols, meant that between A.D. 376 and 377 Thrace slowly became home to thousands of disaffected and mistreated Gothic migrants. Some were legal; many were illegal. Most were alienated from their homelands but with no love for their host country. The infrastructure to contain, resettle, and feed tens of thousands of new arrivals did not exist. The chief focus of imperial attention remained the Persian borderlands, and Valens had delegated the Gothic issue to men patently not up to the job. The Balkans were becoming a tinderbox.

In 377 Goths inside the Roman Empire began a series of running rebellions. Their plundering of wealthy Thracian villages and estates soon spiraled into all-out warfare, in which the Goths fought Roman military detachments with “a combination of despair and wild fury.” In one clash, at Ad Salices, not far from the coast of the Black Sea, the Goths attacked Roman troops with “huge clubs hardened in the fire” and “plunged their daggers in the breasts of those who put up a stout resistance . . . The whole field was strewn with corpses . . . A number had fallen by slingshot or had been transfixed by shafts tipped with metal. In some cases the head had been split in two by a sword-stroke through crown and forehead, and hung down on both shoulders, a most gruesome sight.”

The first great reckoning with the Goths came in the high summer of 378. By now the Gothic tribes inside the empire had combined their forces. They were joined in the field by groups of Alans and even some freelance Huns, who had also crossed the inadequately policed river border and were looking for trouble. Together they had turned much of the large corridor between the Danube and the Haemus Mountains into a scorched and smoldering plain. At one point a war band had ridden within sight of the walls of Constantinople itself. This was no longer a marginal migrant problem on the fringes of empire, but a full-blown crisis that threatened both the integrity and the honor of the imperial state.

Valens had no choice but to act. During a period of brief respite on the Persian front, he marched in person to the Balkans at the head of an army. He also sent word to the emperor in the west, his nineteen-year-old nephew Gratian, asking for his support. In itself this was prudent, for despite his youth, Gratian had already recorded a series of impressive military victories against Germanic tribes farther up the Danube. But Valens was conflicted about asking for the help of his much younger and more successful co-emperor. Both his pride and his advisers urged him to get the job done unaided. So in the end Valens did not wait for Gratian to arrive. Having kept his army in camp throughout much of the summer, in early August he received word that large numbers of Goths were assembling near Adrianople (now Edirne, in Turkey), under a commander called Fritigern. Scouts estimated that they had around ten thousand troops. Valens decided to attack them on his own.

At dawn on August 9 “the army was put in rapid motion.” Valens marched his men out of their fortified camp at Adrianople, eight miles over rough country under a broiling midday sun. When they caught up with the Goths, they found them setting fire to the dry countryside. “Our men, who were already exhausted by the summer heat, [were now] parched with thirst,” wrote Ammianus Marcellinus. “Bellona [the Roman goddess of war], raging with more than her usual fury, was sounding the death-knell of the Roman cause.”

When Valens appeared, envoys came to him from the Goths. They claimed they wanted to parlay a truce. In fact, they were playing for time, as the Goths’ leaders laid a trap. Following inconclusive negotiations, in the early afternoon Valens lost control of his tired and thirsty troops, who charged unbidden at the Goths. Battle was joined. “The opposing lines came into collision like ships of war and pushed each other to and fro, heaving under the reciprocal motion like the waves of the sea,” wrote Ammianus Marcellinus. “Dust rose in such clouds as to hide the sky, which rang with frightful shouts . . . It was impossible to see the enemy’s missiles in flight and dodge them; all found their mark and dealt death on every side.” But the damage was loaded heavily on the Romans’ ranks.

The Roman intelligence that had suggested the Goths were only ten thousand strong was wrong. There were many more, easily enough to take on a Roman army of perhaps thirty thousand troops. “The barbarians poured on in huge columns,” continued Ammianus Marcellinus, “trampling down horse and man and crushing our ranks so as to make an orderly retreat impossible. Our men were too close-packed to have any hope of escape.” Meanwhile, the Goths had prudently hidden a large detachment of cavalry out of sight of Roman scouts. At a crucial moment during the fighting, these horsemen appeared, to devastating effect. Valens had been outthought, and his men were overwhelmed. “The whole field was one dark pool of blood and [the survivors] could see nothing but heaps of slain wherever they turned their eyes,” wrote Ammianus Marcellinus. “At last a moonless night brought an end to these irreparable losses, which cost Rome so dear.”

The costliest casualty was Valens himself. The emperor’s exact fate was something of a mystery: one report said he was shot with an arrow and died instantly. Others said he was thrown by his horse into a bog, where he drowned. Others still maintained that Valens was pursued from the battlefield with a few guards and some of his eunuchs, and took cover in a farmhouse. Because those hunting him could not batter down the doors they “piled up bundles of straw and faggots, set fire to them and burned the house with all those who were in it.” Whatever happened, Valens’s body was never found. At Adrianople the barbarians killed between ten thousand and twenty thousand Romans, including the eastern emperor. Rome was badly mauled—and over time, her wounds began to fester.

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Dan Jones’s POWERS AND THRONES: A NEW HISTORY OF THE MIDDLE AGES is available from Viking on November 9, 2021.

Dan Jones
Dan Jones
Dan Jones is an award-winning historian of the Middle Ages and the New York Times bestselling author of The Plantagenets and The Wars of the Roses. A charismatic television presenter, he has narrated Britain’s Bloodiest Dynasty, a four-part series based on The Plantagenets, as well as another series about castles in England and France. He is a columnist at the Evening Standard and has contributed to Newsweek, The Daily Beast, Smithsonian, and many other outlets.





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