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Authors: Ross Laidlaw

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BOOK: Theodoric
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As they rode back towards his father's
, the answer suddenly came to Theoderic, and he knew what it was he had to do.



Barbarians used leaves as lavatory paper; Romans employed sponges on sticks.


With nearly six thousand men, he [Theoderic] crossed the Danube and fell upon Babai, king of the Sarmatians

Gothic History,

From his hiding-place on an island at the confluence of the Sava and the Danube, Theoderic surveyed the walls of Singidunum, and felt his heart sink. Massive, striped with reinforcing layers, bristling with towers, they were typical of the thickened shells that Roman cities everywhere had grown in the age of insecurity ushered in by the battle of Adrianople. Towering above them rose the citadel, a mighty complex of bastions and ramparts. In vain he scanned the visible defences for weak points – cracks or bulges, crumbling mortar between blocks of ashlar; the place looked utterly impregnable. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea, after all. His mind flashed back to when the plan had been conceived . . .

On Theoderic and Timothy's return to the
, Thiudimer had told his son he must be absent for some time. Under their leader, Hunulf, the Sciri had invaded the territory of his third brother, Valamir, to the north; in the fighting Valamir had been killed, and his people had appealed for assistance.

‘Take my place here while I'm away,' Thiudimer had told his son, adding, ‘If you need help, just ask Videric.' Videric, a grizzled veteran of many raids, was head of the assembly of the Kuni, the Amal tribal council. Though the king spoke with kindly tact, the implication of his words was clear: he didn't trust Theoderic to run things in his absence, and was really leaving Videric in charge.

Theoderic had said nothing to his father about the idea that had come to him as he journeyed back from Lake Balaton: he would lead a raid against a Scirian settlement, returning hopefully with plunder
and renown sufficient to dispel any doubts about his fitness to succeed Thiudimer. But, with his father's announcement, a more ambitious plan had sprung to mind. He would raise a force from among the warriors not accompanying Thiudimer on his northern campaign, and recapture Singidunum from Babai. Such a feat would do more than impress his father and the Amali. Singidunum being an imperial city, returning it to the Eastern Empire's fold would earn the gratitude of Leo and Zeno. Then truly could he call himself a Friend of Rome.

Once his father had departed for the north, Theoderic set about implementing his plan. With the approval of the Kuni, he summoned a meeting of the clan's young warriors. Tentatively at first, then with growing confidence, he expounded his idea, which was received with an enthusiasm far exceeding his expectations. He discovered, to his pleasure and surprise, that he had a natural gift for leadership, based on an ability to fire others with his own enthusiasm. Giving orders came easily; in fact, it didn't feel like telling others what to do, more like making requests to friends, who would then carry them out because they wished to please you. In a heady moment of epiphany, he realized that here lay the secret of command: those you led became your comrades – a band of brothers united by common fellowship, like the men who followed Alexander, Caesar or Aetius, saviour of the West from Attila's hordes. Even Thiudimund appeared to have come round and accepted his brother's authority. Theoderic's next step was harnessing the wild energy he had tapped into.

His main problem would be keeping his force together. Unlike Roman armies (at least, East Roman armies, the West being increasingly reliant on fickle and unruly federates), which operated under strict discipline, barbarian armies could not be kept in the field for long periods. Strictly, they were not armies at all, more mobs of individual warriors on holiday from labour at the sickle or the plough, and motivated by desire for plunder and glory, or hostility to an invading enemy. Battles were settled swiftly: a charge, followed by a shoving-match between the opposing lines, with victory going to the one that didn't break. Siege warfare was out; glory-hunting heroes lacked the patience or resources to undertake protracted enterprises. Even the great commander Fritigern had declared, ‘I have no quarrel with stone walls.' So, for his plan to succeed, Singidunum must be taken quickly.

But it was one thing to conceive a bold plan, quite another to prepare its execution, as the young leader was discovering. A hundred matters, which previously had not occurred to him, suddenly clamoured for urgent attention: supplies, equipment, strategy, tactics . . . Timothy proved a tower of strength. At his suggestion, each man would carry a bag of dried meat and hard biscuit sufficient for a month. This would obviate the need to live off the country – a time-consuming alternative, which would moreover antagonize local populations, who might prove useful allies in the future. To save valuable time, it was decided to cut directly across country south-east to Singidunum, rather than head south to the Sirmium
road, then east along that highway to the destination. The preferred route, by avoiding the dog-leg created by the great bend in the Danube, would form the hypotenuse of a triangle and thus be much shorter than the alternative. Its main drawback, apart from taking the six-thousand-strong force across broken and largely trackless terrain, was that they would end up on the wrong side of the river. To remedy this, Timothy, with a small picked group, would leave ahead of the main party and requisition enough craft from local fishermen to ferry the rest across the Danube, on arrival.

Thus far, everything had gone smoothly, according to plan. (Perhaps too smoothly, if you believed in hubris – Theoderic had seen a performance of Euripides'
The Bacchae
in Constantinople.) The men, all young and hardy, had made light of the forced march to the Danube, Timothy had done a sterling job ensuring transport, and the little army was now encamped in woods a few miles upstream of Singidunum. Now, through one glaring omission, the whole enterprise might fail, Theoderic reflected bitterly. If Babai – whom everyone he had spoken to dismissed as nothing more than an opportunist land-pirate – could take the place, its recapture should surely be feasible. However, this, his final reconnaissance, had convinced him him that nothing short of storming the ramparts stood any chance of success. But that, apart from being costly in lives, might well fail. The thought of returning home with his tail between his legs, instead of surprising his father with a triumph, made him shudder. Babai, he decided, must have gained entrance to the city
by bribing some in the garrison to open one of the gates, but that trick could hardly be repeated now that the Sarmatian's own men were in charge.

‘Any ideas?' he asked Timothy, who lay beside him in a concealing stand of willows.

Timothy gave a wry chuckle. ‘The words “Trojan” and “horse” rather come to mind. Sorry, Deric. Not a jesting matter.'

‘You know, I think you might have something,' murmured Theoderic after a pause. Then he went on excitedly, ‘A Trojan horse – that's the answer!'

At dawn, the two great half-sections of Singidunum's north gate swung open to admit the first of the carts that daily brought produce to the city from surrounding farms. Filled with grain or vegetables, a stream of vehicles flowed slowly through the entrance, then halted as a great tented wagon lumbered to a stop directly beneath the arch. Cursing, sleepy sentries in Sarmatian scale armour emerged from the flanking towers to investigate the problem. Suddenly, headed by Theoderic and Timothy, armed Goths poured from the wagon, dispatched the sentries, and rushed for the towers – but too late to stop those within from releasing the portcullis. Down crashed the massive iron grille, only to be checked in its descent by the stout sides of the wagon. Spears bloodied, several Goths emerged from the towers.

‘The diversion – what's happened to it?' exclaimed Theoderic to Timothy. ‘We should have heard the signal by now!'

‘I tried to warn you, Deric. It was a mistake putting your brother in charge. You'd best send word for our lot to come in.'

‘You're right – we've got no choice. God, what a mess!' Grim-faced, Theoderic dispatched runners to summon the main force.

Awaiting its arrival, Theoderic cursed his ill-advised generosity in entrusting Thiudimund with the diversion, a gesture intended to reconcile his brother over the grievances he harboured. The plan had, like all the best plans, been simple, and had seemed foolproof. Under cover of night, two-thirds of the army – some four thousand men – would hide in a stretch of wooded parkland between the Danube and the northern section of the city walls. The rest, under Thiudimund, would take up concealed positions near the city's south gate. At dawn, when
the gates were opened to admit supply carts, Thiudimund's section would begin a mock attack, with plenty of noise, on a southern stretch of the walls, sounding horns to advise Theoderic that the diversion had begun – the signal that the ‘wooden horse' (the wagon) could be activated. Babai's men, as observation had confirmed, were ensconced in the citadel. When aroused by the tumult of the diversion, it could safely be assumed that they would sally forth to repel the ‘assault', whereupon Theoderic's contingent would enter the city by the north gate and fall upon them from the rear.

That part of the plan affecting Theoderic had been carried out to the letter. But now, owing to the diversion's inexplicable failure to materialize, everything had been thrown into jeopardy. Babai and his men had only to remain in the citadel, and the Goths would be faced with either having to mount a siege – a recipe for certain failure – or trying to take the fortress by direct assault. The latter would inevitably result in many casualties; probably, against such a strong position, to no avail. But there was no alternative, Theoderic decided. If they were not to lose the element of surprise completely, they had to act at once.

The towers had been secured and the portcullis raised, as the van of Theoderic's force arrived at the north gate. Sending messengers to urge Thiudimund to join him, Theoderic, accompanied by Timothy, led his men to the nearby eminence on which loomed the citadel. Confronting them was its gate, two massive slabs of timber between a pair of mighty bastions projecting from the curtain wall. The Goths were greeted by a volley of arrows, and hastily pulled back out of range.

‘What a brute!' exclaimed Timothy, sounding far from happy, as he surveyed the entrance to the citadel. ‘D'you really think it's worth it, Deric? We'd need ladders.'

ladder.' Theoderic's brain was working furiously, as a memory of something he had witnessed in the Eastern capital flashed into his mind. A troupe of entertainers performing tricks, one of which featured a woman strapped to a board, a man hurling axes which slammed into the wood all round her . . . Turning to his men, he began issuing orders. Doors ripped from neighbouring buildings, and with battens quickly nailed to them for handling, were pressed into service as screens. Propelled by willing volunteers, an arrow-proof wall was soon advancing towards the gate; behind the screens a party of Goths wielding heavy
throwing-axes called
, most popular among the Franks and Alamanni but also used by many Goths. Came a ripple of thuds and a ‘ladder' of axes raced up the face of the gate. Seizing the grapnel someone thrust towards him, Theoderic, giving himself no time to reflect, began to climb the rungs provided by the wooden helves. No arrow-slits faced inwards from the bastions, so he was screened from enemy fire, and in moments reached the overhang of the walkway extending, via passages through the bastions' upper storeys, to the curtain wall on either side.

He swung the grapnel; the hooks clanged against the parapet, bit home, and with a heave and a scramble he was on the walkway, to be joined moments later by others swarming after him. Heading a stream of Goths, he raced, sword drawn, down the staircase of the nearest bastion. The lightly armed archers on the various floors were no match for the tide of yelling warriors and died where they stood, skewered by spears. The gate was opened from inside and the Goths surged through. The battle in the citadel's courtyard was swift and bloody. The Goths' blood was up; their huge stature, strength and battle-frenzy made them truly fearsome opponents. Outnumbered (Thiudimund's men were at last arriving on the scene) and outfought, the Sarmatians were slaughtered to a man.

At one juncture, Babai, a giant in glittering carapace of silvered scales, tried to stall the momentum of the fight by calling for the issue to be decided by single combat – a ruse calculated to appeal to the Amal. It almost worked. Shouting for Theoderic, the Goths began to draw back, creating a space for the combatants to face each other. Caught up in the madness of the moment, Theoderic found himself stepping into the arena – to be rudely pushed aside by Timothy.

‘Sorry, Deric, but I'll handle this,' muttered the Isaurian, stepping in front of him. Whipping out his deadly
, Timothy sent it flashing through the air to find its mark in Babai's throat. ‘Snakes like that you don't allow to bite,' he remarked, as Babai writhed in his death-agonies on the ground. ‘You scotch them first.'

With their leader's death, the Sarmatians lost heart and the battle was virtually over.

Singidunum's Roman citizens were overjoyed to be rid of the Sarmatians, who had abused or tortured many to force them to reveal
their wealth. That night the city's decurions, or town councillors, held a great feast to honour the triumphant Goths.

After effusively thanking the Amal for freeing them from Babai's yoke, the chief decurion turned to Theoderic and asked, ‘May I assume that, as of this moment, Singidunum is returned to Roman rule?'

About to rise to give his assent, Theoderic felt a restraining tug on his sleeve. ‘If what you're going to say is what I think it is, don't,' whispered Timothy. ‘The Romans are masters of intrigue; when dealing with the empire, it always pays to do so from a position of strength. Keep Singidunum for the moment. It'll make an excellent bargaining counter for you in any negotiations with Leo. Remember, you want to extract as many concessions as you can for the Amal, your people now, regarding any future settlement.'

BOOK: Theodoric
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