The Goths and the Huns: The Barbarian Pressure on Rome

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE ROMAN EMPIRE: FROM AUGUSTUS TO THE FALL OF ROME

By Gregory S. Aldrete, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin, Green Bay

The late 4th through the 5th centuries AD was a time when the Goths invaded—or migrated into—the Roman Empire in hitherto unprecedented numbers. There were also the Huns, who appeared on the scene and posed a greater threat to Rome than it had previously experienced. But who were the Huns?

The sarcophagus depicting a battle between the Goths and the Romans.
The Romans had multiple confrontations with various groups of barbarians over the centuries. (Image: Museo nazionale romano di palazzo Altemps/Public domain)

The Origin of the Word ‘Barbarian’

The term ‘barbarian’ was a Greek word simply meaning those who could not speak Greek. But it eventually became a pejorative label used by the Greeks and Romans to denote almost any group they regarded as less civilized than themselves.

The ‘barbarians’ who fought against Rome in Gaul, Germany, Spain, Britain, and the Balkans were not one unified society or civilization, but were instead dozens of separate tribes, each with its own specific culture, traditions, language, and religious practices.

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The ‘Barbarian’ Tribes

Nevertheless, most of these groups ended to be mostly either nomadic or seminomadic. They did not construct very large cities like the settled, farming civilizations of the Mediterranean basin.

The economies of many barbarian groups were based on herding, especially of cattle, far more than the Roman economy was. If the typical diet of a Roman consisted of the Mediterranean triad of grain, olive oil, and wine, the preferred meal of a ‘barbarian’ was red meat, dairy products, and beer. 

Their political structure tended to be tribal, with each group led by its own warlord or chieftain. A number of tribes might occasionally unite together under some particularly charismatic king, but such confederations were usually short-lived.

Socially, these were male-dominated societies in which kinship ties played an important role. They tended to be warlike, and expended most of their energies fighting one another, with raids and skirmishing more common than large-scale battles.

Learn more about the Five Good Emperors.

Early Roman Skirmishes with ‘Barbarians’

Rome had been fighting various northern tribal groups for a thousand years. During the era of the Republic, figures such as Marius had gained great fame combating Germanic invaders, and Julius Caesar had made his reputation by conquering the Gauls.

During the early empire, clashes, and sometimes full-scale wars, against innumerable ‘barbarian’ nations along the Rhine and Danube frontiers had been a constant preoccupation. These conflicts had included great victories for Rome, but there had been major disasters as well.

Nevertheless, the existence of the empire itself had rarely if ever been threatened, and no hostile barbarian had set foot in the city of Rome for eight centuries. All this changed at the end of the 4th century, however, when the barbarians became a more serious menace.

The Battle of Adrianople

The bust of Valens who died in confrontation with the Goths.
Valens was the first Roman Emperor to die in battle against a barbarian army. (Image: Capitoline Museums/Public domain)

The first major indication of this new age came on August 9, 378 AD, when the Eastern Roman Emperor Valens led a Roman army into combat against an invading force of the Goths near the city of Adrianople in Thrace.

The emperor forced his army to march all morning over hot, dusty terrain without a break. When his tired and thirsty troops finally reached the Gothic encampment in the mid-afternoon, they were no match for the barbarians. The entire Roman army was wiped out, and Valens himself fell on the battlefield.

Valens’ death was an ominous portent of the future. This was the first time that the supposedly uncivilized northern barbarians had slain a Roman emperor.

The Goths and the Huns

The Battle of Adrianople was certainly a disaster for Rome, and it demonstrated that the empire was vulnerable to sizable barbarian invasions. The Gothic migration that led to the battle had been on a larger scale than most previous barbarian incursions.

To really understand what had changed, however, and why the Goths had descended in such numbers, we need to analyze another event in history. What had brought the Goths into conflict with Rome was the actions of yet another barbarian group: the Huns. 

Learn more about early Roman history before the fall.

The Prowess of the Huns

The Huns were nomads who roamed the central Asian steppe. They were outstanding horsemen and archers, and were much feared for the ferocity of their raids.

Their military prowess rested on a combination of three factors: extremely high mobility arising from their almost purely nomadic lifestyle; the sophisticated hit-and-run tactics that they employed in battle, such as, frequent feigned retreats that lured their foes into ambushes; and their mastery of an especially powerful type of composite recurve bow, which gave their arrows long range and great penetrating force.

The Huns had an extremely tough, brutal society based on raiding and stealing, and they could travel vast distances on their horses.

The Migration Pressure from the Huns

Sometime during the 4th century AD, the Huns began to migrate steadily westward out of their traditional homelands, moving into the territory of another group, the Alans.

After defeating the Alans and incorporating many of them into their army, the Huns advanced yet further westward, encroaching on the lands of the Gothic Greuthungi. They in turn were defeated, with many fleeing westward ahead of the Huns.

A sketch depicting the Roman emperor, Valens and the leader of the Goths meeting on the Danube.
Valens agreed to let the ‘barbarians’ refugees cross the Danube into Roman territory. (Image: After Eduard Bendemann/Public domain)

The next Gothic tribe to be menaced by the Huns was the Tervingi, who lived on the borders of the Roman Empire. When they too were unable to cope with the Huns, together with refugees from the Greuthungi, they sent a request to Emperor Valens.

They sought permission, together with the Greuthungi refugees, to cross the Danube and take refuge within Roman territory. 

Valens agreed to admit them and provided food in return for military service. However, corrupt local Roman officials shamelessly cheated the Goths and failed to deliver the promised goods; relations broke down, and the outcome was the Battle of Adrianople.

The Huns had set in motion a colossal domino effect that spanned Asia and Europe, displacing one group after another. The ultimate result of these movements was intensified barbarian pressure on the Roman Empire.

Common Questions about the Goths and the Huns

Q. What did the word ‘barbarian’ denote originally, and what did it come to mean?

The term ‘barbarian’ was a Greek word simply meaning those who could not speak Greek. But ‘barbarian’ became a pejorative label used by the Greeks and Romans to denote almost any group they regarded as less civilized than themselves.

Q. What were the common features of the ‘barbarian’ tribes?

The economies of many barbarian groups were based on herding. The political structure of barbarians tended to be tribal, with each group led by its own warlord or chieftain. These were male-dominated societies in which kinship ties played an important role. They tended to be warlike, and expended most of their energies fighting one another.

Q. Who were the Huns?

The Huns were a group of nomadic herders who were known for their military prowess. They were outstanding horsemen and archers, and were much feared for the ferocity of their raids.

Q. What was the cause of the barbarian pressure on Rome?

The Huns began to migrate steadily westward, first defeating the Alans, then the Gothic Greuthingi, and then the Tervingi. This migration created a barbarian pressure on Rome.

Keep Reading

The Introduction of Attila the Hun in Edward Gibbon’s “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”
How Did the Golden Age of Rome End?
Huns, Vandals, and the Collapse of the Roman Empire