Significant barbarian attacks on the Empire began in the mid-third century A.D. and continued for more than a century before the empire lost the ability to protect itself. In this article we will describe those attacks, their genesis, and the impact they had on Rome.
Before proceeding, however, we need to review some background material on the Goths, once again relying on our friend Gibbon.
“In the age of the Antonines, the Goths were still seated in Prussia. About the reign of Alexander Severus, the Roman province of Dacia had already experienced their proximity by frequent and destructive inroads. In this interval, therefore, of about seventy years, we must place the second migration of the Goths from the Baltic to the Euxine (Black Sea); but the cause that produced it lies concealed among the various motives which actuate the conduct of unsettled barbarians. Either a pestilence or a famine, a victory or a defeat, an oracle of the gods or the eloquence of a daring leader, were sufficient to impel the Gothic arms on the milder climates of the south.”
The fame of a great enterprise excited the bravest warriors from all the Vandalic states of Germany, many of whom are seen a few years afterwards combating under the common standard of the Goths. The first motions of the emigrants carried them to the banks of the Prypec, a river universally conceived by the ancients to be the southern branch of the Borysthenes (Dneiper). As the Goths advanced near the Euxine Sea, they encountered a purer race of Sarmatians, the Jazyges, the Alani, and the Roxolani; and they were probably the first Germans who saw the mouths of the Borysthenes, and of the Tanais.
The Goths were now in possession of the Ukraine, a country of considerable extent and uncommon fertility, intersected with navigable rivers, which, from either side, discharge themselves into the Borysthenes; and interspersed with large and leafy forests of oaks. The plenty of game and fish, the innumerable bee-hives deposited in the hollow of old trees, and in the cavities of rocks, and forming, even in that rude age, a valuable branch of commerce, the size of the cattle, the temperature of the air, the aptness of the soil for every species of gain, and the luxuriancy of the vegetation, all displayed the liberality of Nature, and tempted the industry of man. But the Goths withstood all these temptations, and still adhered to a life of idleness, of poverty, and of rapine.
The Scythian hordes, which, towards the east, bordered on the new settlements of the Goths, presented nothing to their arms, except the doubtful chance of an unprofitable victory. But the prospect of the Roman territories was far more alluring; and the fields of Dacia were covered with rich harvests, sown by the hands of an industrious, and exposed to be gathered by those of a warlike, people.”
Now we begin to tick the clock forward.
Lax enforcement of the border with Dacia emboldened to Goths to cross the frontier in 250 A.D. They threatened the city of Marcianopolis (Thrace), built by Trajan and named for his sister, forcing a ransom, and then retiring to the north. Decius, the Roman emperor, hearing of this, moved an army into position to pursue them. Weakened by their siege of Philipopolis, the Goths would have treated with Decius but he refused, choosing to push an attack against them as a lesson. Decius was killed and his army soundly defeated at Abrittus.
The successor, Gallus, treated with the Goths, allowed them to keep their booty, and embarrassed the Senate with his barbarian concessions, but the Goths broke that treaty and began to harass the borders once again. The Roman general in the area, Aemilius Aemilianus, pushed them back and was rewarded with the proclamation of emperor by his troops. He rushed to Rome, and killed Gallus but was assassinated himself 88 days later. It was 253 A.D.
Aemilianus’ successor, Valerian, spent his reign fighting in Syria, only to be captured and die in prison circa 260 A.D. His son, Gallienus, tasked with fighting along the Danube frontier, defeated the Juthungi tribe 259 A.D. at Milan after they crossed into Italy intent on attacking Rome.
By 268 A.D. a Gothic War was underway. The Goths had warmed up by attacking along the Danube in the 262-263 timeframe and then ravaging Asia Minor in 267. Joined by the Heruli tribe, they raced down the Balkans in 268 and sacked Athens. Gallienus blocked and defeated them at Naissus, but was recalled to Milan to put down an internal revolt. While there, he was assassinated.
The next emperor, Claudius II “Gothicus” made his living fighting the Germans. He defeated the Alemanni, after they crossed the Alps in 268 A.D, and then campaigned against them again, with success, the next year. The Goths achieved a partial victory against him in 270, but were laid low by the plague. The emperor also contracted the disease and died in August of 270.
Claudius was followed by Aurelian who also spent his time fighting the Germans. The Vandals attacked first in 271 but were successfully driven back across the Danube. While this was going on the Juthungi and the Marcomanni attacked northern Italy. The threat to Italy was so great Aurelian decided to construct a new wall around Rome to protect it from barbarian invaders. In 272 A.D, he made the decision to abandon Dacia because the Gothic presence there made the controlling the province impossible. Later, in 275 A.D, Aurelian suppressed an incursion by the Juthungi on his way to fight the Persians, but he was murdered as he prepared to cross the Bosphorus.
The last of our emperors in this segment is Probus, who ascended following the short reigns of Tacitus and Florianus. He first had to deal with an attack on Gaul by Franks, Vandals, and Burgundians in 277 A.D, which took two years to put down -- the most serious unrest in Gaul in 300 years. The remainder of his reign (three years) involved putting down insurrections among his own generals. In 283 A.D, they finally murdered him.
Here we reach an inflection point in the history of the empire. As the year 284 A.D. unfolded, a period of quiescence began which would last about eighty years. The driving forces behind this trend were two: strong leadership and a new model for managing the vast territory that was the Roman Empire.
The next post will pick up that story.