Breaking of the Rhine barrier – End of the Roman Empire in the West, 476 A.D.

After the departure of the Visigoths Rome and Italy remained undisturbed for nearly forty years. The western provinces were not so fortunate. At the time of Alaric’s first attack on Italy the legions along the Rhine had been withdrawn to meet him, leaving the frontier unguarded. In 406 A.D., four years before Alaric’s sack of Rome, a vast company of Germans crossed the Rhine and swept almost unopposed through Gaul. Some of these peoples succeeded in establishing kingdoms for themselves on the ruins of the empire.

Kingdom of the Burgundians, 443-534 A.D.

The Burgundians settled on the upper Rhine and in the fertile valley of the Rhone, in southeastern Gaul. Alter less than a century of independence they were conquered by the Franks. Their name, however, survives in modern Burgundy.

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Vandal kingdom in North Africa, 429-534 A.D.

The Vandals settled first in Spain. The territory now called Andalusia still preserves the memory of these barbarians. After the Visigothic invasion of Spain the Vandals passed over to North Africa. They made themselves masters of Carthage and soon conquered all the Roman province of Africa. Their kingdom here lasted about one hundred years.

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The Franks in Northern Gaul

While the Visigoths were finding a home in the districts north and south of the Pyrenees, the Burgundians in the Rhone valley, and the Vandals in Africa, still another Germanic people began to spread over northern Gaul. They were the Franks, who had long held lands on both sides of the lower Rhine. The Franks, unlike the other Germans, were not of a roving disposition. They contented themselves with a gradual advance into Roman territory. It was not until near the close of the fifth century that they overthrew the Roman power in northern Gaul and began to form the Frankish kingdom.

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The Angles and Saxons in Britain, from 449 A.D.

The troubled years of the fifth century saw also the beginning of the Germanic conquest of Britain. The withdrawal of the legions from that island left it defenseless, for the Celtic inhabitants were too weak to defend themselves. Bands of savage Picts from Scotland swarmed over Hadrian’s Wall, attacking the Britons in the rear. Ireland sent forth the no less savage Scots. The eastern coasts, at the same time, were constantly exposed to raids by German pirates. The Britons, in their extremity, adopted the old Roman practice of getting the barbarians to fight for them. Bands of Jutes were invited over from Denmark in 449 A.D. The Jutes forced back the Picts and then settled in Britain as conquerors. Fresh swarms of invaders followed them, chiefly Angles from what is now Schleswig-Holstein and Saxons from the neighborhood of the rivers Elbe and Weser in northern Germany. The invaders subdued nearly all that part of Britain that Rome had previously conquered.

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Vandal pirates

Rome escaped a visitation by the Huns only to fall a victim, three years later, to the Vandals. After the capture of Carthage, these barbarians made that city the seat of a pirate empire. Putting out in their long, light vessels, they swept the seas and raided many a populous city on the Mediterranean coast. So terrible were their inroads that the word “vandalism” has come to mean the wanton destruction of property.

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Sack of Rome by the Vandals, 455 A.D.

In 455 A.D. the ships of the Vandals, led by their king, Gaiseric, appeared at the mouth of the Tiber. The Romans could offer no resistance. Only the noble bishop Leo went out with his clergy to meet the invader and intercede for the city. Gaiseric promised to spare the lives of the inhabitants and not to destroy the public buildings. These were the best terms he would grant. The Vandals spent fourteen days stripping Rome of her wealth. Besides shiploads of booty the Vandals took away thousands of Romans as slaves, including the widow and two daughters of an emperor.

The Roman Empire in the West, 455-476 A.D.

After the Vandal sack of Rome the imperial throne became the mere plaything of the army and its leaders. A German commander, named Ricimer, set up and deposed four puppet emperors within five years. He was, in fact, the real ruler of Italy at this time. After his death Orestes, another German general, went a step beyond Ricimer’s policy and placed his own son on the throne of the Caesars. By a curious coincidence, this lad
bore the name of Romulus, legendary founder of Rome, and the nickname of Augustulus (“the little Augustus”). The boy emperor reigned less than a year. The German troops clamored for a third of the lands of Italy and, when their demand was refused, proclaimed Odoacer king. The poor little emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was sent to a villa near Naples, where he disappears from history.

Political situation in 476 A.D.

There was now no emperor in the West. To the men of that time it seemed that East and West had been once more joined under a single ruler, as in the days of Constantine. The emperors who reigned at Constantinople did not relinquish their claims to be regarded as the rightful sovereigns in Italy and Rome. Nevertheless, as an actual fact, Roman rule in the West was now all but extinct. Odoacer, the head of the barbarians in Italy, ruled a kingdom as independent as that of the Vandals in Africa or that of the Visigoths in Spain and Gaul. The date 476 A.D. may therefore be chosen as marking, better than any other, the overthrow of the Roman Empire in the West by the Germans.

(Source: The book “Early European History“, by Hutton Webster)

Research-Selection: Anastasius Philoponus

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