III. The Postclassical Period, 500–1500 > F. Europe, 461–1500 > 1. Western Europe in the Early Middle Ages, 461–1000 > c. Invaders of the West
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
c. Invaders of the West
Origins of the invaders. The Germanic peoples were established in Scandinavia (Denmark) and between the Elbe and Oder as early as the 2nd millennium B.C.E. Eastward lay the Balts (Letts), and the west of the Elbe were the Celts.  1
Expansion. The western Germans (Teutons) displaced (c. 1000 B.C.E.) the Celts, moving up the Elbe and Rhine (the Main reached c. 200 B.C.E.). South Germany was occupied (c. 100 B.C.E.); Gaul threatened (cf. Caesar's Commentaries). These invaders were a pastoral, agricultural folk, tending to settle down. By the time of Tacitus's (c. 55–c. 117 C.E.) Germania they were wholly agricultural. Later new tribal names and a new kind of federated organization appeared. The eastern Germans (Scandinavians) crossed the Baltic (c. 600–300 B.C.E.) and pushed up the Vistula to the Carpathians. The northern Germans remained in Scandinavia.  2
The Greeks and Romans invented the concept of “barbarian,” applying it to all peoples (except the Persians) living outside Greco-Roman civilization—peoples who did not share urban Mediterranean culture, who did not speak Greek or Latin. To the Romans, such peoples had no history and encountered history only when they entered the civilized Roman world. Barbarian peoples as they entered the Roman orbit had many changing ethnic identities; all viewed the Roman empire as the source of great wealth.  3
GERMANIC SOCIETIES. The basic unit was the tribe (folk), united by blood kinship and guided by unwritten customary law passed down through the generations by word of mouth. Thinking in social not political terms, the Germans had no notion of the state. Basic institutions were the kings and the war bands. The kings, or chieftains, were elected from male members of the strongest or physically toughest family. They led religious sacrifices to the gods. Kingship was strengthened during period of migrations; tribes that did not migrate did not develop kingships. The comitatus, or war band, the bravest young men of the tribe, was bound by loyalty to the king, fought beside him in battle, and was not supposed to leave the field without him—to do so brought social disgrace.  4
The role and status of women has yet to be thoroughly explored. Society was patriarchal: within each household the male head had authority over his wives (polygamy was practiced by the wealthy), children, and slaves (captured in war). Women were viewed as property; marriageable daughters were sold to the highest bidder; and their subsequent status depended on their production of children, especially sons. In settled communities, women performed the heavy work of raising, grinding, preserving cereal crops; making beer and ale; weaving and spinning; caring for the children, and other domestic tasks.  5
Progress of migrations. The eastern Germans (Bastarnae, Burgundians, Gepids, Goths, Heruls, Rugians, Sciri) moved toward the Black Sea; they arrived there by 214 C.E. The division of Visigoth (West Goth) and Ostrogoth (East Goth) probably arose after their arrival at the Black Sea.  6
1. The Huns
The Huns, nomadic Mongols of the Ural-Altaic group, probably under pressure from the Zhu-Zhu Empire in Asia, swept into Europe in the 4th century and halted for some fifty years in the valley of the Danube and Theiss.  7
Height of the Hun power under Attila. Honoria, sister of Valentinian III, to escape an unwelcome marriage, sent her ring to Attila and asked for aid. Attila claimed this to be an offer of marriage. About the same time, Gaiseric the Vandal was intriguing to induce Attila to attack the Visigoths. By a clever pretense of friendliness to both sides, Attila kept the Romans and Goths apart, and set out westward with a great force (451). Metz was taken and the Belgic provinces ravaged. To meet Attila, the Roman Aëtius mustered a force of Salian Franks, Ripuarians, Burgundians, Celts, and Visigoths under Theodoric I, as well as his own Gallo-Romans. Attila apparently declined battle near Orleans and turned back.  8
Aëtius overtook him at an unknown spot near Troyes, and a drawn battle was fought. Attila continued his withdrawal. Still claiming Honoria, Attila turned into Italy, razed Aquileia, ravaged the countryside (foundation of Venice), and opened the road to Rome. Pope Leo, one of a commission of three sent by the emperor, appeared before Attila. Attila retreated after plague had broken out in his force, food supplies had run low, and reinforcements arrived from the east for the Roman army. Attila's death (453) was followed by a revolt of his German vassals and the defeat of the Huns on the Nedao (in Pannonia). The remnant of the Huns settled on the lower Danube; the Gepids set up a kingdom in Dacia; the Ostrogoths settled in Pannonia.  9
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.