The Barbarians and the Fall of the Roman Empire

The Empire conditions in the beginning of the decline:

The immediate and obvious causes which ruined the Western Empire were
military and political--the shortcomings of a professional army and
professional administrators. If asked whether these shortcomings were
symptomatic of evils more generally diffused through other ranks and
classes of society, we must go deeper in the analysis of facts.

It has been alleged that the Roman armies were neither so robust nor so
well disciplined in the fifth century as they had been in an earlier
age. However this may be, they could still give a good account of
themselves when matched on equal terms with the most warlike of the
barbarians. It was in patriotism and in numbers, rather than in
professional efficiency, that they failed when put to the supreme test.

This analysis helps us to understand why the Western Empire, on the eve
of dissolution, had already assumed the appearance of a semi-barbarian
state. In those districts which had been lately settled with Teutonic
colonists the phenomenon may be explained as resulting from
over-sanguine attempts to civilize an intractable stock. But even in the
heart of the oldest provinces the conditions were little better. Law and
custom had conspired to sap the ideas and principles that we regard as
essentially Roman.

The Visigoths raids:

The beginning and the end of the disaster were successful raids on
Italy. Alaric and his Visigoths (401-410 A.D.) shattered the prestige
and destroyed the efficiency of the government which ruled in the name
of the feeble Honorius. The Ostrogoths under Theodoric destroyed the
last simulacrum of an imperial power rooted in Italy (489-493 A.D.).
After Theodoric had vanquished Odoacer, it was clear that the western
provinces would not again acknowledge an Emperor acclaimed at Ravenna;
although the chance remained that they might be reconquered and
reorganised from Constantinople. This chance disappeared when the
Lombards crossed the Alps (568 A.D.) and descended on the Po valley.

From first to last Italy was the key to the West. And these successive
shocks to imperial power in Italy were all due to one cause. All three
of the invading hordes came from the Danube. The Roman bank of the great
river was inadequately garrisoned, and a mistaken policy had colonised
the Danubian provinces with Teutonic peoples, none the less dangerous
for being the nominal allies of the Empire.

The Visigothic raids, which were in fact decisive, succeeded because the
military defences of the Western Empire were already strained to
breaking-point; and because the Roman armies were not only outnumbered,
but also paralysed by the jealousies of rival statesmen, and divided by
the mutinies of generals aspiring to the purple. The initial disasters
were irreparable, because the whole machine of Roman officialdom came to
a standstill when the guiding hand of Ravenna failed. Hitherto dependent
on Italy, the other provinces were now like limbs amputated from the
trunk. Here and there a local leader raised the standard of resistance
to the barbarians. But a large proportion of the provincials made peace
on the best terms they could obtain. Such are the essential facts.

The large borders of the empire:

Evidently the original error of the Romans was the undue extension of
their power. This was recognised by no less a statesman than Augustus,
the founder of the Empire; but even in his time it was too late to sound
a retreat; he could only register a protest against further annexations.
Embracing the whole of the Mediterranean littoral and a large part of
the territories to the south, east, and north, the Empire was encumbered
with three land frontiers of enormous length. Two of these, the European
and the Asiatic, were perpetual sources of anxiety, and called for
separate military establishments. That neither might be neglected in the
interest of the other it was reasonable to put the imperial power in
commission between two colleagues. Diocletian (284-305 A.D.) was the
first to adopt this plan; from his time projects of partition were in
the air and would have been more regularly carried out, had not
experience shown that partitions led naturally to civil wars between
rival Emperors.

In 395, on the death of the great Theodosius, the hazardous expedient was
given a last trial. His youthful sons, Arcadius and Honorius, were allowed to
divide the Empire; but the line of partition was drawn with more regard to racial
jealousies than military considerations. It extended from the middle Danube (near Belgrade) to a
point near Durazzo on the Adriatic coast, and thence to the Gulf of
Sidra. East of this line lay the sphere of Greek civilisation, the
provinces which looked to Alexandria and Antioch and Constantinople as
their natural capitals. West of it the prevailing language was Latin,
and the higher classes of society modelled themselves upon the Italian

The emperor Honorius succeeded in winning a precarious alliance with the Visigoths and
the permanent ill-will of the Eastern Empire. He was left to deal
single-handed with the first invaders of Italy; and the estrangement of
the two imperial courts persisted after his untimely fall. The Western
Empire, betrayed by the one possible ally, collapsed under the strain
of simultaneous attacks along the whole line of the European frontier.

The squalor of the roman army:

The problem of numbers had been earlier recognised, but not more
adequately met. Diocletian is said to have quadrupled the armies, and in
the fourth century they were far larger than they had been under Julius
and Augustus; Constantine had revised the scheme of frontier-defence to
secure the greatest possible economy of men. Still, under Honorius, we
find that one vital point could only be defended by withdrawing troops
from another. The difficulty of increasing the numbers was twofold.
First, the army was mercenary, and taxation was already strained to the
point of diminishing returns. Secondly, it was difficult to raise
recruits among the provincials. The old principle of universal service
had been abandoned by Valentinian I (364-375); and although compulsory
levies were still made from certain classes, the Government had thought
fit to prohibit the enlistment of those who contributed most to
taxation. Every citizen was legally liable for the defense of local
strongholds; but the use of arms was so unfamiliar, the idea of military
service as a national duty was so far forgotten, that Stilicho, when the
barbarians were actually in Italy, preferred the desperate measure of
enlisting slaves to the obvious resource of a general call to arms.

We find ourselves here confronted with a social malady which was more
than an economic weakness. The Empire was, no doubt, a complex and
expensive form of government superimposed upon a society which stood at
a rudimentary stage of economic development. Barbarous methods of
taxation and corrupt practices among the ruling classes had aggravated
the burden to such a degree that the municipalities of the provinces
were bankrupt, and the middle-class capitalist was taxed out of
existence. For this and other reasons the population of the older
provinces was stationary or declining. But there was still much wealth
in the Empire; and the great landowners of the provinces could raise
considerable armies among their dependants when they saw fit to do so.
The real evil was a moral evil, the decay of civic virtue.

The fall was grace or indignation:

The great service that the barbarians rendered was a service of
destruction. In doing so they prepared the way for a return to the past.
Their first efforts in reconstruction were also valuable, since the
difficulty of the work and the clumsiness of the product revived the
respect of men for the superior skill of Rome. In the end the barbarians
succeeded in that branch of constructive statesmanship where Rome had
failed most signally. The new states which they founded were smaller and
feebler than the Western Empire, but furnished new opportunities for the
development of individuality, and made it possible to endow citizenship
with active functions and moral responsibilities.

That these states labored under manifold defects was obvious to those who made them and
lived under them. The ideal of the world-wide Empire, maintaining
universal peace and the brotherhood of men, continued to haunt the
imagination of the Middle Ages as a lost possibility. But in this case,
as so often, what passed for a memory was in truth an aspiration; and
Europe was advancing towards a higher form of unity than that which had
been destroyed.

Treaty of Verdun A.D. 814

Upon the death of Charlemagne, in A.D. 814, the crown and the sceptre of the empire passed to his son Louis (the later form of Clovis). This feeble son of Charlemagne, known as Louis the Débonnaire, struggled under the weight of the crumbling mass until his death in 840. Then Charlemagne's three ambitious grandsons fought for the great inheritance. Lothaire, who claimed the whole by right of primogeniture, was defeated at the battle of Fontenay in Burgundy, and by the treaty of Verdun in 843 the partition of the empire was consummated; the title of emperor passing to Lothaire, the eldest, along with Italy and a strip of territory extending to the North Sea, all west of that being arbitrarily called France, and all east of it Germany.

So the European drama was unfolding upon lines entirely unexpected. Not only had the empire fallen apart into three grand divisions, but France itself was disintegrating, was in fact a mass of rival states, with counts, princes, marquises, and a score of other petty potentates struggling for supremacy.

The rough outlines of something greater than France—the outlines of a future Europe—were being drawn. It is easy to see now what was then so incomprehensible: that from the chaos of barbarism left by the Teuton flood, there were emerging in that ninth century a group of states with definite outlines, and the larger organism of Europe was coming into form. The treaty of Verdun (843) had roughly separated Italy, France, and Germany. At the same time the Heptarchy in Britain had been consolidated into England under King Alfred; while an obscure Scandinavian adventurer named Rurik, quite unobserved, was bringing into political unity, and reigning at Kieff as Grand Duke over what was to become Russia. Spain, quite apart from all this movement, had entered upon those seven centuries of struggle with Saracen and Moor, that struggle of unmatched devotion and tenacity of purpose which is really the great epic of history.

Those ambitious and too powerful vassals were not the greatest evils menacing the Carlovingian kings. It was the incessant invasions of a race of barbarians coming out of the north, which was going to bury the past under a ruin of a different sort. There seemed no defence from these Northmen, as they were called, who swarmed like destroying insects upon the coast, up the rivers, and over the lands; three times sacked Paris, the scars to-day being visible in that impressive Roman ruin, the Palais des Thermes, the home of the Caesars, and of the Merovingian kings, which they partially burned.

Fortified castles with towers and moats and drawbridges sprang up all over the kingdom for the protection of the rich. After seven invasions all the old cities, Rouen, Nantes, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Orleans, Beauvais, had been devastated, and France in coat of mail was hiding behind stone walls.

In looking through the vista of centuries it is easy to read the eternal purpose in the chain of cause and effect; and also to see that events, no less than kings, have their pedigrees. The terrible child of the Northman was the Feudal System; which was again the father of those romantic and picturesque children, the Crusades; and these, the creators of a European civilization, whose children we are!

Who can imagine the course of history with any one of these removed—each an apparently inevitable step in the unfolding of a mighty design, utterly incomprehensible at the time?

The Bayeux Tapestry

With needle, thread, and Latin the Bayeux Tapestry tells the story of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. Stretching for 230 feet, it consists of a linen background stitched with eight colors of wool yarn, an artistic tour de force. A running commentary describes scene after scene in succinct, simple language. In cartoon format, with a very serious purpose, the Tapestry depicts over 600 people, 190 horses and mules, 35 dogs, 500 other animals, and more than 100 trees, buildings, and ships. It is a valuable document for the study of medieval weapons, warfare, architecture, costumes, folklore, and attitudes. For the Latinist, it is a 230-foot text set in brilliant technicolor. (J. Anderson, “The Bayeux Tapestry,”

Part of The Bayeux Tapestry

- The Bayeux Tapestry is not a tapestry (something woven, like a carpet), but an embroidery (something sewn, like the initials on your Dad’s hankies)

- It includes 623 people, 202 horses, 41 ships and 55 dogs

- There are more than 500 mythical creatures along the borders

- There are more than 2000 words

- It is made of a piece of linen (similar to tablecloth material), over 70 metres long, so it’s about the length of 3 swimming pools!

Many historians have argued over who made the Tapestry. The French claim it was made in Bayeux – hence the name. English historians think that because Odo was made Earl of Kent he actually had the Tapestry made in England. English craftsmen were particularly famous at this time for their skills with needle and thread and it is not impossible that it was actually made in an artistic centre like Canterbury.

People have also questioned who designed the Tapestry. Many of the scenes are of a very personal nature, such as the death scene of Edward the Confessor and would have only been witnessed by someone very close to royalty. There are also some very detailed and accurate combat scenes, so presumably the designer had first hand knowledge of the Battle of Hastings itself.

We don’t know for sure when it was completed, but we do know it was intended to hang in Odo’s new cathedral in Bayeux. This church had just been rebuilt and opened its doors to people in 1077. It’s nice to think that the Tapestry was ready on opening day – but embroiderers can be a bit like plumbers, things are never finished on time.

The Tapestry has only survived to the present by sheer chance! During the French revolution it was used to provide a cover for a cart, and afterwards Napoleon stole it and took it back to France. When he saw the Tapestry for the first time, it gave him the inspiration to launch a new invasion against the English … fortunately he changed his mind! During the Second World War the Tapestry was taken back to Paris and stored in secret vaults beneath the famous art gallery, the Louvre.

In the 1070s one of the most powerful men in all of Normandy, the Bishop Odo of Bayeux and half brother of Duke William, ordered the recording of William Duke of Normandy’s success at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The victory was recorded in an embroidery (hand stitched picture) called the Bayeux Tapestry.

The Tapestry shows how the Norman invaders conquered Britain and how they forced their rule upon the Saxons. The Tapestry is named after the town in Normandy where the Tapestry was displayed in a cathedral built in 1077. The town of Bayeux was also chosen to house the tapestry because it was there that King Edward the Confessor was said to have promised the throne of England to William the Duke of Normandy in 1051.

The Bayeux Tapestry told about three kings:-

-Edward the Confessor
-William of Normandy

While these kings fought for the rule in Britain, the three ones in our modern tapestry struggled for control over computers. The battle of Hastings was won by means of bows and arrows, while computers still remain partly out of control, even though we do have semaphores and pointers. The reason may be that William of Normandy could command his soldiers to march towards the Britons, while we are not allowed to tell anyone to goto anyplace any longer, not even with a guarded command.

Harold, the Duke of Wessex and the most prominent military figure in England in the early 1060s CE. Harold came from an important, powerful family. As a “Englishman,” he spoke Anglo-Saxon (Old English).

William, the Duke of Normandy. Normandy is in the northwestern corner of France, directly across the English Channel from England. William’s ancestors were Vikings originally from Scandinavia (Northman = Norman), who before William’s day had settled in Normandy. These Vikings had early on abandoned their own Scandinavian (Germanic) language and now spoke dialectally the language of the people they had displaced in France. This dialect (called Anglo-Norman), derived ultimately from Latin, is a modified form of early French. It is because of the Norman occupation of England, which followed for several centuries after William’s Conquest in 1066 CE, that Anglo-Norman was able to impose an immense Latin-based vocabulary on English.

Edward, the King of England, aka “the Confessor.” Edward was childless, and for some unknown reason it was popular knowledge from at least 1051 CE on that he would die that way. Thus, the matter of who would succeed him to the English throne was for a long time in question.

The Albigensian Crusade

In the last post we talking about the failure of the second crusade. Today we will present new opinion and ideas about The Albigensian Crusade.

This crusade led against The Cathars. Their name Cathari, means ‘pure’ in Greek, although some have argued that their name comes from their fondness for cats! Either way, for the Catholic Church, the Cathars were heretics who needed to be controlled.

Simon de Montfort
The crusade against the Cathars began in 1209. The Albigensian crusade was led by Simon de Montfort. Whole towns loyal to the Cathars were massacred in the most brutal fashion. By mid 1209 around 10,000 crusaders had gathered in Lyon and began to march south. In June Raymond of Toulouse promised to act against the Cathars, and his excommunication was lifted. The crusaders headed towards Montpellier and the lands of Raymond-Roger de Trencavel, aiming for the Cathar communities around Albi and Carcassonne. Like Raymond of Toulouse, Raymond-Roger de Trencavel sought an agreement with the crusaders, but Trencavel was refused a meeting and raced back to Carcassonne to prepare his defences.

In July the crusaders captured the small village of Servian and headed for Béziers, arriving on July 21. They surrounded the town and demanded the Cathars be handed over; the demand was refused. The town fell the following day and the population was slaughtered. The papal representative, Abbot Arnaud-Amaury, apparently declared "Kill them all! God will recognize his own". Béziers is believed to have held no more than 500 Cathars, but over 10,000 citizens were killed.

Carcassonne was well fortified. The crusaders arrived outside the town on August 1, 1209. The siege did not last long, by August 7 the crusaders had cut the town's access to water. The inhabitants were not massacred but all were forced to leave the town. The crusader Simon de Montfort was granted control of the area encompassing Carcassonne, Albi, and Béziers. After Carcassonne most towns surrendered without a struggle. Albi, Castelnaudary, Castres, Fanjeaux, Limoux, Lombers and Montréal all fell quickly during the autumn.

In 1215 the crusaders entered Toulouse. Toulouse was gifted to de Monfort. However, Raymond together with his son returned to the region in April, 1216 and soon raised a substantial force from disaffected towns. In 1217 while de Montfort was occupied in the Foix region Raymond took Toulouse in September, de Montfort hurried back but his forces were inadequate to take the town before campaigning halted. De Montfort renewed the siege in the spring of 1218, in June while fighting in a sortie de Montfort was killed. With De Montford’s death the first phase of the Albigensian crusade came to an end.

Pope Innocent III and The Albigensian Crusade:

Pope Innocent III reigned from 1198 to 1216. He said that the Pope is the ruler of the world and the father of princes and kings. He claimed that every priest and bishop must obey the Pope even if the Pope commands something evil. Pope Innocent wanted to get rid of the Albigensian heretics who lived in France. He forced the King of France to kill hundreds of thousands of French citizens. The Albigensians lived mingled among the French Catholics. Pope Innocent commanded that every person in the region, including the Catholics, be killed. This was called the Albigensian Crusade, or the Albigensian Massacre. The Pope gave the Albigensian Crusaders a special indulgence which was supposed to guarantee that if they died in battle then their sins would be remitted and they would go to Heaven.

Historians and the Albigensian Crusade:

For Pegg in his book "A Most Holy War: The Albigensian Crusade and the Battle for Christendom", the Albigensian Crusade “reconfigured the relationship of divinity and humanity throughout Christendom--indeed, it redefined Christendom itself. What it meant to be a Christian (and, in a certain sense, Jewish or Muslim) would never be the same again. The Albigensian Crusade was a holy war unlike any other before it, a great medieval drama as spiritually subtle as it was crudely brutal and, in its own bloody sibylline way, a terrible prediction of so much sacred violence in the world for the next millennium”

For Pegg also, the Albigensian Crusade ushered genocide into European culture. The crusade linked divine salvation to mass murder and made slaughter as loving an act as Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. “This ethos of redemptive homicide is what separates the crusade massacres from other great killings before the thirteenth century”


H-France Review Vol. 9 (January 2009), No. 15,pp. 58-60.

Oldenbourg (Z.), Massacre At Montsegur A History Of The Albigensian Crusade, trans. by. Peter Green, New York 1961.

The New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol.1, The Catholic University of America 2003,pp. 229-231.