Late Empire. 395 AD. Barbarian Invasions
Late Empire. 395 AD. Barbarian Invasions

Like its rise and splendor, the decadence and fall of Rome is a question that has fascinated scholars for fifteen hundred years. The causes that produced the collapse of the greatest empire in history are complex and numerous. If they had not combined as they did, the destiny of Europe and the whole world would have been very different.

271 AD. Empire divided
271 AD. Empire divided

On the one hand, around the year 500 BC there was a marked worsening of climatic conditions in Scandinavia and around the Baltic Sea. This, together with the traditional practice of the ver sacrum by its inhabitants, consisting of the obligation of young people to seek fortune in foreign lands by means of arms, caused a gradual expansion of the Germanic tribes towards the south. Anyway, the heirs of «La Tène», of Celtic culture, who had triumphed throughout the interior of Europe, from Greece, to Britannia, in large part of Hispania living and mixing with the Iberian peoples, and especially those of Gaul, contained their advance beyond the Rhine.

During the previous years to the conquests of Julius Caesar, these peoples of Druidic culture constituted the most serious external threat, Carthaginians apart. In the mind of the still young Roman nation the humiliation of the Gallic warlord, Brennus, who defeated the primitive legions at the battle of Allia (affluent of the Tiber) and entered Rome by delivering his men to plunder in 390 BC, still had to be remembered. This affront was not avenged until the entire Gaul was subdued under the power of the eagles.

In this period, the first Germanic incursions began to converge: the Bastarnae migrated, the Cimbri carried out a triumphant odyssey, until they were devastated by Gaius Marius, thus avenging the Romans annihilated after the defeat of Orange. Behind, not far away, and also in a southeasterly direction, the most powerful people of all were advancing: the Goths; and behind them, following the same path, the bloodthirsty Vandals, and the Burgundians. Despite these pressures, the health of the army was magnificent and Roman virtues such as the spirit of sacrifice and honour, coupled with the lack of mercy in victory, supported Rome and its borders, sometimes maintaining up to three fronts open in wars of expansion and/or defense simultaneously.

Since against Rome they crashed again and again, the barbarians satiated their ver sacrum with the rest of the continental Celtic peoples, who were in decadence. In the time of Augustus, those of the mythical Pax Romana, the border between the light of civilization and the darkness of barbarism stood on the Danube, along its course to the Pannonian Basin.

Emperor Constantius Chlorus
Emperor Constantius Chlorus

In the following period, which would conclude with Marcus Aurelius in the middle of 2nd century AD, the main feature was stability, but although the barbarians were still kept at bay, behind the limes were accumulating more numerous peoples and the need for new lands for them began to be worrisome. Anyway, at this time Rome was penetrating into the Germanic world at the cultural and commercial level, romanizing its inhabitants slightly, making them see the benefits of the Mediterranean civilization.

This relative calm was broken in the year 166, when a double breach on the limes ended with the Quadi and Marcomanni as far as the Veneto (Italy), and with the Costoboci and Bastarnae until Achaia (Greece) and Asia. To cure this wound, a terrible war was necessary, in which not only was it enough to expel or defeat the invaders, but a lesson was needed to have a lesson that would take away the idea of trying one’s luck in other tribes. This was achieved for a century, the glory of Rome became indisputable, and pronouncing its name still produced respect and fear.

The years went by, and the hard customs of the beginnings faded away as the materialism and oriental influences spread (such as the cult of Mithra, of which Emperor Heliogabalus became a supreme priest). The relaxation reached the legions, which, while still being the best army in the world, came to hide behind the border, instead of practicing offensive actions that it was what they served best and where the strong expansion of the nation was based. On the other hand a new religion was consolidating: Christianity, whose Church would end up being a counterpower for the imperial institution, being able to excommunicate and influence plebeians and patricians, which did not make a divergence of interests advisable because it weakened the state.

Along with all the above, and in a way foreign to the knowledge of Romans and Germanics, events that would tip the balance definitely two centuries later, happened along the Chinese border: Mongolian and Turkish tribes were convulsing in the Far East, in the steppes, preceding what would end up being the Flagellum Dei, the Scourge of God, Attila leading the most terrible barbarians: the Huns, people hungry for blood and booty, who would advance thousands of kilometres to the ends of the West with hundreds of thousands of soldiers, sowing devastation and death in its path. So much so that to this day has come this legend: Grass will not grow again where Attila’s horse has trod.

But let’s not advance events, now we are still glimpsing the beginning of decadence.

The Germanic part of the limes falls in the year 254 and in 259 there is an impressive barbarian advance in the lands of present-day Belgium. Later (268-278) the Gaul is completely devastated, many cities fall, they are abandoned, hundreds of villages burn, and the few nuclei that are more or less intact begin to surround themselves with walls, raising the castella (here begins a custom that will be generalized until the end of the Middle Ages). The Alamanni fall on Italy in 260 and 270, and the Goths sweep across the land and sea of Thrace, Greece and Asia Minor between 258-269. Rome can fall, it seems unable to attend all fronts at once. Rome alone against the world.

The Emperor Aurelian appears to save the situation: reunifies the Empire that was divided into three parts (among such chaos, the empires of Gaul and Palmyra had been conformed, becoming independent of Rome with their own rulers), restores the primitive layout of the limes based on tremendous effort and tenacity. The people mobilize to recover their territory, young people enlist in the new legions hungry for revenge. After years of continuous campaigns, peace is achieved at the expense of giving a province to the Goths, Dacia (now Romania) and Gaul was definitively reconquered under the rule of Probus. Within this period, in Maximian‘s time, another brutal raid took place in Gaul, and the firm and impetuous policy of Diocletian again shielded all entries into the empire.

While triumphs at the borders, beyond the Rhine and the Danube, a refoundation of the barbarian world is taking place, through coalitions, mestizations, migrations, and groups that end up drawing the map of the people who would share the Latin world: the Chauci change their name to the Saxons, several tribes from the interior of present-day Germany join under the name of Alamanni, and right next to them the same happens with the Franks, and the Thuringii succeed the Hermunduri. This evolution concludes in the 5th century, with the formation of the Bavarii, the disappearance of the tribes of Jutland (Cimbri, Charudes and Teutons), and Denmark (the Heruli), giving way to the Jutes (which together with Angles and Saxons would share Britannia) and the Danes. And to finish coloring this sinister map, come into play the North Germanic, from the late 3th century, who pirate and plunder as much as they can on the Atlantic, Briton, Gallic and Hispanic coasts. The latter are the direct ancestors of the Vikings.

Emperor Theodosius I the Great
Emperor Theodosius I the Great
Aurelian Walls
Aurelian Walls

According to the old authors we find three types of Germanic peoples: the steppe (Goths and allies), the sailors (Danes, Frisians and Saxons), and those of the forests (the rest, mostly components of modern Germany). The contact and miscegenation between these peoples and Latins would refound all of Europe in what we now know as Middle Ages.

Until the year 375, the state remains relatively intact: it was almost a century ago that the empire had been reconstituted by Diocletian. The Romans had resisted and returned all the important attacks from the last breaches opened in the limes, and the borders crossed the route of greater territorial expansion with the exception of Dacia and the ephemeral Eastern conquests of Trajan that arrived until the present Kuwait. This tense calm breaks when the Huns burst in from the steppe in the North Caucasus.

This people had already been mentioned by Ptolemy in his Geography in the year 172, near the Roxolani and the Bastarnae.

The Huns presented a terrifying appearance (shaving their heads and deforming their skulls) at the height of some of their customs, such as killing their own elders. It is also known that they incinerated their dead.

Relief of the Great Ludovisi Sarcophagus. Battle between Romans and barbarians
Relief of the Great Ludovisi Sarcophagus. Battle between Romans and barbarians
Praetorium of Tarraco. Tarragona
Praetorium of Tarraco. Tarragona

They burst into the Pontic steppe, where they face the powerful Goths, destroying the Gothic state of King Ermanaric  in the present-day Ukraine in 375, and make contact with the imperial legions in Thrace in 378. After these blows two decades pass in which they enjoy the benefits of their conquests, also occupying the Dacia and the Pannonian Basin, and establish with the kings Uldin and Mundzuk an empire that would include the lands that go from the Eastern Alps to the Black Sea. On the other hand, tribes of the same people (the white Huns or Hephthalites) enter Iran, settle in Bactriana and Sogdiana in the next century and take the northwest of India, where they would remain until the year 650.

The Germanics who fear the Huns, distance themselves from them or even prefer to share their destiny by allying with them rather than confronting them. All those who do not integrate into their tribes prefer to risk crossing the limes than meet the demons of the East. After these important geostrategic changes they would appear in Europe, after the empty spaces left by the Huns, other tribes of Turkish origin: the Sabirs (who from Siberia would war in the Caucasus during the 5th and 6th centuries against the Byzantines), the Ugrics (that coming from the Ural River would contribute to the later birth of Bulgaria and Hungary, after their incursions in the Balkans), the Paleoturks (who would establish relations with Byzantium after settling behind the Volga River), and the Avars (who would be protagonists for more than three centuries of fierce confrontations with the Eastern Romans). From later centuries the Khazars, Magyars (Finno-Ugrics), Pechenegs, Cumans, and Mongols would appear. With the exception of the latter and the Magyars, most belonged to ethnically Turkish waves, but this corresponds to the Middle Ages and the seed of the end of Byzantium at the hands of the Seljukid Turks, who would know how to unite this fan of ethnic and culturally close tribes.

Capitol of Dougga. Tunisia
Capitol of Dougga. Tunisia

Before the imminent wars of Rome against the rest of the known world, which would plunge Latins into an apocalyptic perception of the end of time and that would provide a fundamental basis for understanding the success of the expansion of Christianity, we should highlight a few strokes of the military reforms, known through a set of disparate notes in the Nottitia Dignitatum.

From the 4th century, a group of mobile campaign armies were chosen to intervene in those threatened areas. These elite troops, best trained, armed and paid, were made up of the well-known comitatenses legions and the palatini legions.

These legions were complemented by static troops, known as ripenses or limitanei, systematically located behind the walls and fortifications along the limes of the Rhine and the Danube, and along its coastal equivalent in Gaul and Britannia: the litus saxonicum.

The areas close to the intervention armies were protected with enough success, while those with only static troops, not very mobile and with small troops, fell one after the other, like Noricum.

The mobile armies triumphed almost always when they arrived in time, and many of them lasted after the deposition of the last western emperor. The most important of these was probably that of Gaul, which successively incorporated Germanic elements more or less romanized, but always loyal to the imperial ideal, were under the orders of local princes or heads of militia, standing out among them: Flavius Aetius (the last great Roman general), Count Paulus, Aegidius and Syagrius. The latter maintained a fully Roman kingdom in the heart of Gaul during the years after the fall of the empire, and surrounded by barbarians held the eagles in epic and numantine resistance, as the last vestige of a glory not forgotten and unrenounceable.

Another army was located in Britannia (around the Legio VI Victrix), occupied in containing the thrust of the bellicose Picts, never subdued, and of the Scotti, from Ireland, which would in turn end the previous enemies. This army was withdrawn in 401 by Stilicho to serve in Italy. Another of the important ones was in the north of Italy, between Milan and Ravenna, on the banks of the Isonzo River, under the command of Ricimer until 472, after of Orestes and finally of the barbarian Odoacer, who after his rebellion would give the coup de grace to the imperial institution.
The entry into the scene of the Huns led to real mass waves that penetrated the heart of the empire and whose attention made vulnerable the most peripheral provinces, such as Britannia, where Constantine III took his campaign army to the continent in 407. The situation was critical … not to say chaotic.

Author: Eduardo Ortiz Pardina