The Invasion of Europe by the Barbarians
POLITICAL INSTITUTIONS OF THE GERMANS
It will not be amiss to say a few words here, at the very outset, about the political institutions of the Germans---words which apply not merely to the times of Tacitus and of Caesar, with which we are not now directly concerned, but also to the whole time of the migrations which form the subject of the next few lectures. I will not go into any details or discuss vexed questions, but merely emphasise what seems to be the chief feature. I would say in the first place that the whole period of German history before the migrations and during the migrations may be called, from the political point of view, the period of popular freedom. As soon as the German people have formed permanent states in the dismembered Roman Empire a new period of political development begins, a monarchical period. Now I daresay you may be inclined to make an objection to this statement. You may say that in early times (e.g. in the time of Tacitus) some of the German states were ruled by kings; there were kingdoms as well as republics; and during the actual period of the migrations nearly every people had a king. This is quite true, and the point on which I wish to insist is that it does not affect my proposition. A German state might have a king or it might not, but in either case it was virtually a democracy. All German states, so far as we know, had to all intents and purposes the same constitution; the political distinction between republic and monarchy has no application to them. Some of them had kings; any of them might at any moment elect a king; but the presence or absence of a king might almost be described as a matter of convenience; it had no decisive constitutional importance. In every German state, whether there was a king or not, the assembly of the freemen was sovran; and that is the main thing to remember. The king not only had no power to legislate or take any political decision without the consent of the assembly, but he had no power to hinder or check what seemed good to the assembly. He was the great executive officer of the state and had the right of summoning the host whenever the assembly had decided on war; also the right of summoning extraordinary meetings of the assembly. But the people who had no king required an executive officer of this kind likewise. Well, they had an officer who was called the graf. The graf had functions and duties corresponding to those of the king. The true distinction then between the German states is not 'republican' and 'monarchical' states, but states with a graf and states with a king. Was the distinction then merely one of name? No, there was one real and important difference. The graf was elected by the assembly, and the assembly might elect anyone they liked. The king was likewise elected by the assembly, but in his case their choice was limited to a particular family, a royal family. In other words, the kingship was hereditary, and the grafship was not. But this hereditary character of the kingship was of a limited kind. When a king died, the office did not devolve on any particular kinsman of his; the sovran people might elect any member of the family they chose; they might refuse to elect a successor at all. There was no fixed successor; the eldest son, e.g., had no greater claim than anyone else. The existence of these kingly families such as the Amals among the East Goths, the Balthas among the West Goths, the Mervings among the Salian Franks, is for us an ultimate fact, behind which with our present knowledge we can hardly penetrate. It is like the existence of the German nobility, the origin of which we have not material to explain. We only know that the kingly family was supposed to be the most ancient of all the families of the folk, and that it traced its origin to a god. And families possessing this right seem to have existed among all the German folks, among these who had no kings as well as among those who had. So that if any kingless folk suddenly resolved that it would be expedient to have a king, they had a family designate within which their choice would fall. It is highly important to realise this absolute nature of the theoretical principle of the ancient German states---namely, the sovranty of the folk, a vital principle which has undergone many modifications, passed through transient eclipses, but has never been extinguished in Europe. But I must go on to point out that, thought the king had no independent power, the kingship had importance by virtue of the fact that it might become a real power. It was a germ out of which a true royal power might spring---and did spring. The fact that he belonged to a chosen family of high prestige would naturally secure that more special consideration and honour would be shown to the king than to a graf; and a strong man might be able to exercise enormous influence in the assembly by perfectly constitutional means. This was no infringement of freedom, but it might lead ultimately to infringement of freedom.
Now it may be that the growth of these centripetal tendencies, the process of group formation , of which I have spoken, was favourable to the institution of royalty. In the time of Tacitus, states, such as the Saxon, which had a king were exceptional. The motives of this general change of feeling in favour of kingship were no doubt various, and perhaps we cannot determine them with any certainty; but I may point out one consideration. If several states formed a political union and required a head for their common actions, e.g. for a war, a king may have seemed the easiest solution. They may have found it easier to agree on giving precedence to the royal family of a particular state than to join together to elect a president. I may observe that within these federal unions each civitas had often its own king; this was the case with the Alamanni, and partly with the Franks.
EARLY GOTHIC MIGRATIONS
The events of the fifth century were decisive for the future of Europe. The general results of these events was the occupation of the western half of the Roman Empire, from Britian to North Africa, by German peoples. Now the Germans who effected this occupation were not, with one or two exceptions, the Germans who had been known to Rome in the days of Caesar and Tacitus. They were not West Germans. They were East Germans. The principal of the East German peoples were the Goths, the Vandals, the Gepids, the Burgundians, and the Lombards. There were also the Rugians, the Heruls, the Bastarnae, the Sciri. Most of these peoples believed that they had reached the coast of East Germany from Scandinavia, and this tradition is confirmed by the evidence of names. The best students of German antiquity identify the name of the Goths with that of the Scandinavian Gauts. The Rugians who settled in Pomerania are explained by Rogaland in Norway. The Swedish Bornholm is supposed to be Burgundarholm, the holm of the Burgundians. Of these East German peoples, most were moving slowly through Europe in a generally southward direction, to the Black Sea and the Danube, in the third and fourth centuries. These East German barbarians were still in the stage in which steady habits of work seem repulsive and dishonourable. They thought that laziness consisted not in shirking honest labour but, to quote words of Tacitus, in "acquiring by the sweat of your brow that which might be procured by the shedding of blood". Though the process is not revealed in our historical records, it seems very probable that the defensive wars in which the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, in the third quarter of the second century, was engaged against the Germans north of the Danube frontier---that these wars were occasioned by the pressure of East Germans beyond the Elbe driven by the needs of a growing population to encroach upon their neighbours.
The earliest great recorded migration of an East German people was that of the Goths, about the end of the second century. They moved from their homes on the lower Vistula to the shores of the Black Sea, where we find them in A.D. 214 in the reign of Caracalla.
Before this migration the Goths had formed one people, consisting like all German peoples, of a number of separate units or gaus. I do not think there can be much doubt that it was after their settlement there that they broke up into two great divisions, the Ostrogoths and the Visigoths, and that the motive of the division was geographical. It is easy to imagine how this could have happened, as there can be little doubt that they did not migrate all at once but rather in successive bands. The earlier comers, we might suppose, settled nearer the Danubian lands, in the neighbourhood of the Dniester, and they, in consequence of years of separation, felt themselves in a certain measure distinct when the later comers arrived; and the result was the formation of two groups, distinguished as East and West.
After the whole Gothic nation had been reunited on the shores of the Euxine, the ancient Greek cities of Olbia and Tyras seem to have soon fallen into their hands. We may infer this from the fact that the coinage of those cities comes to an end in the reign of Alexander Severus, who died in A.D. 235. Soon afterwards the Gothic attacks upon the Roman Empire began.
1. Kossinna, Gustaf: Der germanische Goldreichtum in der Bronzezeit (in Mannus Bibliothek, 1910 sq.) and Ursprung und Verbreitung der Germanen in vor- und frühgeschichtlichen Zeit (1926).
2. Dahn, F.: Die Könige der Germanen (1861-1907) and Urgeschichte der germanischen und romanischen Völker (1881-89).