Crossing of the Rhine

Crossing of the Rhine

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31 December 406, is the often-repeated date of the crossing of the Rhine by a mixed group of barbarian
Barbarian
Barbarian and savage are terms used to refer to a person who is perceived to be uncivilized. The word is often used either in a general reference to a member of a nation or ethnos, typically a tribal society as seen by an urban civilization either viewed as inferior, or admired as a noble savage...

s that included Vandals
Vandals
The Vandals were an East Germanic tribe that entered the late Roman Empire during the 5th century. The Vandals under king Genseric entered Africa in 429 and by 439 established a kingdom which included the Roman Africa province, besides the islands of Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia and the Balearics....

, Alans
Alans
The Alans, or the Alani, occasionally termed Alauni or Halani, were a group of Sarmatian tribes, nomadic pastoralists of the 1st millennium AD who spoke an Eastern Iranian language which derived from Scytho-Sarmatian and which in turn evolved into modern Ossetian.-Name:The various forms of Alan —...

 and Suebi
Suebi
The Suebi or Suevi were a group of Germanic peoples who were first mentioned by Julius Caesar in connection with Ariovistus' campaign, c...

. The Rhine-crossing transgressed one of the Late Empire
Roman Empire
The Roman Empire was the post-Republican period of the ancient Roman civilization, characterised by an autocratic form of government and large territorial holdings in Europe and around the Mediterranean....

's most secure limines
Limes
A limes was a border defense or delimiting system of Ancient Rome. It marked the boundaries of the Roman Empire.The Latin noun limes had a number of different meanings: a path or balk delimiting fields, a boundary line or marker, any road or path, any channel, such as a stream channel, or any...

or boundaries, a climactic moment in the decline of the Roman Empire
Decline of the Roman Empire
The decline of the Roman Empire refers to the gradual societal collapse of the Western Roman Empire. Many theories of causality prevail, but most concern the disintegration of political, economic, military, and other social institutions, in tandem with foreign invasions and usurpers from within the...

 that initiated a wave of destruction of Roman cities and the collapse of Roman civic order in northern Gaul
Gaul
Gaul was a region of Western Europe during the Iron Age and Roman era, encompassing present day France, Luxembourg and Belgium, most of Switzerland, the western part of Northern Italy, as well as the parts of the Netherlands and Germany on the left bank of the Rhine. The Gauls were the speakers of...

, and that occasioned the rise of three usurpers in succession in the province of Britannia
Britannia
Britannia is an ancient term for Great Britain, and also a female personification of the island. The name is Latin, and derives from the Greek form Prettanike or Brettaniai, which originally designated a collection of islands with individual names, including Albion or Great Britain. However, by the...

; hence the crossing of the Rhine is a marker date in the Migrations Period.

The full statement of received opinion has been that a mixed band of Vandals, Alans and Suebi crossed the Rhine at Mainz
Mainz
Mainz under the Holy Roman Empire, and previously was a Roman fort city which commanded the west bank of the Rhine and formed part of the northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire...

 on December 31, 406, and began to ravage Gaul.
Several written accounts document the crossing, supplemented by the time line of Prosper of Aquitaine
Prosper of Aquitaine
Saint Prosper of Aquitaine , a Christian writer and disciple of Saint Augustine of Hippo, was the first continuator of Jerome's Universal Chronicle.- Life :...

, which gives a firm date of 31 December 406.

A letter of Jerome
Jerome
Saint Jerome was a Roman Christian priest, confessor, theologian and historian, and who became a Doctor of the Church. He was the son of Eusebius, of the city of Stridon, which was on the border of Dalmatia and Pannonia...

 written from Bethlehem
Bethlehem
Bethlehem is a Palestinian city in the central West Bank of the Jordan River, near Israel and approximately south of Jerusalem, with a population of about 30,000 people. It is the capital of the Bethlehem Governorate of the Palestinian National Authority and a hub of Palestinian culture and tourism...

, which gives a long list of the barbarian tribes involved, some of them, like Quadi
Quadi
The Quadi were a smaller Germanic tribe, about which little is definitively known. We only know the Germanic tribe the Romans called the 'Quadi' through reports of the Romans themselves...

 and Sarmatians
Sarmatians
The Iron Age Sarmatians were an Iranian people in Classical Antiquity, flourishing from about the 5th century BC to the 4th century AD....

, drawn from history or literary tradition, mentions Mainz first in a list of the cities devastated by the incursion; this is the sole support for the common assumption that the crossing of the unbridged Rhine was effected at Mainz. Jerome lists the cities now known as Mainz
Mainz
Mainz under the Holy Roman Empire, and previously was a Roman fort city which commanded the west bank of the Rhine and formed part of the northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire...

, Worms
Worms, Germany
Worms is a city in Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany, on the Rhine River. At the end of 2004, it had 85,829 inhabitants.Established by the Celts, who called it Borbetomagus, Worms today remains embattled with the cities Trier and Cologne over the title of "Oldest City in Germany." Worms is the only...

, Rheims, Amiens
Amiens
Amiens is a city and commune in northern France, north of Paris and south-west of Lille. It is the capital of the Somme department in Picardy...

, Arras
Arras
Arras is the capital of the Pas-de-Calais department in northern France. The historic centre of the Artois region, its local speech is characterized as a Picard dialect...

, Thérouanne
Thérouanne
Thérouanne is a commune in the Pas-de-Calais department in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of France.-Geography:Thérouanne is located 10 miles southwest of Saint-Omer, on the D157 and D341 road junction.-Population:-History:...

, Tournai
Tournai
Tournai is a Walloon city and municipality of Belgium located 85 kilometres southwest of Brussels, on the river Scheldt, in the province of Hainaut....

, Speyer
Speyer
Speyer is a city of Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany with approximately 50,000 inhabitants. Located beside the river Rhine, Speyer is 25 km south of Ludwigshafen and Mannheim. Founded by the Romans, it is one of Germany's oldest cities...

 and Strasbourg
Strasbourg
Strasbourg is the capital and principal city of the Alsace region in eastern France and is the official seat of the European Parliament. Located close to the border with Germany, it is the capital of the Bas-Rhin département. The city and the region of Alsace are historically German-speaking,...

 as having been pillaged.

The initial gathering of barbarians on the east bank of the Rhine has been interpreted as a banding of refugees from the Huns
Huns
The Huns were a group of nomadic people who, appearing from east of the Volga River, migrated into Europe c. AD 370 and established the vast Hunnic Empire there. Since de Guignes linked them with the Xiongnu, who had been northern neighbours of China 300 years prior to the emergence of the Huns,...

 or the remnants of Radagaisus
Radagaisus
Radagaisus was a Gothic king who led an invasion of Roman Italy in late 405 and the first half of 406. A commited Pagan, Radagaisus evidentily planned to sacrifice the Roman Senators to the gods and burn Rome to the ground. Radagaisus was executed after being defeated by the half-Vandal general...

' defeated Goths, without direct evidence. A frozen Rhine, making the crossing easier, is not attested by any contemporary, but was a plausible surmise of Edward Gibbon
Edward Gibbon
Edward Gibbon was an English historian and Member of Parliament...

. On the east bank, the mixed band of Vandals and Alans fought a raiding party of Franks
Franks
The Franks were a confederation of Germanic tribes first attested in the third century AD as living north and east of the Lower Rhine River. From the third to fifth centuries some Franks raided Roman territory while other Franks joined the Roman troops in Gaul. Only the Salian Franks formed a...

. The Vandal king Godigisel
Godigisel
Godigisel was King of the Hasdingi Vandals until his death in 406. He was killed in battle late in 406, shortly before his people forced a crossing of the Rhine River into the territory of the Roman Empire....

 was killed, but the Alans came to the rescue of the Vandals, and once on the Roman side, they met with no organized resistance. Stilicho
Stilicho
Flavius Stilicho was a high-ranking general , Patrician and Consul of the Western Roman Empire, notably of Vandal birth. Despised by the Roman population for his Germanic ancestry and Arian beliefs, Stilicho was in 408 executed along with his wife and son...

 had depleted the garrisons in 402 to face Alaric
Alaric I
Alaric I was the King of the Visigoths from 395–410. Alaric is most famous for his sack of Rome in 410, which marked a decisive event in the decline of the Roman Empire....

 in Italy.

Zosimus
Zosimus
Zosimus was a Byzantine historian, who lived in Constantinople during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I . According to Photius, he was a comes, and held the office of "advocate" of the imperial treasury.- Historia Nova :...

' New History (vi.3.1) imputes the usurpation of Marcus in Britannia to a reaction to the presence of barbarians in Gaul in 406; from a fragment of Olympiodorus
Olympiodorus
There are several late-Roman figures named Olympiodorus:* Olympiodorus the Seleucid, , 2nd-century BCE high-priest in Koile-Syria and Phoinike, commissioned by Seleucus IV Philopator...

, the acclamation as Emperor of Marcus, the first of the Romano-Britannic usurpers, took place that same summer.

406 or 405?


An article by Michael Kulikowski
Michael Kulikowski
Michael Kulikowski is an American historian, tenured at the University of Tennessee, who is a specialist in the history of the western Mediterranean world of Late Antiquity...

, finding that "the sequence of events bristles with technical difficulties", bypassed modern historians' accounts, which he found depended upon Edward Gibbon
Edward Gibbon
Edward Gibbon was an English historian and Member of Parliament...

 and one another, to reanalyse the literary sources; his conclusion was that a date for the mid-winter crossing of the Rhine of 31 December 405 offers a more coherent chronology of events in Belgica, Gaul and Britannia. Kulikowski outlined how the year 406
406
Year 406 was a common year starting on Monday of the Julian calendar. At the time, it was known as the Year of the Consulship of Arcadius and Probus...

 came to be selected.

The date 31 December 406 is firmly offered by Prosper of Aquitaine
Prosper of Aquitaine
Saint Prosper of Aquitaine , a Christian writer and disciple of Saint Augustine of Hippo, was the first continuator of Jerome's Universal Chronicle.- Life :...

 in his year-by-year chronicle
Chronicle
Generally a chronicle is a historical account of facts and events ranged in chronological order, as in a time line. Typically, equal weight is given for historically important events and local events, the purpose being the recording of events that occurred, seen from the perspective of the...

: "In the sixth consulship of Arcadius
Arcadius
Arcadius was the Byzantine Emperor from 395 to his death. He was the eldest son of Theodosius I and his first wife Aelia Flaccilla, and brother of the Western Emperor Honorius...

 and Probus
Anicius Petronius Probus
Flavius Anicius Petronius Probus was a politician of the Western Roman Empire.- Biography :A member of the gens Anicia, he was the son of Sextus Claudius Petronius Probus and of Anicia Faltonia Proba; his elder brothers were Anicius Hermogenianus Olybrius and Anicius Probinus , his sister Anicia...

, Vandals and Alans came into the Gauls, having crossed the Rhine, on the day before the kalends
Kalends
The Calends , correspond to the first days of each month of the Roman calendar. The Romans assigned these calends to the first day of the month, signifying the start of the new moon cycle...

 of January." The sixth consulship of Arcadius, with Probus as co-consul, corresponds to 406. Prosper noted the invasion of Italy by Radagaisus as the prime event of the previous year, and correctly assigned to the year following (407) the usurpation of Constantine III. "The three entries are linked, and together they tell a kind of story," Kulikowski observes "Prosper was writing a chronicle, and the genre abhorred blank years. Since his chosen genre demanded an entry for each of three years, Prosper simply portioned out his sequence of events, one event to the year. He does the same thing elsewhere in the chronicle."

With the traditional date of 31 December 406 in mind, much has been made of the inaction of Stilicho, sometimes imputed to his strategy focussed on ambitions in Illyria
Illyria
In classical antiquity, Illyria was a region in the western part of the Balkan Peninsula inhabited by the Illyrians....

. Kulikowski's date of 31 December 405 finds Stilicho fully occupied in Tuscia
Tuscia
Tuscia is a historical region of Italy that comprised the southern territories under Etruscan influence. While it later came to coincide with today’s province of Viterbo, it was originally much larger, including the whole Region of Tuscany, a great part of Umbria and the northern parts of...

battling the forces of Radagaisus, who was not finally overcome and executed until August 406. It also places the acclamation of the first of the usurpers in Britannia, characterised as a fearful reaction to the barbarian presence in Gaul, after the crossing of the Rhine.