Attack of the Germans

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The Germans

History of the Later Roman Empire by J. B. Bury Published by Macmillan & Co., Ltd., 1923

The leading feature of the history of Europe in the fifth century was the occupation of the western half of the Roman Empire by German peoples. The Germans who accomplished this feat were not, with one or two exceptions, the tribes who were known to Rome in the days of Caesar and of Tacitus, and whose seats lay between the Rhine and the Elbe. These West Germans, as they may be called, had attained more or less settled modes of life, and, with the exception of those who lived near the sea-coast, they played no part in the great migrations which led to the dismemberment of the Empire. The Germans of the movement which is known as the Wandering of the Peoples were the East Germans, who, on the Baltic coast, in the lands between the Elbe and the Vistula, had lived outside the political horizon of the Romans in the times of Augustus and Domitian and were known to them only by rumour. The evidence of their own traditions, which other facts seem to confirm, makes it probable that these peoples — Goths, Vandals, Burgundians, Lombards, p97 and others — had originally lived in Scandinavia and in the course of the first millennium B.C. migrated to the opposite mainland.

It was in the second century A.D. that the East German group began to affect indirectly Roman history. When the food question became acute for a German people, as a consequence of the increase of population, there were two alternatives. They might become an agricultural nation, converting their pasture-lands into tillage, and reclaiming more land by clearing the forests which girdled their settlements and which formed a barrier against their neighbours; or they might migrate and seek a new and more extensive habitation. The East German barbarians were still in the stage in which steady habits of work seem repulsive and dishonourable. They thought that laziness consisted not in shirking toil but in "acquiring by the sweat of your brow that which you might procure by the shedding of blood."21 Though the process is withdrawn from our vision, we may divine, with some confidence, that the defensive wars in which Marcus Aurelius was engaged against the Germans north of the Danube frontier were occasioned by the pressure of tribes beyond the Elbe driven by the needs of a growing population to encroach upon their neighbours. Not long after these wars, early in the third century, the Goths migrated from the lower Vistula to the northern shores of the Black Sea. This was the first great recorded migration of an East German people. In their new homes they appear divided into two distinct groups, the Visigoths and the Ostrogoths, each of which was destined to have a separate and independent history. How the Visigoths severed themselves from their brethren, occupied Dacia, and were gradually converted to Arian Christianity is a story of which we have only a meagre outline. They do not come into the full light of history until they pour into the Roman provinces, fleeing in terror before the invasion of the Huns, and are allowed to settle there as Federates by the Roman government. The battle in the plains of Hadrianople, where a Roman army was defeated and a Roman Emperor fell, foretold the nature of the danger which was threatening the Empire. It was to be dismembered, not only or chiefly by the attacks of professed enemies from without, but by the self-assertion of the barbarians p98 who were admitted within the gates as Federates and subjects. The tactful policy of Theodosius the Great restored peace for a while. We shall see how soon hostilities were resumed, and how the Visigoths, beginning their career as a small federate people in a province in the Balkan peninsula, founded a great independent kingdom in Spain and Gaul.

Of the other East German peoples who made homes and founded kingdoms on Imperial soil, nearly all at one time or another stood to Rome in the relation of Federates. This is a capital feature of the process of the dismemberment of the Empire. Another remarkable fact may also be noticed. Not a single one of the states which the East Germans constructed was permanent. Vandals, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Gēpīds, all passed away and are clean forgotten; Burgundians and Lombards are remembered only by minor geographical names. The only Germans who created on Roman territory states which were destined to endure were the Franks and Saxons, and these belonged to the Western group.

It is probable that the dismemberment of the Empire would have been, in general, a far more violent process than it actually was, but for a gradual change which had been wrought out within the Empire itself in the course of the third and fourth centuries, through the infiltration of Germanic elements. It is to be remembered in the first place that the western fringe of Germany had been incorporated in the Germanic provinces of Gaul. Cöln, Trier, Mainz were German towns. In the second place, many Germans had been induced to settle within the Empire as farmers (colons), in desolated tracts of country, after the Marcomannic Wars of Marcus Aurelius. Then there were the settlements of the laeti, chiefly in the Belgic provinces, Germans who came from beyond the Rhine, and received lands in return for which they were bound to military service. Towards the end of the fourth century we find similar settlers both in Italy and Gaul, under the name of gentiles, but these were not exclusively Germans.22 Further there was a German population in many of the frontier districts. This was not the result of a deliberate policy; Germans were not settled there as such. Lands were assigned to the soldiers (milites limitanei) who protected the frontiers, and as the army became more and more p99 German, being recruited extensively from German colons, the frontier population became in some regions largely German.

In the third century German influence was not visible. The army had been controlled by the Illyrian element. The change begins in the time of Constantine. Then the German element, which had been gradually filtering in, is rising to the top. Constantine owed his elevation as Imperator by the army in Britain to an Alamannic chief; he was supported by Germans in his contest with the Illyrian Licinius; and to Germans he always showed a marked favour and preference, for which Julian upbraids him. Thus within the Empire the German star is in the ascendant from the end of the first quarter of the fourth century. We notice the adoption of German customs in the army. Both Julian and Valentinian I were, on their elevation, raised on the shields of soldiers, in the fashion of German kings. Henceforward German officers rise to the highest military posts in the State, such as Merobaudes, Arbogastes, Bauto and Stilicho, and even intermarry with the Imperial family. An Emperor of the fifth century, Theodosius II, has German blood in his veins.

At the death of Theodosius the Great the geography of the German world, so far as it can roughly be determined, was as follows. On the Rhine frontier there were the Franks in the north, and the federated group of peoples known as Alamanni in the south. The Franks fell into two distinct groups: the Salians, the future conquerors of Gaul, who were at this time Federates of the Empire, and dwelled on the left bank of the Rhine in the east of modern Belgium; and the Ripuarians, whose abodes were beyond the middle Rhine, extending perhaps as far south as the Main, where the territory of the Alamanni began. Behind these were the Frisian coast dwellers, in Holland and Frisia; the Saxons, whose lands stretched from the North Sea into Westphalia; the Thuringians, in and around the forest region which still bears their name. Neighbours of the Alamanni on the Upper Main were the Burgundians.23 More remote were the Angles near the neck of the Danish peninsula, the Marcomanni in Bohemia, the Silings (who belonged to the Vandal nation) in Silesia, to which they seem to have given their name. The Asdings, the other great section of the Vandals, were still on the Upper Theiss, where they had been settled since the end of the p100 second century, and not far from them were the Rugians. Another East German people, the Gēpīds (closely akin to the Goths), inhabited the hilly regions of northern Dacia. Galicia was occupied by the Scirians; and on the north coast of the Black Sea were the Ostrogoths, and beyond them the Heruls, who in the third century had left Sweden to follow in the track of the Goths.24 The Pannonian provinces were entirely in the hands of barbarians, Huns, Alans, and a section of the Ostrogoths, which had moved westward in consequence of the Hunnic invasion. Dacia was in the power of the Huns, whose appearance on the scene introduced the Romans to enemies of a new type, from whom European civilisation was destined to suffer for many centuries.

It must not be thought that the inhabitants of central and northern Europe were so numerous that each of the principal peoples could send a host of hundreds of thousands of warriors to plunder the Empire. "The irregular divisions and the restless motions of the people of Germany dazzle our imagination, and seem to multiply their numbers."25 Fear and credulity magnified tenfold the hosts of Goths and Vandals and other peoples who invaded and laid waste the provinces. A critical analysis of the evidence suggests that of the more important nations the total number may have been about 100,000, and that the number of fighting men may have ranged from 20,000 to 30,000.

The period of the invasions of the Empire by the East German peoples, from the middle of the fourth century till the middle of the sixth, was the "heroic age" of the Teutons, the age in which minstrels, singing to the harp at the courts of German kings, created the legendary tales which were to become the material for epics in later times, and passing into the Norse Eddas, the Nibelungenlied, and many other poems, were to preserve in dim outline the memory of some of the great historical chieftains who played their parts in dismembering the Empire.26 It has been the fashion to regard with indulgence these German leaders, who remade the map of Europe, as noble and attractive p101 figures; some of them have even been described as chivalrous. This was the "propaganda" of the nineteenth century. When we coldly examine their acts, we find that they were as barbarous, cruel, and rapacious as in the days of Caesar's foe, Ariovistus, and that the brief description of Velleius still applies to them, in summa feritate uersutissimi natumque mendacio genus.

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