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     The Germanic Invasions

The Germanic Invasions

1. The Battle of Adrianople (378), in which the emperor Valens lost his life as well as his army to the Visigoths, marked the effective beginning of a new crisis in the relations of the Roman Empire with the Germanic tribes across its Rhine and Danube frontiers. This battle initiated the process, which took two centuries for its accomplishment, by which the western half of the empire was invaded, conquered, and divided by Goths, Franks, Vandals, and Lombards. These invasions, which involved not merely armies, but whole peoples, were made possible by the combination of clans and tribes into confederacies and nations under unified leadership. By the fourth century, the Franks occupied the right bank of the lower Rhine and lived as a "federated" people within the borders of the empire' This federation known as the Visigoths or "West Goths" occupied the bank of the Danube north of Thrace, and behind them were their kinsmen the Ostrogoths or "East Goths" whose center was north of the Black Sea. Between the Goths in the south and the Franks i in the north were a variety of groups: Vandals, Alans, Burgundians.

2. After the disaster of Adrianople, Theodosius I managed to restrain the Visigoths, at first by concessions and payments of money. On his death in 395, however, the empire was divided between his two sons, Arcadius (393-408) in the East and Honorius (393-423) in the West. With its counsels and interests thus divided, the empire proved unable to resist the Gothic attack. Under their new king, Alaric, the Visigoths turned on Constantinople and ravaged Greece as far as Sparta. Diverted to the West, by 401 they were pressing into northern Italy, but were successfully resisted as first by Theodosius' able Vandal general, Stilicho, to whom he had entrusted the welfare of the young Honorius. In 408, however, Honorius brought about Stilicho's assassination, and thus himself opened up the road to Rome for the Visigoths. In 410 Alaric and his warriors captured the imperial city, an event which shocked the Roman world. Wanting to secure Roman Africa, the granary of Italy, as a kingdom for himself, Alaric continued south, but he died on the verge of crossing into Sicily. His successor, Athaulf, led the Visigoths back north. In 412, he invaded southern Gaul and by 419 the Goths had settled there. In the course of the fifth century, they came to dominate not only the south of Gaul but Spain as well, subjecting the Roman inhabitants and appropriating much of their land.

3. In the meantime the Frankish nation had long been pressing into the northern sector of the ancient Roman provinces. From about 481, when Clovis became king of the Salian Franks, this pressure turned into conquest and Clovis soon extended his rule as far south as the river Loire. In 493 he married Clotilda, a Burgundian princess who was, unlike most of her people, a catholic and not an Arian. After a victory in 496 over the Alemanni, Clovis declared himself a Christian and he was baptized along with three thousand of his followers, on Christmas day at Reims. The Franks thus became the first of the Germanic nations to espouse the orthodox Christianity of the empire, a fact which gained them favor not only in Constantinople but also among the people and clergy of the Roman population in Gaul. By the time of Clovis' death, the Frankish kingdom extended to the Pyrenees in the South and beyond the Rhine in the East. There was now once again a potentially powerful catholic state in the West, a fact which was to have far-reaching effects in the future, when the Roman bishops were compelled to turn to France rather than Constantinople for support. The conversion of the Franks also influenced the other Germanic rulers and people. The Burgundians abandoned Arianism in 517 and became a part of the Frankish kingdom in 532. In Spain, the Visigothic king Reccared, renounced Arianism in 587, an act which was confirmed at the third Council of Toledo in 589. In about 590, the gradual conversion of the Lombards to catholic Christianity was begun, though it was not completed until about 660. In this way, Arianism finally disappeared.

Sources utilized in these pages may include:
  • Everett Ferguson's: Backgrounds of Early Christianity
  • Walker's: History of Christianity (out of print)

    (These links will take you to book detail pages at

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