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Lectures for A Medieval Survey

Lynn H. Nelson



1. If one wishes to consider German-Roman relations on a broad scale, there were actually four German invasions of the empire.


By about A.D. 70, the Romans had fixed their frontiers along the Rhine and Danube rivers, and manufacture had sprung up there to supply the garrisons. A steady trade with the Germans grew up and continued throughout the imperial period. The Roman silver solidus became the standard currency for both frontier Romans and the Germans beyond the frontier, and each group influenced the other in various and significant ways.


Part of Diocletian and Constantine's reforms (285 -) was the deemphasis of the frontier legions and the formation of mobile armies of hired troops, primarily Germans, stationed in the interior. More economical than the frontier defense system, it weakened Roman influences beyond imperial frontiers in the West and strengthened Germanic influences in the interior of the empire.


From about 350 onwards, the western empire suffered a shortage of manpower, largely because of a diminishing native population coupled with the inability to wage successful wars in order to gain prisoners to enslave. The government sponsored various types of immigration to compensate for this shortage, and many Germans entered the empire on a permanent basis.


(pronounced LAY-tee) Foreigners were allowed in on an individual or family basis and assigned empty lands. They were expected to perform military service when called upon to do so. Note the precedent of the gift of land in exchange for military service.


(pronounced NOO-muhr-ee) Foreign warrior contingents hired by the Romans, the numeri were allowed to fight with their own weapons under their own leaders and to retain their own language and customs. Note the use of Germanic war- bands.


(pronounced fehd-uhr-AH-tee) Entire tribes were allowed to cross the frontier and occupy lands along the border. Allowed to retain their own political organization and other customs, and generally free from taxes, they were expected to defend their section of the border and to provide recruits for the Roman army. Note the precedent of territorial immunity.



The Huns from central Asia defeated the Ostrogoths and forced the Visigoths to seek the status of federati and the protection of the lower Danube river (376). Subjected to taxation and other abuses, they rebelled and marched upon Constantinople to seek redress from the emperor. The emperor determined not to allow such a precedent and led the eastern Roman army against the Visigoths. The Romans were disastrously defeated at the battle of Adrianople (378), and the emperor killed. A new emperor, Theodosius (379-396) arrived from the West and stabilized affairs by settling the Visigoths in Illyrian

In 402, supported by the Eastern Empire, the Visigothic king, Alaric, attacked Italy. Stilicho (STIHL-ih-cho), the German commander of the western Roman armies, stripped the western frontiers of troops in order to hold off Alaric. On Christmas Day of 406, the Germanic tribes of the Alan, Vandals, and Sueves (pronounced SWAVES) crossed a frozen Rhine river and the invasions had begun.


Stilicho was murdered in 408, and, in 410, Alaric and the Visigoths entered Italy and sacked Rome.

The heart of the empire could not feed itself, so the Roman command had to hold onto the regions that produced the food surpluses that they needed -- Aquitaine in southern France, Andalusia in southern Spain, North Africa, and the Mediterranean islands of Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica. It managed to throw them all away.

The Roman government got the Visigoths to leave Italy by giving them Aquitaine, provided that they would drive out the Vandals occupying Andalusia. The Visigoths attacked in 429, and the Vandals, under their king, Gaiseric (guy-ZEHR-ihk), fled over the Straits of Gibraltar to take North Africa.

Meanwhile the Visigoths decided to keep both Aquitaine and Andalusia, while the Vandals found that they had captured the Roman fleet base at Carthage. Deciding to use it, they took to the sea and, in a few years, controlled the western Mediterranean, including Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica. By 455, they were strong enough to launch an amphibious operation to capture and sack Rome.


Food prices in Italy began to rise swiftly, and the German commander of the Roman armies, Odovacar (OH-doe-vah-cur), asked that the troops be given lands on which to raise their food, instead of a money salary. The regent, Orestes(ohr-REHS-teez), refuses, and Odovacar had him killed. He then deposed the boy emperor, Romulus Augustulus (RAHM-you-luhs aw-GUHST-you-luhs), had him made a monk and sent to a monastery, and sent word to the eastern emperor that the Roman Empire in the West had ceased to exist (476).

In 486, the Franks under Clovis attacked and took the lands between the Seine and Loire rivers in France that were still under the control of a Roman official, Syagrius. The last Roman lands were now in the hands of Germanic leaders, except perhaps in England. THis is the period usually assigned to the almost entirely legendary King Arthur. It may be that the Britons had chosen their own emperor, Ambrosius Aurelianus (AAM-broh-zee-uhs Awe-ree-lee-AHN-uhs), and he had chosen a Welsh leader, Uther Pendragon (OO-thuhr PEHN-drah-guhn) as his army commander. Uther's son, Arthur, succeeded him, and took over the emperorship at the death of Ambrosius -- but this is all speculation.

The Eastern Roman emperor sent the Ostrogoths and their king Theodoric (thee-AHH-doh-rihk) against Odovacar. In 489, Odovacar was murdered, and Theodoric installed as king of Italy.


There were now a series of Germanic kingdoms in the West -- Franks in France, Visigoths in Spain, Vandals in North Africa, Ostrogoths in Italy, and the new-comer Burgundians in Switzerland. All were Christian, but the Germans -- except for the Franks -- were Arian (AIR-ee-aan) Christians and considered heretics by their native subjects. In order to strengthen their hold over the much more numerous subject population, each German "king" asked for, and received, a certificate of delegated powers from the eastern emperor.

IN FACT, the Western Empire was now in the hands of a series of "barbarian" kings. IN THEORY, all these German leaders were simply lieutenants of the eastern emperor. The Romans could believe that the empire had not fallen, but in fact had been reunited.

That was only theory however. The eastern emperor, Justinian (527-565), attempted to turn that theory into reality.

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Copyright ©1999, Lynn H. Nelson. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.The contents of ORB are copyright © 1995-1999 Laura V. Blanchard and Carolyn Schriber except as otherwise indicated herein.