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The Metal Ages
Greeks, Romans, and barbarians

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Greeks, Romans, and barbarians

The main treatment of classical Greek and Roman history is given in the article Aegean civilizations; ancient Greek civilization; Hellenistic Age; ancient Italic people; and ancient Rome. Only a brief cultural overview is offered here, outlining the influence of Greeks and Romans on European history.

Greeks, Romans, and barbarians » Greeks
Of the Indo-European tribes of European origin, the Greeks were foremost as regards both the period at which they developed an advanced culture and their importance in further evolution. The Greeks emerged in the course of the 2nd millennium bc through the superimposition of a branch of the Indo-Europeans on the population of the Mediterranean region during the great migrations of nations that started in the region of the lower Danube. From 1800 bc onward the first early Greeks reached their later areas of settlement between the Ionian and the Aegean seas. The fusion of these earliest Greek-speaking people with their predecessors produced the civilization known as Mycenaean. They penetrated to the sea into the Aegean region and via Crete (approximately 1400 bc) reached Rhodes and even Cyprus and the shores of Anatolia. From 1200 bc onward the Dorians followed from Epirus. They occupied principally parts of the Peloponnese (Sparta and Argolis) and also Crete. Their migration was followed by the Dark Ages—two centuries of chaotic movements of tribes in Greece—at the end of which (c. 900 bc) the distribution of the Greek mainland among the various tribes was on the whole completed.

From about 800 bc there was a further Greek expansion through the founding of colonies overseas. The coasts and islands of Anatolia were occupied from south to north by the Dorians, Ionians, and Aeolians, respectively. In addition, individual colonies were strung out around the shores of the Black Sea in the north and across the eastern Mediterranean to Naukratis on the Nile delta and in Cyrenaica and also in the western Mediterranean in Sicily, lower Italy, and Massalia (Marseille). Thus, the Hellenes, as they called themselves thereafter, came into contact on all sides with the old, advanced cultures of the Middle East and transmitted many features of these cultures to western Europe. This, along with the Greeks’ own achievements, laid the foundations of European civilization.

The position and nature of the country exercised a decisive influence in the evolution of Greek civilization. The proximity of the sea tempted the Greeks to range far and wide exploring it, but the fact of their living on islands or on peninsulas or in valleys separated by mountains on the mainland confined the formation of states to small areas not easily accessible from other parts. This fateful individualism in political development was also a reflection of the Hellenic temperament. Though it prevented Greece from becoming a single unified nation that could rival the strength of the Middle Eastern monarchies, it led to the evolution of the city-state. This was not merely a complex social and economic structure and a centre for crafts and for trade with distant regions; above all it was a tightly knit, self-governing political and religious community whose citizens were prepared to make any sacrifice to maintain their freedom. Colonies, too, started from individual cities and took the form of independent city-states. Fusions of power occurred in the shape of leagues of cities, such as the Peloponnesian League, the Delian League, and the Boeotian League. The efficacy of these leagues depended chiefly upon the hegemony of a leading city (Sparta, Athens, or Thebes), but the desire for self-determination of the others could never be permanently suppressed, and the leagues broke up again and again.

The Hellenes, however, always felt themselves to be one people. They were conscious of a common character and a common language, and they practiced only one religion. Furthermore, the great athletic contests and artistic competitions had a continually renewed unifying effect. The Hellenes possessed a keen intellect, capable of abstraction, and at the same time a supple imagination. They developed, in the form of the belief in the unity of body and soul, a serene, sensuous conception of the world. Their gods were connected only loosely by a theogony that took shape gradually; in the Greek religion there was neither revelation nor dogma to oppose the spirit of inquiry.

The Hellenes benefited greatly from the knowledge and achievement of other countries as regards astronomy, chronology, and mathematics, but it was through their own native abilities that they made their greatest achievements, in becoming the founders of European philosophy and science. Their achievement in representative art and in architecture was no less fundamental. Their striving for an ideal, naturalistic rendering found its fulfillment in the representation of the human body in sculpture in the round. Another considerable achievement was the development of the pillared temple to a greater degree of harmony. In poetry the genius of the Hellenes created both form and content, which have remained a constant source of inspiration in European literature.

The strong political sense of the Greeks produced a variety of systems of government from which their theory of political science abstracted types of constitution that are still in use. On the whole, political development in Greece followed a pattern: first the rule of kings, found as early as the period of Mycenaean civilization; then a feudal period, the oligarchy of noble landowners; and, finally, varying degrees of democracy. Frequently there were periods when individuals seized power in the cities and ruled as tyrants. The tendency for ever-wider sections of the community to participate in the life of the state brought into being the free democratic citizens, but the institution of slavery, upon which Greek society and the Greek economy rested, was untouched by this.

In spite of continual internal disputes, the Greeks succeeded in warding off the threat of Asian despotism. The advance of the Persians into Europe failed (490 and 480–79 bc) because of the resistance of the Greeks and in particular of the Athenians. The 5th century bc saw the highest development of Greek civilization. The Classical period of Athens and its great accomplishments left a lasting impression, but the political cleavages, particularly the struggle between Athens and Sparta, increasingly reduced the political strength of the Greeks. Not until they were conquered by the Macedonians did the Greeks attain a new importance as the cultural leaven of the Hellenistic empires of Alexander the Great and his successors. A new system of colonization spread as far as the Indus city-communities fashioned after the Greek prototype, and Greek education and language came to be of consequence in the world at large.

Greece again asserted its independence through the formation of the Achaean League, which was finally defeated by the Romans in 146 bc. The spirit of Greek civilization subsequently exercised a great influence upon Rome. Greek culture became one of the principal components of Roman imperial culture and together with it spread throughout Europe. When Christian teaching appeared in the Middle East, the Greek world of ideas exercised a decisive influence upon its spiritual evolution. From the time of the partition of the Roman Empire, leadership in the Eastern Empire fell to the Greeks. Their language became the language of the state, and its usage spread to the Balkans. The Byzantine Empire, of which Greece was the core, protected Europe against potential invaders from Anatolia until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. (The main treatment of the Byzantine Empire from about 330 to about 1453 is given in the article Byzantine Empire.)

Greeks, Romans, and barbarians » Romans
The original Mediterranean population of Italy was completely altered by repeated superimpositions of peoples of Indo-European stock. The first Indo-European migrants, who belonged to the Italic tribes, moved across the eastern Alpine passes into the plain of the Po River about 1800 bc. Later they crossed the Apennines and eventually occupied the region of Latium, which included Rome. Before 1000 bc there followed related tribes, which later divided into various groups and gradually moved to central and southern Italy. In Tuscany they were repulsed by the Etruscans, who may have come originally from Anatolia. The next to arrive were Illyrians from the Balkans, who occupied Venetia and Apulia. At the beginning of the historical period, Greek colonists arrived in Italy, and after 400 bc the Celts, who settled in the plain of the Po.

The city of Rome, increasing gradually in power and influence, created through political rule and the spread of the Latin language something like a nation out of this abundance of nationalities. In this the Romans were favoured by their kinship with the other Italic tribes. The Roman and Italic elements in Italy, moreover, were reinforced in the beginning through the founding of colonies by Rome and by other towns in Latium. The Italic element in Roman towns decreased: a process—less racial than cultural—called the Romanization of the provinces. In the 3rd century bc, central and southern Italy were dotted with Roman colonies, and the system was to be extended to ever more distant regions up to imperial times. As its dominion spread throughout Italy and covered the entire Mediterranean basin, Rome received an influx of people of the most varied origins, including eventually vast numbers from Asia and Africa.

The building of an enormous empire was Rome’s greatest achievement. Held together by the military power of one city, in the 2nd century ad the Roman Empire extended throughout northern Africa and western Asia; in Europe it covered all the Mediterranean countries, Spain, Gaul, and southern Britain. This vast region, united under a single authority and a single political and social organization, enjoyed a long period of peaceful development. In Asia, on a narrow front, it bordered the Parthian empire, but elsewhere beyond its perimeter there were only barbarians. Rome brought to the conquered parts of Europe the civilization the Greeks had begun, to which it added its own important contributions in the form of state organization, military institutions, and law. Within the framework of the empire and under the protection of its chain of fortifications, extending uninterrupted the entire length of its frontiers (marked in Europe by the Rhine and the Danube), there began the assimilation of varying types of culture to the Hellenistic-Roman pattern. The army principally, but also Roman administration, the social order, and economic factors, encouraged Romanization. Except around the eastern Mediterranean, where Greek remained dominant, Latin became everywhere the language of commerce and eventually almost the universal language.

The empire formed an interconnected area of free trade, which was afforded a thriving existence by the pax romana (“Roman peace”). Products of rural districts found a market throughout the whole empire, and the advanced technical skills of the central region of the Mediterranean spread outward into the provinces. The most decisive step toward Romanization was the extension of the city system into these provinces. Rural and tribal institutions were replaced by the civitas form of government, according to which the elected city authority shared in the administration of the surrounding country region; and, as the old idea of the Greek city-state gained ground, a measure of local autonomy appeared. The Romanized upper classes of the provinces began supplying men to fill the higher offices of the state. Ever-larger numbers of people acquired the status of Roman citizens, until in ad 212 the emperor Caracalla bestowed it on all freeborn subjects. The institution of slavery, however, remained.

The enjoyment of equal rights by all Roman citizens did not last. The coercive measures by which alone the state could maintain itself divided the population anew into hereditary classes according to their work; and the barbarians, mainly Germanic, who were admitted into the empire in greater numbers, remained in their own tribal associations either as subjects or as allies. The state created a perfected administrative apparatus, which exercised a strongly unifying effect throughout the empire, but local self-government became less and less effective under pressure from the central authority.

The decline of the late empire was accompanied by a stagnation of spiritual forces, a paralysis of creative power, and a retrograde development in the economy. Much of the empire’s work of civilization was lost in internal and external wars. Equally, barbarization began with the rise of unchecked pagan ways of life and the settlement of Germanic tribes long before the latter shattered the Western Empire and took possession of its parts. Though many features of Roman civilization disappeared, others survived in the customs of peoples in various parts of the empire. Moreover, something of the superstructure of the empire was taken over by the Germanic states, and much valuable literature was preserved in manuscript for later times.

It was under the Roman Empire that the Christian religion penetrated into Europe. By winning recognition as the religion of the state, it added a new basic factor of equality and unification to the imperial civilization and at the same time reintroduced Middle Eastern and Hellenistic elements into the West. Organized within the framework of the empire, the church became a complementary body upholding the state. Moreover, during the period of the decline of secular culture, Christianity and the church were the sole forces to arouse fresh creative strength by assimilating the civilization of the ancient world and transmitting it to the Middle Ages. At the same time, the church in the West showed reserve toward the speculative dogma of the Middle Eastern and Hellenic worlds and directed its attention more toward questions of morality and order. When the Western Empire collapsed and the use of Greek had died there, the division between East and West became still sharper. The name Romaioi remained attached to the Greeks of the Eastern Empire, while in the West the word Roman developed a new meaning in connection with the church and the bishop of Rome. Christianity and a church of a Roman character, the most enduring legacy of the ancient world, became one of the most important features in western European civilization.

Greeks, Romans, and barbarians » Barbarian migrations and invasions » The Germans and Huns
The wanderings of the Germanic peoples, which lasted until the early Middle Ages and destroyed the Western Roman Empire, were, together with the migrations of the Slavs, formative elements of the distribution of peoples in modern Europe. The Germanic peoples originated about 1800 bc from the superimposition, on a population of megalithic culture on the eastern North Sea coast, of Battle-Ax people from the Corded Ware Culture of middle Germany. During the Bronze Age the Germanic peoples spread over southern Scandinavia and penetrated more deeply into Germany between the Weser and Vistula rivers. Contact with the Mediterranean through the amber trade encouraged the development from a purely peasant culture, but during the Iron Age the Germanic peoples were at first cut off from the Mediterranean by the Celts and Illyrians. Their culture declined, and an increasing population, together with worsening climatic conditions, drove them to seek new lands farther south. Thus the central European Celts and Illyrians found themselves under a growing pressure. Even before 200 bc the first Germanic tribes had reached the lower Danube, where their path was barred by the Macedonian kingdom. Driven by rising floodwaters, at the end of the 2nd century bc, migratory hordes of Cimbri, Teutoni, and Ambrones from Jutland broke through the Celtic-Illyrian zone and reached the edge of the Roman sphere of influence, appearing first in Carinthia (113 bc), then in southern France, and finally in upper Italy. With the violent attacks of the Cimbri, the Germans stepped onto the stage of history.

These migrations were in no way nomadic; they were the gradual expansions of a land-hungry peasantry. Tribes did not always migrate en masse. Usually, because of the loose political structure, groups remained in the original homelands or settled down at points along the migration route. In the course of time, many tribes were depleted and scattered. On the other hand, different tribal groups would sometimes unite before migrating or would take up other wanderers en route. The migrations required skilled leadership, and this promoted the social and political elevation of a noble and kingly class.

In 102 bc the Teutoni were totally defeated by the Romans, who in the following year destroyed the army of the Cimbri. The Swabian tribes, however, moved steadily through central and southern Germany, and the Celts were compelled to retreat to Gaul. When the Germans under Ariovistus crossed the upper Rhine, Julius Caesar arrested their advance and initiated the Roman countermovement with his victory in the Sundgau (58 bc). Under the emperor Augustus, Roman rule was carried as far as the Rhine and the Danube. On the far side of these rivers, the Germans were pushed back only in the small area contained within the Germano-Raetian limes (fortified frontier) from about ad 70.

The pressure of population was soon evident once more among the German peoples. Tribes that had left Scandinavia earlier (Rugii, Goths, Gepidae, Vandals, Burgundians, and others) pressed on from the lower Vistula and Oder rivers (ad 150 onward). The unrest spread to other tribes, and the resulting wars between the Romans and the Marcomanni (166–180) threatened Italy itself. The successful campaigns of Marcus Aurelius resulted in the acquisition by Rome of the provinces of Marcomannia and Sarmatia, but after his death these had to be abandoned and the movement of the Germanic peoples continued. Soon the Alemanni, pushing up the Main River, reached the upper German limes.

To the east the Goths had reached the Black Sea about ad 200. Year after year Goths and others, either crossing the lower Danube or traveling by sea, penetrated into the Balkan Peninsula and Anatolia as far as Cyprus on plundering expeditions. Only with the Roman victory at Naissus (269) was their advance finally checked. Enriched with booty and constituted imperial mercenaries in return for the payment of a yearly tribute, they became a settled population. The Romans, however, surrendered Dacia beyond the Danube.

In 258 the Alemanni and the Franks broke through the lines and settled on the right bank of the Rhine, continuously infiltrating thereafter toward Gaul and Italy. Everywhere within the empire, towns were fortified, even Rome itself. Franks and Saxons ravaged the coasts of northern Gaul and Britain, and for the next three centuries incursions by Germanic peoples were the scourge of the Western Empire. Nevertheless, it was only with German help that the empire was able to survive as long as it did. The Roman army received an ever-growing number of recruits from the German tribes, which also provided settlers for the land. The Germans soon proved themselves capable of holding the highest ranks in the army. Tribute money to the tribes, pay to individual soldiers, and booty all brought wealth to the Germans, which in turn gave warrior lords the means with which to maintain large followings of retainers.

In the West, however, among the Alemanni and Franks, the beginnings of political union into larger groups did not go beyond loose associations. Only in the East did the Gothic kingdom gather many tribes under a single leadership. Above all, the development of the eastern Germans was stimulated by their undisturbed contact with the frontiers of the ancient world. Their economy, however, was still unable to support the needs of a steadily growing population, and pressure from overpopulation resulted in further incursions into the Roman Empire. The imperial reforms of Diocletian and Constantine the Great brought a period of improvement. The usurpation of the imperial title by a Frankish general in 356 let loose a storm along the length of the Rhine and subsequently on the Danube, but the frontiers were restored by the forces of the emperors Julian and Valentinian I, who repelled attacks by both the Franks and the Alemanni.

At that time, a new force appeared. In 375 the Huns from Central Asia first attacked the Ostrogoths—an event that provoked serious disturbances among the eastern Germans. The Huns remained in the background, gradually subjugating many Germanic and other tribes. The terrified Goths and related tribes burst through the Danube frontier into the Roman Empire, and the Balkans became once again a battlefield for German armies. After the crushing defeat of the Romans at Adrianople (378), the empire was no longer in a position to drive all its enemies from its territories. Tribes that could no longer be expelled were settled within the empire as “allies” ( foederati). They received subsidies and in return supplied troops. The Germanization of the empire progressed, that of the army being nearly completed. None of the tribes, however, that had broken into the Balkans settled there. After the division of the empire in 395, the emperors at Constantinople did all in their power to drive the Germanic tribes away from the vicinity of the capital toward the Western Empire.

From the beginning of the 5th century, the Western Empire was the scene of numerous further migrations. The Visigoths broke out of the Balkans into Italy and in 410 temporarily occupied Rome. In 406–407, Germanic and other tribes (Vandals, Alani, Suebi, and Burgundians) from Silesia and even farther east crossed the Rhine in their flight from the Huns and penetrated as far as Spain. The Vandals subsequently crossed to Africa and set up at Carthage the first independent German state on Roman soil. In the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains (451), the Roman commander Aëtius, with German support, defeated Attila, who had united his Huns with some other Germans in a vigorous westward push. The Balkans suffered a third period of terrible raids from the eastern Germans; and Jutes, Angles, and Saxons from the Jutland Peninsula crossed over to Britain. The Franks and the Alemanni finally established themselves on the far side of the Rhine, the Burgundians extended along the Rhône valley, and the Visigoths took possession of nearly all of Spain. In 476 the Germanic soldiery proclaimed Odoacer, a barbarian general, as king of Italy, and, when Odoacer deposed the emperor Romulus Augustulus at Ravenna, the empire in the West was at an end. In the East, imperial rule remained a reality, and Constantinople, also called “New Rome,” survived many sieges until its fall in 1453. In comparison, “Old Rome” declined into an episcopal centre, losing many of its imperial characteristics.

Hermann Aubin

Greeks, Romans, and barbarians » Barbarian migrations and invasions » The reconfiguration of the empire
By the end of the 5th century, however, most of the non-Roman peoples settled in the West were adopting Roman customs and Christian belief. Intermarriage with established Roman families, the assumption of imperial titles, and, finally, conversion assisted a process of acculturation among their leaders, for instance, in the case of Clovis, the Frank. Theodoric the Ostrogoth established an impressive “sub-Roman” kingdom based on Ravenna, where public buildings and churches served by an Arian clergy competed with imperial monuments. Increased Roman influence can also be seen in the law codes promulgated by the Visigoths Euric (late 5th century) and Alaric II (the Breviary of 506) and the Burgundians, Bavarians, Ostrogoths, and Franks (Lex Salica, 507–511). Christianity often provided the medium for incorporation into old imperial structures. While the Goths were still in the Danube basin, they had embraced Arian Christianity (which denied that the Son was of the same substance as the Father), and their first bishop, Ulfilas, translated the Bible into Gothic. Given its heretical nature, this religious literature in a written vernacular could not survive, and, with conversion to orthodox (“catholic”) Christianity, the barbarian languages gradually gave way to Latin.

Nonetheless, the Germanic tribes brought into Europe their own tribal institutions, ethnic patterns, and oral and artistic traditions, including a highly developed epic poetry. Their influence was strongest in central Europe, where the Romans had had the least impact; less marked in the northern and eastern parts, where Romano-British and Gallo-Roman cultures were established; and weakest in the highly Romanized southern regions. Linguistically, Old High German developed in the first zone and Anglo-Saxon in Britain, while farther south medieval Romance languages developed from their common Latin inheritance.

In the southern zone, imperial traditions were reinforced by the reconquest, albeit brief, of North Africa, Italy, and parts of Spain by forces from Constantinople under Justinian’s general Belisarius. Despite the restoration of Roman administration between 533 and 554 (celebrated in the mosaics of Ravenna and the Pragmatic Sanction of 554), imperial forces could not prevent the Lombards from moving inexorably into northern Italy, which they occupied in 568. The reconquered parts of the Western Empire were thus reduced to a narrow strip of territory from the head of the Adriatic to Ravenna, the exarchate, Rome—now governed effectively by its bishop—plus small duchies. In addition, Sicily, Bruttium, and Calabria remained subject to Constantinople and were Greek-speaking for many centuries.

In contrast to previous invaders, from the 6th century onward, newly arrived barbarian forces clung to their pagan culture and resisted assimilation. The Saxons established themselves east of the Rhine in the north. The Avars and their Slav allies, who moved steadily westward from the Vistula and Dnepr river basins, disrupted weak imperial defenses at the Danube and pressed south and west into the Balkans and central Europe. By 567 the Avars established control over the Hungarian plain, where they remained until their defeat by Charlemagne in 796. After successfully besieging Sirmium and Singidunum in the 580s, the eastern Slavs infiltrated the Balkans, while others moved north and west to settle eventually along the Elbe beside the Saxons. The failure of the combined Avaro-Slav siege of Constantinople in 626 ended this pagan expansion. Although Slavs occupied the Balkan Peninsula for two centuries or more, disrupting east-west communication along the ancient Via Egnatia, they were eventually evangelized and absorbed into the Eastern Empire.

Judith Eleanor Herrin



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