Huns and Refugees

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Then, fire and chaos. The story of Rome’s decline begins here. In the late summer of 376, 200,000 men, women and children had appeared on the north bank of the Danube asking to be taken in as refugees. They were Gothic people’s, reportedly fleeing from massive amounts of violence which had occurred on the steppe just north of the Black Sea the earlier that year. An alien people riding innumerable horses with a strange language and stranger names had apparently just exploded onto the eastern fringes of Europe. The Huns.

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The Huns were a nomadic people under many rulers, living on the Eurasian steppe (which stretched broadly from Hungary to Korea) in groups of tents called ‘gers’, making their living herding pasture animals between summer and winter pastures. Life on the steppe was very different than life in the sedentary world, it’s a tougher life not lacking many raids between tribes. Steppe people are naturally equipped for war, all members of the tribe tending to be very skilled in horsemanship for herding and bowmanship for hunting. Steppe tribes did impose dominance and expect tribute from weaker steppe tribes and historically steppe confederations could grow quite massive. The Huns were no exception. At this point in history they seem to have been the dominant power on the western Eurasian steppe but there are theories they originated in Mongolia as the biggest pain in Han China’s neck some 300 years before. The theory goes, after being defeated and pushed west they slowly drifted to Europe, subjecting more steppe tribes along the way. As is only natural, the temptation for steppe tribes to raid richer sedentary populations rather than their fellow nomads is very alluring. Alluring because steppe tribes didn’t grow their own grain and such massive concentrated populations were ripe for taking slaves who could milk their cows and sew their clothes. Nomads were not historically ignorant to the use of raided riches either, commonly putting them towards the war effort or wearing them.

These were the people who descended on 4th century Ukraine in pragmatic fury, a people described by the Romans as having an inhuman desire for plundering others’ property. The Huns had plundered the Alani, the nomadic people, described as mostly tall and blond, then occupying Ukraine, and compelled them into military alliance. This unstoppable horde of Huns and now Alani advanced on Eastern Europe..

The throngs of Gothic refugees north of the Danube awaiting entry into the Empire sent ambassadors to Emperor Valens, who was then in Antioch. Valens happily admitted them into the Empire because he saw in this a great opportunity: to gain so many young new recruits so as to make his army invincible and to gain vast amounts of gold from a terrified and hurried people wanting as soon as possible to be ferried across. Valens was just about to embark on a campaign against the Sassanids and could use the extra manpower. Gothic immigrants were settled near the mouth of the Danube on its southern side through the following fall. They soon began starving, as often happens when loads of people collect info once place. Gothic families became so desperate that they began selling many of their own as slaves to Roman officials in exchange for dog meat. As if this wasn’t big enough of a problem, Emperor Valens had a mere skeleton of an army to oversee the throngs of Goths cross the river. He and his main army were at Antioch, planning campaign to the east against the Sassinids. Valens only felt comfortable letting one of the two Gothic tribes across at that time, the Tervingi. Instead of spreading immigrants all over the Empire as was custom to prevent them from posing a unified threat, Valens let them stay together and choose their new home. They chose Thrace. He was trying to be generous to a people from whom he couldn’t afford a revolt. Not now. The Tervingi, in response, gave hostages, signed their young men up for the draft, and made it clear they were willing to convert to Christianity.

At this point, the Roman Empire was actually ruled by two Emperors. It had been since ___, broadly split directly down the middle, the line running north-south with an Emperor of the West (over Italy, Western Europe and western North Africa) and an Emperor over the east (Greece, Egypt and lands west of the Mediterranean).

The Emperor in the West was named Gratian, and Valens sent to him pleading for military assistance to ensure the Goths didn’t act up.

As food shortages grew, the commander of the small force responsible for overseeing the new refugees, Lupinicus, moved the Tervingi south, toward his headquarters at Marcianople, where there was more food. To supervise the migration, he was forced to use the forces stationed to keep watch on the other Gothic tribe, the Greuthungi, on the other side of the Danube. Sure enough, the Greuthungi crossed the river when there was no one was watching. The cunning Tervingi moved deliberately slowly towards Marianople to allow the Greuthungi to catch up with them. Already we see signs of barbarian conspiracy. When the Tervingi were just outside Marianople, The Roman soldiers and the Tervingi set up camp and Lupinicus invited their leader, his bodyguards accompanying, to dinner inside it’s walls, while soldiers were posted without to keep the throngs of Goths from entering the city. The hungry, offended Goths shouted insults at the soldiers and insults turned to violence. Lupinicus learned of this and he immediately had all the bodyguards of the Tervingi leader put to death in a frenzy of paranoia. Rumor spread the the Tervingi horde that their king has been killed and this only increased their aggression. The Tervingi leader, Fritigern, kept his cool and informed his host that a few Roman soldiers would not settle the Gothic masses unless their king was allowed to see them. This was granted and Vitigern was returned to his people, greeted with great cheer. The day seemed saved. Lupinicus awoke the next morning to the news that Goths were pillaging the countryside. He advanced to the Gothic camp in arms but he and his meager forces were quickly ambushed and cut down by the Gothic Hordes. The Greuthungi had caught up. The Goths found themselves in a strange new land, unopposed, pockmarked with the now depleted Roman military forts which guard the Danube. The way was open to wherever they wanted to go but the Goths had to think fast. Winter was setting in. They had no seeds to sow — they were refugees gone rogue. Raid or perish. The long march south to civilization began.

When the Goths reached the gates of Hadrianople, their first target, they found a much smaller force of Goths encamped without. These were recruits for the Roman army that had long been stationed here as a garrison to the city. Hearing the rumor of Goths pillaging land just north of him, the panicked chief magistrate of Hadrianople armed his citizens within the walls and marched them without to fight his own Gothic garrison. When the Gothic garrison was subjected to face the citizens they’d sworn to protect, they were driven to rebellion. When they saw their own people marching from the north, they joined the horde with Fritigern and turned on the city they’d been stationed to protect. So the Gothic horde only grew when it got to Hadrianople and set about capturing citizens to use as guides to direct them to the most fertile parts of Thrace.

Advancing curiously, they spread over every quarter of Thrace, while their prisoners of those who surrendered to them pointed out.

Valens sued for a temporary peace with the Sassanids at whatever terms necessary (many land concessions) and dispatched some of his troops already in Armenia to turn course and head for the Balkans at forced march. By spring 377 the Emperor’s relief troops had arrived and the Goths quickly withdrew north of the Haemus mountains. The Romans found the Goths drawn up in a wagon lager, unwilling to fight until all of their foraging parties returned. This was advantageous for the Roman force because it gave them time to wait for Emperor Gratian’s relief force to meet up with them, which had been marching all the way from Gaul. When the Goths felt confident to leave their hastily made fortifications, and the Romans relief forces had met up, a bloody battle ensued after a sleepless night at dawn. It lasted until evening. Ammininus, a contemporary historian, reports:

The whole battlefield was covered with corpses, some were lying among them who were mortally wounded, and cherished a vain hope of life; some were smitten with a bullet from a sling or pierced with arrows tipped with iron; the heads of others were split through mid forehead and crown with swords and hung down on both shoulders, a most horrible sight at last day gave way to evening and ended the murderous contests, and withdrawing in disorder wherever each one could, all the survivors returned in sorrow to their tents.

The battle was won by no one at great loss to both sides. The Goths retreated back to their wagon lager and stayed inside for a week. The Romans used this time to fortify and block the main mountain passes south from the battlefield. They would trap the Goths between the Haemus mountains and the Danube, and all the food in the region was just about used up or stockaded into the cities which the Goths could not siege. The Romans seemed to finally be gaining some control over the apocalypse.

But it was an illusion. The trapped Goths in the dead of winter had formed common cause with some of the foremost advancing bands of Huns and Alans. The Goths recruited the newcomers into their ranks with the promise of booty. Barbarians advantageously band together when there are rich lands to sack, and rich lands had opened up indeed. This terrified the remainder of the Roman forces holding the mountain passes to the south and they abandoned their positions under order. The new greatly increased horde of Goths, Alani and Huns were free to pillage south of the Haemus mountains again and did so glady and freely throughout the winter of 378, confined by the Rhodope mountains to the east and south and the sea to the west. Indomitable constantinople barred any incursions further east.

The bulk of Valens’ forces were diverted from their imminent war with the Sassanids and nearing the spring of 378 gathered in Constantinople for a war of vengeance. The western Emperor, Gratian, had also promised to come in person to Thrace at the head of his own royal army. The Goths were in for it now. Or so it seemed.

Because Gratian, the western Emperor was gathering troops and marching east, his guard on the Rhine and upper Danube would become depleted. In his absence from Gaul, the Lentienses, a Germanic tribe of the Alamani and a client state to the Romans crossed the Rhine, then frozen, to do some advantageous raiding. They were quickly driven back but Gratian suspected more crossings over were imminent. The Goths would have to wait. Gratian turned around from his march east and launched an punitive campaign against the regretful Lentinenses.

Valens was in a sticky situation. In the meantime summer was waxing and he had advanced east into Thrace with his army and set up camp at an imperial villa. He was waiting for a sign of Gratian. While waiting, Valens heard of a detached raiding party of Goths nearby and encouraged some troops onward to ambush it with devastating success in the middle of the night. This loss was such a shock to Fritigern that he called all his raiding parties to meet and strike camp just north of Hadrianople. He couldn’t afford any more setbacks.

Two more months dragged on and still no sign of Gratian. A letter informing Valens about the successful Alamani campaign and that Gratian was coming was read with contempt. It was almost August. Then the Goths were on the move again: south, towards Hadrianople. It seems The idle troops at the imperial villa wanted some action already, and Valens, glory over his fellow emperor, for the east Romans advanced on the traveling Goths without waiting any longer for Gratian.

Valens got to Hadrianople before the Goths and encamped outside its walls. Fritigern sent a peace envoy at this point but Valens declined. Valens advanced his troops northward the next morning and it wasn’t long before the familiar wagon circle around a groggy, waking Gothic camp came into view. Two more peace envoys were sent at this point and as Valens was having them read, two regiments surged forward. The troops were eager for blood.

A meager Gothic force stumbled out of its wagon lager and formed a battle line. As the walls of men met (Roman and Barbarian) the Goths were pushed back and back to their wagon lager much to the enraptured threats of the Romans. The. all of a sudden Gothic and Alani cavalry dashed out from a hiding space behind the lager and threw into confusion the left wing of the Roman line. This was no battle, this was an ambush. The Roman left wing collapsed and fled which exposed their center to a circle of violence. The terrified Romans packed together so tightly that some among them had their arms pinioned together. Arrows from the Huns whirling in from every direction found their mark and no man could raise his shield to stop them in what became a knot of men, sweat and fear. Fires were lit downwind of the Roman mass and the huddled men were blinded and choked as they prayed for a quick death.

Valens’ body was never found. Two thirds of the troops perished, the rest became slaves and fewer escaped to tell the tale. The Goths, Huns and Alani had just destroyed the best army of the eastern Roman Empire. Valens’ jealousy of Gratian, and his impatience, had undone the Empire. As for the Goths, the road to Constantinople lay open and unopposed.

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Huns and Refugees. (2019, Jul 08). Retrieved November 28, 2022 , from

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