Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Wednesday 23rd August 2017 | Manchester, UK

The Barbarian Invasions

The period of Barbarian Migration which marked the decline and fall of the Roman Empire covers quite a large period of history, ranging from the 4th century right up to the 9th. It is extremely hard to pinpoint exactly where each Barbarian tribe was at what time during the Migrations, as the written sources are often contradictory; and establishing an individual sense of any one tribe’s material culture is near impossible. Of two things we can be certain however: that the ‘invasions’ were often purely a result of migration rather than a preconceived attempt to attack the Empire, and that these massive shifts of ethnic populations had a profound effect on the creation of what we know as modern Europe.

Most infamous of the migrations perhaps, is that of the Visigoths which concluded in the sacking of Rome itself in 410. The capital of the powerful Roman Empire had not been sacked for near 800 years, and the impact of the calamity was felt across most of the known world. The chronicler St. Jerome remarked that ‘the city which had taken the whole world was itself taken’. The Visigoths were an ethnic grouping of Germanic tribes within the larger collective peoples referred to as Goths. In their migrations during this period they settled and conquered across the Mediterranean, from Spain to Greece. Interestingly, they were the only culture to establish cities from the decline of the Roman Empire to the establishment of the Carolingian. They also created what is known as the Visigothic Code, a work that defined the way in which many Christian kingships were run in the centuries that followed.

The Visigoths are a powerful example of the false dichotomy of barbaric invaders and Civilized Romans that defines the Migrations. Indeed, on the surface it can be viewed that the Visigoths and their ilk were simply invading and destroying the edifice of civilization that Rome represented, when in actual fact the truth is more complicated. While there was no doubt much destruction and loss of life as a result of the migrations, there was also a blossoming of new cultures and empires as populations shifted. Britain became Anglo-Saxon, the Frankish Kingdom began to emerge, paving the way for the Carolingian’s, and the Byzantine Empire came into existence.

So we must view the ‘Barbarian Invasions’ and the Fall of Rome as more a transition period of migrations, which served as a catalyst for the creation of the medieval European world centuries later. Similarly, the so-called Barbarians themselves were varied and culturally complex, as much a part of the Roman world as the Romans themselves; to the point where defining them as significantly less civilized than the Romans is a fallacy.

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