ORB Online Encyclopedia

Overview of Late Antiquity--The Fifth Century

Section 3: The Effect of Barbarian Success

Steven Muhlberger

That Odoacer sent Roman senators to plead his case in Constantinople shows that the rise of barbarian kings did not destroy Roman social structures in the western provinces. Although there was great suffering in the fifth century, in most places the framework of provincial society survived. The very existence of "barbarian kingdoms" depended upon that fact.

The barbarians were a tiny minority in most of the areas where they settled. (In some areas near the old frontiers they were a somewhat more substantial group.) The migrating barbarians had not been entire societies in motion. Rather, they had been mercenary armies, of mixed ethnic origins, looking for a home: a prosperous area whose population could support a resident army. Peoples like the Franks, the Sueves or the Goths did not really consolidate until they were ruled by a single, recognized king who had secured a subject province. Those kings and peoples who did not gain such a foothold quickly disappeared, as we can see in the case of the Rugi. In the 480s their king was trying to establish himself in Noricum (Austria and Bavaria). Odoacer, who was unwilling to allow this development on his borders, invaded Noricum and deported most of the population to Italy. Without a provincial society to parasitize, the Rugian "kingdom" collapsed.

Thus "barbarian kingdoms" were simply Roman provinces under new ownership, and although the provinces may have been severely damaged by war, once the new owners were in control they did their best to preserve the prizes they had won. An exceptional attitude was found among the Vandals. In North Africa, Geiseric had seized the richest province in the west, and confiscated vast estates belonging to the imperial court and important Italian landlords. He therefore felt compelled to run a regime that was aggressive without and very harsh within. Nonetheless the Roman society of North Africa survived. In Britain it did not. A revolt in the 440s of Saxon, Anglian, and Jutish federates against their employers, the British-Roman authorities, fatally wounded the social infrastructure. When the dust cleared in the 490s, southern Britain was divided into British and English zones, each further divided among a number of petty warlords. In neither part of the island did anything resembling Roman Britannia still exist.

More on sub-Roman Britain.

Elsewhere, there was a great deal of continuity. Although their leaders must quickly have acquired land, the barbarians, whose power was based on military force, had to be concerned primarily with fighting or preparation to fight. All the functions of a peaceful society were left to the Romans -- which meant that Roman customs, language, and economic habits predominated in daily life. Even the influence of the civilian Roman aristocracy was largely maintained. Though in some areas, the most privileged class had been dispossessed or killed (not necessarily by barbarians), in others high aristocrats still owned land and held local power. Such men were usually welcome at the new royal courts, too, for kings had need of them to make the wheels of government turn.

A multitude of evidence testifies to this continuity. In Gaul, for instance, we possess the will of Remigius, bishop of Rheims and advisor of the Frankish king Clovis. When Remigius died in the early sixth century, he owned one large estate and fourteen small parcels, which seem to be the fragments of estates split by inheritance. He had about 100 dependents, both slaves and coloni, at his disposal, some domiciled at his main estate, others entrusted with the care of little farms or small vineyards. This is the sort of holding that moderately wealthy men had owned in the fourth- century empire, and such properties evidently still existed in the kingdom of Clovis. The impression is confirmed by the fact that many of the villages (villes) of modern France preserve in their names the identities of major Roman landlords who owned substantial estates (villae) in the fifth century.

The separateness of barbarian and Roman societies the west is emphasized by their religious opposition. In the late fourth century, the Goths had converted to the Arian brand of Christianity, just as Arianism was being suppressed by Theodosius. The Goths stayed loyal to Arianism anyway, and it spread to most other barbarian groups during the fifth century. It was perhaps adopted by them as a way of avoiding the domination of the Roman clergy, or as a point of pride -- barbarians could glory in knowing they had the true version of the faith. Under Geiseric, the persecution of Nicene Christians and the promotion of Arianism became one expedient of a repressive regime. But other kings were unconcerned about enforcing Arianism on their new subjects. The division on sectarian lines was too convenient, for both sides. For the king, Arianism helped shore up the fragile communal identity of his followers, insulating them somewhat from assimilation. For the Romans, it kept the newcomers, who were not really welcome, at arms' length.

ILLUSTRATIONS: Masoleum of Galla Placidia and Grave Goods of Childeric.

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Copyright (C) 1996, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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