The year was 375. The Roman Empire contained about a fourth of the world’s people stretching across Europe from Brittania in the north to Egypt in the south, from Spain in the west to what is now Bulgaria in the east.
Meanwhile, just east of Bulgaria, the Visigoths (Western Goths), fleeing the depredations of Hun horsemen, wanted to cross the Danube River into the safety of the Roman Empire. The Visigoths were also attracted by the glorious wealth of the Roman Empire.
The story of the refugee crisis is told in the final chapter of Edward Gibbon’s classic The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. About 500,000 Goths, men, women and children, lined the bank of the Danube River for miles, seeking to cross:
With outstretched arms and pathetic lamentations they loudly deplored their past misfortunes and their present danger; acknowledged that their only hope of safety was in the clemency of the Roman government; and most solemnly protested that, if the gracious liberality of the emperor would permit them to cultivate the waste lands of Thrace, they should ever hold themselves bound, by the strongest obligations of duty and gratitude, to obey the laws and to guard the limits of the republic.
The Goths tried to force the mile-wide Danube, but failed and were driven back by Roman soldiers. Many Goths drowned. Perhaps a pathetic child’s body washed ashore. The callous brutality outraged Roman opinion. The Roman soldiers who had fought off the Goths were condemned. Gibbon writes:
[T]he brave officers who had served their country in their execution of their duty were punished by the loss of their employments, and narrowly escaped the loss of their heads.
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