The Germanic Invasions

VI. The Germanic Invasions

Of the foreign invaders who took advantage of the denudation of the Roman frontiers after A.d. 235 by far the most important were the Germanic tribes on the Rhine and Danube. In Britain the third century passed in almost unbroken peace. during the fourth century, it is true, repeated incursions from Scotland, Ireland, and Germany kept the northern border and the coastal regions in a state of alarm. Yet the Roman troops continually beat off the raids, and never allowed them to develop into a systematic conquest. In the course of the fifth century Britain passed out of Roman control, but this was due to the events on the Continent, which caused the Roman garrison to be depleted to vanishing point. It was in France, Spain and Italy that the Romans lost Britain.

Of the invaders on the Continent it is easy to form an exaggerated conception. In point of numbers, the Germanic invaders were far inferior to the population of the Roman Empire, and theirs was not an exodus en masse under the stress of hunger. For many centuries those Germans who lived near the Roman frontier had possessed some knowledge of agriculture and handicraft, and as increasing development the pressure of their population on subsistence would grow less. Moreover, the Germans readily applied the corrective of internecine warfare to the evil of over-population. It is therefore picturesque nonsense to speak of the Roman Empire as being overwhelmed by Germany’s “teeming millions.” neither did the Germans display any exceptional military ability, such as enabled the Huns, the Saracens, and the Tartars to make up for lack of numbers. In addition to their native physical vigour, they had a code of honour which bound the warriors always to close up on their chieftains, and as time went on they developed some capacity for united action. Among the invaders who troubled the Romans most were two groups named Franks and Alamanni. since these people are never mentioned before the third century, it is probable that they were newly formed confederations. It is also fairly certain that the occasional German assaults on a very wide front were synchronised by arrangement and not by accident. On the other hand, the Germans lacked the hard training of the Roman soldiers, they had a much poorer equipment, they were far inferior in manoeuvring ability, they had neither skill nor patience to capture roman fortifications or to set up artificial defences of their own. Under anything like equal conditions the Germans had no chance against the Roman armies of the first two centuries A.D., and in the ensuing period too they were no real match for them, provided always that the Roman defence was not hampered by internal dissensions.

The first serious failure of the Roman defence took place, significantly enough, in a.D. 69, the year of the first civil war since the fall of the Republic. The army of the Rhine, bent on emperor-making, had marched off to Italy, leaving a mere skeleton corps to guard the Roman frontier. The opportunity for an attack was at once seized by a sophisticated German chief named Civilis, who had served in the Roman forces and had taken a Latin name. With the help of a disaffected Gallic chieftain Civilis carried the entire line of the Rhine to Basel and invited the adjacent German tribes to invade Gaul. The early collapse of the civil war and the arrival of Roman reinforcements soon put an end to Civilis’ venture; but his initial success was ominous. during the next two centuries occasional unwise reductions of the Roman garrison invited new attacks. In A.D. 167 some raiders from the Middle Danube actually entered North-East Italy; in 213 and again in 234 similar forays were made into Gaul. But all these invasions were requited with interest as soon as the Roman forces were brought up to strength. thus as late as A.D. 250 the West Europe frontier stood intact.

Meanwhile, however, the game of emperor-making had begun in good earnest, and one Roman frontier after another was left undermanned. In A.D. 251 the Goths, who at this period lay farthest east among the Germanic peoples, carried the line of the lower Danube and for twenty years overran the Balkan lands. In 259 the Alamanni of South-West Germany, advancing through Burgundy  and through Tyrol, made a double incursion into Italy and reached Ravenna; in 268 they penetrated to Lake Garda; in 271 they again invaded as far as the Adriatic. Each of these offensives was broken up by a Roman counter-attack, and for more than a century to come Italy remained immune from serious incursions. but the gigantic ring-wall which the Emperor Aurelian constructed round Rome (c. A.D. 271) was (and still is) a visible symbol of the crumbling of the “pax Romana.” In 256 the Franks from the lower Rhine crossed the length of Gaul, and for several years roamed at will in North-East Spain. Behind them the door of the Rhine was again closed by the Emperor Gallienus and a general named Postumus. But in 259 Postumus set up a virtually independent palatine in Gaul, Spain and Britain, thus paving the way for the break up of Western Europe into a jumble of succession-states. Fortunately the new “Empire of the Gauls” had no time to strike roots. In 268 Postumus and three of his succesors in turn were murdered by their own troops, and in 273 his dominions were recaptured by the Emperor Aurelian. Thanks to this ruler, who was deservedly called “the Restorer of the World,” the danger of the Roman Empire breaking up like a sultanate into its pashaliks was definitely averted. But a new round of imperial murders in 275 brought the Franks and the Alamanni once more into the field, and with them two minor tribes, the Vandals and the Burgundians, who at this period were usually friendly to Rome. The invaders overran Gaul as far as Bordeaux and captured no less than twenty cities. In 277 the Emperor Probus, a worthy successor of Aurelian, restored and refortified the line of the Rhine and Upper Danube, but abandoned the advanced zone beyond those rivers. about this time the Gallic towns hastily threw up defences which in the course of the fourth century gave way to carefully constructed ring-walls. Soon after A.D. 256 some of the Spanish cities – e.g., Leon and Astorga – also fortified themselves. Henceforth Western Europe lived perpetually under the shadow of the Germanic invasions.

After the great crisis of A.D. 251-277 the Roman Empire enjoyed a century of comparative peace. The victories of Aurelian and Probus were supplemented by a series of military reforms. The lack of a central reserve by means of which a broken defence could be mended without drafting troops from other frontiers was made good by the Emperors Gallienus (A.D. 260-268) and Diocletian (A.D. 284-305), who raised a new mobile army to supplement the troops on the border. In the fourth century the emperors had frequent recourse to the homeopathic remedy of enlisting Germans against their own countrymen. this was a dangerous expedient, for the Germans when enrolled in the Roman forces aggravated the growing lack of discipline, and individual German chieftains in Roman employ, such as the Frank Arbogast, the Goth Alaric, and the Vandal Stilicho, were just as unscrupulous in the furtherance of their individual ambitions as the high Roman officers. but the experiment was quite successful in this sense, that the Germans remained as ready as ever to turn upon each other. On the whole, the German auxiliaries served Rome well, and some of their captains rose high in the confidence of the emperors. Nevertheless the Empire did not recover from the strain of the third-century crisis; its pulse beat more slowly, and its capacity for effort became progressively less. Conversely the Germans for all their defeats had made sure that the Romans were no longer invincible, and remained ever ready to try their luck again.

Of the campaigns of the period A.D. 277-400 it will suffice to mention the more important. In 286 Carausius, the commander of the “classic Britannica” on the English Channel, set up a virtually independent rule in Britain; but in 296 his successor Allectus was defeated and killed by Diocletian’s general Constantius Chlorus. Two years later Constantius heavily punished some Alamannic raiders in Eastern Gaul. In 306 his son, the future Emperor Constantine, repelled the Franks and made the last big counter-raid into North-West Germany. In 355 the Franks ad Alamanni , sided by Saxons from the North Sea, captured no less than forty Gallic towns; but shortly afterwards  another emperor-to-be named Julian restored the frontier line and inflicted a severe defeat on the Alamanni at Strasbourg . In 369 the Emperor Valentinian I. once more showed the Roman arms in the Neckar Valley. For thirty years Roman prestige was so far restored that the Germans made no important mover during the next round of civil wars between Roman generals (A.D. 383-392), in the course of which the commander of Britain, Magnus Maximus, carried all Western Europe, but was eventually defeated and killed by the Emperor Theodosius I.

With the fifth began a new series of invasions which finally broke down the Roman frontiers. The attack was now opened by the Goths, an East German people who had been moving westward under pressure from the Huns and in 378 had won a memorable victory over the Emperor Valens at Adrianople. Their principal chieftain, Alaric, had been appointed commander of the Roman forces in Illyricuum (on the north-eastern border of Italy), but repeatedly quarrelled with the Emperor Honorius, and was always relapsing into his native habits of plunder. In 402 Alaric overran Lombardy, and after being cornered by a rival German general, the Vandal Stilicho, was allowed by the latter to escape. In 405 a motley host under another Goth named Radagaesus actually crossed the Apennines, but was destroyed near Florence by Stilicho, who cleverly starved it into surrender. But the death of Stilicho, who presently fell a victim to a palace intrigue, left Italy without a competent defender. In 408, Alaric advanced upon Rome itself and laid it under siege. For the time being he was bought off with a heavy danegeld, but in 410, after a renewed siege, he put the city to sack. Soon after this exploit Alaric died, and his Goths evacuated Italy, which now gained a respite of some forty years from invasion. But the fall of Rome had a profound moral effect, despite the fact that the city had ceased to be the capital of the Empire, for the legend of  “Roma aeterna” had been shattered.

In the meantime the defence of the western provinces definitely gave way. To meet the menace of Alaric, Stilicho depleted the garrisons of Britain and Gaul. A further denudation of the frontier took place in 406, when a usurper named Constantine removed most if not all of the remaining troops in Britain and invaded Gaul with these. Constantine in the first instance carried Gaul and Spain, but in 409 was in turn betrayed by a lieutenant named Gerontius. The dissension between the rebels enabled the loyal general Constantius to suppress both and to recover Southern France. But Britain henceforth was as good as lost to the Roman Empire; it may have received occasional help from stray Roman generals in Gaul, yet in effect it had regained an unwelcome independence. But this is not the full measure of the mischief caused by Alaric and Constantine. Left practically undefended, the Rhine frontier was swamped by a double wave of invasions. The advanced line of assailants consisted of Suevi and Vandals, and a non-German tribe, the Alans; in their wake followed the Franks, Alamanni, and Burgundians. The Suevi, Vandals and Alans passed through France into Spain, which became the scene of a confused warfare. In 412 Alaric’s successor Ataulf was enlisted by Roman diplomacy against the invaders of Spain and drove them westward and southward. In 419 the Goths moved into South-West France, where they settled down as Roman allies; but of the remaining Germans the Vandals were attacked by their former confederates the Suevi, and in 429 passed on Spain into Africa. Thus while the Suevi lingered on in Spain, the Romans recovered the eastern part for some further fifty years.

While the Goths occupied South-Western Gaul, the Franks took permanent possession of the North. In Central France the Romans retained a precarious hold until the later part of the fifth century.

In A.D. 450 widespread alarm was created in Western Europe by an invasion of the Hun monarch Atilla. Hitherto the Hunish tribes, which had temporarily settled in Hungary, had been on fairly amicable terms with the Romans. Their lesser chieftains enlisted in the Roman army and rendered useful service with their excellent light horse. In 436 Attila who had meanwhile united all the Hun tribes and had subdued the East German peoples, obliged the Romans by destroying the Burgundian capital at Worms, an episode immortalised in the Nibelungenlied. But in 450 Attils quarrelled with the Roman Emperor Valentinian III. and overran Gaul as far as the Loire. Fortunately for the Romans the Franks and the goths now settled in Gaul sided with them, and combined forces under Aetius, “the last of the Romans.” The coalition headed Atilla off Orleans and after a running battle near Troyes ushered him out of France. In 452 Atilla made an unexpected descent upon Northern Italy, causing great havoc as he went, but he presently made an equally unexpected retreat . He died shortly after, and the Hun peril with.

But the Romans were unable to profit by Atila’s failure. In 454 the Emperor Valentinian III. Requited Aetis by murdering him with his own hand, and so deprived himself of his only capable general. In 455 the Vandal Gaiseric, who had established a kingdom in North Africa, built a fleet and repeated Alaric’s exploit by a second and more systematic sack of Rome (they like the ones before are Arian Christians so the sacking of Rome is questionable). About the same time the Alamanni definitely took possession of Switzerland, and the Burgundians, who had migrated with roman permission into Savoy, declared their independence. By A.D. 455 the final disintegration of the Roman Empire in the West was in sight. It only remained for the Gothic king Euric to expel the last roman garrisons from South-East Gaul (A.D. 470-480), for the Franks under Clovis to descend to the Loire (480-490), and for a mutinous leader of auxiliary troops named Odoacer to depose the last puppet emperor at Ravenna and to convert Italy into the youngest of the Germanic succession-states (A.D. 476).

Thus towards the middle of the fifth century the Roman Empire definitely disappeared from Western Europe. In the lands thus permanently surrendered to them German kings now take over, and by passing perforce from a policy of plunder to one of conquest and reorganisation, open a new epoch in the political history of the West.