ECHO Molise
  Emigration and Cultural Heritage of the Molise

Barbarians - An Overview

Note:  This page gives some background on the state of the Roman Empire when “barbarians” roamed its lands. The important messages are 1) these “barbarians” were no more barbaric or land-grabbing than the Romans; 2) they were more mercenaries than invaders, invited in by at least one feuding Roman faction, or acting in retaliation when Rome broke a treaty; 3) at worst, they pushed Rome off its own “fiscal cliff,” but the Romans had reached that cliff on their own.

“… The Romans massacred people for the sheer pleasure of watching the blood. They decorated their rooms with expensive mosaics of gladiatorial slaughters…and gathered in their thousands to watch criminals ripped apart by wild animals… German Barbarians never came near this for savagery.”

From “Terry Jones’ Barbarians"

By Terry Jones and Alan Ereira


ORIGINS         "Goths in the Samnium" (2 pages)
THE ROMAN EMPIRE    "Into Italy"





To the ancient Romans and Greeks, who presumed the only real culture was their own culture, a “barbarian” was anyone who was not Roman or Greek. The term may have come from a Greek word that meant the barbarian’s language sounded like babbling
(Dench 73)

In the 3rd century AD, Germanic barbarians began to collect along the Roman Empire’s frontier. They had been pushed to the frontier by other expanding tribes--such as the Huns--and had come, unwittingly, to push the declining Roman Empire into its Fall:

Goths and Heruli on the lower Danube and northeast into the steppes of modern Ukraine

Alemanni on the middle and upper Rhine

Franks on the lower Rhine

Frisians in what is modern Netherlands

Saxons in modern northern Germany

Vandals and Longobards, or Lombards to the east of the Saxons (Wickham 783).

 Map Roman Empire 116 AD

The Goths who ultimately left their mark on Italy were first attested north of the lower Danube and the Black Sea, east of the Carpathians and in the Roman province of Dacia. Until then -- in the 3rd century -- powerful, organized barbarian groupings were unknown in these areas (Kukikowski 36).
Eventually, Barbarians would rule the Italian peninsula: 12 years by Visigoths, 2 years by Vandals, 17 by Heruli, 47 by Ostrogoths, followed by 30 years of war and (Greek) Byzantine rule [links to Into Italy article]. For the most part, these regimes “of conquest” did not improve economic or social conditions in the Samnium (Masciotta 125). In fact, few left any traces: 

“The Goths and the Vandals are the only people who ever held the South for a time and left no sign of their presence; but their holding was short, and their occupation was followed by a disappearance so sudden that their brief rule never earned the designation of a kingdom” (Crawford 11).

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Traces of Greek can be heard today in the Molise dialects, including words such as “cafone,” “vastaso,” and “cato” (Masciotta 126).


The traditional origin of these “Germanic peoples” begins in Scandinavia--or perhaps Poland, migrating to the southern shore of the Balkans, then on to the Black Sea area (Kukikowski 43). The Vandals were their neighbors on the West (Bradley 87). The Heruli were an eastern Germanic tribe that later accompanied Goths on incursions into Roman frontier provinces.  

OGoths transverse a river. E.V. Luminaisne migration story based on old songs tells that the Goths left their homeland due to overpopulation. “While crossing a river, the bridge they were using collapsed and split the people forever. Some stayed behind, while others, who had already crossed the river, moved on…” (Wolfram 42).

However, it is more likely that these tribes were not as related by genes and descent as by the ‘nuclei of tradition’ called Tradi Honskerne. That is, small warrior groups carried barbarian traditions with them when they migrated to new places, and passed the traditions down to succeeding generations (Kukikowski 53). Most likely all Germanic groups, including Goths and Vandals, were “new political units, created on the march, many of them recruited from a wide range of manpower sources, some of which were not even Germanic-speaking” (Wickham 19).

“Nothing contemporary tells us that Goths ‘came’ from anywhere at all. Instead, in the crucible of Roman frontier politics, people of very different backgrounds came together under leaders who were defined as Goths in their constant interaction with the Roman Empire” (Kukikowski 98).

Gothic emigrations, 1800-100 BC by M. Grant

During the 4th century AD, the Goths divided into the Tervingi--who would be known as western or Vesigoth, once on Roman soil;  and the Greutungi—later known as eastern, or Ostrogoth, after the Huns invaded. The prefix “Vesi” described “the good, the noble;” and “Ostro” described Goths of the rising sun. That inspired the Roman Cassiodorus to “improve” the names to Visi-, meaning West, and Ostro, meaning East
(Wolfram 23). 

By the 320s AD, the Goths were the major political group at the Roman frontiers. The Tervingi were the most important subdivision of the Goths, and had the most dealings with the Romans. They populated the region bordered by the Volhynia River to the North; the Danube and the Black Sea to the South; and the Donets to the east; and the Carpathians to the West (Kukikowski 31-32, 63). To their West, Vandals--from the word Wandal, wanderer--had migrated from Poland to settle in Bohemia – Serbia, Bulgaria (Jones 236).

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A Swedish province is still called "Gothland."

“The barbarians... blended so rapidly with the people among whom they dwelt, that soon no traces of distinct nationality could be perceived”  (Abbott 420)


The Tervingi lived in the forests; the Greutungi lived on the steppe and coastal areas (Wolfram 23).


Map Roman Empire at its peak

Detail from Venice St Mark's TetrachsThe first two centuries AD, the Roman Empire experienced a stable, prosperous and expansive period known as the Pax Romana, “Roman Peace"—despite notable exceptions such as the Social Wars. The Empire reached its greatest expanse during the 2nd century. In the 3rd century, political turmoil, economic depression, wars and plague weakened the Empire. In 293 AD, Diocletian [links to Roman Who's who] implemented a system of four co-rulers known as the Tetrarchy. Christians rose to power in the 4th century, during which time a system of dual rule was developed (Wikipedia, Roman). 

Beginning in 313 AD, the Roman Empire was ruled by one Emperor in the Byzantine East [Constantinople] and one Emperor in the Latin West [Rome]. Two sons of Emperor Theodosius divided the empire. Arcadius took the East [Thrace, Greece, Asia Minor, Syria and Egypt] while Honorius took the West [Italy, Africa, Gaul, Spain, Britain and the Danube provinces of Noricum, Pannonia and Dalmatia]. The West was already weak, quickly crumbling to decay. In addition, the Moors were threatening Africa, the Scots pressured Britain and Goths encroached along the banks of the Rhine and the Danube (Abbott 412). After Rome collapsed in the 5th century, Constantinople continued to rule what would later be known as the Byzantine Empire.

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Of the “barbarians,” the Vandals and the Goths most influenced peninsular Italy. Although it was not their intent, “their invasions, the disruptions these caused, and the subsequent dismembering of the Roman state were undoubtedly the principal cause of the death of the Roman economy. The invaders were not guilty of murder, but they had committed manslaughter” (Ward-Perkins 1477).

Since about 238 AD, the Roman Empire paid for peace with the Goths, providing annual payments to prevent a massive onslaught across the frontier borders (Wolfram 44). Rome became allies with the Ostrogoths and paid them to defend the border. But around 245, the payments stopped and the Ostrogoths crossed the Danube to raid and plunder Roman provinces (Bradley 209).

After a series of Gothic attacks on frontier provinces, in 330 AD the Romans drove the Goths into Transylvania. Over 100,000 Goths, including women and children, died there from starvation and exposure. By 332, the Goths and Romans reached an accord, a “foedus” (Wolfram 61, 54). Under the terms, the Goths were to provide auxiliary troops to serve with the Roman army in exchange for annual payments from the Romans and resumed trade (Wolfram 62).

Hermanric was said to be 110 years old at his death, either at the hands of Huns or his own hand as the Huns defeated his army
(Hodgkin 263).
Around 369 AD, Huns left the Asian steppes--or southern Siberia--and began to push into the Gothic strongholds. The Goths had barely caught their breath from war with the Romans when the Huns struck, devastating the Goth lands. Within 5 years, the Ostrogoth King Hermanric died in battle against the Huns (Hodgkin 263). Eventually, the Goths were forced to push west to avoid the Huns. 

As Jones put it, “The Huns cannoned into the Goths. The Goths ricocheted off the Vandals. And the Vandals ended up being potted” (Jones 237)

 In 376 AD, a large Visigoth group requested permission to cross the Danube into the safe haven of the Roman Empire (Jones 135). They intended to leave their homeland for good, asking the Roman authorities to be officially settled (Ward-Perkins 601), but Valens made them wait until autumn before giving permission (Wolfram 72). Coin with face of Emperor ValensThus, history wrote the Visigoth’s peaceful, authorized crossing as the “invasion of the Barbarian hordes” (Jones 135)

The Romans admitted the Visigoths by the hundreds of thousands, but did not disarm them. They put the Goths into refugee camps and subjected them to “shocking abuse” at the hands of corrupt Roman authorities. For example, food intended for the Goths was diverted to Roman generals for their resale and profit. Instead, the Goths were “allowed” to purchase dog meat at the cost of one dog for one enslaved Goth child. Their breaking point came with the Roman refusal to allow more Goths to enter the empire--including those across the Danube from the Goth encampment, waiting for admittance--and the murder of two Goth generals at a Roman banquet (Kukikowski 131) . Then, the “vulnerable refugees turned into an avenging horde which Rome found impossible to maintain” (Jones 136).
Over the next years, the Goths fought fiercely against the Romans. Finally, in 378, a group of Alans, Goths and Huns crossed the Empire’s frontier and battled Emperor Valens at Adrianople, about 200 kilometers from the eastern capital at Constantinople. The attackers killed Valens, but dispersed rather than seize the capital (Hodges).

Instead, in October 382
(Wolfram 73), Theodosius--Valens’ successor--conceded to the Goths the status of an independent people inside the Roman Empire. But it was not a good deal for the Goths. The land they were given, modern Bulgaria, could not support the people, yet the Goths were required to supply auxiliary troops to the Roman army (Jones 138).

Meanwhile, beyond the border, the Huns had subdued the Ostrogoths for over a century. In 453, Attila died and his sons quarreled over the Hunnish throne. Against this house divided, the Ostrogoths battled once again, and regained their freedom (Bradley 435).

Check out this clip, part 6 from the BBC series Barbarians with Terry Jones, discussing Alaric, the Visigoths, and the sack of Rome:

5.5 minutes, English, uploaded to by alisonpita


Abbott, John S.C. Italy. New York: Peter Fenelon Collier, 1882.

Bradley, Henry. The Story of the Goth from the Earliest Times to the End of the Gothic Dominion in Spain. New York: GP Putnam's Sons, 1888. E-book.

Crawford, Francis Marion. Southern Italy and Sicily, and The Rulers of the South. London: Macmillan & Co., Ltd., 1907.

Dench, Emma. From Barbarians to New Men: Greek, Roman, and Modern Perception of Peoples of the Central Apennines. Oxford Universtity Press, 1995.

Herlihy, David. Medieval Households. Harvard University Press, 1985.

Hodgkin, Thomas. Theodoric the Goth. The Barbarian Champion of Civilisation. London: The Knickerbocker Press, 1897. E-Book.

Jones, Terry and Alan Ereira. Terry Jones' Barbarians. Oxford: BBC Books, 2007. E-Book.

Kukikowski, Michael. Rome's Gothic Wars. From the Third Century to Alaric. Cambridge University Press, 2007. E-Book.

Masciotta, Giambattista. Il Molise dalle origini ai nostri giorni. Vol. I. Napoli: Luigi Pierro e Figlio, 1914.

Ward-Perkins, Bryan. The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization. Oxford University Press, 2005. E-Book.

Wickham, Chris. The Inheritance of Rome. A History of Europe from 400 to 1000. London: Penguin, 2009. E-book.

Wikipedia. "Roman Empire." January 2013. Wikipedia. 16 January 2013.

—. "Sack of Rome (455)." November 2012. Wikipedia. January 2013.

Wolfram, Herwig. History of the Goths. Trans. Thomas J. Dunlap. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988.

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