The Barbarian Tribes


As if called of God to hasten toward the risen light of Christianity, the nations of the North and the East began to press toward the Roman Empire. Even before the Christian era, there were premonitions of the coming inundation. A fearful one was that which occurred a little more than a century before the birth of Christ, when the Cimbrians and Teutons appalled the veterans of Rome with their wild battle-cries and gigantic forms, annihilated army after army, and first met with a aback upon the soil of Italy and at the hands of such a general as Marcus. Half a century later, Julius Caesar found it an arduous task to drive the German invaders from Gaul. In the time of Marcus Aurelius, aggressive movements on a large scale were again inaugurated. From that time the threatening cloud was never off the horizon of the Roman world, and oft times sent forth tokens of its destructive energy.

The bulk of the invading tribes was of the same general stock, the Germanic. A glance at their native characteristics will be appropriate before giving an account of their inroads upon Christian territory. The description of a contemporary is provided in the writings of Tacitus. A wish to rebuke the corruptions of Roman civilization by contrast with the customs of barbarians may have given color to some items in his account, but in general it may be regarded as trustworthy. He says of the bodily characteristics of the Germans: "A family likeness pervades the whole, though their numbers are so great: eyes stern and blue; ruddy hair; large bodies, powerful in sudden exertions, but impatient of toil and labor, least of all capable of sustaining thirst and heat. Cold and hunger they are accustomed by their climate and soil to endure."

Their government concedes a large range to personal liberty. "In the election of kings they have regard to birth; in that of generals, to valor. Their kings have not an absolute or unlimited power; and their generals commandless through the force of authority than of example. If they are daring, adventurous, and conspicuous in action, they procure obedience from the admiration they inspire." In affairs of importance, the whole community of warriors is consulted. They come armed to the assembly. "Then the king, or chief, and such others as are conspicuous for age, birth, military renown, or eloquence, are heard, and gain attention rather from their ability to persuade than their authority to command. If a proposal displease, the assembly reject it by an inarticulate murmur; if it prove agreeable, they clash their javelins, for the most honorable expression of assent among them is the sound of arms. Before this council, it is likewise allowed to exhibit accusations, and to prosecute capital offenses. Punishments are varied according to the nature of the crime. Traitors and deserters are hung upon trees; cowards, dastards, and those guilty of unnatural practices, are suffocated in mud under a hurdle." To add a divine sanction to the administration of justice, the visiting of penalties is entrusted to the priests.

War is the principal occupation of those having the strength to bear arms. "Nay, they even think it base and spiritless to earn by sweat what they might purchase by blood. During the intervals of war they pass their time less in hunting than in sluggish repose, divided between sleep and the table. All the bravest of the warriors, committing the care of the house, the family affairs, and the lands to the women, old men, and weaker part of the domestics, stupefy themselves in inaction." Their military equipment is simple, consisting of spears, missile weapons, and shields." Their line of battle is disposed in wedges. To give ground, provided they rally again, is considered rather as a prudent stratagem, than cowardice. The greatest disgrace that can befall them is to have abandoned their shields. A person branded with this ignominy is not permitted to join in their religious rites, or enter their assemblies; so that many, after escaping from battle, have put an end to their infamy by the halter."

The women vie with the men in courage, accompany them to the battle-field, meet the fugitives with reproaches, and endeavor to drive them back to the conflict. The men, on their part, entertain a high respect for their women. "They even suppose somewhat of sanctity and prescience to be inherent in the female sex; and therefore neither despise their counsels, nor disregard their responses." In their mutual relations, both are honorably distinguished by the virtue of chastity. Polygamy is practiced only by a few, whose alliance is solicited on account of their rank. "The matrimonial bond is strict and severe among them. Men and women alike are unacquainted with clandestine correspondence Adultery is extremely rare among so numerous a people."

The most glaring vices of the barbarians are drunkenness and gambling. They consider it no disgrace to pass days and nights, without intermission, in drinking, and frequently pay the penalty of intoxication with bloodshed. "They play at dice, when sober, as a serious business; and that with such a desperate venture of gain or loss, that, when everything else is gone, they set their liberties and persons on the last throw."

Tacitus gives us also some account of the religion of the barbarians; but his information, evidently, was but partial upon this topic. In completing the picture of the early religion of Germany, we need to have recourse to that later elaboration of the Germanic mythology which appears in the Scandinavian Eddas. The system contained in the latter, if not identical at all points with the former, is at least closely akin, and so affords much aid in filling up the gaps in the older accounts.

The religion of the Germans appears to have been a polytheism, in which the gods stood in close relation with the powers of nature. Cæsar calls attention to this feature in his remark that the Germans acknowledge only such gods as are visible, and whose might renders a perceptible aid, such as manifest themselves through the orbs of heaven and the element of fire. 1 Bella Gallorum, vi. 21. In their worship of the gods, they were accustomed to discard for the most part both temples and images. Sacred groves took the place of the former, and symbols of the latter. This absence of images, as Wilhelm Müller judges, betokens not so much an approach to high spiritual conceptions, as the stage of indefiniteness in the growth of polytheism. The Scandinavians in later times used images, and their employment seems to have been on the increase among the German tribes when Christianity came across the natural development of their polytheism. 2 Geschichte und System der Altdeutschen Religion. The good will of the gods was solicited by sacrifices, though the Germans were not specially lavish in this kind of tribute. Sometimes human victims were sent to the altar: this was not an unusual fate for prisoners of war. Where the sacrificial rites concerned only a family, they were performed by the father of the household; where they represented the state or tribe, the priest alone was qualified to act. The priests formed no separate caste; but as special servants of the gods, and bearers of judicial functions, they commanded no small degree of reverence.

Among their deities were Wuotan, Donar, Zio, Fro, Frouwa, and Paltar, corresponding to the Scandinavian Odin, Thor, Tyr, Freyr, Freyja, and Baldur. A conspicuous place was also occupied by Loki, the fire god; but his honor by no means equaled his prominence, and he is represented as causing unbounded mischief through his unprincipled wiles. 1 Loki holds a place in a measure analogous to that of the Devil. 6till he does not appear such an embodiment of unmixed evil as is denoted by this term. As Grimm contends, the proper notion of devil had no place in Germanic paganism. (Teutonic Mythology, p. 984 in Eng. trans. ) Much account was made, in their mythology, of giants, pygmies, spirits of forests, mountains, and streams.

In the oracles of the North, some interesting glimpses are given of barbarian beliefs respecting the beginning and the end of things. First (so their thought ran) there was a wide-reaching, empty chasm. At a later stage, toward the northern end of the abyss was formed a world of darkness and cold; at the southern end appeared a world of light and fire. Out of the intermingling of ingredients from these two worlds came life in the shape of the huge being, Ymir, the progenitor of the giants; and also in the form of the cow, which by licking the ice-blocks disengaged the progenitor of the gods. The body of the slain Ymir supplied the gods with materials for the formation of the earth. From his blood came the sea and all waters; from his flesh, the soil; from his bones and teeth, mountains and rocks; from his skull, the dome of the sky; from his brain, the clouds. 2 Simrock, Handbuch der Deutschen Mythologie. In the general cast of their cosmogony, we may discern tokens of a vivid impression of the clash and struggle of opposing forces in nature.

As, in the first picture of the gods, they are represented as confronted by the race of the giants, so in the closing scene of the present dispensation they appear in conflict with mighty and raging foes. The victory now turns against them. All are overpowered, and the earth sinks down in fire and blood. However, the desolation continues only for a space. There rises out of the wreck a purified world, upon which are discerned Baldur, the beloved son of Odin, a few other descendants of the fallen gods, and an innocent human pair. A new dispensation is begun, over which presides an unspeakable being standing above the old generation of gods. The account reads almost as if the Northmen entertained a premonition that the curtain would descend upon their ancient mythology, and faith in a God of supreme and unrivaled dominion take its place.

In their conception of the future life awaiting men, these warlike tribes naturally glorified the warrior's virtues. Heaven, as they pictured it, is the abode of the brave and the true, where heroes revel in the alternate joys of the battle and the feast; hell, with its dark, cavernous depths, and chilling mists, the prison-house of the cowardly and the false.

Among the barbarian tribes of the third and fourth centuries we find several confederacies occupying a conspicuous place, such as the Alemanni, the Franks, the Saxons, and the Goths.

The Alemanni inhabited the territory between the Rhine and the Danube, in the southwest corner of the Germanic domain. Not content with their bounds, they began in the last half of the third century to make in-roads into Gaul, and contested the held with various of the Roman Emperors in the next century. A memorial of the alarm and distress which they caused to the people of Gaul is seen in the fact that they supplied the name Allemands, by which the French to this day speak of the Germans in general. The conversion of this people to Christianity is placed in the sixth century.

The Franks, as they came upon the stage of history, were a confederation of several tribes, dwelling along the Lower Rhine. It was in the reign of Gordian (238-244) that they made their first incursion into Roman territory. "Clothed in the spoils of the bear, the urus, the boar, and the wolf, they looked at a distance like a herd of wild beasts. Each man bore in his right hand a long lance, in the left a buckler; in his girdle, a two-edged axe, which was their peculiar weapon, and which they either used in hand to hand encounters, or hurled from a distance with unerring precision. In migrating to new homes, they carried their wives and children and rude household goods in rough wagons with great wheels of solid wood, drawn by Oxen. The wagons, ranged in a circle, formed a protection to their camp when needful. Again and again, during two centuries, attracted by the rich prey which the towns and villas of the wealthy provincials offered, they repeated their raids; and again and again the imperial legions defeated them with great slaughter, and chased the survivors out of the empire." But continued pressure overcame the barriers. By the beginning of the fifth century, a considerable body of the Franks had settled upon the left bank of the Rhine. A century later they were found in possession of a large part of Gaul, and no longer subsisting as a loose confederation, but united (at least for an interval) under a single rule. The agent of this unification was the powerful and grasping Salian prince, Clovis. Under Clovis, the Franks in large part embraced Christianity. They embraced it as might be expected of uncivilized warriors. Clovis himself, while he may have been influenced to some extent by the persuasions of his Christian wife, the Burgundian princess Clotilda, found the decisive argument for the new religion upon the battle-field. Being hard pressed by the Alemanni, he appealed to the God of the Christians, and vowed that he would submit to baptism if victory were granted him. His arms were completely successful; and soon after, with several thousand of his warriors, he received the Christian rites. 1 Gregory of Tours, Historia Francorum, lib. ii. §§ 31, 32. But the baptismal water seems to have been accompanied by no effectual inward cleansing. Treachery and bloody violence marked the course of the new convert. While he is praised in the annals of the time as a champion of the orthodox faith against the Arianism of contiguous tribes, these very annals have offset their own laudations, and drawn the marks of an ineffaceable infamy across his name. Many of the successors of Clovis were as remote as he from being examples of Christian living. The court of the Merovingian princes continued to present the spectacle of polygamous excess, unrestrained license, intrigue, and assassination. Some of the characters nurtured in this hotbed of corruption cannot easily be paralleled for viciousness. If one half is trite in the apparently unvarnished story of Gregory of Tours, then Fredegonda will stand in the front rank of the evil women who have combined the cunning of the serpent with the malice of the fury.

The Saxons, like the Franks upon their first appearance, were a confederation of tribes. Their original seat was beyond the Franks, on the Weser and the North Sea. At an early date they began to engage in predatory excursions. Near the middle of the fifth century, together with the Jutes and the Angles (or Engles), they commenced their descent upon England. The conquest advanced slowly, but with great thoroughness. "Field by field, town by town, forest by forest, the land was won. And as each bit of ground was torn away by the stranger, the Briton sullenly withdrew from it only to turn doggedly and fight for the next. . . . How slow the work of English conquest was may be seen from the fact that it took nearly thirty years to win Kent alone, and sixty to complete the conquest of Southern Britain, and that the conquest of the bulk of the island was only wrought out after two centuries of bitter warfare." 1 Green, History of the English People The subject of the introduction of Christianity among the Saxons may conveniently find place in a succeeding chapter.

The Goths appeared at the end of the second century, on the Black Sea and the Lower Danube. They were already a very numerous people. Two principal branches were distinguished, the Eastern and the Western. By the early part of the third century, they had become such an object of dread that Roman Emperors were found willing to purchase peace with them at the expense of tribute. In the third quarter of the same century, they extended their desolating marches into Greece, Macedonia, Asia Minor, and Italy, plundering on their way many famous cities. Again, in the latter part of the fourth century, they began a series of far-reaching invasions. In this instance the primary impulse came from the Huns, a wild race from the uplands of Asia, ugly in countenance and short in stature,but broad-shouldered, and skilled in horsemanship as men who had spent their lives upon the backs of their steeds. The East Goths were put to rout. The West Goths also were hard pressed, and craved the privilege of crossing the Danube, to find refuge within Roman territory. Ulfilas, the apostle of Christianity among them, carried their request before the Emperor Valens, and obtained a favorable answer. The way, having been once opened, was not easily closed up again. The Goths, finding themselves ungenerously treated and short of supplies, felt no longer obliged to keep the peace, and precipitated a war which overwhelmed Valens. The skill and energy of the great Theodosius availed indeed to confine them within bounds, but not to crush their power. The peace, too, which he was instrumental in establishing, lasted but a short space. Incited by a disappointed councilor at Constantinople, the West Gothic king, Alaric, started upon a plundering expedition (395-396). Greece was ravaged, and its fairest shrines were laid waste. A first incursion of Alaric into Italy was repulsed; but during the second invasion, the capital of the West fell before his assaults (410). Alaric died soon after; and the Goths, retiring into Gaul, founded a kingdom covering the southwestern part of that province, and extending into Spain.

Nearly contemporary with the invasions of Alaric, inroads were made by several tribes akin to the Goths; namely, Vandals, Suevi, Alani, and Burgundians. The first three of these tribes settled in the Spanish peninsula; the last, in the territory bordering the Alps and the Upper Rhine. Like the Goths, they embraced Christianity in the form of Arianism. The Burgundians, it is true, may have been instructed for an interval in the Catholic faith; but as a body they came to espouse Arianism, and adhered to the same till the sixth century. In 429 the Vandals, under their leader, Genseric, crossed into North Africa, and conquered the country. To sever more effectually the bond of connection between Africa and the Roman Empire, they sought to make Arianism completely dominant, and so assailed the Catholics, who refused to be converted, with a severe persecution. In the fourth decade of the sixth century, Belisarius, the renowned general of Justinian, put an end to the Arian rule; and by the close of the next century, Catholic and Arian alike, throughout the whole region of North Africa, had been overpowered by the Mohammedans.

Near the middle of the fifth century, the Huns were again the cause of a great commotion. In an overwhelming mass they poured through the region of the Rhine, leaving death and desolation in their track. At the terrible battle of Chalons on the Marne 1 Thomas Hodgkin remarks on the place of the encounter: "Posterity has chosen to call it the battle of Chalons, but there is good reason to think that it was fought fifty miles distant from Chalons-sur-Marne, and that it would be more correctly named the battle of Troyes, or, to speak with complete accuracy, the battle of Mery-sur-Seine." (Italy and her Invaders, vol, ii. p. 138.) (451), they received at the hands of Goths, Franks, and Gauls a severe chastisement, but were not prevented from continuing their devastating march. Many cities of Italy shared the fate of those upon the banks of the Rhine. Rome itself seemed exposed to inevitable ruin. But the ruthless chief, who feared no instrument of war, was turned back by a religious dread reinforced by the intercessions of the Pope. "He was admonished," says Gibbon, "by his friends as well as by his enemies, that Alaric had not long survived the conquest of the Eternal City. His mind, superior to real danger, was assaulted by imaginary terrors. The pressing eloquence of Lee, his majestic aspect and sacerdotal robes, excited the veneration of Attila for the spiritual father of the Christians. The apparition of the two apostles, St. Peter and St. Paul, who menaced the barbarian with instant death if he rejected the prayer of their successor, is one of the noblest legends of ecclesiastical tradition. The safety of Rome might deserve the interposition of celestial beings; and some indulgence is due to a fable which has been represented by the pencil of Raphael and the chisel of Algardi."1 Chapter xxxv. See Jordanes, Historia de Getarum sive Gothorum Origine et Rebus Gestis,cap. xlii. (apud Muratori, Rerum Italicarum Scriptores, tom, i). Attila retired, and died beyond the Danube soon after. His retreat, however, did not save the Italian capital from the hand of the spoiler. Immediately after his departure, the Arian Vandals from North Africa, bearing hearts less placable than that of the heathen warrior, glutted themselves with the pillage of Rome (455); sparing indeed the buildings, but carrying off such treasures as they could gather together in the space of fourteen days.

By these repeated strokes of barbarian fury the Roman Empire in the West was reduced to a feeble and tottering power. It only needed another blow to complete the downfall. In 476 that blow was given. Odoacer, leader of the German troops in the Roman service, and himself a German, put aside the shadow of the Cæsars, which was then holding the imperial scepter. There was no one now in the West bearing the imperial name, for Odoacer styled himself simply King of Italy.

After ruling twelve or thirteen years, Odoacer found himself confronted by a powerful rival, as Theodoric with a great multitude of East Goths pressed forward into Italy. The stout walls of Ravenna enabled him indeed to keep the invaders at bay for several years, but at length he was obliged to succumb. Theodoric ruled as a wise and capable prince, and the Ostrogothic kingdom which he founded flourished till the middle of the next century. It was then overthrown by the generals of Justinian, and the exarchate of Ravenna, as a dependency of the Eastern Empire, was established in its place. A speedy rival of the exarchate appeared in a new swarm of invaders, destined to take a conspicuous part in Italian history, the Lombards. Northern Italy fell a prey to them, and the previous occupants of the soil were reduced to a servile rank. The Lombards came as Arians. The presence of such neighbors was one of the difficulties which faced Gregory the Great as he ascended the papal throne.

How different the field of vision here from that which lay before us at the opening era of Christianity ! Instead of a world united under a single rule, and everywhere displaying the tokens of culture and civilized skill, we have an empire broken into fragments, law giving place to disorder, and deepening shadows of ignorance spreading over broad regions. To be sure, some of the invading tribes were not in a state of sheer barbarism. Contact with the Empire bad given them a measure of civilization. Still, on the whole, the newcomers were rude successors to Roman rule. An observer, looking out upon the destruction wrought and the commotions still in progress, could hardly refrain from gloomy reflections over the prospects of the Christian religion.

The prospects, in truth, had their shadowed side. The rudeness and credulity of barbarism might be expected to offer a fine field for the growth of superstition. If contact with classic heathenism had already given to Christianity a certain tinge of polytheism, it might be expected that this phase would not be eliminated, but rather increased, by the tastes of tribes which bad been accustomed to a multitude of gods. On various points it might be expected that fantasy would get the better of criticism, and that extravagant views, especially when reinforced by the interests of prominent parties, would command a ready suffrage. It would not be surprising if, under some of the current beliefs and customs of later times, a close scrutiny should discern the image of the old barbaric faith and practice. And this is undoubtedly the case. For example, in some of the medieval representations we find unmistakable indications of a transference to the devil of features and doings that were formerly connected with the gods. Legends respecting a league with the devil took shape in certain particulars from the old mythology. "That the devil," says Wilhelm Müller, " in such legends frequently took the place of the heathen god appears from this, that an offering, particularly of fowls, must be brought to the same at the cross-ways, these old sacrificial sites, in order to obtain his help." The same writer notes many later customs which reveal a trace of the old heathen practice. For instance, corresponding to the heathen custom of carrying the god or his symbol around a field in order to make it fruitful, we have the practice of the Christian Germans in carrying around the image or symbol of a saint for the same purpose.

But, on the other hand, the outlook may be regarded as containing highly encouraging features. The barbarians were a sturdy race. They brought in a fresh life, and an intense love of personal liberty. Herein was a prophecy of a better ultimate development than could come from a declining civilization, however polished and refined. The bounding life, and zest for personal liberty, may have wrought destructively at first; but they were at the same time a pledge that things should not remain at a stand-still, that erelong a constructive work should be begun, that freedom in action should be followed by freedom in thought, that a vigorous canvassing of the whole field of Christianity should finally be undertaken in spite of any and every barrier which tradition and priestcraft might have interposed. In fine, Christianity encountered in the barbarism of these vigorous tribes a less permanent obstacle than it would have met in the inertia of a worn-out civilization. Under the conditions, the purity of primitive Christianity could probably be reached more speedily through the forests of Germany than along the high-ways of Rome.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for this wonderful piece of history! I am noticing that most published history books are lumping all Barbarian tribes into being called Germanic Tribes.

    This greatly upset my son who loves history and very much defended the fact that the Germanic people were quite different from the Goth, Anglo, Franks and Saxons. He noted that Christianity was part of the difference in the earlier times.

    He felt it was wrong to cluster all of these early independently distinct tribes into the name "Germanic Tribes" instead of 'barbarian' as Rome thought of anyone who did not have Roman civilization.

    Is he correct in disagreeing with current publishers for lumping all barbarian tribes into the title 'Germanic Tribes' - it seems from Mr. Sheldon's work her in 1895 that indeed they were disctinct and high school level text should not be so simplicity lumping all of the different people groups into one "Germanic" because it tends to make the world be Roman vs Germanic. Do you think this attempt by current textbooks should be viewed as inaccurate or simply overly simplified to the point that it could be cheating the learner from the richness of history and various people groups?