Ancient History & Civilisation


The Barbarian Kingdoms


Before 375

The Germanic barbarians and Rome: immigration, trade, and butchery


The integration of the Germanic peoples and land for the barbarians


The Huns and the kingdom of Attila


The character of the Germanic kingdoms in the fifth century


The Visigoths in southwest Gaul


The Burgundians


The Frankish kingdom


Theoderic the Amal and Ostrogothic rule in Italy

The Origins of the Germanic Kingdoms of the West

Rome had grown accustomed to, and had made use of, German barbarians since the beginning of the empire. The image of a bearded northerner cowering before an armed legionary had become a visual cliché for celebrating Roman victories. Classical civilization, based on the civic life of the Mediterranean, defined itself by the contrast with unkempt, skin-clad barbarians from the north. But German soldiers were good warriors, and had been recruited into the Roman armies since the time of Julius Caesar and Augustus. In the third and early fourth centuries the proportion of barbarians serving in the armies increased drastically, and the number of officers of Frankish, Alemannic, or Vandal origin is astounding.1 Barbarian commanders in the West such as Bauto, magister militum from 380 to 385, Arbogast, magister militum from 388 to 394, and Stilicho, his successor, were influential at the highest level. Sulpicius Severus observed that in 394 Frankish mercenaries controlled military affairs, Arbogast's accomplices took over the civil administration of the western empire, and Valentinian II, confined to the palace at Vienne, was virtually reduced to the status of a private citizen (Sulpicius Severus, cited in Greg. Tur., Hist. II, 9). Bauto's daughter Eudoxia married the emperor Arcadius; Stilicho married Serena, the niece of Theodosius I. Members of the imperial family continued to intermarry with leading barbarian families throughout late antiquity.2 Such alliances were based on a recognition of mutual benefits, not on shared culture. These barbarians, however, had been enlisted into the Roman Empire on Roman terms. They acquired Roman titles and offices, and clearly used Latin as their main language. There is little evidence that any of them was tempted to operate as a fifth column for their tribe or people of origin.

To most barbarians conditions of life appeared much better in the Roman Empire than outside it. Large-scale immigration across the Rhine and Danube had occurred since the first century AD.3 Some of the newcomers were refugees from political or demographic pressures, others were economic migrants attracted by the lure of gain in the Roman market economy. Immigrants tended to be broken into small groups and dispersed, and ceased to exist as ethnic or tribal groups.

Both Roman sources and archaeological evidence present a generally homogeneous picture of barbarian society beyond the Rhine and the Danube up to the fourth century.4 The various tribes lived in small sedentary agricultural villages, which formed into cantons that were controlled by local leaders. The barbarian communities living closest to Roman territory tended to be richer. They had better opportunities for trade with the provinces, and their leaders also often received Roman subsidies, usually paid in silver denarii. Much of this surplus wealth was recycled into the purchase of Roman luxuries, including wine and material goods. These exchanges helped to create a stable environment beyond the frontier, and the barbarians living in these regions not only had close commercial relations with the Roman provinces, but also adopted Roman building styles.5

The equilibrium of the northern frontier zone was destabilized not so much by tension between Romans and barbarians as by internal conflicts on either side. During the third and fourth centuries larger barbarian confederations, notably of Alemanni, Franks, and Goths, were able to take advantage of weakness along the Roman limes, leading to extensive raiding and to some, usually temporary, infiltration and settlement in the Roman provinces. Fourth-century emperors regularly campaigned against such groups both inside and beyond the imperial boundary to restore the traditional lines of defense along the Rhine and Danube, and they also broadly attempted to maintain the policy which had been successful in the early empire.6 After his successful campaigns against the Goths, Constantine restored the practice of paying subsidies to Gothic leaders, and maintaining an open frontier for lively commercial exchanges. Valens in 369, after reinforcing the garrisons along the lower Danube, made a short-lived attempt to restrict access to two crossing points.7

The consequences of the Roman civil wars of the mid-fourth century are apparent in Ammianus' account of Gaul under Julian. The Alemanni took advantage of the war between Constantius and Magnentius, and overran large parts of eastern Gaul before they were decisively defeated at the battle of Strasburg in 357. In 358 Julian campaigned against the Salian Franks and the Chamavi, who had occupied territory around Tongres in Belgica. The Franks approached him, promising to keep the peace if they were allowed to remain on the land they had settled and which they regarded as their own. Julian appeared to concede the request and offered them gifts, but then terrorized them with an unexpected military attack. Then, “using his victory as a favourable opportunity to show mercy, he accepted their surrender with their goods and families.” Nevertheless both the Franks and the neighboring Chamavi were allowed to remain in their settlements (Ammianus 17.8.3–5).

Terror played a large part in Roman frontier policy. Roman brutality is most blatantly on show in Constantius' campaign of 358 against the Sarmatians and the Limigantes. First the Sarmatians and the Quadi, who had often been useful allies of the Romans in the past but had recently been engaged in sporadic raiding in Pannonia and Moesia, were cowed by a brutally rapid attack. Those who could not flee, rooted to the spot by fear, were butchered. Those who escaped watched their country being put to the sword. It fell to an earlier favorite of the Romans, Zizais, to plead for mercy:

At the sight of the emperor he threw away his weapons, flung himself prostrate to the ground, and lay apparently lifeless. He aroused greater pity because, at the moment when he should have spoken, fear choked his utterance; after several attempts, interrupted by sobs, he was hardly able to set forth his request. At last he recovered himself and was told to rise. Kneeling, and with his voice once more under control, he begged forgiveness and pardon for his past offences. The multitude of his followers who were admitted to join in his petition remained dumb with fear as long as the fate of their superior hung in the balance, but, when he was told to stand up and gave them the long-awaited signal to add their entreaties to his, they all threw down their spears and shields and stretched out their arms in supplication, striving to outdo even their prince in the humility of their appeal. (Ammianus 17.12.9–10).

Butchery and humiliation, which sufficed for the Sarmatians and Quadi, escalated to genocide against several cantons of the Limigantes. These initially defied a Roman order to leave their lands, but they begged for their lives when threatened with massive force and promised to pay an annual tribute, to provide a levy of able-bodied men for the army, and a supply of slaves. Two groups, the Amicenses and the Picenses, were ordered to cross the Danube and approach the imperial camp. The area was staked out, with troops in ambush on either side. The emperor “warned them in mild terms not to behave with violence.” As the barbarians threw down their shields, the praetorian cohorts formed a battle wedge, known in soldiers' jargon as the boar's head, and in half an hour had massacred them to the last man. Worse was to follow:

No sooner had the hostile tribes been overthrown than the families of the slain were dragged forth in droves from their humble huts, without distinction of age or sex, to exchange the proud independence of their former life for the degraded status of slaves. A brief space of time sufficed to reveal piles of corpses and throngs of prisoners. So, excited by the heat of battle and the prospect of loot, our men betook themselves to the destruction of those who had fled from the fight or were lying concealed in their huts. Thirsting for barbarian blood they tore down the frail thatch and slaughtered those within; even a house built of the strongest timbers could not preserve its inmates from death. At last, when everything was on fire and there was nowhere left to hide, the survivors, finding every avenue of escape cut off, either refused to yield and perished in the flames, or else came out and escaped one form of torment only to fall at the hands of their enemies. Some…entrusted themselves to the depths of the river nearby.…Some of these died by drowning, others were pierced by missiles and perished; so much blood was spilt that the whole stream foamed with it. Thus with the help of two elements the rage and courage of the victors destroyed the Sarmatians. (Ammianus 17.13, trans. Hamilton)

No passage in Ammianus' history better illustrates the savage brutality of a military emperor of the fourth century. Constantius was a devout and observant Christian,8 ascetic in his personal conduct, and scrupulous and incorruptible in the conduct of state duties. However, when it came to the exercise of imperial power, he was utterly ruthless. He had been hardened by civil war. Ammianus remarked that he “prided himself on his success in civil conflicts, and bathed in the blood which poured in a fearful stream from the internal wounds of the state” (Ammianus 21.16.15, trans. Hamilton). Barbarian enemies of Rome fared worse even than the usurpers who challenged him.

There was an enormous transformation between the world of the Germanic barbarians depicted in the pages of Ammianus, and that of the kingdoms that supplanted the western provinces in the fifth century. The process of change may be traced back on the Roman side to Valens' decision in 376 to admit the Gothic tribe of the Tervingi into Thrace, and the six years of turmoil in the eastern Balkans which saw the Roman defeat at Adrianople and Valens' death in 378, and was concluded by Theodosius I's treaty with the Goths of 382. The new policy of according the Goths the status of independent allies within the empire was highly controversial, but forced by Rome's financial constraints and manpower shortages. It was argued that the Gothic treaty was a means of acquiring more soldiers without levying more taxes. Objections to using German barbarian troops prevailed in the East, especially after the suppression of the revolt of Gainas in 400, but the Goths were now a permanent fixture in the central regions of the empire.

This set the stage for the emergence of a new breed of barbarian leader, the warrior chieftains who emerged to command Germanic contingents, which either fought for Roman masters or rampaged in pursuit of their own goals across the western empire. Alaric is the prime example. Initially the strength of the Goths in the empire was limited, but as a result of the internal conflict between East and West in 390s Alaric emerged as a formidable force. His military ability and battle successes established his prestige and status. Fighting on behalf of Stilicho entitled him to provisions, pay, and logistic support from the Romans, which enabled him to build his followers into a coherent band of professional soldiers. After the fall of Stilicho, Alaric also attracted barbarian federates and escaped slaves to his core group of Visigothic followers, reaching a total of 40,000 men (Zosimus 5.35 and 42). All of these were dependent on him for the necessities of life: provisions for them to function as a campaigning group; monetary rewards; arms, weapons, and mounts; and ultimately land for themselves and their families to settle. The organization of Alaric's followers into an effective fighting force during the long years of campaigning helped to create a new type of community and forge a Visigothic nation.9

Similar experiences can be identified behind the emergence of other major barbarian groups in the fifth century. The Vandals, who crossed into the empire in 406, spent the next generation carving out temporary homes for themselves in Spain, fighting against Romans, Suevians, and Goths. They were joined by a group of Alans (Chron. Min. II. 19), and the later official title of the barbarian rulers of Africa was rex Vandalorum et Alanorum (Victor of Vita 2.9, 3.3). A total of 80,000 barbarians is reported to have crossed into Africa in 429, including old men, children, free persons, and slaves. This count was made to estimate the number of ships needed to ferry the people across to Africa, in eighty groups, each of a thousand persons, and so the women were also presumably included in this figure.10 Their unity, as one of the most effective and coherent barbarian groups of the fifth century was evidently forged in the long years of campaigning and migration. A similar experience led to the formation of the Ostrogothic kingdom under Theoderic the Amal. In all these cases strong leaders were able to bequeath effective tribal groups to their successors, and thus led to the creation of lasting dynasties.

One of the most disputed matters concerning these barbarian groups is the question of whether land was specifically assigned to them by Roman authorities, and how this was achieved. In the eastern Balkans and Thrace, where the first Gothic immigrants were settled in the 370s and 380s, there seems to have been little at stake. The newcomers are described in a remarkable passage of the sixth-century Gothic historian Jordanes:

Now there were other Goths as well, who are called the lesser Goths, a very large people, whose priest and primate Ulfila is said also to have taught them how to write. Today these Goths live in Moesia and inhabit the region of Nicopolis towards the foot of Mount Haemus: a people large in numbers but impoverished and unwarlike, with no resources except for herds of various sorts of animal, pasture and the forest for wood. They have little fertile land for growing wheat or other varieties of cereal. As for vines some of them are even unaware that they exist in other places, and buy their wine from the neighbouring regions. Most of them live on milk. (Jordanes, Get. 267)

There were few cities in the region, and no well-established landowning class to contest possession of the land with the newcomers. Almost all of the existing settlers would either have been impoverished peasants, ex-soldiers, and their dependents, who were sociologically and even ethnically hardly distinct from the newcomers. At this level barbarians were absorbed without causing long-term disturbances. Jordanes' description draws attention to the important influence of Ulfila, one of the most important church leaders of the fourth century, who was not only responsible for creating the first Gothic Christian community but also for determining that Arianism, at least until the 380s, was the dominant form of Christianity in the churches of the region as a whole.11

In the West matters were more complicated and contentious. The classic theory is that land allotments were modeled on Roman laws concerning hospitalitas, the billeting of soldiers in civilian settlements. A law of 398 issued by Arcadius and Honorius laid down that one-third of the space in a house was to be made available to soldiers and those on state business when required (CTh. 7.8.5). This is turn has been linked to a law issued by the Burgundian king Gundobad in the early sixth century. This refers to a former state of affairs in which Burgundians had obtained one-third of the bondsmen and two-thirds of certain lands where they had settled, in accordance with the regulations covering hospitalitas, but that in cases where these Burgundians had subsequently received benefactions of land or retainers from the king himself, they should return both the land and its tied laborers to their original owners (Lex Burgundionum 54). These and other passages have been interpreted in a different sense by Walter Goffart, to refer not to the barbarians obtaining title to the land itself, but being able to claim one-third of the tax revenues that they generated for the state.12 The theory may indeed explain some of the relevant evidence, especially as there are indications that the Roman tax budget was sometimes conceived as being made up of one-third portions, which were then assigned for specific areas of expenditure, such as military pay or payment to barbarian foederati. However, a number of passages from sixth-century writers indisputably refer to actual land divisions, and suggest that the traditional interpretation should in general still be preferred. A passage from a letter written by Cassiodorus on behalf of Theoderic, addressed to the Roman Senate in the last years of the fifth century, praised the praetorian prefect Liberius Venantius for managing to increase state revenues by efficiency savings rather than by raising taxes. It continues with a complicated allusion to land division between Goths and Romans: “It is my delight to mention how, in the assignment of one-third shares (tertiae), he unites both the estates and the hearts of Goths and Romans.…Behold, a new and wholly admirable achievement: division of the soil joined its masters in good will” (Cassiodorus, ep. 2.16.5–6). Another, earlier letter of Theoderic written by Cassiodorus to a pair of his officials, one Gothic, the other Roman, also alludes to authorized land division, and the state of the law regarding claims against illegal usurpation of land:

If, after the date when, by God's favour, I crossed the river Isonzo, and the realm of Italy first received me, a barbarian occupier has seized the estate of a Roman, without a warrant taken from any assigning officer, he is to restore the property before that time, since the thirty-year limitation is clearly an objection, I decree that the plaintiff's claim is to fail. For I want only those matters brought to judgement which I condemn as acts of seizure made in my reign, since there is no room left for idle accusations when the obscurity of many years has passed. (Cassiodorus, ep. 1.18.2–3, trans. Barnish)

Procopius also indicates that the Goths in Italy partitioned the lands which Odoacar had previously given to his followers (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 5.1.28). The evidence of Cassiodorus in particular seems incompatible with the idea that measures assigning land to barbarians should usually be interpreted as references not to the land itself but to the tax income that it produced.13

In general, however, it appears that the arrival of barbarian groups and their demands for land were less disruptive than one might have expected. Certainly there is no evidence for tensions such as are generated by the existential struggle in the modern world between Israelis and Palestinians over a territory to which both lay claim. Various explanations may be offered for this. The numbers of the migrating barbarian groups were never overwhelming, in proportion to the settled peasantries of the western provinces. Some groups, like the minor Goths described by Jordanes, occupied marginal areas that were thinly populated in any case. Even Alaric was prepared at one stage to exchange land in Noricum for more distant and exposed territory during his negotiations with Honorius (Zosimus 5.36). In such frontier areas the ethnic and cultural differences between Germanic barbarians and the lower strata of provincial society were not large. Above all, the newcomers, ready and able to fight, were a welcome source of military strength both to the state and to the Roman landowners in the West, who had proved incapable of defending the western provinces either against internal or external enemies. Although they regarded Germanic barbarians with aristocratic distaste, the senatorial elite of southern Gaul, whose attitudes are reflected in the writings and career of Sidonius Apollinaris, were always ready to come to agreements with Visigoths and Burgundians if it could secure their own and their communities' interests.14

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