History of the Byzantine Empire



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The German (Gothic) problem in the fourth century. — The Gothic question was the most acute problem of the Empire at the end of the fourth century. For reasons still unknown the Goths, who at the opening of the Christian era had occupied the southern shore of the Baltic Sea, migrated, probably in the latter part of the second century, further south into the territory of present-day Southern Russia. They reached as far as the shores of the Black Sea and settled in the districts between the Don and lower Danube. The Dniester divided the Goths into two tribes: the eastern Goths, otherwise named Ostrogoths or Ostgoths, and the western Goths, or Visigoths. Like all other Germanic tribes of this period, the Goths were barbarians. In their new territory they found themselves under very favorable cultural conditions. The northern shore of the Black Sea for a long time before the Christian era, had been covered with numerous rich Greek colonies, whose cultural level was very high. Their influence, as proved by archeological data, reached out far into the north, and was felt even centuries later during the early Christian period. At the time of the Gothic migration to the shores of the Black Sea, the Crimea was occupied by the rich and civilized kingdom of the Bosporus. Through contact with these old Greek colonies and the kingdom of the Bosporus, the Goths became acquainted with the classical culture of antiquity, while by continuous proximity to the Roman Empire in the Balkan peninsula they came in touch with more recent developments of civilization. As a result of these influences, the Goths, when later they appeared in western Europe, were culturally superior to all the other Germanic tribes, who entered their historical life in the West in a state of complete barbarism.

During the third century, following their settlement in the south near the Black Sea, the Goths directed their activities along two distinct paths: on the one hand, they were attracted by the sea and the possibilities it offered for raiding the cities along its shores; on the other hand, in the southwest, the Goths reached the borders of the Roman Empire on the Danube and came in contact with the Empire.

The Goths first gained a hold on the north shore of the Black Sea, and then, in the third century A.D., they invaded the greater part of the Crimea and the kingdom of the Bosporus. In the second half of the third century they undertook a number of piratical raids, using Bosporian vessels. They repeatedly robbed the rich coastland of the Caucasus and Asia Minor. By following the western shore of the Black Sea they entered the Danube, and crossing the sea, they even made their way, by the Bosphorus, to the Pro-pontis (Sea of Marmora), and through the Hellespont (the Dardanelles) into the Archipelago. On these raids they pillaged Byzantium, Chrysopolis (on the Asiatic side facing Byzantium; Scutari at present), Cyzicus, Nicomedia, and the islands of the Archipelago. The Gothic pirates went even farther than this: they attacked Ephesus and Thessalonica, and upon reaching the Greek shores they sacked Argos, Corinth, and probably even Athens. Fortunately, however, the invaluable monuments of classical art in Athens were spared. The islands of Crete, Rhodes, and even far-removed Cyprus suffered from several Gothic attacks. Still, in all these expeditions by sea, they contented themselves with pillage, after which the Gothic vessels would return to their homes on the northern shores of the Black Sea. Many of these bands of sea robbers were either exterminated on foreign shores or captured by Roman troops.

Far more serious were the relations of the Goths with the Empire on land. Taking advantage of the troubles and anarchy in the Empire in the third century, the Goths began to cross the Danube and to enter the territory of the Empire as early as the first half of that century. The Emperor Gordian was forced to pay the Goths an annual tribute. But even this did not suffice. A short while later the Goths again entered Roman territory and swarmed over Macedonia and Thrace. The Emperor Decius marched against them and fell in battle in the year 251. In 269 Claudius succeeded in defeating the Goths near Naissus (Nish). Of the large number of prisoners captured during this battle, some were placed in the army, while others were made to settle as coloni in the depopulated Roman provinces. For this victory over the Goths, Claudius was surnamed “the Gothic” (Gothicus). But Aurelian, who had temporarily restored the Empire (270-75), was forced to give up Dacia to the barbarians and transfer its population to Moesia. In the fourth century there are frequent references to Goths in the army. According to the historian Jordanes, a division of Goths served the Romans faithfully during the reign of Maximian.”[106] It is well known that the Goths in the army of Constantine the Great helped him in his struggle with Licinius. In Constantine’s time the Visigoths agreed to furnish the Emperor with 40,000 soldiers. There was also a Gothic regiment in the army of Julian.

In the third century Christianity began to spread among the Goths; it was most probably imported by Christian prisoners captured in Asia Minor during the numerous sea raids. The Gothic Christians were even represented at the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea by their bishop, Theophilus, one of the signers of the Nicene symbol. The true enlightener of the Goths on the Danube during the fourth century was Ulfila (Vulfila), supposed by some to be of Greek extraction, but born on Gothic soil. He had spent a number of years in Constantinople, where he was later ordained bishop by an Arian bishop. When he returned to the Goths he preached Christianity according to the Arian doctrine for a number of years. In order to introduce the Gospels among his people he invented a Gothic alphabet, based in part on the Greek letters, and translated the Bible into the Gothic language. The spread of Arian Christianity among the Goths was of great significance for their subsequent historical life, for during the period of their settlement on the territory of the Roman Empire it was this difference in religious convictions which prevented them from blending with the natives, who were followers of the Nicene Creed. The Crimean Goths remained orthodox.

Peaceful relations between the Goths and the Empire ceased in the year 376 with the advance of the Huns from Asia. They were a savage people of Mongolian race.[107] In their onward march to the West they defeated the east Goths, or Ostrogoths, and with them advanced farther, reaching the territory occupied by the Visigoths, The latter, exposed as a border nation to the full force of the attack and unable to offer adequate resistance to the Huns, whose horrible massacres did not even spare the Gothic women and children, had to force their way across the border into the territory of the Roman Empire. The sources relate that the Goths stood on the northern bank of the Danube and with loud lamentations entreated the Roman authorities to permit them to cross the river. The barbarians offered to settle in Thrace and Moesia and till the soil, and promised to furnish soldiers for the army and to obey all commands of the Emperor just as his subjects did. A delegation was sent to the Emperor to state the case of the Goths. The majority of high Roman officials and generals were in favor of accepting the Goths, for they recognized all the advantages the government would gain by doing so. First, they thought it a good way of rehabilitating the farming districts and the army. Then, too, the new subjects would defend the Empire, while the old inhabitants of the provinces could be exempted from military service by the payment of a money tax, which would greatly increase the government income. The men in favor of admitting the Goths were victorious, and the barbarians received official permission to cross the Danube. “Thus,” said Fustel de Coulanges, “four or five hundred thousand barbarians, half of whom could handle arms, were admitted to the territory of the Empire.”[108] Even if the foregoing figure be considered an exaggeration, the fact still remains that the number of Goths who settled in Moesia was very large. At first these barbarians led a very peaceful life, but gradually they became dissatisfied and irritated because of the peculations of the generals and officials, who made a practice of concealing part of the funds assigned for the needs of the settlers. Not only did these high officials feed the Goths poorly, but they also mistreated the men, insulted their wives, and offended their children. Many of the Goths were shipped across the sea and settled in Asia Minor. The complaints of the Goths received no attention, and the barbarians finally revolted. They obtained the help of Alans and Huns, forced their way into Thrace, and headed for Constantinople. At that time the Emperor Valens was carrying on a campaign with Persia, but when the news of the Gothic revolt reached him he left Antioch and arrived at Constantinople promptly. A decisive battle took place near Hadrianople in the year 378, in which Valens was killed and the Roman army completely defeated.

The road to the capital apparently lay open before the Goths, who overran the Balkan peninsula as far as the walls of Constantinople, but they evidently had no general plan of attacking the Empire, The successor of Valens, Theodosius, aided by his own Gothic troops, was successful in defeating and stopping their raids within the Empire. Thus, while one group of the Goths struggled against the Empire, the others were willing to serve in the imperial army and fight against men of their own tribe. The pagan historian of the fifth century, Zosimus, related that after the victory of Theodosius, “peace was established in Thrace, for the barbarians who had been there had perished.”[109] The victory of the Goths at Hadrianople did not aid them in becoming established in any one province of the Empire.

On the other hand, from this time forward the Germans began to influence the life of the Empire in a peaceful manner. Theodosius was fully aware that he could not master the barbarians within the Empire by force, and he decided to follow a policy of peaceful relations with the Goths, to introduce among them certain elements of Roman culture, and to draw them into the ranks of the Roman army. In the course of time the army, whose duty it was to defend the Empire, was gradually transformed in its greater part into a German army, whose members often had to defend the Empire against their own kinsmen. Gothic influence was felt in higher military circles as well as in the administration. Many very responsible posts were in German hands. Theodosius, in following his Germanophile policy, failed to realize that a free growth of Germanism might menace the Empire’s existence. He showed particular lack of wisdom in placing the defense of the Empire in the hands of the Germans, In due time the Goths assimilated the Roman art of warfare, Roman tactics and methods of combat, and were rapidly growing into a powerful force which could at any moment challenge the Empire. The native Greco-Roman population, forced into the background, watched the growth of German power with restlessness. An anti-German movement grew up, which might have led to very grave crises in the life of the Empire.

Theodosius died in the year 395 at Milan; his embalmed body was transferred to Constantinople and buried in the Temple of the Apostles. For his great service to Christianity in its struggle with paganism Theodosius was surnamed “the Great.” His too young and weak sons, Arcadius and Honorius, were proclaimed the rulers of the Empire; Arcadius became the emperor of the eastern part, and Honorius ruled in the West.

Theodosius did not succeed in solving the main problems of his period. The Second Ecumenical Council, by proclaiming the Nicene Creed the dominant form of Christianity, failed to achieve church unity. Arianism in its various manifestations continued to exist and in its further development caused new religious movements, which in the fifth century involved not only the religious interests of the Empire, but also connected with them, the social life of that period. This was particularly true of the eastern provinces, Syria and Egypt, where the new religious developments caused extremely significant consequences. In fact, Theodosius was forced during the later years of his life to recede from his original firm Nicene position. He was compelled to make concessions to the Arian Germans, who at the time formed the overwhelming majority in the army. Thus, in the religious field as well as in administrative and military realms, the Goths exerted great influence. The main center of their power was the capital itself, the Balkan peninsula, and part of Asia Minor. The eastern provinces, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, did not feel the Gothic power to any considerable extent. Thus on religious as on racial grounds, the dissatisfaction of the native population was growing very strong. In short, Theodosius failed to solve the two significant problems of his reign: the creation of a unique and uniform church and the establishment of harmonious relations with the barbarians. These two exceedingly complicated problems remained for his successors.


Nationality and religion in the fifth century.— This epoch is of particularly great importance for the ways in which the main national and religious problems were met. The national problem was concerned with the discord among the different nationalities within the Empire as well as the conflicts with the tribes attacking it from without.

Hellenism, it would seem, should have been the main force unifying the varied population of the eastern part of the Roman Empire, but in reality it was not. Hellenistic influence could be found in the East as far as the Euphrates and in Egypt as early as the time of Alexander of Macedon and his successors. Alexander himself considered colonization one of the best means for transplanting Hellenism; it is said that he alone founded more than seventy cities in the East. His successors continued this policy of colonization. The areas to which Hellenism had spread to some extent reached as far as Armenia in the north and the Red Sea in the south and as far as Persia and Mesopotamia in the East. Beyond these provinces Hellenism did not reach. The main center of Hellenistic culture became the Egyptian city, Alexandria. All along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, in Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt, Hellenic culture predominated. Of these three sections, Asia Minor was perhaps the most Hellenized; its coast had been occupied for a long period of time by Greek colonies, and their influence gradually, though not easily, penetrated into the interior of the region.

Hellenization of Syria, where Hellenic culture reached only the higher educated class, was much weaker. The mass of the population, unacquainted with the Greek language, continued to speak their own native tongues, Syriac or Arabic. One learned orientalist wrote: “If even in such a world-city as Antioch the common man still spoke Aramaic, i.e., Syriac, then one may safely suppose that inside the province the Greek language was not the language of the educated class, but only the language of those who made a special study of it.”[110] The Syrian-Roman Lawbook of the fifth century was striking proof of the fact that the native Syriac language was widely used in the East.[111] The oldest Syriac manuscript of this lawbook now in existence was written in the early part of the sixth century, before Justinian’s time. This Syriac text, which was probably written in northeastern Syria, is a translation from the Greek. The Greek original has not yet been discovered, but on the basis of some existing data it must have been written some time during the seventies of the fifth century. In any case the Syriac translation appeared almost immediately after the publication of the Greek original. In addition to the Syriac text there exist also Arabic and Armenian versions of the lawbook, which indicate that the book was very probably of church origin, since it analyzes with much detail the items of marriage and inheritance laws and boldly advances the privileges of the clergy. The fact that it was very widely distributed and applied to the living problems in the East, in the territory between Armenia and Egypt, as evidenced by the numerous versions of the lawbook as well as by the borrowings from it found in many Syriac and Arabic works of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, shows the continuing predominance of the native tongues. Later, when Justinian’s legislation became officially obligatory upon the whole Empire, his code proved to be too bulky and difficult of comprehension for the eastern provinces, so that in actual practice they continued to use the Syriac lawbook as a substitute for the codex. In the seventh century, following the Moslem conquest of the eastern provinces, the same Syriac lawbook was in wide use even under the Moslem domination. The fact that this lawbook was translated into Syriac as early as the second half of the fifth century indicates clearly that the mass of the people were still unacquainted with Greek or Latin and clung strongly to the native Syriac tongue.

In Egypt also, in spite of the proximity of Alexandria, the very center of world culture, Hellenism spread among the higher class only, among the people prominent in the social and religious life of the province. The mass of the people continued to speak their native Egyptian (Coptic) language.

The central government found it difficult to manage the affairs of the eastern provinces, not only because of the racially varied composition of the population, but also because the great majority of the population of Syria and Egypt and a certain part of eastern Asia Minor firmly held to Arianism with its subsequent ramifications. The complex racial problem became further complicated in the fifth century by important new developments in the religious life of these provinces.

In the western provinces of the Eastern Empire, that is in the Balkan peninsula, in the capital, and the western part of Asia Minor, the important problem of this period was that of Germanic power, which threatened the very existence of the Empire. After this problem was settled favorably for the government in the middle of the fifth century it seemed for a while that the savage Isaurians would occupy in the capital a commanding position similar to that of the Goths. In the East the struggle with the Persians continued, while in the northern part of the Balkan peninsula the Bulgarians, a people of Hunnic (Turkish) origin,[112] and the Slavs began their devastating attacks.




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