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Battle Between Clovis and the Visigoths // National Library of the Netherlands, Public Domain

11 Rome-Sacking Facts About the Original Goths

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Battle Between Clovis and the Visigoths // National Library of the Netherlands, Public Domain

May 22 is World Goth Day, an occasion minted in 2009 when BBC 6 dedicated the day to goth rock. It has since become a happening in clubs across Europe, the Americas, Australia, and South Africa. To celebrate, we’ve compiled 11 facts about the original Goths—and we don’t mean Bauhaus.

Here are some things you may not know about the Germanic people best known for sacking Rome in 410 CE. Though deemed “savages” and “barbarians” by the Romans, they were actually complex, intelligent, and misunderstood people. The Goths by Peter Heather and The History of the Goths by Herwig Wolfram both served as invaluable sources for the facts listed below.


Only one source regarding the Goths’ origins survives: Getica, a history written by Jordanes, a 6th century Roman historian of Gothic descent. According to Jordanes, “from this island of Scandza, as from a hive of races or a womb of nations, the Goths are said to have come forth long ago.” Most scholars have accepted Scandza as Scandinavia. Jordanes describes the Goths expelling and subduing a series of peoples along the southern coast of the Baltic Sea to create their domain there, outside the Roman Empire. Twentieth century archaeological evidence suggests such a migration in the first three centuries.


Goths’ reputation as barbarians comes from Roman sources, which viewed them (at various times) as pests, threats, and second-class subjects of the Empire. In truth, during the time they were settled between the Baltic and Black Seas, the Goths were largely peaceful hunters and farmers, skilled in horsemanship, archery, and falconry. They traded extensively with neighbors, both stationary and nomadic, and Gothic furs were much in demand. “They had generated a reasonably sophisticated agricultural culture with quite complicated political structures,” according to Heather.


Another misconception is that the Goths were pagans. In the 4th century, the bishop of Constantinople sent a missionary named Ulfilas to convert the Goths. Though Christianity was not universal, he brought many to the faith and created an entire Gothic alphabet so as to translate the Bible. (It's worth noting that Ulfilas practiced and converted the Goths to Arian Christianity, a form deemed heretical by the Catholic Church.)


Until the late 4th century, the Goths had no king. Instead, their political system was a network of clan chieftains who selected a central leader in times of danger or to represent them in diplomacy (usually with the Roman Empire). At times like these, “the king did not differ from other Goths in his habits, at sports or play [and] he did not set himself apart in dress or appearance,” wrote Wolfram.


In about 370 CE, the Huns invaded the domain of the Goths, massacring and pillaging villages. This uprooted their society and permanently divided the Goths into two groups. The Ostrogoths (low Latin for “the eastern Goths”) stayed east of Dniester River and were largely subdued by the Huns and made vassals in what was essentially a cross-continental protection racket. The Visigoths (“the good Goths” or “the noble Goths”) established a domain extending from the Dniester to the Danube River and spent the next several decades as frenemies of the Romans.

However, it’s possible that the split between the two branches is much older. Jordanes mentions that the Goths traveled in three boats, which may represent that there were distinct branches before leaving Scandza. On the third boat were the Gepidae, one of the most mysterious of the Germanic tribes. Their name means "the late ones" because their boat arrived last.)


A contingent of Visigoths led by King Fritigern petitioned Emperor Valens, who ruled the Eastern Roman Empire, for protection as they tried to escape both the Huns and an ongoing conflict with another Visigoth ruler. In 376 CE, Valens agreed, in exchange for their mass conversion to Christianity (which was largely trivial after Ulfilas’s efforts) and conscription into the Roman Army. Fritigern led about 80,000 people across the Danube River, the traditional boundary of Goth land. Their plight wasn’t much better under Roman rule. Corrupt Roman governors hijacked grain shipments meant for the Gothic refugees. At the lowest point, Goths were selling their children into slavery. Romans offered the meat of one dog carcass for one child.


The hungry, downcast Visigoths soon rebelled against their Roman overlords and destroyed much of an area called Thrace. Valens led an army to repel Fritigern’s, and at the city of Adrianople, the Goths slaughtered between 10,000 and 20,000 Roman soldiers, including Valens himself. The battle had repercussions that changed Europe. The defeat of such a nation, including the killing of an emperor at the hands of a “barbarian” force, was humiliating and perhaps the start of the fall of the long-eroding Roman Empire.

Valens’s successor, Theodosius I, had little choice but to make peace with the Visigoths. A 382 CE treaty deemed them an autonomous group within the Roman Empire, with a right to lands between the Danube River and Balkan Mountains. (It denied them connubium, the right to marry Roman citizens.) However, facing an unending series of foreign enemies and internal usurpers, Theodosius couldn’t resist stipulating that Goths fight in Rome’s army—a caveat that proved to be Rome’s undoing.


For the most part, the Visigoths were used as cannon fodder (in the figurative sense) by the Roman army, placed on the deadly front lines so that the sons of Rome would be safely tucked behind. This stoked Goth resentment of the Romans and prevented consolidation of the two groups.

At the end of the 4th century, a military leader named Alaric rose up among the Visigoths. He had fought in the Roman army and seemed to be angling for a lucrative generalship. Perhaps a denial of a promotion played a role in his later actions, but, in any case, Alaric organized the Visigoths. Throughout his 15 years of leadership, they rebelled against the Romans several times, sacking cities across the Empire. Provincial leaders often gave into Alaric’s demands of land, money, and titles, indicating he had control of their soldiers. Central Roman leaders abused and slaughtered Goth citizens and slaves in retaliation, but this only brought Alaric more followers.


In 408 CE, with the Roman army distracted in campaigns against the Franks and Vandals, Alaric finally marched to Rome, the heart of the empire, with little resistance (although Rome hadn’t been the capital since the 3rd century CE, moving first to Milan and then in 402 to Ravenna). He assimilated former slaves and members of other outsider tribes on his way and began the first siege of Rome.

The first siege was successful, earning Alaric and his army several tons of gold and silver, thousands of tunics and hides, and 3000 pounds of pepper. Two more sieges would follow: one in 409 CE that led to a puppet Emperor being placed on the throne, and the 410 CE siege which famously led to the sacking of Rome.

It was first time in 800 years “the Eternal City” fell to outside attackers, though the siege was mild by 5th century standards, and there was no wholesale slaughter of citizens. The Visigoths burned buildings, desecrated statues, stole possessions, and rounded up captives to be ransomed or sold as slaves. The Goths stole books, even though few were literate, because books represented wealth to Romans. His point made and his pockets filled, Alaric moved on to the tip of Italy, hoping to invade a piece of Africa and sustain his people there, but he died along the way.


In the face of the Roman Empire’s collapse, Theoderic the Great built the Ostrogoth Kingdom, which stretched across Italy. He then sought to reunite his tribe with the Visigoths, taking on a position as regent of the Kingdom of Toulouse, the Visigoth power center in what is now France, established after they left Rome.


The Visigoths pushed into the Iberian Peninsula where they set up a capital under the name of Toledo. Because they had interacted with the Romans so extensively, much of the attire, language, architecture, and legal codes of this kingdom showed Roman influence at a time when the Empire’s culture was deteriorating. The Visigoths eventually converted to Catholicism and merged, culturally and militarily, with the peninsula’s native population, creating the coalition that birthed Spain.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.