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School of Divinity
The Great Migrations into the Western Roman Empire...Barbarian Invasions from 395AD

New College

Barbarian Movements

 

The Huns

Map showing movement of The Huns

It was the Huns who precipitated the Great Migrations into the Western Roman Empire in the form they took in the late fourth and fifth centuries. They were a confederation of Central Asian tribes, who came to spread out across a large area of Eurasia. They hover on the edges of our story, because although they established control over a large area of Eastern Europe under Attila’s rule (434-453), they never settled in large numbers within the Roman Empire itself: they preferred to raid it and leave its government to others. Instead, they pushed first the Goths, and then other Germanic peoples, to invade the Roman Empire to escape from them.

 

The Vandals, Alans and Sueves

Map showing movement of The Vandals, Alans, Sueves

Sizeable numbers of all three of these groups were displaced by the Huns, and travelled down the North Bank of the Danube to escape them. After battling with the Franks, who controlled the northern Rhine regions, they were able to walk across the river Rhine when it froze in the cold winter of 406-7, and invade Gaul. They moved South, and in 409 moved into Spain, where they tried to settle but were dislodged by the Visigoths.

In 429, the Vandals moved on to North Africa, in part of the complicated political manoeuvring of the dying Roman empire, when different groups would be promised lands in return for military aid to different court factions. They were at the gates of Hippo as its bishop, Augustine, was dying.

 

The Visigoths

Map showing movement of The Visigoths

In 376, the Goths, long-standing traders with and mercenaries for the Roman Empire, who were settled in large numbers on the north bank of the Danube, came under aggressive attack from the Huns. Their leader came to an agreement with the Emperor Valens that they would be given lands and allowed to settle on the Mediterranean side of the Danube; however, there was a famine, the emperor reneged on his promise and the Goths attacked, killing the emperor at the Battle of Adrianople in 378 and decimating the Roman field army. The Goths were inside the empire to stay, soon becoming known as the Visigoths (originally a tribal name, which became identified as meaning 'Western Goths').

From then on, they alternately made peace with various Roman emperors and generals and were double-crossed by them. Eventually they sacked Rome under Alaric in 410 (the incident that led Augustine to write his City of God). They were asked by Honorius to help drive the Vandals out of Spain, and settled in the Aquitaine in 418, the nucleus of what would become, by 475, an independent Visigothic kingdom covering most of the Iberian peninsula.

 

Ostrogoths

Map showing movement of The Ostrogoths

The Ostrogoths were a second wave of Goths from the around the Crimean, who had been a subject part of Attila's kingdom, but rebelled in the early 450s. They settled within the Roman Empire, on the Dalmatian coast, and were sent by the Byzantine emperor Zeno to take back Italy from Odoacer, who had deposed the last nominal Roman emperor of the West, Romulus Augustulus, in 476. Theodoric, the great Ostrogothic general, did so, inviting Odoacer to a banquet in 493 and killing him at the table. Theodoric ruled from Ravenna, where his mausoleum survives, together with several churches he had decorated with beautiful mosaics.

 

Franks

Map showing movement of The Franks

The Franks were a loose group of tribes who inhabited the Upper Rhine, a number of whom were living within the bounds of the empire from the mid-fourth century. They were further displaced in the early fifth century, partly by skirmishes with the Vandals, Sueves and Alans, as the latter made their way down the Rhine to escape from the Huns, and partly by the Huns themselves. They spread into Northern Gaul, following and continuing to skirmish with the other tribes. Two successful leaders, Childeric (who reigned c.457 – 481) and his son Clovis (who reigned 481-511), established Frankish dominance more securely there, ruling most of France north of the Loire. Clovis' decision to convert to the Nicene version of Christianity in 496 may have been decisive for its re-establishment in Western Europe, as the Frankish kingdom continued to prosper.

 

Angles, Saxons and Jutes

Map showing movement of The Angles, Saxons and Jutes

The Angles came from Schleswig-Holstein, the Saxons from Lower Saxony, and the Jutes from Jutland. They arrived in south-east England from the 440s on, and gradually extended across to the North and West over the next two centuries. They may have been invited initially by the Britons to help protect them from the raids of the Picts and Scots.

 

Scots

Map showing movement of The Scots

The Scots, or Irish, are mentioned by the fourth-century Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus as perpetuating countless attacks on Roman Britain, presumably all along the West coast. When the Roman troops were withdrawn in the early years of the fifth century, these attacks increased. At apparently around the same the same time, the late fourth or early fifth century (though its origins are lost in legend), the West of Scotland, Argyll and the Isles, was settled by Scots from Ulster, though these regions may always have looked West owing to their greater accessibility by sea than by land. Their territorial control grew imperceptibly over the next few centuries, helped by the monastic connections of powerful characters such as Columba of Iona.

 

Britons

Map showing movement of The Britons

After the withdrawal of the Roman administration in the early fifth century, the Britons were relatively vulnerable. They were raided from the North by the Picts, from the West by the Scots/Irish, and from the East by the Germanic tribes. There may already have been a number of Germanic mercenaries in Roman Britain; in any case, and whether or not they invited them over, the Britons were steadily pushed West by them over the ensuing centuries, into Dumbartonshire, Cumberland, Wales and the West Country. A number of them in the meantime settled in Brittany, which was itself, however, subject to Scots/Irish raids.