The Economic and Social Foundations of European Civilization

By Alfons Dopsch | Go to book overview

CHAPTER III ROMANS AND GERMANS IN THE AGE OF THE MIGRATIONS

THE views which have hitherto prevailed concerning primitive Germanic civilization, even in the first centuries of the Christian era, were chiefly based on descriptions of the age of the so-called Great Migrations (Völkerwanderung) which took place after the time of Cæsar and Tacitus. As a rule this was represented as a time of restless wandering, of purposeless roving from place to place by the Germans, who settled here and there, but for the most part pressed forward eager for conquest in order to plunder and to destroy all that stood in the way of their advance. They were thus not only nomads but barbarians, destroying the civilization of others, and possessing none of their own.

These, and similar views of social history, necessarily underwent no significant modification or correction, when it appeared that the so-called Migrations were by no means limited to a short period, such as the fourth century A.D., but had begun long before, and were indeed only one of a long series of movements among tribes who had been in a state of flux for a considerable time before the Christian era, having first come in closer contact with the Roman world in the well-known expeditions of the Cimbrians and Teutons about 114 B.C. Indeed the migrations did not by any means finish in A.D. 375, a year which has often been pedantically overemphasized; they lasted at least down to the end of the sixth century, which saw the Lombard conquest of Italy and the Slav colonization of the Eastern Alps and the Sudetic mountains, districts previously held by the Romans and then by the Germans. It might even be argued that they lasted until the eleventh century, when the Normans conquered England.

This long extension of the age of migration might, of course, be used to prove the continuance of what Cæsar and Tacitus reported about the "earliest" civilization, or rather lack of civilization, of the Germans. It is true that in the last decades individual scholars, after a more critical investigation of the sources, have expressed doubts about this view. It is realized that there really was not so much "migration", that these assumptions were not borne out by the statements of contemporary or almost contemporary documents, but were often merely the conclusions of scholars who were too prone to assume that a whole people had migrated, whenever Roman and Greek geographical accounts give the same names in different places. They forget that--apart from confusion or error--there may possibly have been division or breaking away, so that part of the people in question may have remained in the old settlements. Above all, it is now clear1 that these were not purposeless migrations, born of a love of wandering or a mere lust for booty or conquest, but were due to the urgent internal need to alleviate the scarcity of the bare necessities of life. That need may have been due to the forward movement of other peoples, their neighbours to the East--Sarmatians, Huns, Slavs--or to the internal growth of the population itself, creating an excess population for whose maintenance the old settlements no longer sufficed. The latter

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1
v. Wietersheim, Geschichte der Völkerwanderung, 2nd edit., edited by F. Dahn, i, 11 f.

-48-

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