After the tragic defeat of the Roman army at Adrianople in 378, the Goths were loose in the empire. The eastern emperor was dead, along with two-thirds of his army. No other army remained in the east, and definitely none that could face them in battle. So, why didn’t the Goths take over the empire?
1. Lack of leadership
The name “Goths” is confusing, even without thinking about the lipstick and black clothes! It is a term that encompassed several groups—the most well-known were the Tervingi, Greuthungi, and perhaps Gepids. Furthermore, someone could become a Goth by joining them, even if they were not Gothic by blood. It was a bit like becoming a Roman.
Within these groups there were further problems with leadership. Unlike the Romans, with their highly structured army, Gothic leaders were chosen by the people and often had a reign just long enough to outlast the problem. Rarely were their actual “kings” of the Goths, and even then not universally. For example, Fritigern led the Tervingi at Adrianople, but he struggled to keep all the individually-minded warriors from attacking cities and dying. He simply did not have authority to command.
2. Lack of siege weapons
Throughout Rome’s history, one of her greatest advantages was that she had siege weapons but the “barbarians” did not. The Goths defeated the eastern army, but were helpless at getting into the cities. The surviving Roman soldiers were inside, along with weapons. And most importantly, food.
Without siege weapons, the Goths were left in the winter, unable to plunder the riches. They could scour the countryside until a new emperor raised an army against them.
3. Not enough people.
They were a vast people group—far too big to count in the census that was supposed to happen when they crossed. But they were basically one group of assimilated people, not an empire. This is in contrast to the Roman Empire, which consisted of numerous people groups, languages, and countries.
It might be compared to one of the states defeating the US military, then trying to take over the other states. (Beware the Michigan Militia.) There simply were not enough Goths to take over even the eastern half.
4. No desire to take over the empire.
Rome was seen as the land of riches, both in terms of plunder and of ability to become rich. “Barbarians” generally wanted Rome to be plundered, not defeated. She was the steady force they could all count on to test their young men against, to steal exotic goods from, and even to join at times. It was common in the later empire for “barbarians” to join the legions in order to receive pay and to progress in the Roman army. It was also no surprise when a people group fought itself. Though the empire tried to put their soldiers in new lands to avoid any mixed up loyalties, sometimes the same people group fought on both sides of a battle.
Check out other articles on the Goths:
Sack of Rome
Weapons and armor of the Goths
True or false
For more information on the Gothic quest for a home and freedom, check out “Alaric, Child of the Goths.”