Germans and the Roman Empire

The Germans originally came from Scandinavia. They were mainly shepherds and hunters, and only a small minority were farmers. The Germans consisted of several different groups. The most important of these were the Goths, Vandals, Franks and Saxons.

The Germanic people occupied large forests and poor farming land in Scandinavia. Although they were good hunters they found it difficult to supply enough food for their growing population. Large numbers were forced to migrate south, and during the second century AD they began to settle outside the northern borders of the Roman Empire.

The Germans were dangerous fighters. Their tactics were crude but. effective. Their main strategy was to charge the enemy and involve them in hand-to-hand combat. Only the chiefs wore helmets but they all carried large oblong shields and swords.

The Germans wore animal-skins. They were very proud of their long hair which they dyed red and wore in a bun or pony-tail. They also smeared their hair with thick grease.

The first Germans entered the Roman Empire in AD 166. They asked for permission to settle, but this was refused and the Roman army were able to push them back. However, it was difficult for the Romans to keep them out and in AD 256 they decided to abandon the province of Dacia to the Visigoths.

The next migrating group to cause a problem were the Huns. Pushed out of their own land in Mongolia by the Zhu-Zhu from China, the Huns decided to move west. The first group to suffer at the hands of the Huns were the Alans who lived in South Russia. In AD 375 the Huns defeated the Ostrogoths and Visigoths.

In an attempt to escape from the Huns, the Germans crossed into Roman territory. The Romans attempted to drive them back but in AD 378 the Ostrogoths and Visigoths were able to defeat them at Adrianople. The Romans were now forced to do a deal with the Goths who were given permission to live within the borders of the Roman Empire under their own rulers. In return, the Goths agreed to serve under Roman officers in orqer to prevent further invasions.

The Germans became angry when the Romans passed a law in AD 370 prohibiting marriage between Romans and themselves. The Germans also felt they were not being treated as equals in the army.

Alaric, a Visigoths leader, took part in several campaigns under the Romans. However, when he did not receive the expected promotion in the Roman Army, he led his people against the empire. Alaric now demanded that the Visigoths should have their own independent state. In AD 410 Alaric's army was strong enough to enter Rome. Roman slaves joined with the Visigoths in sacking the city. With the slaves joining his army, Alaric now had 40,000 men at his disposal. After roaming around the Roman Empire, the

Visigoths eventually decided to settle in Aquitania.

The Vandals, under the leadership of Gaiseric, also created serious problems for the Romans. With the support of the Alans, the Vandals entered Africa from Hispania in AD 429. Although, like most invading armies, the Vandals did do damage to property in Africa, they had mainly come to settle and not to destroy. Roman writers, who were extremely hostile to their Arian form of Christianity, were mainly responsible for the Vandals' undeserved reputation for destroying anything to do with civilisation.

The Vandals were good seamen and they were now in a position to control the Mediterranean. After taking Sardinia and Corsica, Gaiseric invaded Italy in AD 455 and spent fourteen days ransacking Rome.

The Romans tried to obtain revenge, but the two vast fleets they sent to Carthage were defeated by the superior Vandal navy. Although there were only about 80,000 Vandals, of which only about 20,000 were fighting men, they ruled the six million people in Roman Africa for the next hundred years.

Primary Sources

(1) A message sent to Caesar by leaders of the Usipete tribe in 55 BC.

We Germans are not taking aggressive action against the Roman people, but we are ready to fight if provoked. For it is our traditional custom to resist any attacker... We wish to say, however, that we have

come into Gaul not from choice but because we were expelled from our homes by the Suebi. If you Romans desire our friendship, we can be of service to you... The only people whose superiority we acknowledge are the Suebi... There is no one else on earth that we cannot conquer.

(2) Salvian of Marseilles, On the Governance of God (c. AD 450)

You can't help admiring the Vandals. They entered the wealthiest cities and took them over... in such a way that they rejected their corrupting customs and now use those things that are good, and avoid the degrading influence of those that are evil.

(3) Paulinus of Nola, a poet who lived in Gaul under the Goths (c. AD 420)

It was peace I sought from the Gothic masters. They themselves wanted peace and before long they gave to others, though for a price, the chance to live without annoyance.

(4) Jordanes, The Origin and Deeds of the Goths (c. AD 550)

The Goths were wiser than other barbarians and were nearly like the Greeks... King Dicineus (1st century BC) taught the Goths logic and made them skilled in reasoning beyond all other races; he showed them practical knowledge and so persuaded them to abound in good works... Think, I pray you, what pleasure it was for these brave men, when for a little space they had leisure from warfare, to be instructed in the teachings of philosophy.

(5) Procopius, historian born in Judaea (c. AD 540)

The Vandals, since they gained possession of Africa, used to indulge in baths, all of them, every day... They wore gold and clothed themselves in garments of silk, and passed their time in theatres and hippodromes and other pleasurable pursuits, and above all else in hunting. And they had dancers and mimes and all other things to hear and see which are of a musical nature.


1. Construct a time-line dated from AD 150 to AD 475. Add to the time-line details of the conflict between the Germans and the Romans.

2. Select sources from this unit that give a good impression of the Germans. Give possible reasons why these writers gave a good impression of the Germans.

3. (i) Describe the reasons why the Germans came into conflict with the Roman Empire. (ii) Explain how these events linked up to help bring down the Roman Empire.