What Is The Migration Period? – Part 1: The Romans and The Goths

Before I studied history I didn’t know a lot about certain periods, one of which was the apparent gap between the time of the Romans and the beginning of the true Medieval period. Eventually I found out that this is known as ‘The Migration Period’. This period of history is often overlooked in many places, and is almost entirely absent from any form of popular culture or even popular history. It is often lumped in with most of the Early Medieval period and labelled ‘The Dark Ages’, a term used to depict Europe as having no advancement in the time following the end of the Roman Empire that is now disregarded by modern historians. So seeing as there seems to be such little common knowledge of the period I’m going to try and give an overview of what the Migration Period was, and which people were migrating where.

Depending on how you look at it the Migration Period could be defined either as a result or cause of the tragic collapse of the Western Roman Empire (AD 476), or defined by pressures from the East, most notably the Hunnic and Gothic peoples pushing their way west and causing further migration. You’ll get a different image of the period based on the viewpoint of the historian, Medieval or contemporary Roman writer you read from. However it is a difficult period in which to pin down many of the causes and effects, and which way around they were, but given that the period is generally considered to have lasted around 300 years from about AD 300 to 600, with possibility of going back further, it is likely that most theories of the factors that invoked the change and turbulence of the Migration Period all played a part.

In this first part I will cover the changes in the Roman Empire went through in the Migration period until the fall of the Western Empire in the late 5th Century, as well as the migrations of the Goths from their origins until their settlement and founding of two separate kingdoms in former Roman lands.

Invasions of the Roman empire, shows most of the major migration paths of the period

The Romans

The Migration Period has a great deal of overlap with the period of Late Antiquity defined by the Roman Empire, and even though it isn’t always good to look at such a wide ranging historical period such as this solely from the point of view of the Mediterranean as some do, there is also no avoiding the influence of the Romans on much of Europe at this time.

It is common to see the end of the Roman Empire described as the ‘fall’ or ‘collapse’, which makes it seem as if they were defeated or destroyed outright, whereas it should really be seen as more of a gradual decline. The Roman Empire reached its greatest extent around AD 100. It entirely encompassed the Mediterranean Sea and stretched from The Atlantic to Mesopotamia. The Empire had a comprehensive civil administration based in thriving cities with effective control over public finances. The Empire’s power allowed it to maintain extreme differences of wealth and status and its wide-ranging trade networks permitted even modest households to use goods made by professionals far away. Its financial system allowed it to raise significant taxes which, despite some corruption, supported a large regular army of trained, supplied, and disciplined professional soldiers.

The Roman Empire at its full extent of power

Moving onto the end of the 4th Century AD and onwards, the Roman Empire appears a very different place. After multiple defeats, civil wars, plague and other internal strife the Empire was split in two, into the Western and Eastern Empires. The effectiveness of the Roman military, financial and political machines greatly dwindled over time as a long series of Emperors were seen as incompetent. Military forces were largely defensive border forces made up of local recruits and ‘barbarians’ with limited training and supply, leading to them moving away from central control and becoming more independent. Corruption, in this context the diversion of public finance from the needs of the army, may have contributed greatly to the Fall. The rich senatorial aristocrats in Rome itself became increasingly influential during the 5th Century; they supported armed strength in theory, but did not wish to pay for it or to offer their own workers as army recruits. At a local level, from the early 4th Century, the town councils lost their property and their power, which often became concentrated in the hands of a few local despots beyond the reach of the law.

It is generally agreed that the Western Roman Empire ended in 476 when Odoacer deposed the Emperor Romulus. the Western Roman Emperor wielded minimal military, political, or financial power and had no effective control over the scattered Western domains that could still be described as Roman, and was probably past the point of no return long before 476. Invaders had established their own power in most of the area of the Western Empire, many of which were still portrayed as ‘clients’ of the Empire, when in reality they ruled in their own right. While its legitimacy lasted for far longer than any real power, the Western Roman Empire never had the strength to rise again.

The Goths

The Gothic people played a large part in the Migration Period, after fighting on behalf of and against both the Romans and the Huns in different circumstances, they eventually settled into two separate kingdoms in former Roman lands towards the end of the Migration Period.

The Goths were an East Germanic people who are thought to have originated in Southern Sweden from where they migrated to Gothiscandza in present day Poland in the 1st Century AD. They then eventually migrated East all the way to the Pontic Steppe where they adopted the ways of the Eurasian nomads. The first Greek references to the Goths lump them in with the local Scythians despite them being unrelated.

By the 4th century, the Goths had divided into two main branches, the Visigoths, who became foederati of the Roman Empire, and the Ostrogoths, who joined the Huns. The Goths became heavily Romanized during the 4th Century. This came about through trade with the Romans, as well as through Gothic membership of a military covenant, which was based in Byzantium and involved pledges of military assistance. Reportedly, 40,000 Goths were brought by Constantine to defend Constantinople in his later reign, and the Palace Guard was mostly composed of Germanic soldiers, as the quality and quantity of the native Romans troops kept declining.

The Visigoths, despite previously having fought on the side of the Romans again attacked them. From AD 401 they were led by Alaric I in an invasion of Italy and in AD 410 they successfully besieged Rome and sacked it. The Visigothic leaders wanted influence over the Roman Empire and supported the usurper Attalus against Emperor Honorius. After this they moved on to Hispania and Gaul and spent the next few years diplomatically playing competing factions of Germanic and Roman commanders against one another to skilful effect, and taking over cities such as Narbonne and Toulouse . Emperor Honorius eventually enlisted them to provide Visigothic assistance in regaining nominal Roman control of Hispania from the Vandals, Alans and Suevi.

In 418, Honorius rewarded his Visigothic federates under King Wallia (reigned 415-419) by giving them land in the Garonne valley of Gallia Aquitania on which to settle, from which formed the Visigothic Kingdom. In 507, the Visigoths were pushed into Hispania by the Frankish Kingdom following the Battle of Vouillé in 507. By the late 6th century, the Visigoths had converted to Christianity. They were conquered in 711 when the Muslim Moors defeated Roderic during the Umayyad conquest of Hispania, but they founded the Kingdom of Asturias in 718 and began to regain control under the leadership of the Visigothic nobleman Pelagius of Asturias, whose victory at the Battle of Covadonga began the centuries long Reconquista. It was from the Asturian kingdom that modern Spain and Portugal evolved.

As for the other half of the Gothic people, In the 4th Century, the Ostrogothic king Ermanaric became the most powerful Gothic ruler, coming to dominate a vast area of the Pontic Steppe which possibly stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea as far eastwards as the Ural Mountains.

In 454 AD, the Ostrogoths successfully revolted against the Huns at the Battle of Nedao and their leader Theoderic the Great invaded what is now Italy in 488 and settled his people there, founding an Ostrogothic Kingdom which eventually gained control of the whole Italian peninsula. The Goths were briefly reunited under one crown in the early 6th century under Theodoric the Great, who became regent of the Visigothic kingdom following the death of Alaric II at the Battle of Vouillé in 507. The Ostrogothic kingdom persisted until 553, when Italy returned briefly to Byzantine control.

The maximum extent of Gothic territory under Theoderic in 523

Come back soon for part 2 of my run through of the lead players of the Migration period where I will take a look at some of the other Germanic tribes, the Saxons, the Franks, the Slavs and the Huns.


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