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Barbarian Migrations of The Fourth and Fifth Centuries

Introduction into middle ages.

The pressure from ‘barbarians’ (mostly Germans)

which the Roman Empire had experienced from

the late second century became more intense in

the late fourth century. This Volkerwanderung

(wandering of the peoples) involved unstable

amalgams of diverse groups, many of whom

settled gradually and relatively peacefully. The

pressure of steppe nomads such as the Huns from

c. 370 played a role, but probably more important

were rivalries among the Germanic peoples, the

formation of confederacies under aggressive

military leaders from the third century and the

opportunities presented to booty-hungry war-

leaders and their retinues by Rome’s political,

military and financial weaknesses and the

increasing alienation of Roman provincials from

centralized rule.

The first serious case of Germanic penetration

occurred after 376, as Visigothic and Ostrogothic

tribes living beyond the Danube sought refuge

as Roman allies  (foederati) within the empire.

Tension led to the battle of Adrianople in which

a largely Visigothic force defeated a Roman army

and killed the emperor Valens. Although a treaty

was soon arranged the Visigoths continued to

ravage Greece and Illyricum until, in 402, they

entered Italy under the leadership of Alaric. A

cat-and-mouse game took place while the

imperial government in Ravenna prevaricated

in the face of Gothic demands for land and gold.

Finally Alaric’s exasperation led to the sack of

Rome in August 410—an enormous blow to

Roman morale. Alaric died soon afterwards and

his brother-in-law Ataulf led the Goths to

southern Gaul, where they were recognized as

foederati by a treaty in 416. Under their kings

Theodoric I and II and Euric, they built up a

powerful state based on Toulouse which had

generally good relations with the Roman

aristocracy and established overlordship in


The German peoples who had remained north

of the Danube (Herules, Gepids, Rugi, Skiri and

Ostrogoths) became subjects of the Huns, who

built up a tributary empire under Attila (434–53).

While launching regular attacks on the east

Roman provinces in the Balkans, Attila remained

friendly with Aetius, the dominant force in the

west, until he was induced to launch

inconclusive raids into Gaul (checked by his

defeat at Chalons in 451) and northern Italy. The

collapse of the Hun empire following Attila’s

death in 453 led to renewed pressure by

Germanic bands (Ostrogoths, Rugi and others)

on the Danube frontier.

Meanwhile northern Gaul had been thrown

into confusion by the rupture of the Rhine

frontier in late 406 by a mixed barbarian force

dominated by Vandals, Suevi and Alans. While

some Alans became Roman allies in Gaul, others

joined the Vandal invasion of Spain in 409. The

Suevi set up a robber kingdom based on Galicia

which lasted until 585. In the face of Visigoth

pressure the Vandals sailed to Africa in 429 and

were granted the western provinces by a treaty

of 435. Their able king, Geiseric, seized Carthage

in 439, occupied the rest of Roman Africa and

launched a series of lucrative naval raids,

occupying Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica and

sacking Rome in 455. Following his death in 477

the aggressive and confiscatory policies towards

the Roman aristocracy and the Catholic Church

gave way to a generally more conciliatory and

Romanizing regime.

The collapse of the Rhine frontier in 406/7 had

wide repercussions. Britain saw its Roman

garrison withdrawn and the assumption of

power by rival British chieftains until the Anglo-

Saxon invasions in the late 440s. The

Burgundians were permitted to set up a kingdom

on the upper Rhine in 413. Transferred as

federates to the Jura/Lake Geneva area in 443,

they built up a Romanized kingdom

incorporating the Lyon and Vienne areas from

457. Along the middle and lower Rhine groups

of Franks became powerful and attacked cities

such as Cologne and Trier. In northern Gaul

Roman rule was undermined by obscure rivalries

between usurping generals, Bretons, peasant

rebels (Bagaudae), Alans and the sub-Roman

regimes of Aegidius and his son Syagrius based

on Soissons (c. 456–86). The long-term

beneficiary of this power vacuum was the Salian

Frank dynasty of Childeric (d. 481) and his son

Clovis, who gradually expanded from their

original centre of Tournai by conquering or

allying themselves with rival bands of Franks,

including established laeti (soldier-farmers).


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