The Early Middle Ages

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13499

Once the Goths took control of Rome in 476 A.D., the western part of the Roman Empire split amongst the countless groups that had existed within its borders for decades.


People and Their Environment, World

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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  • What was Europe like after the Foederati tribes took control?
  • Was it distinct from Europe under Roman rule?


barbarian warriors

Under the Foederati system, entire tribes were permitted to live within Roman borders. Unlike past centuries, Rome no longer had enough manpower to fill its expansive army. This necessitated allowing entire foreign tribes to live on its border as long as they protected the empire from other outsiders.

Resorting to this strategy reduced loyalty to the Roman emperor, and it began decades of internal struggle between the established Roman rulers and the new Foederati tribes.

After 476 A.D.

rothenburg skyline

Once Odoacer removed the last Western Roman Emperor from power, the various Germanic and Frankish tribes began to carve out their own empires. However, these tribes modeled their empires after that of the Romans.

For the rulers of these tribes, being a Roman meant being wealthy, educated, and successful. While no Roman emperor ever ruled over much of Europe again, becoming as powerful as Julius Caesar remained an aspiration of European rulers for centuries.

As you watch a portion of the video below, pay attention to the map of the various tribes as well as what the tribes did when they encountered local cultures.

A brief history of goths - Dan Adams from TED-Ed:

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Notice that the Ostrogoths ruled Italy, the Visigoths ruled Spain, and the Franks ruled France.

All these tribes were doing something Rome never had: they began to assimilate into the local culture. For most of the tribes, this meant maintaining Roman traditions and Roman law.

When Gothic or Frankish rulers had no specific law for a given crime, they would fall back to whatever Roman law said about it. Here, we see how foundational the legacy of Rome was in the progress in Europe.

  • But why did these foreign tribes embrace so much about the people they conquered?

Consider this as we move on.

Byzantine Empire

byzantine empire

The name Byzantine Empire is an invented one.

The people who lived during the Renaissance believed Ancient Greece and Rome were the pinnacle of civilization, and this narrative would not have worked if the Roman Empire were still around. For this reason, 476 was chosen as the year Rome "fell", while in reality the Roman Empire existed until 1453 A.D.

After 476 A.D., internal struggle may have led to the western half of the Roman Empire being controlled by Germanic tribes. However, to the people in Constantinople, this was no more than a minor and temporary loss. The emperors of the Eastern Roman Empire fully expected to regain control of the rest of the empire.

Under the rule of Justinian, the Eastern Roman Empire reconquered much of the fallen western half.

Take a look at the maps below to see how the empire was separated (left) and at its height under Justinian in 555 A.D. (right):

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However, after Justinian's rule, the empire began to decline sharply and was a shadow of its once-vast self by the year 700.



Without a strong central authority, peasants looked to wealthy nobles for food, land, and protection in the Early Middle Ages. Likewise, as wars broke out more and more inside these massive Germanic Kingdoms, rulers decided they needed to cooperate with local nobles to maintain what power they still had.

For an explanation on how this worked, watch Feudalism in Medieval Europe- simple explanation from Chelsea Fraumeni:

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It is important to note that this system was not formal.

There was no established doctrine of Feudalism. It was simply a system born out of necessity in the early 700s as the legacy of Roman authority began to fade, and the Germanic Kingdoms could not hold on to its massive swaths of land.

However, by the end of eighth century, the Frankish Kingdom had consolidated its power in France enough to provide the central authority that was needed.

The Holy Roman Empire


Frankish tribes existed peacefully with the Roman Empire for centuries, and its Carolingian Dynasty aggressively expanded into former Roman lands. This expansion culminated under the rule of King Charles I when he went to Rome.

On Christmas Day in 800 A.D., King Charles I of the Franks was crowned by Pope Leo as Emperor of the Romans. Now, as Emperor Charlemagne (Charles the Great), he became the spiritual heir to the Roman Empire.

  • What was different about this emperor?

Charlemagne was crowned by a religious figure deriving authority from God and the Pope, not himself. He was also in direct opposition to the contemporary Roman Empress in Constantinople, Irene.

Continue on to the Got It? section to further explore how and why Charlemagne claimed to be the new Roman Emperor.

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