History of the West

Central European History from Antiquity to the 20th Century

Barbarians at the Gate

Raphael’s The Meeting between Pope Leo I, the Great and Attila depicts Leo, escorted by Saint Peter and Saint Paul, meeting with the Hun king outside Rome

And from your city do not
Wholly banish fear,
For what man living, free from fear,
Will still be just?


Aeschylus “The Eumenides“, L. 698


Deos fortioribus adesse.
The Gods are on the side of the stronger.


Tacitus “Histories“, Bk. 4, Ch. 17


Peoples do not, and neither do nations, come into being in a year or two, much less on a single day. Neither do languages and cultures. Consequently, one cannot point to a definitive date on which the natives living north and east of the great rivers of the Danube, Elbe and Rhine became “Germans”. The word “German” itself was not commonly used until, at around AD 100, the Roman historian Tacitus employed the term in a book and thus became godfather to the eventual nation.

The first peoples relevant to this account, who were populating the western and northern reaches of the continent while Rome was still a city-state, were the Celts, or Gauls. Leaving their indigenous settlements in the western heart of Europe around today’s Belgium and central France in the fourth century BC, they migrated for the better part of the next two hundred years over great parts of the continent, the neighbouring isles, and in particular to the south and east: following the Danube river into what are today Austria, Hungary, Serbia and Romania.

Others went north and over the sea. The Celtic colonization of the British Isles and the petty kingdoms they subsequently established are best known to us by the literary influence they extended on the legend, and perhaps the deeds, of King Arthur, the sword Excalibur and the Knights of the Round Table. Written down by Sir Thomas Malory in the fourteenth century and titled “Le Mort D’Arthur”, the tale has become a part of Western culture. T.E. White’s “The Once And Future King” is perhaps the most charming rendering of the epos.

The farthest branches of the Celtic migration expanded as far as Spain, northern Italy and Greece; a few fragments made it as far as Anatolia, then called “Asia Minor”. There they founded the Kingdom of Galatia, with Ankyra [Latin “Ancyra”, today’s Ankara] as its capital, which eventually became a client kingdom of Rome. After frequent clashes between Romans and Celts in the third and second centuries BC, the recurrences of conflict diminished, and subsequent improvement of neighbourly relations eventually gave rise to the spread of Roman civilization into Gallia Transalpina, Gaul on the further side of the Alps. Today’s Provence became the province of Gallia Narbonensis and its great ports of Massilia and Narbo, today’s Marseille and Narbonne, traded goods from near and far. Over a period of roughly a century, a number of adjacent Celtic tribes were introduced to the Roman fold, initially awarded the status of allies, and later that of citizens of Rome.

In 58 BC, Gaius Julius Caesar arrived in “Gallia Comata” (‘long-haired Gaul’), the northern and western unromanized parts of the land, with ten legions, and within seven years transformed all of today’s France, Belgium and the Upper Netherlands into Roman provinces. While he did have temporary problems with the particularly wild tribes of the Belgians, he was aware that the real danger for Rome lurked on the eastern, the far bank of the Rhine; a land where a wholly different and far more ferocious congregation of barbarians skulked in the forests, longing for the riches of civilization. Caution was advisable.

Germanic warriors as depicted in Philipp Clüver’s Germania Antiqua 1616

Caesar knew as much about these wild tribes as it was possible to know at this time, as told by his great-uncle Gaius Marius. Not since the days of Hannibal had the Roman Republic faced an adversary able to threaten her very existence; the “German” danger, however, commanded vigilance and preparedness. This was particularly true after the debacle of Arausio, in which Quintus Servilius Caepio had managed to lose the complete Roman army; that the German throng had not proceeded straight into Italy had been pure luck. For reasons unknown, the victorious German tribes had undertaken various detours, first into Spain, then back to northern Gallia, reaching the beaches of Normandy in the summer of 103 BC, but were back, in the fall of the next year, less than fifty miles from Arausio, at Aquae Sextae, today’s Aix-en-Provence.


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Migrations of the Cimbri and Teutones

This time, however, a welcoming committee was ready, commanded by the former hayseed from Arpinum, Gaius Marius, and his newly formed army of “head count” soldiers. That these impoverished fellows would primarily depend on their general for their retirement was a foregone conclusion Marius did not forget for a second and planned his long-term goals accordingly: upon leaving service, his veterans would receive a bit of real estate and a small pension; the veteran might farm a bit, have sons, enjoy the sun, and, if need be, visit Rome and vote for his good friend, the general.

AD 410 – The Visigoths sack Rome

At Aquae Sextae, Marius found out that he was confronted with the Teutones only, who had split from the other tribes and were on their way along the Tyrrhenian Coast to Genova. Marius did not hesitate and led the legions to a complete victory over the disorganized enemy, and about 30,000 women and children who survived their men, fathers and suicide were sold on the slave markets of Massilia, the proceeds going, by tradition, to the general alone.

The wives of the Teutones kill their children and commit suicide to escape capture and subsequent slavery at the Battle of Aquae Sextiae, by Heinrich Leutemann

A year later and with the help, or, as some said, despite the hindrance of his co-consul Quintus Lutatius Catulus Caesar, Marius repeated the success of Aquae Sextiae against the second half of the original German horde, the Cimbri. They were coming down from the slopes of the Alps, which they had crossed by way of the Brenner pass and were on the descent into the riches of the Po Valley when they were checked by Marius’s legions before they could rest or gather supplies. At Vercellae, near today’s Rovigo, the legions won another victory and Marius’s purse pocketed the proceeds from the sale of another 20,000 women and children to the slave markets of Rome [101 BC].

Gaius Marius’ victory over the Cimbri by Francesco Saverio Altamura

Yet victory did not always smile upon the legions. Less luck than Marius had had fell upon Proconsul Gaius Varus and his three legions a little over a century later (AD 9). He had been dispatched to Germany by Emperor Augustus in return for a few border violations and a couple of plundered villages. The expedition crossed the Rhine and pursued the malefactors into the lands of the Cherusci, around the Weser River, somewhere in the vicinity of today’s town of Bielefeld.
The Cherusci were commanded by Arminius, a man who had served in the legions and was familiar with their tactics. He laid an ambush in a particularly dense forest which the legions had to traverse, thereby creating a scenario in which he hoped the biggest advantage of the legions, mutual support in a tight formation, would be nullified. The forest split the legions into small groups: not a single man survived. Varus and his men disappeared without a trace, an occurrence unprecedented in the annals of the legions. Rome concluded that the German danger merited unprecedented attention and decided upon the eventual fortification of the border. Jared Diamond comments on the early relations of Romans and barbarians as follows:

Battle at the Teutoburg Forest
Italian Map of the Battle
The Forest
Attack of the German warriors, by Otto Albert Koch

All but a few historical societies have been geographically close enough to some other societies to have at least some contact with them. Relations with neighbouring societies may be intermittently or chronically hostile. A society may be able to hold off its enemies as long as it is strong, only to succumb when it becomes weakened for any reason, including environmental damage. The proximate cause of the collapse will then be military conquest, but the ultimate cause – the factor whose change led to the collapse – will have been the factor that caused the weakening. Hence, collapses for ecological or other reasons often masquerade as military defeats. The most familiar debate about such possible masquerading involves the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Rome became increasingly beset by barbarian invasions, with the conventional date for the Empire’s fall being taken somewhat arbitrarily as A.D. 476, the year in which the last emperor of the West was deposed. However, even before the rise of the Roman Empire, there had been “barbarian” tribes who lived in northern Europe or central Asia beyond the borders of “civilized” Mediterranean Europe, and who periodically attacked civilized Europe (as well as civilized China and India). For over a thousand years, Rome successfully held off the barbarians, for instance slaughtering a large invading force of Cimbri and Teutones bent on conquering northern Italy at the Battle of Campi Raudii [i.e. Vercellae] in 101 B.C.

Eventually, it was the barbarians rather than the Romans who won the battles: what was the fundamental reason for that shift in fortune? Was it because of changes in the barbarians themselves, such that they became more numerous or better organized, acquired better weapons or more horses, or profited from the climate change in the central Asian steppes? In that case, we would say that barbarians really could be identified as the fundamental cause of Rome’s fall. Or was it instead that the same old unchanged barbarians were always waiting on the Roman Empire’s frontiers, and that they couldn’t prevail until Rome became weakened by some combination of economic, political, environmental, and other problems? In that case, we would blame Rome’s fall on its own problems, with the barbarians just providing the coup de grace. This question continues to be debated. (1)

The rise of a threat beyond the banks of Rhine and Danube persuaded the Roman historian Tacitus to investigate the barbarians. Soon he found himself in need of a general classification of the tribes who lived north and east of the rivers, in a land that was covered to ninety per cent by swamps and forests. He christened them “Germani, after a tribe who lived close to the Rhine near Bonna, today’s Bonn, the former capital of West Germany, in his book “De Origine et Situ Germanorum” [“About the Origins and Places of the Germans”], published in AD 98.
Tacitus never saw the land and the people he described: he relied on the words of mouth, perhaps of soldiers who had served there or perhaps on talking to the one or other Latin-speaking German he could find in Rome. Yet by virtue of his one being the only book on the subject, it received attention for centuries to come. He compared, not unfriendly, the simple virtues of the Germani, their sense of family, braveness and honour, but also their impressive vices, a certain predilection for rape, pillage and slaughter, with the decadence prevailing in Imperial Rome. He was the first author to describe the customs of the Germani extensively; earlier contact reports had been restricted to a syllabus of the battle and a count of limbs and bodies. As we have seen, the military results were mixed: Marius won, Varus lost, and the protracted campaigns of Drusus, Tiberius and Germanicus during the principate of Augustus [ca. 12 BC-AD 16] ended indeterminate.

Principal Germanic Movements 750 BC – 1 AD

After a few invasive campaigns, the Romans confined themselves to defensive measures along the Limes, a fortified line of earthworks, moats and watchtowers that protected the area between the Danube, Rhine and Moenus [today’s Main] Rivers. The final offensives into German territory were undertaken by Emperor Marcus Antonius Aurelius [AD 161-180]. The Germani, however, turned out a rather undistinguished tribe; after they crossed the Rhine in the direction of central France they disappeared in the mists of the past; no one knows what happened to the original Germani. Tacitus was intrigued by the strange political customs of the Germani as outlined by Edward Gibbon:

Some tribes, however, on the coast of the Baltic, acknowledged the authority of kings, though without relinquishing the rights of man, but in the far greater part of Germany, the form of government was a democracy, tempered, indeed, and controlled, not so much by general and positive laws as by the occasional ascendant of birth or valour, of eloquence or superstition. Civil governments, in their first institution, are voluntary associations for mutual defence. To obtain the desired end, it is absolutely necessary that each individual should conceive himself obligated to submit his private opinions and actions to the judgement of the greater number of his associates. The German tribes were contented with this rude but liberal outline of political society. … The assembly of the warriors of the tribe was convened at stated seasons, or on sudden emergencies. The trial of public offences, the election of magistrates, and the great business of peace and war were determined by its independent voice. … For the Germans always met in arms, and it was constantly to be dreaded lest an irregular multitude, inflamed with faction and strong liquor, should use those arms to enforce as well as to declare their furious resolves. (2)

Rome faced the problem that these tribes accepted no higher authority, knew no superior body that could arrange a truce or binding peace, nor declare general war, for that matter, and thus Emperor Domitian at around AD 80 came up with the idea to erect a wall between civilization and wilderness along those borders that were not naturally defended by a river. The line of what would become the Limes originated near the Danube’s northernmost point at Castra Regina, today’s Regensburg in Bavaria, then zigzagged through south-western Germany until it met the Main river, then zigzagged a bit more, over the heights of the Taunus Hills, and ultimately reached the Rhine at Bonna. A few miles ahead, down the river, another extensive Roman settlement was founded, Colonia Claudia, today’s Cologne.

The most decisive change of Roman organization relevant to the fate of the German tribes occurred when, as a reaction to the great migration beginning in the fourth century AD, Emperor Diocletian restructured the administration of the Empire. From now on, the state was not to be ruled by a single man but four. He had associated three colleagues in the exercise of the supreme power; and as he was convinced that the abilities of a single man were inadequate to the public defence, he considered the joint administration of four princes not as a temporary expedient but as a fundamental law of the constitution. It was his intention that the two elder princes should be distinguished by the use of the diadem [the Greek equivalent to a crown] and the title of Augusti, that, as affection or esteem might direct their choice, they should regularly call to their assistance two subordinate colleagues; and that the Caesars, rising in their turn to the first rank, should supply an uninterrupted succession of emperors.

The empire was divided into four parts. The East and Italy were the most honourable, the Danube and the Rhine the most laborious stations. The former claimed the presence of the Augusti; the latter were entrusted to the administration of the Caesars. The strength of the legions was in the hand of the four partners of sovereignty, and the despair of successfully vanquishing four formidable rivals might intimidate the ambition of an aspiring general. In their civil government, the emperors were supposed to exercise the undivided power of the monarch, and their edicts,
inscribed with their joint names, were received in all the provinces as promulgated by their mutual councils and authority. Notwithstanding these precautions, the political union of the Roman world was gradually dissolved, and a principle of division was introduced which, in the course of a few years, occasioned the perpetual separation of the Eastern and the Western Empires. (3)

GERMANS AT THE ROMAN BORDER AROUND AD 100, ACCORDING TO TACITUS – AS IT IS EASY TO SEE, THE MAIN BORDER RUNS ALONG THE RHINE AND DANUBE RIVERS.
Governmental Division of the Empire under Diocletian

As far as the German tribes were concerned, the most direct result of the reform was that, from now on, Roman policies affecting them were not formulated in distant Rome any more but in the new residence of the Western Caesar in Augusta Treverorum, today’s Trier at the Moselle River, only fifty miles west of the Rhine, or in Constantinople or Antiochia. This fostered particularism and diminished the already weakened unity of Roman executive coordination. The preponderance of military power went to the two most threatened borders along the Rhine and Danube and the Asian border in the provinces of Syria and Cappadocia facing the Parthians. This, in turn, gave the local commanders power that increased with the number of the legions under their personal control. Many of the usurpers of the Imperial purple in the second to fourth century AD were generals from border provinces who claimed their imperial purple through the strength of their legions.


(1) Diamond, Jared, Collapse, Penguin Books 2005, 0-14-30.3655-6, p.13

(2) (3) Gibbon, Edward, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Modern Library, First Citation: Mass Market Edition 2005 Second Citation: 4th Edition 2003-4, ISBN 0-345-47884-3, pp. 157 (135); 243 (207)


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(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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1 Comment

  1. Anonymous

    Tacitus and Gibbon might well have a few things to say about the current state of the West, particularly vis-a-vis Islam in this era of another Volkerwanderung, and many, particularly of those who won’t use the abbreviations BC and AD, might not like it too well!

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