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The Vandals: AD 406-439

Unlike the Visigoths and the Franks, the Vandals make no pretence of cooperating with Rome. On the last day of December 406, together with other barbarian tribes, they cross the frozen Rhine near Mainz. For the next three years they ravage Gaul, before moving south in 409 into Spain. They establish themselves there until, in 417, they are invaded by the Visigoths (acting on behalf of the Romans).

By 429 the Visigoths have conquered most of the Iberian peninsula. The Vandals move on south, crossing to north Africa under the leadership of a young king, Gaiseric. In 439 Gaiseric inflicts a serious defeat on the Romans, capturing the important city of Carthage.

The Vandals in Carthage: AD 439-533

With Carthage as his base, Gaiseric dominates the western Mediterranean - much as the Carthaginians once did. He annexes Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and the Balearic islands. In 455 he even invades Italy, reaching and capturing Rome. His troops plunder systematically for two weeks, carrying off many treasures (including those which Titus, in this game of imperial plunder, has taken four centuries previously from the Temple in Jerusalem). The empress and her two daughters are taken as hostages.

The independent Vandal kingdom, a thorn in the side of Rome, lasts almost a century - until destroyed by a Byzantine expedition in 533.

The Burgundians: AD 413-436

The Burgundians are not far behind the Vandals in crossing the Rhine, in 413, but they remain more modestly just a few miles west of the river, at Worms. They are dislodged from here by the Romans in 436 and are settled in southeast Gaul, to the east of the Rhône, in the region known as Savoy. Here, like the Visigoths in southwest Gaul, they are given the status of Roman federates.

When attacking the Burgundians in Worms, the Romans have worked in alliance with a much more powerful group of barbarians. But these prove unreliable allies. They are The Huns, a non-Germanic group who for nearly two decades terrorize first the eastern and then the western Roman empire.

Theodoric the Ostrogoth: AD 487-526

The Ostrogoths have as yet intruded less than the Visigoths upon the imperial territories of Rome and Contantinople. In recent times, in their region north of the Black Sea, they have been subdued by the Huns. But after the collapse of the Huns, in the mid-5th century, the Ostrogoths press down across the Danube into the Balkans.

In 487, under the leadership of Theodoric, they almost succeed in capturing Constantinople. The Byzantine emperor, Zeno, finds a brilliant short-term solution to this immediate problem. Having recently had to relinquish Italy to one barbarian, Odoacer, he now invites Theodoric to invade Italy and take Odoacer's place.

Theodoric arrives in Italy in AD 489. In the twelve months from August 489 his Ostrogoths confront Odoacer in three separate battles. In each they are victorious, but they fail to dislodge Odoacer from his stronghold at Ravenna. This is eventually achieved by negotiation, with the bishop of Ravenna as the intermediary. It is agreed that Theodoric and Odoacer will rule Italy jointly. On 5 March 493 the gates of the city are opened to Theodoric.

Ten days later Theodoric invites Odoacer to a banquet. During it he kills his guest with his own hand, after which Odoacer's retinue is murdered.

Theodoric's long reign in Italy begins with this treachery, but the murder of Odoacer proves untypical of the Ostrogothic king. His thirty-three years on the throne bring a period of calm to turbulent Italy, justifiably earning him the title Theodoric the Great. He is the first barbarian king from the Germanic tribes of northern Europe to establish a settled and civilized rule - to which his buildings in Ravenna still bear witness. His achievements win him a lasting place in legend, as Dietrich von Bern.

Theodoric never deviates from his arrangement with Constantinople. He rules in Italy as the emperor's appointed military governor - becoming thereby an accepted part of the Roman empire rather than its enemy.

Theodoric has the good sense to leave the administration of Italy virtually unchanged and in the hands of Romans. They are prevented from serving as soldiers, but similarly Goths may not join the bureaucracy. The arrangement suits even the papacy. Though himself an Arian, Theodoric makes no attempt to interfere in Roman Catholic affairs. Indeed he is so much trusted that when there are two rival claimants to the papal see, in 498, he is invited to choose between them.

Nevertheless the rule of a barbarian Arian in Italy is unacceptable in the longer term. The inadequacy of Theodoric's immediate successors prompts the campaign of 535 by Justinian to recover Ravenna.

Angles and Saxons: 5th - 6th century

With Gaul in the hands of Germanic chieftains, and the Roman legions withdrawn from Britain, land-hungry tribes are tempted by the short step across the English Channel. Among those who take this step, invading the eastern and southern coasts of England, are Angles and Saxons. They come from Denmark, from northwest Germany and from the lower reaches of the Rhine.

By the 7th century the invading Germanic tribes have restricted Celtic rule to the mountainous regions of Wales in the west of Britain and to Scotland in the north. Anglo-Saxon kingdoms become the basis of a region recognizable now for the first time as England.

The Lombards: 6th - 8th century

Originating probably in northern Germany, the Lombards move south into the region of Hungary in the early 6th century. From there, in 568, they enter northern Italy. By this time they are already Christians, but of the Arian variety - like other Germanic tribes.

By 572 the whole of Italy north of the Po is in their hands (a disaster with one positive result, in the foundation of Venice). The Lombards rule at first as an occupying force, from armed encampments, but gradually Pavia emerges as their capital city. Their presence has an immediate effect on Byzantine ambitions in Italy. The imperial territory becomes much more clearly circumscribed.

The Vikings: 8th - 10th century

In 793 the monks on the island of Lindisfarne, off the northeast coast of England, are unpleasantly surprised by the arrival of violent raiders from the sea. Their misfortune is the first clearly dated event in the saga of the Vikings - the last and most dramatic exodus in the long story of migration from Scandinavia, the original home of the Goths and Vandals.

The name Viking is thought to derive from vikingr, a word for 'pirate' in the early Scandinavian languages. It accurately describes the Norsemen who for two centuries raid the coasts of Britain and of northwest France. But in many places the Scandinavians also settle - in the islands of the north Atlantic, in the British Isles, in Normandy, in Sicily and in the very heart of Russia.

Northern epic and saga: 8th - 13th century

The Germanic peoples of northern Europe are rivalled only by the ancient Greeks in their genius at transforming the shared myths and memories of the tribe into epic literature.

Unlike Homer's Greek epic, no name is attached to the great Germanic poems. But the circumstances in each case are similar. In Mycenaean Greece and in the Europe of the Dark Ages great events take place under the leadership of a warrior caste which is largely illiterate. The stories of the battlefield deserve constant retelling. The lord's followers need to be entertained after supper in the dark nights of winter. The stage is set for the bard.

The bard is partly a narrator and partly a singer. His tales, for ease of memory, tend to be set in loosely metrical lines linked by alliteration (the bunching together of words beginning with the same letter, which also has a stimulating effect on the audience). He will usually accompany himself on a stringed instrument, such as harp or lute.

Bards are professionals, though no doubt amateurs also enjoy displaying their skills on occasion. The main employment of Nordic bards is probably among warriors, but in the developing prosperity of the Christian Middle Ages they find many other occasions to perform - at trade fairs and church festivals, or at the stopping places on the pilgrim routes.

As with the Homeric poems, the Germanic and Norse epics combine mythology with folk memory of real events; and, like their predecessors, they are sung and recited in many different forms and places before eventually being written down. The literary versions, whether in Anglo-Saxon, German or Icelandic, date mainly from the 11th and 12th century.

The mythological basis underlying them all goes back to Ymir and Odin and the creation story. On the historical side, the poems and sagas reflect the experiences of the Germanic tribes in the Völkerwanderung - the upheavals of the 4th to 6th century AD.

The Eddas and Sagas of Iceland: 9th - 13th century

Iceland provides the fullest surviving record of Germanic mythology, legend and history. The earliest examples are found in a manuscript written in the 13th century, known as the Elder Edda (or sometimes Poetic Edda), which is preserved in the Royal Library in Copenhagen.

The opening poem in the Elder Edda (entitled Völuspá) recounts Norse mythology, from the creation story onwards. Though composed in Iceland, probably in the 10th century, the material is based on earlier sources deriving from Norway and possibly from Norse settlements in Britain.

The second half of the Elder Edda goes back even further, in an oral tradition reaching to the 5th and 6th century. Much of the material derives from the historical struggle in the 5th century between the invading Huns and the royal house of Burgundy. The emphasis is on a blighted quadrangle of love between Siguror (a valiant hero), Brynhildr (a warrior woman living in a castle surrounded by flames, to whom Siguror is betrothed) and a Burgundian brother and sister, of the royal family, who deceive our hero and heroine.

This favourite Norse story is retold in the Nibelungenlied, which makes Siegfried and Brunhild (their German names) the most famous ill-starred lovers in Germanic legend.

The Nibelungenlied: 12th century

The shared memories of the Nordic people, first written down in Iceland literature, have been recited and sung wherever Germanic tribes have settled - including the central lands of Germany itself. In the southeast of this region, in modern Austria, the legends about the fall of Burgundy to the Huns achieve their fullest and most influential expression in a version of the late 12th century.

This is the great German epic poem known as the Nibelungenlied ('Song of the Nibelungs').

The first half of the Nibelungenlied is essentially the story written down two centuries earlier in Iceland's Elder Edda, involving Siegfried and Brunhild as tragic hero and heroine. Additional elements, recorded also in the Icelandic Völsunga Saga, involve the dragon Fafnir, guardian of a golden treasure and a magic ring, and the eventual sinking of the treasure in the Rhine (see Nibelungenlied - the story).

The Nibelungenlied, rich in detail and incident, has been profoundly influential - and has been given added fame in Wagner's Ring. Although later than courtly epics such as the Chanson de Roland, the poem retains the darkness and violence of its Germanic tribal origins.

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