Elliot Fernandez

Historian and Front-end developer

Barbarian invasions in the end of the Roman Empire

The invasion of the Germanic populations and their establishment in the space occupied by the Roman Empire created a multitude of barbarian kingdoms that filled the vacuum with power after the disappearance of the Empire.
Elliot Fernández

Elliot Fernández

He has a degree in History from the Autonomous University of Barcelona (2009) and a Master's in World History from Pompeu Fabra University (2011).

Post on 27/10/2019 | Updated on 14/09/2022

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The barbarian invasions were a great migratory movement of populations from the east and south that settled in the territory of the Roman Empire from the beginning of the 4th century to the 7th century. There was a great diversity of peoples, who have traditionally been called “Germanic“, but who had great differences between them: the Vandals, the Huns, the Visigoths, the Franks, the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes.

The Visigothic Kingdom of Toledo in ancient Roman Hispania

The Goths, established in the Iberian Peninsula and a good part of the southern half of France according to the old agreements with the Empire, were expelled from France after their defeat in the Battle of Vouillé in the year 507. After the death of King Alaric II the Visigoths retreated to Narbonne and then to Barcelona where they established their court from 508 to 511 before moving definitively to Toledo to become the Kingdom of Toledo.

Leovigild, Visigoth King (568-586)

The political power of the Visigoths was by no means established on the Iberian Peninsula. It was not until the reign of Leovigild (568-586). During this period the first chronicle of the Visigoth dynasty was written by Bishop John of Biclaro.

Much of the information about King Leovigild has come to our days thanks to the chronicler and bishop John of Biclaro. We know that he promoted a legislative codification, known as the Code of Leovigild, of which no fragment is preserved directly. We also know that for the first time a Visigoth king inscribed his name on coins with the following inscription: Leovigildus Rex.

Until then, coins circulating in the Iberian Peninsula reproduced copies of the ancient coins of the Roman Empire. This meant the assumption by the Visigoths of a legitimacy according to which they were the authentic and sole heirs of the Roman Empire.

In 578 Leovigild built the palatine city (state complex) which was named after one of his sons, Reccopolis (province of Guadalajara). In addition, throughout his reign, he had to carry out many military campaigns to pacify the territory.

Visigoth Kingdom
Visigothic Kingdom in 586 during the reign of Leovigild. In green is the territory that was part of the Byzantine Empire. Original source: Wikipedia.org

The year 573 witnessed a major event: Leovigild associated his two sons to the throne, so that they would govern together at his death. The question of succession was a fundamental one, since it implied an attempt by Leovigild to establish the real succession in a legitimate way. This reflected an unstable period. Until then, the question of succession was a real problem for the Visigoths of the Peninsula. It was not the same in the Merovingian dynasty (Frankish kingdom) where they had a much more orderly succession.

During the reign of Leovigild there was a certain sophistication of the ceremonial court. The Visigoth king sat on a throne when he met with high dignitaries and wore distinguished clothes.

Right at the beginning of his reign he clashed with the Byzantine troops. In 572 there was a battle in the Guadalquivir Valley. John of Biclaro’s chronicle explains it: “Multasque urbes te castella interfecta rusticorum (peasants) multitudine in Gothorum dominium revocado.”

Leovigild placed many rustic lands under the control of the Visigoths again, with the aim of restoring authority and giving it legitimacy. In 574, during his campaign against Cantabria, Leovigild took the village of Amaya (Burgos) and killed the local aristocrats who formed the “senatus” of the province. In 581, he organized a campaign against the Basques. He spent 15 years making battles all over the Peninsula. He organized battles against local political powers, which were not politically structured. The immediate result of these campaigns was looting. After the battle some agreements were made, pax, with the defeated.

For years, he devoted himself to organizing power, especially those aspects related to routine tax procedures. Leovigild had enormous problems to maintain himself in power and suffered various attempts of usurpation of his position, including the attempted usurpation made by his son, Hermenegild.

The Visigothic Kingdom of Toledo (507-711) was never in a position to organize a regular, stable and homogeneous collection of taxes.

The new powers: what was a Regnum? How do you explain the submission of the Gothi to the Kingdom?

On what was the superior position of the Gothi within the Visigothic Kingdom based? The Gothi were the tax collectors. They were granted fiscal powers. When the King punished them, he sent them into exile (he revoked their fiscal attributions). This was a problem: the Gothi didn’t always organize tax collections, so he had to send someone to account for them. This situation caused great instability within the Kingdom itself.

The power issue

As Gregory of Tours wrote in one of his chronicles, the Frankish kings frequently organized expeditions against the Saxons. Gregory, in his “Historia Francorum” explains that King Chlothar I led several expeditions against the Saxons, accompanied by the “Franci” (who were the Gothi or potentate). The Franci formed a small group in the centre of the State that led the armies and had great influence on the King.

Chlothar I, together with the Franci, entered the land of the Saxons. The Franci did not want to sign peace with the Saxons, but before the expedition of Chlothar I, they sent messengers to ask for peace. The messengers of the Saxons affirmed that they would not refuse to pay taxes but the Franci did not trust them. Negotiations continued and the Saxons sent messengers for the third time to the court of Chlothar. The Saxons, the messengers claimed, were willing to give everything except women and children. Again the Franci refused the agreement and it all ended in a battle, which they lost.

King Chlothar I had to delegate power to the Grandees of the Reign (also called in the different historical sources Franci, Gothi or potentes). The King, with very limited political power, ended up delegating political authority to these potentes.

Why did the Franci want women and children?

Medieval states were states that captured people. Political power in these societies depended largely on a numerical question. The central nucleus of the state was formed by the people. To the extent that the central core had the capacity to mobilize more people, it could aspire to have more or less political power.

Political power was transmitted through people, so the more people the better. It was sometimes the case that these captures were made by groups that were not formally constituted as states. When farmers captured women and children, they did so to ensure the survival of the group. There were also people who were captured to be sold. Sometimes the captures could be the result of booty or as a tribute. The word “value” always has the original meaning, the price someone pays to free themselves. There was a time when these captures could end up eroding or extinguishing the group. But there were alternative solutions: the capture of grain, livestock or currency in exchange for life.

The problem in the capture of people was that human reproduction is slow, therefore, to alleviate the lack of people could opt to capture cattle, currency… Things that could regenerate at a faster rate. However, in the 6th, 7th and 8th centuries the State had to delegate the tasks of tax collection to third parties. This made the states very unstable.

The tax collection. Type of tax payment

  • Ordinationes: payment demands to people who were inside the registry;
  • Lignatium (firewood): payments in firewood, which was to be cut down and brought to the monastery;
  • Annona: Payment with crops;
  • Money: in this case it will pass accounts annually.

The principal problem was how to measure the amount to be paid, which always depended on the specific circumstances of the place. On the other hand, the authorities always tended to use regular measures.

Example of tax collection on an agricultural plantation:

  • Farmers measured the field and looked at its orientation.
  • They built the field, and decided how they ploughed it: with animals (more expenditure because they had to feed themselves) or without animals.
  • Then they sowed.
  • They protected the fields with steps or bushes, so that the animals could not enter.
  • With the fields already sown, the farmer had to wait for the rains and the cold because normally species were sown in different vegetative cycles.
  • The weeds had to be removed with a sickle.
  • Then it was time to mow, for example, with a scythe, if the ground was flat and there was no stone.
  • Once the harvest was over, he had to bring the cereal to the threshing floor. With a cart, animals or humans.
  • Once the cereal was brought to the threshing floor, in this case the barley, it had to be beaten. There the animals passed over it.
  • Once the barley was beaten, the grain had to be separated from the straw. To do this, it was thrown up.
  • At the end of the process, the straw was stored as food for the animals and to make bricks. And the grain was either stored (seed, consumption and flour) or transformed into other products.
The bulls take the grain with the hooves and the men separate the straw.
The bulls take out the grain with their hooves and the men separate the straw.

At the end of this whole process, it was time to give a share of the harvest to the State. For the State to come forward at the end of the process was seen as a manifestation of political dominance. In fact, the State did not exercise its dominion over any of the previous phases. That was the main problem and that was the reason for the instability of power.

The Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantine Empire

The Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantine Empire, under the reign of Emperor Justinian I expanded into the Italic Peninsula, North Africa, southern part of the Iberian Peninsula, the Balkans, Anatolia, Assyria and Egypt.

Byzantine Empire. Barbarian invasions
The Byzantine Empire under Emperor Justinian (527-565). Source: Wikipedia.org

Between the end of the 6th century and the beginning of the 7th century, the Byzantine Empire began to lose territory. The reason for these territorial changes is the fact that the Byzantine Empire was organized like the Roman Empire, although some problems had been resolved. Emperor Heraclius (610-641) tried to bind his son to the throne as a co-regent to give hereditary stability. However, this attempt to create a new dynasty lasted only one century.

At the beginning of the 8th century the Byzantine Empire no longer retained territories in the West. From that moment onward, it was a tiny Empire threatened from all sides.

Troubles also resulted from religious reasons:

  • The problem of iconoclasm and the persecution of the cult of human images. Controversy between the Emperor and the ecclesiastical hierarchy as well as concerning the control of monasteries. In a council the monasteries forbade iconoclasm. The emperor was branded a hypocrite;
  • Great conflict with the cult of saints. The problem with the cult of saints was the centralization in the administration of the cult, from power. Veneration for the image of a saint was done on a local basis, difficult to control from power in a centralized way. In the West this problem was not so important. In the East, on the other hand, it was more significant.

The thesis of historian Henri Pirenne

In 1937 the Belgian historian Henri Pirenne published one of his best-known works entitled “Mohammed and Charlemagne.” In it, he made up his thesis that without Mohammed, Charlemagne could not be explained. What linked them?

Henri Pirenne
Portrait of Henri Pirenne

Charlemagne marked dramatically the Middle Ages, a time of contraction, impoverishment and darkness. For Pirenne, in the 7th-8th centuries, there was a separation in the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean, which in classical times had been used to organize trade, became an enclosed sea in the 7th century. Exchanges came to an end due to Muslim conquests and the Arab domination of the territory.

The ports lost all the vitality they had before. The trade centres, which until then had been located in the Mediterranean, moved to the North and Central Europe, with a new backbone, the Rhine.

According to Pirenne, the loss of commercial vitality of the Mediterranean was due to the Arab conquests.

As a result, the founding nucleus of the Carolingian monarchy was located on the Rhine, where all the commercial activity had moved.

Despite the importance of Henri Pirenne’s thesis for many years, the subsequent historiography carried out a complete revision and dismantling. In the 1980s a fundamental critical review of Pirenne by archaeologists Fichard Hodges and David Whitehanse appeared with their book “Mohammed, Charlemagne, and the Origins of Europe: The Pirenne Thesis in the Light of Archaeology” of 1983. The work is a general questioning of Pirenne’s entire thesis.

Hodges and Whitehanse initially nuance and then revise the chronologies imagined by Pirenne:

  • There was no total interruption of trade in the Mediterranean;
  • The chronology of the changes proposed by Pirenne was revised. The turning point was not the Arab conquests, but before, at the end of the 5th century with the end of the Western Roman Empire and the incursions of the Germanic tribes.


All articles of the course:

  • Link The crisis of the 3rd century and the collapse of the Roman Empire
  • Link The conversion of Constantine, the Christian Empire
  • Link Barbarian invasions in the end of the Roman Empire
  • Link Charlemagne, Emperor. The Kingdom of the Franks (481-987)
  • Link Expansion of Islam in the Mediterranean (8th — 10th centuries)
  • Link Early Middle Ages: society and peasant food
  • Link The rise of Feudal system in the Middle Ages
  • Link Medieval cities under feudalism and commercial expansion
  • Link Christianity, a universal institution for the feudal order
  • Link The origin of the Feudal Monarchies
  • Link The Hundred Years’ War (1337 – 1453)
  • Link The Question of Medieval Growth (11th — 13th century)
  • Link The crisis of the Late Middle Ages
  • Link Economic and social effects of the crisis of the Late Middle Ages
  • Link Peasant revolts and urban conflicts in the Late Middle Ages
  • Link The Western Schism (1378-1417)
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