59 Early Middle Ages

Although the political structure in western Europe had changed, the divide is not as extensive as some historians have claimed. Although the activity of the barbarians is usually described as “invasions”, they were not just military expeditions but were migrations of entire peoples into the Empire. Such movements were aided by the refusal of the western Roman elites to either support the army or pay the taxes that would have allowed the military to suppress the migration.


The emperors of the 5th century were often controlled by military strongmen such as Stilicho (d. 408 CE), Aspar (d. 471 CE), Ricimer (d. 472 CE), or Gundobad (d. 516 CE), and when the line of western emperors ceased, many of the kings who replaced them were from the same background as those military strongmen. Intermarriage between the new kings and the Roman elites was common.

The 3rd-century Great Ludovisi sarcophagus depicts a battle between Goths and Romans.
The 3rd-century Great Ludovisi sarcophagus depicts a battle between Goths and Romans uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Jastrow | Public Domain

This led to a fusion of the Roman culture with the customs of the invading tribes, including the popular assemblies which allowed free male tribal members more say in political matters. Material artifacts left by the Romans and the invaders are often similar, with tribal items often being obviously modeled on Roman objects. Similarly, much of the intellectual culture of the new kingdoms was directly based on Roman intellectual traditions.

An important difference was the gradual loss of tax revenue by the new polities. Many of the new political entities no longer provided their armies with tax revenues, instead allocating land or rents. This meant there was less need for large tax revenues and so the taxation systems decayed. Warfare was common between and within the kingdoms. Slavery declined as the supply declined, and society became more rural.

Map of Europe (ca. 650) illustrating the location of the kingdoms during the Middle Ages
Ramsey Muir’s Map of Europe (ca. 650) illustrating the location of the kingdoms during the Middle Ages originally uploaded by Fakirbakir to Wikimedia Commons | Public Domain

Between the 5th and 8th centuries, new peoples and powerful individuals filled the political void left by Roman centralized government. The Ostrogoths settled in Italy in the late 5th century under Theodoric (d. 526 CE) and set up a kingdom marked by its cooperation between the Italians and the Ostrogoths, at least until the last years of Theodoric’s reign. The Burgundians settled in Gaul, and after an earlier kingdom was destroyed by the Huns in 436 CE, formed a new kingdom in the 440s between today’s Geneva and Lyon. This grew to be a powerful kingdom in the late 5th and early 6th centuries. In northern Gaul, the Franks and Britons set up small kingdoms. The Frankish kingdom was centered in northeastern Gaul and the first king of whom much is known is Childeric (d. 481 CE).

Under Childeric’s son Clovis (r. 509–511 CE), the Frankish kingdom expanded and converted to Christianity. The Britons, related to the natives of Britannia in modern-day Great Britain, settled in what is now Brittany. Other kingdoms were established by the Visigoths in Spain, the Suevi in northwestern Spain, and the Vandals in North Africa. In the 6th century, the Lombards settled in northern Italy, replacing the Ostrogothic kingdom with a grouping of duchies that occasionally selected a king to rule over all of them. By the late 6th century this arrangement had been replaced by a permanent monarchy.

With the invasions came new ethnic groups into parts of Europe, but the settlement was uneven, with some regions such as Spain having a larger settlement of new peoples than other places. Gaul’s settlement was uneven, with the barbarians settling much heavier in the northeast than in the southwest. Slavonic peoples settled in central and eastern Europe and into the Balkan Peninsula. The settlement of peoples was accompanied by changes in languages. The Latin of the Western Roman Empire was gradually replaced by languages based on but distinct from Latin, which are collectively known as romance languages. These changes from Latin to the new languages took many centuries and went through a number of stages. Greek remained the language of the Byzantine Empire, but the migrations of the Slavs added Slavonic languages to Eastern Europe.[1]

  1. "The Middle Ages or Medieval Period" by Wikipedia for Schools is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0


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