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A History of Diplomacy in the International Development of Europe: Vol I The Struggle for Universal Empire
- The Barbarian Invasions
by David Jayne Hill, LL.D.


Almost encircling the Roman Empire, as the Empire encircled the Mediterranean, were those vast terrae incognitae which the Romans regarded as the world of the barbarians. Against its incursions fortified and garrisoned frontiers were erected, but occasional efforts to advance them to points of greater security ended in the renunciation of extended conquests, and after the close of the second century practically permanent boundaries were established. Even within these limits were included barbarian populations allied with the Empire for its defence, thus creating upon its frontiers a borderland of unrest and commotion.

The line of least resistance to the influences of the barbarian world lay along the Rhine and the Danube. Here the Germanic races - the Teutons and the Goths - composed of numerous local tribes, after beating back the advance of the Roman legions, finally pressed for admission into the lands of the Empire. Behind the Teutons and the Goths, who filled the vast spaces east of the Rhine and north of the Danube, including the great Scandinavian peninsula, were the Slavs, of whom only those of the Baltic - the Wends or Vandals - appear to have been known to the Romans, extending to the Vistula and the Don. Farther to the East and the North, were the Lithuanian tribes, settled along the banks of the Niemen and extending to the Vistula. Behind them, were the Uralo-Altaic races,-Finns, Huns, Avars, Magyars, Tartars, Mongols, and Turks, - peoples unknown to the Romans, and whose migratory habits made their boundaries uncertain; yet all destined, in the course of time, to make their influence felt upon European history.

It was the Germans who, as nearest neighbors, first bore in upon the Empire. A race of brave warriors, of sanguine temperament, blond complexion, large frame, and untiring energy, the Germans contrasted strongly with the South European or Latin type. Habituated to the enjoyment of personal freedom, lovers of liberty, accustomed to self-defence, they had few political ambitions and little disposition for conquest. Deriving their means of livelihood from a rude agriculture and the tending of their herds, they lived in village communities rather than in large towns, surrounded by their cattle, cherishing the life of the family, holding the land in common, governed by their local chiefs, whom they followed and obeyed with a singular devotion, without written laws, and without an extensive political organization. The village community (Gemeinde) was the social unit, above which was the canton (Gau), the totality of cantons constituting the folk (Volk). A nobility was recognized among them, based originally, it would seem, upon capacity for leadership, though regarded as possessing a sacred character. Royalty was also recognized, but mainly in times of danger, and the king differed but little in mode of life from his tribesmen. The chief bond was that of the local community, in which all freemen were participants. Endowed with unusual fecundity, the Germans were always outgrowing their environment, and by the increase of their population were impelled to seek new lands. As early as 113 B.C. the Teutons and the Cimbrians, with their wives, children, and cattle, entered the territory of the Roman Republic in one of their frequent migrations, demanding lands for settlement. They were properly immigrants rather than conquerors. Driven out by Marius, they entered Northern Gaul, whence they were expelled by Julius Caesar. Failing to exterminate them on the other side of the Rhine, the emperors were finally content to make that river a permanent. frontier of the Empire; but the public policy of the Romans encouraged rather than prevented a constant influx of Germans, who steadily mingled with the Roman population.

Before becoming its masters, the barbarians served both to populate and to defend the Empire. It was not by sudden and sanguinary attacks from without that the Roman power was dissolved; but, rather, by the long and gradual infiltration of foreign elements, till at last a point was reached where assimilation was arrested and the German element became preponderant. As Montesquieu has expressed the fact, "It was not through a particular invasion that the Empire was lost, it was the result of all the invasions."1 It was, as we shall see, by the defect of its foreign policy, by the fault of its diplomacy, that the Roman Empire fell; for it was by its absorption of an alien population and its reliance upon alien defenders that the Empire at last became unable to defend itself.

What the Romans were able to accomplish before their fatal policy had borne its fruits, is evident from the manner in which they met the great crisis of the invasion of the confederated barbarians in the second century. More than twenty powerful tribes, led by the Quades and Marcomanni, had formed a league for the destruction of Rome. When the purpose of the barbarians became known, Marcus Aurelius convened the Senate, the oracles were consulted, public lustrations were made, prayers were offered, even the slaves and gladiators were armed, and the whole population was converted into a military camp. To meet the expenses of defence, the Emperor patriotically set the example of personal sacrifice by selling at public auction at the foot of Trajan’s Column the furniture and silver of the palace, and even the jewels of the Empress. For fifteen years, Illyricum, Noricum, and Pannonia were the scene of a bloody resistance, ending in the complete rout of the barbarians.

Other barbarian confederations, like those of the Franks and the Goths in the third century, and that of the Saxons in the fourth century, were defeated and destroyed by the Romans; who, under the leadership of valiant emperors, like Aurelian, Probus, Constantine, and others, exhibited a vigorous power of resistance. But the policy of colonizing the barbarians within the limits of the Empire, and of forming alliances for its protection with whole nations upon its borders, eventually placed the foreign element in control and subjected the Romans to its domination.

After his victory over the Quades and Marcomanni, Marcus Aurelius, thinking to cut off his captives from contact with the barbarian world, settled them in the plains of Northern Italy. Forts and camps were distributed along the Rhine and the Danube, supplied by ships on those rivers, and a gigantic wail, whose ruins still astonish the traveller, afforded protection over a space of nearly three hundred miles.

Retaining their native character even in the heart of Italy, the captive barbarians proved to be a dangerous element when closely grouped together near the towns, and it was found necessary to isolate them still further by dispersing them in the country, where there was ample room; for the depopulation of the fields had begun in the time of the civil wars of the Gracchi and had steadily continued, extending even to the provinces, through the increase of taxation and the passion for city life.

The class known as coloni had long existed among the Romans, and now the surrendered barbarians (dedititii) were settled upon the public lands, taking the place of the ancient native coloni, a kind of hereditary farmers permanently attached to the soil. During the third century there was hardly a barbarian nation which did not furnish to the Empire its contingent of men to cultivate the fields, and the majority of the Alamanni, Franks, Gotha, and Sarmates transplanted by the emperors entered the class of coloni.

It was not, however, merely as a means of disposing of captives, nor for the development of agriculture alone, that the Romans converted the surrendered barbarians into coloni; they were made a source of revenue to the public treasury. Besides the annual rent paid by the coloni to the proprietor of the soil (generally the state), there was imposed upon him a capitation tax, the amount of which was fixed from year to year, according to the needs of the public revenue.

Thus incorporated in the Empire, the barbarians were not, as coloni, admitted to the enjoyment of those rights and prerogatives which might have created within them a sentiment of patriotism and converted them into veritable constituents of the imperial commonwealth; on the contrary, they were branded as strangers, never considered as citizens, and, being always prohibited from living near Rome and other large cities, were condemned to a life of rustic ignorance which left them in their original state of barbarism.

Under the Republic and in the earlier period of the Empire, military life was regarded as a noble profession and a patriotic duty; but with the decline of private interest in public affairs the qualities of the old republican legions were wholly lost, and the army, filled with the drift of the population and conscripts taken among the coloni, became a school of insubordination and a menace rather than a defence to the security of the civil order.

In the time when Rome was extending its dominion over the world, the legions were composed exclusively of Roman citizens, and such was the general admiration for the Roman military organization that it was regarded as having a divine origin. But the heavy arms of the legionary, the drill, the labor, the severe fatigue, and the constant discipline to which the soldier was obliged to submit, became repugnant to men who had acquired habits of self-indulgence, and those who entered military life at all preferred the lighter service of the auxiliary troops. But, in time, every form of military duty fell into contempt, and the avoidance of service by Roman citizens was rendered easier by the presence of the barbarian coloni In the fourth century, a law was passed which fixed the conscription of soldiers as a tax on landed property. Each proprietor was required to furnish a number of soldiers corresponding to the value of his lands, and the young coloni were thus forced into military service. The army, composed of this semi-servile class, without patriotism and without a sense of responsibility, thus fell to the rank of a purely mercenary force.

Left without faithful defenders within, the public policy of Rome committed the fatal mistake of depending for the security of the imperial frontiers upon alliances with the barbarians. As early as the time of Julius Caesar barbarian volunteers had entered the Roman army as auxiliaries, and the emperors had often preferred a personal body guard of foreigners to a corps of their own subjects. The Batavians were, however, the first people to enter into a formal alliance with the Romans by solemn treaty, engaging to furnish a fixed contingent of soldiers and to serve as defenders of the Empire. As allies (foederati), they retained their own chiefs and their own institutions and paid no tribute, although they occupied Roman soil.

In like manner, the Ripuarian Franks, in 259, became infeodated with the Empire as its paid defenders. When, in the fourth century, an invasion of the Saxons drove the Salian Franks across the border, the Emperor Julian regarded their intrusion as an invasion, and marched against them; but, after an explanation, they were allowed to remain under pledges of fidelity.

As new peoples, pressed forward by their enemies, appeared upon the frontiers of the Empire, similar compacts were made with them in ever increasing numbers. Thus, the Vandals, the Goths, and other barbarian tribes were received as foederati, and for a time were faithful to their obligations; but, having been admitted to the right of marriage and of commerce, these allies speedily Germanized the entire Empire. Not only were the frontiers intrusted to the military colonies of barbarians, who replaced the former colonies of Roman veterans, but the Germans gradually pervaded and controlled the imperial government. In the second half of the fourth century, having risen to the rank of generals, senators, and consuls, they had acquired a great influence in the army, in the magistracies, at the court and in the counsels of the Emperor.

Once possessed of the dignity and power of Roman officials, the ambitions of the barbarians knew no bounds. The German Arbogastes, who had long played a considerable rôle under Gratian and Valentinian II, took advantage of his influence with the army to assume command of all the troops, with the title, "Master of the Soldiers." When Valentinian, who resented his arrogance, handed him his dismissal, the proud barbarian read it, tore up the paper, and left the presence of the Emperor with the words: "It is not from you that I hold my authority; you have not the right to deprive me of it." 2 Then, without waiting until Valentinian could punish his rebellion, he resolved to rid himself of the Emperor; and, having slain him while reviewing his troops, in order to show his power, he bestowed the purple upon the rhetorician Eugenius.

From that time forward, the barbarian element became dominant. The barbarians ceased to be imitators of the Romans, and the Romans began to adopt the methods of the barbarians.

It was the attacks of the Huns, who were wandering westward and ravaging their country, which pushed the Visigoths, or West Goths, in 376, to ask for asylum within the Empire. Their embassy was received by Valens at Antioch, and two hundred thousand armed men, with their wives and children, were admitted. It was the prelude to the terrific campaigns of pillage which, following in rapid succession,laid waste the Empire. Having through bribes to the Roman officers evaded the stipulation that they were to surrender their arms, soon afterward, feeling themselves oppressed, these Gothic refugees rose in revolt and fought a series of battles in which two-thirds of the Roman army fell and the Emperor Valens lost his life. Pillaging the country to the very gates of Constantinople, the victorious invaders broke up into small bands, which continued to ravage the towns and villages, until Theodosius finally made peace by settling them south of the Danube.

Another Gothic invasion, under Alaric, was even more terrible in its character and more devastating in its results. After plundering the East, Alaric crossed the Alps in 402, prepared to conquer Italy, and was not repelled until he had driven the Emperor Honorius from Milan and forced him to take refuge in Ravenna.

In 405, Radigaisus led a terrific onslaught by a host of barbarians composed of Vandals, Burgundians, Suevians, and others. But it was Alaric's second invasion, in 409, which revealed the utter prostration of the imperial power and showed how completely the Empire was at the mercy of the barbarians. Crossing the Rhine and devastating its towns, he swept through Gaul like a tempest as far as the Pyrenees. Descending into Italy, he passed with contempt Ravenna, among whose marshes the impotent Honorius had taken refuge, and hastened on to Rome, where he found a richer prey for pillage. Having reduced it to famine, he forced it to pay tribute, for which its most precious monuments, among them even the statue of Courage, were melted down; then, having humbled it by forcing the Senate to decorate his creature, a mere prefect, with imperial honors, in 410 he turned his greedy hordes loose to plunder it at will. Rome rifled, the whole country was ravaged, and amidst the orgies that followed, the sons and daughters of Roman senators were compelled to serve their costliest wines in golden cups to the already intoxicated soldiers.

But the pride of Rome was destined to sink to still lower depths of debasement. Honorius, who had scornfully refused to treat with Alano, was glad to negotiate with his successor, Atolf, and even elevated him to the command of the imperial army. While the power of the Empire was thus internally falling into the hands of its invaders, still other barbarians were pressing upon it from without. The Vandals under Genseric not only stripped it of its African possessions by successive treaties, but finally made an attack on Rome itself; the Huns under Attila, after receiving tribute on the Danube, in 447 plundered the East, and in 452 ravaged Northern Italy. Soon afterward, Attila having died, the confederation he had founded in the North fell to pieces, but its former subjects, - Ostrogoths, Gepides, Herulians, Rugians, Lombards, and others, - having driven the remainder of the Huns to the valley of the Volga, simply took their places. Britain had been lost to the Empire since the Saxon invasion of 449; the Franks had abandoned their former alliance and entered the service of Egidius, who was founding an independent kingdom in Gaul; Genseric, long master of the Mediterranean, in 455 carried the spoils of Rome to Carthage; and from that time till the final catastrophe a succession of shortlived, and, in the main, personally impotent emperors, set up by military power, barely maintained the waning tradition of imperial rule.

At last, the person of Romulus Augustus, - called "Augustulus," or the "Little Augustus," - a child of six years, was, in 475, invested with the purple by his father, Orestes, a former secretary of Attila, who had become general of the army, and in 474 had deposed the Emperor Julius Nepos; but the mercenaries under his command having exacted as their reward the partition of Italy and the possession of one third of the land, Orestes, after refusal, was killed in battle; and, in consequence, in 476 Romulus was compelled to renounce his pretensions. There being, in reality, no public authority in Italy, Odoacer, chief of the mercenaries, induced the Roman Senate to send the imperial insignia to Constantinople, requesting Zeno, Emperor of the East, to permit him to administer Italy with the title of Patrician.




1. Montesquieu, Grandeur et décadence des Romains, ch. XIX.

2. Zozimus, History of Rome, 1,IV, 58.

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