The 5th century is dominated in history by the fall of the Roman Empire in the west, with the various Germanic tribes, invading Huns, and Anglo-Saxons fighting for supremacy in their place. It was a century of upheaval, migration, and significant change that would begin a new chapter on the European continent, while in the east, things were actually calming down, with China’s tumultuous era easing and the country taking one step closer to reunification. In this article, we will look at 7 key events that took place during the 5th Century.
Romans leave Britannia (407)
Overstretched, unpopular, fighting on multiple fronts, and besieged with a string of hapless emperors, the Romans took the extraordinary step of abandoning Britannia at the beginning of the 5th century in 407. After Roman garrisons revolted, with faith in the emperor Honorius waning, Britannia –based Constantine III was declared emperor by his men, and the usurper proceeded to take all of his military units off the island to make his march on Rome. Suppressing enemies on the continent, Constantine was recognized as co-emperor by Honorius in 409 but was crushed shortly after and executed in 411. However, the struggling Romans would never return to Britannia, with Anglo-Saxons invading the island shortly after Constantine departed to take their place.
The sacking of Rome (410)
As the Roman Empire began to crumble, Visigoth king Alaric made a career of raiding, invading, and holding the Romans to ransom, first starting in the final few years of the 4th century. Various sieges and invasions of Italy had occurred through the first decade of the 5th century, but in 408 Alaric and his troops laid siege to Rome, demanding an extortionate payment to leave, which the desperate Roman senate had to pay by melting down statues and handing over virtually all of their wealth. But Alaric wasn’t satisfied, wanting land and an alliance, which the Roman emperor refused. This culminated in a return to Rome in 410, but this time the city was ransacked: the first time this had been done in eight centuries. Despite no longer being the Roman capital, Rome was still the focal point of the empire, and this moment is generally considered the beginning of the end of the empire.
The beginning of the Northern and Southern dynasties in China (420)
Since the fall of the Han dynasty in 220, China had struggled for stability under a single powerful family, and the country was divided. The period of the Sixteen Kingdoms, as the name suggests, was one where a multitude of dynasties made up of varying ethnic and cultural backgrounds came and went, often warring with one another, and capturing large portions of the country before being pushed back or replaced entirely. What we today call the Northern and Southern dynasties began with the Liu Song dynasty in the south when they overthrew the Jin dynasty in 420. In the north, the Northern Wei dynasty established a strong foothold around 439, and with that varying pockets of rule became just two. Although the next 150 years would see both these dynasties replaced several times over, this was an important first step to reunification and allowed Chinese culture to once again prosper.
The Anglo-Saxons settle in Britannia (441)
A large part of the Romans’ time governing Britannia was also spent protecting the island from invaders from across the North Sea. The Jutes, Frisians, Angles, and Saxons, from places, corresponding to modern-day Northern Europe and Scandinavia, repeatedly tested Roman defenses, but after Constantine III took the Roman military off the island in 407, there was nothing left to stop them. Starting with small invading parties, eventually, it is believed larger numbers began to arrive and overwhelm the remaining Romano-Briton population, although not much-written record exists from the time. The collective peoples we today call the Anglo-Saxons changed influenced the language, culture, and identity of the country, sticking around for almost six centuries until the final Anglo-Saxon king was ousted by the Norman Conquest in 1066.
Death of Attila, and fall of the Huns (453-459)
Believed to have originally entered Europe from Central Asia in the latter half of the 4th century, the Huns came to dominate Eastern Europe and contribute significantly to the downfall of the Roman Empire in the west. After first conquering most tribes outside the Roman borders, they frequently crossed over to raid. At their peak around 450, under the reign of Attila, the Hunnic Empire spread from the Caucasus and Asia in the east to the borders of modern-day France in the west and had even forced the Romans into paying them tribute. However, it would be short-lived, and following Attila’s death in 453, their century-long dominance came to a quick end. In 454, with Attila’s sons dividing the empire between them, Germanic tribes defeated the Huns at the Battle of Nedao, and by 459 their short-lived empire had collapsed completely, with many Huns simply assimilating in the communities they had once ruled.
The collapse of the Roman Empire in the West (476)
Already separated into two parts after proving too large to rule as one entity, the Roman Empire was struggling, particularly in the west, not helped by a string of incompetent rulers and a rise of powerful enemies. Internal instability was compounded by fighting on three fronts (the Persians, Huns, and Germanic tribes), making the once formidable empire an easy target. After Rome was sacked in 410, the Vandals occupied the important province of Carthage (modern-day Tunisia) in 439 and then sacked Rome themselves in 455. With the empire reduced to Italy and a section of northern Gaul, the final Western Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed and exiled by the Germanic king Odoacer, who named himself King of Italy, thus ending five centuries of the empire once and for all.
Northern Gaul united under the Franks (494)
Long subjugated tribes, now free from Roman rule, started vying for dominance, forming petty kingdoms across the continent who each tried to fill the substantial gap. Arguably the most successful of these early kingdoms was that of Clovis I, named King of the Salian Franks in 481, who went on to expand his kingdom from a small region on the border of modern-day France and Belgium to the entirety of Northern Gaul within a decade. Clovis founded the Merovingian dynasty which ruled for two centuries, named Paris his capital, and before his death in 511, he united all the Franks under his rule. Today, Clovis is considered the founding father of France.
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