- 1 The Late Roman World
- 2 The revival of the empire under Diocletian
- 3 Constantine and the Christian Empire
- 4 The Fall of the Constantinian Dynasty
- 5 The Empire in the Late Fourth Century
- 6 The Visigothic Invasion
- 7 Theodosius the Great
- 8 Civil Wars and the Sack of Rome
- 9 The Visigothic Kingdom of Toulouse
- 10 Free Germany in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages
- 11 The End of Roman Britain
- 12 The Rise of the Franks
- 13 The Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy
The Late Roman World
FOR the first four centuries of the first millennium, the Roman Empire dominated the Mediterranean world. Roman control over the Mediterranean rim dated from the third century B.C., when Spain was conquered in the second Punic War. Through a succession of regional conflicts, Rome came to rule Greece, Asia Minor, the Near East and Egypt. Under Julius Caesar, the legions advanced beyond the Mediterranean basin into the interior of northwestern Europe. By the time that Augustus Caesar was proclaimed Emperor in 27 B.C. the old Etruscan city-state on the Tiber controlled an empire stretching from the Atlantic to Mesopotamia, and from the North Sea to the Sahara. Rome provided a source of both political and cultural unity for the lands surrounding the Mediterranean. Even for peoples who lived beyond its borders, economic and political ties to Rome were of supreme importance.
In the third century, however, the Roman achievement was nearly lost as the Empire slipped into anarchy. After the assassination of Commodus (192) a period of civil war began. His successor, Pertinax, was murdered and the Praetorian guard put the office up for auction. The buyer, Didius Julianus, did not last the year. The African general Septimius Severus (193-211), the legate of Pannonia, marched on Rome with the Danube frontier legions and claimed the purple. Several other generals did the same, and for the next five years, Severus battled his rivals to ensure his succession.
The rulers of the Severan dynasty, and later the so-called “Syrian Empresses” (193-235) tried to increase the emperor’s authority and preserve the unity of the imperium. The result was a military monarchy. State intervention was carried out with ruthless severity. The police apparatus was inflated and opponents of the regime physically annihilated. Severus and his son Caracalla (211-219) enlarged the army from 25 legions, as it had been since the time of Augustus, to 33. Increasingly foreign troops — Germans, Sarmations, Moors and Berbers — were recruited. The Constitutio Antoniana, issued by Caracalla in 213, accorded full Roman citizenship to all free citizens, largely as a means of increasing tax revenue and providing more troops. While such measures certainly ensured a degree of internal and external security, the Severan monetary policy of debasing the currency to ensure that the state could pay its expanded army had dire consequences for future generations.
The Severan rulers expanded the scope and significance of the Imperial cult beyond all previous conventions. Caracalla had originally be forced to share power with his brother Geta. Geta, however, was murdered on Caracalla’s orders on the flimsy pretext that he had plotted rebellion. Herodian’s report of Caracalla’s speech to the Senate gives a keen insight into his understanding of imperial authority. He began by excusing his action, recognizing “the odium which attaches immediately to the news of any family murder.” People are naturally prone to sympathize with the victim. “But,” he continues, “if one approaches the deed with a fair ming .. and investigates the fundamental cause of the action, one discovered that it is logically necessary for a person who would be harmed to defend himself and not remain passive.” He then explains how Geta had attacked him with a sword, forcing Caracalla to treat his brother as an outlaw. In this case, he argues, he is like Romulus, dealing with Remus, who had mocked his endeavors, along with other examples of emperors beset by plots from their brothers. He concludes by saying
Enemy is the name he deserves as a result of his actions. It is your task first to give thanks to the gods that at least one of your emperors was saved by them; next you must put an end to sectarian feelings and partisan opinions and live an untroubled life looking to a single emperor. Jupiter created imperial power for a sole ruler among mankind on the model of his own position among the gods.
Caracalla’s argument, then, is that only one emperor can rule on earth, just as only one god, Jove, is supreme in heaven. This movement towards monotheism, and hence to require that autocracy in heaven ought to be paralleled by imperial autocracy on earth, marks a new direction in Roman political and religious thought.
In 219 Caracalla was assassinated on the order of the Praetorian Prefect, Macrinus, who was subsequently proclaimed emperor. Caracalla’s aunt, Julia Maesa, then staged a revolt, claiming to represent Caracalla’s illegitimate son, Bassianus. Macrinus was murdered and the boy Bassianus assumed the purple, taking the name Elagabalus after the Syrian deity Baal. Julia Maesa soon lost control over him, and Elagabalus came to represent the worst aspects of the monarchy. He kept a meteorite which he worshiped, had his chariot pulled by twelve-year-old girls, and even sponsored a search for the most well-endowed man in the empire, for whom a triumph was held in Rome. Elagabalus’ proclamation that he was a god, combined with his unRoman sexual perversity angered the army. Consequently he was killed and replaced by his cousin, Julia Maesa’s grandson, Severus Alexander. Shortly after his accession in 222, Julia Maesa died, leaving her daughter Julia Mamaea as regent for her son. So long as there was peace, the last of the Syrian Empresses was able to hold the Empire together. But when Severus tried to resolve troubles in Germany and Syria through diplomacy, the army grew restive. Desiring to fight, Severus’ own troops killed him in 235. Throughout this period, real power lay in the hands of the “Syrian Empresses,” women of the imperial household, and the Praetorian guard.
From the death of the last Severan ruler in 235 until 285, a series of 26 men held, more or less legitimately, the title of emperor. Only one of these, Claudius Gothicus, died a natural death. Decius was killed fighting the Goths in 251, and Valerian was captured by the Persians in 260, remaining in captivity as a footstool for the Persian king until his death. Splinter empires sprang up in Gaul and Britain (260-280) and in the East (267-270). These “Soldier Emperors” spent their energy fighting civil wars while both the frontier defenses decayed and the civil administration atrophied.
During this unstable period, Rome was faced with a series of invasions. The first threat came from the East. In Parthia, a new dynasty, the Sassanids, sparked a revival of Persian civilization and introduced a new religion, Zoroastrianism, which gave a crusading spirit to their expansionist policies. Meanwhile, the Germanic tribes of the Rhine and Danube merged into larger confederations. Two of these new confederations, the Alamanni and Juthungi, invaded Gaul and Italy in 271. Other important confederations that appeared in this period were the Franks on the lower Rhine, the Goths on the Danube and Black Sea, and the Saxons and Frisians on the North Sea. Many of these groups took up sea-raiding. The Franks raided extensively along the Channel coast and in 267 the Goths sacked Athens. Between 245 and 270 every frontier of the Empire collapsed.
The impact of these invasions and the political instability of the Empire was a transformation of the social and economic structures of the Roman world. The creation of the Roman empire and maintenance of the Pax Romana rested largely on the skillful exploitation of riches. The wealth of the inner periphery was used to support both the core, the urban center, and the military frontiers. Conquest ensured a steady flow of slave labor which worked Latifundia, vast estates owned by members of the urban aristocracies. The apparent wealth of the Empire, however, was deceptive. There was a distinct lack of balance in the economy. The cities, as centers of civil or military administration, were for the most part older settlements, urbanized and Romanized. The provincial cities, on the other hand, were parasitic. They contributed nothing to the economy except as consumers of agricultural produce and as centers of regional distribution networks. The consumers were, nearly without exception, either military garrisons or curiales, local imperial civil servants. The state, in other words, was necessary both to drive the economy through demand, and to maintain an internal balance of trade by regulating prices, enforcing production, and ensuring that goods would circulate and be available to non-producers. As soon as the state system broke down, the entire economy came to a grinding halt.
There were other structural problems which came to the fore during the third century. By the end of the second century A.D., the wars of conquest had ended; hence the seemingly endless supplies of slave labor as well as bullion, acquired as booty, no longer flooded into the Empire. Rather, by the third century depopulation, disruption caused by invasions, plagues, and general declines in fertility had resulted in a demographic collapse. This revealed how wasteful and inefficient the entire Latifundia system had been. Free access to labor had hindered technological sophistication in farming and industry, so the labor shortage contributed to a serious decline in production. Continued devaluation of currency, brought on by military expansion and the now finite supply of precious metals, led to rapid inflation. Finally, as the political and military system collapsed, regions became more insular. Localism prevailed; the empire receded in importance.
These concerns came together in the formation of both new power elites and public discontent in the provinces. In Gaul the latter manifested itself in a series of peasant uprisings, the revolts of the Bagaudae, which were endemic between 250 and 450 AD. Within Gaul small local tyrannies arose during the third century, becoming the basis for a new form of political organization. A new class of rulers, the potentes, emerged. These were men who profited from the military anarchy. Free holders and freedmen sought the protection of the potentes. In this way small, free communities (vici) were incorporated into larger estates (villae). It has been argued that the formation of the splinter empire in Gaul in the 260s marks a confederation of potentes against the soldier emperors. In this view, the bagaudae become farmers who rallied around local leaders who could protect them both from barbarian invasions, such as that by the Alamanni in the early 260’s, and from ravenous tax officials, curiales sent out from the cities to collect even more of the diminishing wealth of the hinterland. Later Christian tradition makes some of the Bagaudae out as martyrs, resisting the persecutions so prevalent during the Severan period. In popular legends, they emerge as third-century precursors of Robin Hood, resisting tyranny as populist leaders. All in all, these revolts reveal that the Empire of the Severans and their successors became, in the eyes of local communities, as much of a threat to peace and economic security as the barbarians.
The revival of the empire under Diocletian
THE capture of Valerian by Shapur I in 260 marked the low point of Roman fortunes. Over the next three decades, however, stability was gradually restored. Valerian’s son Gallienus (260-268) was criticized by contemporaries for not trying to rescue his father, but he realized that the army was in no position to take on the Sassanian Empire. Gallienus’ main contribution was to reorganize the army, creating a strategic reserve which would support the movements of a large mobile field army. This “New Model Army” was primarily made up of cavalry, including some heavy armored unites known as Cataphracti. Thanks in large part to Gallienus’ military reforms, his successors proved much more effective in the field. Claudius II defeated both the Alamanni and Goths, receiving for the latter victory the sobriquet “Gothicus.” Aurelian (270-275) was able to suppress the splinter empires in Gaul and Palmyra, as well as drive the Alamanni back across the Rhine once and for all.
After these victories, Aurelian restored the imperial cult. Since the death of Severus Alexander, the emperor cult had decayed, largely because older Roman customs, in particular the traditional Republican suspicion towards autocracy, had made devotion to the emperor contingent on the merits of the particular ruler. The emperors of the mid-third century had little to recommend them as gods, hence the old cult collapsed. The new cult, as resurrected by Aurelian, portrayed the emperor as the earthly representative of a supreme god, in this case Sol Invictis — the unconquerable sun. Aurelian saw Sol as the supreme god, with whom he had a special relationship. Sol would communicate to him through visions, and it was Aurelian’s duty as emperor to see to it that the order of the world conformed to divine will. This idea that the emperor ex officio enjoyed a special relationship with a single supreme deity made possible the acceptance of even greater autocracy than would have been tolerable in Augustus’ day, or even a century later.
In 284 a common soldier from Pannonia, Diocletian, was proclaimed emperor by his troops. The son of a freedman, Diocletian had risen through the ranks to become a regional field commander. He resolved the civil wars, reorganized the administration of the empire, and established a new mode of succession. Under his scheme, a tetrarchy was established. Four rulers shared the duties of administering and defending the Empire. The Empire was formally divided into two halves, an Eastern and Western Empire, each ruled by an Augustus. Each Augustus appointed an assistant, given the title of Caesar, who would marry his daughter and succeed him. This combined both the principles of adoptive succession with hereditary rule. Through this system, Diocletian hoped to ensure stable succession and hence effective government.
While Diocletian rejected Aurelian’s identification with Sol Invictis, he did cloak his reforms in religious symbolism. Rather than identify with a new deity, Diocletian associated himself with Jupiter. His relationship with his co-Augustus was likened to that between Jupiter and Hercules: one was born god while the other was made god. Still, Diocletian made little attempt to reform the religion in Rome generally. His persecutions of Manicheans and Christians was more a product of political concerns — foreign policy in the first case, and the collapse of his fiscal reforms in the second — than an expression of deep and abiding pietas.
Under the tetrarchy, the number of provinces increase, but these were grouped into larger units called dioceses. Originally there were twelve of them, mostly located in the East. There was no fixed capital, rather the Emperor lived at various residence cities chosen for their strategic importance. These included Nicomedia and Thessalonika in Greece, Trier on the German frontier, and Milan and Ravenna in Italy. Rome retained a special place in the West, but increasingly Ravenna and Milan replaced it as an administrative center.
The Empire that emerged in the fourth century was very different from that of the past. In particular in the west, the entire shape of Roman civilization underwent a distinct change. The first characteristic of the new empire was that it was fortified. Under earlier regimes, the defenses were concentrated along the borders, while the cities of the interior typically had no defenses. After Diocletian, the old cities became fortified towns with massive walls, often constructed from the rubble of the old suburbs. This had begun during the late third century when Rome was fortified. Sixty cities in Gaul were destroyed by the Alamanni in 276, and those not abandoned were fortified in the fourth century. But these new cities were much smaller. In the late third century, Autun had a small wall 5,922 meters in length. The walls built around 300 were only 1,300 meters in length. Likewise, whereas the old defensive perimeter at Nîmes was 6,200 meters long, the fourth century walls were 2,300 meters in length. In some regions, Iron Age hill forts were reoccupied. Villas and granaries were fortified as well.
To correct the labor shortage, the imperial estates replaced slaves with serfs, coloni. Although personally free, the coloni were tied to the land through taxes and rents. They could be sold with the property and were forbidden from leaving their village on pain of death. Diocletian reformed the coinage and promulgated the Edict of Maximum prices in 301, an attempt to stop inflation through price controls. The measure did not work, and inflation continued apace. Nonetheless, Diocletian’s agrarian reforms laid the basis for the social system of the Middle Ages:
It cannot be denied that the late Empire struck new ground, and that the entire economy of the early Middle Ages was conditioned by the grandiose and often unduly maligned schemes of restoration achieved by the fourth-century emperors … the debris of the structure erected in the Late Empire provided the most substantial material for future reconstruction.
Constantine and the Christian Empire
DIOCLETIAN’S tetrarchy broke down almost immediately after his abdication. By 309 civil war had again broken out. The victor was Constantine, the son of Diocletian’s Caesar, Constantius. Constantine the Great was born in Naissus, now Niš in modern Serbia, 17 February 290. His mother, Helena, had been a barmaid, and his father was of peasant origin. Constantine’s first task as a usurper was to defeat his rival for control of the west, Maxentius. Maxentius had been co-Augustus with Diocletian, but had refused to retire. As his army prepared for battle, Constantine is said to have had a vision of the cross superimposed on the sun, and the legend Hoc Signo Vince (In This Sign Conquer) in the clouds. He ordered his troops to paint the Chi-Rho symbol, the first two letters in the Greek word for Christ. At the battle of Milvian bridge, Maxentius’ troops broke at the first charge and were slaughtered as they tried to retreat across the river. The pontoon bridge they were crossing collapsed. Maxentius himself was drowned. This victory was followed by Constantine’s conversion to Christianity and marked the beginning of a new age.
In Rome, Constantine was proclaimed Augustus by the Senate and forthwith showered gifts on the Church. In 313 he promulgated the Edict of Milan which provided for official recognition and toleration of Christianity. This was a dramatic turn of events. Previously Christianity had been an outlawed religion. Under Diocletian the Great Persecution had occurred — the largest single persecution of Christians in the Empire’s history. But by the third century, Christianity was no longer the religion of slaves. It had developed a sophisticated system of administration, presided over by urban bishops, and had won over many of the upper classes, particularly in the East. Constantine was, to a certain extent, co-opting a growing elite through this recognition of Christianity.
The origins of Christianity have been dealt with earlier, but the strong traditions of martyrdom in the early church must be kept in mind. The church fathers were thrust into a rather awkward position when imperial persecution was replaced with lavish patronage. Constantine seized the Lateran, site of the barracks of the horse guards who had opposed him, and gave the neighboring palace to the Bishop of Rome as a residence. Churches were built and imperial estates given over for their support. Constantine’s conversion, then, produced a new set of problems which the church needed to address.
The most pressing questions concerned the status of Christians who had given up their beliefs during the Diocletianic persecutions. The Donatist argued that priests and bishops who had apostatized ought to be permanently excommunicated, cut off from those who could receive the sacraments and be counted as members of the church. During the persecutions, other heresies had emerged, including Arianism. To restore unity to the church, Constantine opened the Council of Nicaea. The Council decreed that Donatism was a heresy, and that the personal salvation of believers could not be compromised by the sins of the clergy. Arianism was also condemned, but despite the decrees of the Council, the Arian heresy remained prominent, being accepted by Germanic peoples and some fourth century Emperors. Among those in attendance was bishop Ulfilas, who later translated the Bible into Gothic and converted the Goths to Christianity. The Council of Nicaea also determined which parts of the Bible were canonical, reinforced a hierarchical church administration, and adopted a common confession of faith, the Nicene Creed. Finally, through his leadership of the council, Constantine established himself, and by extension all emperors, as the defender of orthodoxy and both the secular and spiritual head of Christendom.
Constantine’s conversion to Christianity strengthened the imperial office by bringing to fruition the transformation of the imperial cult begun by Aurelian. Constantine referred to himself as “bishop,” indicating that he took upon himself a leadership role in the Christian oikemene. As supreme bishop of the one God, Constantine assumed even greater theoretical power than Aurelian’s Sol or Diocletian’s Jupiter could follow. The reason lies in the distinction between traditional polytheism and the new religion:
When Constantine became a Christian he created a golden opportunity to unite a wholeheartedly universalist religion and its abundance of scriptural authority and missionary impetus with an empire’s forces of political, military, and economic expansion in order to create a genuine world empire.
In the hands of the Roman Emperor, Christ’s commission to his followers to “make disciples of all nations … teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew xxviii: 19a, 20) thus provided the justification for uninhibited imperial autocracy.
Constantine’s acceptance of Christianity was followed by the creation of a new capital, a Christian Rome to replace the former pagan city. The old Greek city of Byzantium on the Bosphoros was renamed Constantinople. This name commemorates Constantine’s victory over his last great rival, his co-Augustus Licinius. Licinius rejected Christianity in 323 and enlisted Goths and other Germanic warriors in his effort to dethrone the Christian emperor. Constantine’s army, led by the Frankish general Bonitus, defeated Licinius and captured his capital city, Byzantium. The new city of Constantinople was officially founded there in 324.
The major significance was the transferral of imperial authority back to the East. The weight of the Roman world now shifted to a new center. The Patriarchate of Constantinople now became the focus of eastern Christianity. Nicaea, the site of the great Council, was a suburb of Constantinople. The move of the imperial capital to Constantinople led to a rapid collapse of imperial power in the West, an event not unforeseen by contemporaries. The fourth century Christian author Lactantius wrote “all justice will be confounded and the laws will be destroyed. No one will then have anything except that which has been gained or defended by the hand: boldness and violence will possess all things.” The reason for these things was, to Lactantius, quite clear:
And — my mind dreads to related it, but I will relate it, because it is about to happen — the cause of this desolation and confusion will be this; because the Roman name, by which the world is now ruled, will be taken away from the earth, and the government return to Asia; and the East will again bear rule and the West be reduced to servitude.
In the West, the imperial presence rapidly diminished. Regional capitals, such as Trier in Germany and Milan in Italy, were essentially garrison towns. In the early part of Constantine’s reign, these Western administrative centers experienced a brief revival; however, in general, the recovery of the west, which had always been poorer, was crippled by a general shift of the state, its officials, mints, and army to the East. Western mints began to shut down, and the roads and military installations decayed with a corresponding decline in dependent industries. Moreover, the sudden reemergence of imperial power in the West was as disruptive as it was beneficial. In most of the interior Gaul, Spain, Britain, and to some extent the Balkans, political power was shifting away from urban centers to the countryside. Peasants and townsmen fled from the fiscal oppression of the curiales to place themselves under the protection of the potentates. Imperial patronage gave some of these potentates official recognition of their authority, condemned others as criminals, but by and large had few positive effects on the reorganization of society in the West. The distinction between legitimate authority and “banditry” became blurred. The most dangerous aspect of Constantine’s short-lived revival of the Empire in the West was to call into question notions of order which had developed during the invasions of the third century, just at a time when the Empire was on the verge of even more devastating attacks from the peoples across the Rhine and Danube.
The increased localization of authority can be seen as well in the reorganization of the army. By the third century, the legions had become fixed elements within provincial society. Small legionary camps provided a suitable defense against small scale barbarian raids but were unable to prevent the larger confederations which emerged in the third century from breaching the frontier defenses. Once inside the Empire, the network of roads allowed invading armies to move rapidly into the interior. Under Diocletian and Constantine, the old legions were combined into a mobile field army, the comitatus, and Palatine guards attached to the person of the emperor. Local defenses were left to the limitanei, civilian militias led by local elites. Small groups of barbarians, sometimes constituting entire villages, were settled as laeti, peasant farmers who provided military service in return for land. The net result of these changes was that particularism increased as local communities became responsible for their own defense. The shadowy presence of the Empire remained manifest only with the comitatus, and when these large field armies were destroyed, disbanded or replaced by armies of Germanic mercenaries, the imperial presence became meaningless. In other words, the Empire did not “fall” in the tradition sense, but for many of its citizens it simply became irrelevant at best, a burden at worst.
The Fall of the Constantinian Dynasty
CONSTANTINE died on May 22, 337. Troops rioted and killed many members of the imperial family. After order was restored, the Empire was divided between Constantine’s remaining sons: Constantius II, Constans, and Constantine II. Constantine II and Constans almost immediately became embroiled in a civil war over control of the west. Despite holding Spain, Gaul, and Britain, Constantine was defeated by his brother and killed in 340. Ten years later Constans was murdered in his bed by Magnentius, the governor of Raetia and son of a Frankish mother, who promptly assumed the imperial purple.
Constantius II (337-361) now was the only remaining ruler of the Constantinian house. He was faced with revolts in Antioch and with the usurpation of Magnentius in the west. Gallus Caesar was dispatched to Antioch to deal with affairs there while Constantius marched west. Magnentius was defeated and committed suicide in 353, but the situation in the east soon got out of hand. Gallus had quelled the rebellion but staged a series of brutal treason trials which severely prejudiced the emperor’s image. Constantius returned to Antioch, executed Gallus for treason, and then prepared for a war with the Parthians. He appointed his younger brother Julian as Caesar in Gaul. Julian successfully dealt with a revolt and an Alamannic incursion, but was frustrated in both cases by limits on his administrative power. Simply put, Constantius wanted his brother to solve the problems of the west, but would not give him authority to do so. Hence, in 360, Julian declared himself emperor, provoking a new round of civil wars.
Julian’s usurpation revealed a significant weakness in the late Roman Empire. The depopulation and impoverishment of the third century made it increasingly difficult to raise sufficient troops or tax revenues. Moreover, the increasing rigor of imperial autocracy severely limited individual officials form for maneuver. These two issues helped to foster a wave or usurpations in the fourth and fifth centuries. As one historian has noted:
In the context of recent history, the sequence of usurpations in the western provinces had established a pattern that might well be repeated. Nothing in the background — Germanic aggression and the need, on the Roman side, for large armed forces, freedom of action among their commanders, and sufficient authority in their lands to conduct recruitment, raise finances and negotiate settlements — none of this had changed, and it remained impossible to guarantee that generals who were granted such powers would, or could, be content with them.
The ability to recruit troops and to provide for their physical needs became an essential prerequisite to imperial power. As Ammianus Marcellinus tells us, Julian was raised aloft by his troops on an infantry shield and proclaimed Augustus. The symbolism of this act is very pointed, for shield-raising was the traditional Germanic way of proclaiming a king.
The Civil War of 360-61 was rather uneventful, mostly because both Julian and Constantius II were bogged down in frontier disputes; Julian with the Franks and Constantius with the Persians. In October 361 Constantius II died of fever in the east, and Julian quickly made his way to Constantinople. From there he continued onward towards Antioch and prepared to embark on a new campaign against the Persians.
Both Constantius II and Julian clung to religious views that were not at all in keeping with the legacy of Constantine the Great. Constantius II became an Arian, even though the council of Nicaea had condemned Arianism as a heresy, and tried to impose it on the rest of the church. Julian went further still and rejected Christianity altogether. Julian’s religious views are hard to get a handle on. Certainly Ammianus Marcellinus, who otherwise adored Julian, considered his beliefs a serious shortcoming. Ammianus claimed that Julian was “superstitious rather than a legitimate observer of divine matters” (supersitione magis quam sacrorum legitimus observator). His beliefs approached those of the Gnostics and Neoplatonists in that he sought a means of freeing the soul from its imprisonment in the mortal body, so that it could be reunited with the divine essence from whence it had emanated. But unlike the Gnostics, Julian did not believe that human reason or knowledge could make this possible. The purification of the soul could only be accomplished through magic. God can only be known through “analogies,” or symbols. Magic involved the manipulation of symbols, according to the “sympathies” between physical objects and their analogous forms. It is not surprising that Julian looked upon Christians as naive and unlettered. He dismissed them from offices and bade them go to their churches “and expound on Matthew and Luke.”
Julian’s Persian campaign of 363 was intended to restore Roman control over the upper Tigris-Euphrates valley, but beyond that, it appears not to have had any specific aims. His main objective, it would seem, was to emulate the conquests of Trajan, and to that effect he laid siege to the Persian capital at Ctesiphon. The siege was a failure, and the retreat proved a disaster. The Persians had destroyed crops leaving little for the Romans to forage. Persian heavy cavalry (cataphracti) and elephants struck repeatedly at the Romans’ flanks. While repulsing one assault, Julian was struck by a spear that passed through his ribs and lodged in his liver. He died a few days later; his pagan reaction died with him.
The Empire in the Late Fourth Century
JULIAN the Apostate’s death led to a succession crisis in the Empire. His troops chose Jovian (363-364), a member of his staff and the son of a well-respected general, as emperor. Jovian quickly — “hastily” according to Ammianus — negotiated a treaty with the Persians, turning over a number of border territories. Such actions, while ensuring thirty years of peace, did not endear him to his troops. Jovian appointed Valentinian to command the main body of his army and then began his march to Constantinople. Along the way, Jovian died of Carbon Monoxide poisoning from a charcoal brazier in his room. When news came of Jovian’s death, the troops elected Valentinian as emperor.
Valentinian I (364-375) was a common soldier from Pannonia who, like Diocletian, had risen through the ranks. He appointed his younger brother Valens to rule in the East. Both were firm Christians, and under them Christianity became the official religion of the Empire. Valentinian burst a blood vessel during a heated argument with a Quadic ambassador in 375. He was succeeded by his son Gratian in the West, while Valens continued to rule in the East until 378.
Valentinian and Valens were faced with two revolts in 365. A local commander in Britain rose up while the Alamanni, this time in conjunction with Saxons and Franks, raided Gaul. A Spanish general, Theodosius, took command of the situation and crushed the rebels and the barbarians. In the east Procopius, the last surviving member of the Constantinian house, declared himself emperor. He took command of two legions that Valens had dispatched to the Danube to repel a Gothic incursion and marched on Constantinople. Meanwhile he sent word to the Goths asking them to honor treaties they had made with his ancestors and support his offensive. Procopius was quickly defeated, however, and the 3,000 Goths that had rallied to his cause surrendered.
The defeated barbarian forces in both east and west were allowed to remain in the empire. They were resettled, as laeti in the west and as part of frontier garrisons in the east. This marked an extension of the Roman policy of receptio. Rome would “receive” barbarians who would assume the status of dediticii, those who had given themselves over to Roman protection. Although free, they could not make wills or become citizens. Dediticii is not a military term, but military units were raised from barbarians who had entered the Empire with this status. The practice of receptio goes back to the tetrarchy: one of the first representations of receptio is from a large medallion found at Lyon, depicting the reception of a group of Franks into the Empire by Maximinus and Constantius I Chlorus. By Valentinian’s time, it was an established practice, and constituted one of the ways that Rome both dealt with barbarians and obtained recruits for her armies.
During Valentinian’s reign, the divisions between the senatorial and military hierarchies deepened. The senatorial classes, barred from most public offices, began to pursue careers in the Church. Hence two separate forms of governance, the army and the Church, stood side by side within the Empire, and bishops gradually assumed many of the duties previously assigned to civilian officials of the Republic and Principate. As a single example, the old Roman title of Pontifex Maximus, supreme bridge-builder, devolved upon the Bishops of Rome, and with it not only the sacral function of high priest, but also responsibilities for public works.
In the provinces, we can see a marked decline of urban life. Along the Roman frontier towns were established around major military bases, and grew on account of the vibrant economy of the frontier. Two engines drove that economy. On the one hand, Roman taxation and the redistribution of those taxes to soldiers and administrators in the frontier towns ensured a constant influx of wealth. As officials and soldiers spent their pay, this contributed to the strength of local markets. In smaller garrison towns along the frontier and in the interior, this process helped not only to foster the growth of new markets, but to tie existing ones into a larger trade network. The second driving force was provided by the Germans. Roman markets sought goods from across the border, and Germans sought goods and services available within the empire. As Roman currency and goods passed into Germany, this invigorated local economies and integrated them into the Roman economic system. This was accelerated by the recruitment of Germans into the army, and the settlement of Germans behind the frontier.
By the fourth century, the limes did not mark the end of civilization, but neatly bisected a distinctive frontier area. Germans could be found on either side of the limes, mostly with good relations to Rome; Roman goods and Roman currency were in demand on both sides of the border. But during the fourth century this system broke down. Taxation far exceeded what locals could pay. Garrisons were removed and replaced by laeti or limitanei. Such local militias did not have ready cash to spend, and markets that had previously depended on the redistribution of tax revenues collapsed. By the end of the century, the frontier had a marked agrarian character.
As many of the lives of early medieval saints reveal, bishops were key to maintaining older patterns of life in the face of the disruption of the Roman social and economic system. St. Didier of Cahors in France organized grain storage facilities. St. Remigius ordered the construction of fortified granaries. St. Hilary educated townspeople in agricultural techniques. Bishops assumed responsibility for negotiating with barbarians and providing food for the population. All in all, by the end of the fifth century, bishops and the Church as a whole remained the only link to Roman government and culture, however altered in aims and appearances for most of the West. Therefore it would come as little surprise that the Bishop of Rome should eventually emerge as the focus of the religious life of the West, as the Roman Empire had been its political focus.
One of the leading figures in the late fourth century church was St. Martin, Bishop of Tours in Gaul. Martin had been a soldier who left the army after a miraculous encounter on the road. He met a beggar who asked for Martin to share his cloak. Martin took his cape and cut it in half, giving part to the beggar. That night, it was revealed to Martin in a dream that the beggar had been, in fact, Christ himself. Upon awakening, Martin discovered that his cloak had been restored to its original condition. Martin was a rationalist, as well as a tireless reformer. From his perspective, Christianity provided a model for renewing and redirecting traditional ideas of authority onto the church. He opposed bishops and churchmen too willing to reach accommodation with worldly civil authorities. For Martin, service in the church was military service, and one could not serve both God and the secular civil and military rulers. In fact, Martin felt that the bishops ought not work with civilian leaders but assume the functions of magistrate in their own right. The ethos of Christian doctrine should replace pagan political ideas in the organization of government. A contemporary Gallic bishop, Germanus of Auxerre, even went so far as to prohibit the execution of imperial decrees in order to protect his flock from exploitation.
A fifth century Gallic Christian, Salvian, wrote a treatise on government, De Gubernitate Dei, in which he compared the lot of Romans under the barbarians with that of their compatriots still living in areas under Roman control. He saw the existing Roman government as cruel and tyrannical, arguing that despite their obvious flaws, the barbarians were better Christians. Salvian represented the Bagaudae as resisting the efforts of Roman administrators to reduce them to the level of barbarians. In this sense, the conquest — or better to say, the occupation — of Gaul by the Visigoths, Burgundians, and Franks allowed the preservation of Roman culture by local communities at a time when Imperial officials were destroying culture by destabilizing local power structures and reducing the population to penury.
It is perhaps significant that both Valentinian I and St. Martin were, like Constantine and Diocletian before them, Pannonians. As provincials, living in a region far removed from the urban civilization of the city of Rome along one of the more active frontiers, these men held a different vision of what the Empire signified than had the leaders of the first and second centuries. For these men Rome was a world, not a city. Hence, while at times they might have seemed to have been dismantling institutions that heretofore had been Roman, it was their intention to reform the Empire and make it conform to their understanding of what Romanitas really meant. The result was a transformation of the Roman world in the late fourth century. By the fifth century, Roman society and culture had changed markedly.
The Visigothic Invasion
AMONG the more common myths concerning the late Empire is that it was destroyed through the actions of successive “waves” of invasions by the barbarian hordes. An alternative view, voiced by many German historians, is that this time constituted a great age of migrations, the Völkerwanderungszeit. Neither view is particularly accurate. The “hordes” were not terribly large, comprising at most several thousands of people. Moreover, most of these were soldiers rather than settlers. In many cases the barbarians were invited into the Empire to serve as troops, following the longstanding practice of receptio. That the barbarians settled down and created their own kingdoms says more about the collapse of central authority in the provinces than it does about conquest. Increasingly historians have been more apt to point out the incredible continuities between the pre- and post-invasion world. The barbarians tended to settle in areas that had been depopulated in the third century. Many were already Christian by the time they entered the Empire, and owing to traditions of military service, as well as trade links, the cultural gulf between Germanic “barbarians” and provincial “Romans” was not so great as one might at first suspect. All in all, we must be very careful to neither romanticize nor over-vilify the “barbarians.” The age of invasions was a profound period of transformation and adjustment, not simply or even predominantly one of destruction.
The movements of the Germanic tribes in the fourth century was precipitated by a severe crisis in the borderlands of Europe and Asia. A new group of peoples from the steppes, the Huns, attacked the Germanic and Slavic tribes in the pontic region, driving some of them towards the Empire. The first Germanic people to suffer at the hands of the Huns were the Goths. The Goths had migrated from the Baltic to the Black Sea where one group, the Ostrogoths, established a kingdom centered in present-day Ukraine. The Visigoths settled on the lower Danube just opposite the Eastern Roman empire. The Hunnic invasions shattered their society, driving the Visigoths to seek refuge in the Empire in 376. The Ostrogoths were defeated by the Huns, and their king, Ermanaric, chose to fall on his sword rather than lead his people into captivity. The Ostrogoths were subsumed into the Hunnic confederation along with other Germanic, Iranian, and Slavic peoples.
The Visigoths do not appear to have shared the same penchant for central organization as their eastern neighbors, and lived under a number of sub-tribal leaders (reiks) in a loose confederation. Unity, of a sort, was provided by Roman pressure. After the defeat of Procopius, Valens began to harass the Goths beyond the Danube, in part to secure the old frontier in Dacia, abandoned during the third century. In response, the Visigoths elected a king (thiudans) to deal with the Roman attacks. In 368 the thiudans Athanaric made a treaty with the Romans in a boat moored in the Danube. Both sides agreed to respect the Danube as the frontier, but there is a suggestion that the Goths were prohibited from using the river for transport.
After the crisis of 376, the Visigoths rejected Athanaric and chose a new thiudans, Alavivus. Alavivus sought receptio from Valens, and was permitted by Valens to cross the river, provided that he accept Arian Christianity as part of the deal. The Romans planned on settling the Goths as dediticii under their own reiks in billets in and around major cities in the interior, to shore up the strategic reserve in the Balkans. But the system broke down when perhaps as many as 60,000 Goths tried to cross the river. Frontier garrisons could not mobilize sufficient resources to feed and house such a multitude. Tensions mounted as the supplies promised the Visigoths never materialized. Famine set in, and unscrupulous administrators were forcing the starving Goths to trade their children for dogs to eat.
The Roman commander, Lipicinus, did what he could to speed the transshipment of Goths, but by the end of the summer a rebellion was clearly brewing. To forestall a revolt, Lipicinus tried a devise that had worked well against the Quadi a few years earlier. He invited the Gothic reiks to a banquet and then had them assassinated. Alavivus fell, but at least one of the nobles escaped. This was Fritigern, who rounded up as many Visigoths as he could find and then hid in the southern Balkan mountains. North of the mountains, the remaining Visigoths rose in revolt following the death of their leader. Valens called to his nephew Gratian for assistance, and he sent his cavalry commander Richomeres to help shore up the defense of the Balkans. The Romans were able to hold the passes, and this kept Fritigern’s Goths separate from those further north. Richomeres then began to systematically reduce the Gothic pockets, resettling the defeated Goths as coloni.
In 377 Richomeres was recalled to the west, and his successor, Saturninus, misjudged the situation. He removed the garrisons in the passes, apparently fearing that they could not withhold a Gothic attack. This allowed Fritigern to unite his forces with the remaining Visigoths north of the Balkan range. In early 378 Saturninus and his new adjutant, Sebastianus, returned to the policy of containment. The defeat of Fritigern’s advance guard led to more vigorous Roman resistance. Gothic groups were isolated by Sebastianus’ raids. It was said that no Goth could sleep with his horsemen around, and they did much for Roman morale when they would return to Constantinople, Gothic heads decorating their saddles. By the summer of 378, Saturninus and Sebastianus had made it nearly impossible for the Goths to leave their fortified camps and forage. Soon they would be starved into submission.
Valens looked on this situation with dismay. He wished to emulate the military successes of his nephew in the west and in August decided to move against the Visigoths himself. Fritigern sent an embassy to Valens, offering to surrender, but the emperor would not offer receptio to the Goths until he had defeated them in battle. Valens’ hubris cost him dearly. On a hot, dusty August 9, 378, the armies of Fritigern and Valens met. At the battle of Adrianople in 378, the Visigothic army annihilated the Imperial comitatus. Valens was killed, and the entire east left open to attack. Ammianus compared this defeat with Decius’ loss to the Goths in 251 and the debacle of Cannae six centuries earlier.
Theodosius the Great
AS sole remaining Emperor, Gratian appointed a new ruler for the East, the Spanish cavalry general Theodosius (378-395). In 379 Gratian took up positions in the Julian Alps while Theodosius launched an attack on the Goths in Pannonia from Thessalonika. He splintered the barbarian forces. Some reiks surrendered to him and were recruited with their followers into the Theodosius’ army. Others fled beyond the Danube and began to raid the remnants of Athanaric’s kingdom. Theodosius fell ill in later 379, temporarily forestalling the Roman recovery, but by the end of 380 the defensive system along the Danube had been restored. The Balkans were closed off, and the barbarian bands were isolated from one another, hemmed in by the Roman defensive network.
The situation seemed well enough in hand that Theodosius spent most of 381 in Constantinople, supervising the appointment of a new patriarch and officiating over the first Council of Constantinople. During that same year Athanaric came to Rome to formally ask for receptio for his people. What caused the old king to do this is unclear; in any event, he died in 381. The following year the other Visigothic groups in the Balkans appear to have surrendered. Many were recruited into the Roman army and served as spies. When a band of Goths under Odotheus tried to cross the Danube in 386, these spies revealed to the Roman commander his plans. Hence a Roman fleet was able to attack Odotheus as he tried to cross the river, and the Goths were massacred on their rafts midstream. The few survivors were rounded up and taken into Roman service. The triumph of 386 revealed that Adrianople had not destroyed the Roman Empire. Rather, the system of receptio continued to work, and the Balkan defenses, though strained, could be restored.
Theodosius no sooner had settled affairs in the Balkans than his energy was drawn to the west. Gratian died in 383. Theodosius appointed Gratian’s nine-year-old brother Valentinian II as ruler in the west, but clearly the new Augustus could not exercise power in his own right. Magnus Maximus, a military commander in the west, demanded to be appointed as his colleague, and Theodosius was forced to agree. In 387, however, Valentinian II and his mother Justina repudiated Maximus. Maximus raised an army in Gaul and marched on Italy. Valentinian and his mother fled to Theodosius, who was forced to strip the Alpine passes of their garrisons to defeat the usurper. Luckily, loyalists captured and beheaded Maximus near Aquileia in 388. The Frankish general Arbogast then dispatched Maximus’ son Victor in Gaul, ending the revolt.
Arbogast soon emerged as the guiding figure in the court of the newly restored Valentinian II. In 392, apparently despondent over his inability to rule, Valentinian killed himself. Arbogast quickly took charge of affairs, appointing Eugenius as emperor. He sought Theodosius’ recognition of his action, but the Emperor refused. Again, he marched west, and defeated Arbogast and his puppet in 394. For a short time the empire was again united in Theodosius’ hand, but he did not enjoy his power for long. Five months later he was dead.
Theodosius the Great was responsible for the final prohibition of pagan rites. In 391 he ordered that all the pagan temples be closed. He was also a fanatical persecutor of heretics. His policy, in part, might have been influenced by his close friendship with the Bishop of Milan, St. Ambrose. Theodosius regularly involved himself in the politics of the church, and through Council of Constantinople in 381 reaffirmed the Nicene Creed as the basis of the Christian faith. At this same Council, the emperor declared that the primary bishop in Christendom, to whom the highest honor was due, was the Bishop of Rome, followed by the Patriarch of Constantinople.
Civil Wars and the Sack of Rome
UPON his death, Theodosius divided the Empire between his two sons, naming Honorius to rule in the West and Arcadius in the East. Real power in the west lay in the hands of Stilicho, a half-Vandalic general and diplomat. As supreme commander of all the field armies in the west, his authority was strengthened by his marriage to Theodosius’ niece. Moreover, the dying Emperor had solemnly charged Stilicho to protect his sons and the Empire.
Stilicho was immediately faced by problems of the first order. Theodosius had reorganized the army around regional commands. At the time of the battle on the Frigidus, Stilicho was Magister Millitum per Thracia, and depended on Thrace as a recruiting base. This helped him little in the west, as Thrace was legally subordinate to Arcadius and his military commander, Rufinus. Stilicho and Rufinus soon became engaged in a struggle for control over the two young heirs. Stilicho built up a new recruiting base in the west, pulling troops from beyond the frontier in Franconia and Bohemia. We also see from his time settlements of Goths in Raetia. By 396, Stilicho felt strong enough to return the few Thracian units he had with him to the East. These he sent back under Gaïnas, a general of Gothic extraction. Gaïnas and Stilicho had plotted their rival’s demise, and when Arcadius and Rufinus met Gaïnas outside the walls of Constantinople, Gaïnas’ troops grabbed Rufinus and killed him.
Rufinus was succeeded by a court eunuch, Eutropius. Eutropius found himself opposed on two fronts. Stilicho invaded Greece in 396/97 and prepared to march on Constantinople. To oppose him, Rufinus appointed Alaric as Magister Militum per Illyricum. Alaric was a Visigoth, but too young to have taken an active part in the rebellion of 378. He had served under Roman arms during the latter phases of Theodosius’ wars, but apparently felt that he deserved better commissions than he received. Although Alaric had rebelled in 395 and attacked Constantinople, Rufinus and Eutropius both saw that he could be useful, hence they gave him an important command. And he did not disappoint them: Alaric was able to parry Stilicho’s thrust into Greece. A few years later, in 399, Eutropius was faced with a revolt in Asia Minor. Gaïnas was commissioned to suppress the rebellion, but he decided to use it to his advantage. He told Arcadius that he would not move against the rebels until he was promised that Eutropius would be removed from command. This was done, but Gaïnas made peace with the rebels and enlisted them into his army, contrary to his orders. He came to Constantinople and in 400, with the support of a few allies, tried to take the government in his own hands, just as Stilicho had in the west. At first he was successful, but he made the mistake of trusting too much both Arcadius and his own associates. Arcadius stirred up a revolt in the city, and Gaïnas’ men were slaughtered. Though he escaped, Arcadius commissioned another Gothic general, Fravitta, to hunt Gaïnas down. On January 3, 401, Gaïnas was killed, and his head paraded around Constantinople on a pike. Thereafter Arcadius was able to keep a firm hand on his generals.
One of the few official acts that Gaïnas performed was to transfer the diocese of Illyria back to the western Empire. Stilicho had wanted this, but not under the terms offered. Alaric was now magister of the Roman armies there. With the death of his patron Eutropius and the transfer of the provinces, Alaric was stripped of command. By giving Stilicho Illyria, Gaïnas made Alaric his problem to solve. Deprived of the legitimate office of magister, Alaric in turn proclaimed himself “king” in 400. While Stilicho was on a recruiting mission in Raetia, Alaric and his army invaded Italy searching for supplies. Throughout the spring and summer of 402, Stilicho and Alaric’s forces furtively engaged one another until they agreed to a truce. Alaric was given command over Roman troops and Barbarian auxiliaries in Illyricum. His title, comes rei militaris, was not so elevated as that he had held before, but it entitled him to extract supplies from the province to maintain his army.
During the years 403-404 tensions increased between the courts in Ravenna, where Honorius had taken up residence, and Constantinople. Stilicho prepared for an invasion of the east, and sent Alaric to Epirus as the vanguard. But then events prevented Stilicho for executing his designs. First of all, a group crossed the Alps from Noricum led by a Goth named Radagaisus. His “invasion” appears to have been an uprising of Goths and other recently settled Germanic peoples against taxes and Stilicho’s policy of stripping frontier defenses to flesh out his armies. While Stilicho was preparing to deal with Radagaisus, a revolt broke out in Britain. Then, on New Years Eve 405/406 the Rhine froze, allowing a group of Vandals and Sueves to cross unimpeded.
None of these events were terribly serious. Radagaisus and his followers were isolated and starved into submission, then recruited into Stilicho’s army. Stilicho figured that the local defensive troops in Gaul could deal with the Vandals and Seuves — they were seeking food, and so long as the Romans garrisons maintained the towns, famine would soon force these invaders to ask for receptio and allow Stilicho to resettle them. But the Gallic army collapsed, and as spring approached, the residents of Gaul looked elsewhere for help. A usurper from Britain, Constantine III, crossed the channel into Gaul in 407 and engaged the Vandals. Honorius now told Stilicho to shelve his planned eastern campaign and deal with the usurper. Stilicho had hardly raised his army when a palace revolution, led by his enemies, led to his fall in August 408. Stilicho was arrested and executed, and his followers and lieutenants were systematically purged. This effectively destroyed the western army: Barbarian and Roman officers alike felt betrayed, and within weeks Stilicho’s army evaporated. That left only one sizable western army, the army of Alaric, still patiently waiting for the eastern campaign to begin.
As the last of Stilicho’s lieutenants, Alaric was marked for death. He was formally stripped of his command, but that mattered little so long as he was still in the field. Again he was proclaimed “king” by his troops and marched into Italy looking for supplies. When Honorius refused to negotiate with him, he went to Rome and laid siege to the city. The Senate and Pope Innocent I arranged a truce. By way of ransom, Alaric received 5,000 pounds of gold, 30,000 pounds of silver, 4,000 silk tunics, 3,000 scarlet-died skins, and 3,000 pounds of pepper. He recruited Roman slaves into his army, now numbering 40,000 men, of whom only 7,000 or so were Gothic. Alaric tried to negotiate with Honorius: the Roman Senate even sent a delegation on his behalf, but to no avail. Honorius would not even listen to Alaric’s demands, but instead agreed to recognize the usurper Constantine III.
Alaric returned to Rome in 409 — this time the gates of the city were open to him — and raised a Senator named Attalus to the purple. For good measure, he also took Honorius’ half-sister Galla Placidia hostage. Attalus and Alaric then marched on Ravenna. Before they arrived, they received word that Honorius was willing to accept Attalus as a colleague. The army returned, but Honorius’ action was merely a ruse. His troops controlled the Africa, and if he withheld the grain fleet, Rome would starve. The prospect of starving his own people into submission bothered Honorius not at all, so long as Alaric starved with them.
Famine hit Rome hard in 410, but Attalus steadfastly resisted sending an army to Africa to open the grain routes. This led Alaric to depose him. He broke off his siege of Ravenna and marched on Rome. The famished city did not resist, and, angered by the Senate’s double dealings with Honorius, Alaric let his troops sack the city for three days. While represented by Christian writers and some modern historians as the consummation of Gothic Barbarism, Alaric,s actions ought to be considered in a different lights. As Thomas Burns recently noted , “The ‘Sack of Rome’ in 410 was not the victory of barbarism any more than had been Constantine the Great’s ‘Sack of Rome’ after his victory at the Milvian Bridge in 312. From the perspective of the Roman Army both were the predictable consequences of civil war.” Alaric left Rome with Attalus, Galla Placidia, and his army, and headed south. He intended to cross over to Africa and, after taking control of the grain fleet, turn Honorius’ policy of starvation against him. But a storm crushed his fleet, and before Alaric could come up with a new plan, he passed from this earth into legend.
Alaric died in 411. His successor Athaulf advanced into southern Gaul, seizing the cities of Narbonne and Toulouse. His presence in Gaul can be linked to a change at Honorius’ court. After 410 Stilicho’s successor as magister, Constantius, took charge of affairs in Ravenna. His first task was to crush the usurper Constantine III, which he did in 411. The following year Athaulf and his army arrived in Gaul. Constantius III was no fool, and while Honorius was no more willing to grant official recognition to Athaulf than to his predecessor, Constantius made some sort of personal agreement with him. Athaulf now, unofficially, entered Roman service. His task was to crush Jovinus, declared emperor by Constantine III’s troops after his death. Athaulf succeeded in defeating Jovinus in 413, but Honorius stubbornly refused to grant him supplies. So Athaulf rebelled.
Athaulf dragged Attalus out again and declared him emperor for a second time. His only act seems to have been to preside over the wedding of Athaulf and Galla Placidia, the sister of Honorius that Alaric had captured some years before. With a “Roman Emperor” presiding, and dressed as a Roman general, Athaulf received his bride. The warring parties had hoped that a child of the marriage would cement Romans and Goths together under one ruler. Indeed, Galla Placidia bore a son, whom she named Theodosius after her father. But the boy died in 415. Thereafter, Athaulf and Constantius III were reconciled. Athaulf would lead a Roman army into Spain to crush the Vandals.
The Vandalic army in Spain was no barbarian “horde” in a traditional sense. Its leader was Gerontius, formerly one of the generals loyal to Constantine III. After Constantine III had crossed over into Gaul, Gerontius was commissioned to defend the passes through the Pyrenees to prevent the Vandals and Sueves from entering Spain. Since Constantine III sought to add Spain to his empire, a successful defense of the passes would make him very popular indeed there. Gerontius failed, however, and in 409 the Vandals and Seuves entered Spain. Constantine was furious and ordered Gerontius’ recall. Rather than submit, Gerontius quickly came to terms with the Vandals, and enrolled a number of them into his army. He then proclaimed a member of his staff “emperor” under the name Maximus. This “civil war” within a civil war continued after Constantine’s death, and Constantius hoped that Athaulf could defeat the man who had usurped the usurper.
Athaulf arrived in Barcelona in 416 but was promptly assassinated by an old rival called Singeric who proclaimed himself “king,” mocking Alaric and Athaulf’s desire to come to terms with the Romans. He publicly humiliated Galla Placidia before packing her back to Honorius. But Singeric was overthrown after only seven days, and his successor Wallia continued the war against Gerontius’ Vandals. Constantius III formally recognized Wallia in 418, shortly before that latter’s death. Wallia’s successor Theodorich I (418-451) consolidated his hold over southern Gaul and laid the foundations for an independent Visigothic kingdom. As for Galla Placidia, she and Constantius were married in 417. Their son, Valentinian III, acceded to the western throne following Honorius’ death in 423.
In the years following the death of Honorius, the position of the western emperors declined markedly. Constantius III, perhaps the only competent man in Ravenna, had predeceased him in 421. Valentinian III (423-55) was only a child. Real power rested in the hands first of his mother, the formidable Galla Placidia, then in Stilicho’s ultimate successor, Aetius. For the last twenty years of Valentinian’s reign, Aetius ruled the Empire in all but name. His greatest achievement was the defeat of the Huns under Attila at Chalons-sur-Marne in 451. The bulk of Aetius’ army, however, was made up of Visigothic federates led by the Tolosanian Visigothic king Theodorich I. Had Theodorich not died on the battlefield, the victory would have been remembered as his rather than Aetius’. After that point, Rome ceased to have any control over most of Gaul. Three barbarian kingdoms, those of the Visigoths, Franks, and Burgundians, now comprised nearly all of the old Roman province. On other fronts, Aetius was unable to prevent the Vandals from crossing into Africa in 429. The Roman governor of north Africa, Boniface, had declared himself emperor, and recruited Vandals from Spain to support his cause, but soon they pushed him out of the way and assumed control. The Romans agreed to a treaty with the Vandal king Geseric (428-477) in 435, but this could not prevent the Vandals from seizing all of Roman Africa excepting Egypt. In the 450’s they took to the sea, conquering Sardinia and Corsica. The final insult came in 455 when the Vandals sacked Rome.
Aetius was succeeded by Ricimir as military commander and virtual ruler, but by that time all that remained of the western Roman Empire was Italy. Ricimir and his successors, called patricians, named and dismissed emperors at will. In 474, Emperor Julius Nepos was deposed by his patrician Orestes, who named his son Romulus Augustulus as emperor. The following year the army revolted demanding one third of all the land, the standard award to the Visigothic and Vandal federates in other parts of the Empire. When Orestes refused, the troops elected Odovacer, a Scirian chief, as their king. On August 23, 476, Odovacer deposed Romulus Augustulus. He sent an embassy to the eastern Emperor, Zeno, stating that there was no longer a need for two emperors. Zeno accepted Odovacer’s offered to administer Italy in his name; hence, with the stroke of a pen, the Roman Empire in the West ceased to exist.
The Visigothic Kingdom of Toulouse
DURING the fifth centuries, a number of independent kingdoms emerged in the west. Each of these has been traditionally identified as the “national” kingdom of a barbarian “people.” But as has been suggested, it is better to view most of the barbarian “hordes” as late Roman field armies, commanded by Roman officers who happened to have been of Germanic origin. The creation of such kingdoms reflects the cycle of civil wars and usurpations that began with the revolt of Procopius in 363 and gathered momentum after the death of Theodosius the Great.
With the death of Athaulf, the way was cleared for an agreement between the Visigoths and the Romans. In 418 a new treaty settled the Goths in southern Gaul, ostensibly to defend the Empire against the bagaudae, and the Vandals, Alans, and Suevi in Spain. In fact, the Visigoths established for themselves an independent kingdom, the Regnum Tolosanum, which stood from 418 to 507. After the death of the Visigothic king Theodorich II in 466, formal ties to Rome were sundered. Through dynastic marriages with the Sueves and Vandals, the Kingdom of Toulouse became the great power in the western Mediterranean, eclipsing the rump of the Roman Empire in the West.
Beginning in the 470s, the Goths began to press into Spain. They met with fierce resistance from the Celto-Iberian aristocracy. The Latin and Celtic population, largely organized by Sidonius Apollinaris, Bishop of Auvergne, were able to delay the Visigoths. Under Alaric II (484-507), the Visigoths succeeded in conquering Spain. Their success, however, was ephemeral. In 507, at Vouille near Poitiers, Alaric was defeated and killed by the Franks under Clovis. Alaric’s illegitimate son Gesalic (509-511) tried to regroup at Narbonne, but he was deposed and ultimately killed. Thereafter, the Visigoths were driven out of Gaul. The Spanish kingdom survived until 711 but never again attained the prominence it held under the fifth century kings.
During the reign of Alaric II, a distinct Visigothic political system began to emerge. The “tribute” collected by the Visigoths from the residents of the provinces where they had settled began to be treated as tax revenues. After the Visigoths settled in Spain, a real tax system was developed. Moreover, the Goths began to mint their own coinage in imitation of Roman models. In other realms, the Goths took over the roles that wealthy Romans or Imperial officials had in local patronage networks. Perhaps the most important innovation to occur during this time was the promulgation of the first Germanic law code, the so-called Breviary of Alaric II, issued in 506. Written law, like coinage, was a specifically Roman cultural artifact, but one used by the Goths to preserve their own cultural traditions. It is worth noting that the law was written in Latin rather than Gothic. Even though the religious language of the Goths remained Gothic (thanks to Ulfilas’ translation of the Bible) Latin continued to serve as the language of administration and law.
Free Germany in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages
THE regions beyond the Roman frontier experienced significant political development in the third through the sixth centuries. The result was the rise of four independent duchies or kingdoms in Germany: namely, those of the Alamanni, Bavarians, Thuringians, and Saxons. Each was ultimately subsumed into the Frankish Empire, the first three by the sixth century, the last under Charlemagne around 800.
The Alamanni first appear in 213 and were among the first western Germans to break through the Limes. In 260 they crossed the Alps and attacked Milan, only being defeated in 277 by the Emperor Probus. They remained rooted in the Neckar valley, in the old Agri Decumates, and from this position began penetrating across the Rhine into modern day Alsace, as well as into modern Switzerland. Gradually the northern reaches of Alamannia came under Frankish influence, while the Burgundian kingdom provided a check on further expansion west and south. After the collapse of the Burgundians, however, the Alemans came into repeated conflicts with the Franks and after 536 were ruled by a duke nominated by the Frankish king. Despite their dynamism, the Alemans appear to have developed no lasting political organization. The exact relationship of the duke to other nobles is unclear. What is clear is that from the mid-sixth century onwards, Alamannia was associated with the Frankish kingdom, under the administration of a largely autonomous duke.
The Bavarians, or Baiuvarii, are the only barbarian group to be named only after they had crossed the Limes. The first reference to them comes in 551, and even then, the name does not appear in other contemporary references. Although older literature tends to repeat the tradition that they migrated from what is now Bohemia across the Danube, it seems more likely that they comprised a union of various Germanic groups in the border regions of Noricum. There were close ties between the Lombards and Bavarians. Their dialects were similar, and there were also frequent marriage alliances between the two ruling dynasties. In contrast with the Alamanni, the Bavarians developed a fairly concrete notion of political identity, focused on their dukes of the Agilolfinger dynasty. Garibald, the first known duke, came to power in the mid-sixth century. Like the Alamannic dukes, Garibald might have been appointed by the Franks, but the matter is unclear. His name suggests links to both the Alemans (there is a Alamannic duke with a similar name in the previous generation) and the Lombards. Although the Bavarian dukes retained a very high degree of autonomy and political independence until the Carolingian period, the constant threat from the Slavs and, above all, the Avars, ensured some degree of dependence on the Frankish kings.
The origins of the Baiuvarii was recently been the subject of rather intense study, and it would appear that as a people they owed their identity to Roman military policy. During the time of Stilicho large numbers of Elbe Germans from Bohemia were recruited into the Roman army through military outposts beyond the Limes in the upper Main valley. The late antique culture of Bohemia takes its name from the town of Preštovice, the main representative site. Along the middle Danube, objects similar to those associated with Preštovice have been found, suggesting the movement of people from Bohemia to the Roman frontier. But they most likely were attracted by Stilicho’s recruitment policy. Moreover, Ostrogothic material has also been found in Bavaria. The rising of the Goth Radagaisus in Bavaria in 405 suggests a substantial Gothic military presence along the middle Danube. The Alamannic names of Bavarian rulers suggests a third group present in early Bavaria. Thuringian and Frankish influences are also perceptible in northern Bavaria after 400. Finally, Slavic settlements begin to emerge on the eastern edge of Bavaria in the sixth century. Thus, we can identify at least seven distinct groups in Bavaria — a core of Raeto-Romans and Elbe Germans, with sprinklings of Goths, Alemans, Franks, Thuringians, and Slavs, many of whom had either been attracted to Bavaria or brought there as a direct result of Roman recruitment policies in the late fourth century. A distinctive “Bavarian” culture emerged from a mixture of these people in a “pyramid of pressure”, as they found themselves pressed between the Alps in the south, and the Alamanni and Lombards to the north.
The third major group in Germany were the Thuringians. Unlike either the Alemans or Bavarians, the Thuringians never settled in regions that had been Roman. They emerged in the lands along the upper Elbe and Saale rivers in the third century. There appear to have been some marriage ties between the Thuringian nobility and the Frankish kings. Clovis’ mother, Basina, was a Thuringian princess. Thereafter, some of the earliest Frankish campaigns were directed against the Thuringians. Clovis attacked them in 491, and after 530, a Frankish protectorate, similar to that imposed on the Alemans and Bavarians, was established over Thuringia. They remained pagan, however, and after 555 a revolt restored autonomy to the region.
The Saxons present the fourth “tribe” in early medieval Germany. They were predominantly a coastal people and were renowned as pirates from the mid-third century onwards. A precise connection with these Saxons and later groups is difficult to make. There were several groups in Saxony. First were the coastal tribes who, along with the Frisians and Angles, later appear as key players in the Germanic settlement of England. Of these more will be said later. Second, there were Saxons in the interior, located in the area between the Rhine and lower Elbe rivers. These Saxons remained vehement pagans, and although paying tribute to the Franks from the sixth century onward, retained full independence until the time of Charlemagne.
One general characteristic of “Free Germany” in late antiquity was a sudden decline in population density. As large numbers of Germans left their old homelands to settle in the Empire, this created a vacuum. This situation was particularly acute in the eastern parts of Germany, and the attacks by the Huns tended to push the remaining tribes further to the west. This opened up a gap which was exploited by the Slavic peoples in the sixth century. So while most of northern Europe, from the Rhine to the Vistula, had been populated by Germanic-speaking peoples in 300 AD, but 600 AD hardly any Germans could be found east of the Elbe-Saale line. Bohemia, formally the land of the Marcomanni, became wholly Slavic in the sixth century, as did much of the homeland of the Elbe Germans. This transformation set up one of the critical dynamics of German medieval history, the “push to the East” (Drang nach Osten), a large-scale effort to extend the range of German settlements in central and eastern Europe.
The End of Roman Britain
IN Britain, the collapse of Roman power began during the fourth century. A series of usurpers appeared in Britain, beginning with Constantine the Great. By the latter part of the century Britain practically constituted an independent empire — rulers such as Magnentius and Constantine III were acclaimed there, and there appears to have been a complete rejection of Italian rulers in the fifth century. Traditionally 410 has been seen as the moment of the Roman withdrawal from Britain, but that is an arbitrary date. The source for this statement is a letter from the emperor Honorius that suggests that the legions had been recalled, but the meaning of the text is unclear. Economic and social ties between Britain and the continent were not severed, and some semblance of the Roman system continued. In particular, the old Atlantic trade route that had developed in the Bronze Age but which had declined after Caesar’s conquest of Gaul was revived, and a distinctive economic and political region formed on the Celtic fringes of western Britain, Ireland, Brittany, and northern Spain.
Coin hordes indicate two major periods of social and political dislocation, between 330 and 350 and between 400 and 450. The latter period concerns us here. Our literary sources for this period present some problems. There is only one vaguely contemporary source, that of Gildas, composed around 540. The next work, that of Nennius, is an eighth century compilation of sixth century works. Traditionally, historians have merely restated the story recounted by the Venerable Bede (ca. 673-735) in his History of the English Church:
In the year of our Lord 449 … the Angles or Saxons came to Britain at the invitation of King Vortigern [a Romano-British leader] in three longships, and were granted lands in the eastern part of the island on condition that they protect the country: nevertheless, their real intention was to subdue it. They engaged the enemy advancing from the north, and having defeated them, sent back news of their success to their homeland, adding that the country was fertile and the Britons cowardly. Whereupon a larger fleet quickly came over with a great body of warriors, which, when joined to the original forces, constituted an invincible army. These also received from the Britons grants of land where they could settle among them on condition that they maintained the peace and security of the island against all enemies in return for regular pay.
After this revolt in 450, the Angles established some sort of kingdom under their leaders Hengast and Horsa, presumably in Kent. The Britons opposed their advances, and under a leader named Ambrosius, defeated them “with great slaughter” at the battle of Badon Hill. Ambrosius has been often identified as the archetype for King Arthur, a Romano-British military leader. After his death, the Romano-British states were consumed in civil wars, allowing for the conquest of Britain by the Saxon barbarians. In the course of the conflict Christianity was wiped out, and Britain plunged into a dark age until the coming of Christian missionaries in the late sixth century.
There are certain problems with Bede’s view. The first has to do with his primary sources, the biographies of several saints and the History of Gildas. Gildas was writing primarily to illustrate how far his own people had fallen away from the teachings of the Gospel, and he saw the coming of the barbarians and failure of the Romano-British aristocracy to defeat them as a sign of God’s punishment. Likewise, Bede had his own concerns, both religions and political, for writing his history. Recent scholarship has also thrown the old view into question. From a religious standpoint, the survival of parish and diocesan organization from the Roman era argues against a complete collapse of Christianity. Indeed, Bede himself suggests that there were bishops in England throughout the “Dark Ages.” Second, the survival of the cults of second and third century saints also indicates a continuity of Christian devotion. With respect to the “invasion” hypothesis, there is little archaeological evidence to support a sudden, mass invasion. Rather, it appears that the North Sea constituted a distinct economic and cultural zone from the third century onwards in which the Saxons and Frisians were leading players in trade. Saxon settlements are known throughout northern France, as well as England, suggesting that there were a number of Saxon trading posts along the coast lines.
This brings us to problems with the chronology. Continental sources suggest that the Saxons were in control as early as 441/442. As regards sub-Roman Britain, the last legions were gone by 410, but archaeological evidence suggest that already in the fourth century, there was a general pattern of depopulation. In several cities, including London, a layer of black dirt separates Roman and Saxon layers of settlement. This suggests that the sites were abandoned for nearly a generation. Excavations of hill forts indicate that there was far less resistance to the “invaders” as Bede and others would like us to think. Only along the southern and western coasts do we find hard evidence to suggest a sub-Roman “revival,” as indicated by large scale trading with the Mediterranean. Even the names of the combatants create trouble. “Vortigern” does not appear to be a name, but rather a title, indicating a high-king, or leading chieftain.
If we view the events in Britain from the perspective of continental civil war, the sequence of events becomes somewhat more explicable. Vortigern was probably the high-king of a confederation of western British local rulers. The center of his kingdom may have been Powys in Wales, and he appears to have cooperated with a leading churchman, Germanus of Autun. The focus of their actions was Ireland — Germanus is known to have led a military operation against Irish pirates — and it is likely that St. Patrick was sent to Ireland as a representative of Vortigern. The date of Patrick’s mission (430s) fits this thesis. Around 440, however, there was a civil war against Vortigern. The sources suggest that in 437 a notable named Ambrosius attacked Vortigern. Given the nature of Roman recruitment policy, it seems likely that Vortigern recruited Saxon mercenaries to help out in the civil war. His opponents may have done the same, and there is some evidence of Frankish settlements in Kent.
The leader of the resistance to Vortigern in the 460s is identified as Ambrosius Aurialanus. The name suggests kinship with Ambrosius, while the name Aurialanus associates him with second and third century emperors. If there was an historical King Arthur, then it was likely Ambrosius Aurialanus. The name Arthur was, like Vortigern, most likely an epithet, meaning “the bear.” He appears to be the sole British ruler after 470. Welsh traditions call him amerauder — “emperor” — which might suggest that he was a usurper in the tradition of Constantine III. Continental sources, including Gregory of Tours, tell of a Gothic general named Theuderic serving in Britain around 500. If this is true, then it would suggest an alliance between Arthur and Theodoric the Great, the Ostrogothic ruler of Italy.
After 500 the narrative sources are largely silent on the matter of Britain, although by the middle of the sixth century it seems clear that the Saxons were in control of most of the eastern part of the island. But while it used to be held that the Saxon “invaders” overwhelmed the native inhabitants, but the genealogies of several Germanic kings contain Celtic names for this period. That would indicate marital alliances between Anglo-Saxon chiefs and native rulers. That and the possible relations between the Goths and the British rulers suggest that we ought not to draw too firm a distinction between the “Britons” and the “invaders” in the confused period between 450 and 550.
Perhaps the best hypothesis would be to see this period as one of transition. Along the coastlines, where the greatest Roman presence had been, we see some continuation of British participation in the late Roman economic system through long distance trade. Increasingly, however, Britain was being drawn into a North Sea, Germanic, regional economic zone, dominated by Saxon traders. The rise of the Frankish kingdom would have tipped the balance of trade in favor of the North Sea route, and the western Atlantic trade would have declined, just as happened in the wake of Caesar’s conquest of Gaul. On the political front, the presence of Germanic troops in Roman and sub-Roman Britain would be expected. Moreover, it seems likely that settlement was a gradual process, from the third century onwards, and might in fact have marked a change in marriage patterns. In the changing political and economic dynamics of the region, Britano-Roman and Celtic families may have chosen to cement marriage alliances with the families of Saxon soldiers or tradesmen rather than with increasingly distant Roman families. The “conquest” of Britain by the Anglo-Saxons, then, more likely a process of political, social and economic transformation, derived from the reintegration of local power networks into the North Sea political and economic zone, dominated by the Saxons.
The Rise of the Franks
THE Franks were the most successful of the Germanic peoples, founding a kingdom centered on Gaul and western Germany which became the foundation of modern western Europe. The Franks were probably, like the other later Germanic “tribes”, a confederation of smaller tribes. The Frankish people have been identified with the distribution of a particular kind of pottery that becomes prevalent in the second and third centuries AD in a triangle formed by Nijmegen and Koblenz on the Rhine and the middle Weser river in the east. This is roughly the same area identified with the Rhine-Weser group of Germans in the first century BC. The center of gravity for both the Rhine-Weser group and the “proto-Frankish” pottery finds is east of the Rhine along the Ruhr and Lippe rivers. This meant that the Franks arose in an area that had been the focus of intense Roman military activity from the time of Augustus onward.
The Franks first appear in a Roman marching song from about 260. During this time large numbers of Franks and Alemans raided into Gaul, with the worst attacks coming in the 270s. Some 238 coin hordes have been dated to the 270s, an indication of the ferocity of the attack. It was this crisis that led the general Posthumus to proclaim himself Emperor in Gaul in 260. But while Franks were his primary opponents, Posthumus repelled the attacks with the aid of some Frankish tribes. Later Frankish mercenaries helped a Roman admiral named Carausius proclaim himself emperor in Britain in the 280s. Franks continued to play an important role in the armies of Constantius Chlorus and his son Constantine the Great. Constantius settled Frankish prisoners as laeti in northern Gaul, and while Constantine undertook several campaigns against the Franks in Germany, he also recruited large number of Franks into his army. Bonitus, his magister militum, was a Frank.
During the later fourth century there was more than one Frankish general who aspired to the imperial office. The usurper Magnentius (350-53) appears to have had a Frankish mother, while Silvanus, who reigned for twenty-eight days in 355, was a born Frank. But most Franks in Roman service were content to serve the legitimate emperors. Julian appointed two Franks to high command, Charietto and Merobaudes. Richomer was supreme military commander in the east from 388 to 393. His nephew Arbogast served as Magister Militum in the west about the same time, exercising rather excessive influence over the young emperor Valentinian II. After Valentinian died under mysterious circumstances in 393, Arbogast appointed a Roman senator, Eugenius, as emperor. The elevation of Eugenius by Arbogast neatly parallels the later relationship between Alaric and Attalus. But Arbogast was unable to hold on as long as the Visigoth — he and Eugenius were both killed by Stilicho at the battle of Frigeridus in 394.
All of these Franks were officers serving under Roman arms, and for the whole of the period up to 450 we know of only one Frankish general who returned to Germany. This was Mallobaudes, a general under Gratian, who became rex francorum and fought against the Alamanni in alliance with Rome in 378. By and large however, the Franks we encounter in the sources were heavily Romanized, and our sources say little about the political structure of German Francia.
At the same time, it appears that northern Gaul was becoming increasingly “Frankicized” during the fourth and fifth centuries. A large number of graves have been identified between the Loire and the Rhine containing weapons. It was not customary for Roman’s to be buried with weapons: Roman soldiers did not own their own weapons, and civilians were not allowed to carry them. This was a Germanic style of burial. The Germanic character of the graves is made even clearer when one looks at the women’s graves in the same cemeteries. They wear Germanic forms of jewelry unknown from Roman graves of the this period. Since many of the graves contain extremely ornate prestige goods, it would appear that these were not laeti but barbarian soldiers of higher social status: “they were surely free soldiers fighting in or alongside the Roman army, who had come into northern Gaul with their families: what the Romans called foederati, dediticii, gentiles, among other terms.” Moreover, these cemeteries were occupied continuously through the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries: “these Franco-Roman settlements survived to be incorporated into the knew kingdom of France.” So even before the Franks “invaded” Gaul under Clovis, there was a large Frankish population in northern Gaul, mostly made up of troops recruited and settled by the Romans on Gaulish soil. The culture that emerged has been termed a “gallisch-germanische Mischzivilisation.”
During the fifth century, we can distinguish between two major groups of Franks. The Ripuarian Franks established a kingdom centered around Cologne sometime after the murders of Aetius (454) and Valentinian III (455) and began to expand into central Germany and Gaul. Their one known “king” were the Romanized Frank Arbogast, likely a descendant of the fourth century general, whose realm was centered in the Moselle valley. Arbogast was a Catholic and ruled in cooperation with bishops in the region. The second and more important group of Franks were the Salian Franks who settled along the lower Rhine. The Salians were initially settled as dediticii in Toxandria (modern Belgium) by the Emperor Julian around 358. The first Salian ruler we know of was Chlogio or Chlodio who captured Cambrai in the early fifth century. According to Gregory of Tours (LH II.9), his seat was at Duisburg in Thuringia (in termimum Thuringorum), but a variant reading of the text would place his capital at Tongres (in termimum Tungrorum) in modern Belgium. Since Tongres is not far from Cambrai, it would seem a more likely place for Chlogio to have been. Gregory also tells us that “some people say” that Chlogio was the ancestor of Merovech, the father of the Salian king Childerich.
Childerich (d. 481/2) is the first Salian king that we know of in any detail. He began to rule over the Salians around 450, and his rise to power is closely associated with the activities of the last Roman commanders in northern Gaul, Aegidius (456-464) and Count Paul (464-469). Gregory of Tours has Childeric fighting at Orleans with Aegedius and Odovacer against the Goths in 463. This battle is also described in other three sources, the Gallic chronicle, the Spanish Chronicle of Hydatius, and the Chronicle of Marius of Avenches. These accounts only name Aegidius, however, and make no reference to Childerich. A curious passage in Gregory, saying that the Franks rose up against Childerich and elected Aegidius as king for eight years, might offer an explanation. Childerich and his Franks were fighting as a sub-unit of a larger Franco-Roman army commanded by Aegidius. This reading is perhaps supported by Gregory’s description of a battle in 469 where Count Paul “had Roman and Frankish troops under his command.” (LH II, 18). After 470, Childerich and Odovacer cooperated in a campaign against the Alamanni.
All these activities indicate an individual who was more Roman officer than Germanic king. But how did Childerich see himself? A clue is provided by his grave, discovered in 1653 underneath the cathedral at Tournai. Childerich was buried in the garb of a Roman field commander, with the appropriate jewelry and tack.
After Childerich died, he was succeeded by his son Chlodowech, better known as Clovis. Clovis was probably only about sixteen years old at the time, but he wasted no time mastering the situation. He immediately went to war with Aegidius’ successor in northern Gaul, his son Syagrius. Gregory of Tours calls Syagrius rex romanorum, “king of the Romans,” but it is unclear what his actual title was. Syagrius was, in all likelihood, the “official” Roman commander in northern Gaul, and it has been suggested that he was recognized as such by the western puppet-emperors Anthemius (467-472) and Julius Nepos (474-475). But the fact that the area identified as his “kingdom” is the same area where large number of Germanic warrior graves have been found suggests that, like his father Aegidius, Syagrius commanded an army largely comprised of Franks. So when Clovis defeated Syagrius at Soissons around 486, it was not the case of Romans being defeated by Barbarians, but of one Franco-Roman army led by a Gallo-Roman aristocrat facing another Franco-Roman army led by a Franco-Roman aristocrat.
The context for Clovis’ victory is fairly clear. Childerich and Aegidius were both Roman generals and allies. Their sons are both identified as “kings” and were enemies. What lays between the battles at Orleans and Soissons is 476 and Odovacer’s coup. Given that Childerich and Odovacer had been allies after 470, it would seem that Clovis might have undertaken to attack Syagrius, the last representative of the old political order in Gaul, in alliance with Odovacer. In any event, Clovis’ conquest of northern Gaul laid the foundation for the emergence of the Franks as the leading power of the west in the early Middle Ages.
The Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy
ODOVACER the Scirian ruled Italy from 476 until 493. His position may best be summed up by saying that he was a very strong ruler in a very weak position. He ruled not as an hereditary king of Italy, but as commander of an army. This was fairly standard from the Germanic kingdoms of his age. The barbarian “tribes” were in fact late Roman armies, a mobile force (exercitus) led by an elected field commander. But whereas the Visigothic and Vandal kings represented a particular elite kin group within a larger confederation of tribes, Odovacer was a member of a tribe which was virtually extinct, thanks to an Ostrogothic raid a generation earlier. His troops represented a mixed bag of various tribes to whom he had no particular relation. Moreover, neither the Roman Senate, representing the landed aristocracy, nor the Roman Emperor in Constantinople, offered any sort of formal title to Odovacer. During his reign, Rome formally began to abandon its position north of the Alps. Gaul had been lost to the Visigoths at the beginning of the fifth century. The last Roman figure of any note in Noricum and Raetia was St. Severinus, a representative of the older Roman aristocracy. Like many of senatorial rank, he had chosen a career in the church. He came to Noricum in 460 and established a new capital at Passau on the Danube. He reorganized the administration and defense of the province. Part of his project involved constructing new monasteries and visiting and reforming existing ones. The prominent role that these monasteries played in representing Roman interests in the provinces shows how the church had assumed most of the responsibilities of the old regime. Although he refused the title of bishop, Severinus was clearly the spiritual head of the region and was widely respected by both Romans and the Alamannic and Bavarian peoples of the region. Nonetheless, he represents something of an anachronism. From both archaeological evidence and close analysis of the Vita Sancti Severini it becomes clear that the only real difference between and “Roman” and a “barbarian” was which side of the river they happened to live on. The hinterland was fully Germanic, while Latins lived only in a few fortified outposts or in mountain valleys in the Alps. That the fortunes of the West lay clearly in the hands of the barbarians is suggested in a section of the Vita Sancti Severini where Odovacer visits Severinus at his cell. During the meeting, Severinus prophesies that Odovacer would become king of Italy and rule for thirteen years. Whether the meeting actually occurred is doubtful, but Severinus clearly served Odovacer’s interests in Noricum after the latter became king. After Severinus’ death in 482, Odovacer recalled the Roman troops and personnel living in Noricum..
Odovacer eventually fell out of favor with the eastern Emperor, Zeno, largely because of his success. During Zeno’s reign, Italy was becoming even more distant from Constantinople than it had been in the past. Part of the reason had to do with religion. Since the Council of Chalcedon in 451, a serious rift between the Roman church and the eastern patriarchs had been brewing. When Zeno issued his own edict on the nature of Christ, it was firmly rejected by the western bishops and secular nobles, led by the Bishop of Rome. The “Acacian Schism,” so-called after Acacius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, marked the first official disruption of the unity of Christendom within the old Empire. It led to a political rift between the Roman senatorial aristocracy — both spiritual and temporal — and the imperial government in the east. This allowed Odovacer to solidify his position at home. But the religious split also gave Zeno a cause to send troops to enforce his decrees. As it would turn out, the executors of Zeno’s “mission” were to be another Germanic tribe, the Ostrogoths, led by their king, Theodoric the Great.
After the death of Attila the Hun in 453, the Hunnic empire collapsed. The Ostrogoths gained their independence from the Huns and settled as federates in Pannonia. In 471, Theodoric the Great became their king. Theodoric had been raised in the Imperial court in Constantinople as a hostage and was well acquainted with classical culture as well as the intricacies of Roman politics. The Emperor Zeno sent Theodoric as his field commander to invade Italy and oust Odovacer. From 489 to 493, Theodoric struggled to gain control of Italy, but without achieving complete success. Finally he agreed to share the kingship with Odovacer as co-regent. Odovacer grudgingly agreed. This arrangement lasted a total of ten days. During a dinner party at Ravenna, Theodoric himself dispatched Odovacer, hewing him in twain. Theodoric then joked over the body that he always suspected Odovacer had no backbone. Zeno died the same year and his successor, Anastasius, officially recognized Theodoric as king. He ruled until his death in 526.
Under Theodoric, the Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy became the hegemonic power in the West. He formed a series of marriage alliances with the other barbarian kings, marrying off his daughters to the kings of the Vandals, Burgundians, and Visigoths. The Visigothic marriage nearly resulted in a union of the two kingdoms. Theodogotha, Theodoric’s second daughter, married King Alaric II. They had a single son, Amalaric. Alaric II was killed fighting the Franks in 507, and the child Amalaric was subsequently named king. He remained with Theodoric at Ravenna until 526. In the meantime his kingdom was administered by Theudis, a captain of Theodoric’s guard. Theudis introduced a measure of religious toleration, for previously the Arian Visigoths had severely persecuted Catholics. After Theodoric died, Amalaric returned to Spain and was universally hated, especially by his wife, a Frankish Catholic princess.
After 507, the only other kingdom in the West that posed any sort of threat to Ostrogothic hegemony was that of the Franks under Clovis. Clovis followed up his defeat of the Visigoths with offensives against the Burgundians. He also tried to extend Frankish influence into Germany. Theodoric formed alliances with the Thuringians in 510, and until 534, the Ostrogoths were able to maintain a high degree of influence in Germany. The Bavarians, a new western Germanic confederation, began pressing into the old Roman province of Noricum, after the defeat of the Huns. Theodoric subdued these settlers, extending the Italian kingdom of the Alps, making the Danube once again the northern boundary of Italy. Nonetheless, after Theodoric’s death, his confederation collapsed. The Franks were able to absorb most of Germany and continue their conquest of Gaul.
Theodoric’s practice of kingship was more closely based on an imitation of imperial methods then on purely “Germanic” customs. He held the rights and privileges of a Roman magistrate, and named Roman aristocrats to the offices of Consul and Senator just as any emperor might do. In general, like other barbarian kings, he ruled as head of an imperial exercitus. The Gothic nobility represented subsidiary field commanders, assigned to command Gothic garrisons in particular regions. The minor officials were the “counts” (comes, pl. comites) . This was a late Roman office, and referred to members of the emperor’s entourage who were sent out on personal missions, either as trouble shooters, administrators, or military commanders. The Gothic comites, however, were also understood to represent tribal leaders, primates gentis. The entire administrative system, then, was characterized by a mixture of Germanic and Roman concepts and institutions.
There was, however, a split between the Goths and the Romans. The Goths were settled on lands according to the principle of the third, but this did not, in fact, mean that the Goths received a third part of every estate. Rather, what most likely occurred was a massive redistribution of land. The Goths lived apart from their Roman neighbors and were covered by different sets of laws. They also practiced different forms of Christianity, the Italians being Catholic and the Goths Arians. Theodoric hoped that the Gothic culture, with royal patronage, would rise to the same level as Roman culture. Goths were prohibited from attending Latin schools and were required to attend schools where Gothic was the language of instruction and Gothic traditions the basis for the curriculum.
Among the Latin population, Theodoric was able to muster no small amount of support. Among those who argued his case was the Roman scholar Cassiodorus. Cassiodorus served as Theodoric’s master of offices (magister officiorum) and held other offices during his reign until he retired to a monastery in 538. Cassiodorus wrote a history of the Goths. This work has sadly been lost, although partly preserved in the work of a Gothic historian, Jordanes, who largely epitomized his teacher’s work. Cassiodorus hoped to preside over a revival of Latin culture with Theodoric’s support He failed largely on account of a transformation of the syntax and vocabulary of Latin. What Cassiodorus and other Romans could not have understood was that Latin was on its way to becoming Italian, and that a revival of the language of Cicero was impossible.
Opponents of Theodoric included a small, but highly motivated group of scholars with ties to the East. While most Italians were ignorant of Greek language and culture, these scholars looked to Constantinople and the East for inspiration. Among these was Boethius, another figure in Theodoric’s court. Initially, he served Theodoric but in 523 was indicted for treason and subsequently tortured and executed. Among his major works was The Consolation of Philosophy, written during his imprisonment. Boethius also translated parts of Aristotle into Latin. For much of the Middle Ages, until the thirteenth century, the West’s ideas on Aristotle were shaped by the editions prepared by Boethius. By and large, however, a major cultural gap separated Italy from the East, and the efforts of Boethius inevitably failed.
History has been kind to Theodoric the Ostrogoth. A near-contemporary anonymous Roman author described his reign in the following terms:
Theodoric was a man of great distinction and of good-will towards all men, and he ruled for thirty-three years. In his times Italy for thirty years enjoyed such good fortune that his successors also inherited peace. For whatever he did was good. He so governed two races at the same time, Romans and Goths, that although he himself was of the Arian sect, he nevertheless made no assault on the Catholic religion; he gave games in the circus and the amphitheater, so that even by the Romans he was called a Trajan or a Valentinian, whose times he took as a model; and by the Goths, because of his deceit, in which he established justice, he was judged to be in all respects their best king. Military service for the Romans he kept on the same footing as under the emperors. He was generous with gifts and the distribution of grain, and although he had found the public treasury nothing but a haystack, by his efforts it was restored and made rich.. Although untrained in letters, he was nevertheless so wise that even now some of his sayings are regarded among the people as aphorisms, and for that reason I am glad to place on record a few out of many. He said, “One who has gold and a demon cannot hide the demon,” Also, “A poor Roman plays the Goth, a rich Goth the Roman.”
After Theodoric’s death, a series of ineffective rulers contributed to a collapse of Gothic power; still, for a brief while, Theodoric reestablished the supremacy of Italy over the West. In the words of a modern author, “No other German ruler, setting up his throne on the ruins of the Western Empire, possessed a fraction of his statesmanship and political vision; and when he died … Italy lost the greatest of her early medieval rulers, unequalled until the days of Charlemagne.” But after Theodoric’s death, Italy receded in political importance, and the balance of power in western Europe shifted to the north, to the Frankish kingdom. While the early rulers of Italy had conquered Gaul, Charlemagne’s conquest of Italy marked a reversal of the ancient pattern. The end of Italian hegemony which followed the death of Theodoric marks the end of the ancient world and the beginning of the Middle Ages.