One of the most famous and haunting tales of the late Roman Empire was the winter of 406 A.D. During this period, the barbarian incursions across the border into the Empire had begun to take their toll. In 376 A.D. the Goth tribes had crossed over the Danube, initially with Rome’s permission, to escape a new threat from the the roving hordes of Huns which had pressured the Goths out of their settlement. After crossing the Danube, this refugee civilization had been cruelly exploited by the Romans, and in turn they took their revenge. In the Battle of Adrianople, August 9, 378 A.D., the hollow shell of the once great Roman military power was encircled by Gothic cavalry and surprised in a terrible defeat. The Emperor of the East, Valens, was killed in the struggle. The next Emperor, the virulently Christian Theodosius, allowed the Goth tribes to settle within the Empire itself. They actually served as a barrier and as troops for the Empire. However, a Visigoth king named Alaric wanted more power, and he took his tribe on a rampage throughout Greece and eventually into Italy. Theodosius’ sons, Arcadius in the East and Honorius in the West, were left to deal with the situation after their father’s death. The Master of Both Services (Foot and Cavalry), Stilicho, a German-born Roman officer who wielded inordinate control of the West and Honorius himself, pursued and battled Alaric throughout the Balkans and Italy. Without a decisive battle, however, some even questioned Stilicho’s own loyalty to the Empire. Because of these battles, the critical troop detachments along the Rhine frontier were mostly withdrawn to protect Italy. This left Gaul critically exposed.
Amidst this backdrop came the brutal winter of 406 A.D. A restless hordes of Germanic Tribes (Franks, Burgundians, Macromanni, Vandals, Alemanni) and non-Germanic Alans were poised across the Rhine River from Confluentes (Koblenz) to Rufiniana (Heidelberg), ready to move into more fertile, warmer lands to the south. Their intention was to invade and settle into Gaul, Spain and eventually Africa. When the cold winter froze the river, on December 31, 406 A.D., they crossed and changed the map and history of Europe forever. This was the Fall of the West and the Dark Ages were upon it. Britain was cut off from the Empire, and eventually the entire western Roman Empire came under the dominion of Germanic Tribes. All that Marcus Aurelius and countless other Roman Emperors had fought against in those dark, Germanic forests had been for naught!
“This memorable passage of the Suevi, the Vandals, the Alani, and the Burgundians, who never afterwards retreated, may be considered the fall of the Roman Empire in the countries beyond the Alps; and the barriers, which had so long separated the savage and civilized nations of the earth, were from that fatal moment levelled with the ground.” (Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chap. XXX)
As if to mirror the drama it was meant to portray, “The Fall of the Roman Empire” began filming in Spain during the harsh winter of 1962-1963. Ironically enough, the Rhine froze over this year as well! This was one of the coldest winters in modern Europe. Stephen Boyd lamented about Sunny Spain at the time: “The snow is up to my waist–the temperature is around zero. I could take it if I could wear long underwear buy you can’t wear longies under a Roman toga!” (January 27,1963, Santa Cruz Sentinal) See below for some snowy pictures during this abnormally brutal winter season.
I highly recommend this novel, “Eagle in the Snow”, by Wallace Breem for a great read about the later Roman Empire and the Crossing of the Rhine. The tale follows a no-nonsense follower of Mithras, General Maximus, as moves from Hadrian’s wall to help fortify the town of Moguntiacum (Mainz) and the Roman territory west of the Rhine against the forthcoming Germanic onslaught. It’s a fascinating tale of the new Christian era, the loss of Paganism, and the changing world of the late Romans.