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3000 - 200 BC
2nd century BC - 5th century AD
     Hordes from the steppes
     The lull before the storm
     The arrival of the Huns

From the 5th century AD
The spread of Islam
Middle Ages
19th century America
To be completed

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Hordes from the steppes: 2nd - 1st century BC

Two great nomadic hordes, the Xiongnu and the Yuezhi, compete for grazing pastures in the steppes to the north of China. In about 176 BC the Yueqi are defeated in a battle and their king is killed. As a result they are driven west. They establish themselves in the region north of Bactria, an outpost of Greek civilization.

For a while the fierce Yuezhi merely demand tribute from their southern neighbours, but in the 1st century BC they settle in Bactria themselves. Here, in the 1st century AD, one of their tribal chieftains establishes a powerful dynasty, known as Kushan. At the end of the century the Kushans press on into India.


The victorious Xiongnu are a constant threat to the powerful Han dynasty in China, but the Chinese hold them back with a strong military presence on the northern border. Internationally this has one very beneficial result - the opening of the Silk Road.

After a century of spasmodic warfare, a section of the Xiongnu formally submit in 51 BC to China - making the necessary gesture of bringing tribute to the emperor. But this submission splits the horde. A separate group of Xiongnu move westwards into central Asia. They become lost to history, though it has been traditional to link them with the Huns who suddenly appear in the 4th century AD to plague the Roman empire.


Germans on the move: from the 2nd century BC

In the 2nd century BC, Germanic tribes move south and east from Scandinavia. The Goths and the Vandals drive the Balts east along the coast of the Baltic. Other Germans press south along the Rhine as far as the Danube, forcing the Helvetii - a Celtic tribe - to take refuge among the Swiss mountains.

Two German tribes, the Teutones and the Cimbri, even strike so far south as to threaten Roman armies in southern France and northern Italy. They are finally defeated and pressed back in 101 BC. But from the Roman point of view a long-term threat has been identified - that of the German barbarians whose territory is now the region beyond the Rhine and the Danube.


The lull before the storm: 3rd century AD

By the 3rd century AD various German tribal confederations, all of whom will leave a lasting mark on European history, are ranged along the natural borders of the Roman empire. They have settled in the territories east of the Rhine and north of the Danube and Black Sea. From here, in the great upheavals of the 4th and 5th century (known as the Völkerwanderung, 'migration of the peoples'), they will move throughout western Europe.

In the northwest, beyond the lower reaches of the Rhine, are the Franks. Further south, around the Main valley, are the Burgundians. East of the Alps, near the Tisza river, are the Vandals. Beyond them, occupying a far greater range of territory than the others, are the Goths.


The Goths are by now split into two groups. Those further east are known as the Ostrogoths, apparently meaning eastern Goths. The western group are the Visigoths, often said to mean western Goths. They prefer to intepret the name as 'valiant' Goths, declaring it unlucky to be associated with the west in which the sun sinks and dies.

The Visigoths occupy the region between the Danube and the Dniester. Beyond them the empire of the Ostrogoths stretches over a vast area north of the Black Sea as far as the river Don.


All these close neighbours of the Romans make their presence felt through continual raids into the empire. Coping with them becomes the main activity of the Roman legions. But gradually closer relationships are established through diplomacy and trade - meaning mainly a supply of slaves by the tribes in return for grain, wine and textiles from the Romans.

By the early 4th century, in the reign of Constantine, an element of stability has been achieved to the benefit both of the Romans and of their more primitive neighbours. But it is about to be upset, from about AD 370, by devastating incursions from the east.


The arrival of the Huns: AD c.370

The Huns, whose name has come to rival the Vandals as an emotive term for destructive violence, arrive in history with an impact as sudden as it is mysterious. They appear from the steppes north of the Black Sea in the late 4th century. They are not a Germanic group. It is usually assumed, on no firm evidence, that they must somehow be descended from the equally fierce Xiongnu who four centuries earlier have moved west from regions north of China.

In about 370 the Huns defeat the Ostrogoths. Six years later they descend upon the Visigoths, driving them south over the Danube. For a while they bide their time in the territories of the Ostrogoths and Visigoths. But they have already set in motion a chain reaction.


The Visigoths: AD 376-418

The Visigoths are allowed by the Romans to settle south of the Danube, but Roman demands soon provoke them into rebellion. At Adrianople, in AD 378, they inflict a shattering defeat on a Roman army. Two thirds of the Romans are killed, including the emperor, Valens, whose body is never found.

The relationship between the Roman empire and its barbarian neighbours changes dramatically. The next emperor, Theodosius, hands over the province of Moesia to the Visigoths, according them the status of foederati - federates, or allies, granted land within the empire which they, in return, are expected to defend against other barbarians. But there is an implicit danger to Rome. The loyalties of the tribesmen are to their own leaders.


From AD 395 the Visigoths become restless. They have a new ruler, Alaric, who wants more funds from the Romans, better territory, a more honourable place within the empire. In pursuit of these rather generalized aims he leads an army southwards into Greece, much of which is plundered.

By 401 Alaric and the Visigoths are in Italy. After several campaigns (and a fruitless bribe in 407 of some 2000 kilograms of gold) the Visigoths reach Rome. Their siege is twice lifted by negotation, but in 410 they enter the city. They are the first enemy intruders for exactly eight centuries - since the arrival of Celts in Rome in 390 BC.


When the Visigoths leave Rome, they are laden with plunder but they have not destroyed the city. Alaric moves on south, intending to invade Africa, but he dies later in the year, still in Italy. His people wander north again into France and move briefly through the Pyrenees into Spain. In 418 they return to southwest France, or Aquitaine, where they are offered land again as Roman federates.

Rome needs all the friends she can find among the barbarians, for Gaul is no longer secure. On all sides there are intruders.


The Franks: late 4th century

The most significant (in the long term) of all the German tribes establish themselves south of the Rhine where it reaches the sea, moving from what is now the Netherlands into Belgium. They are the Franks. By the end of the 4th century they too - like the Visigoths - are enlisted by the Romans as federates, living on Roman territory and expected to defend the imperial borders.

Instead, in about 430, they attempt to push further south into Gaul. Halted by a Roman army in the following year, they settle near Tournai. This becomes the base from which, under Clovis, the Franks subdue almost the whole of Gaul by the end of the 5th century.


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