Friends, Romans or Countrymen? Barbarians in the Empire

By Williams, Stephen; Friell, Gerard | History Today, July 1994 | Go to article overview

Friends, Romans or Countrymen? Barbarians in the Empire


Williams, Stephen, Friell, Gerard, History Today


Lead in the water, over-indulgent lifestyles, rampant inflation -- the list of explanations for the fall of the Roman Empire in the west has been endless. But in a new study, Stephen Williams and Gerard Friell turn the spotlight on the |barbarians' who shored up Rome's armies and frontiers, and discuss if they were Rome's salvation or doom.

The importing of tribal |barbarian' peoples (mainly Germanic) into the Roman Empire was a permanent imperial policy which expanded in scale over the centuries, and was continued by Byzantium after the Western empire had crumbled in the fifth century -- supposedly destroyed by those same Germanic peoples. Like any strategy it had its risks and its critics |The introduction of barbarians into the Roman armies,' intones Gibbon, |became every day more universal, more necessary, and more fatal.'

It is a sombre observation that so many modern historians have split into anti- and pro-barbarian camps, like Roman writers themselves. To Gibbon, Bury, Piganiol, the Germans were a dangerous fifth column which undermined and eventually wrecked the empire. To German historians such as Otto Seeck (1923), W. Ensslin (1941, 1959) and Joseph Vogt (1964), they were an injection of new and vigorous blood which defended and then inherited an exhausted empire. This is not much of an advance on the rival polemics of the Greek rhetorician, Themistius, and the philosopher Synesius in the fourth century. It is surely time to free ourselves from this Punch and Judy approach.

In the early first century, following the disastrous defeat of Varus' three legions in the German forests by Arminius the chief of the Cherusci, Augustus abandoned the earlier ambition of conquering Germany to the Elbe, and set limits to the empire. The Rhine and Danube were to be permanent frontiers. Henceforth, frontier policy involved not just roads, garrisons and fortified points, but an active diplomacy among the external tribes. Trade, protectorship, assistance, subsidies and influence in tribal politics played just as important a role as war or the threat of war. The Roman aim was to encourage small, friendly client chieftainships who would both respect the Roman frontiers and protect them against other tribal threats, often in return for Roman help against their tribal enemies. Only in this indirect way, carefully conserving the strength of the legions, could the thousands of miles of frontier be policed and maintained. The clients would be formally recognised as |allies and friends' of Rome (socii et amici), although the true relationship was not, of course, between equals. Chieftains would be honoured with Roman citizenship or, more palpably, money subsidies with which to impress and reward their followers. B the mid-first century there was a chain of clients from the lower Rhine to the middle Danube: Frisii, Batavii, Hermunduri, Marcomanni, Quadi and Sarmatians.

The system did not always work smoothly, if only because the tribes were first and foremost warrior peoples to whom seasonal warfare was the normal mode of life. Nor could their nobles always control them, having no coercive apparatus in the manner of sophisticated kingdoms. But, like Highlanders, Pathans, Gurkhas, Zulus, the Germans were recognised not only as a potential threat, but also an enormous reservoir of warlike recruits. It was axiomatic that they would invariably fight each other in any case -- let them do it in Roman interests. From the earliest, Germans had been recruited into the specialist auxiliaries in the Roman army, troops of lower pay and status than the legions, though not necessarily inferior in fighting skills. Arminius, who had massacred the three legions in Germany, had himself served as an auxiliary.

To the Germans, Rome represented boundless riches, magnificence and almost unlimited power, which might be plundered but was just as attractive as a high-paying employer of warriors. The German noble who was invited to cross the Rhine to meet Tiberius, said:

I have today seen those gods, whom

until now I had only hear tell of . …

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