Barbarian Tides: The Migration Age and the Later Roman Empire

Barbarian Tides: The Migration Age and the Later Roman Empire

Barbarian Tides: The Migration Age and the Later Roman Empire

Barbarian Tides: The Migration Age and the Later Roman Empire


The Migration Age is still envisioned as an onrush of expansionary "Germans" pouring unwanted into the Roman Empire and subjecting it to pressures so great that its western parts collapsed under the weight. Further developing the themes set forth in his classic Barbarians and Romans, Walter Goffart dismantles this grand narrative, shaking the barbarians of late antiquity out of this "Germanic" setting and reimagining the role of foreigners in the Later Roman Empire.

The Empire was not swamped by a migratory Germanic flood for the simple reason that there was no single ancient Germanic civilization to be transplanted onto ex-Roman soil. Since the sixteenth century, the belief that purposeful Germans existed in parallel with the Romans has been a fixed point in European history. Goffart uncovers the origins of this historical untruth and argues that any projection of a modern Germany out of an ancient one is illusory. Rather, the multiplicity of northern peoples once living on the edges of the Empire participated with the Romans in the larger stirrings of late antiquity. Most relevant among these was the long militarization that gripped late Roman society concurrently with its Christianization.

If the fragmented foreign peoples with which the Empire dealt gave Rome an advantage in maintaining its ascendancy, the readiness to admit military talents of any social origin to positions of leadership opened the door of imperial service to immigrants from beyond its frontiers. Many barbarians were settled in the provinces without dislodging the Roman residents or destabilizing landownership; some were even incorporated into the ruling families of the Empire. The outcome of this process, Goffart argues, was a society headed by elites of soldiers and Christian clergy--one we have come to call medieval.


Twenty-five years ago I published Barbarians and Romans A.D. 418–584: The Techniques of Accommodation. Barbarian Tides is a sequel, a rethought, revised, much expanded, and wholly rewritten version of the earlier book. It is a comprehensive, though certainly not an exhaustive introduction to the activities of northern barbarians in late antiquity, activities often called “the barbarian invasions.” Quite a lot has happened to this field in twenty-five years. Barbarians and Romans pointed hesitantly in a footnote toward future discussions, observing that the continuity of “peoples” seemed to be a matter of current concern and that the idea of an enduring core of tribal tradition was arousing controversy. There has been much discussion since then of “peoples” and “cores of tradition” under the general heading of “ethnicity,” and the claim has been widely made that ethnicity was very important in late antiquity. From another angle, late Roman studies have experienced an impressive increase in the attention paid to the cultures of the eastern provinces and to all manner of religious phenomena. By comparison, the intrusion of barbarians has receded to the margins of interest.

My central concern in the present book is not to talk about past ethnicities or “ethnogenesis theory” but to liberate barbarian history from the German nationalism that has suffused it ever since the sixteenth century and, in whatever disguises, continues to do so today. As long ago as 1972, I expressed a wish that someone should write a history of the Migration Age detached from German nationalism. The studies presented here attempt to fill this vacuum or at least illustrate some ways of doing so.

History is my subject, not nationalism. Passion of some sort motivates most scholars including me. Nationalism unashamedly affected a vast source collection that medievalists rightly extol and prize, namely, the Monumenta Germaniae historica, “the historical monuments of Germany.” The motto its founders adopted at the start of their enterprise in 1819 was “Sacer amor patriae dat animum: A holy love of the fatherland inspires [us]”; and there is little doubt that, without the patriotism of its collaborators, the Monumenta enterprise would have fallen short of its prodigious (and continuing) achievements. Love of country is not on trial here; no apologies or retractions are called for. What is wanted is only a willingness to surmount entrenched tradition and come . . .

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