Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Romans vs. Barbarians

A/N: Part I, Paper 13 essay from Easter term of the 2007/08 academic year. I was supervised by Dr. Sarris at Trinity. 

What is to be learned from the literary sources of relations between Romans and Barbarians in fifth-century Gaul?

The fifth century was a period of change for the entire Roman Empire as, after years of difficulties, the last Western Roman emperor, Romulus Augustus, was deposed in 476 and the Western Empire ceased to officially exist. Traditionally the situation in Gaul, an area encompassing modern day France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Western Germany, has been believed to have been desperate for most of the century as strong barbarian tribes swept through the Western Empire, leaving devastation in their wake. More recently some historians have argued for a less violent relationship between Romans and the Barbarians; Thompson for example points out that the Barbarians were settled according to Roman wishes rather than their own, and Matthews suggests even as Roman rule gave way to Barbarian there was much continuity - the continued emphasis on classical knowledge in the literary source suggesting senatorial values remained unchanged for example. Another contentious issue surrounding relations between Romans and Barbarians is the extent to which the two groups integrated; Wallace-Hadrill suggests the two remained separate, alienated from each other by religion amongst other factors, whilst Barnish proposes it was more likely that intermarriage and mingling of the two groups would have become increasingly common. The literary sources provide a lot of information to help untangle the realities of the fifth century.

Before considering what can be learned from the contemporary literary sources the limitations of these sources must be assessed. Much of the evidence we do have is fragmentary, and that which is complete suffers from its own particular limitations. The letters and panegyrics which survive from the second half of the fifth century tend, as Wood, points out to be written to fit a long established format and so inevitably emphasise the values and traditions of the Roman senatorial aristocracy. Sidonius Apollinaris’ favourable accounts of Barbarian kings could be argued then to no more provide real proof of their supposed diplomatic skill and kingly benevolence than the heavily exaggerated praise in the panegyrics of earlier centuries. Similarly the evidence from the first half of the fifth century was written to fit a genre, most commonly moralising tracts as seen in the work of Salvian and Paulinus of Pella. Such works would seek to emphasise the destruction caused by the Barbarians in order to teach moral lessons to their Roman Catholic audience. Other limitations include the fact that the surviving sources for Gaul come almost exclusively from Southern and Central Gaul, and are written only by the Roman senatorial aristocracy; the Barbarians at this time left no written evidence bar the law codes. Provided however that such limitations are kept in mind the literary sources, used in conjunction with archaeological evidence, provides a vital record for historians.

Much of the literary evidence available to us would seem to support the traditional view that the violence of the Barbarian tribes enabled them to establish their own kingdoms after toppling the Roman authorities. In the words of one contemporary for example, the countryside was left “smoking like one huge funeral pyre” for two years after the Vandals, Alans and Sueves flooded across the Germanic frontier in 406. The chronicles tell of the endless fighting in the early fifth century, including the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410, something which shocked many Romans as the ancient capital was shown to be vulnerable to external threat. In 412 the Alans and Burgundians played a substantial role in raising the usurper Jovinus to imperial office and the Visigoths crossed from Italy to Gaul, establishing their court at Narbonne under King Athaulf; a 417 poem by Rutilius Nomatianus, a Gallic landowner, paints a dramatic picture of countryside in ruins as the result of the Barbarians. Tales of Barbarian violence continue throughout the century; in 438 general Litorius was captured and killed by the Visigoths at Toulouse, in 456 Emperor Majorian had to use force to bring the Goths into line and in 465 we see the Visigoths using the opportunity created by the death of Aegedius to expand their territory into the Loire Valley. Despite the agreement to treaties with the Roman Empire the Barbarian tribes can be seen using violence to exact further benefits from the Roman authorities. In 414 for example the Visigoths use the Emperor Honorius’ sister, Galla Placidia, as a pawn in their quest for grain subsides and in the 450s the Alans violently expelled the Romans they were meant to be sharing the area of Gallia Ulterior they had been granted. Whilst the Barbarian tribes could work with the Roman Empire, sources such as that of Paulinus of Pella suggest that they did so only when it was in their own interest; Paulinus tells how, because he had not had any billeted to his estate (and hence there was no-one to protect it), “his house was given up to be pillaged by the retiring horde.”

To take this evidence completely at face value would be something of a mistake, the Roman Empire had been facing the threat of Barbarians for a long time - Rome had even been sacked by the Celts in 390 B.C - and had always managed to survive intact. It is not surprising then that the settlement of Barbarians within the Roman Empire was a situation with complex reasoning behind it. The first recognised wave of incoming Barbarians in 376 saw the sedentary agricultural communities of the Tervingi and Greuthungi pushed from their homes by the Huns, and those who crossed the Roman frontier did so with the permission of Emperor Valens. Similarly the settlement of the Visigoths in Aquitaine in 418/9 was done with Roman permission, as was the settlement of the Burgundians in Sapaudia in the 440s. Some would argue that the treaties drawn up by the Romans were merely a way to save face as they were forced to concede vast areas of land, something that seems more likely when one considers the value of the land given over to the Barbarians; Thompson claims that Aquitaine was “regarded as the very ‘marrow’ of the Gallic provinces.” This however ignores the fact that the Burgundians had almost been decimated by the Huns in 437, meaning they were in no position to demand land from the Roman authorities.

If then land grants were not always forced from the Roman authorities by the activities of the Barbarians who received them, how did they come to get them? Several theories have been put forward: to defend from Saxon and Frankish sea raids, to prevent the Visigoths from taking Spain by force, Thompson even puts forward a convincing argument that Roman land grants to Barbarians were intended to insure their defence of those territories from the Bacaudae, rebel groups encompassing, amongst others, dissenting peasants. The fundamental reason must however be clear; the Western Empire had no choice but to depend upon Barbarian federates to defend it. The bloody civil wars and devastating battles against the Huns and the Vandals in North Africa decimated the Roman army; in 378 the battle of Adrianople alone saw the slaughter of tens of thousands of Roman troops. The fifth century saw Roman troops being withdrawn from the Western Empire, from Britain in 407 for example; when Britain requested imperial assistance in the 410s Honorius was forced to admit that the manpower could not be spared. Even if the men had been available the Western Empire could ill afford to pay them, by ceding land to the Barbarians they would not need any further pay from the imperial coffers. If Barbarian military power had to be relied on it stands to reason that the Roman land grants were favourable to them, by providing a vested Barbarian interest in the land the authorities hoped these new inhabitants would be better inclined to protect it. Athaulf, the Visigothic king, himself claimed in the 410s that his policy was “sustaining the Roman name by the force of Gothic arms,” suggesting that later generations of Barbarians just secured greater reward for performing this service to the Empire. For a time it seemed the scheme was successful, for example the Visigoths under Theodrid fought the Huns for the Romans at the battle of the Catalunian Plains. However as time went on the land that had essentially been delegated to Barbarian rulers became isolated from imperial rule, the formation of Barbarian kingdoms within the frontiers of the empire had begun; Collins argues that the Roman Empire had, in fact, “delegated itself out of existence.”

The Western Empire as a unified entity thus ceased to exist; this does not however necessarily imply however that day to day life in the region was suddenly transformed. In fact there is much evidence to suggest that in the later half of the fifth century into the sixth century there was much continuity. An example of this can be seen in the continued importance attached to the office of magister militum of Gaul, a position held by the Burgundian leaders Gundioc, Chilperic and Gundobad. On Gundobad’s death in 516 his son Sigismund wrote to the Eastern emperor Anastasius asking to take over the position, although it had long since lost its practical meaning. Similarly there is clear evidence for the survival of the traditional values, and even postion, of the senatorial aristocracy. Sidonius’ letter collection shows the continued emphasis placed on a traditional classical education and the class of which he was a member continued to hold top administrative positions such as praetorian prefects. Pontius Leontius continued to be considered “first of the Aquitanians” and kept his family seat despite the contemporary Visigothic occupation. Sidonius’ description of the Gothic King Theoderic implies that the qualities, such as piety and involvement in state affairs, admired in Roman emperors continued to be valued. Despite the Arianism of the incoming Barbarians Catholocism remained the religion of the Roman population, who remained the majority. Indeed the Catholic bishops Caesarius of Arles and Avitus of Vienne worked closely with Barbarian leaders (the Visigoths and Burgundians respectively), never compromising over religion. Wallace-Hadrill proposes that the Barbarians were often absentee landlords of the land they had a share in, explaining the absence of large scale Visigothic remains in Aquitaine, and suggesting how such continuations of the Roman lifestyle were possible.

Again there is much historians have found to contest with such a view; some argue that the literary sources of the later fifth century, like that of Sidonius, serve only to mask the true situation behind rhetoric and literary convention. Wood argues that although there was some continuation, in truth the majority of the fifth century should be considered on its own terms as a “sub-Roman” period of history. For whilst the senatorial aristocracy maintained their values to a large extent, and although some of the middling classes found themselves becoming part of the more varied definition of Roman aristocracy in the later fifth century, the masses of Roman middle class officials disappeared suggesting that, for that section of society, there was much less continuity. Even life for the aristocracy was not as unchanged as it first appears; by the sixth century Gregory of Tours claimed that the “cultivation of liberal letters is declining or rather dying in the cities of Gaul.” Sidonius tells us of Syagrius, a member of his own class who nonetheless had learned to speak Burgundian so well that in his presence “not a barbarian but fears to perpetrate a barbarism in his own language.” Clearly the qualifications needed for a good career were changing, regardless of how much importance the traditional aristocracy continued to place on the gammarians. Similarly although Catholicism remained important its position was not unchallenged, Sidonius wrote: “you may see the rotten roofs of churches fallen in… and this desolation is not found in the country parishes alone; even the congregations of urban churches begin to fall away.” The aristocracy worked hard to maintain the church to prevent the situation getting any worse, something which began to change the values of the aristocracy. Whereas once they would have looked to government for a career, increasingly by the time the Barbarians themselves began to convert to Catholicism they turned to the church, municipal schools being replaced by ecclesiastical and the secular study of law becoming nothing but a memory. By reading between the lines the literary sources provide a picture of a society that, although in many ways continued as it had before the fall of Rome, was starting to change in fundamental ways.

The argument over continuity, or the lack thereof, of Roman traditions and values in the post Roman West leads into the argument over the extent to which resident Barbarians became Romanised and vice versa. Mommsen and Dopsch for example argued that the arrival of large numbers of Barbarian peasants and soldiers led to the Barbarisation of the Romans. Barnish on the other hand argues that the policy of Hospitalitas, which Paulinus of Pella confirms was in operation on a land sharing basis, where the Barbarians lived alongside the Romans, would have led to the Romanisation of the Barbarians. Wallace-Hadrill argued for the separatism of the two groups on the basis of the lack of archaeology finds for the Visigoths in south-western Gaul. Given the ease with which many Romans worked alongside the Barbarians in the later fifth century it seems likely that the two groups did intermingle fairly rapidly and that a fair amount of Romanisation occurred. That is not to say that the process was all one sided; Sidonius, as mentioned earlier, wrote to Syagrius, a Roman fluent in Burgundian. Indeed despite the ideas of Romanitas becoming increasingly bound up with Catholicism something which inevitably excluded the Barbarians, the majority of whom were Arians, Paulinus could write in 459 that “already in our state we see full many prospering through Gothic favour.” New identities were being fostered in the aftermath of the Empire.

In conclusion there is much to be learned from the literary sources about the relations between Romans and Barbarians in the fifth century. Not least how contemporaries chose to record the events; the tragic tales of Salvian and Paulinus contrasting with the later, more optimistic, accounts of Sidonius. There are however limitations to how much we can rely on the literary sources alone for information on the period – the literary evidence of the earlier fifth century suggests that intermarriage and other intermingling between Barbarians and Romans was not the norm, but the archaeological evidence points to this in fact being the case. Perhaps that is one of the most important things to learn from the literary sources: “Barbarian” is a term that encompassed a huge variety of peoples and the literary sources point to vastly different circumstances over time and between localities. In 417 Rutilius Nomatianus would not risk an overland journey to return to his Gallic estates because of the Barbarians, by the 480s Roman nobles such as Syagrius were learning Barbarian languages to find employ with them. The literary sources reveal the complex nature of the contemporary situation and remind us that we cannot just make sweeping generalisations. 


  • The Letters and Poems of Sidonius Apollinaris ed. / tr. (Loeb) by W.B. Anderson: epistolae I 2, 3, 7; II 1; IV 1; V 5-7; VII 6, 9, 12; VIII 2, 3, 6, 9. 
  • The Eucharisticon of Paulinus of Pella at the end of the Loeb Ausonius – Works ed. / tr. Evelyn White. 


  •  Ian Wood ‘The North-Western Provinces’ in Averil Cameron, Bryan Ward-Perkins and Michael Whitby (ed.) The Cambridge Ancient History Volume XIV (Cambridge, 2000) 
  • Roger Collins Early Medieval Europe. Read up to chapter 7. 
  • Ian Wood The Merovingian Kingdoms – chapters one and two. 
  • J. Matthews Western Aristocracies and Imperial Court (1976) – at least chapters 12 and 13.
  • Patrick Wormald ‘The Decline of the Western Empire and the Survival of its Aristocracy’ Journal of Roman Studies LXVI (1976) 
  • E.A. Thompson ‘The Settlement of the Barbarians in Southern Gaul’ Journal of Roman Studies XLVI (1956) 
  • J.M. Wallace-Hadrill ‘Gothia and Romania’ in The Long-Haired Kings (1962) 
  • Walter Goffart ‘Rome, Constantinople, and the Barbarians’ American Historical Review (1981) 
  • Sam Barnish ‘Barbarian Settlement in the Western Empire’ Papers of the British School at Rome 54 (1986)

newerPageTitle olderPageTitle Home