Who Were the Barbarian Successor Kingdoms of the Western Roman Empire?

The Barbarian Successor Kingdoms emerged in the territories of the former Western Roman Empire, including Vandals, Visigoths, Ostrogoths and Franks.

Apr 27, 2023By Vedran Bileta, MA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in History

barbarian successor kingdoms of roman empire ostrogoths


The barbarian successor kingdoms were the powerful states that emerged in the territory of the Western Roman Empire following the Fall of Rome in 476 CE. The kingdoms were established by the most powerful Germanic tribes, including the Franks in the area of modern-day France and Germany, the Vandals in Northern Africa, the Ostrogoths in Italy and the Visigoths in Spain. To say that those kingdoms were “barbarian” is problematic, as the “barbarian” kings of post-Roman Europe inherited Roman customs, religion and way of life. The “barbarian” kings even issued coins based on the imperial coinage of the vanished Western Roman Empire.


In addition, while practically independent, some kings, like Ostrogoths and Vandals, recognized the nominal rule of the eastern Roman emperors in Constantinople. However, the reconquest of emperor Justinian in the mid-sixth century annihilated most of those successor states, with the Franks being the only ones who established a flourishing medieval kingdom.


The Ostrogoths Were the Most Powerful Barbarian Successor Kingdom

ostrogoth king theodoric the great
Coin depicting Ostrogoth king Theodoric the Great, 493-526


The Ostrogoths established the most powerful barbarian successor kingdom in post-Roman Europe. They were one of the Germanic tribes that crossed the Danube and settled in the Balkans after the catastrophic defeat of the eastern Roman army at Adrianople in the late fourth century CE. For decades, they served as the foederati, or allies of the Roman emperors in both East and the West. And when the Western Roman Empire fell in 476, the Ostrogoths exploited the opportunity, founding the powerful Ostrogothic Kingdom in Italy. Under King Theodoric, Ostrogothic Italy retained the Roman style of life.


Theodoric continued to rule from Ravenna, the old capital of the Roman emperors and kept the Senate as the key part of the government. The Ostrogoths also built majestic churches and monumental structures across the kingdom, of which the most famous is the Mausoleum of Theodoric in Ravenna. However, the ascension of Emperor Justinian to the throne in Constantinople led to a bloody and protracted war, which ended in the destruction of the Ostrogoth Kingdom. 

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The Vandals Were Masters of North Africa and the Western Mediterranean

Mosaic from Bor-Djedid near the site of Carthage showing a Vandal aristocrat and a fortified city, late 5th – early 6th century CE, The British Museum, London


The Vandals appeared in the Roman territory in the early fifth century. Facing almost no opposition, this Germanic tribe quickly moved southwards, establishing their presence in modern-day Spain. Under King Gaiseric, the Vandals invaded North Africa in 429, defeating the Roman army and establishing a powerful kingdom with a center in Carthage. The Romans could do little to stop the formidable Vandal forces, who in 455 sacked Rome, dealing a significant blow to the prestige of the Western Roman Empire.


The Vandal naval power rivalled the Roman navy in the Mediterranean for the first time since the Punic Wars. While the Vandals proved to be a great threat to the Romans, they were not mindless barbarians and were a far cry from “the modern vandals.” The Vandal kings and elite continued Roman life, building lavish villas and patronizing art and culture. However, the religious conflict between Arian and Orthodox Christians in the mid-sixth century led to the Roman military expedition. Emperor Justinian dispatched General Belisarius, who, in a lighting offensive, defeated Vandal forces led by King Gelimer, ending the Vandal kingdom for good.


The Visigoths Ruled Spain

visigothic coin 6th century fall of rome
Visigoth Gold Coin, featuring Hermenegild, 584 CE, via the British Museum


The Visigoths were a Germanic tribe that established a kingdom in the Iberian Peninsula (modern-day Spain and Portugal) following the fall of Rome. They are perhaps best known for the infamous Sack of Rome in 410, under their king Alaric. However, the Visigoths were more than brutal barbarians. Under the rule of Visigothic kings, Spain prospered in a kingdom that blended both Roman and Gothic cultures. The Visigoths are also known for their legal code – Liber Iudiciorum – one of the most advanced legal systems in early medieval Europe. Like the other barbarian successor kings, the Visigothic rulers continued the Roman way of life, establishing schools and patronizing art. They also played a role in the spread of Christianity, particularly Arian Christianity, which was influential in the early medieval period.


Like the other barbarian successor kingdoms, the Visigoths, too, became a target of the Justinian Reconquest of the Roman West. The Roman army occupied southern Spain but could not achieve complete control over the area. Instead, the end of the Visigoth Kingdom would come from another enemy – the Arab conquest in the seventh century.


The Franks Were the Most Successful Barbarian Successor Kingdom

baptism clovis francois louis dejuinne
The Baptism of Clovis, by François-Louis Dejuinne


The Franks emerged as a powerful force in post-Roman Europe. They went on to establish a kingdom that not only outlived the other barbarian successor kingdoms but also played a crucial role in the formation of medieval Europe. The Franks arrived at Roman Gaul in the fourth century, initially serving in the imperial armies and as the Roman allies. Following the collapse of the Roman West, the Franks, under King Clovis, established a powerful kingdom that extended from modern-day France to Germany.


Franks initially maintained the Roman lifestyle but gradually established their own, ruled by Salic Law. It was the beginning of the feudal system, in which the king was a supreme ruler, with other nobles and officials serving under him. The king gave the nobles the land, in exchange for their loyalty and military service. During the Merovingian dynasty, the Franks consolidated their hold over most of Western Europe, fighting the Arabs in Spain and the Lombards in Italy.


The Frankish Kingdom reached the apex under Charlemagne, who in 800 was granted the title of the Roman emperor by the Pope. Under his rule, the Franks established an empire that included much of modern-day France, Germany, and Italy. Charlemagne’s empire was one of the largest and most powerful of the time, leaving a lasting influence on Europe’s history and culture.

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By Vedran BiletaMA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in HistoryVedran is a doctoral researcher, based in Budapest. His main interest is Ancient History, in particular the Late Roman period. When not spending time with the military elites of the Late Roman West, he is sharing his passion for history with those willing to listen. In his free time, Vedran is wargaming and discussing Star Trek.