Athanaric

(d. 381)
   Gothic warrior leader or judge from 365 to 381, whose reign was marked by prolonged struggles against the Romans and the Huns as well as against other groups of Goths. His reign was later recognized by the Visigoths as the moment of the beginning of that people, and he was deemed their founder king. It was as a result of the pressure of the advancing Huns that Gothic followers of Athanaric abandoned their leader and, with rival Gothic groups, petitioned the Roman emperor Valens for entry into the Roman Empire. The entry of the Visigoths in 376 led to the Battle of Hadrianople, but Athanaric was not involved in that battle and was eventually welcomed to Constantinople and honored there shortly before his death. His reign was characterized also by the indiscriminate persecution of Christians, Catholic and non-Catholic, living in his territory, which led later Christian historians to blacken his name.
   Athanaric was a member of a royal clan among the Gothic Tervingi, and from his youth he had strained relations with the empire. His father, after an apparent failed diplomatic contact with Constantine the Great (r. 306-337), made Athanaric swear an oath never to step foot in the empire. Moreover, although the empire supported Athanaric's dynasty, Goths fought with Rome against Persia, and trade went on between the Goths and Rome, these good relations followed a crushing defeat by Rome and rested on Gothic hostages at the Roman court. In the 360s, when he had come to rule in his own name, Athanaric supported the pretender to the Roman throne, Procopius, against the legitimate emperor, Valens (r. 364-378). Valens massacred the warriors Athanaric sent to support Procopius and prepared for open war against Athanaric.
   The Roman campaign against the Goths in the late 360s brought great devastation and suffering to Athanaric's people. From 367 to 369 Valens prosecuted war against Athanaric but, despite considerable advantages, could not defeat the Goth. Athanaric was no match for Roman power and lost battles against Rome, but he managed to avoid the severe defeats his predecessors suffered. In 369, with a growing Persian threat, Valens accepted Athanaric's offer of peace. The treaty was settled, much to the chagrin of Valens, on an island in the Danube, because Athanaric refused to set foot in Roman territory. The treaty freed Athanaric's Goths from Roman hegemony and ended tribute payments to the Romans.
   After settling with the Romans, Athanaric turned his attention to affairs in his realm. From 369 to 372 Athanaric, fearing that Christianity would undermine the traditions of Gothic society, conducted a systematic persecution of Christians in his realm, many of whom had converted as a result of the missionary activities of Ulfilas. He forced Christians in his realm to honor a tribal idol and make sacrifices to it, and if they refused they were punished and their houses burned. The idols were probably images of important ancestors or tribal founders, and those who failed to honor them denied the tribe and its divine origins. In other words, they violated the integrity of the community to which they otherwise belonged. In a sense Athanaric, much like the Roman emperors before the conversion of Constantine, was trying to preserve the unity of his realm by forcing Gothic Christians to adhere to the traditional religion. Athanaric's persecutions were also part of his anti-imperial policy, because of the close association of Christianity with the Roman Empire, which had sponsored missionaries north of the Danube River. But Athanaric's efforts backfired because they failed to unite the Goths. In fact, his persecutions led to a division within the community when his rival, Fritigern, agreed to convert to Christianity in exchange for the support of the Roman emperor Valens. Fritigern also challenged Athanaric's authority in the mid-370s, but Athanaric managed to keep control as a greater threat emerged on the horizon.
   The Huns' advance followed in the wake of the Gothic war with the Romans and the internal struggle between Athanaric and Fritigern. Although at first modest, the pressure of the Huns became increasingly intense and caused a dramatic realignment of barbarian settlements inside and outside the frontier of the empire. As the Huns moved eastward, various Gothic groups faced them, with generally disastrous consequences. One tribe of Ostrogoths was smashed by the Huns, even though a small group managed to make their way to Athanaric's territory. In the summer of 376, Athanaric was ambushed by an advance force of Huns, from which he managed to escape with his army intact.
   In response to the threat of the Huns, Athanaric began a program of building defensive fortifications similar to Roman fortresses along his frontier. Unfortunately for Athanaric and his Goths, this policy of wall building proved ineffective, as Hunnish raiding parties once again fell on him and defeated the Goths in battle near the Danube River.
   His ability to retreat successfully and regroup failed him after his defeat by the Huns, in part because the Huns took control of important territory and managed to cut off Athanaric's supply lines. As a result of his losses to the Huns and the devastation it caused, Fritigern, Athanaric's old rival, established himself as a leader and, with a majority of the Tervingi, withdrew from Athanaric and received the right from Emperor Valens to settle in the Roman Empire. The division of the Goths had serious consequences for both Athanaric, who had lost most of his followers, and Valens, who was defeated by Fritigern and killed at the Battle of Hadrianople in 378.
   Athanaric and his remaining followers did not follow Fritigern into the Roman Empire, but he could not remain where he was because of continued pressure from the Huns. Just as the Huns advanced at Athanaric's expense, Athanaric's successful withdrawal came at the expense of other barbarian peoples. He advanced against another barbarian people who lived across the Carpathian Mountains and settled there for the next four years with his remaining followers. In late 380, Athanaric was forced out in a coup engineered by Fritigern. Despite his long-standing hostility toward the empire, Athanaric sought asylum in Constantinople in January 381. He was welcomed by the emperor Theodosius, who met him at the gates of the city and offered him a lavish reception. The welcome afforded Athanaric was outdone only by the funeral Theodosius provided him two weeks later, after the Goth's death on January 25, 381.
   See also
   Bibliography
 ♦ Heather, Peter. The Goths. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.
 ♦ Randers-Pehrson, Justine Davis. Barbarians and Romans: The Birth Struggle of Europe, a.d. 40-700. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983.
 ♦ Wolfram, Herwig. History of the Goths. Trans. Thomas J. Dunlap. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
 ♦ --- . The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples. Trans. Thomas J. Dunlap. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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