Throughout the ages there have been many important events, times crucial to the outcome of the future with regards to a very large portion of the population or a continent. The results of the Greco-Persian wars were so important that the defeat of Greece could easily have meant the loss of western civilization to the Orient. The fact that Alexander’s army refused to cross into India meant the prevention of harmful religions such as Hinduism entering into a knowledge-rich Asia Minor, or a philosophy-defined Eastern Europe. In like manner, the barbarian invasions into the Western Roman Empire defined the history of Europe for centuries to come. And it was not one barbaric nation; several tribes appeared. The mixing of these barbaric tribes with advanced Roman thought resulted in military, cultural, socio-economic, and political changes, marking the very beginning of the Middle Ages.
Of first note is to what extent the “mixing” occurred. The famous Roman legions were spread over the empire’s extensive borders, and the almost simultaneous intrusions of the many surrounding nations ended in a complete implosion of the Roman Empire. But, contrary to popular thinking, the invaders were not a huge mass of armies overpowering everywhere; the barbarian armies counted in the tens of thousands at most (Webster 360). Also, the advance was more of a gradual overflow rather than a dam-burst. The invasions began around 235 and continued through the official dissolution of the western empire in 476, till the barbarians had permanently settled in the conquered lands (Lodge 107). After this time, the ratio of barbarians to pre-existing inhabitants was commonly around one to three (Webster 376). But the difference is that this one third took the reigns of power, and that the conquered peoples had no spirit or desire to resist. For them, a bunch of tribes ruling was not much different to the far-away emperor of Rome, who taxed so heavily that “Roman citizens came to dread the visits of the tax gatherers more than the inroads of the barbarians” (Webster 321).
So who were these tribes? One of the first seen and most bothersome nations was the Germans. The Roman legions were never able to conquer them or even to somewhat pacify them; the Rhine River and some of the Danube River had always been Rome’s northern border, never more. Also, the Franks, the Goths, who split into Ostrogoth and Visigoth, the Lombards, the Anglo-Saxons, the Vandals, and the Huns took part in the downfall of Rome, but the two nations that most affected Europe were the Germans and the Franks. So, really, a quick look at only these two tribes is sufficient to function as a summary of the effects of barbarism (it should be mentioned that Great Britain is an exception; the Anglo-Saxons were able to almost exterminate Roman influence there).
Militarily, the Roman legion had been superceded by one seemingly insignificant but crucial invention; the stirrup. Because of it, the barbarian cavalry, especially that of the Huns, were able to out-maneuver the legion (Webster 362). Rome used cavalry only sparingly, as an extra. But henceforth, the army of the Middle Ages consisted mainly of horse troops; this led indirectly to chivalry and the knight of the Crusades. Also, the Roman government decided to move the capital from Rome to Constantinople; one reason was that Rome “lay too far from the vulnerable frontiers; Constantinople occupied a position about equidistant from the Germans on the lower Danube and the Persians on the Euphrates” (Webster 318). And finally, the method of grouping together, namely, a chief and his warriors, as was the custom of the barbarians, led back to “might makes right;” where the bravest and strongest warrior led the others. Thus it conveyed a much deeper sense of loyalty: … a military brotherhood based on honor, fidelity, courage, and mutual respect between the leader and his men. In warfare the leader was expected to excel his men in courage and...
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