Long before the beginning of the period known as the Middle Ages a tribe of barbarians called the Goths lived north of the River Danube in the country which is now known as Roumania. It was then a part of the great Roman Empire , which at that time had two capitals, Constantinople — the new city of Constantine — and Rome . The Goths had come from the shores of the Baltic Sea and settled on this Roman territory, and the Romans had not driven them back.
During the reign of the Roman Emperor Valens some of the Goths joined a conspiracy against him. Valens punished them for this by crossing the Danube and laying waste their country. At last the Goths had to beg for mercy. The Gothic chief was afraid to set foot on Roman soil, so he and Valens met on their boats in the middle of the Danube and made a treaty of peace.
For a long time the Goths were at war with another tribe of barbarians called Huns. Sometimes the Huns defeated the Goths and drove them to their camps in the mountains. Sometimes the Goths came down to the plains again and defeated the Huns.
At last the Goths grew tired of such constant fighting and thought they would look for new settlements. They sent some of their leading men to the Emperor Valens to ask permission to settle in some country belonging to Rome . The messengers said to the emperor:
"If you will allow us to make homes in the country south of the Danube we will be friends of Rome and fight for her when she needs our help."
The emperor at once granted this request. He said to the Gothic chiefs:
" Rome always needs good soldiers. Your people may cross the Danube and settle on our land. As long as you remain true to Rome we will protect you against your enemies."
These Goths were known as Visigoths, or Western Goths . Other tribes of Goths who had settled in southern Russia , were called Ostrogoths, or Eastern Goths .
After getting permission from the Emperor Valens a large number of the Visigoths crossed the Danube with their families and their cattle and settled in the country now called Bulgaria .
In course of time they became a very powerful nation, and in the year 394 they chose as their king one of the chiefs named Alaric. He was a brave man and a great soldier. Even when a child he took delight in war, and at the age of sixteen he fought as bravely as the older soldiers.
One night, not long after he became king, Alaric had a very strange dream. He thought he was driving in a golden chariot through the streets of Rome amid the shouts of the people, who hailed him as emperor. This dream made a deep impression on his mind. He was always thinking of it, and at last he began to have the idea that he could make the dream come true.
"To be master of the Roman Empire , " he said to himself, "that is indeed worth trying for; and why should I not try? With my brave soldiers I can conquer Rome , and I shall make the attempt."
So Alaric called his chiefs together and told them what he had made up his mind to do.
The chiefs gave a cry of delight for they approved of the king's proposal. In those days fighting was almost the only business of chiefs, and they were always glad to be at war, especially when there was hope of getting rich spoils. And so the Visigoth chiefs rejoiced at the idea of war against Rome , for they knew that if they were victorious they would have the wealth of the richest city of the world to divide among themselves.
Soon they got ready a great army. With Alaric in command, they marched through Thrace and Macedonia and before long reached Athens . There were now no great warriors in Athens , and the city surrendered to Alaric. The Goths plundered the homes and temples of the Athenians and then marched to the state of Elis , in the southwestern part of Greece . Here a famous Roman general named Stilicho besieged them in their camp. Alaric managed to force his way through the lines of the Romans and escaped. He marched to Epirus . This was a province of Greece that lay on the east side of the Ionian Sea . Arcadius, the Emperor of the East, now made Alaric governor of this district and a large region lying near it. The whole territory was called Eastern Illyricum and formed part of the Eastern Empire .