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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Vasilief, A History of the Byzantine Empire

The empire from Constantine the Great to Justinian

Nationality and religion in the fifth century 


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Page 4

The settlement of the Gothic problem. The central issue for the government in the time of Arcadius was the Germanic problem. The Visigoths, who had settled during an earlier period in the northern part of the Balkan peninsula, were now headed by a new and ambitious chief, Alaric Balta. At the beginning of the reign of Arcadius, Alaric set out with his people for Moesia, Thrace, and Macedonia, threatening even the capital. The diplomatic intervention of Rufinus brought about a change in Alaric's original plan for attacking Constantinople. The attention of the Goths was directed to Greece. Alaric crossed Thessaly and advanced into Middle Greece by way of Thermopylae.

The population of Greece at that period was almost purely Greek and, on the whole, almost the same as Pausanias and Plutarch had known it. According to Gregorovius, the old language, religion, customs, and laws of the forefathers remained almost unchanged in the towns and villages. And in spite of the fact that Christianity had been officially pronounced the dominant religion, and the worship of the gods, condemned and forbidden by the state, was doomed to die out, ancient Greece still bore the spiritual and artistic impress of paganism, mainly because of the preservation of the monuments of antiquity.

In their march through Greece the Goths pillaged and devastated Boeotia and Attica. The Athenian harbor, Peiraeus, was in their hands; fortunately they spared Athens. The pagan historian of the fifth century, Zosimus, narrated the legend of how Alaric, upon surrounding the Athenian walls with his army, beheld the goddess Athena Promachos in armor and the Trojan hero Achilles standing before the wall. So greatly astonished was Alaric by this apparition that he abandoned the idea of attacking Athens. The Peloponnesus suffered greatly from the Gothic invasion, for the Visigoths sacked Corinth, Argos, Sparta, and several other cities. Stilicho undertook to defend Greece and landed with his troops in the Gulf of Corinth on the Isthmus, thus cutting off Alarics way back through Middle Greece. Alaric then pushed his way to the north into Epirus with great effort and against many difficulties. The Emperor Arcadius apparently was not ashamed to honor the man who had devastated the Greek provinces of the Empire with the military title of Master of Soldiers in Illyricum (Magister mihtum per Illyricum). After this Alaric ceased to threaten the eastern part of the Empire and directed his main attention to Italy.

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