The Burgundians first settled in the Rhine Valley as Roman foederati at the beginning of the 5th century and established a kingdom. Incessant struggles with the Roman Empire forced the Romans to turn to the Huns to intervene against the Burgundian Kingdom. In 437, the Huns decisively defeated the Burgundians who left the Rhine Valley and settled in today’s borderlands between Switzerland, France and Italy in 442. The Burgundian Kingdom reached its height during reign of Gundobad (480-516) but came to an end shortly after his death. The Burgundians were decisively defeated by the Franks in the Battle at Autun in 534. Burgundian territory was incorporated into the Frankish Kingdom and the Burgundian Kingdom ceased to exist as an independent kingdom.
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The Visigoths under leadership of King Alaric moved to Aquitaine after the sack of Rome in 410 and established a kingdom with center at Toulouse. They settled in Aquitaine as Roman foederati and joined the Roman army against the Huns, helped suppress the peasant’s revolts and joined the war against the Vandals and Alans in the Iberian Peninsula. The Visigoths expanded their influence in southern Gaul and Iberian Peninsula during the reign of Euric (466-484) but the Visigothic Kingdom reached its height during the reign of King Alaric II (485-507) and became an important European power.
The Suebi captured and settled in Gaul in 414 and Visigoths expanded their rule from Aquitaine southern from Pyrenees about the same time. Thus the Vandals were pushed on the very southern part of the Iberian Peninsula. The Vandals under leadership of their king Geiseric (428-477) crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and settled in today’s Tunis in 429. The Roman Empire granted conquered lands to the Vandals three years after the conquest of Carthage in 422 and thus emerged the first independent Germanic kingdom (all other Germanic kingdoms had a status of a Roman foederati). The Vandals were also the only Germanic peoples who settled in the Mediterranean, built a fleet and plundered the region. They controlled the larger islands in western Mediterranean sea such as Baleare, Corsica, Sicily and Sardinia for decades and presented a major threat to Rome which greatly depended from grain supply from Africa and Sicily. In 455, Geiseric captured and sacked Rome itself.
The Vandal rule in Northern Africa survived for about a century. Inner instability, tensions with the native population, rebellions of the Moors and religious struggles greatly weakened the Vandal Kingdom. The Vandal Kingdom was destroyed and incorporated into the Byzantine Empire after military campaign led by General Belisarius in 534.
Population Decline and Barbarian Invasions
The Migration Period and barbarian invasions resulted in far-reaching ethnic and demographic changes in early medieval Europe though they probably were not as dramatic as previously thought at least in some parts of Europe. Demographic decline started long before the barbarian invasions, while the population seemed to have remained relatively stable after the Plague of Justinian (541-542) though localized and less deadly outbreaks of the plague continued until the mid-8th century.
Barbarization of the Roman Empire
A part of the indigenous population was killed during the Migration Period but the barbarians have had no intention to destroy the entire population. The majority of the indigenous population continued to coexist with the newcomers and eventually merged with them, while a part of the original inhabitants retreated from the invaders in less accessible areas. However, the process of “barbarization” has started already in the late antiquity. The Crisis of the Third Century resulted in economic decline of the Roman Empire which has seriously weakened the bonds between the integral parts of the Roman Empire as well as the Roman identity in the provinces. The rural population in most Roman provinces was not much different from the barbarian peoples across the border which explains gradual barbarization of the Roman Empire without large-scale barbarian migrations. In addition, the Roman Empire has used the barbarian groups along the border against the hostile barbarian peoples, while some groups were allowed to settle in the Roman territory as foederati (neither Roman citizens nor Roman colonies) in return for providing military assistance.
The barbarian takeover varied greatly from one region to another. For example, the takeover of power by the Ostrogoths in Aquitaine was relatively peaceful, while collapse of the Roman rule in Gaul resulted in bitter conflicts between the Alamanni and the Franks. Similarly violent was the arrival of the Saxons in England after the withdrawal of the Romans and the Brythonic chieftains were forced to retreat westwards. The Muslim conquests, Viking expansion and arrival of the Hungarians in Central Europe further deepened instability throughout early medieval Europe resulting in very low overall population growth until the end of the Early Middle Ages.
Emergence of New Ethnic Groups
The Early Middle Ages saw disappearance of some peoples and emergence of new ethnic groups. Mixture between indigenous peoples and the newcomers led to creation of new ethnic groups but the process took place in two directions. The indigenous population was mostly assimilated by the new settlers but in some regions, the newcomers adopted the language and culture of the indigenous population. For example, the Franks descended from Germanic tribes from northern Europe and originally spoken Old Frankish, a West Germanic language but they were eventually absorbed into Latinhood like most Germanic peoples in Western and Southern Europe including the Goths. Slavic peoples, on the other hand, have assimilated non-Slavic peoples in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, and even completely absorbed the later invaders such as the Bulgarians.
Ethnic Identity in the Early Middle Ages
Formation of ethnicity in the Early Middle Ages was a complex process. The map of the Migration Period that illustrates the migration of ethnically homogenous groups from their distant homeland to Europe is very misleading. Ethnic identity in the Early Middle Ages was very fluid and the nature of acquiring identity of an ethnic group was very different from today’s “standards” that typically require a common heritage and often also a common language, culture and even ancestry. For example, a defeat of a king by an external enemy did not only marked his end as a ruler but could have also marked the end of his people who were absorbed into victorious ethnic group. In addition, the upper classes sometimes adopted multiple ethnicities in order to secure their position or advance socially and politically. The flexibility of ethnicity in the Early Middle Ages also explains the disappearance of many peoples and cultures without population decline and large-scale migrations. Most barbarian groups that settled in Europe are estimated to number tens of thousands. The total population in Europe in late antiquity is not exactly known but it is estimated to have been around 50 million in year 400.
The Middle Ages is a period in European history that followed the classical antiquity. The beginning of the Middle Ages is traditionally dated to year 476 when the last Western Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus was deposed by Germanic chieftain Odoacer who became the first Germanic King of Italy. The event marks the end of the Western Roman Empire but all historians do not consider it as the start date for the Middle Ages.
The transition from the classical antiquity to the Middle Ages did not happen overnight and the Western Roman Empire was only a shadow of the mighty Roman Empire when Odoacer deposed the Romulus Augustulus. The western half of the Roman Empire never truly recovered from the Crisis of the 3rd Century, while the reforms of Diocletian and Constantine the Great only postponed the fall of Rome.
The Crisis of the 3rd Century caused dramatic institutional, economic, social well as religious changes and the western half of the Roman Empire became unable to defend itself from the invasions of the barbarian peoples after permanent division of the empire in 395. By the mid-5th century the barbarians settled most part of the Western Roman Empire as foederati who were neither Roman colonies nor Roman citizens. In return for being allowed to settle on the Roman territory, they provided military assistance to the Romans but occasionally, they turned against Rome as well.
The Western Roman Empire was ruled by weak emperors after death of Valentian III in 455, while the real power was in hands of barbarian military commanders. Odoacer’s deposition of Romulus Augustulus was therefore a consequence rather than the cause of the Western Roman Empire’s collapse. For that reason there are several alternative dates to year 476 as the end of classical antiquity and beginning of the Middle Ages:
- Year 313 when Roman Emperor Constantine the Great issued the Edict of Milan proclaiming religious toleration and ending persecution of the Christians
- Year 375 when the Huns destroyed the state of the Goths at the Black Sea initiating the Migration Period
- Year 378 when Visigoths decisively defeated the Roman army and killed Emperor Valens in the Battle of Adrianople
- Year 395 when the Roman Empire permanently split into the Western Roman Empire and the Eastern Roman Empire which later came to be known as the Byzantine Empire
- Year 410 or the Sack of Rome by the Visigoths led by Alaric I
- Year 480 or death of the last de jure Western Roman Emperor, Julius Nepos
- Year 529 when the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I closed the last pagan school in Athens
- Year 647 or the Muslim conquest of North Africa