Invasions and Conquests

Upon the decline of Roman imperial power, Germanic tribes from the east took over vast lands once ruled from Rome.

SECTION 1 - The Roman Empire Disintegrates

Rome at its greatest extent was bordered on the north by Hadrian's Wall in Britain, and the Rhine and Danube Rivers in Europe. Forts along these borders were established by Emperor Hadrian to protect the empire from the Barbarian tribes. In spite of the danger they represented to the empire, these tall fair-haired warriors, dressed in skins and draped in gold armbands and chains, fascinated the urbanized Romans.

For two centuries, Germanic peoples had been moving into the empire and settling along its frontiers. Many of them converted to the emperor's faith: Christianity, and they had been adopting Roman ways while maintaining their sense of worth about common people, including women, that had been greater in their tribal society than in the civilization they were entering. By the mid-300s, Germans inside the empire's frontiers were still only a small percentage of the empire's fifty to seventy million inhabitants. The Roman Empire might have been able to absorb more Germans, but perhaps not the numbers that were continuing to cross into the empire.

Rome's ability to control its borders was a problem. Corruption in the government and the rich oppressing the poor were causing disorder. Government positions were hereditary, honest government officials were rare, and the conquered peoples who made up the empire continued to detest officials as they did soldiers. Christian emperors had not changed that.

Common people were over-taxed, and taxes were often taken by force, and at times with torture. Continual demands of the army were exhausting the empire's economy. In the provinces suffering from invasions, hardly any loyalty to Rome remained, and, rather than contributing to their defense against the invaders, the people there were forbidden to bear arms. The leadership necessary to turn the empire was not about the come from its emperors. Rule was divided again between two emperors. Valentinian I, who rule from 364 to 375, was emperor of the western half of the empire, and his brother, Valens, was emperor in the eastern half, also beginning in the year 364. Both were intelligent military men dedicated to doing right, but they were not socio-political revolutionaries. Valentinian had a reduced source of manpower for the military. Facing these shortages, the government had been recruiting Germans, who, with their warrior traditions, were more willing to serve in the military than most youthful citizens, especially city dwellers.

Valentinian and his army defeated German invasions three times, and he remained at the Rhine frontier for seven years, building forts. During this time, Rome's British province was again invaded. The invaders were Saxons, Angles and Jutes, collectively known as Anglo-Saxons. The Jutes and Angles were from Jutland, and the Saxons were from Germany. Valentinian sent his best commander to rescue Britannia, and by 369 the Roman army succeeded in re-establishing Roman authority there.

Beginning in the third century, the German tribes pushed into 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. 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. The Visigoths, who were Arian Christians, might have been peacefully integrated into the empire, but Valens' agents failed to provide food for the Visigoths as had been agreed upon, and some Romans tried to buy Visigoth women and children for the slave market. This outraged the Visigoths. Visigoth warriors revolted, and discontented miners in the area joined the Visigoths as guides for their warriors.

Valens responded to the uprising by deciding to drive the Visigoths back across the border. Valens might have easily defeated the Visigoths, but he wanted all the glory from the coming war to himself. In 378, before reinforcements arrived, he attacked the Visigoths in Thrace. The empire's infantry was no match for Visigoth cavalry units. In what became known as the Battle of Adrianople (100 miles northwest of Constantinople), the Visigoths destroyed two-thirds of Valens' troops and his best generals, and Valens was killed. News of the Roman defeat signaled to the world that the Roman Empire was weak and vulnerable, which endangered it further.

The Visigoths were led by a capable king named Alaric. Alaric had bargained for pensions and for a post in the high command of the Roman army, and he had become disappointed over promises made by Theodosius that had not been fulfilled. The Visigoths wished to better themselves economically. Alaric and the Visigoths started marching toward Constantinople. Sensing the weakness of the new rulers and taking advantage of the disunity between the western and eastern halves of the empire, turned from Constantinople and proceeded south, sacking Greece, and then turned westward toward the Adriatic. Athens was spared by paying the Visigoths a ransom.


SECTION 2 - The Greatest Invasion sweeps across Gaul;, Huns on the Loose; and The Visigoths burn Rome

Around 395, bands of Huns invaded the eastern part of the Roman Empire, near Persia, where they spread destruction. The Huns pushed against eastern Germans (such as the Vandals). These Germans crossed the Danube River in great numbers, into the Roman province of Pannonia, and the Roman population there fled westward. The empire was further challenged in 399 when Alaric and his army of Visigoth warriors and civilians moved across the Alps and into Italy. In 402 and 403, a Roman army led by Flavius Stilicho drove Alaric and the Visigoths back. In 405, the Vandals and several other tribes united under a leader named Radagaisus. He and about a third of his force moved into northern Italy, destroying cities and pillaging. The western emperor, Honorius, fled. The empire arranged an alliance with the Franks. In the winter of 406-07 came the greatest of invasions. These tribes, with their farm animals and children, crossed the frozen Rhine River into Gaul. The frontier there had been undermanned and weakened by desertions. The German invaders found only feeble opposition. They spread out, ravaged, burned and raped, some of them making it all the way to the Pyrenees Mountains between Gaul and Spain.

In the autumn of 408, Alaric and the Visigoths again crossed the Alps and poured into Italy, to Ravenna. After failing to break through Ravenna's walls, Alaric decided to push on to North Africa, believing that grain grew there in great abundance, and he decided that on his way he would attack Rome to gain what he could. Rome shut its gates as Alaric and his army approached. Alaric and his army besieged the city, and its inhabitants grew hungry. Plague appeared within Rome, and corpses appeared in its streets. Rome's Senate decided to negotiate with Alaric and suggested it was not afraid of a fight. Alaric laughed and demanded gold, silver, moveable property and some three thousand pounds of Indian pepper in exchange for sparing the city and its inhabitants. Alaric gave Germans and slaves in the city safe passage out, some of whom joined his ranks, increasing Alaric's forces to about 40,000.

For more than a year Alaric kept Rome surrounded while waiting for his ransom. Then in August, 410, with assistance from within, his troops slipped into the city. For three days they looted and destroyed the houses of the rich. They killed some people, but being Christians they spared the Christian churches. Then Alaric and the Visigoths left for southern Italy, hoping to cross the Mediterranean Sea to North Africa. News of the fall of the city of Rome left many across the empire believing that the end of civilization was at hand.

After the Visigoths besieged and departed from Rome, a storm delayed their plans to cross from southern Italy into North Africa. Instead of trying to cross the Mediterranean the Visigoths journeyed north into southwestern Gaul, spreading what to some appeared to be God's punishment of Rome. The Roman emperor in the west, Honorius, felt obliged to make peace with the Visigoths. His sister, Placidia, married their new leader, Atauf. And, in 418, the Visigoths were granted a legal domain in southwestern Gaul, and thus established the first Germanic kingdom on Roman territory. The Visigoths made Toulouse their capital, and they established themselves as protectors of those who were there when they arrived. Following Roman tradition, as protectors the Visigoths had the right to possess from one-third to two-thirds of the land or the produce from those lands. Local people who owned large tracts of land lost much of it to the Visigoths, while most who came under Visigoth rule had little land to lose.


Section 3 - Franks, Visigoths, Vandals fight for power in Gaul

The Visigoths were awed by Roman civilization. They adopted local methods of agriculture and the Arian branch of Christianity. They began to learn Latin, and they administered their territory as the Romans had, using local Roman bureaucrats. Those who had been there before the Visigoths (the Gallo-Romans) began adopting Germanic ways. They wanted to belong. Some of them began wearing Visigoth trousers instead of the Roman toga. Some wore the jewelry worn by Visigoths, and they imitated the rougher manners of the Visigoths.

While The Visigoths shared Gaul with other Germans (known as the Franks), much of it, especially in the northwest, remained Roman. And the Visigoths expanded through southern Gaul and into Spain, where they found Vandals (Germans who had advanced into Spain in 409). With the Vandals were some local people who had joined their ranks. Pushed on by the Visigoths, in the year 429 the Vandal group, numbering about 80,000, moved across the Strait of Gibraltar to North Africa, known for its rich farmlands of wheat.

The Vandals were Arian Christians like the Visigoths, and they saw God as on their side. The Christians of North Africa thought otherwise, but their opposition to the Vandal invasion was weak. Military units in North Africa were few, scattered and unpopular. The Vandals banished the Trinity worshiping clergy and converted churches to Arian worship; they also spread much destruction.

The Vandals settled down in North Africa and consolidated their rule. Within twenty years they built up their navy and began terrorizing shipping in the Western Mediterranean. And they would soon extend their rule to Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and the Balearic Islands, between Spain and Sardinia.

Meanwhile, disorder continued among local peoples in Gaul and Spain. Roman citizens in Gaul and Spain did not identify with Rome to the extent that Romanized Italians did, and many preferred poverty among the invaders to rule by Roman governors. In Gaul, the homeless and others joined the tribes. Rural discontent merged with Christian radicalism. In Spain and Gaul serious risings occurred against Roman rule. And, with an army of Germanic mercenaries and Huns, The Romans suppressed them.


Section 4 - The Huns, The Last Roman Emperor in the West and Ostrogoth Rule

A peace treaty between the Huns and the emperor of the east included a payment of tolls to the Huns of seven hundred pounds of gold each year. In 441, Theodosius stopped these payments. The Huns retaliated by launching an assault across the Danube River, destroying a number of cities. Attila devastated the entire region between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, conquering numerous Germans called Ostrogoths and forcing them to join his army. The Huns attacked Constantinople, but they were unable to break through its great walls. They continued their attacks in neighboring areas until Theodosius II agreed to renew his payments to them, including back payments: 2,100 pounds of gold annually.

The empire in these crucial times was damaged by many different forces. In the western half of the empire, Emperor Valentinian III denied his strong-willed sister, Honoria, the marriage she wished, and she plotted to overthrow him. The plot was discovered, Honoria faced being forced to marry someone who could control her. She appealed to a power greater than Valentinian: the Hun leader, Attila. She sent him her ring. Attila took it as a proposal of marriage. He claimed Honoria as his, and he claimed half of the Western Empire as her dowry. Attila allied himself with the Franks and Vandals, and in 451 he crossed the Rhine into Gaul with his army. He sacked cities and devastated lands along the channel coast. Rome's general, Aetius, and the Visigoths joined forces against Attila, and in one of history's greatest battles they served Attila his first defeat at Châlons. Attila suffered great losses -- an estimated 175,000 to 300,000 of his warriors killed -- and he retreated east of the Rhine. The following year, after partially recovering from his defeat, Attila invaded Italy. Pope Leo I and two Roman senators agreed to meet with Attila and negotiated a truce. There are several likely reasons for Attila's withdrawal, Such as that plague had broken out among his men, that his supply of food was running out, and that military help for Valentinian was arriving from the eastern half of the empire. The following year Attila died. Soon after the death of Attila in 453, the Hunnic Empire fell apart. And without Attila's leadership, the collection of peoples that had made up his empire became disunited.


Section 5

The western half of the empire was still on its feet, but it was threatened -- by the Vandals out of North Africa. The emperor in the east, Marcian, refused to help defend Rome from the Vandals. Rome in 455 was plundered for a second time in 45 years, and after nineteen days the Vandals sailed away with thousands of prisoners. 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 emperor in the east since 474, Flavius Zeno, was troubled by an Ostrogoth tribal chief, Theodoric, in the Balkans. He rid himself of Theodoric by sending him and his army to Italy against his fellow Ostrogoth, Odoacer. Theodoric killed Odoacer, and established himself as King of Italy -- not as Rome's emperor. The family line of emperors in the western half of the empire had come to an end. The west was now to be dominated by Germans. 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.

Emperors in the east still ruled over Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine and Egypt, to be known as the Byzantine empire. The emperors at Constantinople (capital of Byzantine Empire) saw themselves as the rightful heirs of a rule that dated back to Augustus Caesar. They saw themselves as the sole and legitimate rulers of the Roman Empire. Justinian attempted to regain lost lands of the Roman Empire. His efforts to restore the empire were crippled by an epidemic disease-the plague. The dream of a reunited empire died with Justinian.


Section 6 - The Franks in Gaul

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. The Franks occupied an area north of Paris, around the Rhine River, and like the Visigoths and other Germanic tribes they had been accepted into the Roman Empire. The Franks enjoyed singing about their past heroes, and they had many gods and were ruled by a royal family that claimed it came from the gods. When their king died in 481, he was succeeded by his fifteen-year-old son: Clovis.

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 overthrow the last Roman governor in Gaul, drive the Visigoths from Aquitaine into Spain and eventually conquer most of Gaul. Except for Provence, Clovis successfully conquered all of Roman and Visigothic Gaul, and transformed it into the Kingdom of the Franks, Francia. 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.

A very important factor to Clovis' success was his and his people's conversion in c.496 to Christianity, not like the other Germanic kings to Arianism which was considered heretical, but to orthodox Roman Christianity. The Franks had been impressed by Christianity's association with Roman civilization, and they had no theology that rivaled that of the Christians. Clovis and several of his warriors were baptized Catholics. And the conversion of Clovis' subjects was soon to follow. Clovis' conversion assured the Franks of the support of the powerful Catholic hierarchy of Gaul and Rome, and made Frankish domination more acceptable to the Roman Catholic population of Gaul.

The Franks had a poor sense of government and administration, and the Frankish practice of dividing the kingdom equally among the king's sons was their greatest sticking point in their attempt to create a unified Frankish state. In 511, Clovis' kingdom was divided among his four sons, creating the new political units which were then subdivided to their sons. This repeated partitioning undermined the strength of the Frankish Empire, which was being raided at its frontiers. The Slavs and the Avars posed a threat on the northeastern frontier, the Lombards on the southeastern frontier and the Muslims on the southwestern frontier. Charles the Hammer successfully pushed the Muslims back into Spain and was considered the savior of Christianity.


Section 7

Charlemagne (the grandson of Charles the Hammer) brought the Frankish kingdom to its greatest height by considerably extending Frankish territory. As King of the Franks, he consolidated his authority in Gaul and defeated the Lombards in 774.

By the end of the eighth century, Charlemagne had created a kingdom that reunited vast areas of what had been, four centuries earlier, parts of the Western Roman Empire, adding to it areas of central and eastern Europe that the Romans had never conquered. Charlemagne saw himself as the defender of Roman Christianity. On December 25, 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor in Rome, thus starting what later came to be known as the Holy Roman Empire. For the first time since 476, when the last Roman emperor was overthrown by a German chieftain, a ruler in the west was emperor. Charlemagne's coronation, at the hands of the pope, made him a sacred ruler with both spiritual and temporal authority.


Section 8 - The Invasions of Britain

Roman military legions evacuated Britannia in the late 300s and early 400s. In Roman-ruled Britain many had favored everything Roman. Townspeople spoke Latin, drank wine, wore the Roman toga and enjoyed Roman baths and dinner parties. But around two-thirds of the people lived outside of the towns, spoke no Latin and were not Christian. And with the withdrawal of the Roman military power passed to local tribal leaders and aristocrats. These aristocrats supported a warrior named Vortigern a Christian.

Around the year 425 Vortigern began extending his influence, and he became the strongest force in Britain, ruling from Wales to the channel coast in the south. In the 400s, a tribe from Ireland called Scots, with others from Ireland were migrating across water to what today is called Wales and to the north of Hadrian's Wall, today called Scotland. Vortigern defeated those Scots who attacked England from settlements in Wales, for help against invaders, Vortigern turned to Anglo-Saxons who had settled along England's east coast. He gave the Anglo-Saxons more land and a treaty, and for eight years the Anglo-Saxons fought and defeated the other invaders according to their treaty obligations. Then negotiations over Vortigern's payment to the Anglo-Saxons broke down, and the Anglo-Saxons attacked Vortigern's army. The result was a terrible but indecisive battle at Aylesford, southeast of London, in the year 455. And after this battle the Anglo-Saxons continued a campaign of pillage and slaughter. Then came the greatest series of Anglo-Saxon invasions of Britain to date, as Angles, Jutes and Saxons on Europe's continent were running from the Huns. Vortigern's power evaporated. But unlike the people in Gaul and Spain (who were passive or accepted the presence of German authority) local Britons felt they had much at stake and vigorously resisted invasion. War between the Britons and the invaders continued with the passing of years. Trade and markets broke down. Slaves escaped, and estates were left in ruin. Those towns that were too well-protected from the invaders and had water became places of refuge, while other towns declined with their supply of food. With England weakened by war, the tribes renewed their invasions southward across Hadrian's wall. And the Anglo-Saxons continued their journeys westward, massacring and pillaging their way to the sea, while others fled into the hills, or into Spain, or across the channel to Gaul. The Anglo-Saxon invasion wiped out most traces of the inhabitant’s cultures.

Invaders attacked the empire from every direction; the most serious threat came from the Vikings. Their skill as seamen enabled them to raid Europe's coasts and rivers regions throughout the ninth century. Europe's great cities all fell victim to Viking raids. But like other invaders in European history, the Vikings eventually settled in the lands they invaded and adopted Christianity.






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