Great Migration of Peoples

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Great Migration of Peoples


the conventional term for all the ethnic migrations in Europe from the fourth through the seventh century primarily from the periphery of the Roman Empire into its territories or along its borders.

Invasions by the barbarian tribes (Germans, Sarmatians, and others) who lived on the periphery of the Roman Empire during the first centuries of the Christian era were already numerous in the late second and the third centuries (the Marcomannic War, 166-180, the seizure of Dacia in the 270’s by the Germans and Sarmatians, and others). By the last quarter of the fourth century these invasions had become catastrophic for Rome. The reasons for this are found in the social changes taking place within the barbarian tribes (disintegration of the tribal structure and the beginning of the formation of a class society) and the developing crises within the Roman Empire. These two factors combined to give the migrations of the fourth through the seventh century a radical character.

A direct cause of the Great Migration of Peoples was the beginning of the westward migrations of the Huns. Having left the Ural Region, they crossed the Volga circa 370; later, with their subjects the Alani, they attacked the Goths, who lived in the northern Black Sea region (375). In autumn of 376, some of the Visigoths, who were being pressured by the Huns, settled with the permission of the Roman authorities on imperial lands south of the Danube. In 377 the oppressive policies of Roman officials provoked an uprising of the Visigoths, who were joined by fugitive slaves, peasants, and workers from the Thracian mines. On Aug. 9, 378, the Roman forces were utterly defeated by the rebels near Adrianople. An attack on the empire by the Goths, Alani, and Huns was checked, but the Goths established a state between the Danube and the Balkan Mountains which became part of the Roman federation, and the barbarization of the Roman Army increased.

At the end of the fourth century, the barbarians renewed their attack. In the winter of 394-395 the Huns raided Syria and Cappadocia. The Visigoths, led by Alaric I, plundered Greece and then established themselves in Illyria. On Aug. 24, 410, they occupied and sacked Rome. Although the Goths left Rome by August 27, the fall of the Eternal City had a great moral impact. During the fifth century, German tribes settled throughout the territories of the Western Roman Empire, establishing a number of barbarian kingdoms there: a Visigoth kingdom in southwestern Gaul, with its center at Toulouse (418; later, it extended to Spain as well); a Vandal kingdom in northern Africa (429-439); an Ostrogoth one in Italy (493); and a Frankish one in northern Gaul (476; later, this kingdom swallowed up most of the other barbarian states). The Burgundians formed a kingdom in southeastern Gaul with a center at Lyon (c. 457), and the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, who began conquering Britain in the mid-fifth century, formed a number of kingdoms there in the late sixth through the seventh century. The Huns, who had established themselves along the middle Danube in Pannonia at the beginning of the fifth century, attempted to conquer Gaul and Italy under the leadership of Attila, who ruled from 434 to 453. However, they were defeated on the Catalaunian Fields (451), and their alliance disintegrated. Under Justinian I the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) was able to win back from the barbarians northern Africa, Italy, and part of Spain (530-560) and partially to reestablish Roman rule there.

The final stage in the Great Migration of Peoples occurred in the sixth and seventh centuries. In 568 the Lombards established themselves in northern and central Italy. The Slavs, with occasional support from the Avars and the proto-Bulgars, began to consolidate their hold on the Balkan Peninsula, which was settled almost entirely by Slavic tribes in the seventh century. There they formed their own kingdoms—so-called Slavinia (in the Peloponnesus and Macedonia), the union of the Seven Slavic Tribes, and the Slavic-Bulgar state. Some of the Slavs settled along the borders of the Byzantine Empire in Asia Minor. The Slavs also moved west as far as the territory held by the Alemanni and the Saxons.

The socioeconomic and political consequences of the Great Migration of Peoples were extraordinarily great. The migration contributed to the collapse of a slaveholding social order and to the destruction of the Roman political system in the Western Roman Empire. A system of agriculture based on the labor of free peasants spread through a considerable part of the northern Mediterranean region, small-scale production completely replaced the latifundia dependent on slave labor, and the preconditions for a feudal order came into existence. (These preconditions had been prepared partly by the internal development of the Roman Empire.)

General evaluations of the Great Migration of Peoples in historical literature have been quite varied. The German school ascribes an exceptionally creative role to the Germanic tribes, whereas Romance scholars consider these tribes the destroyers of classical civilization. In Soviet historical scholarship the prevailing idea is that the Romance-Germanic and the corresponding Slavic-Byzantine syntheses were the source for the formation of new social relationships. In addition, the various tribes played different roles in the destruction of the Roman system: the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, and Vandals preserved many Roman institutions, and the Franks and Lombards destroyed Roman traditions; the Slavic colonization of the Eastern Roman Empire was not accompanied by the destruction of the Roman political system. The problem of the interrelationships between the barbarians and the Roman people is a complicated one. The concept prevalent in Soviet historical scholarship in the 1940’s and early 1950’s, that a “revolution of slaves and coloni” aided the Great Migration of Peoples, is not supported by source materials: a large number of peasants and especially townspeople suffered from and fought against the barbarian invasions.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.