The Rise of the Barbarian Kingdoms

THE BIRTH OF NEW KINGDOMS

The barbarian kingdoms were monarchies in western Europe that formed in the wake of the fall of the Empire.  These states were founded by various non-Roman, primarily Germanic, peoples in Western Europe and Africa following the collapse of Rome.

The formation of these kingdoms was complicated and gradual as the Roman state failed to handle migrants on the borders. This led to both invasions and invitations into imperial territory while simultaneously denying barbarians the ability to properly integrate.

The barbarian kingdoms, though formed through tumultuous means, played an important role in the history of Europe. They provided much-needed stability and order in the wake of the chaotic collapse of the Western Roman Empire.

The influence of barbarian rulers, first as local warlords and client kings, increased as Roman emperors and usurpers used them as pawns in civil wars. Over time, barbarian rulers began to consolidate power and seek more autonomous rule. It was only after the collapse of the Empire that they were able to break away from this authority and form their own independent states.

 

POWER AND LEGITIMACY

From the 4th to the 7th centuries, barbarian kings of the west adopted the style dominus noster (“our lord”) and prename Flavius, borne by virtually all Roman emperors in late antiquity. Virtually all of them assumed the style “dominus noster,” previously used by emperors, and many assumed the prenominal Flavius.

The kings typically also assumed a subordinate position in diplomacy with the remaining Eastern Roman Empire. This not only gave the barbarian kings the right to rule, but also made them look much more powerful than they would have been without the Roman Empire’s support.

The barbarian kings of the Middle Ages adopted many of the rules and institutions of the Roman Empire, but they also developed their own systems of rule. The old Roman system gradually dissolved and disappeared over the centuries, accelerated by periods of political turmoil in Europe and the Middle East.

The major difference between the administration of the old Western Roman Empire and the new royal administrations was their scale, as the barbarian governments, on account of controlling significantly less territory, were less deep and less complex.

As a result, there was a considerable breakdown in living standards as well as social and economic complexity. For the most part, the barbarian kingdoms were highly fragile and ephemeral.

By the time Charlemagne, king of the Franks, was crowned emperor in 800, most people thought it was the end of the time of the barbarian kingdoms. Only the Frankish kingdom was left of the once large and diverse network of kingdoms.

 

Barbarian Kingdoms in the Roman Empire in 460 CE
Roman Empire in 460 CE (File:Roman Empire 460 CE.svg - Wikimedia Commons, 2013)

MIGRATION, SETTLEMENT & GROWTH

Stage 1 - Migration into the Western Roman Empire

The rise of the barbarian kingdoms in the territory previously governed by the Western Roman Empire was a gradual, complex, and largely unintentional process. 

The migrations of large numbers of barbarian (i.e., non-Roman) peoples into the territory of the Roman Empire were the catalyst for their formation. This influx of new populations created a distinct cultural shift from the traditional Roman ways of life and ushered in a new era.

The migrations were spurred by both invasions and invitations. Inviting peoples from beyond the imperial frontier to settle Roman territory was not a new policy but something that had been done several times by emperors in the past, mostly for economic, agricultural, or military purposes. 

The capacity for immigration in a state as large and powerful as the Roman Empire was nearly infinite, but several events and accidents in the fourth through fifth centuries complicated the situation. People from places like Gaul, Hispania, and Britain all made their way to the Roman Empire to take part in its culture.

 

Barbarian Kingdoms - Political division in Europe, North Africa and Near East after the end of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD.
Political division in Europe, North Africa and Near East after the end of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD. (File:Europe and the near East at 476 AD.png - Wikimedia Commons, 2016)
Stage 2 - Settlement within the Western Roman Empire

In 376, the Visigoths, fleeing before the Ostrogoths, who in turn were fleeing before the Huns, were allowed to cross the Danube river and settle in the Balkans by the government of the Eastern Roman Empire. When the refugees from Gothia were treated badly, they started a full-scale rebellion. In 378, at the Battle of Adrianople, they beat the Eastern Roman field army so badly that Emperor Valens, who ruled from 364 to 378, also died.

The defeat at Adrianople was shocking to the Romans and forced them to negotiate with and settle the Visigoths within the borders of the Empire, where they would become a semi-independent federation under their own leader. Thus, in a sense, the Roman Empire opened its gates to the influx of foreign people and cultures from all over Europe and even beyond.

 

Stage 3 - Gain in Influence

During the reign of Alaric I (r. 395–410), the Visigoths became an active force in imperial politics, only tenuously linked to the imperial government itself. The effects of this were wide-reaching, and in a very real sense, the Roman Empire was becoming less centralized and more heterogeneous as these foreign people, cultures, and religions began to enter its borders.

The arrival of the Visigoths in the Balkans was followed by the Alans, Vandals, and Suebis crossing the Rhine into Gaul between 405 and 407. This left the Western Roman Empire in disarray, which allowed the barbarians to establish their own independent kingdoms. The end of Emperor Constantine III’s reign led to the tribes being able to penetrate deep into Gaul and Hispania.

 

Stage 4 - Imperial Loss of Control

The fourth stage saw the Western Roman Empire’s imperial administration recognize that it could no longer properly rule its domains. This forced the empire to cede practical control of more regions to barbarian warlords, whose domains were now a permanent part of the landscape, despite the fact that lands inside the previous imperial lines were still considered to be part of the empire.

Treaties signed in 439 with the Visigoths and in 442 with the Vandals, who had conquered North Africa, practically acknowledged the rulers of those peoples as territorial governors of parts of the imperial territory, putting an end to the pretense of active imperial administration.

These treaties, while not considered irreversible, lay the groundwork for actual territorial kingdoms. This signaled the start of the following stage, in which the Western Roman Empire decentralized and became weaker as a result of its incapacity to properly govern its vast borders.

 

Stage 5 - Formation of Barbarian Kingdoms

Until the late fifth century, or even later, rulers were firmly bound to geographical kingdoms. The barbarian kings, left to their own ways, gradually lost the tendency to wait for the empire to operate properly again and began to take on the functions of the old emperors, becoming real territorial rulers. The end of imperial rule sped up this trend by making it easier for barbarian rulers to start and keep their own kingdoms.

This process was only possible because local Roman aristocracy supported the barbarian rulers, because they considered the chance of restoring Western Roman central power as an increasingly useless prospect. 

ROMAN HERITAGE

Administrative Heritage

Even though power moved from a single capital, like Rome or Ravenna, to local kings and warlords, the system of the old Roman imperial government kept working because these new rulers kept using many of the same methods. As the time of change went on, the church’s power grew. This gave the country a new way to handle justice and a new structure.

Through the fifth and sixth centuries, Roman law continued to remain the predominant legal system in the west. Several barbarian kings issued their own law codes based on Roman law. The old Roman imperial administrative system faded away gradually over the course of centuries. But the barbarian rulers couldn’t completely replace the Roman system, so they also had to rely on tribal customs from the area.

The scale distinguished the Roman imperial government from the nascent royal administrations that aspired to mimic and reproduce it. This led to a more decentralized government, where individual rulers had more autonomy and the laws in different areas were shaped by the traditions of their own regions.

When Roman order broke down, it caused living conditions to get much worse and the economy and society to become much simpler. Trade and communication between provinces also declined as a result of weaker kingdom administrations’ inability to maintain transportation and infrastructure.

Despite this, there was still a certain level of order and unity among the different provinces that maintained their own rules and traditions.

 

Cultural Heritage

Even though the barbarian kingdoms were made up of many smaller ones, the people who lived there kept strong cultural and religious ties with each other and continued to speak Latin.

The barbarian rulers accepted Christianity and the Latin language, preserving the cultural legacy of Rome. In addition, they maintained links to their non-Roman backgrounds and worked to develop their own separate identities. This mix of Roman and other cultures made it easier for the barbarian kingdoms to move into the time after Rome.

Roman identity eventually died out in the west because the Eastern Roman Empire fought against barbarian kingdoms and the barbarian ruling class to prove its own Roman legitimacy.

The waning connection to the Roman Empire and the political division of the west led to the progressive fragmentation of culture and language. This gave rise to the modern Romance peoples and the linguistic networks and communication channels that had existed under the Roman Empire.

Roman and non-Roman civilizations had an impact on the barbarian kingdoms. While utilizing the stability of the Roman Empire, they maintained their own distinct civilizations.

 

END OF BARBARIAN KINGDOMS

The Visigoths, Franks, and Lombards were among the most powerful and longest-lasting of the early medieval barbarian states.

The Visigothic realm fell apart in the sixth century and had to be rebuilt from scratch in the 560s and 570s under Liuvigild. It was finally destroyed when it was conquered by the Umayyad Caliphate in the early 8th century.

In a series of wars in the 6th century, the Eastern Roman Empire under Justinian I (r. 527–565) conquered and destroyed the kingdoms of the Vandals in Africa and of the Ostrogoths in Italy. Most of Gaul’s smaller kingdoms were conquered and merged into the Frankish kingdom, or they have been completely forgotten by history.

THE CREATION OF THE REALMS

The new realms that formed between the seventh and ninth centuries constituted a new order that was mainly distinct from the old Roman world. The Umayyad Caliphate, which seized Hispania from the Visigoths and North Africa from the Eastern Romans, asserted no claim to Roman continuity. They aimed instead to establish a new order based on Islamic ideals.

The Lombard kingdom reigned over an Italy ravaged by fighting between the Ostrogoths and the Eastern Roman Empire.  In 774, their kingdom was conquered by the Franks, bringing an end to their dominion over Italy. Even though they were called “barbarians,” the Lombards were good rulers. They rebuilt much of the infrastructure and cities that had been destroyed in the Gothic War.

The small kingdoms that came after the Visigoths in Hispania, such as Leon, Castile, and Aragon, were sub-Frankish and closer in culture and government to the Frankish kingdom than to the fallen Visigothic realm.

As the only survivor of the ancient kingdoms, the Frankish realm served as a model of early medieval monarchy for the remainder of the Middle Ages. Even though the Frankish rulers retained Roman ideals, centuries of their reign had turned the government into something that bore little resemblance to the Roman Empire.

The time of the barbarian kingdoms ended when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne, King of the Franks, as Roman Emperor in 800. This was against the authority of the Eastern Roman Empire, which was still in power.

Charlemagne’s empire was run by a system of individual authority. Most of the power came from Charlemagne’s relationships with the rulers of the different kingdoms, not from a structured legal or administrative system.

DOCUMENTARY

Source: (HistoryMedieval, 2024)

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SOURCES

  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2022, October 22). Barbarian kingdoms. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbarian_kingdoms

  • History Time. (2021). Entire History of Steppe Nomads & City Builders // Ancient Prehistory Documentary [YouTube Video]. In YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IrqkwG7Nqj8

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