The Barbarian Invasions (3rd-9th Century)

The Barbarian invasions (3rd – 9th century), also called Migration period or Dark Ages, is the early medieval period of Western European history marked by frequent warfare and a virtual disappearance of urban life.

"Battle between Romans and Barbarians" by Theodore Chasseriau, ca.1850-1855.
“Battle between Romans and Barbarians” by Theodore Chasseriau, ca.1850-1855.

Image source:

A Term in the Perspective of Romans and Greeks

The Barbarian invasions is a term used by the Romans and Greeks to refer to the Migration Period, which saw the widespread of invasions of peoples within or into Europe, during the decline of the Western Roman Empire from 375 AD until the early 9th century. The term Barbarian invasions, as well as Dark Ages, is now rarely used by historians because of the value judgment it implies, as of a period of intellectual darkness and barbarity.

An illustration depicting the migration of the "Barbarian" peoples.
An illustration depicting the migration of the “Barbarian” peoples.

Image source:

“Barbarian” Art and Architecture

The invading tribes, once established in their new territories, began to develop personal art and architecture on the site. They share some fundamental traits but also varies according to the region of establishment and pre-existing art and culture. Two of the most spread styles were those of the Visigoths and the Franks.

Visigothic Art and Crafts

The Visigoths entered Hispania (modern Spain and Portugal) in 415, and they rose to be the dominant people there until the Moorish invasion of 711 brought their kingdom to an end.

This period in Iberian art is dominated by their style. Visigothic art is generally considered in the English-speaking world to be a strain of Migration art, while the Portuguese and Spanish-speaking worlds generally classify it as Pre-Romanesque.

Branches of Visigothic art include their architecture, their crafts (especially jewellery), and even their script.

The only remaining examples of their architecture from the 6th century are the church of San Cugat del Vallés in Barcelona, the hermitage and church of Santa Maria de Lara in Burgos, Saint Frutuoso Chapel in (Braga), and the church of São Gião in (Nazaré).
Some of the characteristics of their architecture are:

  • Generally basilican in layout, sometimes a Greek cross plan or, more rarely, a combination of the two.
  • Horseshoe arches without keystones.
  • A rectangular, exterior apse.
  • Use of columns and pillars with Corinthian capitals of a unique design.
  • Barrel vaults with cupolas at the crosses.
  • Walls of ashlar blocks, occasionally alternating with Roman brickwork.
  • Decoration commonly of animal or plant motifs.
Chapel of São Frutuoso in Braga, Portugal
Chapel of São Frutuoso in Braga, Portugal.

Image source:

Merovingian Architecture: Traits and Style

Merovingian art and architecture is the art and architecture of the Merovingian dynasty of the Franks, which lasted from the 5th century to the 8th century in present-day France and Germany.

The advent of the Merovingian dynasty in Gaul in the 5th century led to important changes in the field of arts. Sculpture regressed to be little more than a simple technique for the ornamentation of sarcophagi, altars and ecclesiastical furniture. On the other hand, gold work and the new medium of manuscript illumination integrated “barbarian” animal-style decoration, with Late Antique motifs, and other contributions from as far as Syria or Ireland to constitute Merovingian art.

The unification of the Frankish kingdom under Clovis I (465 – 511) and his successors, corresponded with the need for the building of churches, and especially monastery churches, as these were now the power-houses of the Merovingian church. Plans often continued the Roman basilica tradition but also took influences from as far away as Syria and Armenia. In the East, most structures were in timber, but stone was more common for significant buildings in the West, and in the southern areas that later fell under Merovingian rule. Most major churches have been rebuilt, usually more than once, but many Merovingian plans have been reconstructed from archaeology.

Baptistery of the cathedral Saint-Léonce in Fréjus.
Baptistery of the cathedral Saint-Léonce in Fréjus.

Image source:https: //

Info sources:

The “Barbarian Peoples”: Origin and Spread

Many of the migrations were movements of Germanic, Hunnic, Slavic and other peoples into the territory of the then declining Roman Empire, with or without accompanying invasions or war. The “Barbarian peoples” included Huns, Goths, Vandals, Bulgars, Alani, Suebi and Franks. Most of these tribes, like the Huns, the Visigoths and the Ostrogoths came from eastern Europe and migrated towards the far west of the continent, some like the Vandals spread through the Mediterranean sea while others like the Saxons and Franks occupied the northern regions of Germany, France and Britain.

Basic view of second- to fifth-century migrations.
Basic view of second – to fifth – century migrations.

Image source:

The Causes Behind the Migration

Various factors contributed to this migrating phenomenon. Starting in 382, the Roman Empire and individual tribes made treaties regarding their settlement in its territory. The Franks settled in the Roman Empire and were given a task of securing the north-eastern Gaul border but they soon violated the Roman rule and crossed the Rhine. This event started a series of invasions by the Vandals and Suebi as well, empowering both Germanic and Roman militaries, which ravaged Europe and the remains of the Western Roman Empire.

Both barbarian and Roman militaries savaged villages and cities they encountered during warfare times.
Both Barbarian and Roman militaries savaged villages and cities they encountered during warfare times.

Image source:

The Falling of the Western Roman Empire

There are contradicting opinions whether the fall of the Western Roman Empire was a result or a cause of these migrations, or both. The Eastern Roman Empire was less affected by migrations and survived until the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453. In the Modern Period, the Migration Period was increasingly described with a rather negative connotation, and seen more as contributing to the fall of the empire. In place of the fallen Western Rome, Barbarian kingdoms arose in the 5th and 6th centuries and decisively shaped the European Early Middle Ages.

Barbarian kingdoms in Europe and North Africa in 476 AD.
Barbarian kingdoms in Europe and North Africa in 476 AD.

Image source: