I'm delighted to welcome Gordon Doherty, author of LEGIONARY: VIPER OF THE NORTH. Set during the Gothic Wars of the Roman Empire, this is an exciting and dramatic account of an unexplored time in history. Gordon is praised in his native United Kingdom for his painstaking research and stirring prose.
Please join me in welcoming him today as he shares this guest post explaining the background and genesis of his work:
The Gothic crossing of the Danube in 376AD is considered a defining moment in history, one that threw the Eastern Roman Empire into turmoil and possibly led to the fall its western counterpart. Some suggest that, in a matter of days, up to one million Goths spilled across the river and into the empire while others estimate more conservatively at around one hundred thousand. Even at the lower end of the scale, and despite the Goths entering the empire in truce, such a monumental population shift could only ever lead to one thing: War.
Yet, for many hundreds of years prior to the crossings, the Germanic peoples inhabiting the lands immediately outwith the empire had never come together so markedly – in-fighting , tribal pride and Roman subterfuge ensuring they remained politically and militarily fractured. So what provoked the Goths to cross the great river in 376 AD with such unprecedented unity and conviction?
The answer lies far to the east, on the craggy and windswept steppes near modern-day Mongolia. This was the land of a people we have come to know as the Huns. At some point, probably in the 1st century AD, these hardy, nomadic horsemen began an inexorable migration westwards. Some believe they were driven from the east by aggression from the Han Chinese or by a confederation of rival nomadic peoples. Whatever their stimulus, the Huns seemed set on chasing the setting sun, sending entire peoples into flight as they moved west. This triggered what historians now describe as ‘The Great Migration’, a momentous gravitation of population from the east towards Europe. The Huns’ mastery of archery and mounted warfare saw them subjugate almost every tribe they came across in the steppes and then Scythia. The Roman historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, tells how peoples such as the Alani, the Agathyrsi, the Anthropophagi, the Budini, the Geloni, the Melanchaenae and the Neuri all fell under the Hunnic yoke. These tribes were then pressed into service for the Hunnic advance on the next westerly target: Gutthiuda, land of the Goths and the last buffer between the Huns and the Roman Empire.
In late 376 AD, the Gothic armies were fractured, with many rival ‘Judges’ competing for ultimate power. But when the Huns appeared en-masse on their northern borders, these squabbling warlords at last set aside their differences, with Fritigern emerging as their leader. But, caught unawares by such a ferocious army of invaders, the unified Goths quickly realised that they could not stand their ground and fight. So, like every other people who had found themselves in the Huns’ path, the Goths fled for their lives; to the south, to the Danube and to the Eastern Empire. The border legions garrisoning the forts along the River Danube were under-strength, poorly equipped and ill-prepared for any major border activity. Added to that, they found themselves as the guardians of Thracia and Moesia after Emperor Valens had summoned the bulk of the field armies of those provinces to the Persian frontier.
So when Fritigern and a sea of Gothic warriors and families appeared on the northern banks of the Danube appealing for sanctuary, the legions had no option but to allow them entry. Ammianus, writing some years after the event, describes the subsequent Gothic crossing of the Danube as fervent and troubled;
‘The crowd was such that, though the river is the most dangerous in the world . . . a large number tried to swim and were drowned in their struggle against the force of the stream.’
Emperor Valens is thought to have applied some retrospective spin to this tumultuous event, lauding the Goths as ready-made reinforcements for the patchy border legions. In reality, however, it was the first of many dark days for the empire. Famine soon gripped the overpopulated refugee camp and the surrounding Roman settlements. This, combined with a succession of Roman atrocities – including beatings, murders and the selling of Gothic children into slavery in exchange for rotting dog meat – set Fritigern and his people on the march to Marcianople in search of food. Then, at the gates of the city, he was the subject of a bungled assassination attempt by the local Roman commander. With that, the last vestige of Roman-Gothic truce evaporated, and Fritigern rallied his armies to strike back. The Gothic War had begun. What followed would push the Eastern Empire to its breaking point.
The ‘Legionary’ series is set in the Eastern Roman Empire, and follows the adventures of the impoverished border legions stretched across the Danube frontier in these troubled years. ‘Legionary: Viper of the North’ is the second volume in the series and picks up where the first left off, taking the reader right down to the front ranks and into the eye of the storm, weaving a tale around the Gothic crossings and the chaos that ensued.