Empires and Barbarians, Part 1

21 Feb

This will be a new tactic for me. I’m currently reading Peter Heather’s Empire and Barbarians: Migration, Development and the Birth of Europe. Ordinarily I’d wait until I finish before commenting on it. This is not a book with sections that stand completely alone – chapters build on preceding information. But I haven’t posted to this blog in 2 weeks and the last thing I want this to become is a Zone of Deadness, Cone of Silence or whatever. I suppose I should caution people that after I post this, edits are likely over the next few weeks. This is kind of liberating – normally once you publish something you’re locked into it but here there’s a get out of jail free card. Though I don’t edit things months down the road – I like to see how my thinking has progressed.

I’ve read several of Heather’s books. One thing I enjoy about his work is that, more than many other current academics, he frames his issues in a clearly readable, understandable way. I’ve reached the point now where I can generally figure out what the author is getting at, but with Heather, it’s a much simpler trip. I’ll also mention that I hesitated to buy this book. I thought it likely that it would be a re-hash of his The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians. It is not. It certainly expands on many of his ideas but the primary focus – the interaction between Rome and the Barbarians – is different from that earlier (and IMO very good) book.

This post will address the first three chapters of this book. These discuss how the Barbarians evolved into a force that could threaten Rome, up to 376 when Valens admitted the Tervingi into the Empire. Heather traces the evolution of Barbarians from small, mostly tribal-sized groupings into larger, more cohesive and more militarily capable “peoples” (I don’t like that term – should I use gens?) governed by kings – or individuals who functioned much like kings, such as the Gothic “Judges”.

The overall theme of this section is that it was the interaction with Rome which created these larger, more cohesive, and militarily proficient groups. He tracks several factors with this, which I think can be divided into two overall categories – Wealth Infusion and External (to the Barbarians) Threats. These are my terms for discussion purposes, not Heather’s.

Heather goes into some depth about how these societies evolved to the point where they possessed excess wealth which they were able to channel into militarization. Rather than being a subsistence society, where virtually all resources were devoted to simple survival, these groups found or developed wealth which could be used for weapons production and the support of an elite military class which could be freed from the more mundane tasks of feeding themselves.

One factor in this is an increase in agricultural productivity. In pages 48 through 53 Heather discusses evidence of the improvement of agricultural productivity, such as increasing cereal pollen levels and the Fedderson Wierde site and how the improved agricultural production paralleled changes in settlement practices; from that of groups relocating whenever soil fertility was exhausted in an area, to stable communities remaining in place (and growing) over generations; as well as the development of specialized weapons production. Heather does not discuss how and why this improved agricultural efficiency may have happened – a discussion which I think would be interesting (possibly because whenever I say my job is “nothistory” you can substitute “agriculture”). For my money, I think it’s likely that we’re seeing a case of knowledge transmission from Romans to Barbarians. This may have been unintentional however, with Roman frontier forces receiving much of their supplies through trade with the Barbarians, I am fairly certain, in my own mind, that this was more deliberate. It was probably not in any systematic, organized way, but if a Barbarian farmer showed up at a fort or contrafort and asked about vegetable or wheat production, he probably received answers. Either way, the ability to produce excess food allowed the Barbarians to release people from agriculture to engage in specialized weapons production (as well as ornamental metal and glass production) and to become military elites.

Another form of wealth infusion was the system of payments from Rome to client states. For more detail on this I’d suggest looking at Thomas S. Burns (2003). Rome made payments to Barbarians to help retain leaders in power who Rome had a working relationship with as well as to give them an alternative to raiding. This wealth could then be distributed by Barbarian leaders to subordinates. This had many impacts including helping develop trade networks however it also allowed the leader and his retinue to do something other than farm.

Another impact of these payments was to encourage the Barbarians to create larger, more cohesive groupings. By favoring a leader, Rome helped him gather more “loyal” followers. Also, Barbarians realized that in order to be considered for these payments, they needed to be a large enough organization for Rome to notice. A small warband of a couple of hundred armed men wouldn’t merit a payment but a group of several thousand to tens of thousands capable of supporting a significant, cohesive, temporally consistent military force would. And of course the leader had to demonstrate enough control of his followers to make this payment worthwhile from a Roman perspective.

There were two main External Threat influences. As Barbarian groups near the frontier received payments, groups located further away recognized this. Areas near the frontier became prime real estate. However nobody was selling it. In order for one Barbarian group to supplant another, they had to become larger and more militarized themselves. This became something of a cycle – a group located at some distance from the frontier became militarized enough to threaten a frontier group so the frontier group became larger and more militarized in response.

The other threat was Rome itself. A typical Roman response to raids was to invade the Barbarian territory and lay waste to it. If they could bring the Barbarians to a fight, well and good, but mostly they wanted to teach them a lesson. To respond to this threat the Barbarians, again, had to become larger, more cohesive and more militarily capable.

For Heather, an important aspect of this evolution of Barbarian groups into militarily powerful forces is that the groups which threatened Rome were not large warbands but a large, fairly cohesive group, including entire families – women and children included. This is the ethnogenesis portion of his work. I’ve read a few things on ethnogenesis including Geary (2001), Pohl and Reimitz (1998) and Gillett (2002)1 as well as several items in the Goffart-Wolfram “conversation.” This has become the elephant in the room that nobody can ignore. My opinion as an amateur is that if it weren’t for the hideous uses the Third Reich made of the 19th century Volkerwanderung theory, this would be one of those relatively minor issues which, ultimately, people would decide we really don’t have enough information on to reach any firm conclusions (but would continue discussing and examining, without some of the rancor). Instead, anyone who ventures to speak on the Barbarians/Germanics (I know Goffart hates the second term) has to spend extensive time explaining exactly what he or she means. One could wish people would apply the same standard to their use of the term “feudalism” – something we DO have information on.

Heather believes that many researchers have worked so hard to distance themselves from the Volkerwanderung that they have begun to distort the evidence in the opposite direction. With regard to the Barbarians he believes that there is some truth to the original theory – absolutely not in the sense of any type of racially “pure” group which moved wholesale from its original site and then exterminated the previous occupants of its new “digs.” However he does seem to believe in the Pohl and Reimitz (the Vienna School) theory of a “kernel” of elites who retained their group identity, even as the people who made up the overall group changed, adding new individuals and groups, dropping others, leaving some people behind as they moved while others joined, etc.2 This is an extremely brief summary of Heather’s discussion BTW. And I want to be very clear – Heather does not believe the old migration theory, however he does believe that there are elements of it which may be true in some cases.

As evidence that these Barbarian groups consisted of family units on the move Heather offers the source evidence, particularly Ammianus Marcellinus. He also discusses the continuity of language over centuries and how this would have been impossible without mothers teaching that language to their children. He criticizes Goffart (2006), Halsall (2007) and Kulikowski (2007) for their use of sources.3 In addition, he does not believe that the conquests achieved by Barbarian groups could have been achieved by an armed warband but would have taken a large enough entity that it would have required the support of family groupings – and would have left family members who remained behind at substantial risk without anyone left to defend them. He uses the Boer migrations of the 19th century from the area around Capetown to the Transvaal and Natal as evidence of how this may have happened and discusses how the Roman sources indicate similarities. I always get nervous when historians feel they need to use a modern example to describe how something may have happened 1500 years ago but I suppose this works well enough as an illustration.

As a note, I’ll say that I believe his criticisms of Halsall and Goffart are appropriate (the validity of said criticisms is a matter of judgment) however not so much for Kulikowski. The reason I say this is that for the former two, their works are larger, more academic, and involved detailed use of the evidence (I like a lot of both of those books). However Kulikowski’s Rome’s Gothic Wars is very much an introductory text of less than 200 pages. Criticisms of his not exploring the evidence in depth seem a bit inappropriate. In his Late Roman Spain and Its Cities Kulikowski does examine evidence, textual and archaeological, in detail. Now he tends to be very conservative in his use of the evidence, which is a valid criticism, however Gothic Wars is not the place to bring this out – that book isn’t meant to examine evidence in detail but to give a rough overview. I suppose you can argue that any time an author puts something in print which states conclusions he or she has opened him or herself to criticism, but in this case Heather’s criticizing Kulikowski for something his book isn’t intended to do. There’s a place for an introductory work which doesn’t dive in too deeply for the general reader or beginning student.

I’ll have much more on the Heather-Halsall-Goffart interaction in the next section. That’s where we get into the real “What drove the Barbarians into Rome in 405-408?” issue. I have some opinions on that (very interesting) discussion from what I’ve read so far but I’ll wait until I finish this discussion of Heather’s to dive into it.

To sum up, as usual Heather does a nice job of communicating his thoughts in a clear, understandable manner using a progression of offering evidence to support a stated conclusion. There’s much of what he says regarding the evolution of Barbarian groups that’s similar to Thomas Burns (2003) though interestingly, he doesn’t reference Burns. Burns goes into more depth (which he should since his entire work is devoted to the topic) and falls further on the “Rome made the Barbarians” side of the fence than Heather but many of the concepts are similar. Heather is careful to mention that he believes the Barbarians were already moving toward greater group cohesion and size but that their interactions with Rome greatly accelerated the process (92-93). Heather also is explicit in how he reaches his conclusions which continues to be one of his strengths (though it also provides critics with a club to use against his “Hunnic Pressure” theory) and does a nice job of integrating archaeological and textual evidence. One of the very interesting aspects of this period for me is to read Halsall and Heather where both detail their use of evidence, yet reach very different conclusions.

NOTE: June 19, 2011. I’ve finally written a follow-up to this post with a few comments on later portions of this book. I apologize for taking so long to put something up.

1 I’ve read all three of these but checked them out of the Purdue Library and have since returned them. I have overall impressions of them but wouldn’t think about getting into specifics here. I have everything else mentioned in this post.

2 There’s a ton of literature out there on Barbarian ethnogenesis. Pohl and Reimitz (1998) and Gillette (2002) are two works which illustrate what have become known as, respectively, the Vienna and Toronto schools of thought. As an outsider looking in, this debate has become extremely nit-picky and way too emotionally charged – at times verging on unprofessional. For an attempt to bring some sanity back into the discussion, see Curta (2007).

3 I’m going to save the Heather/Halsall/Goffart/Kulikowski discussion over the use of sources for a later post where I can address it more fully. I want to note that, as opposed to ethnogenesis, the debate over the use of sources continues to be valid and valuable for me. The participants treat each other as respected colleagues they disagree with and the points raised address substantive issues.

Books Mentioned:

Burns, Thomas S. (2003). Rome and the Barbarians, 100 B.C. – A.D. 400 (Baltimore). ISBN: 978-0-8018-7306-5

Curta, Florin (2007). ‘Some Remarks on Ethnicity in Medieval Archaeology’, Early Medieval Europe 15, 159-185.

Geary, Patrick (2001). The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe. ISBN: 978-0691090542

Gillett, Andrew, ed. (2002). On Barbarian Identity: Critical Approaches to Ethnicity (Turnhout). ISBN: 978-2503511689

Goffart, Walter (2006). Barbarian Tides: the Migration Age and the Later Roman Empire (Philadelphia). ISBN: 978-0-8122-3939-3

Halsall, Guy (2007). Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 (Cambridge). ISBN: 978-0-521-4353-7

Heather, Peter (2009). Empires and Barbarians: Migration, Development and the Birth of Europe(London). ISBN: 978-0-333-98975-3

Heather, Peter (2005). The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians (London). ISBN: 0-19-515954-3

Kulikowski, Michael (2007). Rome’s Gothic Wars (New York). ISBN: 978-0-521-60868-8

Kulikowski, Michael (2004). Late Roman Spain and Its Cities (Baltimore). ISBN: 0-8018-7978-7

Pohl, Walter and Reimitz, Helmut (1998). Strategies of Distinction: The Construction of Ethnic Communities, 300-800 (Leiden). ISBN: 978-9004108462


Posted by on February 21, 2010 in Books, Society and Social Structure


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9 responses to “Empires and Barbarians, Part 1

  1. Jonathan Jarrett

    February 22, 2010 at 12:49 pm

    Comprehensive survey there, and some work I didn't know about either, which is always nice. Thanks. I just wanted to add two things: firstly, where you say,"peoples" (I don't like that term – should I use gens?)I think that one of the things that Halsall's work and the Vienna school (to whom, myself, I align more readily than to Heather's robust migrating group identities) demonstrate is that the term is problematic even in the Latin sources! so I would say the only safe word, though ugly and leaden, is `grouping'. That said, I think if you use the Latin name you are at least referencing a contemporarily jumbled concept rather than an anachronistic one and everyone knows what the issues are.The other thing is about increased agricultural surplus. You say knowledge transfer, and you may be right, but I would also stress, and maybe more than knowledge transfer, the demand factor of having a nearby Roman camp, the prospect of getting seeds from them for the crops they'd buy, which might well be better than those in use, and most of all the climate, not that I know straight off what it was doing then, but the dive isn't till the third century is it?

  2. Medieval History Geek

    February 23, 2010 at 2:07 am

    Thanks for the comment. Peoples definitely has some ethnic baggage to it – I just re-read the post and I sure waffled between it and groups/grouping didn't I? I tend to go with the Wenskus/Vienna end of things myself. I wasn't terribly convinced by the Gillett volume which, for the most part, seemed to say that we couldn't tell anything from archaeology and shouldn't try. Historians should at least try to interpret the evidence – even if the result is offering a set of possibilities without coming to a firm conclusion.Just how changes in agricultural practices may have worked is pretty tough to figure out. All I can fall back on, when it comes to agriculture, is my contemporary experience and it's always dangerous to apply those to historical situations. I don't want this to become an ag rather than history discussion but I have some experience working with subsistence societies and they are very conservative, as most societies are when threatened. For them, a new crop is considered pretty radical. I'm supposed to meet with someone from Sudan a couple of days from now and I'll ask him how a new crop would be perceived – we had the same problem with trying to replace Cassava with something more efficient in Central America when I was in school. OTOH, we had an excellent experience (institutionally – I didn't go) with improving management of an existing crop with cowpeas in Central Africa this past summer. Though if the frontier groups were above subsistence level that resistance should be reduced somewhat.

  3. Anonymous

    March 8, 2010 at 8:01 pm

    Very nice review, including a very good overview of what has been written so far. Originally I was looking for the Goffard-Wolfram controversy and was not aware of Heather's latest book. I will surely try to get hold of it. As you pointed out above, if it was not for the Nazis's instrumentalisation of the germanic (pre-)history, the whole debate could turn out a good deal more factual and we would not have to bother that much about the use of gentes/nationes/peoples/groupings. However, it's all right to watch one's language, especially when dealing with ethnicity and the like. Just one more thing; "Volkswanderung" is certainly not the German nineteenth century term for the barbarian invasions/age of migration which in fact translates "Voelkerwanderung". "Volkswandern" (note the different ending!) may date back to C19th as well but is a public hiking movement which is still quite popular in Germany and neighbouring countries.

  4. Medieval History Geek

    March 10, 2010 at 11:47 am

    Thanks for the comment – and the correction. I should have caught that on edit in the first place. I've changed it in the post. I believe Felix Dahn used that term in 1883, based on the ethnogenesis discussions I've read.

  5. Cecelia

    March 16, 2010 at 5:04 am

    very interesting read – look forward to more comments as you progress further into the bookRe: increase in agricultural production – what was the weather like ?

  6. Steve Muhlberger

    March 18, 2010 at 3:21 am

    an impressive discussion. I would like to know what kind of evidence there is for an increase in agricultural production. If you think that the barbarian peoples grew in population in power to the point that they could take on the Roman Empire, then it makes sense to guess that there was a change in agricultural production. But this is to assume what needs to be proved, that it was a matter of increased military capability. Heather has done the same thing in an earlier book, by attributing a major role to increased size and power of the Hunnic confederacy in the late fourth century, without discussing evidence in any detail at all. I know it's right there in Jerome's Chronicle but what did he know? It's hard to say. I would really like the people who believe that the Goths and Vandals beat the Romans into submission and fundamentally changed things through sheer military strength, to explain why the fifth century and the third century worked out differently.

  7. Medieval History Geek

    March 18, 2010 at 9:14 pm

    Thanks for the comment.The Huns are another story – I don't recall his bringing up much about a change in their size and power in what I've read, mainly, since his 1995 EHR article, about their moving West "inspiring" the Barbarian groups to cross the Rhine in 405-08. I think the Goffart-Heather-Halsall discussion on this is very interesting myself. Particularly between Halsall and Heather where I think leaning towards either – or neither – is legitimate. Nobody has enough evidence to be more than circumstantial. I'm hoping to look at what each of the three have to say in their respective most recent "Barbarian Migration" books in my follow-up to this post.In this book his evidence for increased agricultural productivity centers around two areas. The first, receiving by far the most attention, is that of changing settlement patterns based on archaeological finds at areas such as Fedderson Wierde and Wijster in particular though he also throws Hodde, Vorbasse, Gunderup, Mariesminde and Norre Fjand into the pot (pp 49-51). He argues that the support of these larger, increasingly stable settlements could only have happened if agricultural productivity had increased. His second, but very brief comment is "Over the first four centuries AD, the proportion of pollen produced by cereal crops increased at the expense of grass and pollen, a further indication of agricultural intensification." (p 52). Unfortunately, that's all he provides for pollen – something I'd be interested in more details about.Of course then you have to get from the larger settlements to increased militarization though you'd think Roman frontier influences could logically account for at least some of that, once you assume the capacity.Your command of the sources is far greater than mine, obviously and it's possible he's reading implications into these finds that don't exist. He does that a couple of times later in the book – grouping events where I think the evidence for the grouping is pretty thin.

  8. Anonymous

    December 6, 2010 at 3:43 pm

    Dear Curt Emanuel!I recommend a coffeetable-book called FROM ROMAN TO KNIGHT on It is a tool to engage young people in the time called migration age.Sincerely,Geir Felling Andersen


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