The Roman Empire geographically established the original concept of a European boundary. With all of it’s great achievements likee civil law, politics and literature, the collective willpower of the Roman Empire would eventually degrade over time and give way to new ideas andd influences. The empire of Rome did not fall- it fizzled. The Western Roman Empire gave way to the Middle Ages around 476, when the Barbarian,, Odoacer, overthrew the emperor Romulus Augustulus. Other historians give the year 410, when Alaric, king of the Visigoths, sacked Rome. Still,, others say about 500 or even later.
In any event this early medieval period is often referred to as the Dark Ages because of the apparent collapse off Greco Roman culture. During this time their was no effective government and no sense of state, just small autonomous tribes and peasantt communities. Local life was isolated, fragmented, dreary, illiterate and superstitious.. For various reasons, Germanic people to the North had long desired to expand into Roman territories perhaps because of pressures from overpopulation, wars, or food shortages. These Barbarians were semi-nomadic tribes led by warrior chiefs.
They advanced forcefully against the Empire in the fourth century as the strength and determination of the Roman Empire was being degraded by political decay, civil war, economic problems and social decadence. Various Barbarians such as the Ostrogoth, Vandals, Lombards, Franks, Angles, Saxons and other tribes overcame a disintegrating Roman Empire. The advanced systems of Roman law, culture and government gave way to crude forms of Barbarians. These invaders lacked the ability to continue the achievements in art, literature, and engineering.
However, these invaders also brought with them new ideas and raditions that changed Roman culture to a more diverse and defused culture which altered the course and development for later Europe. The Germanic people brought with them their customs and traditions, but the idea that most influenced later Europe was the belief in the rights of the individual. To the Romans the state was more important than the individual. It is from this merging of cultures that the idea of personal rights, the concept of government by the people, and crude but representative law courts emerged.
These ideas paved the way for the acceptance of new ideas. This individual thinking allowed for the broad acceptance of Christianity, the most important ingredient that went into the making of Europe. The cultural legacy of Greece and Rome, combined with the new ideas and traditions of the Germanic people was glued together with Christianity. As Germanic minorities mingled with what was left of the Roman population, they created new hybrid societies that would differ in ways that would have great consequences for centuries.
How did these various Germanic people assimilate and what kind of governmental and social structures eveloped in these early Middle Ages that would later influence the making of Europe? The answers are numerous and complex, but here are a few underlying basic reasons: Germanic tribes were originally ruled by individuals who were chosen because of their dominance and success in battle. Germanic warriors were modified by their increased exposure to Roman civilization. Barbarian war bands acquired the concept of stratified ranks from the Roman armies they encountered which assisted in the evolution of a class structure.
As the most elite acquired land and wealth, social inequalities merged that would define nobles from peasants in later Europe. German tribes developed regulations or laws that applied to the Romans as well as their own people. For example, the Franks developed the “Wergeld Value System” where a certain value was placed on every person. Fines were charged for a violation on that person and varied depending on their status. These Barbarian law codes would later evolve into the “Feudal System” in Medieval government was a disorganized affair that grew out of Germanic tribal ties of kinship and personal loyalty.
Their greatest gains in this ransitional period were made for them by their kings. Most kings tried to rule according to Roman law. But, gradually, by a painful process of political pioneering, the kings learned to rule in their own names without the benefit of imperial restrictions. By the end of the sixth century, this Germanic style had totally replaced the Roman administrative system. Barbarian assimalation first began with slow and peaceful migration. Merchant and slave trade relations were established earley in the second and third centuries but the main export of the Germanic tribes was not slaves it was “free warriors”.
Germanic soldiers enlisted in droves and by the end of the fourth century the Roman army was predomenantly barbarian. Many barbarian soldiers rose to high military and aristocratic positions. In order to maintain it’s borders Rome admitted certain selected tribes into the empire as foederati, who swor loyalty to the emporor, agreeing to guard their stretch of border. One of these”foederati groups later became the Carolingians. Most of Europe was occupied by Barbarians by the fifth century and by the sixth century the “Barbarian Takeover” was complete. They divided Western Europe into six major Germanic tribes.
In terms of modern regions the Visigoths occupied Spain; the Vandals, Africa; the Ostrogoths, Italy; the Saxons, England; the Franks, France. Of all these Barbarians the Franks had the most lasting impact on Europe. Their first great leader was Clovis, who in 481-511 established in Gaul the kingdom that was to become France. He was a key figure in the early spreading of Christianity. Christianity was the most important factor in the solidification of Europe because it spiritually united the various sects. It was a spiritual union that did not possess territorial boundaries.
It existed wherever a single believer professed the faith. Clovis was baptized in 496. He provided a royal example that started a steady conversion of the whole Frankish people and speeded their ethnic fusion with the Roman citizenry of Gaul. The bloodiest Roman persecution of Christians occurred in 303 ordered by Diocletian.  Ten years later Constantine’s legalization of Christianity in February 313 initiated the evolution of the Roman Empire into a Christian state and also prepared the way for the growth of Byzantine and Western medieval culture.
After Christianity became legal it was associated with the state; no longer a suffering minority, it had fewer martyrs. Monks became the new martyrs. Christians believed that monks, like the martyrs before them, could speak directly to God. To avoid the decadence of urban life Christians began to experiment with Monasticism in the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries but not until 529, when Saint Benedict wrote a document called The Rule of the Master, were there any guidelines for monastic life. Benedict’s “Rule” allowed for the admission of people with a variety of backgrounds and cultures.
Benedictine monasticism suited the social conditions of medieval life and also provided social services such as medicine and education for the young. Monasticism gained favor from Gregory the Great, and later popes, and still later, the encouragement of Charlemagne. Benedictine monasticism was important because it became the principal preserver and teacher of classical and Christian culture, in essence it was the backbone of the Christian religion. The Christian culture was one legacy the Romans gave to the Western world; the other was the Byzantine culture centered at Constantinople.
The overtaking of Rome by the Ostrogoths in 476 marked the end to only the western half of Rome. The eastern half continued as the Byzantine Empire, with Constantinople as its capital. The eastern half differed from the western in many respects: it carried on the traditions of the Hellenistic civilization, a blending of Greek and Middle Eastern elements; it was more commercial, more urban, and richer than the West, and its emperors, who in the Hellenistic tradition combined political and religious functions, had firmer control over all classes of society.
They were also more skillful in fending off invaders through both warfare and diplomacy. The most significant cultural feature of the Byzantine Empire was the type of Christianity that developed there. It was more mystical and more liturgical than Western Christianity. The Greek Christians in the East in contrast to the West wanted unity between Christianity and classic culture. Around 533 the development of the Justinian code revised outdated religious and civil laws that became the foundation for every modern European nation.
Major conflicts within the papacy arose over issues such as Iconoclasm (icons in religious prayer) raised the question of the rights of the emperor to intervene in religious deputes. In 730 Leo III ordered the removal of icons from Byzantine churches which were eventually restored in 843 but initiated the split between the Roman and Byzantine Greek orthodox church and in 1054 a schism or total split was in effect. Between 714 to about 840 was the period of The Great Carolingians. When Clovis died his four sons inherited control of different parts of the
Frankish kingdom and fought with each other over territory. This was a major factor in the decline of the Merovingian monarchy. Traditionally known as the “first race” of the kings of France, The victors in this fighting among the Merovingian kings were their counts and dukes, but mostly the mayor of the palace. As the king grew weaker the mayor grew stronger. The first mayor to replace the king was Pepin II (687-714). When Pepin II died he passed the office to his illegitimate son, Charles Martel, who in turn passed it to his son, Pepin III. In 768 Charles I, also referred to as
Charlemagne, was the most acclaimed of all the medieval kings following his father Pepin III to the throne. Charles The Great, also called Charlemagne, conquered the Lombard Kingdom in Italy, subdued the Saxons, took Bavaria, fought campaigns in Spain and Hungary, and, with the exception of the Kingdom of Asturias in Spain, southern Italy, and the British Isles, united in one superstate practically all the Christian lands of western Europe. In 800 he assumed the title of emperor. All of the medieval kingdoms of France and Germany derived their constitutional traditions from
Charlemagne’s monarchy. Throughout medieval Europe, Charlemagne was considered the prototype of a Christian king and emperor. Charlemagne has also been remembered as a promoter of education and learning even though he was barely literate himself; he is credited with creating a revival of learning, a “cultural renaissance. ” He worked closely with the papacy to develop high standards for behavior and government that would be the seed for medieval and later governments to follow. Charlemagne’s son, Louis the Pious, left his empire to his three sons Lothar, Louis the German, and Charles the Bald.
In 843 The Treaty of Verdun divided the empire into three areas which each of them would control. This is thought to be the beginning of Germany, France and Italy. Between 840 to about 1000 was the period of The Second Barbarian Invasions. In 840 England received numerous attacks from the Vikings, and the Danes begin a full-scale invasion in England in 865. In 890 the Magyars from Asia started invading central Europe but were defeated in 995 by the German King Otto I who revives Charlemagne’s empire seven years later.
While Germany was looking to the past, feudalism was being developed in northwestern France. Finally, in 987, the last Carolingian was replaced by Hugh Capet, the first of the Capetian dynasty. In conclusion, the culture that formed between 732 and 843 can be considered the “first” European civilization, sculpted from numerous cultures and traditions bound together by Christianity. Multiple invasions contributed to the empire’s disintegration, and a new decentralized government began to emerged called feudalism. The 10th century would bring the period of commercial and urban revival.