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German Tribes invaded the Roman Empire and the Slavs occupied the Illyrian Provinces

German tribes exerted pressure on the Roman frontier

In the 4th century A.D. most Germanic peoples in Europe were living east of the Rhine and north of the Danube. To the east, north of the Black Sea, were the East Goths (Ostrogoths) and the West Goths (Visigoths). To the west of these tribes and extending over a large area of the Rhine were the Vandals, Lombards, Alemanni, Burgundians, and Franks. In and near present day Denmark lived the Jutes, Angles, and Saxons.


These groups were seminomadic, herding their flocks and tilling the soil. Large and vigorous, the people prized strength and courage in battle. They worshiped many gods, including Tiw, the god of war; Wotan, the chief of the gods; Thor, the god of thunder; and Freya, the goddess of fertility. (The names of these deities are preserved in the English words Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.)

The German tribal assemblies were made up of voting freeman, and their laws were based on long-established customs of the tribe. These political practices were to have a strong influence in medieval England, where they laid a foundation for the rise of parliamentary government and English common law. The Roman historian Tacitus (55 to 117 A.D.), in his famous treatise GERMANIA, gave a graphic account of how the Germans lived and wistfully compared these robust people with the weak, pleasure-loving Roman aristocracy.

Illyrian man

The Germans were proud of being Goths, Burgundians, Franks, and Vandals. They wore German costumes and followed German customs. They had reddish or blond hair, blue eyes, great stature, and generally powerful physiques. More fond of war than of work, they consumed quantities of a kind of beer in prolonged contests. Besides drinking, gambling was a favorite amusement. The men were primarily fighters who scorned labor and relegated all agricultural and household tasks to women and slaves. German family life was commonly a model of simplicity and virtue. In general, German society was tribal, that is, it emphasized the relation and loyalties of kinship rather than of citizenship. An injury to his kin must be avenged by them unless they were compensated by a graded system of penalties, known as Wergeld. Some tribes however, had coalesced into groups, which for lack of a better term, might be called “nations”. Over such nations ruled kings, at first hardly more than war leaders elected by the free men and subject to their wishes. But by the time they entered the Empire there was already a tendency to choose rulers from the same family, thus paving the way for hereditary succession.

For hundreds of years the Germans had exerted pressure on the frontiers of the empire. In 105 B.C. German warriors inflicted a terrible defeat on a Roman army, but four years later, a capable Roman leader, Marius, became a national hero when he outmaneuvered the Germans and defeated them. Again in Julius Caesar’s time, German invaders tried to conquer part of Gaul but were defeated. During the reign of Augustus, the Romans launched a drive against the restless German tribes between the Rhine and the Elbe rivers, but in 9 A.D. the Roman legions suffered a crushing defeat in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest. Three legions were completely wiped out. From then on the Romans were content to hold the frontier on the Rhine-Danube line, and quiet continued for a long period. Again, in the reign of Marcus Aurelius, from 161 to 180 A.D., and for 120 years afterward, the Romans had difficulty holding the Germans at the Frontier. But after 300 A.D. peace was maintained for some seventy-five years.

During tranquil interludes, the Romans and Germanic peoples had many opportunities for peaceful association. Some Germans were permitted to enter the Roman Empire to settle on vacant lands. Others, captured in war, became slaves on Roman estates, and still others accepted service in the legions. If intermingling had been allowed to continue, the Germans might have been gradually assimilated into the empire. However, pressure from the German tribes suddenly turned the gradual infiltration into a rushing invasion.

German tribes forced their way into all parts of the western Roman Empire.

In Asia, during the 4th century, restless nomads called Huns were on the march from the east. Mounted on swift horses, they attacked with lightning ferocity all tribes in their path. Crossing the Volga River, they conquered the Ostrogoths in eastern Europe. Fearing that the Huns would attack them also, the Visigoths implored Roman authorities for sanctuary in the empire. The Roman officials agreed, promising them lands for settlement provided they came unarmed.

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Neither side lived up to the agreement, however, and the Visigoths, without land and facing starvation, began to sack Roman settlements. When the Roman emperor Valens led a great army against the Visigoths, to the astonishment of Romans and Germans alike, the imperial force was scattered and the emperor slain. This battle on the field of Adrianople in 378 A.D. is considered one of the decisive battles in world history because it rendered the Roman Empire defenseless. German tribes outside the frontiers began to round up their cattle, mobilize their fighting men, and move toward the Roman borders.

Marching southwestward under their leader Alaric, the Visigoths reached Rome in 410 A.D. and looted the city. By that time other German tribes–the Franks, Vandals, and Burgundians–were moving into the empire. And about 450 A.D., Germans from northwest Europe–the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes–sailed to Britain, where they killed or enslaved the Britons whom they encountered and forced others to retreat into Wales and Scotland.

To add to the tumult, the Huns, led by Attila, had also invaded the empire and were threatening to enslave or destroy both Romans and Germans. So, forgetting their own differences for a while, the Romans and Germans united against a common enemy. They fought together in Gaul and defeated Attila, the “Scourge of God,” at the Battle of Chalons in 451 A.D. Shortly afterward Attila died and his savage cavalry drifted apart.

The western empire collapsed

Meanwhile, the power of the emperors in Rome had fallen to a point where they had become merely puppets of the legionaries, many of whom were of German birth. In the 476 A.D., Odoacer, a commander of the Roman armies, deposed the last of the Roman emperors and became the first German ruler of Rome. This date–476 A.D.–is often cited as the date for the “fall” of Rome. In a strict sense, there was no “fall.” The decline of Roman imperial power was a gradual and complex process marked by weakling emperors, corrupt bureaucrats, and the gradual admission of German soldiers into the legions.

Since the early decades of the 4th century, emperors at Rome had sensed the growing weakness of the empire in the West. In the year 330 A.D. Emperor Constantine had moved his capital to the city of Byzantium, in the eastern part of the empire, changing its name to Constantinople. By the end of that century, the Roman Empire had become permanently divided, with one emperor ruling the West and another in the East. Although separated, the two sections of the empire continued to be thought of as one.

But the western part of the empire was breaking up. By the year 476 A.D., when Odoacer ascended the throne, German kingdoms had been established in England by Anglo-Saxon invaders; the Visigoths had moved into Spain; the Vandals had built up a kingdom in North Africa and by 486 A.D., the Franks had gained control of Gaul. The Italian peninsula was to become the scene of conflict and strife, and near the end of the 5th century, it was to fall under the rule of the Ostrogoths.

The Ostrogoths had become free from the Huns after the death of Attila in 453 A.D. and they had built a settlement within the Roman Empire south and west of the Danube. In 471 A.D. they elected Theodoric their king, and soon afterward he led a march toward the eastern part of the empire. To prevent the Ostrogoths from encroaching on his lands, the emperor in the East encouraged Theodoric to invade Italy instead and to overthrow Odoacer who had ruled there since 476 A.D. Theodoric did so, and by 493 A.D. he was not only king of the Goths but of Italy also, with his capital established at Ravenna. His rule brought prosperity and peace to Italy, but at his death in 526 A.D. civil strife began again. In the middle of the 6th century a strong emperor at Constantinople, Justinian, won back Italy for a few years.

The Lombards invade Italy (Middle English called Lumbarde)

Events of great importance were taking place during this period. It was while Clovis was establishing the Frankish kingdom in Gaul that Theodoric, the great Ostrogothic king, carved out for his people a kingdom in Italy, and while the sons of Clovis were conquering the remainder of Gaul, Justinian (483-565 A.D.) Byzantine emperor from 527 to 565 A.D. was making Italy once more a province under imperial rule. Within three years after the death of Justinian, another great change took place. A new nation of barbarian invaders, the Lombards, swept down into Italy and opened a new chapter in its history.

The Lombards were one of the East German nations. Their original home was on the banks of the Elbe River in northern Germany. From there they migrated south and east to the Danube River, where they were converted to the Arian form of Christianity. In 568 A.D. they followed the track of earlier Germanic invaders from the Balkans down into northern Italy, and a small group went off in a different direction to the eastern parts of Dalmatia. Meeting with little opposition, for the country had been ravaged by war and plague, they occupied the great plain between the Alps and the Apennines, ever since called Lombardy. It was a thorough conquest. They made no pretense of alliance with the empire, as the Ostrogoths had done, nor did they leave the conquered Italians in possession of their estates. The continuity of Roman civilization, which had survived so many invasions, was at last broken, or at least severely strained. About 575 A.D., marauding bands of Lombards began to push farther south, and within a decade had occupied the center of Italy almost to the southern end of the peninsula. The emperors made some attempt to check the Lombards, but in vain. In 605 A.D. a truce was arranged between them. By that time, the Lombards had conquered all of Italy except the territories around Ravenna, Rome, Naples, and to the extreme south. These were still ruled by representatives of the emperor, nominally under the Exarch of Ravenna, thought Rome and the other imperial possessions were so cut off from the exarchate as to be left practically independent. The unity of Italy was completely destroyed, to be recovered only after thirteen centuries has passed. The Lombard Kingdom itself was not strongly united. The Lombard dukes were always half independent and often rebellious, especially in the two great duchies of Spoleto and Benevento in the center and south, which were never firmly attached to the kingdom and where the Lombards remained in the minority.

Out of the chaos of this last barbarian invasion, one Italian power, the Roman papacy, rose with greater authority than ever before. The popes had lost much of their prestige since the days of Leo the Great, though they had gained much in wealth from estates bequeathed to them in all parts of Italy. The restoration of imperial rule in Italy had been a serious blow to their authority, for Justinian had introduced that domination of the church by the state which had long been recognized in the Eastern Empire, but had never been enforced in the West. Moreover, the pope’s authority outside of Italy had suffered. The bishops of Gaul were controlled by the Frankish kings, and Spain under the Visigoths was Arian almost to the end of the sixth century. But the Lombard conquests broke the power of the emperor over the pope, and in 590 A.D. the Roman Church found in Pope Gregory the Great a leader who was to set the papacy back again on the road to independence and spiritual domination in the West.

Explanation of the names Lombards and Middle English called Lumbarde

The term Middle Ages was given to the period of Western European history that extended from the decline of Rome to the discovery of America. The Western Europeans who lived just after the Middle Ages named it that because they thought it was a period of darkness between the splendor of Rome and the splendor of the civilization they were creating. They believed that nothing of importance happened them. Today, however, we know that the Middle Ages was an important period in itself in Western Europe. Many of our cherished institutions started during that period of about a thousand years.

The Middle Ages is often divided into the Early Middle Ages, from the fall of Rome to about 1000 A.D., and the Late Middle Ages from 1000 A.D. to the discovery of America. These two periods differed in their character. The first was a period in which civilization was at a low ebb. For about five hundred years there was almost no education, no city life, trade, or good government. The Latin literature was unread, and no new literature was produced. Small chieftains could not understand the Roman laws and issued their own decrees. Cities dwindled in size. Each family depended largely on itself for the necessities of life since there was not much commerce. Neighborhood wars were common. It was an age of invasion, robbery, and violence, as group after group of cruel people swept into neighboring countries looking for riches. There was very little physical security for anyone. Other groups of people seemed more interested in preparing for the next life than improving conditions in the world in which they lived. Their religion placed great stress on ceremony.

Beginning the eleventh century and increasing in the latter part of the Late Middle Ages, life in Western Europe took on a more rapid pace and became more colorful. Education changed and developed, towns grew, beautiful churches and strong castles were built, trade increased, nations developed, and parliaments came into existence. The institutions that came into being at that time form the basis upon which later peoples built.

While these conditions prevailed in Western Europe, the Eastern Roman Empire continued to exist. Its borders were constantly being clipped, however, by invaders from Asia. It continued until 1453.

Although the Western Europeans did not know it until late in the Middle Ages, all this time between 300 and 1500 A.D. civilizations were flourishing in India, China, Japan, and in the Western Hemisphere.

In Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, 2262 pages, Lombards in 15th and 16th century are called ME (Middle English) Lumbarde, Latin Longobardus, French Longobardo. A member of a Teutonic people invading Italy in 568 A.D. settling in the Po valley and establishing a kingdom.

Migration of the Slavic tribes, Croats and Serbs from the Black Sea down to Greece and their occupation of the Balkan peninsula.

Justinian’s reign marked the culmination of Latin influence in Byzantine civilization. Thereafter, while certain Roman ideas continued to determine the course of Byzantine history–the emperors never ceasing to regard themselves as the legitimate successors of Augustus–Greek and Oriental influences prevailed. Greek became the official language of the administration and of the law, as it had been of the church in the east.

Besides, the loss of the western provinces rendered contact of the east with Rome and Italy more difficult. It is true that southern Italy, Rome, and Ravenna were not taken by the Lombards, but continued as nominal possessions of the Emperor. Yet imperial power in Italy was tenuous in the extreme. More and more, people there turned for guidance, even in temporal matters, to the pope rather than to the exarch. The unity of eastern and western Christianity was also endangered by this loss of contact between the Latin–and, in the Byzantine view, barbarian–west and the Greek east. Finally, Justinian’s successors were forced to deal with pressing eastern problems which he had neglected. Foremost among these was the defense of the frontiers.

During Justinian’s reign from 527 to 565 A.D., communities of southern Slavs had been established along the northern Byzantine frontier. The Slavs were an Indo-European people who migrated in various directions from the region of the Pripet marshes. The south Slavs (or Yugoslavs) had settled in some numbers north of the Black Sea by the fifth and sixth centuries. Although they had frequently suffered at the hands of Germans and also of Asiatic nomads, they were tenacious and prolific and maintained their identity. Unlike the nomads, they had reached an agricultural stage of civilization.

In the sixth century, much as the Goths had previously been driven on by the savage nomadic Huns, large numbers of south Slavs were pushed by the Avars, another Hunnic people, into the Balkan peninsula. Sometimes in conjunction with the Avars, but finally on their own initiative, they advanced into imperial territory. By the end of the century a great many had settled in Thrace and Greece. And in 620 A.D. the Emperor Heraclius officially recognized a number of them as allies against the Avars. Somewhat later, as Avar raids continued, these Yugoslavs, ancestors of the modern Serbs and Croats, moved into the Illyrian provinces of Panonia, Bosnia, Dalmatia, and Serbia about 595 A.D.

Thus it was that the Roman Empire of the east was forced in its turn to permit barbarian immigration. And although it was many years before the Yugoslavs were able to form stable kingdoms, the ethnic character of the Balkan peninsula was permanently changed.

Meanwhile the Avars remained a formidable military menace. In 591, in 619, and again in 626 A.D., together with Slavs, they appeared before Constantinople. But the redoubtable fortifications of the city frustrated all their attacks. Thereafter, the Avars ceased to trouble the Byzantine Empire seriously, and the Slavs settled down within its frontiers.

Defense of Constantinople was complicated by an even more serious menace to the eastern frontier. This resulted from a remarkable resurgence of Persian power. Under their King Chosroes, the Persians passed through Armenia and Syria and advanced into Palestine. Capturing Jerusalem, they carried away part of the relic of the Holy Cross, the Cross upon which Christ had been crucified. That the Emperor Heraclius (610-641 A.D.) was able to cope with this situation is a tribute to his skill and courage as well as to the inherent strength of the Empire. The Avars were temporarily appeased, and between 622 and 627 A.D. a series of brilliant campaigns not only drove the Persians from Syria and Palestine, but carried the Emperor to a signal victory near the ruins of Nineveh on the Tigris River. In the following year Chosroe’s successor sued for peace. Meanwhile Constantinople had successfully withstood Avar assaults by sea and land. In 629 A.D. Heraclius returned in triumph to Constantinople bearing with him the relic of the True Cross. He was a savior of the Empire.

But except in name it was no longer a Roman Empire. The Balkans were henceforth predominantly Slavic, for the Yugoslavs profiting from the exploits of the destructive Avars, were now firmly settled in the Balkan peninsula. And though they were presently converted to Christianity and nominally incorporated in the Empire, they retained their own Slavic speech and ignored both Latin and Greek. Moreover, the long Byzantine war with Persia exhausted both countries and left them a prey to the Arabs, who, even before Heraclius’s death, had invaded Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia.

Thus the Empire of the early eighth century consisted only of Constantinople, a portion of the Balkan peninsula, Asia Minor, and a few areas in Italy and Sicily. But even in its reduced state–and more losses were to follow–the Byzantine Empire was to remain for centuries a rampart of Graeco-Roman and Christian civilization in the eastern Mediterranean.

Slavic tribes occupy Dalmatian archipelago

Around 640 A.D., after occupying the Dalmatian islands they found a group of Lombards–who had previously split from the major Lombard tribes who were on their way to northern Italy- in the town of Lumbarda on the island of Corcyra (Korcula). Slavic tribes, from previous difficulty with German tribes, had animosity toward the German settlements in Lumbarde. Not long afterward the German tribes disappeared from Lumbarde and joined their tribes in Italy. Since that time, the Slavic people have called that town Lumbarde-a.

Compiled October 20, 2003 by Marko Marelich
Retired Mechanical Engineer, San Francisco, California USA