The Shaping of Europe

The Horseman of Stabio. Photo: Wikipdia. Historisches Museum Bern

The Roman Empire had established itself as the dominant power in the Mediterranean by the 1st century BC. Its appetite for further expansion was checked under the Emperors Augustus, Tiberius and Hadrianus (1st century BC to 2sd century AD). Traian (98-117 AD) was the last emperor who focussed on large territorial expansion. Large barbarian alliances began to emerge on the Rhine and Danube frontiers. Keen to share in the wealth of imperial Rome, barbarian warriors became the antagonists of Roman emperors.

Romanisation of ‘barbarians’ took place and there were no ethnical barriers to become a Roman citizen, provided one behaved like a Roman. Romanised ‘barbarians’ had career  possibilities, particularly in the army. This policy differed from the Greek policy. Ancient Greece had the adagium ‘once a barbarian, always a barbarian’. In the last third of the 3rd century AD there were large scale incursions by German tribes. The relationship between Rome and Barbaricum was not just characterised  by conflict however but also by trade and business. Amber, for example, the highly prized gold of the North, was traded along the famous Amber Road, connecting the Baltic Sea with the Mediterranean and the Roman Empire, where it was turned into luxurious items of jewellery.

Confronted with the persistent and momentous invasions of barbarian hordes into the territory of the Roman Empire, Saint Jerome wrote in 396: “The Roman Empire is collapsing.” The British author Edward Gibbon wrote in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume 3, p. 4 (London 1933), “In the disastrous period of the fall of the Roman Empire, which may justly be dated from the reign Valens, the happiness and security of each individual were personally attacked and the arts and labours of ages were rudely defaced by the barbarians”. In fact, the incisive political, social, and cultural changes that shook the Hellenistic-Roman world from the 4th to the 7th century AD led to massive migration movements among Germanic and horse nomadic tribes.

This migration, which occurred in several waves, ultimately brought about the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and was followed by new forms of governance and the emergence of a multifaceted Roman-Barbarian culture, amongst others by the Langobards in Italy, Burgundians and Franks in France and Germany, Alemans and Burgundians in Switzerland. The events of this period brought about the transition from late antiquity to the early Middle Ages. The events of  Migration changed the political map of Europe.  The spread of Christianity and its newly created institutions were the other catalysts.

Charlemagne saw himself as the Christian successor of  Roman emperors and legislators and his coronation as King of Franks and Langobards on 6 June 774 was in fact the end of four centuries of migration of peoples. The European political, landscape was taking shape. (Source: Rome and the Barbarians, Exhibition in the Bundeskunsthalle Bonn,www.bundeskunsthalle.de).

The Horseman of Stabio. Photo: Wikipdia. Historisches Museum Bern