Dictionary and Thesaurus
1. If one wishes to consider German-Roman relations on a broad scale, there
were actually four German "invasions" of the empire.
By about A.D. 70, the Romans had fixed their frontiers along the Rhine and
Danube rivers, and manufacture had sprung up there to supply the
garrisons. A steady trade with the Germans grew up and continued
throughout the imperial period. The Roman silver solidus became the
standard currency for both frontier Romans and the Germans beyond the
frontier, and each group influenced the other in various and significant
Europe in 70 AD
B. Military Recruiting
Part of Diocletian and Constantine's reforms beginning in 285 was the
de-emphasis of the frontier legions and the formation of mobile armies of
hired troops, primarily Germans, stationed in the interior. More
economical than the frontier defense system, by decreasing Roman presence
in the frontier districts this policy weakened Roman influences beyond
imperial frontiers in the West and strengthened Germanic influences in the
interior of the empire.
C. Imperially-Sponsored Immigration
From about 350 onwards, the western empire suffered from a shortage of
manpower, largely because of a diminishing native population coupled with
the inability to wage successful wars in order to capture prisoners to
enslave. The government sponsored various types of immigration to
compensate for this shortage and, under these policies, many Germans
entered the empire on a permanent basis.
(pronounced LAY-tee) Foreigners were allowed in on an individual or family
basis and assigned empty lands. They were expected to perform military
service when called upon to do so. Note that the practice of offering a
grant of land in exchange for military service would become a basic
characteristic of medieval Europe.
(pronounced NOO-mehr-ee) Foreign warrior contingents hired by the Romans,
the numeri were allowed to fight with their own weapons under their own
leaders and to retain their own language and customs. Note the use of
Germanic war- bands.
(pronounced fehd-uhr-AH-tee) The administration attempted to avoid any
potentially dangerous concentration of any specific group of Germans
within the empire within the empire by giving members of immigrant groups
grants of land scattered throughout the empire. In time this policy was
abandoned and entire tribes were allowed to cross the frontier and occupy
lands along the Roman side of the border. Allowed to retain their own
political organization and other customs, and generally free from taxes,
they were expected to defend their section of the border and to provide
recruits for the Roman army. Note that the practice of territorial
immunity foreshadowed yet another characteristic of the military practices
of the Middle Ages.
D. The Great Invasions
The Huns from central Asia defeated the Ostrogoths and
forced the Visigoths to seek the status of federati and the
protection of the lower Danube river (376). Subjected to Roman taxation
and other abuses by local administrators, they rebelled and marched upon
Constantinople to seek redress from the emperor. The emperor determined
not to allow such a precedent and led the eastern Roman army against the
Visigoths. The Romans were disastrously defeated at the battle of
Adrianople (378), and the emperor killed. A new emperor,
Theodosius (379-396) arrived from the West and stabilized affairs
by settling the Visigoths in Illyria, the former Yugoslavia
In 402, supported and subsidized by the Eastern Empire, the Visigothic
king, Alaric, attacked Italy. Stilicho (STIHL-ih-cho), the
German commander of the western Roman armies, stripped the western
frontiers of troops in order to hold off Alaric. On Christmas Day of 406,
the Germanic tribes of the Alans, Vandals and Sueves
(pronounced "swaves") crossed a frozen Rhine river and the invasions had
2. The "Barbarian Conquest"
Stilicho was murdered in 408, and, in 410, Alaric and the Visigoths entered
Italy and sacked Rome.
Europe in 410 A.D.
The heart of the empire could not produce enough food to feed its resident
population and had depended on imports from grain-producing regions for a
considerable time. Thus it was essential for the Roman command to hold
onto the regions that produced the food surpluses that they needed --
Aquitaine in southern France, Andalusia in southern Spain, North
Africa, and the Mediterranean islands of Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica.
Despite the obvious importance of these lands to the survival of the
Western empire, the imperial administration managed to throw them all
The Roman government got the Visigoths to leave Italy by giving them
Aquitaine, provided that they would drive out the Vandals occupying
Andalusia. The Visigoths invade Spain in 429, and the Vandals, under
King Gaiseric (guy-ZEHR-ik), fled over the Straits of
Gibraltar to begin the conquest of North Africa.
Meanwhile the Visigoths decided to keep both Aquitaine and Andalusia, and
the Vandals found that they had captured the Roman fleet base at Carthage
together with a large part of the Western Roman fleet. Deciding to use it,
they took to the sea and, in a few years, controlled the western
Mediterranean, including Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica. By 455, they were
strong enough to launch an amphibious operation to capture and sack
3. The "Fall" of the Roman Empire in the West
Food prices in Italy began to rise swiftly, and the German commander of
the Roman armies, Odovacar (OH-doe-vah-cur), asked that the troops
be given lands on which they could raise their own food instead of being
given a money salary that seemed always insufficient with which to support
themselves. The regent, Orestes (ohr-REHS-teez), refused and
Odovacar had him killed. The general then deposed the boy emperor,
Romulus Augustulus (RAHM-you-luhs aw-GUHST-you-luhs), had him made
a monk and sent him to a pleasant monastery on the Mediterranean coast. He
then sent the diadem, purple robes, and red slippers - the symbols of
imperial authority -- to the eastern emperor with the comment that the
Roman Empire in the West had ceased to exist (476).
In 486, bands of Franks under the young chieftain, Clovis,
attacked and conquered the lands between the Seine and Loire rivers in
France that had still been under the control of a Roman official,
Syagrius (see-AG-ree-us). The last Roman lands were now in the
hands of Germanic leaders, except perhaps in England. This is the period
usually assigned to the almost entirely legendary King Arthur. It
may be that the Britons had chosen their own emperor, Ambrosius
Aurelianus (AAM-broh-zee-uhs Aw-ree-lee-AHN-uhs), and he had chosen a
Welsh leader, Uther Pendragon (OO-thuhr PEHN-drah-guhn) as his army
commander. Uther's son, Arthur, succeeded him, and took over the
emperorship at the death of Ambrosius -- but this is all speculation.
The Eastern Roman emperor sent the Ostrogoths and their king
Theodoric (thee-AHH-doh-rihk) against Odovacar. In 489, Theodoric
contrived to have Odovacar killed and himself installed, with the
approbation of the Eastern emperor, as king of Italy.
4. The Situation in 500
Map of the Mediterranean World in 490 AD
There were now a series of Germanic kingdoms in the West -- Franks in France,
Visigoths in Spain, Vandals in North Africa, Ostrogoths in Italy, and the
new-comer Burgundians in Switzerland. All were Christian, but the Germans --
except for the Franks -- were Arian (AIR-ee-aan) Christians and
considered heretics by their native subjects. In order to strengthen their
hold over the much more numerous subject population, each German "king" asked
for and received a certificate of delegated powers from the Eastern
IN FACT, the Western Empire was now in the hands of a series of
"barbarian" kings. IN THEORY, however, all these German leaders
were simply lieutenants of the eastern emperor. The Romans could believe
that the empire had not fallen, but in fact had been reunited.
That was only theory however. The next phase in the process of "the fall
of the Roman empire" came when Justinian, the Eastern emperor
(527-565), was forced to recognize the actual state of affairs
and attempted to turn that theoretical unity into reality.