In a pattern of construction and destruction that is echoed in almost every part of the world, the Western Roman Empire collapsed by 500 CE and left northern Europe to repair fractured sovereignties and strive for self-determination. The process of differentiation through conflict began long before the collapse, however, as northern tribes resisted Roman domination. Dramatic scenes of Roman conflict with Germanic hordes can be seen in the opening episode of Gladiator (see Roman Empire).
The Danube River was a dividing line between the fiercely defiant people of the north and the Roman Empire. All along this line, and its extensions, were the tribes called “barbarians” by the Romans – by which they meant uncivilized. Hollywood has always been ambivalent about the warlike nomads of Europe and Asia, wanting to celebrate their heroics and at the same time deplore their barbarism. The textbook case can be found in Governor Schwarzenegger’s Conan the Barbarian franchise and its spin-offs, all of it fiction. On a river trip down the Danube, near the Black Sea, I found a Romanian movie from 1967 called Dacii (The Dacians). The tribal hero drives the Romans out of his lands while those that remained called themselves Romanians.
The classic work of the post-collapse period in northern Europe is Beowulf, an Anglo-Saxon epic set in Scandinavia of circa 500 CE. This is a mead hall drama with an aggregation of garrulous men, and a hero who must face a rampant monster. There are few roles for women at this gathering, but the monster does have a murderous mother. The movies have been good to this seminal work of Western epic poetry and two strong versions were produced in 2005 and 2007.
The Vikings enjoyed the peak of their marauding in and around the tenth century CE. They were good at coasting the northern shores to the west of their homeland, even reaching the colder climes of the New World, but they were the very terror of the rivers of Europe. Their ships resembled sea serpents and their extensive invasions changed the shape of Western Civilization. Kirk Douglas delivered the classic Viking to the screen in the 1950s. The Norman Vikings occupied France, conquered England, and built a kingdom in Sicily. Others took possession of Russia (see Russian Empire).