The Aftermath Of Constantine’s Ariaric’s Gothic War

Michael Kulikowski

Michael Kulikowski

The later 320s witnessed a series of disturbances beyond the Danube frontier which may have justified such disturbances. As with the displacement of the Carpi twenty years earlier, these events can be understood in terms of Tervingian threats against their neighbours. First, in 330, a number of Taifali invaded the Balkan provinces, perhaps driven there by the Tervingi. A request for Imperial aid from some of the Tervingi’s Sarmatian neighbours soon followed and developed into a major Gothic war.

The Sarmatians had long been subject to the usual Roman mixture of subsidy and punishment. The remains of the large Sarmatian defensive systems just to the east of the Danube bend — most famously the Csörz-árok mentioned earlier in the article ‘Gothic Wars Against Constantine’s Political Advances’ — were undoubtedly built with Roman permission and suggest the sort of alliance that would have justified the Sarmatians’ request for assistance. The extent of Gothic power is revealed by the response to this request. Constantine launched a political campaign against the Goths, the first stage of which was won “in the lands of the Sarmatians,” thus beyond the Pannonian section of the Danube frontier. That implies a range of Gothic military action far away from the point where the Goths had hitherto appeared in our sources.

One must surmise that, in the aftermath of Constantine’s victory over Licinius, and while he himself was distracted by internal political problems, a Tervingian king had seized the opportunity to expand his hegemony at the expense of barbarian neighbours, although without directly threatening a Roman province. Probably he expected events of the previous two decades to repeat themselves: his defeated enemies would be accepted into the Roman empire and settle there, while he would be allowed to continue expanding his control in the trans-Danubian lands. If that was indeed his calculation, he did not foresee the scale of the Imperial response. Constantine sent his oldest surviving son and Caesar Constantinus to campaign across the Danube. This Imperial thrust, so we are told, drove many Goths (the sources speak improbably of one hundred thousand) into the wilderness to die of hunger and exposure.

Constantinus demanded and received Gothic hostages, amongst them a son of the Gothic king Ariaric. The defeat of the Goths was followed by a successful campaign against the Sarmatians, who had supposedly proved unfaithful to their agreements with the Emperor.

Constantinus had won a major and lasting victory that remained noteworthy two decades later: in 355, when Constantine’s nephew Julian delivered a panegyric to another of Constantine’s sons, the Emperor Constantius, the scale of the Gothic victory could still be celebrated. In fact, for more than thirty years after 332, the lower Danube was at peace. Yet despite its evident importance, we know very little about Constantine’s Gothic peace.

The limitations of our evidence have encouraged modern scholars into much hypothetical reconstruction along two different lines, the first on the continuity of Gothic leadership, the second in terms of the peace. In both cases, the testimony of Jordanes is a complicating factor. The real problem is the obscurity of the contemporary fourth-century sources, none of which allows us to gauge how important a king Ariaric was, and none of which tell us how, or whether, he was related to Tervingian leaders of the later fourth century. Instead, we have to infer this information from the limited evidence at our disposal.

The first clue to doing this lies in the location of Constantine’s first Gothic political campaign. Given that it took place in distant Sarmatia, and given the scale of the tribal displacement that preceded it, we can perhaps infer that Ariaric was the ruler of a very substantial policy. Although we cannot be sure that he was the only Gothic king involved in the war of 332, he is the only one attested by name, probably another sign of his importance.

We are on less certain ground when it comes to his connection to later Tervingian leaders. It is widely agreed that Ariaric was the grandfather of Athanaric, the powerful Tervingian chieftain against whom Emperor Valens campaigned in the 360s. However, that genealogical connection is based on the hypothetical identification of Ariaric’s unnamed hostage son with the equally unnamed father of Athanaric who is said to have had a statue erected to him in Constantinople. The only ancient source that explicitly connects Ariaric with the Tervingian leaders of the later fourth century is Jordanes. But as we have seen, Jordanes was determined to construct a continuous Gothic history. Given that he elsewhere invents demonstrably spurious connections to provide genealogical continuity, the value of his testimony for Ariaric is suspect. In other words, while some connection between Ariaric and later Tervingian kings is plausible, it can only remain speculative.

The same holds true for the terms of the treaty. Fourth-century evidence is limited, while Jordanes imposes on it an anachronistic Byzantine interpretation. He supposes that Ariaric’s Goths became foederati, a word that by the sixth century had a technical legal content implying specific responsibilities on the part of both empires and federate allies.

In 332, however, the formal status of foederatus did not exist, and the word for the treaty, foedus, is not a technical term. Even though many scholars think that the treaty of 332 invented the type of technical foedus known in the sixth century, nothing in the fourth-century evidence makes that plausible.

The peace of 332 marks a significant stage in both Roman and Gothic history not because of any legal innovations, but because it was so very decisive. It imposed more than thirty years of peace on the lower Danube or, as Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea put it in the Life of Constantine that he wrote shortly after the Emperor’s death in 337, “the Goths finally learned to serve the Romans.”

Indeed, some of the defeated Goths would continue to claim a special loyalty to the Constantinian dynasty for many years, decades later supporting a usurper named Procopius on the grounds of his dynastic connections. In the interim, they offered tribute to the Emperor and provided a large supply of military recruits for the Roman army. Such military service was not explicitly required by the terms of 332, as Eusebius’ testimony makes clear: he is nowhere able to state that Goths served in the army as a result of the treaty, even though elsewhere in his life he is consistently very enthusiastic, and very specific, about Constantine’s recruitment of defeated barbarians. Regardless, peace brought benefits to both sides.

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