Many have wondered about the hordes of ‘barbarians’ who came from the north and overran the ‘civilized’ nations.
The dictionary gives the meaning of barbarian as ‘uncivilized, wild, uncultured’. To be barbaric is to use a ‘crude or vulgar expression’ and barbarity means ‘savage cruelty’.
However, the label ‘barbarian’ had a completely different meaning back in those early days. The Greeks believed they were the only cultured people in the world, therefore being a barbarian meant the rest of the human race. It was the same with the Jews; Israel and Gentiles. When we read the term in first century-writing, it is generally used without any sense of disparagement.
The historian Herwig Wolfram describes the Roman view of the Goths of the third century in particular, and it is certainly used in a disparaging way.
“They are barbarians; their language does not sound human, more like stammering and mere noise… Under the assault of their horrible songs the classical meter of the ancient poet goes to pieces…Barbarians are driven by evil spirits; they are possessed by demons who force them to commit the most terrible acts. Barbarians simply resemble animals more than they do human beings, (thus) concluded contemporaries, wondering whether barbarians shared in human nature at all.” 1
This statement is very biased of course.
Yet, while Rome may have considered theGoths inferior beings, it did not stop the Roman army from recruiting them into its ranks.
The writer of Legends and Chronicles said, “The Goth warriors were born of barbarian ancestry, and were vicious warriors that could fight the most trained and skilled foe. The Goth warrior-battle-hardened skills, and their passion for the fight were more than a match for any fellow warrior on the battlefield.” 2
The Goths are believed to have originated from Sweden, with ancestors from the ancient city of Troy. They were a tall and handsome people, powerfully built with white skin, blue eyes and fair hair. By religion they were pagans and their language Teutonic, of the ancient Germanic tongue.
The Greeks considered the Goths to be Scythians. The name Scythian is used by Herodotus in 440BC to describe barbarians who lived on their horses north of the Black Sea. They were probably not Goths, but when the Goths came to live in the same area, they were considered to be Scythians, a geographical rather than ethnological connection.
A number of historians speak of the Goths and the Scythians as separate races, but many believe there is a connection. “The Pictish Chronicle declares that the Scythians and Goths had a common origin.” 3
The Swedes believe their noble ancestry is Gothic, verified by the graves of their nobles. In 1434, at the Council of Basel, a clash took place.
The more prominent nations argued they should sit closest to the Pope and have the finest chairs on a mat. In the argument, the Swedes claimed to be descendants of the Goths. The Spanish delegates retorted that only the lazy Goths remained in Sweden, and the heroic Goths left to invade the Roman Empire and settle in Spain. After a compromise, some were given the rim of a mat under their chair! 5
The Goths travelled south to the Rhine and Danube Rivers, remaining there until they had captured Dacia, a Roman territory in the region of modern Romania. They dominated a vast area in two groups -- the Visigoths, meaning ‘good or noble Goths’ in the west, and the Ostrogoths, meaning ‘glorified by the rising sun’ on the east.
The Goths invaded the Roman Empire on and off, but in the late 4th century, the Huns began to invade the lands of the Germanic tribes, pushing many of the Goths into the Roman Empire with greater fervour.
“The Goths and the Vandals did not fight because of a blood-thirsty temperament, but because they were blocked by the Romans when driven westward by the wild masses from Scythia and Siberia.” 6
The Huns were a nomadic tribe whose origin is not known with certainty, but most likely they came from between the eastern edge of the Altai Mountains and the Caspian Sea. Possibly the Mongols were their ancient relatives.
The Huns were very tall with yellow skin, blue eyes and red hair. They were a cruel, greedy, wandering tribe. As pagans, they worshipped heaven as god, and the mountains as his seat of power, a type of Shamanism.
They “intended to build nothing. They killed unmercifully, burned endlessly, raped as a matter of course, took no prisoners, kept few slaves, had an insatiable greed for riches, hated all that was stable…” 7
Attila, king of the Huns became the terror of all in his path. He was “blood-thirsty, greedy, ruthless and very superstitious.” 8 He was sure of his abilities, saying, “the Great Wall will be demolished, the Chinese Empire seized.” 9
His impassioned hatred was Rome, and he “swore a special oath to destroy Rome. It was the object of his living hate.” 10
An unsuccessful campaign in Persia was followed in AD441 by a successful invasion in the East. This emboldened him to invade the West. “He plundered and devastated all in his path with a ferocity unparalleled in the records of barbarian invasions, and compelling those he overcame to augment his mighty army.” 11
Attila turned his attentions to Italy where he plundered seven cities. To conquer Rome would put many at risk -- the Visigoths in Spain and southern France, the Franks in northern France, the Lombards in northern Italy, the Saxons and the Thuringians in Germany, as well as the indigenous populations. They would fall under “the blight of Hun rule.” 12
As he approaches Rome, Attila is met by an embassy that includes Leo Ibishop of Rome.
The delegation stops at the Po River and one man advances. It is Leo. Attila moves slowly towards him. Both enter the river with their eyes fixed upon each other. They ride along the southern bank a little way, and Leo raises his hand.
Their communication is unknown, but Leo “obtains from him the promise that he will withdraw from Italy and negotiate peace with the Emperor.” 13
“After the conversation, Attila turns his horse, recrosses the river, enters his camp at a gallop, shouting hoarse orders.
Tents are lowered and folded. Chariots are harnessed. Horse lines are emptied. Toward nightfall, the clatter of hooves begins to die away. By morning, the camp of the Huns is deserted.” 14
Why were the Huns not permitted to sack Rome? We do not know, but it is clear that God was in control. If the Huns had conquered Rome, perhaps it may not have been possible for the ‘little horn’ to uproot the three ‘horns’ he was prophesied to fulfil.
Attila died shortly after his encounter with Leo.
Many years later, the Hunnic army is said to have contracted some type of epidemic. The mystery disease decimated their ranks, and soon after they disappeared completely from Europe and history.
As one modern writer notes, “They were not mourned.” 15
The remnant of the Huns went back to Scythia in the southern parts of Russia, and “disappeared from history”. 16 “They broke up into small bands and disappeared.” 17
Meanwhile, the Visigoths were moving south-west towards Rome. When they saw the Huns on the march, the Visigoths appealed to Emperor Valens for sanctuary in the Roman Empire. He consented and the Visigoths settled near the Danube.
It was not long before they were mistreated by provincial Roman governors, and treated as slaves. This led to widespread discontent, and soon open rebellion broke out. In an attempt to free themselves, the Visigoths plundered the neighbouring Roman towns.
In AD382, the Roman Emperor Theodosius I attempted to cement the peace by instituting regional Visigoth governors. He tried to unite the Visigoths through Roman Christianity, but was not successful.
With the death of Theodosius in AD395, the Visigoths in service to Rome rejected Roman rule, and proclaimed Alaric I their king. Alaric tried to unite the Visigoths and Romans by having Visigoth governors introduce Roman customs and culture in their regions, but this was also unsuccessful.
Instead, Alaric led his forces through the Balkans and down into Greece. He then turned back to Italy, and in AD410 sacked Rome. He was the first barbarian to do so.
After the defeat of Rome, the Visigoths continued their journey west, eventually settling in Spain, Portugal and southern Gaul.
The Saxons were also a Germanic pagan tribe originally occupying the region which today is the North Sea coast of the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark. Their name is derived from the seax, a distinct knife popularly used by the tribe.
The southeast coast of Britain was not the only place affected by Saxon incursions. Not long after the death of Emperor Constantine in AD337, the northern frontiers of Rome in continental Europe were attacked by several tribes, including the Saxons.
According to Bede, the famous British monk who lived in the early Middle Ages, the Britons were suffering from the assaults of the Scots and the Picts, so they decided to hire some of the Saxons as mercenaries to fight their enemies. After completing their task, the Saxons turned against the Britons.
Gildas, a sixth century AD British monk, describes the Saxons as “savages similar to dogs and lions”, and he adds that “nothing more destructive, nothing more bitter has ever befallen the land.” 18
The Saxons worshipped many gods, such as Estre goddess of birth, Frigg goddess of love, Hel goddess of death, Thunor god of thunder, Tiw god of war, Woden the chief god. It is from these gods the Western world has taken the names of the week, such as Wodensdoeg (Wednesday), Frigadoeg (Friday), Sunnendoeg (Sun’s day). 19
The Saxons in England were influenced by ancient Celtic Christianity, but in AD596, Augustine arrived with a group of monks, and the inhabitants gradually became Catholics.
The Suevi(or Suebi) were a confederation of different tribes, similar to the Alemanni. They controlled the better part of Germania. Their religion was pagan in the form of Druidism.
Tacitus, the Roman General reports on the Suevi's distinctive hair styles. “The Suevi have the characteristic to turn their hair sideways and tie it beneath the poll in a knot. By this mark the Suevi are distinguished from the rest of the Germans, and the free men and Suevi slaves….
Even till they are hoary, they continue to have their hair growing stiffly backwards, and often it is fastened on the very crown of the head. The chiefs dress it with still greater care… they decorate themselves in this manner as they proceed to war in order to seem taller and more terrible. They dress for the eyes of their enemies.” 20
The Suevi remained mostly pagan until an Arian missionary by name of Ajax, sent by the Visigothic King Theodoric II at the request of the Suebic (Suevi) witnessed to them. “They were converted in AD466 and established a lasting Arian church, which dominated the area…” 21
In AD561 a Catholic council convened to discuss the eradication of the Suevi. It was finally successful through King Theodemar, assisted by Catholic missionary Martin of Braga. Sadly, Theodemar, their own Suevi king, turned traitor on his own people.
Alberto Ferreiro, historian of ancient Christianity wrote, “… Theodemar would have been responsible for beginning a persecution of the Arians in his kingdom, to root out their heresy.” 22
The Lombards (Longobards), another Germanic tribe, easily conquered northern Italy after the end of the Gothic Wars in AD568. Their kingdom was maintained for the next two hundred years.
These people had a bad habit of fighting each other, allowing the Eastern Empire to keep control of some parts of Italy. Unlike the Ostrogoths, the Lombards were harsh rulers and this type of leadership was most likely the reason they maintained control over Italy much longer than the Byzantines.
The majority of the Lombards accepted Arianism. At first they persecuted the Catholics, and the Catholic queen Theodelinde attempted to convert the Lombards to Catholicism, but she was unsuccessful. The queen’s husband was an Arian who allowed his son to be baptised and brought up in the Catholic Church. An Arian reaction followed, but Catholicism triumphed.
During the 7th century, the influence of Pope Gregory ‘the Great’ was effective in converting many of the Lombards. By the end of the century, their conversion to Catholicism was all but complete. 23
Towards the close of the eighth century, Pepin and Charlemagne conquered the Lombards at the invitation of Pope Adrian I. 24
The Burgundians were a strong destructive East German nation, believed to have originated from Scandinavia or Norway. They fought with Roman war hero Aetius; the Visigoths, and other Germanic peoples against Attila and the Huns. The Burgundian kings were given the title of ‘Master of the Soldiers’.
By AD417, the Burgundians had accepted the Catholic faith. Later they became Arians and lived peacefully with the Gauls. “The question of who converted the Burgundians remains a mystery lost in the mist of time…. (most) likely that a group of Visigoth missionaries preached to them… some time after AD418… Most of the conversions were more likely the result of a slow, religious osmosis.” 25
After the war with the Huns, the Burgundians who survived fled the territory and moved to the Rhine River valley where they occupied eastern Gaul. There they sided with the Vandals, Suevi, Lombards, Heruli and Goths, who were all Arian.
In AD500, the Burgundians were attacked by the Franks, their former allies, and their kingdom was annexed to the Frankish kingdom. After a time, they converted to Catholicism.
The Alemanni also lived in this area of Gaul, north of the Burgundians. The name Alemanni meaning ‘all men’ or ‘men united’, were a mixture of men, a confederate of Germanic tribes who settled in a large part of Switzerland.
Much earlier, the Alemanni began to wear Roman attire and emulate Roman social customs, although they were not Romans. At the same time they maintained their own language and culture. In AD213 they asked the Emperor Caracalla for help against a neighbouring tribe. He saw no reason why he should help them, and decided to conquer them instead.
Caracalla “came to feel contempt for these people and would not spare even them, but accorded treatment befitting the bitterest foes, to the very people whom he claimed to have come to help. He summoned their men of military age, pretending they were to serve as mercenaries, and then at a given signal — by raising aloft his own shield — he caused them all to be surrounded and cut down, and he sent horsemen round about and arrested all the others.” 26
The Alemanni were frequently clashing with the Romans. The biggest clash came in AD357 where the Romans were victorious in driving the Alemanni from northern Italy, back into Germany and Switzerland. The Alemanni were pagans, but early in the seventh century, they were converted to Celtic Christianity. Not long after, they succumbed to Catholicism.
In AD507 the Visigoths of Gaul were attacked by the Franks. Alaric II thought the Ostrogoth army would come to his aid, but none came. In actual fact, Theodosius was caught by surprise and could not provide the help in time. Alaric was slain, and the Visigoths of Gaul were defeated.
“The Visigothic kingdom was wasted and subdued by the remorseless sword of the Franks.” 27
Many moved to Spain, where other Arian Visigoths had enjoyed religious liberty for many years.
In AD586, Arian King Leovigild of Spain died, and his son Reccared took the throne. The following year, King Reccared publicly renounced Arianism.
Many Arian nobles and ecclesiastics followed his example which resulted in Arian uprisings.
In AD589, in the name of King Reccared and Bishop Leander, bishops and nobles were brought together for a church council. Only eight Arian bishops could be persuaded to attend.
After three days of prayer and fasting, the king’s public confession was read aloud by a notary. It defined the Trinitarian and Arian tenets, and established Reccared’s newly achieved orthodoxy.
In his confession, Reccared declared that God had inspired him to lead the Goths back to the true faith from which they had been led astray by false teachers. He declared that not only the Goths but the Suebi (Suevi), who by the fault of others had also been led into heresy, had been brought back to the faith.
He then anathematized Arius and his doctrine, and declared his acceptance of the councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon. He pronounced an anathema on all who returned to Arianism after being received into the Church. This Confession was received with a general acclamation.
Bishop Leander delivered a triumphant closing sermon entitled, ‘Triumph of the Church upon the Conversion of the Goths’. A plan was immediately approved for forced conversion of the remainder of the Arians and the Jews.
The Arian bishops were then called upon to declare publicly their renunciation of Arianism and their acceptance of Catholicism. They replied that although they had already done so, they would comply. 28
Further, the third Council of Toledo in AD589 decreed that all relics of Arianism be handed to the clergy of the church. This included Gothic Bibles, manuscripts, letters and all records of the religious history of the Goths.
They were to be handed over “that they might be ‘tried by fire’, an ordeal by which there is reason to suppose that none of them survived. The offence of concealing any such relics was punished by excommunication.” 29
All churches consecrated by Arian bishops were to be consecrated anew by the Catholic Church.
Every means was taken “not only to eradicate the Arian heresy, but also to take measures to blot out all traces of its existence.” 30
Sunna, the last Gothic bishop was offered pardon and replacement in a Catholic bishopric if he would repent and renounce his Arian Faith. He indignantly refused saying, ‘Repentance I know not, and a Catholic I will never be; but in the form in which I have lived I will live, or for the religion in which I have remained from my earliest years I will most gladly die.’ He withdrew into exile in Africa. 31
The ‘great’ Bishop Leader of Seville saw the consummation of his life’s work in the conversion of the Goths in Spain. The “last of the Gothic Churches was now extinct.” 32
Visigothic Spain was now unified and the Catholic Faith became established as the state religion. 33
Thus came to an end the ‘noble’ Goths.
“In the history of religion the Goths are contemporaries and spectators of the passage from paganism to papacy. Their position from these different points of view is strangely similar. Driven like a wedge into the Eastern side of Europe by the super-incumbent weight of the Huns, they pass along the whole length of it, to be similarly thrust out at the West by the Franks.
During this whole course they hold a place intermediate between barbarism and civilisation. They are not nomads, yet they are not able to found a state. Their political fate is matched by their ecclesiastical. They are not heathen, yet they are not acknowledged as Christians. Planted in an indefensible position by their Arian Creed, they are crushed between the opposing masses of heathendom and Catholicism.” 34
This chapter has given a little glimpse into the lives of those who lived ‘beyond the mountains’. Not all were barbarian as the word implies today, although it is clear that some were cruel and barbaric.
The majority were average men and women who for whatever reason – the need for pasture and water, the desire for a more productive life, the riches of civilisation, self-defence against other tribes, or some other inexplicable reason – chose to migrate from their homeland.
The men were brave and fearless. Many could not read or write, but they had their talents. Taking whole nations across the mountains would be no easy task. It is not for us to be critical and condemning.
Our attitudes in reflection must be more gentle than George Rawlinson who wrote,
“When at the present day we take a general survey of the world’s past history, we see that by a species of fatality – by a law, that is, whose workings we cannot trace – there issue from time to time out of the frozen bosom of the North vast hordes of uncouth savages, brave,
hungry, countless, who swarm into the fairer southern regions determinedly, irresistibly, like locusts winging their flight into a great land.
How such multitudes come to be propagated in countries where life is with difficulty sustained, we do not know; why the impulse suddenly seizes them to quit their old haunts and move steadily in a given direction, we cannot say: but we see that the phenomenon is one of constant recurrence, and we therefore now scarcely regard it as being curious or strange at all. In Asia, Cimmerians, Scythians, Parthians, Mongols, Turks; in Europe, Gauls, Goths, Huns, Avars, Vandals, Burgundians, Lombards, Bulgarians, have successively illustrated the law, and made us familiar with its operation.
But there was a time in history before the law had come into force; and its very existence must have been then unsuspected… Probably there is seldom an occasion of its coming into play which does not take men more or less by surprise, and rivet their attention by its seeming strangeness and real unexpectedness.” 35
The list of the ten kingdoms are generally the Heruli, Vandals, Ostragoths, Visigoths, Suevi, Burgundians, Franks, Saxons, Alamanni and the Lombards. However, not all historians agree.
Uriah Smith wrote, “The ten kingdoms which arose out of the old Roman Empire, are symbolized by the ten horns on the fourth beast of Daniel 7. All agree on this point, but there has not been entire unanimity among expositors as to the names of the kingdoms which constituted these divisions.” 36
We can be flexible in identifying the ten kingdoms, although those listed are the predominant ones, except for one other, the Huns.
When reading history, new names often arise – the Quadi, Sarmati, Alani, Gepidae, Jutes, Bavariio, Sugambri, Frisians, Chimbri, Teutons, to mention a few.
Some have included the Huns and eliminated the Alemanni, but as the Alemanni are mentioned often, it is difficult to leave them out. Others omit the Lombards and replace them with the Bavarians, but the Bavarians are not referred to as often as the Lombards. Edward Gibbon places the Lombards on his list.
Most Bible expositors agree that the prophecy refers to the kingdoms of Europe. They accept that the number ten is representative of those who migrated from their northern homes to the Roman Empire during the first five centuries AD. It is similar to naming seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3. They are representative churches, chosen to teach a lesson, as there were far more than seven churches in Asia Minor.
One thing is clear from the historians – three were plucked up by the roots as the Bible predicted. Daniel 7:20.24.
Dr. George Dawe, Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology, Union Presbyterian Seminary identifies the uprooted horns as the kingdoms of the Heruli, the Vandals and the Ostrogoths, between the years AD493-553. 37
Rev. E.B. Elliott wrote, “I might cite three that were eradicated from before the Pope out of the list first given; viz. the Heruli under Odoacer, the Vandals, and the Ostrogoths.” 38
Catholic priest, Bertrand L. Conway wrote in his classic book The Question Box Answers, “Historically it was the Heruli, Vandals, and Ostrogoths, who severely weakened the old divided Roman Empire.” 39
The dates also vary in the writings of historians. Some refer to the date the kingdom and people were completely dispersed, rather than the date they were conquered. Bible students often argue in this way, trying to prove the date incorrect.
The dates are important, but not enough to have an iron rule, especially for men and women who study history or for those who go to the internet for information. There is a lot of variation. Hold on to quotations of historians who give dates, especially from old history books. History is being revised, and old books are more reliable.
The important factis that three kingdoms were uprooted. They were attacked in battle and destroyed, a very sad end.