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Vandals and Huns – the Empire from 410 to 450 CE

After the Visigoths besieged and departed from Rome, a storm frustrated their plans to cross from southern Italy into North Africa. Instead of trying to cross the Mediterranean the Visigoths journeyed north into southwestern Gaul, spreading what to some appeared to be God's punishment of Rome. From his palace in Ravenna, the Roman emperor in the west, Honorius, felt obliged to make peace with the Visigoths. His sister, Placidia, married their new leader, Atauf. And, in 418, the Visigoths were granted a legal domain in southwestern Gaul.

The Visigoths made Toulouse their capital, and they established themselves as protectors of those who were there when they arrived. In accord with Roman tradition, as protectors the Visigoths had the right to possess from one-third to two-thirds of the land or the produce from those lands. Local people who owned large tracts of land lost much of it to the Visigoths, while most who came under Visigoth rule had little land to lose.

The Visigoths were awed by Roman civilization. They adopted local methods of agriculture. Already Christian, they began to learn Latin, and they administered their territory as the Romans had, using local Roman bureaucrats. The cultural diffusion worked both ways: those who had been there before the Visigoths (the Gallo-Romans) began adopting Germanic ways, and some of them began wearing Visigoth trousers instead of the Roman toga. Some wore the jewelry worn by Visigoths, and they imitated the Visigoth rougher manners.

Some of Gaul, especially in the northwest, remained Roman. The Visigoths shared Gaul with other Germans: the Franks, who occupied Gaul's extreme northeast, and the Alemanni, who moved through central Gaul to the extreme south, along the Mediterranean coast near Hispania. And the Visigoths expanded into Hispania, where they found Vandals – Germans who had arrived there in 409.

With the Vandals in Hispania were local people who had joined their ranks. Pushed on by the Visigoths, in the year 429 Vandals numbering around 80,000 moved across the Strait of Gibraltar to North Africa, known for its rich farmlands of wheat.

The Vandals were Arian Christians like the Visigoths, and they saw God as on their side. The Christians of North Africa thought otherwise, but their opposition to the Vandal invasion was weak. Military units in North Africa were few, scattered and unpopular. The Vandals easily overran the coast of Mauritania and began moving eastward along the coast of Numidia. The Vandals banished the Trinity worshiping clergy and converted churches to Arian worship. Where the Vandals found resistance and suffered dead, they responded by looting, sacking and destroying the offending cities or razing country villas to the ground.

The Vandals settled down in North Africa and consolidated their rule. Within twenty years they built up their navy and began terrorizing shipping in the Western Mediterranean.  And they would soon extend their rule to  Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and the Balearic Islands, between Hispania and Sardinia.  

Emperor Honorius, meanwhile, had died of dropsy, and rule from Italy passed to his sister Placidia's six-year old son, who took the title Valentinian III. Placidia put her armies under the command one of the few remaining Roman military leaders: Aetius. Aetius lacked money for recruiting a greater army, but against the invaders he used diplomacy. He hoped to keep the invaders divided. According to Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Aetius soothed the passions, consulted the prejudices and balanced the interests of those "barbarians" who occupied the Western provinces.

Aetius defended northern Gaul against the Salian Franks. In 437 he defeated an attempt by more Burgundian Germans to push into Gaul around the Rhine River, and in 443 Aetius settled the Burgundians into a federated state southwest of Basel, in what today is Switzerland.

Meanwhile, disorders continued among local peoples in Gaul and Hispania. Roman citizens in Gaul and Hispania did not identify with Rome to the extent that Romanized Italians did, and many preferred poverty among the invaders to rule by Roman governors. A Christian priest from Gaul named Salvian wrote a work titled On the Government of God. It described the poor of Gaul as being robbed and widows groaning, "so that even persons of good birth, who had enjoyed a liberal education" were seeking refuge with the Germans. Salvian praised the virtues of the Germans and wrote that Roman citizenship was now shunned and thought "almost abhorrent."

In Gaul, the homeless and others joined gangs of brigands. Rural discontent merged with Christian radicalism. Celtic nationalism re-surfaced. In Hispania and Gaul serious risings occurred against Roman rule. And, with an army of Germanic mercenaries and Huns, Aetius suppressed them.

A peace treaty between the Huns and the emperor of the east, Theodosius II, included a payment of subsidies to the Huns of seven hundred pounds of gold each year. In 441, Theodosius stopped these payments. The Huns retaliated by launching an assault across the Danube River into Illyricum, razing a number of cities, including Belgrade and Sophia. The Huns, led by Attila, devastated the entire region between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, conquering numerous Germans called Ostrogoths (from the Crimea) and forced them to join his army. The Huns attacked Constantinople, but they were unable to break through its great walls. They continued their attacks, into neighboring areas, until Theodosius II agreed to renew his payments to them, including back payments: 2,100 pounds of gold annually.


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