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Migration Period


John Bagnall Bury:

History of the Later Roman Empire

2nd to 5th century simplified migrations. See also map of the world in 820 A.D..

The Migration Period, also called the Barbarian Invasions or German: Völkerwanderung (wandering of the peoples), was a period of human migration that occurred roughly between AD 300 to 700 in Europe,[1] marking the transition from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages. These movements were catalyzed by profound changes within both the Roman Empire and the so-called 'barbarian frontier'. Migrating peoples during this period included the Huns, Goths, Vandals, Bulgars, Alans, Suebi, Frisians, and Franks, among other Germanic and Slavic tribes.

Migrations of peoples, although not strictly part of the 'Migration Age', continued beyond AD 1000, marked by Viking, Magyar, Moorish, Turkic and Mongol invasions, and these also had significant effects, especially in Central and Eastern Europe.


The migration movement may be divided into two phases: the first phase, between AD 300 and 500, largely seen from the Mediterranean perspective of Greek and Latin historians,[2] with the aid of some archaeology, put Germanic peoples in control of most areas of the former Western Roman Empire (See also: Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Burgundians, Alans, Langobards, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Suebi, Alamanni, Vandals). The first to formally enter Roman territory — as refugees from the Huns — were the Visigoths in 376. Tolerated by the Romans on condition that they defend the Danube frontier, they rebelled, eventually invading Italy and sacking Rome itself in 410, before settling in Iberia and founding a kingdom there that endured 300 years. They were followed into Roman territory by the Ostrogoths led by Theodoric the Great, who settled in Italy itself.

In Gaul, the Franks, a fusion of western Germanic tribes whose leaders had been strongly aligned with Rome, entered Roman lands more gradually and peacefully during the 5th century, and were generally accepted as rulers by the Roman-Gaulish population. Fending off challenges from the Allemanni, Burgundians and Visigoths, the Frankish kingdom became the nucleus of the future states of France and Germany. Meanwhile, Roman Britain was more slowly invaded and settled by Angles and Saxons.

The second phase, between AD 500 and 700, saw Slavic tribes settling in Central and Eastern Europe, particularly in eastern Magna Germania, and gradually making it predominantly Slavic. The Bulgars, a now-Slavicized people possibly of Turkic origin who had been present in far Eastern Europe since the 2nd century, conquered the eastern Balkan territory of the Byzantine Empire in the 7th century. The Lombards, a Germanic people, settled northern Italy in the region now known as Lombardy.

During the early Byzantine–Arab Wars, the Arab armies attempted to invade Southeastern Europe via Asia Minor in the second half of the 7th century and the early 8th century, but were eventually defeated at the siege of Constantinople by the joint forces of Byzantium and the Bulgars in 717–718. During the Khazar–Arab Wars, the Khazars stopped the Arab expansion into Eastern Europe across the Caucasus. At the same time, the Moors (consisting of Arabs and Berbers) invaded Europe via Gibraltar, conquering Hispania (the Iberian Peninsula) from the Visigothic Kingdom in 711, before being halted by the Franks at the Battle of Tours in 732. These battles largely fixed the frontier between Christendom and Islam for the next three centuries. During this time, however, the Muslims were successful in conquering Sicily and parts of southern Italy from the Christians, although never consolidating it.

During the 8th to 10th centuries, not usually counted as part of the Migration Period but still within the Early Middle Ages, new waves of migration, first of the Magyars and later of the Turkic peoples, as well as Viking expansion from Scandinavia, threatened the newly established order of the Frankish Empire in Central Europe.



There are a number of contemporary historical references across the world that there was an extended period of extreme weather in the years 535-536. This period of very cold weather is also seen through dendrochronology and ice cores. The causes of this cold weather period are debated, as are its consequences. Archaeology correspondent David Keys has asserted, controversially, that this weather event (caused in his opinion by an eruption of the Krakatoa volcano) led to the mass movement of the Mongolian tribes, which in turn prompted moves by neighbouring tribes and thus much of the disruptive 'barbarian invasions' during the reign of Justinian.[3] This theory does not help explain the massive movements of people before the year 535.

 Modern discourse

Barbarian identity

The analysis of barbarian identity and how it was created and expressed during the Migration Age has elicited deep discussion among scholars. Herwig Wolfram, the historian of the Goths,[4] in discussing the facile equation of migratio gentium with Volkerwänderung observes that Michael Schmidt introduced the equation, in his history of the Germans (1778); Wolfram observed that the significance of gens, as a biological community was shifting even during the early Middle Ages, and furthermore, "to complicate matters, we have no way of devising a terminology that is not derived from the concept of nationhood created during the French Revolution".

The so-called Primordialistic[5] paradigm enjoyed prominence during the 19th century. Scholars subscribing to this mode of thinking, such as the German linguist Johann Gottfried Herder, viewed tribes to have been reasonably coherent biological (that is racial) entities. Herder employed the term to refer to discrete ethnic groups[6]. He believed that Volk were an organic whole with a core identity and unique spirit which was expressed in art, literature and language. These were seen to be intrinsic characteristics which were timeless and remained unaffected by external influences, even conquest[7]. Language in particular was perceived to be the most important expression of ethnicity. They argued that groups sharing the same, or similar, language possessed a common identity and ancestry[8]. The Romantic ideal that there had once been a single German, Celtic or Slavic people who originated from a common homeland and once spoke a common tongue helped provide a conceptual framework for the political movements of the 18th and 19th centuries (such as German nationalism and Pan-Slavism)[7].

Beginning in the 1960s, a reinterpretation of archaeological and historic evidence prompted many scholars to propose new models for explaining the construction of barbarian identity. Scholars such as Goffart and Todd argue that no sense of shared identity was perceived by the various Germani[9][10][11]. A similar reasoning has been proposed for Celtic and Slavic groups[12]. The argument is that the primordialist mode of thinking was encouraged by a prima facie interpretation of Graeco-Roman sources which grouped together many tribes under such labels as Germani, Keltoi or Sclavenoi, perceiving them to represent distinct peoples. Instead, modernists argue that the uniqueness perceived by specific groups was primarily based on common political and economic interests rather than biological or racial distinctions. Even the role of language in constructing and maintaining group identity was ephemeral, given that large-scale language shifts have been common in history[13]. Essentially, they adhere to the idea of "imagined communities"; that the barbarian polities in Late Antiquity should be viewed as social constructs, rather than timeless and changeless lines of blood kin[14]. The process of forming tribal units was termed ethnogenesis, a term coined by Soviet scholar Julian Bromley[15]. The so-called "Austrian school", led by Reinhard Wenskus, popularized this idea which influenced numerous current medievalists such as Herwig Wolfram, Walter Pohl and Patrick Geary[16]. They argue that the stimulus for forming tribal polities was perpetuated by a small nucleus of people, called the Traditionskern (‘kernel of tradition’) who were a military or aristocratic elite. This core group formed a standard to set up much larger units, gathering adherents by employing amalgamative metaphors such as kinship and aboriginal commonality, and claiming that they perpetuated an ancient, divinely sanctioned lineage[17]. Any capable soldier would be able to partake in group identity without the requirement of being born into the "tribe". “A victorious campaign confirmed [the leaders'] right to rule and drew [to] them an ever-growing people who accepted and shared in their identity”[17]. In time, these heterogeneous armies grew into a new people and could even come to possess "a strong belief in a common biological origin"[18]. Halsall argues that no objectively definable criterion can be consistently used to distinguish ethnic groups from one another, whether it is language, social customs, geographic habitation, religion or even common origin. "The only common factor in defining ethnicity is belief: in the reality of your group and the difference to others".[19]

Walter Pohl highlights the dynamic nature of acquiring group identity. He proposes that, especially during the Migration Age, people could live in circumstances of 'ethnic ambiguity'. Given that ethnicity was particularly important for the upper classes, they could flexibly adopt even multiple ethnicities to secure the allegiances of their partners and followers, a phenomenon referred to as 'situational ethnicity' by instrumentalists.[19] To advance socially, one needed to "grow into a dominating group with high prestige, to copy its lifestyle"[20]. The process of assimilation could produce "a wide variety of transitional stages"[21]. Followers could also just as easily disband from larger units. Often, internal factions arose to challenge for the right to lead the people and uphold its traditions. At the same time, defeat by an external power could not only spell the end of a ruler, but also his people, who would be absorbed into another, more victorious confederacy.[22] “Seen in this light, ‘ethnic’ identity among barbarians was extraordinarily fluid, as new groups emerged and old ones disappeared".

Peter Heather suggests that constructionism and modernism represent two extremes in a spectrum of possibilities. The process of assimilation and appropriation of new group identity varied from group to group. He alludes to literary sources, which describe two contrasting models of interaction: the Sclavenes were ready, after a given period, to accept prisoners as full and free members of their tribal groupings; on the other hand the Huns, although politically incorporating non-Hun groups, kept them separate and subordinate. Rather than being mere aristocratic kernels, he argues that the identity of tribal groups was maintained by a large contingent of 'notables' and freemen. He clarifies that, whilst groups like the Goths were multi-ethnic, full assimilation was not the rule[23]. He proposes that conquered groups held a subordinate status, either as otherwise autonomous tribute-payers, or as 'disadvantaged' strata within mixed settlements. Even when a homogeneous material culture arose, disparate groups were likely to preserve their unique identity and language[24].

Whatever the case, this process of building larger-scaled group identity was particularly evident along the Roman frontier, prompted by the example of Roman provincial life, and the threat of Roman attack[25]. Ethnicity was probably a complex, subjective and multi-layered process. The Migration Period saw numerous groups rise and fall. Great confederations like the Huns or Vandals arose only to vanish suddenly within a few generations. Other, previously obscure groups like the Angles or the Franks succeeded in creating enduring polities. Even ancient groups, like the Goths, who existed from late Antiquity until the Middle Ages, underwent profound transformation. Given constant migrations, changing allegiances, and new cultural appropriations, all that remained constant was the Gothic name[26]. As Thomas Noble states, "tribes are no longer imagined to have been "marching for centuries at a time in ordered ranks with homogeneous ethnic compositions" from a distant but well-localized 'homeland', across much of Europe, and into a settlement on Roman soil. "The common, track-filled map of the Völkerwanderung may illustrate such [a] course of events, but it misleads. Unfolded over long periods of time, the changes of position that took place were necessarily irregular... (with) periods of emphatic discontinuity. For decades and possibly centuries, the tradition bearers idled, and the tradition itself hibernated. There was ample time for forgetfulness to do its work"[27].

 "Invasion" versus "migration"

Several explanations are given for the appearance of barbarians on the frontier, including population pressures, a ‘primeval urge’ to push into the Mediterranean, or the so-called ‘domino effect, whereby the Huns ‘fell upon’ the Goths, who in turn pushed other Germanic tribes in front of them. Entire barbarian tribes, or even ‘nations’, were seen to have flooded into Roman provinces, ending classical urbanism and beginning new types of rural settlements[28]. French and Italian scholars viewed this as a catastrophic event; the destruction of an entire civilization and the beginning of a "Dark Age" which set Europe back one thousand years. In contrast, German and English historians saw it as the replacement of a "tired, effete and decadent Mediterranean civilization" with a "more virile, martial, Nordic one."[29] Rather than the term "invasion," German and Slavic scholars use the term "migration" (Völkerwanderung in German, Stěhování národů in Czech, etc.), aspiring to the idea of a dynamic and “wandering Indo-Germanic people”[30].

Guy Halsall argues that the barbarian movements were the result of the fall of the Roman Empire, and not its cause. Archaeological finds confirm that Germanic and Slavic tribes were settled agriculturalists[31] that were merely "drawn into the politics of an empire already falling apart for quite other causes". The "third century crisis" caused significant changes within the Roman Empire, both in the west and eastern parts[32]. In particular, economic fragmentation removed many of the political, cultural and economic forces that initially bound the Empire together[33]. The rural population in Roman provinces were distant from the emperor, 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. The Roman Empire had played a vital part in the building up of barbarian groups along the frontier. Propped up by imperial support and gifts, the armies of allied chieftains served as important 'buffers' against more hostile barbarian groups. The disintegration of Roman economic power weakened groups formerly dependent on Roman gifts for maintenance of their power. Combined with the arrival of the Huns, this prompted many groups to invade the provinces and seek new fortunes[34].

This barbarian takeover of former Roman provinces varied from province to province. For example, in Aquitaine, the provincial administration was largely self-reliant. Halsall argues that local rulers simply 'handed over' military rule to the Ostrogoths, and in the process acquired the identity of the newcomers[35]. In Gaul, collapse of imperial rule resulted in anarchy, and the Franks and Alemanni were pulled into the ensuing ‘power vacuum"[36], resulting in dramatic conflicts. In Spain, local aristocrats maintained independent rule for some time, and even raised their own armies against the Vandals. Meanwhile, the Roman withdrawal from lowland England resulted in conflict between Saxons and the Brythonic chieftains whose power retreated westward. The Eastern Empire attempted to maintain control of the Balkan provinces despite a thinly spread imperial army with local militias and the undertaking of an extensive re-fortification program of the Danubian limes. However, this grandiose program of fortifications collapsed and worsened the impoverished conditions of the local populace, resulting in permanent colonization by Slavic warriors and their families[37].

Halsall and Noble both argue that the changes which took place were the result of the breakdown in Roman political control which exposed the weakness of Roman rule at the local level. Rather than 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 often involved active, conscious decisions taken by Roman provincial populations. Collapse of centralized control severely weakened the sense of Roman identity in the provinces. This would explain the dramatic culture changes seen without huge numbers of barbarian migrants[38]. Ultimately, the Germanic groups in the western Empire were accommodated without 'dispossessing or overturning indigenous society' and maintained a structured and hierarchical (albeit degenerate) form of Roman administration[39]. Paradoxically, they lost their unique identity as they were absorbed into Latinhood. This contrasted with the situation in the east, whereby Slavic tribes maintained a more "spartan and egalitarian"[40] existence bound to the land, "even in times when they took their part in plundering Roman provinces"[41]. Their organization was not based on Roman models, and their leaders were not normally dependent on Roman gold for success. Thus, their effect was far more thorough than anything that the Goths, Franks or Saxons ever achieved"[42]


Based on the belief that artifacts carry an ethnic ascription, the 'Culture-History' school of archaeologists assumed that archaeological cultures represent the Urheimat (the 'homeland') of tribal polities named in historical sources[clarification needed][43]. Following on, the shifting extensions of material cultures were therefore interpreted as the expansion of peoples.[44] Influenced by constructionism, processual archaeologists rejected the Culture-Historical doctrine[45]. In fact they marginalized the discussion of ethnicity altogether, and focused on the intra-group dynamics that generated such material remains. Moreover they argued that adoption of new cultures could occur through trade in or internal political developments rather than 'military takeovers'.

Today, scholars take a more moderate position. While recognizing that artifacts do not possess an inherent 'ethnic ascription', some artifacts may have been used as 'emblems in identity and alterity – of belonging and exclusions'[46]. Peter Heather suggests that although shifts in culture should not solely rely on migratory explanations, there is no reason to a priori rule them out, especially if there is evidence to support it from literary sources[47]. In this regard, profound changes in culture (and language) could occur through the influx of a ruling elite with minimal or no impact on overall population composition[48], especially if it occurs at a time when the indigenous population is receptive to such changes.

See also


  1. ^ Precise dates given may vary; often cited is 410, the sack of Rome by Alaric I and 751, the accession of Pippin the Short and the establishment of the Carolingian dynasty.
  2. ^ Even Jordanes, an Alan or Goth by birth, wrote in Latin.
  3. ^ David Keys, Catastrophe: A Quest for the Origins of the Modern World, 1999
  4. ^ Wolfram, Thomas J. Dunlap, tr. History of the Goths (1979) 1988:5
  5. ^ Anthony D. Smith, The Ethnic Origins of Nations (Oxford, 1966) pp. 6ff, coined the term to separate these thinkers from those who view ethnicity as a situational construct, the product of history, rather than a cause, influenced by a variety of political, economic, and cultural factors.
  6. ^ Noble (2006, p. 29)
  7. ^ a b Kulikowsky (2007, p. 46)
  8. ^ This was influenced by the 'family tree' model (Stammbaun) of linguistics, in that relationships between related languages being the result derivation from a common ancestor. This model still is very influential in linguistics
  9. ^ Halsall (, p. 17)
  10. ^ Todd (, pp. 8–10) There is no indication that the Germani possessed a feeling that they were a "separate people, nation, or group of tribes"
  11. ^ Noble (, p. 29)
  12. ^ Eg see The Celtic World, Miranda Green (1996), Page 3 and The Making of the Slavs. Floring Curta (2001)
  13. ^ Archaeology and LanguageL:Correlating Archaeological and Linguistic Hypotheses. "The Eurasian Spread Zone and the Indo-European Dispersal." Johanna Nichols. Pg 224
  14. ^ Kulikowsky (, p. 48)
  15. ^ Halsall (2007, p. 15)
  16. ^ Halsall (2007, p. 17)
  17. ^ a b Geary (2003, p. 77)
  18. ^ Curta (2001, p. 16)
  19. ^ a b Halsall (2007, p. 37)
  20. ^ Rosenwein (1998, p. 17)
  21. ^ Rosenwein (, p. 16, 17)
  22. ^ Geary (2003, p. 78)
  23. ^ Heather (1998, p. 93)
  24. ^ Heather (1998, p. 92)
  25. ^ Kulikowsky (2007, p. 41)
  26. ^ Geary (, p. 118)
  27. ^ Noble (2006, p. 97)
  28. ^ Fouracre (2005, p. 36)
  29. ^ Fouracre (2005, p. 25)
  30. ^ Noble (, p. 236)
  31. ^ Noble (, p. 247)
  32. ^ Curta (2001) the archaeological evidence of late fourth and fifth century-century barbarian graves between the Rhine and Loire suggests that a process of small-scale cultural and demographic change took place on both side of the Roman frontier. Can we envisage Roman-Slavic relations in a similar way?
  33. ^ Fouracre (2005, p. 42)
  34. ^ Fouracre (2005, p. 49)
  35. ^ Fouracre (2005, p. 51)
  36. ^ Fouracre (2005, p. 50)
  37. ^ Curta (, p. 2001)
  38. ^ Fouracre (2005, pp. 50–52)
  39. ^ Noble (, p. 251)
  40. ^ Barford (2001, p. 46)
  41. ^ Rosenwein (1998, p. 20)
  42. ^ Geary (2003, p. 146)
  43. ^ Rosenwein (1998, pp. 17–23)
  44. ^ Kulikowky (2007, p. 61)
  45. ^ Kulikowsky (2007, p. 61)
  46. ^ Kulikowsky (20007, p. 62)
  47. ^ Heather (1998, pp. 17–18)
  48. ^ Wording from Y Chromosome Evidence for Anglo-Saxon Mass Migration. Michael E. Weale et al. & references therein

[edit] References

  • Geary, Patrick (2003), Myth of Nations. The Medieval Origins of Europe, Princeton Paperbacks, ISBN ISBN 0 – 691-11481-1 
  • Rosenwein, Barbara; Little, Lester K; Pohl, Walter, "Conceptions of ethnicity in Early Medieval Studies", Debating the Middle Ages: issues and readings, Wiley-Blackwell, ISBN 1577180089 
  • Curta, Florin (2001), The Making of the Slavs: History and Archaeology of the Lower Danube Region, C. 500–700, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0521802024 
  • Heather, Peter J (1998), The Goths, Wiley-Blackwell, ISBN 0631209328 
  • Barford, Paul M (2001), The Early Slavs: Culture and Society in Early Medieval Eastern Europe, Cornell University Press, ISBN 0801439779 
  • Kulikowski, Michael (2007), Rome's Gothic Wars: from the third century to Alaric, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0521846331 
  • Todd, Malcolm, The Early Germans, Blackwell Publishing, ISBN 0-631-19904-7 
  • Noble, Thomas; Goffart, Walter (2006), From Roman provinces to Medieval kingdoms, Routledge, ISBN 0415327423 
  • Fouracre, Paul, ed. (2006), The New Cambridge Medieval History, Vol. 1: c. 500 – c. 700, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0521362911, Halsall 
  • Halsall, Guy (2007), Barbarian migrations and the Roman West, 376–568, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0521434912 



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