History seldom exactly repeats itself, but it sure does repeat similar patterns and allow parallels to be drawn. The growing inequality of wealth we Americans have lived in for the last 30 years leads me to see an eerie parallel to this old story:
By the year 375 CE, the Roman Empire was financially and governmentally bankrupt. The preceeding two centuries had seen a growing inequality of wealth and oppurtunity to such an extent that Roman society had become a caste system, whereby sons were required to do whatever their fathers had done. There was no possibility of upward mobility except for generals who could use their legions to seize the Imperial throne. The small independent farmers who had once been the backbone of Roman citizenry were gone, replaced by a small class of landowners who controlled nearly all of the land and all of the wealth.
The Empire was ruled by a tiny elite, maybe five per cent of the entire population, who controlled at least 95 per cent of the wealth. They liked it that way, and hired “barbarian” mercenaries into the legions to maintain the status quo and advance their own personal ambitions. These barbarians came from the mainly Germanic tribes who had migrated down from Scandinavia over the course of several hundred years and settled in the lands east of the Rhine and north of the Danube, the two main frontiers of half of the Empire. . . .
The once vibrant Roman middle class had been taxed and squeezed almost out of existence. The subject peoples, most of whom had been made Roman citizens over a century before(in order to tax them more) subsisted mainly as indentured servants or serfs. Yet the rapacity of the ruling class knew no bounds, and in spite of declining revenues, they always demanded more. The Empire was so broke that it was divided into Western and Eastern Empires in an attempt to make administration more efficient, but all that did was to create two different geographical ruling classes without addressing the underlying problems, which ultimately stemmed from the rulers’ own ambition and greed.
The Visigoths were a Germanic tribe of maybe 100,000 people who had settled for awhile in what is now Poland and Ukraine, but had been forced south and west by the expansion of the Huns from the Russian steppes. Upon reaching the Danube in 375, they petitioned the Roman authorities for permission to settle in the Roman Balkans, now Bulgaria and Serbia, so the still formidable Roman legions could protect them from the Huns. The Visigoths needed land for their flocks and crops, and offered to serve in the legions as allied auxillaries in return.
The Romans agreed and let them in in 376, and then immediately began treating the Visigoths as a conquered people with no human rights whatsoever. They confiscated their weapons and jewelry, and denied them food to such an extent that parents were forced to sell their children into slavery in order to survive.
In short, the Roman PTB treated the Visigoths in much the same way as they treated their own lower classes. The problem was that the Visigoths were a proud nation of warriors, men and women alike, and they didn’t take very kindly to being treated as chattel.
The inevitable happened. The Visigoths revolted. The Eastern Emperor Valens led his legions out to crush them, and died with nearly all of his men in 378 at the Battle of Hadrianopolis, aka Adrianople. You see, the Visigoths had invented heavy cavalry. They may have even invented the stirrup, allowing a rider to stand on his horse and swing his sword down, but evidence there is scanty. What is clear was they did something to improve the efficacy of cavalry.
The Visigoths then embarked on a leisurely migration throughout Greece and the Balkans, eventually arriving in Italy. The Western Romans, under the leadership of a wily Vandal general named Stilicho, managed to stop them for awhile, mainly by bribing other barbarian tribes, including the Huns, to harry them. But the arrogance and greed of the Roman ruling class reared its ugly head yet again.
The Western Emperor, Honorius, fearing Stilicho, had him executed in 408. He not only killed his most valuable commander, but ordered the slaughter of his Germanic allies and their families as well, keeping much of the loot for himself, of course. The surviving barbarian soldiers who had served in the Roman legion did the only practical thing–they joined the Visigoths.
The Visigothic king, Alaric, once again offered to serve Rome as an ally in exchange for a safe homeland for his people. Honorius refused, and the Visigoths sacked Rome in 410. The Visigoths, who really only wanted safety and land, once again tried to ingratiate themselves to the Roman ruling class by having Alaric’s son Ataulf marry Honorius’ sister Placidia, but it didn’t work out. Alaric died, Ataulf was murdered, and the Visigoths continued their leisurely and plundering migration into Gaul and Spain. Emperor Honorius, unable to stop them, finally granted them huge land grants in those countries.
One would think that the existing Roman population would have resented Visigothic rule, but that didn’t happen. It is true that the Visigoths took the best land for themselves, but since that was owned by only a tiny fraction of the population that the majority resented anyway, the land grab didn’t really affect the bottom 95% of the Roman population. In fact, their taxes went down, trade increased, and their standard of living improved. Many probably viewed the Visigoths as liberators from their own aristocracy, and the Visigoths had no problem with small farmers or tradesmen. They also had this curious idea about locals handling their own affairs by voting.
So the Visigoths settled to stay in southern Gaul and most of Spain. They were critical in saving what was left of the Western Empire, and subsequent Western Civilization, when they joined with the last great Roman general, Aetius, at Chalons-sur-Marne in 451 and stopped Attila the Hun in his tracks. They preserved and reinvigorated the greatest Roman contribution to us, government by law. Their descendants in Spain, with one brief exception in the 8th Century, successfully blocked the Islamic Moorish conquest of Western Europe. Their language, mixed with Latin, became Spanish.
There are several lessons we can learn from the Visigothic experience, but the one I will focus on is the following. Extreme inequality of wealth and oppurtunity always results in injustice, but that injustice can be successfully resisted and overthrown. Since we Americans now live in a society where the inequality of wealth is just as bad as it was in the days of the late Roman Empire, and the warnings of the collapse of America mount, many look around for the modern day Visigoths.
Look in a mirror. We are the Visigoths now.