Gateway to the Classics: The Story of the Middle Ages by Samuel B. Harding
The Story of the Middle Ages by  Samuel B. Harding

End of the Western Empire

W HILE the West-Goths were winning lands and booty within the Empire, the other Germans could not long remain idle. They saw that the legions had been recalled from the frontiers in order to guard Italy. They saw their own people suffering from hunger and want. Behind them, too, they felt the pressure of other nations, driving them from their pastures and hunting grounds.

So the news of Rome's weakness and Alaric's victories filled other peoples with eagerness to try their fortunes in the Southern lands. Before the Wast-Goths had settled down in Spain, other tribes had begun to stream across the borders of the Empire. Soon the stream became a flood, and the flood a deluge. All Germany seemed stirred up and hurled against the Empire. Wave after wave swept southward. Horde after horde appeared within the limits of the Empire, seeking lands and goods. For two hundred years this went on. Armies and nations went wandering up and down, burning, robbing, slaying, and making captives. It was a time of confusion, suffering, and change; when the "uncouth Goth," the "horrid Hun," and wild-eyed peoples of many names, struggled for the lands of Rome. They sought only their own gain and advantage, and it seemed that everything was being overturned and nothing built up to take the place of what was destroyed. But this was only in seeming. Unknowingly, these nations were laying the foundations of a new civilization and a new world. For out of this mixing of peoples and institutions, this blending of civilizations, arose the nations, the states, the institutions, of the world of to-day.

In following the history of the West-Goths we have seen that some of these peoples had preceded the Goths into Spain. These were a race called the Vandals . They too were of German blood. At one time they had dwelt on the shores of the Baltic Sea, near the mouth of the river Elbe. From there they had wandered southward and westward, struggling with other barbarian tribes and with the remaining troops of Rome's imperial army. After many hard-fought contests they had crossed the river Rhine. They had then struggled through Gaul, and at last had reached Spain. Now they were to be driven from that land, too, by the arrival of the West-Goths.

Just at this time the governor of the Roman province of Africa rebelled against the Emperor's government. To get assistance against the Romans, he invited the Vandals to come to Africa, promising them lands and booty. The Vandals needed no second invitation. The Strait of Gibraltar, which separates the shores of Spain from Africa, is only fifteen miles wide; but when once the Vandals were across that strait, they were never to be driven back again.

Twenty-five thousand warriors, together with their women, children, and the old men, came at the call of the rebellious governor. There they set up a kingdom of their own on Roman soil. A cruel, greedy people they were, but able. From their capital,—the old city of Carthage,—their pirate ships rowed up and down the Mediterranean, stopping now at this place and now at that, wherever they saw a chance for plunder. Their King was the most crafty, the most treacherous, the most merciless of the barbarian kings.

"Whither shall we sail?" asked his pilot one day, as the King and his men set out. "Guide us," said the King, "wherever there is a people with whom God is angry."

The most famous of the Vandal raids was the one which they made on the city of Rome, forty-five years after it had been plundered by Alaric. The rulers of the Romans were as worthless now as they had been at the earlier day. Again, too, it was at the invitation of a Roman that the Vandals invaded Roman territory. No defense of the city was attempted; but Leo, the holy bishop of Rome, went out with his priests, and tried to soften the fierceness of the barbarian King. For fourteen days the city remained in the hands of the Vandals; and it was plundered to their hearts' content. Besides much rich booty which they carried off, many works of art were broken and destroyed. Because of such destruction as this, the name "Vandal" is still given to anyone who destroys beautiful or useful things recklessly, or solely for the sake of destroying them.

Another of the restless German peoples were the Burgundians . They, too, had once dwelt in the North of German, and had crossed the river Rhine in company with the Vandals. Gradually they had then spread southward into Gaul; and the result was the founding of a kingdom of the Burgundians in the valley of the Rhone River. From that day to this the name Burgundy,—as kingdom, dukedom, county, province,—has remained a famous one in the geography of Europe. But this people was never able to grow into a powerful and independent nation.

The Angles and Saxons who conquered Britain were others of these peoples. They first settled in the island (so the story runs) on the invitation of the people of Britain. The Britons had lived so long under Roman rule that they had learned the ways of their masters, and had forgotten how to fight. So, when wild tribes of Ireland and Scotland came down from the West and North to attack them, the Britons were in an evil situation. To the Roman commander in Gaul they wrote: "The barbarians drive us to the sea; the sea drives us back to the barbarians. Between them we are exposed to two sorts of death; we are either slain or drowned." When they found that the Romans were no longer able to aid them, the Britons asked help from a roving company of Saxons who had come in their long ships to the British shores. When the Angles and Saxons had once got a foothold, they proceeded to conquer the island for themselves. Thus the fairest portion of it came to be called Angleland or England. It was only after two centuries of hard fighting, however, that the conquest was completed. In the West the Britons long continued to keep their independence; and there, the "Welsh" or "foreigners" (as they were styled by the Saxons) continued to use their own language, to follow their own customs, and to obey their own Princes for hundred of years.

While the Germans were finding new homes in Roman territory, the restless Huns were ever pressing in from the rear, driving them on and taking their lands as they left. At the time when the Vandals were establishing their kingdom in Africa, and the Saxons were just beginning to come into Britain, a great King arose among the Huns. His name was Attila. Though he was a great warrior and ruler, he was far from being a handsome man. He had a large head, a flat nose, a few hairs in the place of a beard, broad shoulders, and a short square body.

The chief god of the Huns was a god of war. As they did not know how to make statues or images of him, they represented him by a sword or dagger. One day a shepherd found an old sword sticking out of the ground, and brought it to Attila. This, the King said, was a sign that the whole earth should be ruled over by him.

Whether he believed in this sign himself or not, Attila used his own sword so successfully that he formed the scattered tribes of the Huns into a great nation. By wars and treaties he succeeded in establishing a vast empire, including all the peoples from the river Volga to the river Rhine. The lands of the Eastern Empire, too, were wasted by him, even up to the walls of Constantinople. The Empire was forced to pay him tribute; and an Emperor's sister sent him her ring, and begged him to rescue her from the convent in which her brother had confined her.

In the year 451 a.d. , Attila gathered up his wild horsemen, and set out from his wooden capital in the valley of the Danube. Southward and westward they swept to conquer and destroy. It is said that Attila called himself the "Scourge of God." At any rate his victims knew that ruin and destruction followed in his track; and where he had passed, they said, not a blade of grass was left growing. On and on the Huns passed, through Germany, as far as Western Gaul; and men expected that all Europe would fall under the rule of this fierce people.

This, however, did not come to pass. Near the city of Chalons, in Eastern France, a great battle was fought, in which Romans and Goths fought side by side against the common foe, and all the peoples of Europe seemed engaged in one battle. Rivers of blood, it was said, flowed through the field, and whoever drank of their waters perished. At the close of the first day, the victory was still uncertain. On the next day Attila refused to renew the battle; and when the Romans and Goths drew near his camp, they found it silent and empty. The Huns had slipped away in the night, and returned to their homes on the Danube.

This was one of the decisive battles in the world's history, for it saved Europe from the Huns. Many legends came to cluster about it, and ages later men told how, each year on the night of the battle, the spirits of Goths and Huns rose from their graves, and fought the battle over again in the clouds of the upper air.

The next year Attila came again, with a mighty army, into the Roman lands. This time he turned his attention to Italy. A city lying at the head of the Adriatic was destroyed; and its people then founded Venice on the isles of the sea, that they might thenceforth be free from such attacks. Perhaps Attila might have pressed on to Rome and taken it, too, as Alaric had done, and as the Vandals were to do three years later. But strange misgivings fell upon him. Leo, the holy bishop of Rome, appeared in his court and warned him off. Attila, therefore, retreated, and left Rome untouched. Within two years afterward he died; and then his great empire dropped to pieces, and his people fell to fighting once more among themselves. In this way Christian Europe was delivered from one of the greatest dangers that ever threatened it.

Gaul, Spain, Africa, and Britain, had now been lost by the Romans; but amid all these troubles, the imperial government, both in the East and in the West, still went on. In the West the power had fallen more and more into the hands of chiefs of the Roman army. These men were often barbarians by blood, and did not care to be emperors themselves. Instead, however, they set up and pulled down emperors at will, as Alaric had once done.

In the year 476 a.d. —just thirteen hundred years before the signing of our Declaration of Independence,—the Emperor who was then ruling in the West was a boy of tender years, named Romulus Augustus. He bore the names of the first of the kings of Rome, and of the first of the emperors; but he was to be the last of either. A new leader had now arisen in the army,—a gigantic German, named Odoacer. When Odoacer was about to come into Italy to enter the Roman army, a holy hermit had said to him: "Follow out your plan, and go. There you will soon be able to throw away the coarse garment of skins which you now wear, and will become wealthy and powerful." He had followed this advice, and had risen to be the commander of the Roman army. The old leader, who had put Romulus Augustulus on the throne, was now slain by him, and the boy was then quietly put aside.

Odoacer thus made himself ruler of Italy; but he neither took the name of Emperor himself, nor gave it to any one else. He sent messengers instead to the Emperor of the East, at Constantinople, and laid at his feet the crown and purple robe. He said, in actions, if not in words: "One Emperor is enough for both East and West. I will rule Italy in your name and as your agent."

This is sometimes called the fall of the Western Empire; and so it was. Yet there was not so very much change at first. Odoacer ruled in Italy in much the same way as the Emperors had done, except that his rule was better and stronger.

After sixteen years Odoacer was overthrown, and a new ruler arose in his place. This was Theodoric, the King of the East-Goths . From the days of the battle of Adrianople to the death of Attila, this people had been subject to the Huns. At the battle of Chalons they had fought on the side of the Huns, and against their kinsmen, the West-Goths. Now, however, they were free; and a great leader had arisen among them in the person of Theodoric, the descendant of a long line of Gothic kings.

When Theodoric was a young boy, he had been sent as a hostage to Constantinople, where he had lived for ten years. There he had learned to like the cultured manners of the Romans, but he had not forgotten how to fight. When he had returned home, a handsome lad of seventeen, he had gathered together an army, and without guidance from his father, had captured an important city. This act showed his ability; and when his father died he was acknowledged as the King of his people. He was a man of great strength and courage; he was also wise and anxious for his people to improve. For some years his people had been wandering up and down in the Eastern Empire; but they were unable to master that land because of Constantinople's massive walls. So, with the consent of the Emperor, Theodoric now decided to lead his East-Goths into Italy, drive Odoacer from the land, and settle his people there.

The Goths set out over the Eastern Alps, two hundred thousand strong. With them went their wives and children, their slaves and cattle, and behind came twenty thousand lumbering ox carts laden with their goods. But Odoacer proved a stubborn fighter. Several hard battles had to be fought, and a siege three years long had to be laid to his capital before he was beaten. Then Theodoric, for almost the first and last time in his life, did a mean and treacherous act. His conquered enemy was invited to a friendly banquet; and there he was put to death with his own sword. In this way Theodoric completed the conquest that made him master of the whole of Italy, together with a large territory to the North and East of the Adriatic Sea.

For thirty-three years after that, Theodoric ruled over the kingdom of the East-Goths, as a wise and able king. Equal justice was granted to all, whether they were Goths or Italians; and Theodoric sought in every way to lead his people into a settled and civilized life. The old roads, aqueducts, and public buildings were repaired; and new works in many places were erected. Theodoric was not only a great warrior and statesman; he was also a man of deep and wide thought. If any man and any people were suited to build up a new kingdom out of the ruins of the Empire, and end the long period of disorder and confusion which we call the Dark Ages, it would seem that it was Theodoric, and his East-Goths. But no sooner was Theodoric dead, than his kingdom began to fall to pieces.

The Eastern Empire had now passed into the hands of an able Emperor, who is renowned as a conqueror, a builder, and a law-giver. His name was Justinian; and he was served by men as great as himself. Under their skillful attacks, much of the lands which had been lost were now won back. The Vandal kingdom in Africa was overturned; the islands of Sicily, Corsica, and Sardinia were recovered; and at last, after years of hard fighting, the East-Goths too were conquered. The last remnant of that race then wandered north of the Alps, and disappeared from history.

It was only for a little while, however, that the Eastern Emperor was able once more to rule all Italy. Within thirteen years a new Germanic people appeared on the scene,—the last to find a settlement within the Empire. These were the Lombards , or "Langobards," as they were called from their long beards. Ten generations before, according to their legends, a wise queen had led their race across the Baltic Sea, from what is now Sweden, to Germany. Since then they had gradually worked their way south, until now they were on the borders of Italy. The northern parts of the peninsula at this time were almost uninhabited, as a result of years of war and pestilence. The resistance to the Lombards, therefore, was very weak; and the whole valley of the river Po—thenceforth to this day called "Lombard"—passed into their hands almost at a blow.

These Lombards were a rude people and but little civilized, when they first entered Italy. It was not until some time after they had settled there, that they even became Christians. A wild story is told of the King who led them into Italy. He had slain with his own hand the King of another German folk, and from his enemy's skull he had made a drinking cup, mounted in gold. His wife was the daughter of the King he had slain. Some time after, as he sat long at the table in his capital, he grew boisterous; and sending for the cup, he forced his Queen to drink from it bidding her "drink joyfully with her father." At this the Queen's heart was filled with grief and anger, and she plotted how she might revenge her father upon her husband. So, while the King slept one night, she caused an armed man to creep into the room and slay him. In this way she secured her revenge; but she, and all who had helped her, came to evil ends,—for, as an old writer says, "the hand of Heaven was upon them for doing so foul a deed."

The Lombards were not so strongly united as most of the Germans, nor was their form of government so highly developed. Many independent bands of Lombards settled districts in Central and Southern Italy, under the rule of their own leaders, or "dukes." In this way the peninsula was cut up into many governments. The northern part was under the Lombard King; a number of petty dukes each ruled over his own district; and the remainder, including the city of Rome, was ruled by the officers of the Eastern Emperor.

The kingdom of the Lombards lasted for about two hundred years. Then it, too, was overturned, and the land was conquered by a new German people, the greatest of them all and the only one, with the exception of the English, that was to establish a lasting kingdom. These were the Franks , who settled in Gaul, and founded France. But before we trace their history we must first turn aside and see how the Christian Church was gaining in strength and power in this dark period of warfare and confusion.

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