As the dust began to settle...
In 382 AD, after 6 years of ruinous warfare between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Goths, the two powers finally struck a deal for peace. But history tells us that peace is a rare and short-lived phenomenon. As it proved, this period of accord served merely as a fermentation ground for new and world-changing conflicts.
But, if we can take a moment to breathe deeply and cast an eye over the empire in this trice of tranquility, what did things look like?
The lay of the land
In 382 AD, the Roman Empire had, for the best part of a century, existed in parts. Back in 285 AD, Emperor Diocletian split the empire into Eastern and Western halves. He further split each half in two to establish 'The Tetrarchy' - a system of two senior emperors, each known as Augustus, and two junior Caesars. It was supposed to establish a closer degree of imperial control over each quadrant and set in place a clear and undisputable system of succession. in practice, imperial control varied wildly and there was lots of dispute about succession.
Fast forward through civil wars, religious unrest, Constantine's reunification of the empire and its subsequent return to separate halves and finally to the end of the Gothic War... and we arrive at the picture below.
The Western Empire, ruled by Emperor Gratian, consisted of Britannia, Gaul, Hispania, Italia and Africa. While relatively stable, the westerners did have to keep a close eye on the Rhine river frontier, beyond which the many powerful Germanic tribes and confederations held sway. Worse, a strange new threat from the eastern steppes - the Huns - had catalysed the panicked westwards movement of these tribes. Previously happy to raid and retreat, the Germanic tribes were now set on breaking into the Roman Empire to stay, and to put the great rivers between them and the aggressive Hun threat. Fortunately, the Rhine frontier held good up to this point,
The Eastern Empire didn't fare quite so well. The Goths - one of the more easterly of the Germanic peoples - had been living north of the River Danube in roughly modern-day Romania and Ukraine. But the arrival of the Huns forced them to move, en-masse, across the great river and into the Roman Diocese of Thracia (highlighted sandy-yellow in the map above). The Romans were ill-prepared to handle this mass-migration, and indeed they handled it terribly, mistreating the Gothic peoples. The Goths revolted and six years of war ensued, including the Eastern Empire's most infamous reverse at the Battle of Adrianople which saw Eastern Emperor Valens slain. In the end, there was no victor, just the edgy peace deal which saw the Goths settle in Thracia with some degree of autonomy - granted in exchange for their vow to serve the new Eastern Emperor, Theododius, should he call them to arms.
So that was how things were: the Goths planted in Roman Thracia, the Huns still at large in the north, continuing to drive tribal groups towards the perceived safety of imperial lands. Meanwhile, in the East, the Sassanid Persians remained strong and ominous on the desert borders.
So many threats on the outside...
With all of these potential foes around the Eastern and Western Empires, you might think it would be common sense for both halves to stand together and compose a strategy to keep the ancient imperial world safe. Unfortunately, common sense seems to have been a rare commodity, for it would not be long before the two halves turned upon each other. I won't go into the specific details of this - but you can read all about them in my latest novel Legionary: Dark Eagle, which gives a soldier's-eye view of the chaos that was about to come.
But I can give you an illustration - partly speculative, but based as much as possible on historical records - of the military arsenals available to the Western and Eastern Empires.
We can see that Gratian's Western Empire retained a strong core of field legions and elite palace regiments (Auxilia Palatina), as well as a great number of cavalry troops from the African provinces to supplement the imperial cavalry schools (Scholae Palatinae).
The Eastern forces might - at a glance - appear matched in number. but if we look closely at the legionary corps, we have only patchy remnants left over from the Gothic War. After all, it is thought that some two-thirds of the eastern army was destroyed at the Battle of Adrianople alone. Ironically, the bulk of the forces available to Emperor Theodosius at this point were the Gothic tribes settled in Thracia - a populous, proven force... but how reliable?
And when it came down to it, could the Roman brothers of East and West really lift swords against one another?
The next few decades were to serve as an answer. Those years would prove be the most torrid the Roman Empire had ever endured, with world-shaping wars and ancient cities ablaze, all to the plaintive death-cry of the old gods.
Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed!
You can find out more about my novel set in this era, below:
Gordon Doherty: writer, history fan, explorer.
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