Collapse and Germanization of the Roman Empire

Upheaval In The West

The Collapse of Rome

Weakened by economic, social, and political decline, Rome had turned to the most extreme forms of absolutism in an effort to survive.

But the Empire’s internal crisis was compounded by mounting external pressures that threatened its far-flung frontiers.

The greatest danger was in the north, the home of restless tribes of barbarians - the Germans. When they defeated the Romans in the battle of Adrianople in 378, the gates of the Empire burst open.

The Germanic Tribes

While the westernmost German tribes (Franks, Angles, and Saxons) had achieved a settled agricultural life, the others (including Goths, Vandals, and Lombards) were largely nomadic.

All were far less advanced than their Roman contemporaries. For example, they engaged in so little commerce that cattle, rather than money, sufficed as a measure of value.

According to the Roman historian Tacitus, the Germans were notorious as heavy drinkers and gamblers.

On the other hand, Tacitus praised their courage, respect for women, and freedom from many Roman vices.

A favorite amusement was listening to the tribal bards recite old tales of heroes and gods.

Each warrior leader had a retinue of followers, who were linked to him by personal loyalty. According to Tacitus:

On the field of battle it is a disgrace to the chief to be surpassed in valour by his companions, to the companions not to come up to the valour of their chief.As for leaving a battle alive after your chief has fallen,

that means lifelong infamy and shame. To defend and protect

him, to put down one’s own acts of heroism to his credit -

that is what they really mean by "allegiance." The chiefs

fight for victory, the companions for their chief. ^1

[Footnote 1: Tacitus Germania 14, trans. H. Mattingly, Tacitus on Britain and Germany (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1948), p. 112.]

The war band - comitatus in Latin - had an important bearing on the origin of medieval feudalism, which was based on a similar personal bond between knights (companions) and their feudal lords (chiefs).

The heroic values associated with the comitatus also continued into the Middle Ages, where they formed the basis of the value system of the feudal nobility.

In an effort to eliminate blood feuds, the tribal law codes of the Germans encouraged the payment of compensation as an alternative for an aggrieved kin or family seeking vengeance.

For the infliction of specific injuries, a stipulated payment, termed a bot, was listed.

The amount of compensation varied according to the severity of the crime and the social position of the victim.

For example, the compensation for killing a male of high rank was forty times greater than that for killing a commoner.

It was often necessary to hold a trial to determine guilt or innocence.

A person standing trial could produce oath-helpers who would swear to his innocence. If unable to obtain oath-helpers, the accused was subjected to trial by ordeal, of which there were three kinds.

In the first, the defendant had to lift a small stone out of a vessel of boiling water; unless his scalded arm healed within a prescribed number of days, he was judged guilty.

In the second, he had to walk blindfolded and barefoot across a floor on which lay pieces of red-hot metal; success in avoiding the metal was a sign of innocence.

In the third, the bound defendant was thrown into a stream; if he sank he was innocent, but if he floated he was guilty because water was considered a divine element that would not accept a guilty person.

Trial by ordeal lasted until the thirteenth century, when it was outlawed by Pope Innocent III and various secular rulers.

During the many centuries that the Romans and Germans faced each other across the Rhine-Danube frontier, there was much contact - peaceful as well as warlike - between the two peoples.

Roman trade reached into Germany, and Germans entered the Empire as slaves.

During the troubled third century, many Germans were invited to settle on vacated lands within the Empire or to serve in the Roman legions.

By the fourth century, the bulk of the Roman army and its generals in the West were German.

The Germans beyond the frontiers were kept in check by force of arms, by frontier walls, by diplomacy and gifts, and by employing the policy of playing off one tribe against another.

In the last decades of the fourth century, however, these methods proved insufficient to prevent a series of great new invasions.

A basic factor behind Germanic restlessness seems to have been land hunger.

Their numbers were increasing, much of their land was forest and swamp, and their agricultural methods were inefficient.

Barbarian Invasions

The impetus behind the increasing German activity on the frontiers in the late fourth century was the approach of the Huns.

These nomads, superb horsemen and fighters from Central Asia, had plundered and slain their Asian neighbors for centuries.

In 372 they crossed the Volga and soon subjugated the easternmost Germanic tribe, the Ostrogoths.

Terrified at the prospect of being conquered in turn by the advancing Huns, the Visigoths petitioned the Romans to allow them to settle as allies inside the Empire.

Permission was granted, and in 376 the entire tribe crossed the Danube into Roman territory.

But soon corrupt Roman officials cheated and mistreated the Visigoths, and the proud barbarians went on a rampage.

Valens, the inept East Roman emperor, sought to quell them, but he lost both his army and his life in the battle of Adrianople in 378.

Adrianople has been described as one of history’s decisive battles, since it destroyed the legend of the invincibility of the Roman legions and ushered in a century and a half of chaos.

For a few years the capable emperor Theodosius I held back the Visigoths, but after his death in 395 they began to migrate and pillage under their leader, Alaric.

He invaded Italy, and in 410 his followers sacked Rome. The weak West Roman emperor ceded southern Gaul to the Visigoths, who soon expanded into Spain.

Their Spanish kingdom lasted until the Muslim conquest of the eighth century.

To counter Alaric’s threat to Italy, the Romans had withdrawn most of their troops from the Rhine frontier in 406 and from Britain the following year.

The momentous consequence of this action was a flood of Germanic tribes across the unguarded frontiers.

The Vandals pushed their way through Gaul to Spain and, after pressure from the Visigoths, moved on to Africa, the granary of the Empire.

In 455 a Vandal raiding force sailed over from Africa, and Rome was sacked a second time.

Meanwhile the Burgundians settled in the Rhone valley, the Franks gradually spread across northern Gaul, and the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes invaded Britain.

Although each of these several tribes set up a German-ruled kingdom within the confines of the Empire, only the Franks in Gaul and the Angles and Saxons in Britain managed to perpetuate their kingdom longer than a few centuries.

Meanwhile, the Huns pushed farther into Europe.

Led by Attila, the "scourge of God," the mounted nomads crossed the Rhine in 451. The remaining Roman forces in Gaul, joined by the Visigoths, defeated the Huns near Troyes.

Attila then plundered northern Italy and planned to take Rome, but disease, lack of supplies, and the dramatic appeal of Pope Leo I - which was to give the papacy great prestige - caused him to return to the plains of eastern Europe.

The Huns disintegrated after 453, when Attila died on the night of his marriage to a Germanic princess immortalized in legend as Krimhild of the Nibelungenlied.

Modern Hungary derives its name from Attila’s followers who remained in that location.

[See Barbarian Europe: 481 AD]

The End Of The West Roman Empire

As previously noted, after the death of Theodosius I in 395 the Empire had been divided between his two sons.

The decline of Roman rule in the West was hastened as a series of incompetent emperors abandoned Rome and sought safety behind the marshes at the northern Italian city of Ravenna.

The leaders of the imperial army, whose ranks were now mainly German, wielded the real power.

In 475 Orestes, the German commander of the troops, forced the Senate to elect his young son Romulus Augustulus ("Little Augustus") as emperor in the West.

In the following year another German commander, Odovacar, slew Orestes.

Seeing no reason for continuing the sham of an imperial line in the west, he deposed Romulus Augustulus and proclaimed himself head of the government.

The deposition of this boy, who by a strange irony bore the names of the legendary founder of Rome and the founder of the Empire, marks the traditional "fall" of the Roman Empire.

Actually, no single date is accurate, for the fall of Rome was a long and complicated process.

Yet at least 476 symbolizes the end of the Roman Empire in the West, for in this year the long line of emperors inaugurated by Augustus ended and the undisguised rule of Italy by German leaders began.

Theodoric’s Kingdom In Italy

The disintegration of the Hunnic empire following the death of Attila freed the Ostrogoths to migrate as other tribes were doing.

Under their energetic king, Theodoric (c. 454-526), the Ostrogoths were galvanized into action.

Theodoric accepted a commission from the emperor in the East to reimpose imperial authority over Italy, now in Odovacar’s hands.

In 488 Theodoric led his people into the Italian peninsula, where, after hard fighting, Odovacar sued for peace and was treacherously murdered.

Theodoric then established a strong Ostrogothic kingdom in Italy with its capital at Ravenna.

Because he appreciated the culture he had seen at Constantinople, Theodoric maintained classical culture on a high level.

Following his death without a male heir in 526, civil war broke out in Italy, paving the way for a twenty-year war of reconquest (535-555) by the armies of the East Roman emperor Justinian.

Italy was ravaged from end to end by the fighting, and the classical civilization that Theodoric had carefully preserved was in large part destroyed.

The Lombards

In 568, three years after the death of Justinian, the last wave of Germanic invaders, the Lombards, reputed to have been the most brutal and fierce of all the Germans, poured into Italy.

The emperor in the East held on to southern Italy, as well as Ravenna and Venice, and the pope became the virtual ruler of Rome.

Not until the late nineteenth century would Italy again be united under one government.

The Lombard kingdom in Italy, weakened by the independent actions of many strong dukes, did not last long.

In 774 it was conquered by the Franks, who had in the meantime established the most powerful and longest lasting of all the Germanic kingdoms that arose on the territory of the West Roman Empire.

The Problem Of The Fall Of Rome

The shock and dismay felt by contemporaries throughout the Roman world on learning of Alaric’s sack of the Eternal City in 410 were to echo down the centuries, leaving the impression that the fall of Rome was a major calamity, one of the greatest in history.

Pagan writers attributed the sack of Rome to the abandonment of their ancient gods.

In The City of God, St. Augustine argued against this charge and put forth the view that history unfolds according to God’s design. Thus Rome’s fall was part of the divine plan - "the necessary and fortunate preparation for the triumph of the heavenly city where man’s destiny was to be attained."

This view was challenged in the eighteenth century by Edward Gibbon,

author of the famous Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, who saw Rome’s fall as "the triumph of barbarism and religion."


Not only the Germans, but also the Christian’s had played an important role in undermining the imperial structure: "The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and

pusillanimity; ... the last remains of the military spirit were buried in the

cloister." ^2

[Footnote 2: E. Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (London: Methuen & Co., 1896), ch. 38, "General Observations on the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West."]

Modern historians advance a variety of theories to explain why Rome fell. Some explanations have been rooted in psychological theory.

Thus the basic cause has been attributed to a weakening of morale in the face of difficulties, to a "loss of nerve."

Or it has been argued that the ultimate failure of Rome came from its too complete success - the easy acquisition of power and wealth and the importing of ready-made cultures from conquered peoples led to indolence and self-gratification among the ruling classes.

Corrupt high-ranking bureaucrats and military leaders seeking private gain have also been cited as a key factor.

Some historians blame nonhuman causes such as an exhaustion of the soil, drought, malaria, plague, or the presence of toxic amounts of lead in Roman dining pottery and water pipes.

Such single-cause explanations usually reflect a personal bias or axe to grind.

Most historians today attribute Rome’s decline to a combination of interacting forces over a long period of time.

On the political side, no effective system of imperial succession had ever been worked out, and this, plus the failure of the emperors to control the army, resulted in military anarchy, the disintegration of central authority, and the weakening of Rome’s ability to withstand external pressures.

Beginning in the third century, the emperors had to increase the military establishment despite a growing manpower shortage caused by a declining birthrate and by recurrent plagues from Asia (perhaps smallpox or measles).

This decision led to Germanization of the army and to German colonization within the Empire. The West was becoming "barbarized" before the barbarian invasions took place.

The economy of the Empire had been declining for two centuries.

Rome had grown rich on the spoils of conquest.

This source of wealth ended when expansion ceased with the stabilization of the frontiers.

Without manufactures and other sources of new wealth, Rome’s capitalistic economy contracted.

To pay their armies and other costs of government, the emperors continually debased the coinage.

To escape the resulting inflation, the rich invested their wealth in land, which, unlike money, retained its value.

Inflation and a crushing tax burden destroyed much of the middle class.

Eventually, the rigid economic and social reforms of Diocletian and Constantine created a vast bureaucracy that merely aggravated the existing ills in the western half of the Empire, already far along the road to decline.