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The Great Barbarian Invasions correspond to a vast migratory movement, which spanned Europe from the end of Antiquity to the beginning of the Middle Ages. From the 1st century, the Romans undergo the first incursions of peoples foreign to the Empire, which they call “barbarians”. The borders of the Rhine gave way from 406, paving the way for several successive waves of invasions. They are at the origin of the end of the Roman Empire and the creation of the great kingdoms of the Middle Ages.
Invasions or migrations?
The Romans spoke of invasions and invaders because this movement of populations took place at the expense of the Roman Empire. In fact, the vast majority of these are peoples of Germanic origin who are heading west to escape the advancing Huns from Asia. Considering these Germans as inferior because they do not share their culture, the Romans call them "barbarians" (a word which designated among the Greeks foreigners who do not speak their language).
From the 1st century AD, the Roman Empire was confronted with these populations of Germans, especially along the Rhine and in northern Italy. To prevent them from invading the Empire, the Romans built a series of fortresses and walls, the limes, along the border (just like the Chinese built the Great Wall for protection). The most famous limes, Hadrian's Wall, protected the northern border of the Roman province of Brittany (now England).
Finally, two centuries later, certain Germanic peoples became allies of the Romans; they even receive the right to settle in the Empire and, in return, they put themselves at the service of the Romans.
The fall of the Western Roman Empire
However, migrations increased and, in successive waves, the Barbarians arrived at the gates of the Roman Empire. The latter, weakened by internal quarrels, can no longer contain these peoples, who become conquerors.
On December 31, 406, 150,000 Alans, Suevi, and Vandals crossed the frozen Rhine near Mainz (in present-day Germany) and invaded Gaul. Most continue to Spain and even Africa. Meanwhile, the Visigoths follow another path. Coming from the Balkans, they invaded Italy and seized Rome in 410. They then settled in the south of Gaul, in Aquitaine. The Angles, the Jutes and the Saxons take over what is now Britain.
From 451, the huns of Attila set out to conquer the Western Roman Empire. Even though they were defeated at the Battle of the Catalaunic Fields by a motley coalition of Gallo-Romans and barbarians under the Roman Patrice Aetius, they plundered many towns in northern Gaul and Italy.
In 476, the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustule, was deposed by Odoacre, the king of the Herules. The West is now in the hands of the barbarians who are gradually forming kingdoms in Europe. Of the immense Roman Empire, only the Eastern Roman Empire remains in Constantinople (also known as the Byzantine Empire).
The Franks settle in Roman Gaul
At the beginning of the 5th century, even before the fall of Rome, Roman Gaul fell under the control of barbarians who carved out small kingdoms for themselves. Only the basin around Paris is still under Roman authority. The north and the northeast are under the domination of the Franks and Alamans. The Visigoths hold the south-west, and the south-east is in the hands of the Burgundians. The Huns, commanded by Attila, made a brief incursion into Gaul in 451 but, beaten in the Catalaunic fields, they retreated to central Europe (in present-day Hungary).
Quickly, however, the Franks converted to Catholicism. The first is Clovis I, who is baptized around 498. With the support of the Christian Gallo-Romans, the first king of the Merovingian dynasty drives out the Visigoths and the Burgundians, and brings together Gaul under his domination. Thus was created the first Frankish kingdom.
The Great Invasions mark the end of the Roman Empire in the West. But very often, far from destroying the Roman heritage, the barbarians were on the contrary keen to preserve it and mingled with the local populations. Adopting the Latin language, they passed on some of the laws, culture and organization of the Romans to subsequent generations. However, the differences that characterize each of these invading peoples have remained in part and are at the origin of the various countries that make up Europe.
- Attila: The story of the Barbarians and the great invasions in Europe, by Amédée Thierry. The Mono, 2017.
- Les Invasions barbares, by Pierre Riché and Philippe Le Maître. PUF, 2001.