The Diaspora that Transformed the Western World
A version of this post originally appeared at
One bitterly cold New Year’s Eve early in the fifth century, the Rhine River froze, allowing thousands of Germanic peoples, fleeing marauding Huns, to cross into the Roman Empire, transforming the Western world, seemingly overnight.
It happened 1,615 years ago, but it was news to me just four years ago.
For me, the greatest pleasure in reading historical fiction is the excitement of such discoveries. It’s like when I was a kid, running home after school to regale my mom with some amazing tidbit I learned that day – maybe in history, maybe in science class, maybe in math. (No, not math. Never in math.) At home in Iowa, I had to share my parents’ attention with four siblings, which meant whatever I wanted to share at the dinner table, I had to compete with two brothers and two sisters. I was a middle child; I didn’t win the spotlight very often.
In my latest historical novel, The Rebel Nun, and my forthcoming novel, The Candlemaker’s Woman, I compete with a million other writers for the attention of the reading public, as I shout, “Guess what I learned today?” But while I am writing, no one can interrupt me!
Over the past four years, I’ve been down a rabbit hole, reading and listening to lectures about early Medieval history, never knowing where it would lead me, but learning fascinating things along the way. Listening to a downloaded lecture on a walk one morning, I learned about nuns who fomented a rebellion against the church in 589. No one taught us about that in high school history! It became the story I featured in The Rebel Nun.
It was from another lecture that I learned about the frozen Rhine River.
New Year’s Eve, 406 CE, when the Rhine River froze over for the first time in decades, it surprised the bare-bones Roman army left on the frontier to keep the barbarians from entering the empire. Any high school kid in America would recognize this as one of the invasions of “barbarians” that eventually led to the sacking of Rome in 410 and precipitated the fall of the Roman Empire. Barbarians! Vandals! Huns! Visigoths!
Along with our collective memory of these barbarians persists the notion that they invaded Gaul as an army of fanatic, warlike tribesmen who sought to overthrow Rome. But, in fact, the movement of the ethnically and culturally diverse populations over the Danube and the Rhine in the third through sixth centuries more closely resembles a “migration” than an “invasion.” Germanic and Gothic tribes were pushed west and south by people from the steppes of Asia. They had nowhere else to go but over the river and into the empire.
The people who crossed the frozen Rhine that cold night in 406 were not all warriors armed with battle axes, swords, and archery, although much popular, war-fixated fiction has left that impression. The migrants included old men, women, and children traveling with oxen, sheep, and goats, their clumsy wagons piled high with staples, household goods, and farm equipment.
They didn’t want to conquer the Roman Empire. They wanted to co-exist within it. The Suevi, Vandals and Alans wanted what some Franks, Alamanni, Burgundians and Goths before them had achieved—status as Roman citizens. The empire had wealth, infrastructure (back before the word was coined), and farmland that the tribes coveted. The migrants brought with them moldboard plows developed for the heavy soils of the Germanic plains that they put to work opening new areas to cultivation as they spread across Gaul. And while earlier historians suggested that the world was changed “overnight” by these “invasions,” the Roman Empire had been adjusting to and changing with the assimilation of Germanic and Slavic tribes for at least a couple of centuries.
Once I learned that, it changed my understanding of mass migrations, starting with the “barbarian invasions” of the Roman Empire. And it gave me a historical perspective on the waves of people from South and Central America and Mexico who seek asylum in the U.S. today, and the migrations of people from Middle Eastern and North African war zones into Western Europe. Do Syrian refugees and Honduran migrants want to overthrow the European Union of the United States any more than the Germanic families in 406 sought to rule Gaul? Of course not. The motivations of today’s migrants are the same as those in Late Antiquity: they want safe places to raise their families and opportunities to work?
My own family’s story is of the same cloth. My French-Swiss great-grandparents on my father’s side came to the U.S. as part of a wave of European migrants in the 1800s, my great-grandmother as an indentured servant, my great-grandfather seeking a place to farm. Their life together ended tragically when she died shortly after the birth of my grandfather, and great-grandfather left for Texas to join a Swiss commune. Grandfather was raised by French-speaking Iowa neighbors and didn’t learn English until he went to school.
Perhaps your family history is not much different.
Mass migration is not new, it is human history. If we look back far enough, we all walked out of Africa, most likely for very good reasons. However, migration has never been easy. Before judging today’s migrants or those “barbarians” of Late Antiquity, I hesitate, remembering that my birth in the United States was a matter of luck, not one of good judgment on my part or my parents’. Perhaps it is good to stay humble about one’s birthplace and compassionate in assessing migrants’ motives.
Illustration of future Pangea (c) Imgur https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/article/explore-atlas-future-earth-supercontinent-pangaea-proxima