Migration Period, "Invasion" versus "migration"

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Summary

The Migration Period, also known as the period of the barbarian invasions or as the Völkerwanderung ("migration of peoples" in German), was a period of intensified human migration in Europe from about 376 to 800 AD during the transition from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages. This period was marked by profound changes both within the Roman Empire and beyond its "barbarian frontier". The migrants who came first were Germanic tribes such as the Goths, Vandals, Angles, Saxons, Lombards, Suebi, Frisii and Franks; they were later pushed westwards by the Huns, Avars, Slavs, Bulgars and Alans.

Details

Historians have postulated several explanations for the appearance of "barbarians" on the Roman frontier: weather and crops, population pressure, a "primeval urge" to push into the Mediterranean, or the "domino effect" (whereby the Huns fell upon the Goths who, in turn, pushed other Germanic tribes before them). Entire barbarian tribes (or nations) flooded into Roman provinces, ending classical urbanism and beginning

008000

new types of rural settlements.

In general, French and Italian scholars have tended to view this as a catastrophic event: the destruction of a civilization and the beginning of a "Dark Age" which set Europe back a millennium. In contrast, German and English historians have tended to see it as the replacement of a "tired, effete and decadent Mediterranean civilization" with a "more virile, martial, Nordic one". Rather than "invasion", German and Slavic scholars use the term "migration" (, , and ), aspiring to the idea of a dynamic and "wandering Indo-Germanic people".

The scholar Guy Halsall has seen the barbarian movement as the result of the fall of the Roman Empire, not as its cause. Archaeological finds have confirmed that Germanic and Slavic tribes were settled agriculturalists who were probably merely "drawn into the politics of an empire already falling apart for quite a few other causes". The Crisis of the Third Century caused significant changes within the Roman Empire, in both its western and eastern portions. In particular, economic fragmentation removed many of the political, cultural and economic forces which had held the empire together. The rural population in Roman provinces became distanced from the metropolis, and there was little to differentiate them from other peasants across the Roman frontier. In addition, Rome increasingly used foreign mercenaries to defend itself. This "barbarisation" of the Empire was paralleled by changes within barbaricum. For example, the Roman Empire played a vital role in building up barbarian groups along its frontier. Propped up with imperial support and gifts, the armies of allied barbarian chieftains served as buffers against hostile barbarian groups. The disintegration of Roman economic power weakened groups that had come to depend on Roman gifts for the maintenance of their own power. With the arrival of the Huns, this prompted many groups to invade the provinces for economic reasons.

The nature of the barbarian takeover of former Roman provinces varied from region to region. For example, in Aquitaine the provincial administration was largely self-reliant. Halsall has argued that local rulers simply "handed over" military rule to the Ostrogoths, acquiring the identity of the newcomers. In Gaul the collapse of imperial rule resulted in anarchy: the Franks and Alemanni were pulled into the ensuing "power vacuum", resulting in conflict. In Spain local aristocrats maintained independent rule for some time, raising their own armies against the Vandals. Meanwhile, the Roman withdrawal from lowland England resulted in conflict between Saxons and the Brythonic chieftains (whose centres of power retreated westward as a result). The Eastern Roman Empire attempted to maintain control of the Balkan provinces, despite a thinly-spread imperial army that relied mainly on local militias and an extensive effort to re-fortify the Danubian limes. The ambitious fortification efforts collapsed, worsening the impoverished conditions of the local populace and resulting in colonization by Slavic warriors and their families.

Halsall and Noble have argued that such changes stemmed from the breakdown in Roman political control, which exposed the weakness of local Roman rule. Instead of large-scale migrations, there were military takeovers by small groups of warriors and their families (who usually numbered in the tens of thousands). This process involved active, conscious decision-making by Roman provincial populations. The collapse of centralized control severely weakened the sense of Roman identity in the provinces, which may explain why the provinces underwent dramatic cultural changes at this time even though few barbarians settled in them. Ultimately, the Germanic groups in the Western Roman Empire were accommodated without "dispossessing or overturning indigenous society" and maintained a structured and hierarchical (albeit attenuated) form of Roman administration. Ironically, they lost their unique identity as a result of this accommodation and were absorbed into Latinhood. In contrast, in the east, Slavic tribes maintained a more "spartan and egalitarian" existence bound to the land "even in times when they took their part in plundering Roman provinces". Their organizational models were not Roman, and their leaders were not normally dependent on Roman gold for success. Thus, they arguably had a greater effect on their region than the Goths, Franks or Saxons had on theirs.

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