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Migration Period
The Migration Period, also known as the Völkerwanderung (German), and from the Roman
and South European perspective referred to as the Barbarian Invasions, was a period of many
migrations with or without accompanying invasions or war in Europe, with war bands or
tribes of 10-20,000 people, but in the course of 100 years not more than 750,000 in total,
compared to an average 39.9 million population of the Roman Empire at that time. Although
immigration was common throughout the Roman Empire, in the 19th century it was often
defined as starting from the period when it affected the Roman world, running from about the
5th to 8th centuries AD. during the transition from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages.
This period was marked by profound changes both within the Roman Empire and beyond.
The first migrations of peoples were made by Germanic tribes such as the Goths, Vandals,
Angles, Saxons, Lombards, Suebi, Frisii, Jutes and Franks; they were later pushed westwards
by the Huns, Avars, Slavs, and Bulgars. Later invasions (such as the Viking, Norman,
Hungarian, Moorish, Turkic, and Mongol invasions) also had significant effects (especially in
North Africa, the Iberian peninsula, Anatolia and Central and Eastern Europe); however, they
are outside the scope of the Migration Period.
Climatic factors
A number of contemporary historical references worldwide refer to an extended period of
extreme weather during 535–536. Evidence of this cold period is also found in
dendrochronology and ice cores. The consequences of this cold period are debated.
Origins of Germanic tribes
Germanic peoples moved out of southern Scandinavia and Germany to the adjacent lands
between the Elbe and Oder after 1000 BC. The first wave moved westward and southward
(pushing the resident Celts west to the Rhine by about 200 BC), moving into southern
Germany up to the Roman provinces of Gaul and Cisalpine Gaul by 100 BC, where they
were stopped by Gaius Marius and Julius Caesar. It is this western group which was
described by the Roman historian Tacitus (56–117 AD) and Julius Caesar (100–44 BC). A
later wave of Germanic tribes migrated eastward and southward from Scandinavia between
600 and 300 BC to the opposite coast of the Baltic Sea, moving up the Vistula near the
Carpathians. During Tacitus' era they included lesser known tribes such as the Tencteri,
Cherusci, Hermunduri and Chatti; however, a period of federation and intermarriage resulted
in the familiar groups known as the Alemanni, Franks, Saxons, Frisians and Thuringians.
First phase
The Barbarian Invasions may be divided into two phases. The first phase, occurring between
a.d. 300 and 500, is partly documented by Greek and Latin historians but difficult to verify
archaeologically. It put Germanic peoples in control of most areas of what was then the
Western Roman Empire. The Tervingi entered Roman territory (after a clash with the Huns)
in 376. Some time thereafter in Marcianopolis, the escort to Fritigern (their leader) was killed
while meeting with Lupicinus. The Tervingi rebelled, and the Visigoths, a group derived
either from the Tervingi or from a fusion of mainly Gothic groups, eventually invaded Italy
and sacked Rome in 410, before settling in Gaul, and then, 50 years later, in Iberia, founding
a kingdom that lasted for 250 years. They were followed into Roman territory first by a
confederation of Herulian, Rugian, and Scirian warriors, under Odoacer, that deposed
Romulus Augustulus on 4 September AD 476, and later by the Ostrogoths, led by Theodoric
the Great, who settled in Italy. In Gaul, the Franks (a fusion of western Germanic tribes
whose leaders had been aligned with Rome since the third century a.d.) entered Roman lands
gradually during the fifth century, and after consolidating power under Childeric and his son
Clovis’s decisive victory over Syagrius in 486, established themselves as rulers of northern
Roman Gaul. Fending off challenges from the Allemanni, Burgundians, and Visigoths, the
Frankish kingdom became the nucleus of what would later become France and Germany. The
initial Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain occurred during the fifth century, when Roman
control of Britain had come to an end. The Burgundians settled in North Western Italy,
Switzerland and Eastern France in the fifth century.
Second phase
The second phase took place between 500 and 700 and saw Slavic tribes settling in central
and eastern Europe (notably in eastern Magna Germania), gradually making it predominantly
Slavic. Additionally, Turkic tribes such as the Avars became involved in this phase. In 567,
the Avars and the Lombards destroyed much of the Gepid Kingdom. The Lombards, a
Germanic people, settled in Italy with their Herulian, Suebian, Gepid, Thuringian, Bulgarian,
Sarmatian and Saxon allies in the 6th century. They were later followed by the Bavarians and
the Franks, who conquered and ruled most of Italy. The Bulgars, originally a nomadic group
from Central Asia, had occupied the Pontic steppe north of Caucasus since the second
century, but after, pushed by the Khazars, the majority of them migrated west and dominated
Byzantine territories along the lower Danube in the seventh century.
During the early Byzantine–Arab Wars, Arab armies attempted to invade southeast Europe
via Asia Minor during the late seventh and early eighth centuries, but were defeated at the
siege of Constantinople (717–718) by the joint forces of Byzantium and the Bulgars. During
the Khazar–Arab Wars, the Khazars stopped the Arab expansion into Europe across the
Caucasus (7th and 8th centuries). At the same time, the Moors (consisting of Africans like the
Haratin Moors of the African country of Mauritania (Mooritania), Arabs and Berbers)
invaded Europe via Gibraltar (conquering Hispania—the Iberian Peninsula—from the
Visigothic Kingdom in 711), before being halted. These battles broadly demarcated the
frontiers between Christendom and Islam for the next millennium. The following centuries
saw the Muslims successful in conquering most of Sicily from the Christians by 902.
The Hungarian conquest of the Carpathian Basin from around 895, and the Viking expansion
from the late 8th century conventionally mark the last large movements of the period.
Christianity gradually converted the non-Islamic newcomers and integrated them into the
medieval Christian order.
Barbarian identity
The analysis of barbarian identity and how it was created and expressed during the Barbarian
Invasions has elicited discussion among scholars. Herwig Wolfram (a historian of the Goths),
in discussing the equation of migratio gentium with Völkerwanderung, observes that Michael
Schmidt introduced the equation in his 1778 history of the Germans. Wolfram observed that
the significance of gens as a biological community was shifting even during the early Middle
Ages; "to complicate matters, we have no way of devising a terminology that is not derived
from the concept of nationhood created during the French Revolution".
The "primordialistic" paradigm prevailed during the 19th century. Scholars such as German
linguist Johann Gottfried Herder viewed tribes as coherent biological (racial) entities, using
the term to refer to discrete ethnic groups. He believed that the Volk were an organic whole,
with a core identity and spirit evident in art, literature and language. These were seen as
intrinsic characteristics unaffected by external influences, even conquest. Language, in
particular, was seen as the most important expression of ethnicity. They argued that groups
sharing the same (or similar) language possessed a common identity and ancestry. The
Romantic ideal that there had once been a single German, Celtic or Slavic people who
originated from a common homeland and spoke a common tongue helped provide a
conceptual framework for political movements of the 18th and 19th centuries such as PanGermanism and Pan-Slavism.
Beginning in the 1960s a reinterpretation of archaeological and historic evidence prompted
scholars (such as Goffart and Todd) to propose new models for explaining the construction of
barbarian identity, maintaining that no sense of shared identity was perceived by the
Germani; a similar theory has been proposed for Celtic and Slavic groups. This theory states
that the primordialist mode of thinking was encouraged by a prima facie interpretation of
Graeco-Roman sources, which grouped together many tribes under such labels as Germani,
Keltoi or Sclavenoi (encouraging their perception as distinct peoples). Modernists argue that
the uniqueness perceived by specific groups was based on common political and economic
interests, rather than biological or racial distinctions.
The role of language in constructing and maintaining group identity can be ephemeral, since
large-scale language shifts occur commonly in history. Modernists propose the idea of
"imagined communities"; the barbarian polities in late antiquity were social constructs, rather
than changeless lines of blood kinship. The process of forming tribal units was called
"ethnogenesis", a term coined by Soviet scholar Yulian Bromley. The Austrian school (led by
Reinhard Wenskus) popularized this idea, which influenced medievalists such as Herwig
Wolfram, Walter Pohl and Patrick Geary. It argues that the stimulus for forming tribal
polities was perpetuated by a small nucleus of people, known as the Traditionskern ("kernel
of tradition"), who were a military or aristocratic elite. This core group formed a standard for
larger units, gathering adherents by employing amalgamative metaphors such as kinship and
aboriginal commonality and claiming that they perpetuated an ancient, divinely-sanctioned
"The common, track-filled map of the Völkerwanderung may illustrate such a course of
events, but it misleads. Unfolded over long periods of time, the changes of position that took
place were necessarily irregular ... (with) periods of emphatic discontinuity. For decades and
possibly centuries, the tradition bearers idled, and the tradition itself hibernated. There was
ample time for forgetfulness to do its work".
Complementary forces to the Barbarian Invasions
Historians have postulated several explanations for the appearance of "barbarians" on the
Roman frontier: weather and crops, population pressure, a "primeval urge" to push into the
Mediterranean, or the "domino effect" (whereby the Huns fell upon the Goths who, in turn,
pushed other Germanic tribes before them). Entire barbarian tribes (or nations) flooded into
Roman provinces, ending classical urbanism and beginning new types of rural settlements. In
general, French and Italian scholars have tended to view this as a catastrophic event: the
destruction of a civilization and the beginning of a "Dark Age" which set Europe back a
millennium. In contrast, German and English historians have tended to see it as the
replacement of a "tired, effete and decadent Mediterranean civilization" with a "more virile,
martial, Nordic one" Rather than "invasion", German and Slavic scholars use the term
"migration" (German: Völkerwanderung, Czech: Stěhování národů, Swedish: folkvandring
and Hungarian: népvándorlás), aspiring to the idea of a dynamic and "wandering IndoGermanic people".
The scholar Guy Halsall has seen the barbarian movement as the result of the fall of the
Roman Empire, not as its cause. Archaeological finds have confirmed that Germanic and
Slavic tribes were settled agriculturalists who were probably merely "drawn into the politics
of an empire already falling apart for quite a few other causes". The Crisis of the Third
Century caused significant changes within the Roman Empire, in both its western and eastern
portions. In particular, economic fragmentation removed many of the political, cultural and
economic forces which had held the empire together. The rural population in Roman
provinces became distanced from the metropolis, and there was little to differentiate them
from other peasants across the Roman frontier. In addition, Rome increasingly used foreign
mercenaries to defend itself. This "barbarisation" of the Empire was paralleled by changes
within barbaricum. For example, the Roman Empire played a vital role in building up
barbarian groups along its frontier. Propped up with imperial support and gifts, the armies of
allied barbarian chieftains served as buffers against hostile barbarian groups. The
disintegration of Roman economic power weakened groups that had come to depend on
Roman gifts for the maintenance of their own power. With the arrival of the Huns, this
prompted many groups to invade the provinces for economic reasons.
The nature of the barbarian takeover of former Roman provinces varied from region to
region. For example, in Aquitaine the provincial administration was largely self-reliant.
Halsall has argued that local rulers simply "handed over" military rule to the Ostrogoths,
acquiring the identity of the newcomers. In Gaul the collapse of imperial rule resulted in
anarchy: the Franks and Alemanni were pulled into the ensuing "power vacuum", resulting in
conflict. In Spain local aristocrats maintained independent rule for some time, raising their
own armies against the Vandals. Meanwhile, the Roman withdrawal from lowland England
resulted in conflict between Saxons and the Brythonic chieftains (whose centres of power
retreated westward as a result). The Eastern Roman Empire attempted to maintain control of
the Balkan provinces, despite a thinly-spread imperial army that relied mainly on local
militias and an extensive effort to re-fortify the Danubian limes. The ambitious fortification
efforts collapsed, worsening the impoverished conditions of the local populace and resulting
in colonization by Slavic warriors and their families.
Halsall and Noble have argued that such changes stemmed from the breakdown in Roman
political control, which exposed the weakness of local Roman rule. Instead of large-scale
migrations, there were military takeovers by small groups of warriors and their families (who
usually numbered in the tens of thousands). This process involved active, conscious decisionmaking by Roman provincial populations. The collapse of centralized control severely
weakened the sense of Roman identity in the provinces, which may explain why the
provinces underwent dramatic cultural changes at this time even though few barbarians
settled in them. Ultimately, the Germanic groups in the Western Roman Empire were
accommodated without "dispossessing or overturning indigenous society" and maintained a
structured and hierarchical (albeit attenuated) form of Roman administration. Ironically, they
lost their unique identity as a result of this accommodation and were absorbed into
Latinhood. In contrast, in the east, Slavic tribes maintained a more "spartan and egalitarian"
existence bound to the land "even in times when they took their part in plundering Roman
provinces". Their organizational models were not Roman, and their leaders were not
normally dependent on Roman gold for success. Thus, they arguably had a greater effect on
their region than the Goths, Franks or Saxons had on theirs.
Based on the belief that particular types of artifacts (generally elements of personal
adornment found in a funerary context) are thought to indicate the race and/or ethnicity of the
person buried, the "Culture-History" school of archaeology assumed that archaeological
cultures represent the Urheimat (homeland) of tribal polities named in historical sources. As a
consequence, the shifting extensions of material cultures were interpreted as the expansion of
peoples. Influenced by constructionism, process-driven archaeologists rejected the CultureHistorical doctrine; they marginalized the discussion of ethnicity altogether, and focused on
the intragroup dynamics which generated such material remains. Moreover, they argued that
adoption of new cultures could occur through trade or internal political developments rather
than military takeovers.