An “age of migrations” began in A.D. 376 when a barbarian* tribe called the Huns chased the German-speaking Visigoths to the northern frontier of the Roman Empire. The Visigoths and other Germanic tribes had repeatedly attempted to cross the northern imperial* border, but each time the Romans had driven them back. This time, with the Huns in pursuit, the Romans allowed the Visigoths to escape across the frontier into the empire.

Admitting the Visigoths was a turning point in the Western Roman Empire. It marked the beginning of three great phases of barbarian migration across Europe. Within 200 years, German tribes established kingdoms in every part of the western empire and helped bring about its collapse. These migrations also resulted in a blending of the Germanic cultures with that of the Romans, which included the adoption of Christianity by the barbarians.

First Phase of Migrations. No one knows for certain who the Huns were or where they came from, except that they were nomadic* herders who practically lived on horseback. (They were even rumored to sleep on their horses.) The Huns moved westward from east of the Black Sea in the A.D. 300s, overthrowing tribal kingdoms as they went. The Huns overran the Ostrogoths in the Ukraine and then pushed the Visigoths to the edge of the Roman frontier.

The Romans accepted the Visigoths into the empire because they hoped they would fight for the Roman army. However, Roman officers treated the Visigoths very badly, and the Visigoths rebelled. The Visigoths defeated the army of the Eastern Roman Empire, which gave them some leverage within the Roman government. When Theodosius came to power in A.D. 379, he gave some imperial lands and annual subsidies* to the Visigoths in return for their help in defending the empire against the Huns. This was the first time in Roman history that an entire barbarian tribe had been allowed to settle within the empire while remaining under the control of its own leaders. Furthermore, the Visigoths were not subject to Roman law. But the Romans were unable to control the Visigoths, and the empire was soon overrun by other invading tribes.

When Theodosius died in A.D. 395, the Roman government stopped paying subsidies to the Visigoths. Under their leader, Alaric I, the Visigoths attacked the Romans and occupied the city of Rome in A.D. 410.

* barbarian referring to people from outside the cultures of Greece and Rome, who were viewed as uncivilized

* imperial pertaining to an emperor or empire

* nomadic referring to people who wander from place to place to find food and pasture

* subsidy financial aid given to a person or group by a government


Although Britain was not invaded by the Vandals, it did have its share of barbarian invasions. Beginning in the A.D. 300s, the Roman province of Britain was repeatedly invaded by migrating barbarian tribes—Angles from present-day Denmark, Saxons from Germany, and Piets and Scots from the northern British Isles. After Roman imperial power collapsed in Britain in A.D. 409, the country was ruled by tyrants from barbarian tribes. Many of the Britons who survived these attacks migrated to northwestern Gaul. This part of France is still called Brittany.

They carried off booty* but spared the treasure at St. Peter’s Basilica, as well as the lives of any who sought refuge in a Christian church. (The Visigoths were themselves Christian.) Although the Visigoths managed to hold Rome for only a few days, this marked the first time the city had fallen to a foreign enemy in 800 years. Finally, in A.D. 418, the Roman government agreed to give the Visigoths their own kingdom on the southwestern coast of Gaul.

Once settled in Gaul, the Visigoths became federates of the Roman Empire. This meant that they had their own laws and courts, leaders, and churches, but they had no control over Roman citizens in the region. The Visigoths quickly expanded their kingdom, and by the end of the A.D. 400s, they had pushed into Spain. In A.D. 507, the Visigothic kingdom in Gaul was overthrown by the Franks, who gained control of almost all of Gaul. The Visigoths continued to live in Spain until the early A.D. 700s, when they were defeated by Moors and Arabs from North Africa.

The Second Phase of Migrations. The second phase of migrations began in A.D. 406 when the Vandals and their allies, the Alans and the Suebi, broke through the northern imperial frontier and entered Gaul. Like the Visigoths, the Vandals and the Suebi were Germanic tribes who fought on foot. The Alans, like the Huns, were nomadic herders who fought on horseback. Like the Visigoths before them, the three tribes may have been pushed to the Roman frontier by the Huns.

Once they crossed the imperial frontier, the Vandals and their allies turned northwest toward the Strait of Dover that separates Britain from the rest of Europe. Fearing that the Vandals were about to invade, the people of Britain panicked. They declared their leader an emperor, and with a large fighting force crossed the strait into France. The Vandals and their allies, perhaps never intending to attack Britain in the first place, fled to the southwest.

The Vandals moved toward the Pyrenees Mountains instead, causing much damage as they went. One writer at the time described Gaul as a vast funeral pyre*. The Vandals and their allies destroyed almost everything they encountered as they cut a huge path across the middle of Gaul. (The modern word vandalism is derived from their name.) In A.D. 409, the Vandals crossed into Spain.

Less than a decade after they entered Spain, the Alans were overrun by the Visigoths, who were acting on behalf of Rome. The Suebi established a kingdom in Spain, which was overrun by the Visigoths in A.D. 585. The Vandals settled in western Spain and then crossed the Strait of Gibraltar into Africa in A.D. 429. Once there, they marched eastward and captured what is now Tunisia, which was Rome’s prime source of grain and oil.

The occupation of North Africa contributed significantly to the fall of the Western Roman Empire. The occupation deprived Rome of its main food supply, and it also challenged Rome’s control of the central Mediterranean region. In A.D. 439, the Vandals captured Carthage, the city of the empire that was second in importance only to Rome. The Vandals began a long series of sea raids on the central Mediterranean coast. They occupied the city of Rome for two weeks in A.D. 455, the second time in less than half a century that the great city had fallen to a foreign enemy.

* booty riches or property gained through conquest

* pyre pile of wood used to burn a dead body

The Vandals also interrupted the flow of grain from Egypt to Constantinople. The Eastern Roman Empire tried, without success, to drive the Vandals out of Africa. In A.D. 468, the eastern empire launched a huge expedition from Constantinople that nearly emptied its treasury, but it also ended in failure. It was not until A.D. 534, after a brilliant campaign led by the general Belisarius, that the Eastern Roman Empire was able to overthrow the Vandal kingdom in Africa.

Third Phase of Migrations, a third major invasion of Germanic tribes began in A.D. 455. This time it was primarily the Ostrogoths who threatened the security of the Eastern Roman Empire. The Ostrogoths had been overrun and oppressed by the Huns since the A.D. 300s, and the Roman government had allowed them to settle on imperial lands. However, the Ostrogoths wanted more land and government subsidies as well. In A.D. 476, the Roman army, which was composed almost entirely of barbarians, rebelled and deposed* the last Roman emperor in the West, Romulus Augustulus. They replaced him with Odoacer, an Ostrogoth leader. Odoacer’s rule was peaceful, until the Ostrogoths attacked northern Italy. Theodoric, the king of the Ostrogoths, killed Odoacer with his own hands in A.D. 493. Theodoric’s reign was an era of peace and prosperity for Italy. However, when Theodoric died in A.D. 526, relations between the Ostrogoths and the Romans broke down, and hostilities were renewed.

In A.D. 536, Belisarius, after conquering the Vandals in Africa, fought the Ostrogoths in Italy. This devastating war nearly eliminated the Ostrogoths. There was incredible destruction of life and property, and for a while, Rome was almost uninhabited for the first time in more than a thousand years. At the end of the war, Justinian I, the great Roman emperor in the East, made Italy part of his domain.

In A.D. 565, the Lombards, a final group of Germanic invaders, entered Italy. They pushed down from central Europe and attacked the Romans, who were unable to prevent them from settling in the northern part of the country. The Lombardy region of northern Italy takes its name from this last group of migrants. (See also Armies, Roman; Germans; Wars and Warfare, Roman.)

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