Story of the Middle Ages - S. B. Harding

Fall of the Western Empire

While 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.

Attila the Hun


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.

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.

Many legends came to cluster about this battle. In later ages men told how, each year on the night of the battle, the spirits of Goths and Huns arose 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 Odoacer, 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.