By Stephen Smoot
“The feeble mind of Valens was always swayed by the persons with whom he familiarly conversed,” so said Edward Gibbon of the late 4th century Eastern Roman emperor.
By 380 A. D., the Goths had settled north of the Roman border in eastern Europe. They lived at odds with other Germanic tribes, as well as the incoming Huns from Asia. The Roman historian Amianus Marcellinus described the Huns as a people that “exceed every degree of savagery.”
Even the warlike Goths trembled in fear at their approach.
The Goths looked toward the hegemonic power to their south for respite. Led by their leader Fritigern, they appealed to the eastern emperor for refuge and succor.
How the Goths treated the Romans afterward brings to mind the American fable of the old woman and the snake. She finds a snake near death, gives it food and medicine, then is surprised when he bites her. As the poison takes effect and she lays dying, the snake advised “you knew I was a snake when you picked me up.”
Emperor Valens issued a number of promises to Fritigern. Marcellinius wrote that “the emperor gave orders that they should be given food for their present needs and lands to cultivate.”
The emperor, however, never gave any regard to whether or not local officials had either the willingness or the ability to fulfill these promises. The Goths, “who had long since been permitted to cross” the river forming the Roman border, experienced “ruinous negligence” from local officials. Goths “were not provided with the necessities of life.” This led to a series of events that inspired them to seek “the ardour of battle.” They launched a revolt that led to a costly was and the death of Valens himself.
Valens had resorted to an expedient that worked for him and Rome in the short term, but led to deadly consequences later on. Once invited in, almost no Germanic tribesmen ever sought to quit a comparatively easy life within Roman borders. They came in enough numbers to resist government authority and undercut the security of the empire.
Rome in its greatest success was a nation of laws where citizenship was valued. By the time of Valens, the ideal of rule of law had almost disappeared. Weakness and incompetence was installed at the top all too regularly, leading to political tumult. Gothic infiltration of the empire and subsequent rebellion against the purple was only one of many burdens imposed on the people by an often stupid and unserious government.
The disasters that hit Rome in the 300s and 400s came from both a government that put the state’s interests behind those of the whims of the ruling party. The lack of border security allowed in countless individuals who had no regard for Rome, its people, or its system, playing a key role in decline.
Why does the telling of this story matter to citizens of the United States of 2023? No reason. No reason at all . . .