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Barbarian invasion

In the social revolution that destroyed the slave-holding system in the Mediterranean, both internal and external forces played a role. Within the Roman Empire, the carriers of the new feudal tendency were the owners of new types of estates who followed the feudal path. They had civil and military servants in their service. Feudalization affected broad segments of the population, primarily coloni and other categories of small dependent landholders, whom Roman legislation consistently and persistently assimilated to the status of enslaved individuals settled on the land.

The second camp of participants in the social revolution that shattered the Roman slave-holding state consisted of barbarians. In the 4th and 5th centuries, the balance of power between the Roman Empire and the barbarian periphery shifted in favor of the barbarians. The tribes surrounding the empire grew in number and strengthened economically and militarily. In the last century of the Roman Empire's existence, numerous invasions by barbarian tribes from the Rhine and Danube frontiers into Roman territory occurred. The barbarians settled in the lands of the western half of the empire and established their own kingdoms.

When considering the social revolution that took place at the transition from antiquity to the Middle Ages, it is important not to confuse the subjective goals and objective results of the activities of different social forces. Subjectively, based on their immediate conscious interests, the population of the Roman Empire and the invading conquering barbarians were usually enemies. The conquerors brought death and devastation to the population of the empire. If emperors or individual magnates allied themselves with barbarian tribes to use them in the struggle for power or for protection against invasions by other barbarian tribes, the land for the settlement of allied barbarians was often allocated at the expense of the local population.

The relationship between the population of the Roman Empire and the barbarians who settled in its territory in the 4th and 5th centuries depended on specific conditions. In some cases, the barbarians engaged in violent conquests, while the rulers of the empire and, to the extent of their abilities, the population, especially the inhabitants of fortified cities, resisted them. In other cases, the barbarians entered the territory of the empire as allies, to whom land was allocated for settlement. In such instances, there was a division of land, other property, and slaves between the barbarians and local landowning slaveholders. Occasionally, individuals or groups from the population of the empire switched sides and joined the barbarians.

But the main point was that the majority of the population of the empire, dissatisfied with the existing order and actively struggling against the slave-holding system in one form or another (through popular movements, the transformation of production into a feudal mode, the political autonomy of large landholdings that took on feudal characteristics, and so on), and the invading barbarians were engaged in a common historical endeavor - the destruction of the Roman slave-holding empire. They were objective allies in the social revolution that destroyed the existing formation and cleared the ground for the subsequent feudal formation. The transition from antiquity to the feudal Middle Ages was a long and painful process for both the masses of the late Roman Empire and the participating barbarians of the Great Migration of Peoples.

In the 3rd to 5th centuries, numerous military-tribal alliances emerged in Central and Southeastern Europe. In the North Black Sea region, the Gothic union formed. The Goths were an East Germanic tribe that lived on the southern coast of the Baltic Sea, at the mouth of the Vistula River in the early era, and in the 2nd century, they migrated from the Baltic region to the Black Sea region. The Gothic union consisted of two main tribal groups: the Visigoths (western Goths) in the lower Dniester region and the Ostrogoths (eastern Goths) in the lower Dnieper region. The Goths lived in the territory directly adjacent to the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. The Goths were led by military-tribal leaders known as kings. Other tribal unions were also led by similar leaders.

The invasion of barbarian tribes in the 3rd-6th centuries AD.

Beyond the Rhine and Danube, other military-tribal unions of the Germans emerged. They were located in the territory from the Rhine in the west to the Vistula in the east, from the upper and middle Danube in the south to the North and Baltic Seas in the north. The northern Germanic tribes lived on the Scandinavian Peninsula as well as the Jutland Peninsula (in the territory of present-day Denmark), where the Jutes and Angles were known in the 3rd to 5th centuries.

The Germanic tribes inhabiting Central Europe are traditionally divided into western (from the Rhine to the Elbe) and eastern (from the Elbe to the Vistula) groups. Among the western Germans, the powerful unions of the Franks (on the middle and lower Rhine) and their eastern neighbors, the Saxons, Alemanni (in the upper reaches of the Rhine and Danube), and Lombards (living along the left bank of the middle and lower Elbe), stood out. Among the eastern Germans, the most well-known tribal unions were the Burgundians, Suebi, Vandals, and Marcomanni. The Burgundians lived in the lower Oder region and along the southern coast of the Baltic Sea. The Suebi were located between the middle Elbe and the middle Oder. The Vandals were situated between the middle Oder and the middle Vistula. The Marcomanni lived in the upper reaches of the Elbe, occupying the territory as far as the upper Oder in the east and the middle Danube in the south.

Starting from the upper reaches of the Oder and Vistula rivers, a vast territory inhabited by Slavic tribes extended southward and eastward towards the Black Sea and up to the upper reaches of the Oka and Volga rivers. To the north of the Slavs, Baltic tribes were located.

The tribes residing in the vicinity of the Roman Empire beyond the Rhine and Danube intensified their pressure on the empire from the 3rd century onwards. Under the pressure of the Goths, in the 3rd century, Rome withdrew its troops and a portion of Roman colonists from Dacia (the territory of present-day Romania).

In the invasions of the barbarian military-tribal unions against the Roman Empire in the 4th and 5th centuries, not only Germanic tribes but also other tribes that inhabited Central and Southeastern Europe, either alongside Germanic tribes or pushed into Central Europe under the pressure of the Huns from the east, participated. For example, in the second half of the 4th and the beginning of the 5th centuries, the Germanic Vandals and Suebi, along with the Iranic-speaking Alan tribe (the Alans were descendants of the Scythian tribal union Sarmatians, displaced by the Great Migration of Peoples from their original habitat in the Don Basin), carried out a grand migration from Central Europe through the Danube region and Southern Gaul first to Spain and then to North Africa.

The invasion of the Huns from the east into Southern Europe in the 370s intensified the relations between European peoples. Many of them found themselves displaced and began to migrate, displacing their neighbors. The main flow of the Great Migration of Peoples moved westward onto the lands of the Roman Empire.

The Huns, a diverse ethnic horde that included proto-Turkic, possibly proto-Mongolian, Ugric, and other tribes, made an intimidating impression on European peoples with their unfamiliar appearance, way of life, and military customs. The numerous Hunnic cavalry hordes proved to be formidable enemies for settled agricultural peoples. They could not offer sufficient resistance to the Huns. Moving from the east, in the early 370s of the 4th century, the Huns crossed the Volga and attacked the Alans who inhabited the region southeast of the Don in the Azov region. They subjugated a part of the Alans and incorporated them into their horde, and these Alans then moved westward together with the Huns. Another part of the Alans escaped from the Huns and settled in the Caucasus, becoming the ancestors of the Ossetians along with the local ethnic groups.

After dealing with the Alans, in 375 AD, the Huns descended upon the Ostrogoths in the North Black Sea region and defeated them. A portion of the Ostrogoths was incorporated into the Hunnic tribal alliance, while another part fled across the Danube into Roman territory, following the Visigoths.

The Visigoths, seeking refuge from the Huns, appealed to the Eastern Roman Emperor Valens to allow them to settle within the empire as federates, and their request was granted. Thus, formally, the resettlement of the Visigoths on Roman territory occurred with the consent of the empire, although in reality, it would have been difficult for the empire to resist this migration. Ammianus Marcellinus compares the numerous mass of migrating Goths to the Libyan sand lifted by the wind. Leaving behind almost all their belongings, they crossed the Danube on ships, boats, rafts, and by swimming, with many drowning.

According to the agreement with the imperial government, the Visigoths were supposed to receive food supplies and land in the border area from the Romans for the initial period. In return, the Visigoths were obliged to serve in the Roman army. However, Roman officials delayed or failed to fulfill the agreement. Among the Visigoths, surrounded by Roman guards, hunger began to prevail. Roman slave traders bought slaves from them at a low price, initially, and later even their own children. All of this caused the Goths to become outraged, and they revolted. Slaves, their fellow countrymen, and gold miners from the Thracian gold mines, who were in a very difficult situation, joined the Goths. These locals served as guides for the Goths. Emperor Valens called upon Gratian, the ruler of the western half of the empire, for help. However, events unfolded in such a way that Valens was forced to engage in battle with the Goths without waiting for Gratian's arrival.

The battle between the Romans and the Goths took place in 378 AD near the city of Adrianople (modern Edirne) in Thrace, west of Constantinople. The Roman army was defeated, and Emperor Valens died in the battle. Afterward, the Goths scattered throughout the surrounding areas, engaging in looting. Their attempts to capture Adrianople and other cities were unsuccessful due to the resolute resistance of the citizens and the Goths' lack of skill in conducting proper sieges of cities. Approaching Constantinople, the Goths encountered resistance from the citizens and hired Arab cavalry, which forced them to retreat from the capital.

The new emperor became the renowned military leader Theodosius (379-395), who was the last to succeed in uniting the entire Roman Empire under his rule. In 382 AD, he suppressed the Gothic uprising partly by force and partly by granting them lands in Moesia, Thrace, and Macedonia as federates.

In 395 AD, upon his death, Theodosius divided the empire between his sons: the elder son Arcadius received the eastern half, while the younger son Honorius received the western half. This division marked the final and definitive separation of the Roman Empire. Two distinct states emerged: the Latin-speaking Western Roman Empire and the Greek-speaking Eastern Roman Empire. The Eastern Roman Empire later came to be known as Byzantium, but its population continued to refer to themselves as "Romans."

The Eastern Roman Empire was wealthier and stronger than its western neighbor. It suffered less from the crisis of the 3rd century because classical slavery was less prevalent in the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire. The dominant labor force consisted of coloni-type workers, and in certain provinces, such as those along the Danube, free peasants still existed. Skilled artisans were more prevalent in the eastern cities compared to the western ones. The developed external and internal trade in Byzantine cities enriched the treasury of the Eastern Roman emperors, allowing them to maintain a larger army or pay off barbarian invaders. Additionally, it seems that the main flow of the Great Migration of peoples took a western direction. However, it should be acknowledged that Byzantium made significant efforts to redirect most of the barbarians to the West.

In 402, encouraged by Byzantium, the Visigoths invaded Italy. The Western Roman government, led effectively by the talented military and political leader Stilicho, a Vandal German, organized resistance against the Visigoths. In the following years, Roman troops from the western provinces were brought to the Italian peninsula for its defense. In 407, Stilicho called Roman legions from Britain, marking the end of Roman rule in the country. Gaul, Spain, North Africa, and Britain were flooded by invasions of Vandals, Burgundians, Suebi, Franks, Angles, Saxons, and other Germanic and some other barbarian tribes in the next decades.

In 408, Stilicho was killed due to court intrigues. Upon learning of this, Alaric, the leader of the Visigoths who effectively controlled Illyria (in present-day Yugoslavia), invaded Italy again in 410. The Visigoths captured Rome and looted it for several days. Then they moved to Southern Italy. During this time, Alaric died. The Visigoths left Italy and, according to an agreement with the government of the Western Roman Empire, settled in Southwest Gaul, where they established the first barbarian kingdom within the territory of the Roman Empire in 418. Toulouse initially became the capital of the Visigothic Kingdom, and later, when the Visigoths conquered a significant part of the Iberian Peninsula, Toledo in Spain became the capital.

In 429, the Vandals and Alans, who had previously settled on the Iberian Peninsula, migrated to North Africa, pressed by the Visigoths who had by then conquered a large part of Spain. In 439, the Alan-Vandal Kingdom was established in North Africa with its capital in Carthage. The Vandal nobility developed a large pirate fleet and raided islands and coasts in the Western Mediterranean. In 455, the Vandals sacked and destroyed Rome, giving rise to the term "vandalism," which means the cruel and senseless destruction of cultural valuables.

In 451 AD, the Western Roman Empire and the barbarian kingdoms that had emerged within its territory had to fend off the invasion of the Huns. Led by their leader Attila, nicknamed the "Scourge of God" by his contemporaries for his cruelty, the Huns, moving westward from the middle Danube, reached the city of Orléans on the Loire River but were unable to capture it and turned back. The Battle of the Catalaunian Plains took place in Northeastern Gaul between the Huns and the Romans. Many tribes and peoples conquered by the Huns fought on the side of the Huns, including the Ostrogoths among the Germanic tribes and the Antes among the Slavs. The Romans were joined by their allies, the Visigoths, Franks, and Burgundians. The Huns retreated but invaded Northern Italy the following year. In 453 AD, Attila died, and the Hunnic alliance, centered around the middle Danube, collapsed. The tribes and peoples that had been subjugated by the Huns regained their freedom.

In the early 5th century, the Kingdom of the Burgundians was established in Eastern Gaul, but in 437 AD, it was destroyed by the Huns (legends and wars between the Burgundians and the Huns are reflected in the Germanic epic poems about the Nibelungs). After the collapse of the Hunnic state, a new Burgundian Kingdom emerged in Southeastern Gaul with its capital in Lyon (457 AD). Being situated in a heavily Romanized region with excellent natural conditions, the Burgundian Kingdom began to prosper socio-economically. The long-standing and deep Romanization of this area contributed to the accelerated formation of class (feudal) relations in Burgundy. By that time, the Burgundian society itself was undergoing the decay of clan-tribal relationships.

In 476 AD, Odoacer, the leader of the Germanic mercenaries in Italy, overthrew the last Western Roman Emperor, the underage Romulus Augustus. Odoacer sent the imperial regalia (crown and purple mantle) to Constantinople and assumed the title of king (rex), as was customary in other barbarian states. This event is considered the end of the Roman Empire.

However, for contemporaries, it went almost unnoticed, as only Italy and Northern Gaul remained from the entire Western Roman Empire; imperial authority was in complete decline, and Rome had long ceased to be the capital of the empire; the emperors resided in Ravenna, surrounded by marshes, on the northeast coast of Italy.

In 486 AD, Northern Gaul was conquered by the Franks (hence the present name of the country - France). From the mid-5th century, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, who lived on the Jutland Peninsula, and the Saxons inhabiting the coastal region between the Rhine and Weser estuaries, began their conquest of Britain, which was populated by Celtic Romanized Britons. The invaders established their own Germanic kingdoms, annihilating or pushing the Celts northward, to the western coast of Britain and across the sea to the Armorican Peninsula (now Brittany in France).

Map of Europe at the end of the 5th century AD

By the end of the 5th century, barbarian kingdoms had emerged throughout the territory of the former Western Roman Empire. They represented a transitional form of government between late Roman statehood and the military democracy of the barbarians, while also marking the early feudal state. Barbarian kingdoms in the former Roman Empire referred to states that retained the class divisions inherited from the empire, alongside the remnants of class antagonism that had developed towards the end of primitive societies. However, the dominant class in these kingdoms largely consisted of the aristocracy of the tribal ("barbarian") nobility, which was not yet fully a class or even pre-class in terms of its origin.

Outside the former slaveholding empire, there could be no barbarian kingdoms because class relations directly emerged from pre-class societies, and nothing was inherited from the society that had experienced the slaveholding formation. This applies to Rus, Scandinavia, most of Germany, and parts of Britain where the Celtic population had practically disappeared. Here, free communities existed.

In the barbarian kingdoms that emerged in the territory of the former Western Roman Empire and in Byzantium, free communities (Germanic in the West, Slavic in Byzantium) were mere islands within a barbarian world amidst a complex society transitioning from a slaveholding order to feudalism. For example, in the Visigothic Kingdom, the Germanic community existed in areas with a more compact Gothic population. In regions where the Goths settled among the local population, mixed Gothic-Roman rural communities emerged. The main change in the social structure of southwestern Gaul and Spain after their conquest by the Visigoths was the increase in the layer of small free landowners and the strengthening of the neighboring community. However, there was a rapid decay of communal relations, a subsequent growth of large landownership, and social stratification. When the Visigoths conquered southwestern Gaul and Spain, two-thirds of arable land, half of the forests and meadows, and, according to some estimates, one-third of the slaves and coloni were taken from local landowners. However, this division of land and labor force between the conquerors and local landowners did not occur universally. The Visigoths, who settled in heavily Romanized regions of Gaul and Spain, quickly rid themselves of the remnants of kinship and tribal relations, unlike the Franks who conquered northern Gaul or the Anglo-Saxons who took over Britain. The Visigothic laws that developed under the influence of Roman law protected private property in land and slaves, not only for the Gothic nobility but also for the Gallo-Roman and Hispano-Roman aristocracy. However, large landownership gradually changed its character, approaching feudal landownership. In the Visigothic Kingdom, coloni ceased to be considered subjects of the state and were freed from state taxes and obligations (corvée and construction), but they retained all the restrictions on their legal capacity concerning the landowners on whose land they held allotments. Eventually, the descendants of Roman coloni and manumitted slaves merged with dependent holders from former free communities of Gothic and local origin, forming a class of feudal-dependent peasants. The feudal class was formed by the Gothic military-tribal nobility, large Gallo-Roman and Hispano-Roman landowners, and the higher clergy of the Arian Church. Feudal landownership consisted of the possessions of the Gothic king, the Arian Church, and large secular landowners.

In Byzantium, a social revolution took place without the collapse of the state apparatus of the Roman Empire. However, the internal essence of the social upheaval that occurred during late antiquity and the early Middle Ages was fundamentally similar to the social revolution in the West: it involved the collapse of the slave-owning formation and the emergence of feudalism.

The barbarian invasions also affected Byzantium. In the 4th to 5th centuries, the Huns, Goths, Alans, and many other tribes invaded the Balkan Peninsula, while in the 6th to 7th centuries, the Slavs invaded. However, these invasions did not lead to the conquest and destruction of Byzantium. Only in the northern Balkan Peninsula, during the early Middle Ages, did the Slavic kingdoms of Serbia and Bulgaria emerge. Initially, Bulgaria emerged as a Turkic-Slavic state; the Turkic Bulgars (from the Volga) assimilated into the Slavic population only by the end of the 9th century. Slavic tribes settled in the rest of the Byzantine territory, without destroying the Byzantine state, and gradually merged with the local population.

The barbarian invasions on the Balkan Peninsula contributed to the decline of cities, primarily the smaller ones. However, villages and rural settlements survived. Archaeologists have observed the continuity of many villages before and after the arrival of the barbarians, although the composition of the population changed, and there was interaction between the local and barbarian communities. From the 4th to the 6th centuries, during the feudalization process in Byzantium, a new type of village emerged with a mixed population of slaves, coloni (tenant farmers), and free individuals. These villages had their own, albeit not highly developed, crafts. The position of rural settlements on state and private lands became equal, as did the status of individual groups of workers. Marketplaces for surrounding villages developed in large villages. Byzantium, along with several other regions of the Middle East, had the characteristic feature of maintaining large villages with markets and craft production that were not significantly different from small towns. The existence of these villages hindered the development of new cities.

At the same time, in the 6th century, even the major Byzantine cities gradually lost their significance as centers of supplying rural areas with craft products. Large independent landowners and the church played a major role in the cities. In the eastern regions of the former Roman Empire, the city ceased to be a municipal organization, albeit somewhat later than in the West, and by the end of the 6th century, urban self-government disappeared. Monasteries, which were not only large landowners (the church subordinated entire communities) but also trade and craft centers, gained significant importance in the restructuring of the Byzantine economy.

The free peasant community brought by the barbarians (Germanic in the West, Slavic on the Balkan Peninsula) played a progressive role in the development of feudalism in the territories of the former Roman Empire. The collapse of the Roman state organization in the West contributed to the revival of rural communities that had survived in the late empire provinces. The community helped preserve the land ownership and personal freedom of peasants, thus stimulating the development of their labor productivity since they were the workers most interested in its results.

The historical revolution, the fall of the slave-owning formation in the Mediterranean, and the emergence of the feudal formation did not occur without heavy losses. Taking place amidst class struggle, civil wars, and conquests, it was accompanied by economic decline, population impoverishment, numerous human casualties, and the decline of ancient culture. Byzantium, more so than the West, preserved the ancient cultural heritage and passed on much of it to medieval Europe.

Related topics

Roman Empire, Late Roman Empire, Fall of the Western Roman Empire