In this article we will discuss about the Barbarians and the Roman Empire.

Meaning of Barbarians:

At the very outset it is necessary to understand the meaning of the word Barbarian in relation to the Roman Empire and the, Romans. Although it was customary to dub the Goths, Vandals, Franks, etc., as Barbarians, yet the term was used in no more derisive meaning than what was meant by the Greeks to describe the outlanders.

The so called barbarians—the Goths, Vandals, Franks, etc., were known to the Romans long before their conquest of the West. As a matter of fact, the empire in the fourth century was filled with the Latinized barbarians of Gothic and Vandal stock.

The Roman Empire

Within the empire a Goth or a Vandal was called so by the Romans for his Gothic or Vandal family origin, but insofar as the Roman law was concerned he was as good a Roman as anybody else. The difference between a Roman and a Latinized barbarian varied in degrees in direct proportion to the Latin cultural absorption by the barbarian.


The Germans, that is, the barbarians served in huge numbers in the Roman legions and were admitted to all the legal rights of a true Roman.

Since military service was a sure way to political preferment, many of the barbarians who began as soldiers ended their careers as high officials of state. Nobody doubted their ability or their desire to be good Romans. Acquiring wealth and power, they intermarried with the noblest families of the empire, for German blood was, in particular, no social disgrace.

The only difference between the barbarians who lived within the empire as Romans and served in the Roman legions and the barbarians who lived across the borders of the Roman Empire was that the former were paid by the Emperor, were more dis­ciplined and cultured, while, the latter were more undisciplined, less cultured and ill-paid.


A Vandal soldier named Stilicho rose to high favour under Emperor Theodosius and particularly under his incompetent son Emperor Honorius who succeeded as western emperor in 395 A.D. Stilicho who was made the patricians and the master of the Roman troops, eventually became the father-in-law of Honorius and the de facto ruler of the west.

Alaric, the king or rather the elected Chief of the Visigoths was admitted by Theodosius as a federate, that is, an ally, and was stationed along the Danube. The barbarians were, therefore, not an unknown people to the Romans or to the empire.

The Barbarians before the Invasions:

In the third century A.D. the lands beyond, the frontiers of the Roman Empire were inhabited by the Moors or Berbers in Africa, the Arabs and the Persians in western Asia, the Ural-Altaic nomads on the Central Asian plateau and the Caspian steppe, and on the north-west by the Germans and the Celts.

Of the above peoples of different language groups the Ural-Altaics and the German Celts des­erve special notice, for, in the fifth century the western empire broke up as a result of the impact of their migrating push.


In the Ural-Altaic group belonged peoples like; the Scythians, Magyars, Mongols, Turks, Tartars, Avars, Bulgars, Huns etc. They were nomads and would drive their flocks from place to place for pasturage and shelter. They would move on horseback with the very minimum of tents, rugs and utensils driving their cattle before.

They had no need of any political organisation beyond the customary discipline of the tribe enforced by its chief.

With the ordinary occupation of a pastoral life, the nomads added those of the profes­sional marauders. The raids were more often than not, merely for loot, and the history of India, China. Persia, Syria and even Egypt bear testimony to death and destruction spread by these nomads.

The Cas­pian steppe gave these nomads an easy highway into the heart of the European Continent, and in the fourth century the Huns entering into Europe through this route terrorized people dwelling across the Roman frontier.

The Huns, as described by the chroniclers of the empire “resembled beasts rather than men—with their squat bodies, bow-legs, and ugly faces marked by prominent ears, flat noses, slanting eyes, swarthy skins, and bristling hair. And behind their repulsive exterior, enhanced by filthiness of their habits, lay a stark stiff ferocity that daunted their more civilized antagonists.”

The prominent among the victims of the Huns were the Slavs who inhabited the lands north of the Pontic steppe, now called Central Russia. But ultimately when the more war-like peoples—the Germans and the Huns, etc., fought and killed one another and pushed westward to despoil the Roman provinces, the Slavs quietly occupied the vacated lands of the eastern Europe and made it almost solidly Slavic.

The Celts or the Gauls as the Romans called them in a much earlier age, had inhabited the forest lands of the northern Europe as far east as the Elbe. From there, they once migrated across the Alps and threatened to wipe out the then little Republic of Rome.

They had also crossed the Rhine and settled in the country called Gaul (France). With the Latinization of the Celts and the Gauls, the Celtic dialects disappeared and they were mixed with the Mediterranean people.

The peoples whom the Romans knew as Germani, The Germans i.e. the Germans, were at first living in lands border­ing on the Baltic. Thence they moved towards the South and overtook the country between the Elbe and the Rhine wherefrom their further movement towards the south was held in check by the Roman defenses. From Tacitus’ Germania we come to know of the physical traits of the Germans.

He describes Germans as having “fierce blue eyes and reddish hair, great bodies, specially powerful for attack, but not equally patient of hard work, little able to with­stand heat and thirst, though by climate and soil they have been inured to cold and hunger.” Caesar in his Commentaries described them as depending on hunting and fishing; Tacitus emphasized their agri­culture.

While the work on the agricultural fields was left with those who could not fight, others took part in fights and hunting, loafing and looting. The wealth among the Germans consisted mainly of cattle, horses and other animals. In the Roman frontiers the Roman coins served as the medium of exchange, but in the interior the cattle and the livestock as a whole served that purpose.

From Tacitus we come to know of an extensive number of German tribes. In the third century the Goths striking south from the Baltic overran the Danubian Provinces.

They threatened the whole of the European frontiers and were finally checked by Marcus Aurelius. But all the same, Aurelius was forced to leave them in possession of Dacia. In the meantime, three powerful confederations of the German tribes became thoroughly entrenched. They were the Alamans (‘allmen’), the Franks (‘the free’) and the Saxons (‘the dagger man’).

The shortage of troops in the Roman legions and Diocletian’s attempts to reform the military system called for a huge number of troops to reach the target of half a million-man army, led to the recruitment of the African Moors, Syrian Arabs and Germans of the bordering areas of the Roman Empire.

This process led to the influx of streams of Moors, Arabs and Germans into the Roman Empire and even whole tribes, e.g. Visigoths, Vandals, etc., were admitted into the Roman Empire as faederati, that is, the allies to whom lands had been assigned in return for the duty of patrolling the frontiers of the empire.

Such arrangements were ordinary enough, to begin with, but it was merely an unfortunate accident that such arrangements had tragic consequences in the end. The troubles cast their shadows before and the Goths became involved in a violent quarrel with certain high-handed Roman officials which led to the battle of Adrianople, in 378 A.D. in which Balens was slain.

Emperor Theodosius, however, restored peace and the Goths faithfully guarded the Theodosius frontiers during his reign.

The Imperial Collapse of Barbarians in the Fifth Century:

The Gothic king Alaric, whom Theodosius had settled on the Roman frontier as faederati imitated Stilicho and with a seeming consent of Arcadius, led his Gothic hordes against Italy. Stilicho, who was faced with other rebellions within Italy, some­how mustered his troops and held off Alaric till 408 successfully.

Honorius, jealous of the growing power of Stilicho and annoyed at the evil consequences of his attempt to bring Arcadius’ empire under his control, got him executed on a charge of treason. This led to greater chaos and Honorius shut himself up in the fortress of Ravenna and allowed things to happen as they would.

Alaric started negotiations with Honorius which led to nothing, and Alaric starved Rome to submission and gave the proud city to his troops for three days’ pillage (410).

But death of Alaric soon after cut him in the midst of his plan of ruthless campaigns. Honorius finding his defenses totally collapsed, recalled the Roman troops stationed in Britain and left that country to the tender mercy of the Picts and the Scots and eventually to the German Anglo-Saxons.

Across the frontiers, now stripped of protecting troops, poured in hosts of barbarians to do whatever they liked with the imperial provinces.

Northern Gaul was occupied by the Franks, Alamans and the Burgundians, the Vandals and their allies took Aquitaine and Spain. The Visigoths in the mean­time elected Alaric’s brother (brother-in-law accord­ing to some), to the Visigoth kingship and a marriage relation between him and the sister of Honorius led ‘ to a sort of a Roman alliance.

The Visigoths now invaded southern Gaul and defeated and compelled the Vandals to abandon Spain and cross over to Africa. There the Vandal king Gaiseric secured the entire territory west of Tripoli and orga­nised it as an independent kingdom and made it the base of piratical expeditions to the north and the east.

When the affairs o the west were in such a pass the Huns extended their dominions from the Caspian to the Rhine and only spared the east Roman empire because the east Roman emperor paid them handsome blackmail. But under their new and vigorous leader Attila, they decided on wider opera­tions and proceeded against the west Roman Empire.

In the meantime Valentinian had become the emperor and being weak and irresolute was not expected to do anything to stop the menace. But the master of his troops Aetius took the field against the invaders and with the able support of the Visi­goths he succeeded in defeating the Huns in the famous battle of Catalaunian fields (451) now called Champaigne.

This only diverted Attila from Gaul to Italy but his death in 453 led to the break­up of the Hun hordes and the Huns ceased to be a menace to the empire.

The dissolution of the Hun horde had provided a respite to the western empire but condition within the empire became steadily worse. The next Emperor Valentinian III had Aetius put to death which was avenged by the retainers of Aetius by assassinating Valentinian himself (455). The Vandal king Gaiseric seized the opportunity and brought his Vandal horde up the Tiber and sacked Rome.

The political fabric of the west empire now had fallen into pieces and the military bosses and high officials as well as the commanders of the German merce­naries put and pulled down emperor after emperor until in 476 one Odoacer decided to end this useless formality of putting an emperor on the throne.

He deposed the last puppet boy emperor rather mocking­ly called Romulus Augustulus and sent the insignia of the vacant office of the western empire to Zeno who had in the meantime become the emperor of the east empire after the line of Theodosius had be­come extinct. Odoacer was now given the custo­mary title of patricius and theoretically the western and the eastern empires were being ruled by one emperor.

The Nature of the Barbarian Invasions:

The Roman Empire in the west did not fall due to any shock of foreign conquest or become barbarized through any deliberate attack on the ancient culture. The so-called barbarian invasions, therefore, are very hard to define. From the late fourth century there had been numerous barbarians, i.e. the Germans, in the services of the empire.

They were serving in the Roman army as well as in the civil Roman government and were settled on the borders of the empire and were regarded as allies or faederati. The introduction of the so-called barbarians into the Roman Empire did not give rise to any civil war or rapine.

The great barbarian inroads which brought the Franks, Alamans, Burgundians, Vandals, etc., within the Roman border did not disturb the legal status of the emperor. These newcomers were all legalized. Even when the Roman Emperors became no better than puppets in the hands of the barba­rians the form and the show of the legal status of the emperor were retained.

The deposition of Romulus Augustulus, the last of the Roman Emperor by Odoacer did not legally mean the end of the Roman Empire, for, he recognized the sovereignty of Zeno of the east Roman Empire and there was at least legally if not practically or really, unity of the eastern and the western empires under Zeno.

It has, therefore, been observed by a modern European writer that legally and technically “there were neither inva­sions nor barbarians; there was neither a fall nor an end of the western empire.”

Be that as it may, the fact remains that the western part of the empire came to an end insofar as the unity of the empire was concerned and Zeno in spite of the proffered allegiance of Odoacer knew the reality of the position and Odoacer was likewise aware of his own power.

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