Welcome to the History of English podcast, a podcast about the history of the English
This is episode 27, Broken Empire and Fractured Languages.
This time, we’re going to look at the final years of the Western Roman Empire and the
rise of new Germanic kingdoms in its place.
And these political events coincided with the division of Latin and the Germanic languages
into new dialects and languages.
And these newly emerging languages evolved into many of the languages of modern Western
Europe, including English.
But before we begin, let me mention a couple of things about the podcast.
A couple of listeners have contacted me and indicated that they’re having problems downloading
the episodes to their iPhone.
And I’m not exactly sure why this is happening, but I wanted to give you a couple of options
if you’re having this problem.
First, you can always go to the main website for the podcast, historyofenglishpodcast.com.
Most of the episodes there, and especially the most recent episodes, are saved to a different
So you should be able to listen there without any problem.
Also, there’s a separate website for the podcast, and that’s historyofenglishpodcast.podbean.com.
And that’s P-O-D-B-E-A-N dot com.
That’s where the main episodes are hosted, and that’s what iTunes uses as well.
Well, if you go to that website, there’s a link on the main page that says mobile.
And if you click that link, you can actually add an app to your iPhone for the podcast.
So be sure to check that out if you listen to the podcast with an iPhone.
So with all of that out of the way, let’s turn to this episode.
And I should note that there’s a lot of late Roman history in this episode.
But I wanted to go through the events which culminated in the collapse of the Western
Roman Empire, because they really set the stage for everything that happened later,
including the Anglo-Saxon migrations to Britain.
Of course, we’ve already started to look at the gradual decline of the Roman Empire
over the past few episodes.
And as we’ve seen, there was no single cause for this decline.
It was a combination of infighting, civil war, economic disruptions, and external pressures
from across the borders.
All of these factors contributed to the decline of the empire in the West.
And at the same time that the Roman power was declining, the Germanic tribes were becoming
And some of those tribes were also beginning to learn how to read and write.
First there was those Germanic runes, then the Gothic translation of the Bible.
But literacy was still very, very rare within Germania.
But as we know, literacy was very common across the border in the Roman Empire.
The Greeks had been writing with their alphabet since around the year 800 BC.
And the Romans had been writing with their version of the same alphabet since about 600 BC.
So by this point, writing had been in common use throughout much of the Roman Empire for
around a thousand years.
And I’m not even counting the earlier forms of writing like cuneiform and hieroglyphics,
which had been around for even longer in the Eastern Mediterranean.
There are so many different ways to look at the conflicts between the Romans and the Germanic
tribes, but we sometimes forget that it was a conflict between a literate world and an
And when we look back at the history of that type of conflict, the literate world has a
They get to write the history for later generations to read.
And that’s part of the reason why so many historians of the past lamented the collapse
of the Roman Empire, and they described the period that followed as the Dark Ages.
These historians made the mistake of equating writing with civilization.
So when writing began to decline after the fall of Rome, that must have meant that civilization
itself had declined, and a dark period of barbarian rule must have been ushered in.
Again, we know today that many of those assumptions were false, or at least greatly exaggerated.
But it illustrates how important writing is to our view of history, and especially the
events during this period.
So I want to begin this episode by taking a look at the state of literacy and writing
within the Roman Empire as we enter the last century of its existence.
And during this period, around the end of the 4th century, a significant event related
to writing was taking place, and that event was the replacement of scrolls with books.
Up to this point, people generally used papyrus scrolls or parchment for writing.
The Romans also sometimes used waxed-covered tablets.
But the Romans had figured out a way to tie several tablets together at the side, so you
could flip from one tablet to the next.
By the time of Tacitus at the end of the 1st century, the Romans had started to take several
pieces of papyrus or parchment and bind them together in an early version of what we would
call a book today.
By the 4th century, these early books had largely replaced scrolls.
So why did that happen, and why did it happen at this point?
Well, for centuries, papyrus had been one of the most common materials used for writing.
The process for making papyrus for writing involved cutting strips of the papyrus plant
and laying them side-by-side horizontally, and then adding a second layer on top vertically,
and so on.
When it was thick enough, it was pressed and left to dry.
And this dried-out papyrus was rolled into scrolls.
When we see references to ancient books from the Mediterranean, this is what we’re referring
to, papyrus scrolls, not books as we know them today.
But as the Roman Empire began to fracture and fall apart, it became increasingly difficult
for people in Europe to obtain papyrus from Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean.
So they began to switch to parchment, which was typically made from calf or sheepskin,
but sometimes the skin of other animals as well.
Parchment had actually been around for centuries, but only now did it start to replace papyrus
as the dominant writing material.
Parchment was smoother than papyrus.
It was also thin, durable, and flexible.
It was also much easier to bind pages of parchment together than it was for papyrus.
But parchment was also very expensive, because it was made from animal skins, and therefore
there was a much more limited supply of it.
The finest quality of parchment was called vellum, because it came from a calf skin.
The word vellum comes from an older Latin word, vel, which meant calf, and it’s the
same root word that gives us the word veal in modern English, also meaning calf, usually
one that you have for dinner.
Now even though parchment was expensive, at least there were animals around which could
be used to make it.
Since it was becoming almost impossible to import papyrus into Europe with the decline
of Rome, parchment was the only practical alternative.
So parchment gradually replaced papyrus.
And with the shift from papyrus to parchment, another shift occurred.
And that was the shift from scrolls to individual pages bound together into a book form.
But the Romans didn’t call this bound collection of pages a book.
They called it a codex.
The popularity of these very early books quickly became apparent.
It was much easier to read a book than a rolled up piece of papyrus, especially for longer
Books could also be printed on both sides of the page, whereas papyrus could only be
printed on one side since it was rolled up and had to be handled on one side.
With a book, you could simply flip through the pages rather than trying to manage a series
And Christian monks soon came to prefer this type of document since it was much easier
to read scriptures in a book form than in a long scroll.
At this point, all documents, both scrolls and books, were handwritten.
And as the Roman Empire fell apart, the art and skill of writing became increasingly confined
to monks and monasteries.
So most writing tended to be religious in nature.
And since these monks came to prefer books over scrolls, well, scrolls were quickly phased
In fact, the oldest surviving complete book in Greek is a Greek version of the Bible from
this very time frame, the 4th century.
As I noted, the Romans called these bound collections a codex.
That word had evolved from the Latin word codix, which meant tree trunk, which raises
an interesting question.
If these early books were made from parchment, animal skins, why did the Romans name them
after the word for tree trunk?
Well, remember that the early Romans used wooden tablets covered with wax for writing
And remember that the first version of a book, a codex, was several of these wooden tablets
which were tied together at the side.
So the Latin word for tree trunk was used for these early books because the pages, if
we can call them that, were literally pieces of wood.
The name stuck even as the technology later evolved to parchment.
Now within later French, the word codex came to refer to a specific type of book, a law
As written laws were gradually adopted, the written collection of laws was called a codex.
And from there, we got the word code, as in legal code, or tax code, or dress code.
By the way, the term codicil also came from this same root word.
Codicil refers to an amendment to a document, usually a last will and testament, and it
originally meant a small writing tablet.
But it then came to mean a short or abbreviated writing, and later came to mean a short amendment
tacked on to an original document.
Both code and codicil came into English from French after the Norman invasion in 1066,
and as we’ll see when we get to that period, the Normans had to impose law and order on
So most of the legal terms in modern English came from that period of French.
And of course, most of those French words originated in Latin.
So the Latin word codex came from an earlier Latin word for tree trunk.
Well guess what?
Our Germanic word book has a similar origin.
The English word book comes from an original Germanic word, bach, which is actually cognate
with the word beach, as in beach tree.
It’s believed that the first Germanic tribes carved runes onto beech wood, and they may
have also carved runes into actual living beech trees.
And this seems to be the source of the word bach, meaning something you write on.
In Old English, the term bach meant any written document.
It later took the meaning of book as we know it today.
So speaking of writing materials that come from trees, you may be wondering why I haven’t
mentioned paper yet.
Well that’s because paper technology hadn’t found its way to Europe yet.
In fact, it would be several more centuries before Europeans began to write on paper.
But the knowledge and technology required to make paper did exist at this point in the
fourth and fifth centuries.
It just happened to exist far to the east in China.
The process of making paper is a lot more complicated than making papyrus scrolls.
Paper is made by breaking down plants into individual fibers, and then through a process
of wetting and drying, the fibers bond together to form an entirely new substance, paper,
which can be very thin and very smooth.
It has characteristics that are similar to parchment, but it doesn’t come from animal
It comes from trees and other plants.
So it can be produced in abundance.
And that meant that when paper technology was introduced, it was much cheaper than parchment.
And eventually, paper replaced parchment, even in Europe.
But it took many centuries for that technology to spread westward from China to Western Europe.
But interestingly, there was something else spreading from China to Western Europe during
this same time frame.
Or maybe I should say, someone else was spreading from China to Europe.
And I’m referring to the Huns.
And since the Huns were so skilled on horseback, they beat the arrival of paper in Europe by
In fact, it was the arrival of the Huns into Europe that served as the catalyst for many
of the events which led to the final collapse of the Western Roman Empire.
And the Huns brought with them some technological innovations of their own.
And their technology is also part of this story.
So let’s turn our attention to the Huns and the events which followed their arrival in
And to understand the Huns, we should probably think back to the original Indo-Europeans.
Because like the first Indo-Europeans, the Huns were nomadic people who lived in the
Eurasian steppe region.
Their overall lifestyle was actually very similar to those first Indo-Europeans.
They were nomadic, they were very skilled on horseback, they were proficient at raiding,
they were warlike at times, and they were constantly on the move looking for new regions
to settle in and conquer if necessary.
But I should note that the Huns were not Indo-Europeans.
We’re now about 3,000 years beyond the period in which the original Indo-Europeans lived.
And the Huns spoke a completely different language.
But culturally, not much had changed on the Eurasian steppes over the centuries.
So as we look at the expansion of the Huns, we can draw some parallels with the expansion
of the Indo-Europeans from the same region about 3,000 years earlier.
Now the Huns, and for that matter the original Indo-Europeans, they were not unique.
The steppe region was home to many powerful nomadic tribes over the centuries.
In fact, as late as the 13th century, we have the rise of the Mongol Empire under Genghis
Khan, which originated in the same region.
And that empire would eventually include much of modern China and stretch westward all the
way into Eastern Europe, making it the largest empire the world has ever known in terms of
So the peoples of the steppe region were a constant threat throughout much of human history,
really until the rise of modern nation-states with standing armies equipped with gunpowder.
Until then, though, the nomadic tribes of the steppes were a never-ending problem for
people who lived in adjacent areas, and that included not only the people of Eastern Europe,
it also included the early Chinese kingdoms.
In the 3rd century BC, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty in China began the construction
of a huge wall to protect themselves from nomadic tribes from the steppe region.
Of course, we know the wall today as the Great Wall of China, and it had mixed success against
But over time, the steppe tribes found it increasingly difficult to penetrate the wall,
and they began to turn westward.
They moved westward across the steppes until they finally found themselves in the western
steppe region in the 4th century.
That put them in the area north of the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.
And those people came to be known as the Huni by the Romans, and of course we know them
today as the Huns.
There’s another interesting parallel between the Huns and the original Indo-Europeans.
As we know, small technological innovations gave the Indo-Europeans huge advantages relative
to their neighbors.
So horse domestication and dairy farming, wheeled wagons and horse riding, all of these
innovations gave the original Indo-Europeans an advantage which they exploited over time.
Well, another technological innovation had been developed on the steppes, and the Huns
had mastered this little bit of technology.
And with it, the Huns became one of the most feared peoples from Asia all the way to Central
And in fact, a compelling argument can be made that this little piece of technology
was indirectly responsible for the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west, and with
it the expansion of Germanic tribes into the region to fill the vacuum.
So in a way, it’s ultimately responsible for the spread of Anglo-Saxons and their Old
English language into southern Britain.
And what was that little innovation?
Believe it or not, it was the stirrup.
Now you may say, so what?
But it’s important to keep in mind that horse riding was now very common.
So the fact that someone could ride a horse wasn’t really a big deal anymore.
Even the Romans had a cavalry, but they relied on their foot soldiers, their infantry.
And over time, the Germanic tribes mimicked the Roman military strategies.
So the Germans also relied primarily on their infantry.
Now a cavalry was good for support, but part of the reason why the Europeans didn’t generally
wage war on horseback is because they didn’t have stirrups.
Without them, it was hard to brace yourself or support yourself on horseback.
So you had to avoid a sudden turn or sharp contact, because you’d fall off.
So fighting on horseback against an infantry was limited.
But all of that changed once you had the stirrup.
Now you could brace yourself, and when necessary, you could literally stand up while riding.
You could shoot arrows with deadly aim.
And you could maneuver your horse in ways that were impossible before.
Once the Huns had mastered this technology, they would attack quickly, and they could
retreat just as quickly.
And sometimes, that sudden retreat would turn into another quick attack.
The Europeans had never experienced that kind of warfare before.
The stirrup had actually been developed a few centuries earlier in the steppe region.
And it began as a way to make it easier to mount a horse.
It was basically a loop which extended on one side of the horse, and it enabled the
rider to step into the loop and then pull himself up onto the saddle.
So it was like a step.
But over time, this innovation was added to both sides of the saddle.
And that was really the key for the use of the stirrup in warfare.
And the first archaeological evidence of the stirrup on both sides of the saddle comes
from a tomb in China which dates to the early part of the 4th century.
So the use of stirrups on both sides of the horse was a brand new innovation when the
Huns arrived in Eastern Europe a few decades later, late in the 4th century.
After arriving in the western steppe region, the Huns spread over southern Russia.
And they then turned southward, where they encountered the Goths, who had been living
in the region north of the Black Sea for about a century.
Remember that these were the Eastern Goths, the group which came to be known as the Ostrogoths.
And by this point, the Goths had become settled farmers in the region, but they were no match
for the powerful Huns and their cavalry.
When the Huns arrived from the east, they tore through the Ostrogothic kingdom, and
they quickly conquered it.
They actually slaughtered many of the Gothic people who were living in the region.
Some Goths fled, and some remained.
The ones that remained became part of a new Hunnic empire.
And many of those Goths ended up fighting with the Huns in later battles, including
battles several decades later under the Hunnic leader Attila.
But the ones who fled went in the only direction they could go, to the west.
And that set in motion a chain reaction.
Now you would think that the use of stirrups would have quickly spread to the Romans and
But it actually took a couple of centuries before Europeans began to realize the effectiveness
of the technology.
And by that point, the Western Roman Empire was long gone, and the feudal system was starting
And in fact, many historians believe that the adoption of stirrups by the Europeans
was an essential part of the development of the later feudal system, because the feudal
system relied heavily on knights in armor mounted on horseback.
And of course, that required stirrups.
But it appears that the first Romans and Germans to encounter the stirrup didn’t actually
understand the full effectiveness of the technology.
Apparently, they only saw it as a way to help the rider mount the horse.
And they didn’t fully understand how it could be used in warfare.
And part of the reason why we think the early Germans had this simplistic view of the technology
is based upon the word they created to describe it.
Stirrup is a Germanic word, and it’s actually a combination of the early Germanic words
for stair, as in step, and rope.
And of course, we can still hear the roots of stair and rope in stirrup.
So they simply viewed the technology in its original use as a step to enable the rider
to get into the saddle.
And by the time they realized the full potential of the technology and began to use it themselves,
they were already overrun by the Huns by that point.
The one exception to this rule was the Goths, specifically the Visigoths in Dacia in southeastern
They had observed the destruction of their cousins to the east, the Ostrogoths.
And many of those Ostrogoths had fled into the Visigothic territory as refugees.
The Visigoths soon encountered the Huns on the eastern fringes of Dacia.
And apparently the Visigoths quickly realized two things.
First, stirrups gave the Huns a major advantage in battle.
And second, that there was no way they were going to defeat the Huns in warfare.
So they did two things in response.
They began using stirrups, and they asked the Romans if they could cross the Danube
into Roman territory to avoid annihilation by the Huns.
And both of those decisions ultimately changed the face of Western Europe.
The Romans were faced with a dilemma of their own.
Did they let the Visigoths into the empire, or did they refuse them entry and leave them
to be carved to pieces by the Huns?
As the Romans pondered this decision, a decision which would have major long-term implications,
it’s important to consider the situation in Rome since the death of Constantine about
40 years earlier.
Constantine had brought an end to the imperial crisis, which I discussed in the last episode.
And his reign provided a brief reprieve from the general decline of the empire in the West.
And when Constantine died in the year 337, new fighting broke out within the empire,
and new fighting broke out along the Rhine and Danube borders.
In the Rhine region, the Romans had some success in the middle part of the fourth century.
The Franks and the Alamanni were on the move again.
But the Romans scored some victories and fortified their defenses along the Rhine.
It was around this time that Rome allowed the Franks to settle across the Rhine as federates.
That meant that the Franks were free to live within the Roman territory, and they would
now serve in the Roman army and fight to defend Rome.
So the situation with the Visigoths was similar to that of the Franks.
The Romans could just bring in the Visigoths as federates.
In other words, let the Visigoths come in and fight for Rome.
And in fact, as far as the Roman army was concerned, the lines between the Romans and
the Germans was already becoming blurred.
The Franks were fighting in defense of the empire.
And as I’ve noted before, the Romans were relying more and more on Germanic mercenaries
And increasingly, these Germans were rising through the highest ranks of the Roman army,
and they were starting to hold many of the top military commands.
At least with respect to the military, the old distinction between Romans and Germans
had largely disappeared.
The Roman army wasn’t really all that Roman anymore, and that meant that the Roman population
had become accustomed to relying on Germans for their defense.
So the Romans realized that a group like the Visigoths could be a potential asset to the
empire, especially at a time when they needed new soldiers.
And so the Romans agreed to let the Visigoths cross the Danube into Roman territory.
And they basically worked out the same arrangement that they had made with the Franks a few years
The Visigoths were settled legally into Roman territory, and they agreed to become Roman
subjects, and all that that meant, including paying taxes and serving in the Roman army.
In exchange, the Romans agreed to provide the Goths with food and supplies, and eventually
The only problem was that the Romans didn’t keep their side of the bargain.
They weren’t prepared to accept 80,000 or more Goths into the empire.
All of this had happened very quickly, and Rome couldn’t or wouldn’t provide adequate
food and shelter.
Within a few months, the Visigoths were beginning to starve, and the conditions started to become
They had avoided a quick destruction at the hands of the Huns, only to experience a slow
starvation at the hands of the Romans.
The Visigoths were eventually forced to sell themselves and their children into Roman slavery
The Romans even established a price for these sacrifices.
For each child offered to Rome as a slave, Rome would provide a dog in return, the dog
to be used for food.
The Visigoths finally reached a breaking point in the year 378, a couple of years after crossing
into Roman territory.
With nothing left to lose, the Visigoths rose in rebellion throughout the Balkans.
The Roman army, led by the Emperor Valens, engaged the Visigothic army at Adrianople
in modern-day Turkey.
Now Valens underestimated the size of the Visigothic army.
He also underestimated a new technology which the Visigoths had picked up from the Huns,
And the result was the complete annihilation of the Roman army by the Gothic cavalry.
Rough estimates suggest that about two-thirds of the Roman soldiers were killed in the battle,
including the Emperor Valens himself.
It was the worst defeat for the Roman army in 400 years.
And it was one of those landmark battles in world history as well, because it was the
first time that a foreign army was able to permanently occupy Roman territory.
Other Germanic tribes had invaded, but the Romans had always been able to eventually
turn them back.
But the Goths were here to stay.
After the defeat of the Romans by the Visigoths, a cycle ensued which was repeated over and
over again for the next thirty years.
The Goths and the Romans would fight for a while.
They would then agree to a treaty in which the Goths agreed to provide service and troops
to the Roman Empire in exchange for land and autonomy.
But the Romans would always fail to provide the agreed-upon land or resources or autonomy.
Or sometimes the Romans would just use the Gothic soldiers as disposable troops on the
front line to thereby preserve the Roman troops.
Over time, the Goths lost thousands of soldiers fighting Rome’s wars.
Eventually, the Goths would reach a breaking point and rise in rebellion, and the cycle
would repeat itself.
This happened over and over again, until the Goths finally decided to head for Italy itself.
In the year 402, the Visigoths and the Romans fought each other in northern Italy.
The off-and-on battles extended into the following year when Rome finally began to withdraw troops
from the Rhine region and brought them home to protect Rome.
And that was really the beginning of the end for the Roman Empire in the West.
With the Rhine border left undefended, the Germanic tribes were basically free to cross
the Rhine directly into Roman Gaul.
And that’s exactly what they did.
Without the Rhine border to hold them back, a collection of Germanic tribes began to storm
across the Rhine.
And this may ultimately be the most significant consequence of the Visigoth invasion of Italy.
The tribes which bolted across the Rhine into Gaul included West Germanic tribes like the
Suevis, it included East Germanic tribes like the Vandals, and it even included non-Germanic
tribes like the Alans who had been driven westward by the Huns.
These tribes invaded northern Gaul and plundered the region before turning southward and heading
towards southern Gaul.
I noted in the last episode that the Vandals traveled southward into modern-day Spain and
then crossed into northern Africa where they established their own kingdom there.
And while all of this was going on, another Germanic tribe called the Burgundians took
advantage of all these distractions and they too crossed the Rhine.
In time, they came to occupy a significant portion of eastern Gaul.
They eventually established their own Burgundian kingdom there, which later became the region
of Burgundy in France.
So that French Burgundy wine is actually named after a Germanic tribe.
The Roman army was simply unable to deal with all of these incursions, and revolts began
to break out within the Roman army itself.
Many Romans blamed the declining state of the empire on the invading Germans, and in
retaliation a large number of Germans were slaughtered in the border regions and within
In the aftermath of this turn of events, many Germans and other non-Romans joined the Gothic
army for protection.
And by the year 408, the Gothic army was big enough and powerful enough that it began to
set its sights on the city of Rome itself.
Under the Gothic king Alaric, the Goths made camp outside of Rome, but the Romans paid
them off with gold and silver and the Goths withdrew.
But they were back again two years later, and this time they didn’t withdraw.
They invaded and sacked Rome, which had been unconquered for 800 years.
You might remember the episode about the ancient Celts, and how the very early city of Rome
was sacked by Celtic-speaking tribes, and how that invasion forever changed the way
Romans viewed the people they considered to be barbarians in the north.
Well, for 800 years, the city of Rome had defended itself against those barbarians.
And in the process, Rome had emerged as one of the most powerful empires in the history
of the world.
But now, in the year 410, all of that ended.
And it ended at the hands of the Visigoths.
The Visigoths assailed Rome and burned and plundered the city.
It was a devastating blow to the psyche of the Romans.
The Visigoths actually only stayed for three days, and they carried away as much wealth
In that same year, 410, the Roman military leaders who were left in Britain requested
assistance to fend off invaders from northern Britain, groups like the Scots and the Picts
from the region of modern-day Scotland.
And Rome denied the request.
Britain was too far away, and there were too few troops to spare.
So 410 was an extremely important year in the crumbling of the empire.
It saw Rome sacked by the Goths, and it also saw Rome basically give up on Britain.
A few Roman troops were left behind in Britain, but they were only a token force, and there
was no way for them to fend off the invaders, which would soon be coming at them from all
After they sacked Rome, the Visigoths left and eventually migrated northward across the
And then they moved westward into southwestern Gaul.
Remember that the Romans had abandoned the Rhine defenses by this point, so those Germanic
tribes that had poured across the Rhine a few years earlier, like the Vandals and the
Suevis and the Alans, well they had made it down into modern-day Spain.
The Romans actually enlisted the Visigoths to help them regain control of the Spanish
The Visigoths agreed and had some success against the various Germanic tribes in the
In the year 418, the Romans rewarded the Visigoths by giving them land in Aquitania in southern
Gaul, or southern France as we know it today.
Although Rome considered the Visigoths to be federates of the empire, living with Roman
permission on Roman soil, the Visigoths didn’t view it that way at all.
They viewed the territory as a new independent Visigothic kingdom.
By the year 423, Roman control of western Europe had largely collapsed.
There were now three separate Germanic kingdoms in Gaul.
There was the new Visigothic kingdom in Aquitaine.
There was the Burgundian kingdom in southeastern Gaul.
And there was the Frankish kingdom in the northeast along the Rhine.
Meanwhile, down in modern-day Spain, there were two other Germanic kingdoms.
The Suavians in the northwest and the Alans had merged with the Vandals in the south.
Roman power was quickly collapsing and Germanic tribes were filling the void.
As Roman power collapsed, the Franks took advantage of the situation and they began
to expand southward from northern Gaul.
And as the Franks expanded southward, they began to push the Visigoths southward as well.
Increasingly, the Visigoths settled in northern Spain.
And that eventually forced the Vandals from southern Spain into North Africa as I mentioned
in the last episode.
So we can see how this type of chain reaction would occur.
When one tribe moved, it caused a domino effect and it ended up pushing many other tribes
out in front of it.
For the next three centuries, the Goths in Spain flourished under a succession of kings
in what would come to be known as the Visigothic kingdom.
The Visigothic kingdom expanded over time to include most of Spain as well as Aquitania
in southern Gaul.
But the expanding Franks eventually took Aquitaine back from the Goths.
But in Spain, the Goths continued to rule for a couple more centuries until the Muslim
Moors invaded from northern Africa.
At this point, we have to return to the Huns.
They had conquered the territory of the Goths in Eastern Europe a few decades earlier and
they’d set in motion a chain reaction of their own.
And they now had a new leader named Attila and they were beginning to look to the west.
The Eastern Roman Empire was still relatively strong, but the Western Empire was falling
So the west was the place to be if you were a Hun looking to expand into new territory.
In the middle of the 5th century, the Huns moved westward into Germania.
And by the year 451, they had actually crossed the Rhine and they were now in Roman territory
By this point, the empire of the Huns almost equaled the Roman Empire in physical size.
And Attila’s army included not only Huns, but many other Germanic allies, including
many Ostrogoths who were now forced to provide service to the Huns.
Attila laid waste to the northern region of Gaul.
And in response, the Romans enlisted the Visigoths and the Franks to form a unified
front in order to repel the Huns.
After all, the Huns were a threat to everybody in the region.
And together, the Romans, the Visigoths, and the Franks were able to force Attila to withdraw
from the region and return back across the Rhine.
In the following year, Attila set his sights on Italy.
He was headed straight for Rome when Leo, the Bishop of Rome, intervened.
The exact details are unknown, but Leo persuaded Attila to spare Rome and retreat.
Maybe Attila was too superstitious to attack the home of the Catholic Church.
Or maybe he was paid off, we may never know.
But we do know that Rome was spared from the Huns.
And we also know that Attila died the following year.
And in his absence and without his strong leadership, the Hunnic Empire quickly collapsed.
The empire was divided among Attila’s brothers and son, and then the divided empire had to
deal with an uprising by Germanic peoples who saw an opportunity to overthrow the Huns
with the death of Attila.
Within a year after Attila’s death, the Hunnic Empire was gone.
Though Rome was spared from attack by the Huns, it was of little consequence.
Because the Vandals arrived from Northern Africa just three years later.
And they remained for two weeks and basically stripped the city bare of everything movable
To deal with the Vandals, the Romans had to withdraw even more troops from Gaul.
And that allowed the Germans, especially the Franks, to expand even further throughout Gaul.
By this point, the Roman imperial government in the West was just a nominal government.
It no longer had any real power.
The real power in Western Europe lay with the Germanic kingdoms that had taken over.
The only vestige of Roman power in the West was within Italy itself.
And most of the remaining troops there were composed of Germanic mercenaries.
At some point around the year 476, these troops apparently decided, what’s the point?
Why are we fighting four of the Romans?
I mean, there wasn’t really an empire left anymore.
All of the benefit of fighting four Rome was gone.
So in that year, 476, the Germanic soldier Odoacer overthrew the completely powerless
teenage Roman emperor.
Technically, Odoacer became the last Roman emperor of the West.
But he had no use for the title.
It was really just a hollow title at that point.
He recognized the Eastern Roman emperor in Constantinople as the true successor to the
original Roman Empire.
He sent the imperial cloak and crown to Constantinople.
And that was it, the official end of the Roman Empire in the West.
But there’s a little more history beyond this date of 476, which is often cited as
the official end of the empire.
The Eastern Empire wasn’t exactly happy that the Western Roman emperor had been overthrown
Meanwhile, after the collapse of the Huns, the Ostrogoths had once again emerged as an
And over time, they followed basically the same path that their cousins, the Visigoths,
had followed a few decades earlier.
They traveled throughout southeastern Europe, and they found themselves on the border of
the Eastern Roman Empire.
It was at this point that the Eastern Empire offered the Ostrogoths a deal.
If they went to Italy and removed Odoacer from power, then they could rule Italy in
This allowed the Eastern Empire to basically kill two birds with one stone.
They could get rid of Odoacer in Italy, and they could get rid of the Ostrogothic threat
at the same time.
The Ostrogoths accepted the offer, and they invaded northern Italy in the year 488, about
12 years after Odoacer had taken over there.
The Ostrogoths eventually emerged victorious, and they established a kingdom in northern
But in the end, the kingdom was short-lived.
It only lasted about 50 years.
The Eastern Roman Empire, under the Emperor Justinian, eventually swept in and took the
region back from the Goths around the middle of the 6th century.
Now an official in Justinian’s court, named Procopius, wrote three histories during his
All of them were written in Greek, which was the language of the Eastern Empire.
One dealt specifically with the Eastern Empire’s wars against the Ostrogoths in Italy, as well
as the Vandals in North Africa.
Another one dealt with the buildings built during Justinian’s reign.
But the third one was titled Anecdota, which literally meant unpublished things in Greek.
This collection wasn’t published during the lifetime of Procopius because it contained
attacks on the Emperor Justinian, the Emperor’s wife, and other officials.
It also contained a lot of scandalous stories and allegations.
But this third book was published after Procopius died, and its title, Anecdota, came to the
mean a short story about someone or something, usually an amusing story.
And of course, we know it as anecdote today in modern English.
So all of this history basically takes us to the end of the 5th century, around the
year 500, and we can finally stop and catch our breath.
Over the preceding century, we’ve seen the fall of Western Rome, we’ve seen the rise
of the Gothic and other Germanic kingdoms, and we’ve seen the rise and fall of the Huns.
Needless to say, the political and military changes during this period were enormous.
And there were linguistic changes as well, but compared to the political changes, the
linguistic changes were not as great as you might expect.
With Germanic kingdoms now in control of much of the Latin-speaking territory in Western
Europe, we might expect Germanic languages to gradually replace Latin there.
But with one notable exception, that’s not what happened.
Of course, that one exception is notable because it’s English.
And we’ll look at why the Anglo-Saxon dialects took root in Britain in the next few episodes.
But in continental Europe, the Germanic languages didn’t replace Latin.
The new Germanic kingdoms like the Visigoths in Spain, and the Franks in Gaul, and the
Ostrogoths in Italy, they were all ruled by an elite Germanic-speaking ruling class.
But they ruled over a native population that spoke Latin.
Latin was too ingrained by this point, but there was more to it than that.
Though the Roman Empire had collapsed, Latin was still held in very high regard.
It was still associated with the glory days of Rome.
It was the language of Roman culture and Roman scholarship.
In most of these cases, the new Germanic rulers saw themselves as extensions of the earlier
And the evidence suggests that rulers like the Visigoths actually sought to learn Latin
since it held such a high status and was associated with Roman culture and power.
Of course, there were other factors at work as well.
The rapidly expanding Catholic Church was centered in Rome.
Early on, most Christian texts had been written in Greek.
But since the Catholic Church was headquartered in Rome, the Roman Church chose to translate
the Greek text into Latin.
By the end of the 4th century, Latin was the official language of the Catholic Church.
And that meant that all church business was going to be conducted in Latin.
And this gave Latin an additional prestige above regional Germanic languages.
But there was also another factor at work.
With so much turmoil in Europe, and with so many people on the move, it became important
for people in different regions to find a common language for communication.
And for all the reasons which I just mentioned, Latin was the obvious choice as a lingua franca.
In fact, it was already a lingua franca due to the power and prestige of the Roman Empire.
So it was natural for people to gravitate to Latin as a common international language.
The need for a common language was further heightened by the fact that both Latin and
the Germanic languages were beginning to fracture into distinct regional dialects and languages.
And we know by now, languages are constantly evolving.
And as people become isolated from each other, the natural process of language change means
that regional variations start to emerge.
And over time, these differences will continue to evolve until the dialects can’t be mutually
understood anymore, and we can then call them distinct languages.
Well, that process can be slowed if there’s an educational system that imposes a standard
version of the language on everyone, or almost everyone.
So if everyone is required to study a common standardized form of English in school, that
tends to keep us all on the same page, speaking the same language.
Regional variations will still occur and develop over time, but we all have a common anchor
which slows that process down a bit.
And that was what had helped to preserve a standardized form of Latin throughout the
As long as the Roman educational system was in place, a standardized form of Latin was
taught and regional variations were minimized.
But when the Roman Empire collapsed in the West, the Roman educational system also collapsed.
And when that went away, the anchor that was holding a common form of Latin in place also
And as we might expect, with the fall of Rome, those regional, vulgar Latin dialects quickly
evolved into separate and distinct languages.
Within three or four centuries, we’ll start to refer to these regional dialects by new
names – French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and so on.
Of course, the Germanic regions never had a standardized education system akin to the
Roman system, so there was never anything in place to keep the Germanic dialects from
rapidly evolving into new languages.
So that process was well underway within the Germanic regions as well.
So linguistic diversity was increasingly common throughout Western Europe.
And as each region began to evolve its own dialect and its own language, it became even
more important for these people to find ways to communicate with each other.
And that brings us back to Latin.
The standardized form of Latin remained a useful lingua franca even as the language
itself was in the process of fracturing and evolving out of existence.
The early French speakers could still communicate with the early Spanish speakers and the early
Italian speakers as long as they all reverted back to the original Latin.
So we can see how Latin maintained its footing in Western Europe, and we can see why the
new Germanic rulers in this region ultimately learned to speak Latin, rather than trying
to force the natives to learn a foreign Germanic language.
But if we look close enough, we can see that some of the words from those Germanic languages
did filter down into the various Romance languages.
And the number of Germanic words which survived in the respective Romance languages is directly
related to the amount of time in which the Germanic kingdoms were in place in those regions.
For example, the Franks established the modern nation of France, so their influence on early
French was substantial.
We’ll look a little more closely at the Franks in the next episode.
With respect to the Goths, the Ostrogoths were only in charge of Italy for a few decades,
so the influence of the Gothic language in Italy is very limited.
Perhaps only a handful of Gothic words survive into modern Italian.
And even then, it’s difficult to determine if the Germanic words which passed into early
Italian came from the Goths or from another Germanic tribe.
As we’ll see next time, the Gothic kingdom in Italy was later succeeded by another Germanic
kingdom, the Lombards.
And Germanic tribes were a regular presence in and around Italy during this period, so
the etymology of those Italian words is tricky.
But in Spain, the Visigothic kingdom was in place for over two centuries.
So it’s a little easier to identify Gothic words in modern Spanish.
In earlier episodes, I discussed the fact that the Goths had a word, rix, which meant
powerful, ruler, or kingdom.
The Old English version of that word was rica, and it eventually evolved into the word richa,
and it later evolved into the word rich in modern English.
Well, the Gothic version of that word, rix, passed into the Latin spoken in Spain during
the time of the Visigoths, and from there, it passed into later Spanish.
We see it in the word rico, which means rich in Spanish.
For example, Puerto Rico means rich port.
Well, Spanish rico sounds similar to English rich because they have a common Germanic origin,
not a common Latin origin.
That word was also part of the name of the last Visigothic ruler of Spain.
His name was Roderick.
It was a combination of the Gothic word rad, meaning renowned, and rix, meaning powerful
Well, the name Roderick passed into Spanish, and we see it in modern Spanish names like
Rodrigo, and very common surnames like Rodriguez and Ruiz.
Again, those names have Gothic origins.
There was another Gothic name that used this suffix rick or rick.
It was Almaric, and that name passed into both Italian and Spanish.
The Spanish name was Amerigo, and the Italian version of the name was Amerigo.
And you might know that an Italian explorer with the name Amerigo Vespucci concluded shortly
after Columbus’ voyage across the Atlantic that Columbus didn’t actually reach Eastern
Asia as originally thought.
Vespucci realized that Columbus had actually discovered a new continent.
What ended up being two continents.
And both of those continents were named after him, North and South America.
So America is a word derived from an Italian name which ultimately came from a Gothic name.
So if the Ostrogoths hadn’t established a kingdom in Italy in the 5th century, we probably
wouldn’t have the name America today.
By the way, the Spanish words guardia, meaning guard, ganso, meaning goose, banda, meaning
band or group, and atacar, meaning attack, all came from Gothic words.
And that’s why all of those words resemble the modern English versions of those words.
Ultimately, the Gothic language disappeared after the collapse of the Ostrogoth and Visigoth
In fact, it may have disappeared before then because, as we’ve seen, Latin remained the
dominant language within those kingdoms.
But there’s one little footnote to this story.
In the 1500s, a Flemish ambassador in the Crimean region in the northern part of the
Black Sea claimed to have discovered people speaking Gothic.
He believed it to be a vestige of the original Ostrogothic language from the time when the
Ostrogoths had lived there over a thousand years earlier.
He recorded about a hundred words from the language in a letter, which was published
a few years later.
The words are actually very similar to the words used by Wilphelus in the Gothic translation
of the Bible.
Linguists later traveled to the region to investigate the purported language, but none
of them were able to confirm that it actually existed.
So this still remains a bit of a mystery.
But it’s certainly possible that the Gothic language survived in some form in the northern
Black Sea region as recently as five centuries ago.
So that concludes our look at Gothic and the end of the Roman Empire in the West.
Next time, we’re going to begin the transition to Old English.
We’re going to turn our attention northward to the coastal regions around northern Germany
It’s here that a handful of Germanic tribes known as the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Frisians
sought to take advantage of the Roman collapse in the West.
And one of their targets was the formerly Roman territory of southern Britain.
So we’ll look at who these tribes were, and how their continental languages became
the language we know as Old English.
So until next time, thanks for listening to the History of English Podcast.