Index Previous Page Next Page
THE Greeks became prominent in the history of Europe during the last millennium (one thousand years) before Christ. Roman history overlaps Greek history, and its great period was the thousand years from 500 B.C. to A.D. 500. The next thousand years (A.D. 500 -- 1500) are known as the Middle Ages -- the ages between the end of the ancient world with the fall of the Roman Empire, and the beginning of the modern world with the discovery of America.
The decline of Rome was a very long process. In history we generally think of the final "fall" as the year (476) when the Barbarians put one of their soldiers in the place of the last of the weakling emperors reigning at Rome. It is a curious fact that this last emperor combined the names of the first founder of Rome and the first of the emperors -- Romulus Augustulus, "the little Augustus"!
Even a century before this time, a vast rabble of terrible Huns and others had burst from the plains of Asia into Europe, through that "Gateway of the Nations" that lies open between the Caspian Sea and the Ural Mountains.
And soon they were driving before them the various tribes of central Europe, and pressing them across the Danube and the Rhine.
The Romans -- like the Greeks before them -- called all other peoples Barbarians. All the same, these new Germanic invaders were a fine martial race, with a pure family life, and less superstitious than Roman or Greek of that day.
However, for a long time, the old Roman Empire suffered severely at the hands of the Barbarians. They came pouring in upon the broad and fertile lands of the Empire, anxious for the spoil of the splendid cities. Everywhere there was pillage and devastation. The passage of the Danube by the Goths (376) was the beginning of the end of Roman greatness. The passage of the Rhine by the Germans, some thirty years later, was the movement that sealed the fate of the Empire.
Four times during the dreadful fifth century after Christ, Rome herself was stormed and sacked. St, Jerome, writing twenty years after the fall of Romulus Augustulus, thus described in Vergil's words the horrors of his time:
"Had I a hundred tongues, a hundred lips,
A throat of iron and a chest of brass,
I could not tell man's countless sufferings."
And when, in the spring of that dreadful year 451, Attila the Hun led his enormous hosts across the Rhine, they practised every kind of hideous cruelty upon the miserable people.
Such was the terrible state of Europe in the fourth and fifth centuries, when the various tribes of Barbarians, pressed by hordes from the plains of Asia, were wandering and fighting through the forests of Germany and across Europe.
It was another great "Migration of Peoples" -- like those ancient migrations of Greeks and of other peoples two thousand years earlier.
Soon the Barbarians were preparing to make new homes for themselves in the rich provinces of the old Roman Empire -- the Goths in Italy and Spain; the Lombards in North Italy; the Vandals in North Africa; the Burgundians and the Franks in what was later to be known as France; the Anglo-Saxon sea-rovers in Britain. In this way new nations slowly arose in Europe. The Barbarians, indeed, were dazed at the sight of the rich cities and buildings, the great roads, and at the wise laws of the Romans. "Without doubt," finely said one of them, "the emperor is god upon earth, and he who attacks him is guilty of his own blood." So the name and spirit of Rome lived on; and Roman officers and Roman bishops gradually helped the Barbarians towards a more civilized life.