A History of the Barbarians

By Tim Lambert 

In the 4th century, the Roman Empire split into two parts, east, and west. The western part eventually fell to the barbarians. They were people from central and northern Europe. Unfortunately, ‘barbarian’ is a biased term. In the 5th century, they invaded the declining Roman Empire and they gradually carved it up between them. ‘The barbarians’ never intended to destroy the Roman Empire, they wanted to share in its wealth but it was declining anyway and soon broke down altogether.

In December 406 AD a group of Germanic tribes entered Gaul and settled there. The Romans were unable to stop them. Nevertheless, at first, the Germanic settlers accepted Roman rule. However, as the Roman Empire broke down they gradually formed independent kingdoms.

Barbarians in France

By about 500 AD barbarians called the Franks ruled northern France (they gave their name to France). From 481 to 511 a man called Clovis ruled them. He converted to Christianity and his people followed. Once they shared the same religion there was less difference between the Franks and the native Romano-Gallic people. Slowly the two intermarried and their cultures merged.

Clovis also issued a body of laws called Salic law and in 507 AD he made the little town of Paris his capital. Clovis also subdued parts of southern France. After he died in 511 at the age of 45 his descendants continued his work and by the mid-6th century, the Franks ruled all of France.

Charles Martel halted the Islamic advance into Europe at the Battle of Poitiers in 732. He also defeated the Bavarians and the Saxons. His son Charlemagne carried on his work and created a great European empire. He also forced pagan Germans to ‘convert’ to Christianity.

Finally, in 800 AD, the Pope crowned Charlemagne Emperor. Thus Charlemagne claimed to be the successor of the old Roman Emperors. Charlemagne was keen to keep the church’s support so he founded many monasteries and gave gifts of land to the church. Furthermore, under Charlemagne, there was a revival of art and learning.

Charlemagne died in 814. His successor Louis the Pious announced that after his death the empire would be split among his sons. Louis died in 840 and after some fighting, his sons made the Treaty of Verdun in 843. This divided the Frankish realm into three. The western part was ruled by Charles the Bald from 838 to 877. In time, it evolved into France.

Barbarians in Spain

By the beginning of the 5th century, the Roman Empire was crumbling and barbarians invaded. In 409 AD Alans, Sueves, and Vandals crossed the Pyrenees and occupied most of Spain. However another Germanic people, the Visigoths became allies of the Romans. In 416-418, they invaded Spain. They defeated the Alans but then withdrew into France. The Vandals then absorbed the remaining Alans but in 429 they crossed to North Africa leaving Spain to the Sueves.

However, the Visigoth king Theodoric II (453-466) led an army into Spain, and in 456 he crushed the Sueves in battle. Most of Spain came under the rule of the Visigoths. After 409 one small part of Northeast Spain was left under Roman control. However, in 476 the Visigoths took it over.

In 587 King Reccared became a Catholic and in 654 King Recceswinth made a single code of law for his kingdom. The Visigoths founded new towns in Spain. They also preserved Roman culture and learning flourished.

In the 6th century, Saint Isidore of Seville lived in Spain. He was a brilliant scholar. He wrote many books including works on history, theology, grammar, geography, and astronomy. However, the Visigoth kings were never very strong. The Visigoth kingdom suffered from internal divisions and in the end, it was easy prey for the Moors.

At the beginning of the 8th century, the Visigoth realm was destroyed by a Muslim invasion. In 711 an army of Berbers from North Africa, led by Arabs crossed to Spain and they utterly defeated the Visigoths at the Barbate River on 19 July 711.

Barbarians in Italy n In the 5th century the western Roman empire collapsed piecemeal. In 406-407, Germanic people invaded Gaul and in 407 the Roman army left Britain. Then in 410 Alaric the Goth captured Rome. Nevertheless, the Roman Empire survived for some time afterward.

However, in 429-430, barbarians called the Vandals crossed from Spain to North Africa. That had serious consequences for the Romans because they imported much of their grain from there. Worse in 455 the Vandals sacked Rome.

Finally, in 476, the last Roman emperor in the west was deposed and a German called Odoacer made himself king of Italy. That was the end of the western part of the Roman Empire. However, for most people in Italy life went on as usual. The Germanic kings respected Roman culture and laws. Odoacer was followed by Theodoric the Ostrogoth in 493. He ruled until 526 and under him, Germans and Romans lived together peacefully.

Meanwhile, the eastern half of the Roman empire was still flourishing. It was now called the Byzantine Empire. In 535 the Byzantine emperor Justinian sent an army to Italy under his general Belisarius. So began a long period of warfare that devastated much of Italy.

Belisarius marched north through Italy and he captured Ravenna in 540. However, under their leader Totila (541-552) the Goths recaptured most of Italy. Only Ravenna and some other coastal towns stayed in Byzantine hands. The Pendulum then swung the other way. Under their general Narses, the Byzantines took all of Italy again by 562.

Then in 568 barbarians called the Lombards invaded northern Italy. Under their leaders Authari (584-590) and Agilulf (590-616) the Lombards fought their way south but they were halted by the Byzantines at a line from Ravenna to Rome. Gradually the Lombards intermarried with the native Italians and they also adopted Italian customs. They also adopted the Italian language.

Barbarians in England

Meanwhile, the Saxons began raiding England in the 3rd century. However, as the Roman Empire collapsed they turned to conquest. By the 5th century, the Romano-Celts had broken up into separate kingdoms but a single leader called the Superbus Tyrannus had emerged. At that time and possibly earlier they were hiring Germanic peoples as mercenaries.

According to tradition, the Superbus Tyrannus brought Jutes to protect his realm from Scots (from Northern Ireland) and Picts (from Scotland). He installed the Jutish leader, Hengist, as king of Kent. In return, the Jutes were supposed to protect Britain. However, the Jutes and the Romano-Celts fell out. They fought a battle and the Jutes won a decisive victory. As a result, the Celts were unable to dislodge the Jutes.

The Saxons landed in Sussex in 477. At any rate, the Celts resisted them bitterly but after about 15 years the Saxons had conquered all of Sussex. Meanwhile, more Jutes landed in eastern Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. Furthermore, the Saxons landed in western Hampshire. They founded the kingdom of Wessex.

Then in the late 5th century, a great leader arose among the Celts. We know him as Arthur. He won the battle of Mount Badon, in about 500 AD. The Saxons were crushed and their advance was halted for decades.

Meanwhile, in the early 6th century the West Saxons, of western Hampshire, annexed the Jutes of eastern Hampshire. About 530 they also took over the Isle of Wight. Then in 552, the West Saxons won a great victory somewhere near modern Salisbury and they captured Wiltshire. In 577 they captured Bath, Cirencester, and Gloucester.

Meanwhile, in the mid-6th century, other Saxons invaded Essex. (The kingdom of the East Saxons). A people called the Angles landed in East Anglia. They gave England its name (Angle land). By the late 6th century all of eastern England was in the hands of the Angles and Saxons. In 656 the Saxons captured the West Midlands. Further South in 664 the Saxons captured Dorset. By the early 8th century the Saxons occupied all of Devon and Somerset.

Pope Gregory the Great was keen to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. In 596 he sent a party of about 40 men led by Augustine to Kent. They arrived in 597 and soon Kent was converted. In the 7th Century, England was divided into different kingdoms but Christianity gradually spread across them, and by the end of the 7th century all of England was at least nominally Christian.

Following the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west learning was kept alive in western Europe in monasteries. By the early 12th century the barbarians who destroyed the Roman Empire were themselves civilized. A new civilization rose from the ashes of the old.