Disorder within the empire grew under the harsh rule of Emperor Commodus, the son of Marcus Aurelius. Upon the death of Commodus in A.D. 192, the empire became even less stable
These emperors ruled during uneasy times. Roman citizens were losing respect for the Roman government. Even the soldiers who had fought hard to keep the Roman Empire together felt little loyalty, or devotion, toward it. Instead, they were loyal to their generals, who often fought each other.
To make matters worse, a deadly disease called the plague spread through the empire from A.D. 250 to A.D. 265. At one point, more than 5,000 Romans were dying from it each day.
By the end of the A.D. 200s, the empire was in a serious decline. The historian Dio Cassius, who lived during this time, contrasted life in his day with life during the early days of the empire. "Our history," he wrote, "now plunges from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust."
Rome lost much of its power and glory when the capital moved to Byzantium. Yet it left a legacy that still lasts today. Roman culture and Roman ideas survived in Constantinople. Later, they regained importance in the lands of the former Western Roman Empire. Over time, they influenced civilizations around the world.
During their rule the Romans introduced new ideas in government, law, city planning, and building. They also borrowed ideas from other ancient cultures, adapting or improving them. Through the Romans, much of Greek culture survived.
The Romans are probably best remembered for their contributions to government and law. The republic they created in ancient Rome was a completely new form of government. The Romans understood the need to limit the power of government. Today, republics are found all over the world. The United States government has been a republic ever since it began, more than 200 years ago.
While the Romans imitated the architecture of other cultures, they also left their own legacies in building design. One Roman innovation was the basilica. The Roman basilica was a huge open room, ideal for large groups of people. For the past 1,600 years, many Christian churches have used this design for their places of worship. Another Roman invention was the hollow dome. Before the Romans, domes were solid. The Romans used their knowledge of building arches to figure out a way to build hollow domes.
The Romans considered the Germanic peoples barbarians because they were not educated in Roman ways. For one thing, they lived in villages, not in large cities as many Romans did. While most people in the Roman Empire were farmers, the Germanic people were mainly herders. Their cattle, sheep, and goats provided them with the resources for their food, clothing, and shelter.
Most Germanic tribes had no form of government. Usually, a respected person within the tribe settled disagreements but had little authority otherwise. The strongest leaders served as military and religious chiefs.
For a time some Germanic peoples were allowed to live peacefully within the Roman Empire. Many of them fought in the Roman army, and some became military leaders. Then, during the late A.D. 300s and the A.D. 400s, the Germanic tribes began entering Roman territory in large numbers. Their own lands were being taken over by a people from central Asia called the Huns.
By attacking the Germanic tribes, the Huns caused one of the largest migrations of people in world history. The migration of the Germanic peoples into the Western Roman Empire was more than just a movement of people, however. Some historians have called it "the migration of nations." Others consider it a time of invasion.
ome time after A.D. 370, the Huns attacked the Germanic tribes of Goths who lived around the Black Sea. The Goths were divided into two groups. The Ostrogoths lived north of the Black Sea. The Visigoths lived north of the lower Danube River. In the attack, the Ostrogoths were overrun and absorbed into the Hun Empire. Many of the Visigoths, however, fled into the Western Roman Empire. Under their leader, Alaric, the Visigoths invaded the Italian Peninsula and took Rome by force in A.D. 410. Leaders who came after Alaric led the Visigoths into lands that are now Spain and France.
Threatened by the Huns in eastern Europe, a Germanic tribe called the Vandals also moved west. In A.D. 406 the Vandals crossed the Rhine River from what is now Germany into Gaul and took control of it. Three years later, they crossed the Pyrenees mountains and entered what is now Spain. Under the Vandal leader Genseric, who ruled from A.D. 428 to A.D. 477, the Vandals invaded northern Africa and set up a kingdom.
In A.D. 455 the Vandals attacked Rome. They looted shops and government buildings, stealing items of value. They also destroyed monuments and temples. The Vandals were actually no more destructive than the other Germanic tribes. Yet today we use the word vandal to describe someone who purposely damages property.
After being attacked twice by Germanic tribes in A.D. 410 and A.D. 455, Rome finally fell in A.D. 476 to a Germanic leader named Odoacer. As a young man, he had joined the Western Roman army. He soon became a leader of the Germanic troops serving in the Roman army. When the Roman government would not give his troops land for settlement, he led them in a revolt. With the overthrow of the Western Roman emperor Romulus Augustulus, Odoacer became the first Germanic king of the Italian Peninsula. Many historians consider this event in A.D. 476 the end of the Western Roman Empire.
After the Western Roman Empire ended, Germanic tribes continued to claim Roman lands in western Europe. Among those to invade Britain during this time were the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. Together they are known as the Anglo-Saxons.
Legend says that a British king named Vortigern asked the Anglo-Saxon tribes for help in defending his lands. Vortigern's kingdom was under attack by the Picts, the ancient people of Scotland. The allies quarreled, however, and soon the Anglo-Saxons began to drive out the Britons. By the late A.D. 500s, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes controlled most of eastern and southern Britain. There they set up a number of small kingdoms. Over time, these and other kingdoms united their territories into one new, larger kingdom. It was called England, from Anglo-Saxon words meaning "land of the Angles."While this was happening in Britain, the Franks invaded northern Gaul and the Lombards took control of the Italian Peninsula. Both Germanic tribes would have a lasting influence on these lands that are now France and Italy.
In A.D. 486 Clovis, the leader of the Franks, led an invasion of Gaul. He defeated the Gauls, Romans, Visigoths, and others in the territory and set up his own kingdom. By the time Clovis died in A.D. 511, the Franks held firm control from the Rhine River to the Pyrenees mountains. Gaul came to be called France in honor of the Franks.
At about the same time, the Lombards took over what is now Austria. From there they crossed the Alps and invaded the Italian Peninsula. By A.D. 568 they had taken control of much of it. They settled mainly in the part of northern Italy that today is still called Lombardy. Their kingdom lasted more than 200 years.
The Germanic invasions destroyed much of what the Romans and earlier civilizations had developed in the lands of the former Western Roman Empire. By the A.D. 800s, art had changed and education had declined there. Industry and trade also suffered greatly. Few people used the system of well-built Roman roads that had united much of the empire.
The manor lands were divided into sections. The peasants paid for the use of their plots with goods and services they provided to the lord. At the same time, the peasants depended on the lord for protection. This economic system for exchanging land use and protection for goods and services came to be called the manor system.
Many of the peasants on the manors were serfs. The serfs were part of the property. If a lord sold his manor, the new lord would own the serfs as well as the land. Unlike slaves, however, serfs could not be sold without the land.
The serfs lived in small shelters built around a large manor house or castle. Most manors also included a church, a mill for grinding grain into flour, and buildings in which craftworkers worked. Each manor was nearly self-sufficient. It was able to produce almost everything the lord and the serfs needed to live.
The manor system lasted in western Europe until the early 1100s, when trade, industry, and cities began to grow again. In central and eastern Europe, it continued into the 1800s.
With the end of the Western Roman Empire, no single government had complete control in Europe. Over time, new kinds of authority developed in Europe. The pope, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, gained more power than any other person at the time.
Among the new Christian converts were kings, who helped spread their new religion. In the A.D. 400s the people in what is now Ireland became Christians, mainly through the efforts of the English missionary Saint Patrick. In A.D. 496 Clovis, the ruler of the Franks, became the first Germanic leader to convert to Christianity. This event brought all Gaul into the Church. Soon after that, the Anglo-Saxons in England and the Visigoths in Spain also became Christians.
Pope Gregory I, later known as Gregory the Great, led the Church from A.D. 590 to A.D. 604. Gregory was responsible for developing many important Church teachings. He created rules of behavior for priests. He also set up monastery, or centers of Christian life, in the lands ruled by the Germanic tribes. Gregory's plan was to make all of Europe a land of Christians, or Christendom.
The Roman Catholic Church gained even more power under the Germanic ruler Charles the Great, known as Charlemagne. Under his leadership the Franks brought back unity and order to many of the lands that had been part of the Western Roman Empire.
Historians today know more about Charlemagne than about most rulers of the Middle Ages. This is because of a biography written about him by one of his government officials. Einhard's Life of Charlemagne describes the leader as more than 6 feet (1.8 m) tall. This was very unusual at a time when most men were little more than 5 feet (1.5 m) tall. Charlemagne had piercing eyes, fair hair, and a thick neck.
Einhard describes Charlemagne as a great warrior who conquered parts of Spain and central Europe. Charlemagne controlled an empire from the Pyrenees mountains in the west to the Danube River in the east. His goal was to unite all the Germanic tribes into a single Christian kingdom.
Charlemagne was the son of Pepin III, a Frankish king. Pepin had helped the pope by defending the city of Rome against the Lombards. Like his father, Charlemagne helped the pope. When the Lombards attacked Rome again in A.D. 774, Charlemagne marched into Italy to protect the pope and to defeat the Lombards. On Christmas Day A.D. 800, Pope Leo III rewarded Charlemagne by crowning him Augustus, or emperor of the Romans. Charlemagne had reached his goal of uniting Christendom under his rule.
Like Augustus, the first Roman emperor, Charlemagne wanted to make his empire strong. He improved education so that more people could read and write. By granting large estates to loyal nobles, he built a system of officials to govern the lands. In return, the nobles provided military and political services to him as emperor. The nobles also kept up the roads, bridges, and forts on their land. This system became the basis for European feudalism, the political and military system of Europe. Feudalism lasted for the next 400 years, until the end of the Middle Ages.
While people usually think of the Vikings as seagoing warriors, most actually lived on farms or in villages. They built permanent houses of wood or stone. Farmers grew oats, barley, and rye. Other Vikings worked at woodcarving, metalworking, and fishing. Shipbuilding was important, too.
A king of a chief ruled each Viking community, which was made up of three social classes. These were the nobles, common people, and slaves. The nobles were descendants of important ancestors in the community. The common people included farmers and craftworkers. Most of the slaves were people who had been captured in raids or in battle.
The Vikings lived in simple one-story houses. Indoors, family life centered around an open fireplace. The fireplace was used for light, heating, and cooking.