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Monday, 11 November 2019

Trace, space, place: The materiality of identity in Merovingian Gaul

[This is the text of the paper I presented at this year's IMC, Leeds.  Thanks to Catherine-Rose Hailstone for organising, to Catherine-Rose and Edward James for their papers and to Simon Loseby for effortlessly stylish chairing.  It is an effort to counter claims about material agency, object biographies and so on, by reference to the Derridian concept of iterability and the ever-present possibility of misrecognition or miscommunication, which returns all the crucial aspects of agency to the human agent and to the issues of the so-called linguistic turn.  From there it looks at how costume was used in the citation of identity but subject to the same issues, and thus a crucial locus of social change.]

1. A First blast of the trumpet against the monstrous regiment of the Material Turn

Figure 1
I’m not a fashionable historian – stylish maybe; never fashionable – so it will come as no surprise that I am a little skeptical of the new materialisms.  All of these of course have important things to offer but I wonder to what extent they are being employed critically. As approaches drawn upon in post-humanism I find them, potentially at least, politically problematic and I wonder whether they represent the radical way forward from the so-called linguistic turn (figure 1, left) that some claim.

In Kristina Sessa’s recent tour-de-force critique of environmental historical approaches to, and explanations for, late antique history, Sessa writes that new materialist approaches are a way beyond seeing everything in terms of social construction and rhetoric which she appears to equate with the linguistic turn.  We read about the agency of non-human actors – animals, objects, the environment. Sadly, ending a very fine composition on a little bit of a bum note, Sessa writes of the possibility of knowing ‘what the physical world actually looked like’, which sounds uncomfortably like a translation of ‘wie es eigentlich gewesen’.

Figure 2
With some help from a learned colleague (figure 2, right), I have several questions to hang over the theme of this year’s congress, gradually rippling outwards in their implications.  The first is whether a critically-undigested Material Turn is simply a convenient ‘line of flight’ for historians unsettled by the epistemological challenges of the Linguistic Turn.  The second is whether the so-called Linguistic Turn ever really made itself felt in Late Antique/Early Medieval history beyond a few exemplary but isolated studies.  Rippling outwards again, if history is to remain a human science (in the sense of Wissenschaft) is it actually possible to go beyond the Linguistic Turn?

2. Derrida 101
Let’s go right back to basics, with apologies to those for whom this is elementary.  Here’s a passage from Simon Blackburn, a professor of philosophy at Cambridge (figure.
Figure 3
 If there’s nothing outside the text, how can you be hit by a bus? Ho ho. If you’ve actually read Derrida you will know that he never actually said there was nothing outside the text and you’ll know that, by ‘text’, he meant much more than writing on a piece of paper, or similar surface; and ‘il n’y a pas de hors-texte’ doesn’t mean ‘there is nothing outside the text’ anyway!  And Blackburn and his ilk like to set themselves up as the policemen of analytical rigour… By ‘text’ Derrida meant something that went to the very bases of recognition and communication.

The keystone of Derridian philosophy is his notion of iterability.  Once something conveys information to something or someone else, that sign becomes capable of reproduction in infinite contexts, whether or not the original transmitter or receiver of the signified information are present.  This applies to any signifying unit (grapheme in Derrida’s term), in any sensory context: visual, aural, whatever. It applies whether the information conveyed is of the most general kind; whether it applies to categories or their members (figure 4); 
Figure 4

Figure 5
whether it applies to the seemingly unique (figure 5), or even names (figure 6). The signified, furthermore, is always defined and refined by the grapheme’s relationship to all the signifiers in the system, a system of spacing, physical and temporal. The network of interrelationships, similarity and difference, of spacing, Derrida called the trace. So, one can never get back to a self-present original – and meaning depends on an endless series of juxtapositions and contrasts.  This is différance.  Clear in written form, key characteristics of text are shared by all forms of communication.  If the bus in Blackburn’s facile discussion wasn’t textual – in Derrida’s sense – you wouldn’t know to get out of its way.
Figure 6

Figure 7
This blurs the distinction between the human and the animal, and even the natural, world, as Derrida’s late work emphasized.  The iterability always already present in a sign means that there can never really be an original context and that graphemes can be deployed in situations where their content is played with.  Things disguise themselves as or mimic other things (figure 7, right) on the basis of that very principle.  There is always potential for slippage and miscommunication: deliberate or accidental.  The bus might bearing down upon you might only be a papier-maché model… (In the UK we are quite used to the concept of bus-related miscommunication: figure 8, below) 
Figure 8

The ever-present possibility of miscommunication (and of wager and irony that go with it) is central to my critique, and indeed to my conception of history.

Figure 9
In Lacanian philosophy the order of the Real is that which eludes signification – inclusion in his orders of the Symbolic and Imaginary: it’s the unassimilated material. This includes the pre-symbolised and (I would add) mis-symbolised.  Yet we can only understand the inevitably traumatic - if not fatal - encounter with the Real retrospectively – teleologically – by its incorporation/reincorporation into the orders of language.  To illustrate this, no one encounters the Real as often, or as traumatically, as Wile E. Coyote (figure 9, right).  But the joke – even if you don’t find Loony Toons very funny – depends entirely upon textual signification and irony.

3. Actors, agents and actants
So, to return to the material world (by which I mean principally the insentient, or the artifact), can an object have agency?  Can it occupy a subject position?  Can it recognise itself? Most importantly, can an object misrecognise itself? – that question, it seems to me, remains valid even in the age of AI.  It’s difficult to respond to those questions in the positive, so it helps to think instead of Latour’s notion of the actant: the element of the network that acts upon a human actor or agent.  Again, I am skeptical and the notion of miscommunication and misrecognition is the key.

If you throw a ball at a wall and the ball bounces back unexpectedly and hits you in the face can you say the wall acted upon you? Perhaps. Has the cliff face acted upon Dr Coyote? Do material objects prompt human action? Did the bowl allegedly from the sack of Rome really exert a political force on the Goths who objected to its being handed over to the Franks?  Does an object’s biography add to its estimation in the eyes of people, like, perhaps, the great silver bowl made by Chilperic I?  Did the treasure being sent by Fredegund to Spain with Rigunth really provoke anxiety on the part of ‘the Franks?  Did the finger bone of Saint Sergius really excite Mummolus and the pretender Gundovald to have an undignified scrap with a Syrian merchant on the floor of his house?  Did climatic change and plague produce human responses in the later sixth century?  Bracketing for now whether or not one would agree in the last case, you can, with Latour, answer all of those questions in the positive, and that is important. 

However, a crucial modification is necessary. Every instance relies upon recognition. Although the cliff face clearly acts upon Wile, it possesses no agency. The only agent is Wile E Coyote, who misread it as a tunnel. Does it matter whether the Visigothic bowl really had been captured at the Sack of Rome? Does the reality of an object’s biography have any bearing? Was the bit of bone in a house in Bordeaux really the finger bone of the martyr Sergius? Was it even human? That didn’t matter; Mummolus and Gundovald thought it was.  What matters is nothing intrinsic to the object itself, but to its perception.  When the leudes of the Rhineland Franks betrayed their king for Clovis they did so for an enormous treasure of gold coins.  But those coins turned out to be bronze.  The perception of the value of Fredegund’s treasure mattered; who knows whether it was more - or less - valuable than the Franks thought, or whether it had, as Fredegund claimed, really come entirely from her own revenues?  If one accepts that various later sixth-century beliefs and behaviours were responses to climatic and environmental events, was the climate or environment the agent?  Or was it people’s misreading of those events as the sign of the End of the World?

There is no guarantee against misrecognition; that possibility inheres in – is the guarantor of – all communication; all noesis.  A human subject experiences – intends – an object not simply in its material givenness, but textually: as that subject reads or misreads that givenness. 

4. The Materialisation of Identity in 6th-Century Gaul 
Now comes the twist. The philosophy I have been discussing – the sort of thing widely believed to be central to the Linguistic Turn – is in fact, materialist.  That’s another reason why, in crucial regards, the so-called Material Turn can’t be set up in opposition to, or as an advance on, the Linguistic Turn.
The materialization of identity can be explored on the basis of the points I have made so far.  Identity is one of those words that is ubiquitous in early medieval studies, in the titles of books, chapters, articles, papers and conferences.  Yet I know of almost nothing serious written about identity as a concept.

Identities are categories: means of organising the world. As such, they are constructed as signs, or groups of signs, and function in the Imaginary as well as Symbolic registers. That is, the signified is the ideal member of the category (young woman, male elder, monk, king etc.), created by social and ritual mores, etc. Identities are constituted in citation and in performativity.

Identity is itself a motion towards an ideal. That ideal can never be attained, because it never had a pure, originary existence. It’s a motion of desire: what do I want to be, but also, crucially, what do they want me to be? What do think they want me to be?  

In any interaction there are at least two sets of signifieds in play: both parties’ ideals of what their status and identity and that of the other person mean.  These might, of course, not coincide.  The performative citation of identity is always, to some extent, a risk, a wager.  That’s one of the most important things I want to stress.

Those ideals are always themselves changing in the course of social practice. They can never be entirely recreated so it’s critically mistaken to talk of the maintenance of an identity by a group, whether the bearers of the Traditionskern or an equally mythical group of Gothic Königsfreie; no such thing had ever existed that was capable of maintenance in the first place.  It was always already in a state of renegotiation and reinvention.

How does one convey a subject position?  Another thing that interests me about the sixth century is the break-down, redefinition and relocation of the architectural delineations of space which acted as a brake on the social change inherent in social interaction. (I have discussed this elsewhere.) In the absence of those classical spatial delineations, the cues about identity and appropriate behavior were given through a relatively greater investment in costume. 

Merovingian cemetery-analysis has repeatedly shown that costume, was capable of transmitting quite detailed information about the social categories to which the deceased belonged. Sufficient evidence supports the hypothesis that funerary costume at least bore a reasonable relationship to formal dress.  One might suggest that the very degree to which Merovingian people lived their lives in the gaze of the community suggests that even ‘everyday’ costume may have borne some sort of relationship to the formal and stylised construction of social categories in death.

Clearly, the elements of costume – broadly defined – transmit information textually, individually and in combination.  A trace, in Derrida’s term, governs the spacing and interrelationship on which their signification depends. Elements of costume can also be disassembled and reassembled, providing new contexts.  I’m not suggesting that any of this is unusual or specific to sixth-century Gaul, but I do think it had a particular valence in earlier Merovingian social formation. 

Figure 10
Identity’s materialisation isn’t simply about its signification via objects.  Merovingian people were – like Clovis – well aware that you could disguise one object as another to produce a desired effect, via alloys, by silvering or gilding bronze, or even in objects like Balthild’s chemise (figure 10, right).  It is also about the very fact that performative or citational identity is itself the materialisation of identity.  And it is about the material effects that that had.

Figure 11
Merovingian law, which penalises the touching of women’s bodies, shows some of the ways in which costume created social space.  These parts of the body are generally those highlighted by Merovingian jewellery (figure 11, left). The system of wergilds also set out levels of legal protection for particular categories: women of child-bearing age; young boys; Franks; royal officers, and so on.  All these seem to have been visible in costume. 

Costume could work reciprocally with specific occasions to furnish a script for the bodily comportment expected.

If, with Giddens and Bourdieu, you see social structure constraining but simultaneously constituted by practice, a constantly rewritten archive of the right (and wrong) means of relating to people of particular social categories, then there is another aspect of the materialization of identity that can be mentioned.

The perceived objects making up costume, transmitting information, are in effect the repositories of those archives.

As we’ve seen, iteration implies the ever-present chance of misunderstanding or miscommunication.  This is a key support of Butler’s work on performative gender and drag.  An example close to Butler’s might be found in the Poitevin who appears in Gregory of Tours’ account of the tribunal that ended the Nuns’ Revolt.  In Gregory’s report, this was a man who dressed as a woman, he said, because he was ‘incapable of manly work’.  This is a difficult text from which to read that person’s identity.  The difficulty is only magnified by another iteration of feminine costume.  Several late antique texts notionally about paganism condemn the practice of dressing up as an old woman on the Kalends of January.  This alone gives us a range of different possible ways of reading feminine costume: different signifieds.

My final point concerns how one might escape situations where a miscue, misfire or miscommunication had occurred.  Even if elaborate costumes or layers of social skin aim to convey one identity, they can be peeled back to reveal others.  Laying aside the weaponry that conveyed Frankishness or an age-grade, for instance, could strip that persona back to a shared general masculine identity; buckling such items back on could remake distance. The multiplicity of identities assembled in the subject makes this possible. 

5. Conclusion

I have had several aims in this paper. I have at one level wanted to suggest that costume, by communicating textually key information about identity, creates both social space but a sense of one’s place within it and that this mattered in particular in a sixth-century Gallic context.  I have tried to suggest that it functioned as the archive for social knowledge and thus imply that it was crucially implicated in processes of change.  I have attempted to stress the fluidity of such communication, of the extent of uncertainty and wager involved, not least because of the constitutive possibility of miscommunication, and how reference to the same battery of material signifiers could provide lines of flight from such situations.  More than that though I have wanted to argue that you can have material effects without a concept of the agency of objects and, above all, that seeing a supposed material turn as an opposition to, or an advance on a hermeneutics based upon the concept of textual or linguistic communication is crucially mistaken.

Thursday, 24 October 2019

Non-Migrating Barbarians: Late Antiquity in Northern Barbaricum

[This is the paper I gave on Tues 22 October to the inaugural meeting of the Seminar für Alte Geschichte at the University of Tübingen, where I am delighted to be spending most of this academic year as a visiting fellow, hosted by the Migration and Mobility project there.  For the second time in three months or so I thank Prof Mischa Meier for a lovely introduction (and congratulate him on the appearance of his monumental volume on the Völkerwanderung).  The second part of the paper is largely drawn from the text of my paper for the Cambridge Archaeology of Late Antiquity but with some key modifications.  I also modify my ideas about the relationship between migration and the end of the Rhine frontier.  Indeed, as I was writing this, I began to see why I am not as successful as certain other historians of this period.  With some famous historians of the migrations you can read a work of theirs from the '90s and be 95% sure they still agree with their arguments there; with me you can't even be sure that I still agree with something I said - and categorically at that - three months ago...

Be that as it may, the paper opens with a discussion of some of the issues with the 'Late Antique Paradigm' and why it might be worth exploring it from the perspective of  lands beyond the Roman imperial frontier, makes some points about the evidence and its structuring and then discusses in turn, the relationships between Empire and Barbaricum, changes in the fifth century, and change around 600 to conclude that the period has a unifying feature in the importance of the Roman Empire and that the big changes at the end of the period covered are linked to an end of Rome, all of which might pose some interesting and ironic problems for the Late Antique Paradigm.]


The first thing I want to say – I seem to have to keep saying this – is that the first part of my title should not be read as a statement or claim that there were no Barbarian Migrations: no migrating barbarians.  It is a simple statement of what the paper is about, which is to say, those barbarians who didn’t migrate or at least about those who, if they did migrate, came home again: surely – in anyone’s estimation – the overwhelming majority of ‘Barbarians’.  It is concerned with the territories north and west of the western Roman Empire between the later third and the earlier seventh century, which you might see as the heart of late antiquity, a ‘core late antiquity’, or even a short late antiquity. 

The question before us – and has been posed by me and others before – is whether there is a northern or north-western European late antiquity.  Does the ‘late antique paradigm’ apply to the regions beyond the Rhine-Danube limes, Hadrian’s Wall and the Irish Sea?  If it seems uncontroversial to speak of late antique Persia or late antique Arabia – areas beyond the Roman frontiers of course – why does it sound strange to speak of late antique Denmark or late antique Pictland – especially in an intellectual climate where we are encouraged to think of a ‘global late antiquity?  I don’t think that ‘global late antiquity’ (or for that matter the global middle ages) is an especially helpful term, but that is a separate issue from realising that the Mediterranean was not the centre of the world, that it was connected directly or indirectly to most other regions of the globe and their own centres, or that in some ways the various Eurasian imperial ‘centres’ – the Mediterranean, China and India – were all peripheral to each other and especially to the Eurasian steppe.

Of course, what makes late antiquity tricky as a descriptor in all these cases is that it is not merely a chronological term, but a paradigm or problematic.  To speak of the chronological period of the third-to-seventh centuries of the Christian Era across, say, the north-west of Europe – the far western Eurasian capes and islands as I sometimes like to call them, to try to decentre Europe – is possibly fine (I hope so as I want to write a book on that topic).  But that is subtly different from talking about ‘late antiquity’ in those regions. No one needs reminding of the origins of the concept of late antiquity, as a means of side-stepping the old idea that in the fifth century, with the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, the ancient world ended and the medieval world began (whatever that may have meant): a caesura in the whole of European and Mediterranean history.  Naturally, very famous scholars had been questioning the nature and reality of that caesura since the late nineteenth century, but the idea of a new periodisation stressing continuity seems to have been new, from the 1950s onwards, until – famously, classically – popularised in the general consciousness by Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity.

Equally, however, the notion has not gone uncritiqued.  The paradigm works best in geographical regions closest to the Mediterranean, especially the eastern Mediterranean, and thematically in areas like those in which Brown was most interested: religion and society; thought.  There might be something to the unity of the ‘short’ late antiquity I am discussing in the economic sphere as well, even if not in the way that Pirenne imagined – albeit before the notion of Late Antiquity had emerged.  However, the concentration of Late Antique scholarship on the East, and on themes like Christianity, the church, ideas, society and the holy, meant that the problem it had initially seemed to confront, that is to say the supposed ruptures of the fifth century, were in practice rather sidestepped.  To what extent had people ever generally supposed a huge rift in eastern Mediterranean society, religion, art and thought as a result of the fifth-century Barbarian Invasions or Migrations and the collapse of the Western Empire? (That’s not a merely rhetorical genuine question, by the way.) 

As I see it, the politics of the fifth-century west have remained something of a blind spot for the Late Antique paradigm.  How to explain the fact that the western Roman Empire existed in 400 but had at least ceased to be effective by 500 and was generally recognised by contemporaries to have disappeared by the middle quarters of the sixth century?  The solution appears to have accepted the paradigm of ‘barbarian invasion’ but to deny that this made much difference – in a way similar to Pirenne’s or Fustel’s interpretation (you might call this the ‘Weak Thesis’ of the Barbarian Migrations).  Or generally just to gloss over the problem.  That solution does not appear to be effective.

Consequently, since about 1990, there has been a steady come-back for – if you like – the ‘Strong Thesis’ of the Barbarian Migrations: the idea that the Barbarian Migrations brought down – conquered – the Roman Empire in the West and that this was a dramatic change – catastrophic even – an End of Civilisation.  Contemporaneously, other historians took continuity to extreme lengths: that nothing significant really happened at all in the fifth century.  In 1999 I had labelled the historians who supported the ‘Strong Barbarian Invasion Thesis’ and the ‘Late Antique Continuity’ paradigms, ‘movers’ and ‘shakers’ respectively: admittedly this was not meant as any more than a potentially amusing stylistic device (amusing to me if no one else).  That was before the ‘Ultra-Continuity’ and ‘End of Civilisation’ variants had even come to full fruition.  As a result, much of the debate appears to have been couched in terms of binary oppositions, first between seeing the 5th century as a period when nothing very much happened at all, or viewing it as one when everything went to dramatically to pieces because of the barbarians.  The second, related, crude binary presented is between seeing the Barbarian migrations as having destroyed the Empire and not really believing that barbarian migrations happened, or were important. The first options are very clearly equated with the ‘Late Antique’ paradigm by Bryan Ward-Perkins in his 2005 volume The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation.  Indeed, he also equated itt with the paradigm of the Transformation of the Roman World project of the 1990s.  Now, even leaving aside the straw-men set up by Ward-Perkins and his rather childish mockery of the terminology of certain scholarship about Late Antiquity, the fact remained that – as Walter Pohl pointed out in his review of the book  – a pretty crude caricature.  There were and are, as Pohl said, quite a lot of historians who see the fifth century as anything but cosy, peaceful and harmonious, even if they don’t subscribe to the Barbarian Migrations Thesis, at least in its strong form.  And there are those who see barbarian migrations as having happened and been significant, but not responsible for the fragmentation of the West.

I have never been convinced by continuity arguments, which very often boil down either to the continued existence of institutions with the same name, or of very general social, political or economic features.  The idea that people continued to be wealthy but used the wealth in different ways, or continued to spend money on public buildings, just of radically different sorts, or continued to be more powerful than other people and to dominate the local population but in different ways; palace officials or particular taxes continue to be visible in the sources, although probably articulated in quite different ways, or in entirely altered contexts. These arguments seem weak to me.  Many of the titles of members of Queen Elizabeth II’s court go back to the late Middle Ages at least.  The main impost on modern British citizens, Income Tax, was introduced in the 1790s to pay for the war against Revolutionary France (the interest on which, I once read somewhere, the British government still hasn’t paid off).  How much continuity is implied with the late eighteenth, let alone the fifteenth centuries, does that imply? 

We must be much more rigorous in our arguments for continuity, and not simply try to downplay change which might have been very important in the lived experiences, in the human scale, of the past.  If we do, I think we find that constant change rather than continuity was the norm. Nonetheless, there were (and are) periods of more dramatic change, and the fifth century in the western half of the Empire (at least) was certainly one.  It is difficult to see how it could not have been when it saw the dissolution of a centuries old Empire.  That must call for some sort of rethinking of the Late Antique problematic discussed earlier.

As I have argued for some time now, we should not be seeing the Empire and Barbaricum as two opposed worlds in constant tension, opposition and confrontation but rather as the core and periphery of a single world – even if, as I said earlier, hardly the only or necessarily most important one – in other words, even if that core was not the core, and lay itself only in the most peripheral vision of other cores, with their own surrounding worlds. 

Consequently, when thinking about the Late Antique Paradigm, it is vital to consider the regions to the north and west of the Pars Occidentalis.  If life went on there on either an unbroken trajectory or its own rhythms independently of events in the Empire one might be able somehow to further relativise the dramas of fifth-century imperial politics, although – given my point about the interconnectedness of the Roman and Barbarian worlds -  that might be rather surprising.  It might, however, in some ways support a ‘Strong’ Barbarian Migrations Hypothesis: the Imperial frontier could no longer hold back the surge of the barbarians; some got in and conquered the Roman Empire but the rest stayed at home and just got on with things like they always had.

What if, on the other hand, the demise of the Western Empire had crucial effects on the territories to the north and west of the Empire and caused dramatic changes there?  In view of the argument about Barbaricum being the periphery of an intimately connected (small) world system, that would be less surprising.  It would not in itself rule out either a Strong or Weak Barbarian Migrations hypothesis but it would probably shed more light on the nature of the migrations that took place in that century.  In that regard, therefore, it is quite strange that in the vast majority of works on the Barbarian Migrations the lands beyond the limes, if they feature much at all, drop out of the story after the barbarians have moved, as though the large-scale but short-term movements involved had no sort of effect on the territories they left behind.  This also prevents an investigation of what effect the demise of the Western Empire, which had been a dominant presence for the inhabitants of Barbaricum for centuries, had upon the lands beyond the former frontier. 

A discussion of the socio-politico-economic developments in Ireland, Britain north of Hadrian’s wall, Scandinavia and Germany and the Netherlands east of the Rhine and north of the Danube over the long term surely has the potential to tell us much about how those lands related to the provinces, or former-provinces of the Western Empire.  That is the main project I am working on this year, research for a volume provisionally called Imperial Periphery: Northern Barbaricum in Late Antiquity

Evidence and problems

A topic like this must be based, overwhelmingly, on archaeological material. This project, in any detail or comparative sense, would not have been as feasible all that long ago.  Although the archaeology of Germania Magna has long been rich, the archaeology of this period north of Hadrian’s wall has undergone a surge of interest over the past few decades. Across all of the areas under review, our knowledge and analyses of the archaeological data have advanced considerably: another reason why an overview might be valuable.  For the non-archaeologists here, the types of evidence available can be grouped under a few key headings: settlement sites; cemeteries; ritual deposits; stray finds; palaeo-environmental data.  Most of those can of course be subdivided into, for example, high-status sites, fortified sites, communal cemeteries; isolated burials; and so on.  The knowledge of such categories, and even their existence, varies between regions and from one period to the next.  This is not necessarily because of their non-existence.  There are many reasons for the blanks on archaeological maps; one of those is a lack of understanding of, or ability to recognise, particular classes of site.  The comparison of excavated evidence for settlement and the results of palaeo-environmental survey in several areas – where no datable settlements from the period are known but where the paleo-environmental data makes it clear that complete abandonment had not happened – reveals that sometimes we must simply not be recognising the relevant sites.  All of these classes of data require particular skills for their evaluation and interpretation.  As a result of this and many other similar considerations, not to mention my own ignorance, much of what I say today can only be interim or provisional: a basis for a conversation and, perhaps, a starting point for new questions.

North-western Barbaricum is naturally a variegated place, containing many different regions and even micro-regions, the differences between which cannot all be reflected even in a much longer presentation than this one, which attempts to look at general trends and to stress diversity and change.  Inevitably, I am going to have to generalise and hope that I am not doing too harsh a disservice to the experience of many local communities. 

In previous musings on this subject, drawing inspiration from an article from the 1980s by Lotte Hedeager, I have experimented with a tripartite division of the lands beyond the limes: a frontier zone, which I now prefer to call the ‘immediate zone’, bordering the Empire; an intermediate zone beyond that; and an outer zone.  The more I have thought about this, the more caveats I have found myself needing to make about it; the more ‘exceptions’ that need to be noted. 

The important caveats that I must make are as follows.  First, there isn’t any sort of neat algorithm between distance from the frontier and the ‘zone’ in which a region is located.  Some areas that can be reached by sea, around the North Sea coast from Britain or the Gallic provinces, show features that align them in some ways more with the ‘immediate’ than the ‘intermediate’ zone.  On the other hand, Ireland, in spite of being accessible by a short crossing from Britannia and so effectively lying on the imperial frontier, shows no such signs of structural proximity to the Empire, and its archaeological ‘signature’ looks more like that of the ‘Intermediate’ zone.  At a very local level, too there can be important variations.  The distance between North Sea Coast Terps with evidence for close links with Rome, and those which look like they belong to the ‘Intermediate’ zone is often not great.  Indeed, the difference between the zones is more structural than geographical; perhaps the physical-geographical-sounding concept of ‘bands’ needs to be replaced.

The ‘Immediate zone’ is characterised by a dense network of contacts – economic, social, political – between it and the Empire. The frontier itself provides a framework for these rather than strictly regulating, let alone restricting, them except during short periods and along particularly stretches of the limes

The ‘Intermediate zone’ is characterised by less frequent contacts, heavily mediated by political relationships.  Trade contacts are less regular or reliable, possibly controlled by regional elites in order to bolster their position.  Large-scale Roman diplomatic payments which, as throughout Barbaricum but especially in this zone, could play a vital role in local and regional politics.  The Outer Zone is that wherein contacts with the Empire might still be very valuable but are either scarcer or on a smaller scale, and thus where socio-political development generally takes place with little reference to imperial economic and political networks.  Within each of zone, in my hypothesis, the effect on the region of changes or fluctuations in the relationship with Rome is felt in different ways.  That’s going to be central to my discussion. 

Romano-Barbarian Relationships

When we consider the dynamics of Late Antique Roman-Barbarian interrelationships, we start in a period of important change.  The third century, as is well-known, saw the formation of major confederacies on the Roman frontier most of which were unknown or – in the case of the Saxons –hardly-known before that century: the Franks, the Alamanni, and Picts (the common assumption about the location of the third-fifth-century Picts north of the Forth is based upon a retrojection of seventh-century political geography and thus in my view mistaken).  What these confederations were like, how real they were, how different in practice from earlier trans-Rhenan or northern British polities, can be debated but, however one – rightly – questions whether they were the dramatic shift or break that is sometimes assumed, I don’t think one can escape the fact that this was something different: something that had the potential at least to articulate barbarian politics and the possibilities for power at a higher level in a quite different fashion from before.  On occasions, some quite formidable foes emerged across the Rhine.

The archaeology of trans-Rhenen Barbaricum appears to show a consistent pattern of increasing social complexity from the late second century and the beginning of what, since Eggers, German archaeologists (confusingly to this Brit) call their Late Roman period, through into what British archaeologists would more conventionally think of as late Roman, the late third and fourth century, to the start of the fifth.  This can be seen in the layout of settlements, the appearance and development of Herrenhöfe, sometimes separated from the remainder of the settlement, the fencing of properties, and so on.  In this part of the world, of course, we encounter the Höhensiedlungen, a diverse phenomenon to be sure, but one that shows the ability of local leaders to mobilise manpower on quite a significant scale.  There seems to be increasing evidence of craft specialisation; wheel-thrown pottery and so on.  By the fourth century we know of several settlements with populations estimated and two to five hundred people which, if hardly counting as significant on a general Roman Imperial scale, were nonetheless fairly substantial nucleated settlements and, indeed possibly compared favourably with some of the late Roman intermediate settlements in northern Gaul and Germania and were possibly not too much smaller than some of the most contracted civitas capitals, like Bavai for example. Increasingly effective political organisation can also be seen, as noted, in the Danish bog-finds.  The rare and scattered fourth-century use of funerary ritual as a focus for local competition also suggests more settled social structures. 

The key point that I would stress is that Barbaricum east of the Rhine and in the regions immediately north of Hadrian’s Wall were saturated with Roman influence in the late imperial period.  The expression of high status in fourth-century barbaricum is invariably coloured by Roman ideas.  For barbarians the emperor was the fons et origo of real power.  We do not know how Roman idioms and objects were translated in their use by non-Romans but we cannot now identify any distinctively barbarian ideas of rulership in the late imperial era. 

The Alamans produced brooches that clearly imitated those issued to imperial officials.  Possibly manufactured on high-status Höhensiedlungen, they these may have been issued to royal followers as signs of status.  Roman military metalwork was buried quite frequently in the cremation cemeteries of the ‘Saxon homelands’.  Clearly, the families of Saxons who returned home after serving in the Roman army could think of no better way of symbolising the deceased’s prestige than to cremate them in their old uniform or publicly inter their ashes alongside badges of their imperial service.  In the same part of the world, around 400, a wooden chair was included in a prestigious burial.  This was carved with designs based upon the ‘chip-carved’ ornament that decorated official imperial metalwork. 

After the third century imports into Germania Magna are much greater than before and, at least in the immediate zone, appear to conform to broad trading patterns rather than periodic surges related to diplomatic activity.    The presence of the frontier and its economic possibilities might have been one of the motors for social development.

One of the most important third-century changes is the increase in contact between Scandinavia and the Roman Empire, above all the eastern Roman Empire.  Glassware replaces bronze vessels as the most frequent import and such objects are found more widely throughout Scandinavia than before.  This may reveal an increasing importance of the (possibly misleadingly-named) ‘amber routes’ from the Baltic to the Mediterranean.  The distribution of many objects reveals the importance of this artery (or cluster of arteries) of communication and, in turn the political value of controlling such a route.  The spread of political authority and identity up and down these routes is an important element of the patterns of migration in the Late Roman Iron Age.  One effect of this increased power may be a more secure local power of the regional élites.  According to Dieter Quast, the distribution of ‘lavish burials’ in Germanic-speaking barbaricum shifts noticeably westwards from the valleys of the key ‘amber route’ rivers to the part of my ‘intermediate’ zone behind the western ‘immediate zone’ in the Late Roman period.

Even in areas quite far from the frontier, trans-Rhenan craftsmen had imitated Roman products since the early Roman period.  By the fourth century, the ‘immediate zone’ of Germanic-speaking Barbaricum might be seen as northern Gaul’s economic hinterland.  Exports of Argonne ware are frequent there and bronze vessels evidently made on the Meuse were exported as far as Norway.  In the late Roman period, influences from the Empire seem to have begun to penetrate Irish politics and society and perhaps became a significant engine of social change.  This influence did not only take artefactual form.  The appearance in Germania of inhumation, the standard fourth-century provincial Roman burial rite, has long been recognised as indicating imperial influence.  Inhumation appeared in northern Britain too, likely in a similar cultural imitatio imperii

Approaches driven by the traditional ‘barbarian migration’ narrative have frequently argued that the Roman-barbarian frontier was deepening into the Empire, but when read on their own terms the archaeological data suggest quite the opposite: the increasing ‘Romanisation’ of barbaricum.  This should not surprise us.

‘Career migration’ into the Empire was a standard feature of barbarian life.  The late Roman army may or may not have recruited more barbarians than before but, with the separation of civil and military service, the opportunity for non-Romans to rise high in the army was certainly greater.  Alamans and, later, Franks did very well in the fourth-century military.

The Empire continued to intervene in barbarian politics, paying large sums to barbarian groups to keep others in check and periodically launching military operations.  Diplomatic payments became extremely important in politics beyond the limes.  Setting up and knocking down barbarian leaders remained essential to Roman frontier policy.  As had been the case since the late Republic, losing barbarian factions tended to move to imperial territory for security.  That north-western barbaricum was a periphery of the Roman Empire and the dynamics involved in this relationship are hugely important in understanding fifth-century history.

Although it would be as mistaken to view Romano-Barbarian relationships as uniformly harmonious (or to downplay the seriousness of warlike interactions) as it is to see them as constantly confrontational, it is likely that broadly peaceful social, political and economic relations were, proportionately, more normal than warlike.  A fairly tightly organised pattern of relationships and interactions with Rome is probably the most important element to emphasise in explaining the steady increase in trans-Rhenan barbarian socio-political complexity.

A similar picture might be posited for northern Britain.  Although the archaeological evidence is less plentiful and varied than in Germania, written indices of new confederations, the concentration of Roman imports in particular points and the emergence of large high-status sites suggests some parallels.  Close study has suggested the Empire’s ability to build up and knock down powerful groups here, just as east of the Rhine.  Again, the northern frontier was, more often than not, fairly calm; the existence of an established order within which relationships could be structured must be underlined.

Ireland was drawn more tightly into the Roman orbit in the fourth century as archaeological evidence makes clear.  One element was doubtless the raiding referred to by contemporaries.  This should probably be seen alongside the possible élite distribution of late Roman imports.  Whether these come from such attacks, or from Roman payments, or from Irish leaders being able to organise exchange relations with Roman traders, they underline the increasingly important contacts across the Irish Sea.  Again, though, raiding was rarely the sole form of political relationship between the Empire and its neighbours.  Other links might have included recruitment as federate troops or into the élite auxilia palatina, two regiments of which are named ‘Attecotti’.  Who the Attecotti were and where they came from are mysterious but they were certainly associated in some way with the Irish.  Irish settlement in western Britain may have begun within the Roman period, although the evidence is nebulous.  Another form of Roman influence was, of course, Christianity.  Attempts to evangelise the Irish were made during the fifth century, but possibly began earlier. This thickening network of connections doubtless lies at the root of the changes beginning in this period.  Here, however, such change may have involved the break-up of old, loose but extensive kingdoms.  It certainly seems reasonable to envisage more political stress in Ireland than in northern Britain or Germania in this period.

Another point I want to stress is the role played by Roman infrastructure beyond the wall, whether in the former agri decimates or immediately north of Hadian’s Wall, in enabling closer links between imperial core and barbarian periphery (perhaps something similar in the provinces north of the Danube too).  There had always been a notion of ‘forward projection’ from the limes, entirely in line with Dick Whittaker’s early 1990s reading of the frontier as a ‘membrane’, through which the Romans could pass at will.  The continued existence of road networks and other infrastructure must have made this even more possible. I was recently wondering whether the permission giving for Frankish settlement in Toxandria was not an effort to create a similar situation on the Lower Rhine.

Fifth-Century Change

The fifth century is obviously crucial to considering the ‘late antique problematic’ beyond the limes and elsewhere.  Barbaricum was the imperium’s increasingly intimately-connected periphery.  The crisis into which the Western Empire was plunged from the 380s, after Magnus Maximus’ usurpation, lasting until c.420, and – more so – the failure to weather that crisis inevitably and profoundly affected the territories beyond the frontiers.  Closest to the limes, where local kings were apparently propped up by further Roman gifts and payments during the civil wars, this crisis had no immediate effect;  Franks and Alamans were only minimally involved in this period’s incursions.  Archaeologically, in some areas the period continues fourth-century developments, especially in settlements around the lower Rhine frontier. 

Major problems arose behind the ‘immediate zone’, in the intermediate zone of barbaricum.  Here, the contacts with Rome that were necessary to the maintenance of prestige were more precarious, although possibly even more important in underpinning political authority and stability.  Late fourth- and early fifth-century civil wars ended the carefully managed frontier system, which had ensured a rough parity between groups.  Barbarian leaders in the interior had often been paid to counterbalance the frontier peoples.  When that managed system ended, and especially as the distracted Romans simply shored up their allies on the frontier, political stress was inevitable.  It is very significant that the barbarians who invaded Gaul in the early fifth century were from the ‘intermediate band’ of barbaricum: Sueves, Vandals and Burgundians.  The political stress in these regions may have led some factions to ask for support from the newly-hegemonic Hunnic leaders north of the Danube, which may have been decisive, propelling defeated elements towards the Rhine. 

The early fifth-century crisis is most visible archaeologically in the North Sea Coastal regions.  The ‘Saxon Homelands’, although showing some similarities with the ‘immediate zone’, also have features of the interior band.  The socio-economic crises affecting the north-western Roman provinces at this time, very clearly visible in settlement abandonment, economic decline and changes in burial, doubtless impacted seriously upon the closely connected Saxon regions.  We can see this in settlement change and abandonment and the transformations in burial rites.  Saxon archaeology shares numerous features with the archaeology of Britain and northern Gaul, underlining the analytical usefulness of the concept of a North Sea cultural zone.  This period seems to have seen the re-emergence of Frisian, Anglian and Jutish identities, suggesting a break-up of the Saxon confederacy.  Migration to Britain was a crucial product of these developments.  Related to these changes are those mentioned in the heart of the interior band of Germania.  The Elbe Valley had been a crucial artery linking barbaricum and the Empire and the Roman crisis around 400 doubtless had a knock-on effect there.  By the later fifth century a new Thuringian kingdom had established its authority along the river.

The changes around 400 had effects in Scandinavia.  Certain forms of import began to dry up for example.  By the sixth century something of an archaeological ‘Dark Age’ is noted in some parts of the region.  It does not, however, seem to be the case that this necessarily implied social or economic decline.  Many specialists believe that the relative archaeological invisibility of ‘Early Germanic Iron Age’ Denmark may attest more to a slow consolidation of power and social hierarchies.  It may be better to think of a longer term readjustment in response to Roman political change, rather than the short-lived but dramatic crises seen elsewhere.  Settlement patterns may intensify rather than decline, and new forms of agriculture were introduced.  Nonetheless, bursts of larger or more lavish inhumations around 400 and 500 imply some crises during the period in some regions. Another key element there is the import of large numbers of solidi, interestingly analysed by Svante Fischer. Fischer’s hypothesis of opportunities for mercenary service perhaps especially in the eastern Empire and perhaps diplomatic payments might significantly have disrupted patterns of contact with the Empire that had persisted for some time.

Similar dynamics are visible in Britain.  Possible changes in Roman Britain’s governance meant that the frontier band, north of Hadrian’s Wall, became more like an interior zone.  This produced some archaeologically visible signs of crisis, such as the abandonment of hillforts, like Traprain Law, and changes in burial rite, wherein funerals became important in local community politics.  Fifth-century crisis apparently led to a break-up of the Pictish confederacies and, while one group had, by the seventh century, retained the name of Picts, other identities reasserted themselves.  Earlier tribal names like the Votadini and Maetae resurfaced.  In Ireland, the break-down of the imperial links that had been developing earlier, and which had probably lain behind a certain amount of political change and stress, doubtless only emphasised the latter and, as elsewhere, produced migration into former Roman territory.

On the Rhine frontier, crisis came later, with the failure to re-establish imperial authority along the limes and thus continue to back frontier kings.  This is detectable in Frankish and Alamannic archaeology.  The political stress this produced led to incursions into northern Gaul and elsewhere.  Eventually the situation was resolved when the Frankish faction that controlled the Roman army on the Loire established its dominance first over the Paris Basin and then over its northern rivals.  This group, the Merovingians, extended its hegemony over the Alamanni, Thuringians and Saxons, as well as, by the 530s, removing the other barbarian kingdoms from Gaul.  Frankish overlordship extended well beyond the Rhine, though, as far as the Elbe, and down the Danube. 

The extent to which the Empire’s demise had changed the relationships between the trans-Rhenan peoples and the territories west of the Rhine can be discussed.  The Merovingian kingdom in some ways inherited the Empire’s role in what had been Germania Magna but the situation differed somewhat.  How similar its relationships with Saxons, Thuringians, Hessians, Alamans, Bavarians were to those between the Empire and the barbarians is debatable. Frankish territories straddled the old frontier and leaders of non-Frankish groups were often closely involved in Frankish politics, having marriage and other ties with Frankish aristocrats.  The Merovingian realm was able to maintain an effective trans-Rhenan hegemony through the sixth century, but the relationships that had cyclically produced migration from barbaricum to imperial territory ceased with the Empire’s collapse.  As I have argued before, the fall of the Roman Empire ended the ‘Barbarian Migrations’.

Or did it?  Since I last expressed that view – here, barely three months ago – I wonder whether I am missing the point by concentrating upon the Rhine. Here is a slightly different proposal, which might I admit be quite mad.  Might the Merovingian hegemony in Germania Magna, which was in many ways the end result of the fifth-century crises on either side of the Rhine, have in fact incorporated much of the intermediate zone within something more like an immediate, or even provincial, relationship with the former imperial territories?  In the former provinces, the fiction endured for some time that the new rulers were still encompassed within the imperium, deriving their authority from official Roman political and administrative titles.  Connections with a Frankish king’s imperially-bestowed honours, possibly even including a consulate of some sort, with a Burgundian king who was a patricius or with an Ostrogothic king who was a magister militum had much the same cachet as earlier relations with a governor, vicarius or Praetorian Prefect.  Before the middle of the sixth century the Frankish kings in Gaul were even not above dipping their toes in the waters of imperial pretensions – especially under Theudebert I, who had been involved in the conquest of the Thuringian realm on the Elbe.  Can we think about the frontier and its dynamics in some ways being pushed forward to the Elbe?  That would certainly fit well with the tone of Theudebert’s famous letter to Justinian and his other actions.  Theudebertus Germanicus?  Is this something that deserves greater emphasis in thinking about the population movements and changes beyond the Elbe in the sixth century – I can’t be the first to have suggested that but I wonder if it at least permits a slightly different perspective on its role in those changes.  

Changes around 600

Change in the latter part of the sixth century and around 600 can be traced almost everywhere from Scandinavia to the Rhine and from Ireland to Bavaria.  We can see changes in burials in several regions, with the increasing importance of above-ground monuments in many – northern Britain, Ireland, the Rhineland and Scandinavia.  If the archaeology of some areas, like Denmark, becomes less visible, this too must be seen as an important change.  New high-status settlements appeared in northern Britain whereas the number of small fortified farmsteads (raths, cashels and crannogs) in Ireland underwent something of an explosion.  Trading patterns changed, connecting Ireland and northern Britain with France.  This hardly exhausts these important transformations.  Their explanation is complex and regionally varied but one element may, not insignificantly, have been internal political crises in the lands west of the Rhine, in Gaul. 

The Merovingian kingdom experienced a profound political crisis from the 570s to the 620s, with royal minorities and civil wars.  As with the imperial civil wars 200 years previously, this produced faction-fighting and a slackening of control over peripheral peoples.  Within Gaul, the circumstances produced an increase in local aristocratic power and more rigid social stratification.  The very analogous archaeologically-visible changes in southern Germany suggest similar developments.  By the mid-seventh century Merovingian hegemony east of the Rhine was in tatters and this must have affected local social structures. 

These events, however, surely cannot lie behind the changes in Scandinavia, northern Britain and Ireland.  They are unlikely entirely to explain the Gallic changes.  We should perceive some broader shifts under way, doubtless connected to the fall-out from the Emperor Justinian’s wars of reconquest, launched in the mid-sixth century.  These terrible, destructive conflicts failed to restore imperial hegemony and had effects far beyond the areas fought over.  They were, furthermore, accompanied by a terrible outbreak of plague, adding – regardless of recent debate about its real extent – to the period’s generally apocalyptic feel.  These changes, which did much to rupture long-standing patterns of life in the Mediterranean, doubtless played a significant role in producing the change in economic patterns mentioned earlier, leading to closer links between Ireland and northern Britain and mainland Europe.  Those shifts in long-distance trade patterns were probably an important element in political change in northern Britain and Ireland, perhaps producing, as elsewhere, more intensive local authority and a break-up of earlier, looser hegemonies.  These Mediterranean crises may even have affected Scandinavia, where the Eastern Empire had been an important source of precious metals and other prestigious imports. 

A shift in ideas may however have been as important as any of this.  As we have seen, the Roman Empire had been an overwhelming presence for the people beyond the frontiers, moulding all sorts of ideas about power and authority.  Some fifth-century bracteates derived their models from depictions of the Emperor on much earlier, fourth-century Roman coins.  Therefore, even after the Western Empire’s collapse, ideas continued to be shaped by notions of Rome and the emperor.  Indeed, I just suggested that such ideas might have started to have more of a direct impact further east than before.  The Justinianic wars changed this.  Justinian based his wars on a strident proclamation that the Western Empire had been ‘lost’ to barbarians and thus needed to be reconquered.  The ultimate failure to reintegrate all the western territories resulted in a new, formal boundary being drawn around the imperial territories in southern Spain and Italy.  I have suggest that as a result of this, perhaps, a new, more integrated zone with what might loosely be called ‘inward-looking’ relationships and political dynamics developed within Germania Magna.   From this, eventually, the polity of ‘Germany’ emerged.  More significantly, perhaps, the impact of these changes on what I suggested had in a way become a kind of new ‘immediate’ or even provincial zone may have played a role in the break-up of the Merovingian hegemony east of the Rhine, even though, as is well known, it was more the case that the links binding these territories into Frankish politics changed rather than broke.  This must surely be crucial to the changing population structures and political relationships on the Elbe.

Awareness that the Roman Empire no longer existed in western Europe produced a profound crisis in the former imperial territories there.  No more could legitimacy be based on an allegedly official position in imperial bureaucracy or a claim to represent the Emperor.  The Emperor himself had made it clear that his writ no longer ran in the West.  ‘Barbarian’ territory’s integration within the imperial orbit made this crisis as visible beyond the old limes as within them.  New ideological underpinnings were sought.  In the former provinces these largely came from the Old Testament and it may be no accident that this was a period when Christian (and again Old Testament) ideology became more influential beyond the old frontier – most obviously in Ireland but also in northern Britain.  Christian foundations spread into Germania Magna and, further away, shifts in the ideological bases of power apparently occurred. 


The study of late antique barbaricum has very important points to make in any discussion of the Late Antique paradigm.  Certainly, the experience of the peoples of northern Europe contradicts the view of Late Antiquity as a period of continuity or even one of steady, uniform development in a particular direction.  There was constant change, and, frequently, periods of considerable upheaval.  North-western European archaeology shows, furthermore, that the fifth-century demise of the western Empire was a dramatic series of events producing crisis throughout barbaricum, as well as within the western provinces.  The structure of relationships between Barbaricum and the Empire meant that any period of important change in the Empire would have repercussions beyond the frontier, including migration. I do not see those migrations as having produced imperial crisis, or to have been the crucial factor in bringing about the fragmentation of the Empire, but that does not mean that they, or the fall-out from them, were not an important feature of fifth- and early sixth-century politics.
However, one thing that remained constant between c.300 and c.550 at least was the Roman Empire’s dominant influence in these regions.  In that sphere, the collapse of the West made little immediate difference and, there, part of the traditional framework of Late Antiquity would seem to be underlined.  It was the mid-sixth-century dramas and their fall-out in the century or so afterwards that made a huge difference, perhaps as much in these far northern and western regions as in the Mediterranean itself.  One reason for this was the awareness, finally, of living ‘after Rome’.  In that sense the period c.300-c.650 has a unity in barbaricum, very much a Late Antique unity, based perhaps ironically around the continuing influence of the Roman Empire.

Monday, 22 July 2019

Reconsidering the Mechanics of Migration: Information and Logistics

[This is the text of a lecture that  I gave at the University of Tübingen last Wednesday.  Many thanks to Mischa Meier, especially, for the invitation and a lovely introduction, and also to Steffen Patzold and Sebastian Schmidt-Hofner.

The paper starts by rehearsing some arguments I have made before about the size of late antique 'barbarian' armies and the restrictions on that imposed by logistics and economics, which it underlines by adducing some comparative material.  It poses the question of how those questions might apply to the migration of larger groups - specifically the sort of large groups who arrived in a specific place at a particular time: the sort of large-scale, short-term migration envisaged in the typical 'Migration of Peoples' (Völkerwanderung) paradigm.

After a brief discussion of the perils, or rather the limitations, of  the sorts of analogy employed in 'Migration Theory', it looks at the types of migration from Barbaricum to the Roman Empire, and their respective logistical feasibility, first from what I call the 'Immediate Zone' close to the frontier and then from the 'Intermediate Zone' in the heart of Germanic-speaking Barbaricum. On this basis it suggests that the movement of 100,000 people (a figure picked simply from its recurrence in studies of the migrations from all sorts of perspective) was, while not impossible, at least over shorter distances, at the limits of possibility, and a decision from which there was probably no going back.

From there it suggests that what would make it less of a gamble would be the ability of the Roman Empire to supply such large groups.  It suggest that the Empire might have had an interest in doing so.  The Empire alone had at least the possibility of doing so, as is further suggested by the fact that the large-scale migrations of the fifth-century overwhelmingly took place within a Roman logistical context.  Finally the argument is underpinned by the fact that once Roman logistical and other structures on the frontier had ceased to exist in the mid-5th century, this type of migration effectively ceased.  The overall argument of my 2014 paper, "Two Worlds Become One: A Counter-Intuitive View of the Roman Epire and 'Germanic Migration'" (German History 32.4 (2014)), that 'the end of the Roman Empire produced the end of the barbarian migrations' is underscored.]

1 Introduction

A. Three well-known scenarios:

I want to remind you of three very well-known scenarios, to which I will return in more detail towards the end of my lecture.

The first is the famous Tetrarchic medallion showing the entry of barbarian families into the Roman Empire, crossing the Rhine at Mainz under the gaze of the emperors.

The second is perhaps the most famous: the image of the Tervingi gathering on the Danube in 376 and petitioning the Empire to grant them entry. I want to remind you all of the extremely well-known accounts of the subsequent starvation and mistreatment of the Tervingian migrants.

The third and final scene is another obvious one: the crossing of the Rhine by the Vandals, Sueves and Alans on the last day of 406 or possibly – as Michael Kulikowski argued and later retracted – 405. [1]

B. Not anti-migration

Before going further, I have been described, in print, as an ‘anti-migrationist’ and, recently, as someone who thinks that migrations only involved a few elite warriors. I find it sad that such writers wish to misrepresent my arguments.

I have argued:
  1. That certain types of archaeological evidence need not and in some cases cannot be read as simple signs of migration
  2. That the fourth-sixth-century migrations of people from Barbaricum were not the only and not necessarily the largest movements of people in the period and may not have been on a larger scale than in the earlier Roman period.
  3. That the migrations of barbarians in the fourth and fifth century did not bring down the western Roman Empire.
But note, first, that none of these arguments logically implies a non-belief in migrations. And second that not one of these arguments implies a particular view of the size of migrations. Nowhere have I argued that migrations didn’t happen or that they were only the movements of small elite groups of warriors. Indeed, I have explicitly argued for larger-scale migrations.

My position has generally been for a variety in the scale and nature of migrations. What I have been sceptical of is the traditional idea of the migrations of entire peoples. I remain sceptical, but that scepticism is something I will explore and question in this lecture.

I want to develop some thoughts I expressed first in Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West and then in a significant modification published in German History in 2014.


2 Numbers and logistics

I want to rehearse some arguments I have made before about numbers, in the military context. I am not the first to express scepticism about the numbers Roman sources give for the size of barbarian forces, yet such numbers are still routinely repeated in modern works. If we leave aside huge figures like 80,000 or 100,000 we can look at the number given by Ammianus for the Alamannic army at the battle of Strasbourg in 357: 35,000 – a number often repeated without the usual scrutiny or reservation. How likely is it that even a confederacy like the Alamans could put together an army that size?

One can think comparatively. Armies of that order of magnitude were not common in better-documented eras until the seventeenth century, although they are certainly attested in the late middle ages. The largest recorded muster of the medieval kingdom of England was just over 32,000 men, in the 1340s. One might mention, in contrast, the capacity of the Zulu kingdom to put armies of over 20,000 men into the field but it must be remembered that these armies assembled quickly, in a different sort of terrain and political structure, and dispersed equally quickly. Could the Alamanni have done something similar? It is worth considering how this could have happened but we need to think hard about those mechanisms and not simply assume them. Such an army would need, like the Zulu, to assemble, fight and disperse quickly. For the Alamanni, a point can be made here, to which I will return: the presence, in however decayed condition, of the Roman road network in the former Agri Decumates, which, perhaps would allow a large army to assemble quickly. Such a force would nonetheless not be sustainable over a long campaign.

The reason for that is logistical. The largest settlements in Iron-Age Germanic-speaking Barbaricum had populations numbering only hundreds. In other words, the economy of Germania Magna was not geared to the provisioning of large numbers of people. An army of 35,000 men would be a population group seventy times the size of the largest settlements in Germania. Historically, armies have sometimes been more numerous than cities; the English muster of 32,000 in 1347 – if they were all gathered at the same place, which is not entirely clear – was two or three times the size of most of the larger English cities, though still be smaller than the estimated population of London at that date. But not seventy times larger…! For that ratio Edward III would need to have assembled something like 700,000 men. The larger late medieval armies were, moreover, raised in urbanised societies with fully monetary economies and complex market, trade and supply networks and systems, taxation, better agricultural techniques with greater yields and so on: things not available to a fourth-century barbarian polity.

Moving of 35,000 men through the late antique landscape – on either side of the Rhine – would consume the grain supplies and livestock of entire communities every day, producing famine, and probably still going hungry. The late Tim Reuter described the effect on the ninth/tenth-century landscape of an army of 20,000 men as equivalent to the down-wind fall-out ellipse of a nuclear explosion; it’s an image worth remembering, not least because the socio-economy context of Carolingian Europe offered more possibilities for supporting a larger army than did that of Iron Age Germania.

A much smaller army, say 10,000 men – or less – could be catastrophic for the population of the regions through which it moved. To see the sort of devastation wrought on Roman provinces that is sometimes attested in the written sources does not require us to envisage enormous invading hordes.

The solution to these problems would be for individual contingents to bring their food with them. How many days’ supplies could be transported by a warrior? With baggage animals, the amount increases but, as the classic studies of military logistics have demonstrated, the demand for fodder and food for the animals’ attendants grows parallel to the number of baggage animals. Charlemagne expected his warriors to bring food for three months’ service in the early ninth century. Again, while that is an interesting comparandum, one needs to take account of broader context. Charlemagne’s was a much more complex and well-organised realm than any in fourth-century Barbaricum: urbanized and monetized to some extent. He also enacted at length about supply carts, package animals, the preservation of fodder for passing troops and the maintenance of bridges and boats. The law about a three months’ supply also applies to the caballarii of a monastery, mounted troops supplied from a large land-owning establishment. Indeed, Charlemagne envisaged that the resources of four farms were necessary to furnish a single warrior. How much of this can be applied to Iron-Age barbarian armies? We would need much better evidence than we currently have before we could assume that much of it was applicable in detail. Charlemagne’s field armies were almost certainly much smaller than 30,000 men. Karl Leyser suggested that such armies were fed as much by cattle on the hoof as by waggon- or pack-horse-loads of grain; this might apply to barbarian forces too. If so, however, issues about fodder and ease of movement across difficult terrain are emphasised.

It’s nonetheless worth remembering that in the 350s a force of 600 Franks caused Julian serious problems.  There’s no logical reason to suppose that Roman writers were more likely to be telling the truth when they mentioned low numbers than when they recorded very high ones but we might accept that this was a ‘small’ force. The Romans defeated it by starving it out. Before that, it can have done enormous damage.  Six hundred warriors would be more than entire Roman communities outside the towns and could move rapidly, consuming settlements’ bread, killing and eating the cattle they were saving for winter, murdering anyone who objected, raping and/or enslaving women and children with impunity. If a couple of Roman field army regiments caught them, the game would be up and swift punishment meted out, but it’s vital remember the damage and trauma even a small raiding force could cause.  Let’s not sanitise this!

This has important implications for barbarian migrations that have rarely been discussed. How feasible was it for a barbarian ‘horde’ of 20,000 warriors plus families and followers – up to the number of 100,000 frequently found in modern discussions (including mine) – to travel any distance or for any length of time?

We must ask serious questions before repeating the numerical estimates that have become almost canonical in the literature. My paper is mostly about asking questions – frequently quite obvious ones.  Many are unanswerable, in some cases perhaps only in the current state of our knowledge but in others they concern things we can never know. Nonetheless the existence and importance of these questions need to hang over future discussions of migration. We can’t simply assume things. We can’t be afraid to challenge age-old consensuses, to point out the difficulties in making assumptions or to admit there are things we can’t know.

Consequently, I am not going to argue for specific answers. Too much writing about the history of the migrations, including some of mine, has been about arguing that one or other interpretation must be correct. We need to stop trying to win arguments and to establish interpretations that can be labelled right or wrong. This attitude has impoverished scholarly and political debate in Britain and produced Brexit. We must recognise that great swathes of the study of what we call the Barbarian Migrations can’t be reduced to totalizing ‘correct answers’ but are areas of discussion where many possibilities must be kept in dialogue. Highlighting answer-less questions reminds us of this.

How feasible is the traditional image of a migration of people?


3. The peril of analogies

Over the past thirty years there has been much use made of so-called Migration Theory – a body of general comparative observations about the phenomenon of migration. This has, to be sure, provided useful information and permitted a more sophisticated understanding of late antique migrations.  There are, however, some limitations, especially as far as large-scale migration is concerned. Many of the most useful insights of migration theory concern what one might call migratory processes: the different forms of migration; the flows of information; the demographic make-up of certain types of migrant groups in particular types of movement; the various push and pull factors involved.  Where thinking about large-scale migration, migration theory tends to discuss a longer-term, cumulative process such as, for example, European migration to North America.  That individual and small-group migration from Barbaricum occurred and, over the whole Roman period, resulted in the movement of possibly hundreds of thousands of people into the Empire seems uncontroversial.  It is quite feasible that areas where extracting a living was hard and, over time, possibly becoming harder were largely depopulated because of migration.  It’s perfectly likely that many of the people departing such areas moved into the Roman Empire, but there’s no reason to suppose that they all did.

It must be said nonetheless that many of the forms of migration studied, and which can be shown to have existed in Iron Age Germania were predicated on the possibility of return. Many analogies for migration occur, furthermore, in very different economic and technological contexts from those of Late Antique Barbaricum. Most importantly, the fact that these types of migration are not merely possible but demonstrable in our period does not, logically, authorise us to declare that the paradigm of The Great Migrations, or Invasions, has been validated, as I have recently seen argued.  This is what philosophers call a ‘category error’: the application of a conclusion drawn from one thing to something else as though they were the same thing, though in fact they are quite different.  The Great Migration, Völkerwanderung paradigm is not about the gradual movement of hundreds of thousands of people over centuries; it is about a specific, short-term, large-scale phenomenon: the arrival in one moment of a single large group – counted in tens of thousands – to which contemporaries applied an ethnic name: the Goths; the Vandals; the Burgundians; the Lombards.  And the argument that the arrival of these groups resulted in large-scale political and cultural change: specifically the End of the Western Roman Empire.  That sort of migratory phenomenon is very difficult to find convincing comparative material for. Though providing much interesting logistical information, things like the westward migration of European Americans or the Boer Great Trek are bad analogies, being the cumulative movement of individually quite small groups rather than of whole peoples.

We must start from Iron Age realities.


4 Different mechanisms of migration and interrelationship in different zones of Germania

It’s crucial to underline the well-recognised fact that the phenomenon of ‘barbarian migration’ was diverse, including a wide range of movements.

I would divide these first by ‘zone’ of Barbaricum. In the past I have adopted a rather crude threefold division of Germania Magna, according to practical nearness to the frontier. This needs refinement and more subtlety but for now it might be useful.

‘Immediate’ zone

I provisionally labelled the first zone the ‘frontier zone’, though I later thought that a better term was needed to avoid perpetuating the idea of two opposed and confronted ‘worlds’. The Immediate Zone might work.

Here, relationships were sometimes fraught. This is the zone from which raids on Roman territory were launched and where, possibly more seriously, Roman military retaliation took place. At the same time, though, this was also a zone where the web of Roman-non-Roman connections was dense. By c.300 Roman material culture had come to dominate this zone. Forceful arguments have been made that Roman imports into Barbaricum before the third century were intermittent and dependent upon particular political events.[2] By the later Roman period, as far as I can see, cross border interactions were much more general.

All kinds of migration are practical in this zone, from the very small to the large-scale. Individuals seeking employment in the Roman army; families seeking a better life than was available on the lands they currently farmed; and so on. We know a lot about the legal relationships between the Empire and various categories of barbarian immigrant and I won’t discuss that; it is well covered in the literature. The key features that I want to discuss later will surely have applied but to a lesser degree.

The one form of larger-scale migration that I want to discuss concerns migration into the Empire of particular groups for political reasons. From the earliest late Republican encounters with the barbarians north of the Alps one of the most important, repeated dynamics was the movement to Roman territory of ousted political factions, particularly those supported by Rome.

The relationships between the British Empire in Natal and the African peoples across the Mzinyathi (Blood) and Thukela rivers before and after the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 provide very instructive comparisons.[3] In both cases the Empires set up or supported their preferred local leaders and were expected to allow their factions to cross into their territory when defeated. Pro- and anti-imperial factions and attitudes beyond the frontiers swirled and shifted according to circumstance. The military balance of power was overwhelmingly, insurmountably in favour of the imperial powers in any protracted confrontation, whatever short-term, morale-sapping and dramatic victories might occasionally be won by their opponents.

Factions that took refuge in the Roman (or British) imperial orbit could be numerous and politically very significant, but they were not entire peoples. I would like to stress this. The choices before us are not simply between small aristocratic warrior groups (as in the ‘elite transfer’ model) or the migrations of hundreds of thousands of people (as in the traditionalist Völkerwanderung model). In Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West I frequently wanted to stress this intermediate ‘factional’ order of magnitude. It’s a disappointing index of how entrenched, simplistic, polarized and binary the debate on the migrations has become that, if one does not suggest or believe in the movement of whole tribes, one is assumed by default to be arguing for the migration only of small groups of hundreds (or very low thousands) of warriors, or even to deny the existence of migration. What I want to suggest is how significant, complex, difficult, and traumatic even a migration on this intermediate scale could be.

In the famous Tervingian migration of 376, it is crystal clear from the accounts of Ammianus Marcellinus and others that this was not the migration of the whole people. It is not clear that it was even the movement of the majority of the Tervingians. It was clearly a lot of people but that didn’t need to mean the whole or even a large proportion of the trans-Danubian Gothic population.

There are very distinctive things about this migration, nonetheless. One is its economic and ecological situation. Semi-nomadic pastoralism played a large part in the economy north of the lower Danube, as it did in every period we know about between the Bronze Age and the late nineteenth century at least. It was not the only element, as the archaeology of the Černjachov Culture shows, but written and archaeological sources – and the fact that Roman authors, especially those writing in Greek, considered the Goths to be Skythai – underline that a mobile, pastoral existence was a significant part of their way of life.

For at least some elements of the Tervingian population, packing one’s goods into a wagon and moving was not beyond the normal range of experience. Some of those that moved must nonetheless have belonged to more sedentary elements of Gothic society. For all, though, as far as we can reconstruct the circumstances of 376 – and whether you follow a short-term ‘exogenous’ Hunnic explanation or a slightly longer-term ‘trans-Danubian instability plus Hunnic intervention’ interpretation – these circumstances made the movement of Alaviv and Fritigern’s Goths a fairly sudden decision. Organising everything necessary for a sustainable long-term movement was doubtless impossible.  One imagines that they took whatever grain they had and drove their herds and flocks before them, as food.  The distance the Tervingi had to cover to reach the Danube was nevertheless pretty short, across easier terrain and through their own confederacy’s territory.  All this makes the assembly of tens of thousands of Goths on the northern bank of the Danube perfectly plausible.  Even so, it is likely that the Tervingi were going hungry before the Romans ferried them across the Danube.  Once across the river, as we know, things got even worse.

The Tervingian migration was exceptional, but exceptional doesn’t mean unique, and crises like this had happened before on the Danube, not frequently but, at least over the longue durée, regularly – the receptio of the Sarmatians forty years previously had been the most recent instance. The features of Tervingian migration just described facilitated this. The mechanics of migration in the Steppe and neighbouring regions need to be studied separately from those further West.  We need to think more about the differences between these different contexts.


‘Intermediate’ zone

I want however to focus, less on movements like those of the Goths, than on migration from regions further West, behind the ‘Immediate Zone’, in what I call the ‘Intermediate Zone’.  Some of the most significant fifth-century migrations appear to have come from this part of Barbaricum.

It’s clear that contacts with the Roman Empire reached the north of modern Germany.  If less frequent than in areas close to the frontier, they were nonetheless socially and politically important, perhaps more so.  To provide some well-known examples: the official imperial metalwork found in Lower Saxon cremation burials; the trade that flowed up the river networks from the Black Sea and the Danube to Scandinavia; the prestigious Roman silverware found in exceptional burials like those at Haßleben; the importance of Roman cultural influences such as those that led to the adoption of Roman-style inhumation, or the influence of Roman decorative styles; and so on.  Who knows what the inhabitants of the Baltic coast thought the Roman Empire was like – maybe their ideas of the Empire were as mad as the Roman ideas of what the people on the Baltic were like.[4] Nonetheless, the people of central Germania Magna knew about the Empire and knew it was a powerful, culturally-dominant place.

The same reasons for migration as in the areas close to the frontier applied here too: individual or small-group career migration; small-group/familial migration for economic reasons; larger-scale migration of politically-ousted factions. But the mechanics of getting to the Roman Empire were quite different.  Leaving aside seaborne transport down the North Sea/Channel coast there were various options.  From the North German plain, one could move down the Hellweg and similar routes to the Lower Rhine, or one one might travel up the Elbe and its tributaries to Bohemia and thence to the Upper Danube.  Other routes might be across the central German mountains.  Clearly all were used.

They offer different problems and potentials.  The northern German and Elbe route are in some ways easier but they pass through settled regions occupied by other political groups. The central mountain regions were – as far as we know – quite thinly occupied in the Roman Iron Age.  Many provide good archaeological evidence of occupation in the Bronze Age and pre-Roman Iron Age; evidence which vanishes at about the time that the Roman limes were created, though pollen data suggest that there was not a complete absence of settlement.  This might make passing through the region less politically or socially difficult; one could graze animals and hunt. On the other hand, the terrain was more difficult and there were fewer communities upon which to draw for guidance or support in case of disaster.

Many unanswerable questions arise. Were there rights and obligations of hospitality for travellers in Germania Magna? Did approved travellers pass through a region under the protection of the local ruler? Did people hire guides? Did small groups band together for protection, like the caravans moving through Mexico to the US border in the contemporary world? How many migrations in search of a better life ended up in disaster: starving or freezing to death in the mountains; drowning in swollen rivers; murdered, raped, enslaved and sold on by local warriors; how many resulted in an Iron Age equivalent of human trafficking? We don’t think enough about the human dimension of late antique migration; the human realities behind the lines on our maps of contacts.

Three factors exist in dynamic tension: speed; supply; and security.  Individuals or small groups might move quickly and require fewer supplies but might be exposed to attack.  The larger the group, the more secure it might be, but the greater its need for supplies and the slower it would move. The optimum group would possibly be a medium-sized group of warriors, especially if mounted, which could pass quickly through intervening territories, cross difficult terrain more easily, negotiate passage and generally be too threatening to be worth attacking.

But under what circumstances – with what practicality – might a large proportion of, let alone a whole, tribe move? We can reject the idea that any barbarian group realistically thought that it could set off and conquer land in the Roman Empire. It might be that a gradual deterioration in the weather, harvests and so on could provoke a large-scale movement with the decision ultimately to seek admission into the Empire.  Such a decision would need lengthy preliminary discussion, political agreement and planning.  When do you leave?  After lambing/calving in Spring, but with only the grain left after Winter? After the harvest was in but with not long before Winter?  If harvests had been getting worse these decisions would have an extra dimension.  We can rule out movement due to actual famine.  Migration due to that kind of catastrophe tends to produce the tragic imagery of people dying of hunger, begging on the roadside – familiar from the Irish potato famines of the 1840s – not the appearance of mighty, conquering warriors.  In more recent periods we are presented with migrations during famines from the countryside to towns, and thence, sometimes, further afield but these scenarios require monetized, urbanized societies with proper transport networks which simply didn’t exist in late antique Germania Magna.  A catastrophic period of famine might depopulate a region but would be most unlikely to result in a single unidirectional mass-migration.  Weakened by hunger, migrants would easily fall prey, possibly willingly, to groups through whom they passed or among whom they sought sanctuary.

The traditional picture is of migration fuelled by the violent encroachment onto a territory of more powerful neighbours.  Again, it’s difficult to find evidence that this happened to the extent that entire peoples took to the road.  The Hunnensturm did not drive all, and probably not even most, Goths abroad.  Most Goths stayed and by c.400 had accepted or become involved in, Hunnic rule, married into or otherwise joined Hunnic society; all the famous fifth-century Huns have Gothic names.  It seems likely that this was the usual means by which political control changed, though I do not want to sanitise the process: killing, rape, violent displacement, enslavement also occurred.

One must, however, think about practicalities.  How could a group of, say, a hundred thousand people it have been able to move through Germania Magna? I imagine that groups had to be sent out to find routes and to negotiate passage through their lands with the rulers of neighbouring peoples. Elements of this are found in the narratives of migrations in our sources.  Those stories speak of deals done with their threatening aggressors.  All this seems plausible, although it’s also possible that, if I was able to think about these hypothetical problems involved in moving a people through the territories of others, so were the authors of these tales.  What if the neighbours said no?  Could a group like that pass through hostile territory without significant losses from perpetual ambushes, raids and opposed river crossings?

Even without enemy attacks, how long would the waggon train, the column of people, have been?  How many miles could it have covered every day?  I cannot imagine it being more than about 10km a day at most.  Gregory of Tours describes the party that accompanied Princess Rigunth towards Spain for her marriage – numbering perhaps 4000 people – as covering five miles (8 km) in one day. The whole would move at the speed of the slowest waggon.  How big would its campsites have been?  If one compares the probable length of the column (dozens of miles) with the distance it could cover per day (rather less) the column would soon break up into a chain of smaller contingents. A swollen or otherwise temporarily uncrossable river would nevertheless cause them all to pile up again.  How long would it take to cross a river, or climb over a mountain pass?  What was the mortality among the very young and old? Sickness would surely be a major threat.  Dysentery was a major killer in early medieval armies made up of relatively young, healthy men.

There is however an important factor to balance against these difficulties: distance.  We aren’t talking about the Oregon Trail.  Google Maps tells me that the distance from Bremen to Nijmegen is 170 miles or 273 km.  Taking into account the lack of good roads and bridges, and that things might not go so well, I suggest that a generous estimate is that our migration could get from the lands of the Saxons to the Rhine frontier in a couple of tough, unpleasant months.  If they set out in May, when – at least in Carolingian opinion – the fodder was sufficient, they expect to be on the Roman frontier in July.  There would be no going back though.  If the Romans decided not to let them in would the return journey be feasible? Would (in this case) the Franks let these Saxons back through their territory or would they see them as vulnerable?  If they were generous or the Saxons fought their way back, they’d find themselves back home – assuming those homes hadn’t been occupied by enemies or former neighbours – perhaps in October (allowing for a month of negotiations on the frontier), with no harvest to gather in (or which had been reaped by other people), with most of their livestock and grain store consumed.  This would not be an easy Winter.  The decision to put a people on the move was one from which there was no going back, something that understandably one finds in the written stories about migrations.

This hypothetical example follows the shortest and easiest route from the interior of Germania Magna to the limes (and oddly there were as far as I can see no great migrations on this route!).  Every other option involves longer distances and more difficult terrain – principally mountains.  At the opposite end of the spectrum, the route up the Elbe valley from Wolfsburg to Vienna on modern roads is 700 km long, across less easy ground.  That’s longer than the Great Trek which took small groups of Voortrekkers six months to complete.  A single, large-scale late antique migration on that route seems to me to be out of the question.  It would take the best part of a year and probably involve sitting out a Winter.  Unsurprisingly, therefore, we don’t find reliable reports of such huge Völkerwanderungen from one end of the Elbe to the other.  The second half of this route, from Prague to Vienna, would on its own be a similar distance as our first example, but across more difficult terrain.  One would be looking at something more arduous and from which the possibilities of return were slimmer.  That would be at least as true of any other route from the heartlands of Germanic-speaking Barbaricum to the imperial frontier.

My examples assume all went well, that passage was granted, that the locals got out of the way of the migrants as they passed through, and that the migrants didn’t take to rustling cattle, stealing food from or robbing the locals.  It’s easy to see how, if things went wrong, a major political and humanitarian crisis could occur, with locals reduced to potential starvation by the eating up of their food, skirmishing and fighting on the route and a general snowball (rather than domino) effect of displaced people, famine and probably disease in its wake.  To some extent perhaps this was what happened in 376.

What can we conclude from this?  Clearly not that a late antique migration of 100,000 people across Germania Magna was impossible, at least over shorter distances.[5]  I suggest, though, that such a movement could not have been easy or straightforward.  Late antique writers clearly understood that it would be a dramatic and possibly traumatic upheaval and so should we.  Such phenomena need to be placed at the bounds of the possible, in the order of the exceptional, not treated as a general feature of life in late antique Barbaricum.


5 The frontier and immigration

Let’s now reintroduce the Romans into the equation.  In 2014, I argued that we should not see the Imperium and Barbaricum as two opposed and confrontational worlds but as the core and periphery of a single, closely-integrated Far Western Eurasian world.  I also pointed out that the limes were not simply a barrier but also a mechanism of migration.  The frontier was not just a line on a map but part of an information network.  People passing through bring information about the regions linked (not separated) by the Limes: what was happening in the barbarian world; what was happening in the Roman - the opportunities for recruitment; where you needed to go to be accepted; what the best routes were; whether some routes needed to be avoided; what sort of requirements needed to be met.  Migration follows particular routes and entry points, it does not (contrary to popular belief and propaganda) simply wash over a border like a tide.  The tragedy currently being enacted on the southern US border makes this very clear.

The points on the Limes where barbarian migrants entered the Empire were dense nodes on information networks, which reached far into barbarian territory.  After all, Romans could communicate and have diplomatic relationships with the peoples of the interior of Germania, like the Burgundians. It’s interesting to speculate about what roles access to this information played in society in Germania. Did merchants serve as guides? As organisers of ‘caravans’?  As ‘dragomen’? Clearly, these information networks radiating from the frontier were essential to all the kinds of small-scale migration that comprised a big part of the everyday life of the frontier.  How might it have played a part in the larger-scale migration that has been my principal focus?


6 What was the Roman Empire’s involvement?

It is difficult to imagine that the Empire had no role in large-scale migrations, given the information networks just mentioned and the deliberate, planned nature of these movements.  It surely could tell peoples closer to the Empire to refuse passage of such groups if it wished, and provide military assistance if needed.  I imagine that that sort of provision was a part and parcel of the foedera made with barbarian rulers on the frontier and beyond.  If we accept that, which seems uncontroversial, then, by the same token, in other circumstances the Empire surely had the ability to instruct groups to let migrants through – especially if they had a prior relationship with Rome. 

The Romans knew well the advantages of barbarian immigration.  It was a good source of recruits for the army; and of tillers either of land that had been abandoned or of the estates of the rich.  Just as importantly, the admission of barbarian petitioners was an important element of good imperial rule.  Remember the Tetrarchic medallion; or the commonplaces of imperial panegyric.  It was a fine way of showing how the whole world was indeed the Orbis Romanum, with the Empire at its centre.

This is where a more radical proposal emerges.  The best way to mitigate all the logistical problems set out in this paper was surely through Roman support.  The Empire could most easily organize and provide supplies for large groups of migrants. If the Empire wished to admit these migrants, it did not want them starving, emaciated and disease-ridden. It seems plausible, perfectly congruent with what we know of Rome’s frontier policies, that, alongside the usual gifts and sweeteners for the local barbarians, food supplies could be shipped into Barbaricum if needed.

This was most possible in the former Agri Decumates where a vestigial Roman road network existed and projected quite far into Germania – one reason, I am sure, why this is pretty much the only place where the Romans regularly campaigned beyond the frontier.  Tough migration routes from the centre of Germania Magna across the thinly inhabited central mountains could bring you down to the Agri Decumates.[6]


7 The scenarios again

On the basis of these thoughts let’s return to the three scenarios mentioned at the start.

The Tetrarchic Medallion

I am going to assume that we have the depiction of – if not a specific then at least a typical – occasion. The obvious question is: how were the Emperors there on that day? Presumably there must have been holding camps beyond the frontier, either until sufficient numbers of would-be immigrants had built up for a formal ceremony of receptio to be practical or worthwhile or, alternatively, until arrangements had been thrashed out with larger groups and the Emperors had arrived to oversee their entrance into the Empire.  Again, one would be left with the idea that such groups would, at least at this point, be supplied and fed by the Romans.

The Goths on the Danube

The considerations detailed above reinforce my reading of the events of 376, specifically that the crisis was not unprecedented in the magnitude of the group demanding admission but in the scale of Roman corruption, incompetence and mismanagement, all emphasized by the absence of the Emperor and his leading officials, far away in Antioch.  I would now add to that the speed at which events unfolded.  My considerations lead me to suspect that the specific circumstances of the Tervingian migration meant that it could have happened much more quickly than would usually be the case – without the usual advance warning – perhaps over only a matter of weeks.  Again, though, the consequences make abundantly clear how essential was the Roman logistical ability to supply very large numbers of people.

The Great Invasion

My third example was the ‘Great Invasion’ of c.406.  We know little about this other than it took place on the 31 December – the middle of Winter.  That fact is crucial.  Most authorities agree that the migration itself had something to do with the creation of a Hunnic hegemony north of the middle and lower Danube, even if they disagree on the details of that causal relationship.  How did the Vandals, Alans and Sueves (whoever they were) find themselves opposite Worms – far from the Hunnic bases of power – in the middle of Winter?

My hypothesis contains many elements which are not original.  I suggest that the Romans refused some elements of this group – such as the Alans – admission anywhere on the Danube frontier during or in the aftermath of Radegaisus’ invasion and, while feeding and supplying them, nevertheless shunted them westwards along the road north of the Danube frontier.  Other groups – like the Vandals – might instead have crossed the mountains from central Germania and come down into the Agri Decumates on that route.  Whether the ‘Sueves’ were another group from the centre or north of Germania crossing the mountains, or a group from the Danube shunted west, or a disaffected faction of the Alamanni is unknowable, but clearly the Romans ended up gathering diverse groups of displaced barbarians in the former Agri Decumates, on the edges of Alamannic and Frankish territory.  I don’t think we need suppose that all of these had started their treks together even if they ended in one place.  Under normal circumstances this was sound policy.  Grouped in an area where they could be monitored and supplied more easily, the Romans could arrange proper reception and the distribution of different elements to the army or to estates of various sorts in different regions.

These were not normal circumstances.  There was no emperor or effective imperial court at Trier.  Honorius was not going to travel to that part of the world, especially during Radegaisus’ invasion.  Archaeology suggests a profound socio-economic crisis in northern Gaul around 400 and it is likely that much of the Rhine frontier was not properly manned after the catastrophic defeats of the western field army in 388 and 395 and the need to provide troops to defend Italy against first Alaric and then Radegaisus.  If one accepts the traditional date of 31 December 406 for the Rhine-crossing, things had got even worse: the British army had raised a usurper who had invaded Gaul.  In these circumstances it is easy to see how, as in 376, the organization of proper supplies on the Rhine frontier could have broken down.  By mid-winter the assembled groups of barbarians would be in real danger of catastrophe and so forced their way into the Empire.  It’s interesting that the only group recorded as opposing them were the Romans’ allies, the Franks.


8 Migration within the Empire

Before concluding, I want to make a final point that I think underlines my thesis.  In fifth-century history we have numerous well-attested movements of large groups: the Goths of Alaric and his successors between c.395 and 418; the Vandals in the 420s; perhaps the Burgundians to Sapaudia in the 440s; the movements of Theoderic’s Ostrogoths; and so on.  Estimates of the size of these groups are only estimates but the plausible orders of magnitude are in the range of ten to twenty (perhaps thirty) thousand fighting men plus women and children.  The numbers of the latter are impossible to know and, as I have said before, their existence by no means proves that we are looking at a ‘people on the move’, though – as I have also argued – the binary choice of ‘people or army’ is incapable of capturing a complex and evolving situation. Whatever the case, we are looking at the movement of tens of thousands of people.  There can be no debate about that – certainly I have never doubted it even if I might guess fewer tens of thousands than, maybe, Peter Heather would.  Anyone arguing that I think these were the movements only of elite warriors has either not read my work or is misrepresenting it.  My point, however, is that these movements are crucially different from those in Barbaricum.  They are within the context of the Imperium Romanum, its road networks (and the multiplicity of practicable routes), its logistical capacity, its complex monetised, urbanised economy.  Many of these movements were, we know, supervised by the Romans themselves or made while in alliance with the Imperial government.  Not that this made them easy.  Supplying an army of 60,000 men in 362 had taxed the Empire’s logistical capacities to their limits but these were at least movements within Imperial territories.  Again, the safe large-scale movement of people is generally only feasible in a Roman context.


9. Conclusion

In 2014 I argued that not only was migration a normal, central part of the operation of the Roman frontier but that that frontier and the information networks centred on it were crucial to the possibilities of migration from Barbaricum.  Without the organisational structures of the Limes, migration of most of the types we can trace was effectively impossible.

The argument I have presented, which I hope you at least consider worth thinking about, broadens that thesis to encompass the kind of large-scale, short-term movement of people that is central to the Völkerwanderung paradigm – and which I think did occur throughout the Roman period.  Such movements are easiest to envisage as practical, as less of an enormous, existential gamble, either the the support and assistance of the imperial state or within its logistical and economic frameworks.  Accepting this does not require you to discard the idea that the Empire was brought down by, in Peter Heather’s words, the ‘exogenous shock’ of several such movements in a short period of time, if you are that way inclined, though it adds a welcome element of irony to the account.

This further emphasises that Empire and Barbaricum were crucially interconnected.  It densifies the links between core and periphery.  The final argument supporting this is that, once the western limes had collapsed in the middle third of the fifth century the sort of large scale migration that I have been discussing ended in the West. The last Volkswanderung, of the Lombards in 568, was after all a movement within the decayed structures of former imperial provinces towards the newly established imperial Italian frontier.

In 2007 I argued that the the End of the Roman Empire caused the Barbarian migrations rather than vice versa. Throughout Roman history, Roman crises certainly led to many of the kinds of movements that I have been discussing but, as I argued in 2014, this formula was incorrect.  As I hope I have further suggested this evening, it was in fact the collapse of the Western Roman Empire that caused the End of the Barbarian Migrations.


[1] I don’t find the counter-arguments against his 405 date as convincing as he does!

[2] E.g. M. Erdrich, Rom und die Barbaren. Das Verhältnis zwischen dem Imperium Romanum und den germanischen Stammen vor seiner Nordwestgrenze non der späten römischen Republik bis zum Gallischen Sonderreich Römisch-germanisch Forschungen 58 (Philipp von Zabern. Mainz 2001)

[3] On this topic, I cannot recommend highly enough Ian Knight, Zulu Rising. The Epic Story of iSandlwana and Rorke’s Drift (Pan. London, 2011), which is a far wider-ranging and more important history than its subtitle suggests.

[4] It’s an important corrective to the current emphasis on networks to think about what – if anything – the people at the opposite ends of the lines on our maps and diagrams thought or knew about each other.

[5] I think I would rule out a 700km trek up the Elbe, over the mountains into Bohemia across the Czech basin and over more mountains to the Danube.

[6] This was Alamannic territory and might be why the Romans were so keen to keep the Alamans under control in the fourth century – and perhaps also why the Alamanni were so dangerous when this was not possible - and also why they expected their diplomatic gifts to be of a particular quality!