===================The Barbarian Invasions (c. AD 300 – c. 550)
The traditional view of the barbarian migrations of Late Antiquity dates back to that of its contemporary writers, who deemed their time as exceptionally grim. Hence also stem the unsubtle metaphors popularly associated with the barbarian invasions and the fall of the Western Roman Empire: ruthless waves of savage Goths, Vandals, Huns and the likes smashed upon the frontiers of the crumbling Roman Empire, which ultimately washed away in a sea of blood, fire and barbarian terror. Such views clearly imply that the transition of Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages was marked by the destruction of a ‘superior’ civilisation by ‘inferior’ ones. This idea has remained very popular even into the modern era.
In truth however, the barbarian migrations of Late Antiquity roughly consist of three different types. The first and most famous one is indeed the wave of invasions into the ailing Roman Empire by barbarian confederations. The second is the gradual, mostly Roman-sanctioned infiltration of the empire’s border regions by barbarian peasant-colonists. In between those two extremes exists a third type, which is a chaotic combination of invasion, infiltration and assimilation, of which a lowest common denominator is the Roman formation of barbarian mercenary armies to combat internal enemies and defend the imperial frontiers against other barbarians.
These three types of migration all had significant precedents in the earlier history of the Roman Empire, especially in the third century AD. The fact that the migrations did not already begin in those days stems from Rome’s stubborn unwillingness to accept huge numbers of barbarian immigrants into the empire, assign them land and allow them de facto
local autonomy. More importantly, the powerful recovery of Roman power at the end of the third century AD allowed the Roman regime to initiate an active policy aimed at keeping barbarians out of the empire. Despite this, barbarian meddling in the Roman world had reached a disquieting level in Late Antiquity, which is attributed to the so-called ‘push-and-pull’ concept.
The most important push-factor behind the growing influx of barbarians into the empire in Late Antiquity was the enormous difference in economical potential (and therefore wealth and prosperity) between the Mediterranean dominion of the Roman Empire and the barbarian world of Northern and Central Europe. On the other side of the Roman frontiers, people profited little from the Roman riches and where profit was to be had, it was very unevenly distributed. This initiated a long process of social polarisation, the emergence of militant barbarian ‘aristocracies’ maintaining ‘private armies’ and often violent disputes between barbarian tribes and confederations. The Romans enthusiastically encouraged such behaviour, rapidly switching alliances and playing their enemies against each other. However, this situation in the long run caused great political unrest in the barbarian world, particularly in the Lower Rhine and Danube regions. In addition to the unquenched desire for Rome’s Mediterranean riches, the gradual militarisation of barbarian tribes eventually helped to increase the pressure upon the Roman frontiers, rather than maintain the status quo in the barbarian world itself.
Secondly, there is the pull-factor which stems from the gradual barbarisation of the Roman military apparatus (and simultaneously its capacity to maintain control over major territories) – an initially deliberate Roman policy which ultimately got completely out of hand. Although Roman commanders had been enlisting barbarian mercenaries (auxilia
) since the days of Gaius Julius Caesar, the barbarisation of the Roman military in Late Antiquity took significant proportions for two reasons. First of all, Rome’s military policy in the north and east was altered at the end of the third century. The empire was no longer defended by the heavily-armed Roman legions, spread out over the entire length of the imperial frontier. Instead, the Romans opted for a distinction between the lightly-armed frontier forces (limitanei
) and the heavily-armed intervention forces (comitatenses
), the latter being stationed in legionary camps far away from the former. The Roman military thus greatly increased its ability to react quickly to major internal and external threats. However, this came at the cost of rendering the empire’s frontiers dangerously vulnerable to unwanted infiltrations, especially by smaller groups of barbarians.
To counter this, the Romans attempted to create buffer zones of barbarian groups, which were given imperial permission to expand their homeland into scarcely populated, demilitarised border regions within the empire. In exchange, the barbarians promised to defend these regions as Roman allies. This policy was carried out on a minor scale until the second half of the fourth century AD. From then onwards, the Roman government was regularly forced to accept major numbers of barbarians into the empire, typically having little other choice now that its military capacity was crumbling. Rome no longer had the power to continuously defend its frontiers against large groups of immigrants, let alone control them once they were allowed into the empire as ‘allies’. The first of these ‘alliances’ (foedera
) was concluded with the Salian Franks (c. AD 350), by which they gained permission to settle in the Betuwe. Nevertheless, they ultimately colonised and annexed all of future Flanders and Brabant, becoming a de facto
independent state within the Western Roman Empire. Such were also the consequences of similar agreements made with many other barbarian groups and sub-tribes – the basis for the barbarian kingdoms that succeeded the Western Roman Empire.
In the end, the foedera
became little more than vulgar mercenary contracts, causing the Romans to lose even their nominal authority over these barbarian ‘subjects’, whom they now owed financial compensation. More importantly, a foedus
(sg.) could henceforth be applied to the entire empire, not just lightly populated frontier zones. The barbarian commanders of these mercenary armies – for such they were – typically attempted to gain a high rank in the Roman military, both to strengthen their prestige amongst their peers and to secure their payment now that the Roman economy in the west was falling apart. A notable example of this is Childerik, father of the Frankish king Clovis: he held the Roman equivalent rank of a general (magister
) and already deemed himself a veritable king (rex
Rome’s growing reliance on the foedera
-system was closely connected to the problems caused by the expansion of the Roman military under Diocletianus (AD 284 – 305). For lack of actual Romans to serve in the army, recruitment of barbarians into the regular Roman legions became a fact. Subsequently, some barbarian officers managed to rise through the ranks, all the way to the Roman high command itself. Indeed, the de facto
power in the Western Roman Empire frequently lay with barbarian generals instead of the emperor, most notably Stilicho the Vandal (c. AD 365 – 408) and Odoacer, who deposed the last Western Roman Emperor (AD 476) and subsequently named himself rex gentium
of the Italian peninsula. Meanwhile in the Eastern Roman Empire, the Alan Aspar held the supreme command over the armies of Constantinople for fourty years (AD 431 – 471).
Antipathy and hostility towards barbarians was a common attitude among the Romans, especially in the East. The civil branch of the Eastern Roman government, in which hardly any barbarians had infiltrated, frequently expressed harsh criticism and opposition towards the barbarisation of its military counterpart. In the most famous example of this, senator Synesius of Cyrene openly scolded the Eastern Roman Emperor Arcadius for using ‘wolves as watchdogs’, advising that the Roman legions be purged of barbarian elements before it was too late.
Indeed such criticism was entirely justified, for the policy of foedera
attracted ever increasing numbers of barbarians into the empire, especially in the west, and as their numbers grew, so did their audacity and use of brute force. At the dawn of the fifth century, there was little left to do for the western empire than to rely on the last of its capable leaders to play the barbarians against each other and at least maintain control over its Italian heartland. Men like Flavius Honorius (AD 384 – 423) and Flavius Aëtius (AD 490 – 454, Ultimus Romanorum
(the Last Roman)) masterfully wielded the divide-and-conquer strategy, allowing the Western Roman Empire to struggle on, though this meant little more than putting off the inevitable. Moreover, continued infighting and the Western Roman leaders’ constant use of two-faced diplomacy caused entire regions to fall into de facto anarchy, making the empire’s disintegration and the barbarian take-over all the easier.© 2012 – 2014 undevicesimus.deviantart.com