[I was asked to write a chapter on this topic for a volume coming out in Spain in association with an exhibition, for which I think it will be translated. Because of that I offer the English version here. It's essentially a potted narrative of the period between 376 and 533 and not really any sort of big deal, especially if you are an aficionado of the period or familiar with my other works. On the other hand there are some subtle differences /developments between this reading and the narrative in Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, of which I am working on a second edition, which you may or may not find interesting. Or you may want a short narrative overview for some purpose or other, in which case I hope this is of use.]Introduction
It is traditional to trace the origins of medieval – and even modern – Europe to the end of the Western Roman Empire and the so-called Barbarian Migrations. The ruling classes of much of Europe claimed descent from the barbarians who were believed to have conquered and supplanted the Roman Empire. Conquest of the Roman Empire was necessary for the medieval to come into existence: the ‘Middle Age’ lay between the demise of the classical world and its supposed rediscovery in the Italian Renaissance. For centuries, any debate focused upon whether the collapse of the Empire had been a good thing or a tragedy rather than upon whether Rome’s fall was really caused by barbarian invasion. The notion that the Middle Ages were created by ‘Germanic migrations’ from east of the Rhine was not much challenged before the modern period and doubts about the issue only gained historiographical momentum from the very end of the nineteenth century. Historians like N.D. Fustel de Coulanges and of course Henri Pirenne proposed that the ‘Barbarian Migrations’ played no significant role in crucial areas, such as governmental or administrative institutions or economic structures. These largely remained the same throughout the migration period and sometimes beyond.
Crucial for the modern disciplines of History and Archaeology was the development of the notion of Late Antiquity after the Second World War, culminating in Peter Brown’s classic, The World of Late Antiquity. The idea of Late Antiquity combined numerous strands of historical research, some with quite deep roots, around the idea that there was much similarity between the third-century Mediterranean World and that of the seventh century. The fifth-century ‘fall’ of the western Roman Empire and the Barbarian Migrations did not, therefore, mark a great historical rupture. This view stresses continuity and a much more gradual evolution of the western Roman Empire into we might call ‘Medieval Europe’.
There is much debate about the ‘Late Antique’ interpretation. Is ‘Late Antiquity’ a Mediterranean as well as an imperial Roman phenomenon? Important work about Late Antiquity has often concerned Mediterranean, particularly eastern Mediterranean, society? Do places outside the Empire have a late antique phase of history? Can they have such a period? The classic studies of Late Antiquity have also focused on religious and cultural history. Were changes that took place in the spheres of political, military or economic history, or in the history of social structures unduly neglected? The late antique paradigm has, moreover, never seemed to know what to do with the phenomenon of barbarian migration that concerns this chapter.
Relationships between Empire and barbaricum
In traditional accounts, the imperium Romanum and the barbarian lands formed two separate worlds in perpetual confrontation. Barbarians were believed to have an insatiable desire to conquer the Empire so that the limes had constantly to be reinforced to keep them out. In this view of the Fall of the Roman Empire, the Huns caused this pressure to become irresistible. The frontiers collapsed and barbarians ‘flooded’ into the provinces. All these ideas are questionable.
Wars between Romans and barbarians could be very damaging, for Roman provinces ravaged by barbarian warbands and for areas of barbaricum harried by larger Roman armies in reprisal. Young warriors raided imperial territory to acquire loot and captives for many reasons but warlike relations were not the only ones that existed between the Empire and its northern neighbours and it is unlikely that they formed the most common, let alone the usual, situation. The frontier was heavily defended, it is true – even in the late fourth century, but this was not simply to hold back hordes of invaders. Indeed, that might have been one of the less important reasons for the Romans’ concentration of troops, and expenditure of resources, on the frontier. The military balance of power was overwhelmingly in the Romans’ favour. With at least 400,000 well-equipped, -armoured and -supplied soldiers to draw upon, with its network of solid, stone fortifications, its expertise in siege warfare and its complex logistical organisation, there was no way that the Empire’s existence could have been threatened by even the largest barbarian confederacy. Roman reports of barbarian armies numbering tens of thousands of warriors cannot be taken seriously.
The Roman obsession with the limes was produced by imperial ideology and politics. Good imperial rulership involved devoting time and energy to the frontiers, ensuring that the barbarians were kept out. It also involved winning victories over neighbouring peoples. These ideas required the stationing of armies along the frontier. Keeping a large army at the centre of the Empire was dangerous. First, such a display would look very much like tyranny to the Empire’s political classes; second, troops on the frontiers, far from direct control, were likely – as second- and third-century history had repeatedly shown – to raise their commanders to the purple; and third, by staying with a large military force in the centre of the Empire an emperor abandoned the notions of ‘good rulership’, which required campaigning on the frontiers. It made sense, therefore, for fourth-century emperors to move their political capitals to towns like Trier or Sirmium, close to the limes, and to keep a large body of their best troops under their immediate control, ostensibly to fight the barbarians but actually to counter threats to their authority from the within the Empire, like rebellions and usurpations. This ‘inside-out’ Empire, with the political centres on the fringes of imperial territory, was vital to the cohesion of the imperium. The ‘barbarian threat’ was thus magnified in imperial ideology to proportions far greater than those it really presented.
Late antique Romano-Barbarian relations took many forms other than those of raid and counter-attack. The Romans used the barbarians and vice-versa. The logistical needs of large concentrations of Roman troops and civil servants on the frontiers were partly met through commerce with the frontier peoples. This trade was a motor for barbarian social development. The stability of the limes was maintained through alliance networks with barbarian rulers. The recruitment of barbarian warriors constantly topped up the ranks of the army’s élite regiments, especially, and simultaneously deprived barbarian leaders of manpower. As the size of the Roman army grew while that of the imperial population did not, this was particularly important.
The Empire was, if anything, even more important to the barbarians. Roman gifts and diplomatic patronage were vital to barbarian politics. In fourth-century Germania Magna, Roman culture and political ideas dominated. Roman material is found in lavish inhumations and elements of Roman uniform in cremation burials; Alemannic leaders apparently copied Roman official metalwork to give to their followers as badges of rank. An Alamannic king even named his son Serapio! It is hard to know exactly how the inhabitants of barbaricum used imperial symbols, how they adapted them and what was ‘lost in translation’ but, clearly, Roman expressions of power dominated political discourse. By AD 300 it is difficult to identify an entirely non-Roman vocabulary of power. The Empire was a world power which, in political, military, economic or cultural terms, had dominated the lands east of the Rhine for nearly four centuries. It is entirely to be expected that when barbarians thought of power they thought of the imperium romanum and its ruler.
The Empire presented other prospects. In the later fourth century, developments in imperial administration meant that non-Romans could reach the very highest military ranks and play a dominant political role. The Empire also accepted immigrants from barbaricum and their families, especially when this brought lands back into cultivation and yielded extra fiscal income.
Successful raids produced booty that barbarian leaders could distribute to followers to cement their loyalty but this could be risky; because Roman forces were larger and better equipped, imperial reprisals were far more ferocious and damaging than barbarian raids. Some raids, therefore, seem to have represented ‘bargaining’. The Alamans attacked the Empire when they received less valuable diplomatic gifts than expected. A raid demonstrated power or at least ‘nuisance-value’, which the Romans might want to neutralise through diplomatic payments or political support. Romans encouraged barbarian leaders to attack their Roman rivals during civil wars, authorising the acquisition of the loot that oiled the cogs of barbarian politics. This was a dangerous strategy nonetheless. Romans always prioritised the threat posed by imperial rivals over that presented by barbarian attackers – a Roman enemy’s military capacities were far greater than any invader’s. The first task of the victors in civil war, however, was to make an example of any barbarians who had taken the opportunity of that strife to attack imperial territory. This restored peace and order and demonstrated the winners’ ability to conduct proper imperial activity, in line with the ideology discussed above. It is most important point to remember that the Roman frontier was emphatically not a zone of constant military tension, wherein the slightest weakening of the imperial defences would lead to the ‘dam’ breaking and the barbarians ‘flooding’ in. The limes were no more like that than a modern border between nations necessarily is.
A key aspect of frontier relations was that losers in barbarian politics, especially factions supported by the Romans, habitually fled for refuge in the Empire. This had happened since Republican times. The Romans accepted their friends’ surrender and settled them inside the limes. This cycle continued to repeat through late antiquity and beyond. The so-called ‘Great Migrations’ of the late fourth to sixth centuries can be seen to have fitted the pattern. There were recognised routes to the limes, points of entry, and organised mechanisms by which appeals to enter were adjudicated. There were means of receiving immigrants into imperial society and communities to which newcomers could be assigned. Because much migration into the Empire was cyclical – barbarians entered the empire, served it or worked in it for some time and then returned home – and because of the arteries of trade, information about the possibilities for migration could spread into non-Roman territory. Inhabitants of Germania Magna knew of specific opportunities and communities into which they could fit inside the Empire. It is important to remember that there were specific routes and mechanisms for migration. None of this represented a primeval surge towards the Mediterranean, a general ‘flooding’ over the frontiers or a chaotic set of random population movements, no matter how it may have seemed to the Romans at times.
The Gothic Crisis
The crisis that broke in 376 must be seen in this context. Traditionally the migrants are supposed to have represented the Tervingian Gothic people, fleeing from the Huns, a terrible new force who had already defeated the Alans and Greuthungian Goths. The Romans could not keep this horde out and so had to admit them, but in disorganised and corrupt fashion. The Goths kept their weapons and local Roman officials exploited them for their own ends. The result was a Gothic uprising. Joined by other Goths and Huns from across the Danube, they ravaged the northern Balkan provinces until a large Roman army confronted them near Adrianople in 378. The Eastern Roman army was destroyed and the emperor Valens killed. The Goths were unable to capture Constantinople but plundered the Balkans for four more years until Valens’ successor Theodosius signed a treaty recognising the Goths as a semi-independent people within Roman territory.
Nearly three decades of scholarship and close analysis of the evidence have questioned almost all the elements of this story. Rather than a bolt from the blue, a deus ex machina in the drama of Roman-barbarian relationships, the Huns had probably been neighbours of the Greuthungians for a decade or more prior to 376. Ammianus’ celebrated picture of them is a patchwork of standard Roman ethnographic depictions of ‘extreme barbarians’ rather than an accurate description of new, terrible steppe nomads. An overlooked cause is Valens’ war against the Goths in 367-9. Ostensibly a reprisal for Gothic support of a rival three years previously, this was Valens’ attempt to win the great victory over barbarians required by the ideology of good imperial rule. Valens failed and, in 369, trouble on the Persian frontier compelled him to make peace with Athanaric, the Tervingian iudex (judge) or leading ruler. This was not the triumphal outcome Valens wanted and in some ways a rather embarrassing failure but it was hardly a victory for the Goths either. The Romans had ravaged their territory for two of the past three years. Athanaric had failed to defend his people. Defeats had been suffered by all the trans-Danubian barbarians: Tervingians, Greuthungians and Alans. Furthermore, the Romans ceased the traditional diplomatic gifts to the Tervingians and restricted the number of markets where the Goths could trade with the Empire. This dramatically reduced access to the Roman goods so important in barbarian politics. Athanaric’s authority was questioned and in response he persecuted the Gothic Christians. Civil war broke out, with the Romans apparently supporting one faction. The Greuthungians were probably similarly destabilised by Valens’ war. This turmoil enabled the Huns to intervene – the sources mention that they allied with some Gothic groups. Athanaric was defeated and withdrew with his followers into the mountains. His enemies, grouped around Fritigern and Alaviv, alongside a losing Greuthungian faction, fled to the imperial border and asked for admittance. This process, as noted, had happened many times over the centuries. The scale of the Gothic receptio (admitting a barbarian group) was unusual but not unprecedented.
Crucially Valens was far from the scene of the action, trying (and again failing) to find his great victory over barbarians, this time Persians. Communication was slow and he was badly informed. Roman forces could have kept the Goths out but could not, as they were evidently ordered to do, admit the Tervingians but exclude the Greuthungians, disarm the former and escort them into the interior. Far from the emperor’s gaze, local officials were able to exploit the starving Goths. The situation got out of hand and when Valens extricated himself from his Persian war the Gothic rebellion was in full flow. The catastrophe at Adrianople also resulted from Valens’ need for a triumphal victory to bolster his rule. Rather than await the arrival of Gratian, his nephew and co-emperor, and thus share the glory, the eastern army hastened into battle without a plan, to disaster.
Adrianople ended the Eastern Empire’s ability to raise an effective field army for perhaps a decade. The Goths were worn down through attrition and starvation. The end of the crisis was clearly a relief to Theodosius but there was no triumphal celebration. Nonetheless, the Goths had been beaten and had surrendered, as all contemporary sources agree. The first author to mention a foedus or treaty was Jordanes, nearly two hundred years after the event. The Goths were split up and settled. Many joined the army, where, after Adrianople, the Romans were only too happy to employ them. The idea of a semi-independent Gothic polity inside the Roman Empire is a myth based upon Jordanes’ questionable account and upon modern historians attempting to reconstruct the terms of the supposed foedus from particular readings of what later Gothic leaders wanted from their dealings with the Romans. The Goths who crossed the Danube in 376 ceased to exist as a unified group after 382. The group which emerged in the 390s was quite different.
The ‘Perfect Storm’: The West, 383-421
In 383, the western emperor Gratian was overthrown by Magnus Maximus, commander of the British army. Maximus soon controlled all the West except for Italy and North Africa. Gratian’s young half-brother Valentinian II remained in control there, protected by his brother-in-law Theodosius. Gratian had moved the court from Trier to Milan in 381, causing resentment amongst the Gallic aristocracy, which had been prominent in his government, and threatening the efficient distribution of patronage that maintained social stability in the north-west. Maximus ruled at Trier for five years. In 387, however, he expelled Valentinian II, who fled to Constantinople. Maximus perhaps thought that his links with Theodosius – they were both Spaniards and had served together – would lead the latter to acquiesce in his invasion. He was wrong. Theodosius invaded the West and, after two heavy defeats in the Balkans, Maximus was beheaded.
Imperial government never properly returned to northern Gaul after Maximus’ suppression. Valentinian II reigned from Vienne in southern Gaul. In 392, Arbogast, his Frankish Master of the Soldiers, either murdered Valentinian II or drove him to suicide. He put a rhetorician called Eugenius on the throne and civil war was again inevitable. Theodosius’ army destroyed the western field army at the River Frigidus (5-6 September 394) but died in Milan in January 395, leaving the two halves of the empire to his sons, the East to Arcadius and the West to Honorius.
At this point several factors came together to undermine the ‘inside-out Empire’. The political history of the period between 395 and 421 is extremely complicated and there is no space here to do more than sketch its principal features. These two decades were of critical importance, however, not simply for creating the geo-political situation which defined the parameters of fifth-century military and political history but also for establishing crucial precedents. Perhaps the single most important factor that led to the break-down of the fourth-century system of government was the youth of the emperors Arcadius and Honorius, and their political inability even after they came of age. The effective operation of the Roman Empire after the third-century crisis had relied upon an able adult emperor to distribute and redistribute imperial patronage and thus keep the Empire’s most important interest-groups content and in balance. After Theodosius’ death, in the eastern and western courts different factions competed for the regency control of the palace and the emperors. The courts also squabbled with each other over crucial territories in the Balkans and over the fact that the western regent, Stilicho, claimed to have been given regency over the East as well. Although Stilicho clung to power for thirteen years, the politics of regency required constant attention to court intrigue. The empire looked inwards and, as a result, the management of imperial patronage and the checks and balances between regional aristocratic groups was neglected. So too was the maintenance of imperial frontier policy. This had devastating results, which can be discussed in turn: rebellion and usurpation; barbarian invasion; and federate revolt. Occurring together, they created a ‘perfect storm’.
Northern Gaul and Britain had relied, in different ways, upon the presence of the heart of imperial government on or near the Rhine frontier. Involvement in imperial bureaucracy, tax-collection and the supply of the frontier armies appears to have been essential to maintaining Britain’s stability and prosperity. The northern Gaulish landscape had, after the third century, been harnessed to the supply of the large armies and the concentration of imperial civil servants on the Rhine. The state and its officials appear to have been the most important landowners north of the Paris basin. The removal of the heart of imperial government to southern Gaul and then, definitively, to Italy plunged both areas into crisis, visible archaeologically in the abandonment of villas, the decline of towns and signs of local stress and competition in the furnishing of graves. In southern Gaul, aristocrats had become used, during the later third and fourth centuries, to having an emperor close to them and indeed to taking a prominent role in imperial government. The imperial court’s departure for Milan and then Ravenna threatened to end this. It is unsurprising, therefore, that rebellion broke out in Britain in 406 and quickly spread to Gaul, then Spain and, briefly, North Africa. For the next eight years a series of usurpations created disunity and damaging civil war beyond the Alps. Apart from underlining and exacerbating the effective withdrawal of government from the areas north of the Loire, this warfare further prevented the recreation of a coherent, effective western field army as different western armies tore each other apart in repeated battles. This feature cannot be stressed too strongly.
The consequences of the end of properly-managed frontier policy were unsurprising. The empire’s system of alliances and diplomatic payments was essential to social and political stability throughout barbaricum, but especially in the heart of Germania Magna. Around 400, archaeological signs of socio-economic crisis are found along the North Sea Coast, occupied by the Saxon confederacy, which might have fragmented. Political strife broke out in barbaricum. North of the Danube, destabilised by Valens’ war in the 360s and by the Gothic crisis after that, a new hegemonic power emerged: the Huns. Leaders who had relied upon their links with Rome found that imperial support for their position was now unreliable, their power was threatened, and their rivals seem to have sided with the Huns in the ensuing civil strife. The old cycle was repeated with yet more dramatic results. Another faction of Goths, led by one Radegaisus, invaded Italy before being defeated by Stilicho. An even worse consequence was the so-called ‘Great Invasion’ by groups from various peoples of central Germania: Vandals, ‘Sueves’ (possibly an Alamannic faction; possibly a group from the interior of Germania Magna) and Alans. They crossed the Rhine at the end of 405 or 406, followed shortly afterwards by the Burgundians. The Rhine frontier appears to have been largely unguarded by the Romans (the troops seemingly having been removed to fight in the various civil wars), its defence having been given over to the Frankish kings, who fought hard to stop the invasion. The invaders rampaged through northern Gaul. By 420 the surviving elements of the invasion formed two groups: the Sueves, in north-western Iberia, and the Vandals and Alans, at that point operating in southern Spain.
The third element of the ‘perfect storm’ was federate revolt. As noted, the destruction of the eastern field army at Adrianople had led to the recruitment of large numbers of experienced Gothic warriors. Entire armies seem to have been composed of Goths, formed into regiments of a new sort, called foederati. The most famous federate leader, Alaric, was only one of several powerful Gothic commanders active around 400: others were Gaïnas, Fravitta, Tribigild and Sarus. The number of Goths in the army was clearly a problematic issue for some Roman political factions and could be used as an effective rallying cry – a political manipulation of suspicions about immigrants that is all-too familiar. There were two massacres of barbarians in the first decade of the fifth century, one in Constantinople in 400, and another, including the wives and children of Gothic recruits, in Italy in 408. Even faithful soldiers like Fravitta found that in this climate his Gothicness counted for more than his loyalty: he was murdered shortly after defeating a rebel Gothic commander, Gaïnas. Whether Gothic soldiers and their leaders were more mutinous than their Roman counterparts is disputable but the anti-barbarian ethnographic rhetoric projected against them doubtless added a very specific element to their actions. It certainly raised the stakes involved in any participation in high politics. Perhaps this made the bond between Gothic soldiers and their commanders even closer than was usually the case in the Roman army.
The late fourth century had seen several non-Roman army officers rise to the very highest positions in western Roman politics: Arbogast, Bauto and Stilicho are only three examples. These officers appear, unlike so many powerful generals of Roman birth, to have had no ambition to seize the imperial throne. Bauto and Stilicho nevertheless married into the imperial royal family; perhaps their imperial ambitions were deferred to their offspring. In the meantime, the exercise of enormous power at court more than sufficed. Alaric seems to have wanted to emulate these officers.
As mentioned earlier, the courts in Ravenna and Constantinople disagreed about the control of Illyricum, which passed back and forth between them. When Alaric acquired an official military command in the region, all too often this was undermined by a change of regime in Constantinople or by the transfer to the other half of the Empire of the region where he was stationed. Such events removed the legitimacy of his command. Alaric’s desire for a high command and repeated frustrations at the hands of court factions led him to a series of revolts, first in the Balkans and then in Italy. When various other strategies failed, he even made common cause with the Roman senate and raised his own emperor to the throne: Priscus Attalus. As early as 409, then, it was not unthinkable even for the grand old families of the Roman nobility to ally with a ‘barbarian’ general. This too failed to give Alaric what he wanted, as did deposing Attalus in order to treat with Honorius, and he famously sacked Rome itself (24 August, 410). Even the fall of the ‘eternal city’ failed to move Honorius and Alaric died the same year.
Importantly, when he had no legitimate Roman title or office, Alaric called himself King of the Goths. This gave him a title which the Romans viewed as legitimate, for non-Romans, and enabled him to negotiate with the court. After Alaric’s death, his successor Athaulf pursued most of the same strategies and even briefly married into the imperial family. The repeated failure of the Goths to gain a stable position within the imperial system led, however, to their use of the title king becoming almost constant.
Eventually, even a storm as perfect as that of Honorius’ reign blew over. By 416 Honorius’ skilful general Constantius had defeated all of the usurpers, brought the Goths to heel and used them to inflict serious defeats on the Vandals and Alans in Spain. He then withdrew them from Spain and stationed them on the Garonne in Aquitaine. Constantius’ armies campaigned successfully in northern Gaul, winning victories over local rebels and Frankish invaders. When Orosius finished his History Against the Pagans in 417 he thought that the crisis that had reached its nadir with the sack of Rome had been surmounted, like all the others that had beset the Res Publica since its creation. By 420 that view must have seemed even more convincing and, to cement his successes, Constantius became co-emperor and married into the imperial family, as commanders like Bauto, Stilcho and Athaulf had done before him. He wed Honorius’ sister (and Athaulf’s widow), Galla Placidia.
The Reign of Valentinian III
Constantius died suddenly in 421 and that promising picture rapidly disintegrated as rival generals competed to succeed him as overall commander and dominant figure at court. One result was a defeat at the hands of the Vandals in Spain. When the ineffectual Honorius died in 423 his nephew and successor, Valentinian III, young son of Constantius and Galla, was deposed in yet another usurpation, this time by a certain Johannes. With Johannes’ suppression in 426, Valentinian was restored to the western throne but, not least because he was still a child, the strife for control of the palace continued, between the main western generals: Felix, Boniface and Aëtius. By 434, Aetius had disposed of his rivals but the situation for the Ravennate court had deteriorated.
In imperial politics, Roman rivals were always prioritised over barbarians for good reasons; Roman armies posed a more serious threat. But the constant civil warfare since the battle of the Frigidus (395), in addition to one or perhaps two serious defeats at the hands of the Vandals, had serious results. The western field army had never been given the chance to be rebuilt after its late fourth-century defeats. Forces assembled from remaining field army regiments and troops drawn away from the frontiers had repeatedly fought each other, inflicting heavy losses on each other. Even Johannes’ suppression had seen the defeat of the Eastern expeditionary force by Aëtius’ Hunnic auxiliaries. Civil strife meant that imperial government had been unable to be restored in the north-west, although Aëtius campaigned in northern Gaul in the late 420s. Imperial control over Spain appears to have been lost. The Vandals, after defeating the Sueves, who had begun to expand from their base in Gaelicia, crossed into Africa. Eventually the Ravenna government recognised their control over Mauretania and Numidia. With the Vandals’ departure and the defeat of significant Roman forces, the Sueves now seemed likely to dominate the Iberian Peninsula. The loss of imperial authority in Britain, northern Gaul, Spain and Africa had in every case been brought about to some extent (usually decisively) by Roman civil war and palace politics.
Valentinian’s reign marked an important shift in western politics. The failure of the numerous usurpations of Honorius’ reign and of Johannes at the start of Valentinian’s appears to have convinced participants in Roman politics that the imperial dynastic ‘card’ trumped all others. The competing generals – in this period entirely of Roman origin – strove for the same things as Stilicho, Alaric and Athaulf had before them: domination of the imperial court, supreme control of the armies and an incorporation, via the marriage of their children, into the royal house.
Aëtius set about restoring governmental power but the shortage of good troops meant that he could not wage war on more than one front. Concentrating upon Gaul, he defeated the rebellious Goths and campaigned successfully in the north against Franks and rebels. Disaster struck, however, when the Vandals captured Carthage in 439 and, the same year, the Goths defeated and killed Aëtius’ subordinate, Litorius, at Toulouse. These events changed the picture dramatically. Aëtius abandoned his northern Gaulish campaigns because his southern base was now threatened. Troops were also needed to defend Italy against Vandal attacks. In Spain, the Sueves entered upon a period of domination, under their kings Hermeric and Rechila.
Aëtius again responded energetically. A treaty was made with the Goths – possibly the first to recognise some sort of autonomy for the group – bringing them back into the imperial fold. Soon Gothic troops were employed in attempts to restore imperial authority in Spain. In Gaul, while no territory was abandoned, militarily Aëtius seems to have withdrawn to a line roughly along the Loire. He settled the Burgundians in Sapaudia in 443 to strengthen that line, alongside an Alan settlement at Auxerre. It is noteworthy that the shortage of good soldiers was forcing the Empire to rely on ‘barbarian’ armies, like the Goths, Burgundians and Alans.
Nonetheless we must consider what we mean by ‘Barbarian’ when discussing mid-fifth-century wars. The ‘Barbarian’ groups most heavily involved in imperial politics had all entered the Empire many years earlier: the Aquitanian Goths (we can now call them Visigoths) in 376, the Sueves, Vandals and Alans (now in Gaelicia and North Africa) in 406 and the Rhône-valley Burgundians by Rhby 413. By 440 the warriors and leaders whom we are accustomed to think of as ‘Barbarians’ were men who had grown up or – increasingly – had been born inside the Roman Empire. This is crucial: most historians write as though Rechila of the Sueves, Theoderic of the Visigoths and Geiseric of the Vandals were warriors fresh from across the Rhine or Danube. Yet the culture that impinged upon them as children, adolescents and young adults was not that of the forests or steppes of barbaricum: it was that of the western provinces, especially Gaul and Spain. The younger men likely had provincial Roman mothers. These were the ‘barbarians’ who played the most important roles in imperial politics and history. What differentiated these people from other provincial Romans is difficult to know. By contrast, throughout this period, actual barbarian invasion from across the frontier (by Franks and Alamans for example) was rare, small-scale and usually swiftly defeated. The great exception to this was Attila the Hun’s attack on the west in 451.
Attila’s invasion wrecked a situation that was again looking promising for the Roman. In 445 a treaty with the Vandal leader Geiseric, which betrothed his son Huneric to Valentinian III’s daughter, incorporated the Vandals within the régime. Once more we see how ‘barbarian’ leaders sought legitimation, involvement in government and marriage into the imperial dynasty. Offensives involving Gothic and Vandal forces were launched in Spain against the Sueves, although the Sueves had defeated these by 446. In Gaul, Aëtius’ forces were again waging successful campaigns against local rebels and Frankish invaders, so that a restoration of the Rhine frontier might not have looked impossible. Attila’s attack ended this possibility.
The Hunnic attack in 451 destroyed the remnants of Roman Rhine defences (if there was anything left at all). Aëtius’ brought together the different Gallic factions and some barbarian allies to defeat the Hunnic forces but his (possibly deliberate) failure to inflict a decisive reverse on Attila was crucial. Aëtius could not oppose the Huns’ devastating attack on Italy in 452, which was eventually turned back by disease and by an East Roman offensive across the Danube. Famously, Pope Leo I garnered contemporary praise for halting Attila’s march on Rome; any military laurels fell to an Eastern general confusingly also called Aëtius. Attila died in 453 and, with his threat removed, in 454 Valentinian attempted to profit from Aëtius’ temporary military discrediting and rid himself of his mighty generalissimo; he assassinated him in person. In 455, two of Aëtius’ former bodyguards killed Valentinian in revenge. The early sixth-century chronicler Marcellinus Comes considered this event to have marked the end of the western Roman Empire (a significance he also, more famously, ascribed to the events of 476) and his assessment is justifiable.
Ephemeral Emperors, 455-76
The extent to which the dynastic ‘card’ had become decisive in Roman politics since 425-6 is more than amply demonstrated by the history of the succeeding twenty-one years, when no fewer than nine emperors attempted to govern the ever-shrinking territory that accepted rule from Ravenna. The last eastern emperor of the Valentianic-Theodosian dynasty, Theodosius II, died in 450. Without dynastic legitimacy, no western ruler could automatically obtain recognition from the factions that held power in other regions of the West. Indeed, without dynastic legitimacy, eastern emperors also found it difficult to bring the West into line with their policies. All the western regional factions now had armed forces: the Visigoths acted entirely in line with the Aquitanian senatorial nobility; the Rhône valley nobles made common cause with the Burgundians settled in their region from the start; the Roman army of Dalmatia formed another interest group and one reason why the heretical Vandals in Carthage attracted such contemporary opprobrium was, it has been suggested, their success in convincing North African Romans to support their leadership. The situation looks different in Spain. The Sueves seem to be the only barbarian group not to have formed a regional alliance with the local Roman nobility, although even by the 450s the difference between ‘provincial Roman’ and ‘barbarian’ was one of nuance. Any Sueve who could remember life before the ‘Great Invasion’ would have been very old. Nonetheless in 453 a treaty was signed between the Sueves and two Roman commanders, Mansuetus and Fronto, which seems to have returned Carthaginensis to Roman authority while recognising Suevic control over other territories. That the Suevic king Rechiar had campaigned in Tarraconensis in 449 alongside a Roman rebel (Bacauda) called Basilius further suggests that, despite the impression given by Hydatius, the Sueves also forged alliances with provincial leaders.
Valentinian III’s murder dissolved two critical alliances. One was with the Sueves, who resumed their attacks on Carthaginensis and Tarraconensis. The other, more important, was with the Vandals, in many ways the faction with the strongest hand in 455. Huneric, heir to the Vandal throne, was betrothed to Valentinian III’s daughter; the Vandals were the only group who could play the ‘dynastic card’. This was made clear immediately, when Geiseric – possibly summoned by Valentinian’s widow – led the Vandal fleet against Rome and Petronius Maximus, who had plotted Valentinian’s murder and had himself made emperor. Petronius was killed by an angry mob and the Vandal sack of Rome was far more serious than Alaric’s. Geiseric brought Valentinian’s widow and daughters back to Carthage, where Huneric finally married his fiancée. Their offspring would be descendants of the Valentinianic-Theodosian dynasty and thus have a strong claim to the imperial throne. Geiseric wanted one Olybrius, married to Valentinian’s other daughter, the sister of Huneric’s wife, on the imperial throne. To support this claim, the Vandals waged a destructive twenty-year war of raiding around the Mediterranean.
The history of the final twenty years of the western Empire’s formal existence is tortuous and confusing.  Any emperor faced severe difficulties. The diminishing extent of the territory under direct control by Ravenna (the empire had now effectively lost control over Britain, most of Gaul north of the Loire, large areas of Spain, and its Balkan and North African provinces) reduced his ability to raise taxes and raising armies. This led to increasing reliance on recruits from beyond the frontier and to their payment in delegated taxation and settlement on some forms of land. After two generations, these mechanisms bound troops like the Visigoths and Burgundians closely into provincial society, further strengthening links between regional armies and aristocracies.
Several problems demanded the attention of every occupant of the throne. One of the most pressing was how to bind the Gallic and Italian aristocracies into the regime. The Gauls resented their exclusion from the centre of politics while the Italians, having lost their pre-eminence in the third and – especially – fourth centuries, were unlikely to acquiesce in a return to the ‘inside-out Empire’. The tricky African situation compounded this. With the Vandals opposed to the Ravennate government, the grain fleet necessary to feed Rome was always in danger of being withheld, causing riots. The threat of Vandal attack also demanded the presence of a significant army in Italy, giving military muscle to the Italian faction. Countering the Vandals required one or more of three options: risky naval operations from Sicily, land-based invasion from Tripolitania or attack from across the Straits of Gibraltar. The second (and in practice probably the first) required the Eastern Empire’s support; the third necessitated the nullification or incorporation of the Sueves, control of the route through Provence and Tarraconensis at least, and ideally of Carthaginensis and Baetica too. Given the difficulties of military recruitment and waging war on two fronts, campaigning in Spain required the Gothic and/or Burgundian armies, underlining the need to incorporate the Gallic factions into a regime. Command of the Italian army and thus de facto the role of the most important political-military figure at court was held by Ricimer for over fifteen years between 456/7 and 472. Apart from possibly providing the military backing to the claims of the Italian aristocratic faction, Ricimer, like Aëtius before him, clung viciously to power. He was opposed to any reduction of the military presence in Italy. As time passed, in any case, barbarian soldiers came to be as incorporated into Italian society and politics as the Goths and Burgundians in Gaul, the Sueves in Spain or the Vandals in Africa. Ricimer, unsurprisingly, was wholly or partly responsible for the downfall of three emperors. Each change of Emperor potentially added to these problems by alienating the individuals or factions that had supported his predecessor. Thus, when Ricimer had the capable Majorian executed, Aegidius, Majorian’s commander of the (largely Frankish) Roman army on the Loire, took his troops (and thus defence of the Gallic frontier) into rebellion for three years. Invasion by barbarians from beyond the frontier continued to be the least of an emperors’ worries. As always, internal politics and warfare dominated the imperial outlook.
These problems would be difficult for even the best general and politician to surmount, and most of the emperors about whom we have any information, and who reigned for long enough to attempt to accomplish anything, seem to have been capable. The difficulties got the better of them all. All the different factions seem to have managed a turn at controlling the throne: the Aquitanians and Goths with Avitus (455-6); the Italians and their army with Majorian (456-61), Libius Severus (461-5) and Romulus (475-6); the Dalmatian army and its supporters with Julius Nepos (474-5), the Vandals/North Africans with Olybrius (472) and (possibly) the Burgundians/Rhône valley senators with Glycerius (473-4). Anthemius (467-72) was the appointee of the Eastern Empire. Anthemius could additionally play the dynastic card, being related to the Constantinian and Valentinianic/Theodosian houses. He worked hard to solve the West’s difficulties for five years before falling victim to them and Ricimer. A key feature of politics in this period was the use of the title rex (king) by leaders of ‘barbarian’ forces not incorporated in the imperial regime. Thus, when his imperial candidate Glycerius was deposed by Julius Nepos and the Dalmatians in 473, the general Gundobad left Italy and returned to his people, the Burgundians, among whom he became king. The rebel general Aegidius appears to have taken the title of rex francorum (King of the Franks) when he rebelled against Ricimer and Libius Severus. By contrast, the barbarian soldier and emperor-maker Ricimer never took a royal title.
The Undead Empire, 476-533
When Odoacer, the Italian army’s commander, deposed Romulus ‘Augustulus’ (little emperor) in 476, no faction had the power to defeat the others and create a lasting imperial regime. The West had endured three interregna after 455, after the deaths of Avitus, Libius Severus and Olybrius, totalling over three years (a seventh of the total period between Valentinian III’s murder and Romulus’ deposition). The different regions could govern themselves via the imperial bureaucracy, especially as even the ‘barbarian’ kings also had legitimate Roman titles, whether there was a western emperor or not. Odoacer’s return of the western regalia to Constantinople in 476, simply recognised this fact. After Emperor Zeno refused his request for the title of patrician, Odoacer did what others like Aegidius and Gundobad had done before him: he took the title king.
The various regional factions of the Western Empire thus crystallised into a network of kingdoms: the Vandals in North Africa, the Burgundians on the Rhône, the Visigoths in Aquitaine and, eventually, Spain, the Sueves in north-west Spain and Odoacer’s kingdom in Italy. In northern Gaul, the leaders of Aegidius’ old army on the Loire carved out a Frankish realm while Britain and much of southern and eastern Spain saw competition between warlords of all sorts. All recognised (in theory) imperial rule from Constantinople, legitimising their government. Although contemporaries clearly recognised that there was no functioning Western Empire or reigning Western Emperor, and that this made a real difference, there is no evidence that they thought the Empire had definitively ended or ‘fallen’. The one possible exception to this was Hydatius, the Gaelician bishop-chronicler, but it is probably not coincidental that he lived in an area where barbarian rule, unsanctioned by any imperial regime, was being imposed by force.
This new order did not end the fighting and struggles for mastery, however. The Goths expanded their power into Spain, defeating local leaders, while also fighting the Franks to their north. Most importantly, in 493 the Ostrogothic king Theoderic completed his imperially-sanctioned conquest of Italy. Now controlling Italy and the formerly western territories in Illyricum, he defeated the Vandals and drove them out of Sicily. In 507 the Frank Clovis defeated and killed Alaric II of the Visigoths and conquered Aquitaine. Theoderic took the opportunity to take over Provence and by 510 he controlled the Visigothic territories in Spain. At this point he had overlordship over much of the former Western Empire. Meanwhile, Clovis eliminated rival Frankish leaders and extended his domination over the trans-Rhenan peoples – Saxons, Alamans and Thuringians. It probably seemed as though the old rivalry between Gaulish and Italian factions could explode back into open warfare. Both Theoderic and Clovis acquiesced in being called augustus by their subjects even if they never took the title. If one had managed to subdue the other it is reasonable to posit that they might well have revived the western Empire under their own leadership. Clovis died in 511, ending the threat of war between the two overlords, but Theoderic continued to dominate the west, seemingly bringing Burgundy and Vandal Africa into his web of alliances and promoting an ideology of an ancient Ostrogothic power (virtus) equal to Rome’s.
This self-confident Gothic ideology provoked a response from Constantinople, where the new Emperor Justin I and his nephew and successor Justinian began to proclaim that the West had been ‘lost’ to barbarians. The West, they said, had fallen and needed to be reconquered. It was no longer part of the Roman Empire. In 533, Justinian turned these words into action and invaded Vandal Africa. Over the next twenty years, Justinian’s troops put an end to the Vandal and Ostrogothic kingdoms and conquered a swathe of territory in Spain. The destruction they wrought, however, and the fact that they failed to reconquer the whole of the old pars occidentalis, meant that a new frontier came into being between the imperium romanum and the kingdoms beyond. Because of Justinian’s ideological pronouncements, those kingdoms could no longer claim even the fiction of being part of the Roman Empire. They needed new forms of legitimacy and a new phase of western European history came into being. The imperium that had once unified the west had now formally dissolved into the series of diverse, regional kingdoms of medieval Europe.
Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae: Ammianus Marcellinus. trans. Rolfe, J.C., (London 1935-39) (3 vols.).
Gregory of Tours, Histories: Gregory of Tours. The History of the Franks, trans. Thorpe, L., (Harmondsworth, 1974)
Hydatius, Chronicle: The Chronicle of Hydatius and the Consularia Constantinopolitana. Two Contemporary Accounts of the Final Years of the Roman Empire, ed. & trans. Burgess, R.W., (Oxford, 1993), pp.1-172.
Marcellinus Comes, Chronicle: The Chronicle of Marcellinus, ed. & trans. Croke, B., (Sydney, 1995)
Orosius, History against the pagans: Paulus Orosius. The Seven Books of History against the Pagans, trans. Deferrari, R.J., (Fathers of the Church 50; Washington, DC, 1964)
Sidonius Apollinaris, Poems and Letters vol.1, ed. & trans. Anderson W.B., (London, 1936); Sidonius: Poems and Letters vol.2, ed. & trans. Anderson W.B., with Warmington, E.H., (London, 1965).
Amory, P., 1997: People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy, 489-554 (Cambridge).
Brown, Peter, 1971: The World of Late Antiquity (London).
Burns, Thomas S., 1994: Barbarians within the Gates of Rome. A Study of Roman Military Policy and the Barbarians, ca.375-425 (Bloomington, Indiana)
Conant, Jonathan, 2012: Staying Roman. Conquest and Identity in Africa and the Mediterranean, 439-700 (Cambridge).
Croke, B., (1983). ‘476: The manufacture of a turning point.’ Chiron 13:81-119 (repr. as B. Croke, Christian Chronicles and Byzantine History, 5th-6th Century (London, 1992), no. V).
Drinkwater, John 1996: ‘“The Germanic threat on the Rhine frontier”: A Romano-Gallic artefact?’, in R.W. Mathisen & Sivan, H. (ed.) (Shifting Frontiers in Late Antiquity (Aldershot), pp.20-30.
Drinkwater, John 1997: ‘Julian and the Franks and Valentinian I and the Alamanni: Ammianus on Roman-German relations.’ Francia 24:1-16.
Elton, Hugh, 1996: Frontiers of the Roman Empire (London)
Esmonde-Cleary, A. Simon, 1989: The Ending of Roman Britain (London)
Gerrard, James, 2013: The Ruin of Roman Britain: An Archaeological Perspective (Cambridge)
Goffart, Walter, 1980. Barbarians and Romans AD 418-585: The Techniques of Accommodation (Princeton).
Goffart, Walter, 2013: ‘Administrative Methods of Barbarian Settlement in the Fifth Century: The Definitive Account’ in Diefenbach, S., & Müller, M., (ed.) Gallien in Spätantike und Frühmittelalter : Kulturgeschichte einer Region (Berlin), pp.45-56.
Halsall, Guy, 2007: Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 (Cambridge)
Halsall, Guy, 2012a: ‘Northern Britain and the Fall of the Roman Empire’ The Mediæval Journal 2:2: 1–25
Halsall, Guy, 2012b: ‘From Roman fundus to Carolingian Grand Domaine: crucial ruptures between late antiquity and the middle ages.’ Revue Belge de Philologie at d’Histoire 90: 273-98
Halsall, Guy, 2014. ‘Two worlds become one: A counter-intuitive’ view of the Roman Empire and ‘Germanic’ migration’. German History 32.4: 515-32
Halsall, Guy, 2016: ‘The Ostrogothic military’ in Arnold, J.J., Bjornlie, M.S. & Sessa, K., A Companion to Ostrogothic Italy (Leiden), pp.173-99
Heather, Peter, 1991: Goths and Romans, 332-489 (Oxford).
Heather, Peter, 1996: The Goths (Oxford).
Heather, Peter, 2001: ‘The late Roman art of client management: Imperial defence in the fourth-century west’, in Pohl, W., Wood, I.N., & Reimitz, H., (ed.) The Transformation of Frontiers. From Late Antiquity to the Carolingians (Leiden), pp.15-72.
Heather, Peter, 2005: The Fall of Rome: A New History (London).
James, Edward, 2008: ‘The rise and function of the concept ‘Late Antiquity’ Journal of Late Antiquity 1.1: 20-30.
James, Edward, 2009: Europe’s Barbarians, AD 200-600 (Harlow)
Kelly, Christopher, 2008: Attila the Hun. Barbarian Terror and the Fall of the Roman Empire (London)
Kulikowski, Michael, 2000b: ‘Barbarians in Gaul, usurpers in Britain’. Britannia 31:325-45.
Kulikowski, Michael, 2006: Rome’s Gothic Wars from the Third Century to Alaric (Cambridge).
Kulikowski, Michael, 2014: ‘The failure of Roman arms’, in Lipps, J., von Rummel, P., & Machado, C. (ed.), The Sack of Rome in 410 AD. The Event, its Context and its Impact (Wiesbaden), pp.77-83.
Lenski, Noël, 1995: ‘The Gothic civil war and the date of the Gothic conversion.’ Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 36:51-87.
Lenski, Noël, 2002: The Failure of Empire: Valens and the Roman State in the Fourth Century A.D. (Berkeley).
Liebeschuetz, Wolfgang 1991: Barbarians and Bishops. Army, Church and State in the Age of Arcadius and Chrysostom (Oxford).
Liebeschuetz, Wolfgang, 1992: ‘Alaric’s Goths: Nation or army?’ in Drinkwater & Elton (ed.) (1992), pp.75-83.
Lütkenhaus, W., (1998). Constantius III. Studien zu seiner Tätigkeit und Stellung im Westreich 411-421 (Bonn).
Maas, Michael (ed.) 2014. The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Attila (Cambridge)
MacGeorge, Penny, 2003: Late Roman Warlords (Oxford).
McCormick, Michael, 1986: Eternal Victory. Triumphal rulership in late antiquity, Byzantium and the Early Medieval West (Cambridge)
Rousseau, Philippe (ed.), 2009: The Blackwell Companion to Late Antiquity (Oxford)
Stickler, Timo, (2002). Aëtius: Gestaltungsspielräume eines Heermeisters im ausgehenden Weströmischen Reich (Munich).
Whittaker, C. R., 1994). Frontiers of the Roman Empire (Baltimore, Maryland).
Wolfram, Herwig, 1988: A History of the Goths (Berkeley)
Wood, I.N., 2013. The Modern Origins of the Early Middle Ages (Oxford)
 For this historiography, see Wood 2013; James 2009 is the best guide to debates about the barbarians.
 Brown 1971.
 James 2008 and other articles in the same issue of the journal; Rousseau (ed.) 2009.
 Halsall 2012a.
 For a general survey of the frontier and Romano-Barbarian relations see Halsall 2007:138-62, with references.
 Drinkwater 1996; 1997; Elton 1996; Whittaker 1994.
 Heather 2001.
 For an overview of barbarian society and politics, see Halsall 2007:118-36.
 Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae 26.5.7.
 Halsall 2014.
 Halsall 2014.
 There are many studies of this crisis: Burns 1994; Halsall 2007:170-85; Heather 1991:122-56; 1996:98-102, 130-8; Kulikowski 2006:123-53 ; Lenski 1995; 2002:320-67; Wolfram 1988:
 Ammianus, Res Gestae 31.2.1-12; Halsall 2007:171-2.
 Lenski 1995.
 Two classic studies of late of Roman Britain are Esmonde-Cleary 1989 and Gerrard 2014.
 For this interpretation, see Halsall 2012b and references.
 Kulikowski 2000.
 Liebeschuetz 1991: 34-6.
 For studies of Alaric’s career, see Burns 1994; Halsall 2007:194-206, 214-7; Heather 1991:193-218; 1996:138-48; Kulikowski 2006:154-77; 2014; Liebeschuetz 1992.
 On Constantius see Lütkenhaus 1998.
 Orosius, History against the Pagans 7.43.16-17.
 For different narratives of this period, see Halsall 2007:234-56; Heather 2005:251-348, 369-75.
 On Aëtius, see Stickler 2002.
 On Attila, see Kelly 2008; Maas (ed.) 2014.
 Marcellinus Comes, Chronicle, sub anno 454.
 Conant 2012:130-86.
 Hydatius, Chronicle 147.
 For narratives, see Halsall 2007: 257-83; Heather 2005:375-430.
 On which see Goffart 1980; 2014; Halsall 2007:422-47 for discussion of the debate; Halsall 2016.
 Sidonius Apollinaris’ panegyric to Majorian (Poems 5) makes this very clear.
 On Ricimer see MacGeorge 2002.
 Halsall 2016.
 Gregory of Tours, Histories 2.12.
 Theoderic: McCormick 1986:278-80; Clovis: Gregory of Tours, Histories 2.38.
 Amory 1997:59-71.
 Croke 1983.