The Germanic Invasions of Western Europe

Barbarian Invasions into the Later Roman Empire
Courtesy of Adventus Saxonum: The Coming of the Anglo-Saxons
Click on map to enlarge

Complex internal problems of a social, economic and political nature plagued the Roman World since the late Roman Republic and these problems brought about a decline that ultimately led to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. However, the invasions of the Germanic tribes, particularly those of the fifth century, were equally important in precipitating the internal crises of the western empire and in profoundly modifying the political map of the west. The political and territorial unity found at the height of the Roman Empire came to be replaced by the fragmentation of fifth-century western Europe into several Germanic kingdoms.

Germanic peoples were known to the Romans since the second century B.C.E. and despite many differences, the two groups did co-exist relatively peacefully. Many Germans had been allowed to cross the border, and they settled as farmers and slaves. Some even became soldiers in the imperial army. The Germans admired what was worthy in Roman civilization and the Romans admired the physical strength and the simplicity of values of the Germans. The Roman historian Tactius (c. C.E. 55 - 117) provides one of the best descriptions of the Germans in his Germania.

Tacitus: Germania

Beginning in the third century, however, this situation of relatively peaceful co-existence changed as the German peoples began exerting more pressure on the northern Rhine and Danube frontiers. This problem reached crisis proportions in the fourth century when the nomadic Huns began their migration westward toward the territory of the Visigoths, a Germanic tribe that had settled north of the Danube frontier, in present-day Romania. As the Huns advanced, the Visigoths were forced to flee into the Eastern Roman Empire. The Visigoths were granted permission to settle within the empire in return for military service. But when Roman maladministration created intolerable conditions, the Visigoths rebelled and crushed the Romans at the battle of Adrianople in C.E. 378, killing Valens, the emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire. The Visigoths, led by a capable king named Alaric, turned from Constantinople and proceeded south, sacking Greece, and then turned westward toward the Adriatic. They attacked Italy and sacked Rome in 410, an event that deeply shocked the inhabitants of the empire. Under Alaric's successors, the Visigoths moved across Gaul. They settled in Aquitaine in 418 and thus established the first Germanic kingdom on Roman territory. The Visigoths then moved into Spain, where they founded a second kingdom at Toledo that lasted until the Muslim invasions of the eighth century.

A Topographical Map of Germany
Rome during the Disaster at Adrianople C.E. 378
The Sack of Rome C.E. 410

After precipitating the invasions of the Germanic tribes in the fourth century, the central Asian Huns, under their ruler Attila, also invaded the Roman Empire and conquered much of central and eastern Europe. In 451 - 452, they invaded Gaul and Italy, but these territories were successfully defended by a coalition of Roman and Germanic troops. The Huns were defeated at Châlons in 451 and soon after the death of Attila in 453, the Hunnic Empire fell apart. Other Asian nomadic peoples who entered Europe were the Avars in the sixth century, the Bulgars in the sixth and seventh centuries, and the Magyars in the ninth century. The Magyars settled in the Danubian plain and their descendants still inhabit modern Hungary.

Priscus on Attila the Hun
The Defeat of the Hunnic Empire C.E. 451

As the Visigoths approached Italy in the early fifth century, the Western Empire responded by shifting troops from Britain and from the Rhine and Danube frontiers to the defence of Italy. This set the stage for political disaster because the move weakened the frontier defences. Not only did Britain fall to the Angles, Saxons and Jutes in 407, but the way was cleared for Germanic tribes to break through the poorly defended frontiers and overrun most of the Roman Empire's western provinces. Overwhelmed, the Roman armies were unable to expel the invaders and the Western Roman Empire, built up over the course of eight centuries, collapsed.

In the early fifth century, the Vandals, Sueves and Alans also crossed the Rhine. Moving westward, they swept into Gaul (roughly modern France and Belgium) and made their way southward into Spain. The Vandals, under their one great king, Gaiseric, arrived in Spain in 411 and their settlement, although shortlived, gave Andalusia (from Vandalusia) its name. The Vandals then entered North Africa where they established their capital and built a fleet with which they raided Sicily and Italy, pillaging Rome in 455. The word vandalism commemorates their atrocities. A Vandal kingdom remained in North Africa until 533, when the Eastern Emperor Justinian conquered their kingdom.

Another Germanic tribe, the Burgundians moved into sourtheastern Gaul (present-day Provence). The many "Burgundies" that exist today are evidence of their settlement. In 476, the traditional date for the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the German chieftain Odovacer deposed the West's last emperor, Romulus Augustulus, and established an autonomous kingdom in Italy. In 493, however, the Ostrogoths, led by Theodoric (c. 454 - 526), a German leader who had been brought up at the Court of Constantinople, defeated Odovacer and in turn established control over Italy.

The End of the Western Empire C.E. 476
The Invasion of Italy by the Ostrogoths C.E. 490

A Germanic people that migrated in a very different way than the other Germanic tribes, and with greater and more lasting presence, as a result, were the Franks. Unlike the other Germanic tribes, the Franks did not abandon their homeland when they set out for new territory. From the lower Rhine, they gradually expanded into northern Gaul late in the fifth century. Under the leadership of the warrior chieftain Clovis (r. 481/482 - 511), the various Frankish tribes were united, which gave them the military strength to depose the last Roman governor in Gaul, drive the Visigoths from Aquitaine into Spain, absorb the Burgundian Kingdom and eventually conquer most of Gaul. Within the next three centuries, other Franks would continue where Clovis and his immediate descendants left off, not only conquering all of Gaul but reuniting western Europe as one entity.

By the end of the fifth century, Roman imperial government had come to an end in the West as that half of the empire was thoroughly overrun by Germanic peoples. Political power shifted from the Romans to the Germans who, after invading the territory, settled and established independent kingdoms throughout western Europe. The Visigoths occupied Spain, the Burgundians held Provence, the Ostrogoths ruled Italy, and the Franks held Gaul, which would become the most lasting state established by any of the Germanic tribes, France.

The Germanic Kingdoms before the Reconquest by Justinian C.E. 530

The largest Germanic tribe probably numbered no more than 100,000. Despite their relatively small numbers, the invaders were able to invade western Europe because they were militarily superior to the Roman army, the frontiers were poorly defended, and because they likely met with little opposition from the Roman population. In C.E. 440, the Christian priest Salvian wrote that the "Romans were far worse enemies than their enemies outside, for although the barbarians had already broken them, they were being destroyed even more by themselves."

Salvian: On the Governance of God

Although the Germanic tribes precipitated the breakup of the Roman state in the West, the imperial government survived in the Greek speaking East. In 527, the Eastern Emperor Justinian (r. 527 - 565) launched an offensive from Constantinople to reconquer the most important western territories lost to the Germanic peoples. His armies conquered the Vandals in North Africa in 533. From there, they invaded Italy where, after almost twenty years of warfare, they dethroned the Ostrogothic king. Justinian succeeded in restoring imperial rule but the revival was short-lived. In 568, a new Germanic tribe, the Lombards, entered Italy and conquered the northern plain that still bears their name, Lombardy, and established the duchies of Benevento and Spoleto in the south.

The Reconquest by Justinian C.E. 565
The Invasion of Italy by the Lombards C.E. 600

Return to Tutorial Chapters                             Proceed to the Frankish Empire

First Europe Tutorial / The Applied History Research Group / The University of Calgary / August 1996
Copyright © 1996, The Applied History Research Group