Nomads and Barbarians

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Nomads and Barbarians

Beyond the borders of the great early empiresthe Roman Empire (27 b.c.e.476 c.e.), the Byzantine Empire (4761453 c.e.), and early empires in India and Chinalived bands of people whose level of civilization lagged well behind that of the powerful empires. Within the borders of empires were farmers, traders, institutions of learning, government, laws, and order; outside the borders of empires, at least according to those within, were "barbarians," crude people who lived without order or law. Barbarians, of course, is a negative term often implying ignorance and heathenism, but it was widely used by civilized people in Rome and China to describe outsiders. Today outsiders are called "nomads," which describes the lifestyle of those once known as barbarians. Nomads organized themselves in small bands, not larger cities; they hunted and gathered their food rather than farmed; they roamed the land in search of resources instead of making permanent settlements. And, in the case of some of the different groups of nomadsthe Celts, Huns, Vandals, Goths, and Franksthey learned to fight and plunder in order to survive. These groups populated the vast unsettled continents of Europe and central Asia from several thousand years b.c.e., up until they were absorbed into civilized Europe in the Middle Ages (c. 500c. 1500 c.e.).

Historians do not know a great deal about the life and culture of the various barbarian peoples of Europe. These people did not have a written language, so they left no literary record. (Some, such as the Celts, did have a strong oral tradition, and through this storytelling from generation to generation, their epics survived and were eventually recorded.) Because they were constantly on the move, these nomadic groups left no large cities or settlements. Few of the physical remnants of their culture have survived, with the exception of some widely scattered pieces of pottery, metal belt buckles, and bones. The vast majority of what is known of these people was recorded by early historians from Rome, the Byzantine Empire, and China. The Romans, Byzantines, and Chinese hated and feared the barbarians, who were fierce fighters, but they could not help but admire their military success.

The first inhabitants of western and central Europe were known as the Celts (pronounced Kelts). The Celts were the most organized and civilized of the groups encountered by the Romans. They had a complex religion that was the center of their culture and a social organization that was headed by kings and nobles. They were skilled in ironworking, creating swords and armor for battles. Their society first flourished around 700 b.c.e. and reached its peak around 500 b.c.e. Celts resisted Roman rule when the Romans first began to move into the area known as Gaul (present-day France) in the first century b.c.e., but later they adopted the Catholic religion which was prevalent throughout Rome.

Barbarian attacks and the collapse of the Roman Empire

By the second century c.e. Rome had extended its rule across much of present-day Europe, including Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, and the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania). But their control of this area was soon challenged by the invasion of barbarian tribes from the north and the east. The first of the barbarian tribes to launch attacks on the Roman Empire were the Visigoths, or western Goths, who attacked in present-day Turkey from the north in the fourth century c.e. (The Goths were loosely organized Germanic tribes; most of what is known about them comes from their battles with the Romans.) Bands of Visigoth warriors, first led by King Alaric I (c. 370-410 c.e.), moved from east to west across the empire, capturing Rome in 410 and eventually moving into Spain and then France. Another group, the Ostrogoths, or eastern Goths, followed with a series of attacks in Italy. These groups and others, like the Vandals, Sueves, and Alans, eventually formed crude settlements.

The long string of attacks in the fourth century greatly disrupted Roman rule, but worse was yet to come. Beginning in about 440, a new group of barbarians from the east began to attack both Romans and other now-settled barbarians. This most feared and despised of all the invading groups were known as the Huns. The Roman historian Ammianus (c. 330395 c.e.), quoted in E. A. Thompson's The Huns, wrote that the Huns were "so prodigiously ugly and bent that they might be taken for two-legged animals or the figures crudely carved from stumps." Their "terrifying appearance," wrote Jordanes, another historian quoted by Thompson, "inspired fear because of its swarthiness, and they had a sort of shapeless lump, not a head." Riding on powerful horses and carrying heavy war axes, these fierce and utterly fearless Huns scattered Roman and barbarian forces alike. Under their most powerful leader, Attila (c. 406453), they established control over large parts of the northern Roman Empire. Their attacks and their continued warfare with the Visigoths, Franks, Celts, and other groups eventually contributed to the collapse of the Roman Empire in 476.

The origins and culture of the Barbarians

We know little about the life of the barbarians before they knocked down the doors of civilization. Some scholars have speculated that the Huns and the Goths originated in Asia and were related to the Mongols who caused so much trouble for the early Chinese (and were known as the Moguls in India). They believe that these groups had overhunted their traditional hunting grounds and first began to travel east in search of food. When they encountered the wealthy and civilized Roman settlements, they quickly recognized that these were a source of both food and wealth like they had never known.

It is likely that the barbarians generally organized themselves in small tribes. They kept their groups small so that they could travel quickly in search of food, and they built crude temporary housing to suit their needs. The men in these tribes engaged in hunting for food and fighting other tribes to gain control of hunting grounds. They became superior warriors. Men from various tribes did band together to fight the Romans, but they were not a well-organized and equipped army.

As these barbarian tribes crossed Europe, they found a climate and geography that allowed them to give up their nomadic ways. They no longer needed to travel constantly to find food, and they learned agriculture from those who already lived in the area. Following the collapse of the Roman Empire in 476, barbarians settled into permanent communities. Celts, Angles, and Saxons settled in what would become Great Britain; Franks settled in Germany and France; Visigoths settled in Spain; and other groups scattered in places throughout Europe. As the Middle Ages began, Europe was influenced by a mix of Roman and barbarian customs.


Almgren, Bertil. The Viking. London, England: Senate Publishing, 1999.

Briquebec, John. The Middle Ages: Barbarian Invasions, Empires Around the World and Medieval Europe. New York: Warwick Press, 1990.

McCullough, David Willis, ed. Chronicles of the Barbarians: Firsthand Accounts of Pillage and Conquest, from the Ancient World to the Fall of Constantinople. New York: Times Books, 1998.

Newark, Timothy. The Barbarians: Warriors and Wars of the Dark Ages. New York: Sterling, 1985.

Stefoff, Rebecca. The Viking Explorers. New York: Chelsea House, 1993.

Streissguth, Thomas. Life Among the Vikings. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 1999.

Thompson, E. A. The Huns. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996.

Wells, Peter S. The Barbarians Speak: How the Conquered Peoples Shaped Roman Europe. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.

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