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Barbarians and Roman Civilisation

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Published: Tue, 05 Sep 2017

The debate surrounding the extent to which the Barbarians facilitated the disappearance of Roman civilisation in the years 376AD to 496AD is one that has been contested throughout history. The arguments can be divided into two major schools of thought. Firstly, Henri Pirenne’s, ‘Pirenne Thesis’[1], which postulates the Barbarians did not facilitate for the disappearance of Roman civilisation and culture, with Roman society continuing after the breakdown of central authority. Pirenne asserts the Barbarian’s sought to benefit from the established Roman civilisation, and thus strove to preserve the Roman way of life. Conversely, the eminent Bryan Ward-Perkins -archaeologist and professor at Oxford University- hypothesises in his magnum opus, ‘The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization’ the argument: Germanic people instigated the ‘end of civilisation’ for almost one thousand years, characterised by “social, economic and technological regression.”[2] I believe, it’s undeniable to determine that numerous areas of the former Western Empire suffered detrimental changes to their quality of life at the hands of the Barbarian tribes. Nevertheless, evidence shows an abundance of continuity across the former Western Empire following the Germanic incursions, with society progressing in Barbarians cities such as Marseille[3]. Therefore, when assessing the extent to which the Barbarians facilitated for the disappearance of Roman Civilisation; one must determine on a case-by-case basis with no overarching answer conclusively possible. Although, it appears for the majority of the former Western Empire that society progressed, characteristically Roman, but slowly transformed into a Germanic-Romano society, reinforced prominent primary and contemporary sources.

One example of the “supposed regression” that Ward-Perkins uses to develop the idea of the fall of Roman civilisation is the collapse of literary sophistication[4] which characterised the Empire. Ward-Perkins argues the literary record of the ‘Dark Ages’ was not as comprehensive and sophisticated as the period of Roman authority that preceded it. When assessing whether Romanic literary culture survived, or in fact developed, the most utilitarian surviving material is the primary source of eight court charters from Lombardy and Merovingian France. These documents provide an unrivalled primary source for evaluating if Romanic literary culture survived. The Merovingian documents illuminate that of 138 subscribers 73.2% managed to sign the document themselves.[5] With only 37 not being able to sign and therefore assumed ‘illiterate’ we can see an exceptionally high literacy rate. The documents also highlight the demographics of the signatories allowing us to see indisputably, 53 out of the literate 101 were traditional laymen.[6] Of course, this statistic cannot be conclusive of the entire former Western Empire, but is an indicator that decades after the sacking and formal Germanic occupation a culture of literacy did not irrefutably fall, and in places such as Merovingian France it undeniably developed.

Subsequently, this primary source supports Henri Pirenne, who asserted, “There was an extensive and mostly literate Merovingian lay culture [under Clovis I.]”[7] However, as much as these primary documents aid Pirenne’s argument, in equal regard, they retract, supporting the argument that one cannot provide an overarching answer, assisting Ward-Perkins’ overall regression claims. The first reason why the source is disputable in its substance is those called to sign attendance were innately from the higher echelons of society, even at upper lay level[8], where literacy was more common than across the general population spectrum. Analysing the equivalent primary documents of Lombard Italy, the number is nowhere near as impressive, considering that of 988 signatories only 326[9] could sign their name. Despite representing 633 of the signatures, only 14% of laymen managed to sign with 554 instead having to use the stamp. The value of this Pro-Pirenne source is retracted further when considering that Lombard women were excluded from signing, allowing us to assume immediately that 50% of the population was inherently illiterate. Subsequently, this primary source provides a clear level of understanding into the nature of post-Roman literacy. Nevertheless, it must be ascertained that the documents can’t be treated overly conclusive due to their incomplete nature, and as they only show a localised picture.  Moreover, the documents suggest arguably the most conclusive argument, pockets of Romanic civilisation in the field of literacy continued to excel, whereas others regressed following the fall of Rome. It must be acknowledged since only a modicum of documents survived they cannot be wholly representative of the population, coupled with the fact, not everyone would have been called to sign a during their life. These people were the lowest on the social hierarchy; as a feudal society and due to the nature of the time it’s overwhelmingly likely that the majority of the population would remain illiterate. Overall, this primary source appears to be mostly useful as it mirrors the trends of many other facets of ‘Roman life’ that can be proved more conclusively with France flourishing, culturally and economically whereas other regions, especially in Italy[10]. There is evidence, in line with the ‘Pirenne Thesis’ suggesting society did not back track, seen in Merovingian France, with Gregory of Tours’ ‘Historia Francorum,’[11] allowing us to see literary sophistication surviving 108 years after the fall of Rome. Yet, concurrently supporting Ward-Perkins as there is evident disparity across the Empire, from written sophistication, down to technical regression, with the reduction of documents written on Papyrus paper; seen by the fact that 7th century Italy only has eight surviving Papyrus documents, only one originating from Rome.[12] Therefore, allowing us to see that even though the upper classes are still literate they’re producing less material of the prowess that characterised the empire. Similarly, for the subordinate classes the lack of evidence makes it impossible to formulate a broad conclusion for large areas of the former Western Empire. On the surviving information, available the evidence would suggest the ‘Pirenne Thesis’ as the most convincing argument when analysing literacy in the former Western Empire, as it appears broadly, a literary culture survived.

Many contemporary historians promote the view of the Barbarian as, lacking refinement being “primitive, ignorant, brutal, rapacious, destructive and cruel.”[13] Emphasising the idea, Roman civilisation was extinguished suddenly and brutally: “Roman civilization did not pass peacefully. It was assassinated.”[14] Which I do not agree with; rather I align with Pirenne who affirms the Barbarians found it advantageous to embrace the culture.[15] The Primary source, Sidonius Apollinaris promotes in his letters[16] the ‘civilised Barbarian’, the Visigoth King, Theodoric II. Apollinaris presents Theodoric with a lengthy description describing him as a man of prestige and celestial reverence, with the masculine grandeur avowing “If there is a miss through either’s error, your vision will mostly be at fault, and not the archer’s skill.” Yet still possess a fair complexion “often flush, but from modesty, and not from anger.” From Apollinaris’ description, we see Theodoric as the ideal ‘Tertullian’[17] nobleman, an embodiment of Western Culture; which Theodoric II unequivocally strove to fit, a blend between the philosophically methodical and the compassionate.[18] We can see that Apollinaris’ epistle is a valuable source for analysing whether the Barbarians continued Roman ideals, due to contextual factors. Firstly, Theodoric strove to preserve Roman civilization like his father, as they saw Frankish culture as subordinate to Roman due to the ‘admirable’ ideals Roman culture presented. Their determination to preserve roman culture can be seen at the Battle of Châlonswhere they fought alongside the Romans to force Attila out of North-Eastern France. Despite being the (illegitimate) grandson of Alaric I, under Theodoric I, Frankish-Barbarian culture became interconnected with the Romans. As they were pivotal to Roman victory upon Theodoric’s II succession he was engulfed into the higher strata of Romanic civilisation having gained acclamation defending Romanic culture against rival Barbarian empires. Therefore, when evaluating the source, we can see from Theodoric’s territories, despite the loss of a centralised government in 476AD, the region remained Roman in nearly every sense of the word, only through decades of gradual attrition long after the fall of Rome that the region itself stopped identifying as ‘Roman’, evolving into a Gallo-Romano society.

Theodoric produced a myriad of geometric and stonework motifs[19] in Carcassonnea promoting continuity between Rome and the reign of Theodoric II, showing Roman civilisation surviving. Despite Apollinaris’ sheer idealisation of Theodoric, we can see that the description isn’t just propaganda comparable with Tacitus’ ‘Germania’[20], but, rather an astute analysis of Theodoric’s character. We can see this as Apollinaris outlines Theodoric wanting to represent a Roman man but falling short, he embraced Christianity to preserve Roman civilisation; however, it was apparent his prayers were “more in habit than in convicted assiduity”. Subsequently, it’s undeniable to determine that despite the sources amplification, it’s credible in its material; a criticism suggesting Theodoric wasn’t a convicted Christian would send him into a bout of rage. However, the suggestion he was almost so civilised as for him to be ‘Roman’ should be taken lightly as despite his appreciation of culture and art, he obtained the throne by the murdering elder brother Thorismund[21]. Gibbon stated: “he justified this atrocious deed by the design which the heir-apparent formed of violating his alliance with the empire.”[22] Therefore, regardless of the good nature to Theodoric’s crime, defending the Empire, he violated the principles of being ‘Roman’. In Theodoric’s Visigoth kingdom, it’s clear to see Romano culture surviving, only after gradual attrition, evolving. Therefore, we see both Pirenne and Ward-Perkins coming through; Pirenne could clearly assert that culture here did survive before transforming into a Gothic kingdom. This source validates the argument of Ward-Perkins, it’s clear despite the attempts made by Theodoric to maintain a level of Roman culture; it was incompatible with the average Barbarian who had little interesting in preserving Romanness dating back to the tribe of Theodoric’s grandfather sacking Rome in 410AD. Theodoric’s Roman ideals were not shared by the upper echelons of the Frank society, seen by the fact he was assassinated only a few years after taking the throne by brother Euric.

It’s possible to see the shift (or, perceived shift) in civilisation from Roman control to Barbarian through the primary source, the Bishop of Chaves, Hydatius. Hydatius’ ‘The Chronicle of Hydatius and the Consularia Constantinopolitana[23] provides the only extensive account of Spanish history through the fifth century. Hydatius states that post-Roman Gallaecia was, “A wretched place to live, the inhabitants: cold, inhospitable and brutish… Despite the mineral wealth, the place had a vile reputation for brigandage and ruinous tribal warfare.”[24] Hydatius allows us to see the transition from peaceful times the emergence of a Germanic kingdom, following 411AD and, Vandal and Suevi invasions there’s a drop in the variety of sources used by the Churchman. Hydatius was forced to live within an isolated Roman community constantly threatened by the barbarian presence[25], subsequently Germanising the region facilitating for a cultural revolution. The complexity of the Chronicle is replaced by uncertainty; Hydatius makes no secret of the fact that the Barbarians that facilitated for the loss of sophistication in his work. Following the death of John of Jerusalem in 417AD, all Hydatius could ascertain was that an “elderly man” took over the bishopric, despite it being well known outside Northern Spain that Praylius had been occupying the role for several years. Due to the Barbarian occupation, we see clear gaps in the information the source presents. Hydatius knows after the expulsion of Nestorius from Constantinople, Flavian became the Patriarch (447-449); but gives no indication that he knew of either man who occupied the role from 431-447AD, Maximian and Proclus[26]. Subsequently, we see an undeniable decline under Germanic occupation regressing from fluid streams of communication with Flavius Aetius to uncertainty; reinforcing the argument that Barbarian’s facilitated the disappearance of Roman civilisation in the years 376AD to 496AD.

However, akin to many characteristics of the period, the answer appears to be somewhere in the middle, which becomes apparent due to Hydatius’ source limitations. Hydatius is intrinsically anti-German due to their forceful occupation of his land and therefore he demonises them at every opportunity. It’s perspicuous that the Chronicle was never intended for anyone outside Spaniards, potentially even Galicia.[27] Despite being a one-of-a-kind account of Barbarian’s in Spain, Hydatius is prone to exaggerating the occupations impacts. The barbarian entry in 409AD was undoubtable an event which made an impact, but not a resounding one, with chroniclers such as Count Marcellinus passing over it with silence, but to Hydatius it was an event of equal significance to the Sack of Rome. Delusion expected of a man who “fully expected the world to end within fifteen years”[28]. One of the reasons why Hydatius’ source is not conclusive of Germanic Spain is due the contrast between Hydatius’ meagre knowledge of the world, compared with the other letters and sources coming out of Spain synchronously. We can see that during the period of 468-483AD, when the times were more tumultuous, encompassing the fall of Rome we can see that communication between the Rome and Mérida was frequent and fast. This consequently, suggests the rest of Spain was not so cut off from civilisation and the Romanic world. There are many communiqués addressed to Zeno, the Bishop of Mérida from Pope Simplicius, with one reading “We have learned from the report of many”[29], about Zeno’s excellent administration. Therefore, it can be deduced that many travellers reported the ecclesiastical conditions in Southern Spain, Simplicius bears no hint of anticipating any difficulties in sending confidential letters outlining his ambitions to a distant land that Hydatius had marked as ‘Barbaric.’

Correspondingly, the metropolitan bishop, and the Pope years prior to Hydatius, referred to North-Western Spain as the edge of the world and “an extreme part of the earth”[30], it is subsequently no surprise that Cape Finisterre was believed to the furthest west point on Earth. Therefore, the hypothesis that the Barbarians alone were responsible for the lack of communication is not a conclusive one, despite it being true that the reach of the sources decreased; there was a reason why for centuries the Greeks referred to the land as “mountainous, cold and hard to reach.” Subsequently, supporting the argument that despite what Hydatius said appearing mostly true, when considering the entire Western Empire, the account is microcosmic. Reinforcing the idea that in certain areas, life carried on as normal, whereas in other places, such as Galicia, the status-quo Romanic culture was replaced by the new Germanic one. For the majority of people in Spanish lands communication does not seem to be affected, referenced by the dozens of surviving letters between Tarragona and Rome (463-465AD) with, in the many qualms raised, communication never even being implied.

When assessing whether Roman Civilisation ‘disappeared’ or not, one of the most compelling arguments from both Ward-Perkins and Pirenne is centred on the post-Roman economy. Henri Pirenne’s ‘Thesis’ has spearheaded the argument suggesting continuity with the Roman economic model. The ‘Thesis’ establishes that Mediterranean trade in 600AD was no different to that of 400AD taking the stance that the Germanic invasions did not destroy the unity that the ancient Mediterranean world had enjoyed[31]. This perception of continuity has stemmed debate, especially considering Pirenne’s Thesis is heavily reliant upon written evidence[32],  Looking at the archaeology along with the written sources is pivotal to comprehending the post-Roman economy and the role the barbarian invasions played; thus, Ward-Perkins’ provides a convincing argument. Extensive settlements such as Marseille are communities that had significant populations supported by excellent archaeological records, enabling the most rounded view on the extent to which Barbarians facilitated the disappearance of Roman Civilisation.

As preluded, one such case study mentioned by both Ward-Perkins and Pirenne is Marseille, a site which has been extensively excavated enabling for detailed accounts of Late Antique Marseille to be presented. Ward-Perkins incorporates the evidence of professor Simon Loseby, accredited for the most vigorous excavation and analysis of Marseille into his work, Ward-Perkins believes, ‘Marseille may have been particularly well-placed to ride, even to turn back, a tide of events which… was pushing ahead the process of urban and economic decline.[33]‘ This conclusion is possible due to examination of both written and archaeological evidence; pinpointing the fact that Marseille continued as a trading centre centuries after 476AD through examination of the ceramic material available there.[34]  It appears Marseille was able to continue as a part of the pan-Mediterranean trading network until at least the end of the sixth century.  It’s also noted that Marseille had its own mint, capable of producing copper and gold coinage, suggesting that Marseille had an economic hegemony on the surrounding area[35].  Thus, Marseille’s image is not simply of a city that endured Barbarian rule, but rather one that progressed.  This view is emphasised in written sources too, seen from the Bishop of Tours, presenting a thriving cosmopolitan city, stimulated by the perpetual flow of merchants, diplomats and churchmen[36]. Conclusively, Marseille undoubtedly avoided economic decline under the rule of the barbarians and from the contextual evidence available the Roman way of life appear does not appear to vanish from the city; collateral to, neighbours Arles.

However, Marseille is an isolated case study.  In this instance, the barbarians appear to have had a very small role in the end of the Roman world, Marseille is not representative of the situation many found themselves in after the barbarian invasions.  What it shows through archaeology was that the invasions were not universally detrimental as in some areas, Barbarians sought to use Roman institutions for profit, promoting continuity between the Romans and Barbarians. This is where the differentiation between Ward-Perkins and Pirenne comes in. Across the former Empire, evidence suggests a general decline in standards of living. Ward-Perkins actively pursues the idea that the period following 476AD was one of a ‘dramatic move away from sophistication toward much greater simplicity’.[37] He reinforces this stance by through an examination of pottery and coinage, seen through the existence of luxury, but a substantial middle and lower goods market.[38]  Ward-Perkins also establishes a pattern of reduced pottery and coinage production, across the former Empire in from 476 until the fourteenth century[39].  Where the ‘Pirenne Thesis’ falls short compared to Ward-Perkins is the fact that Ward-Perkins recognises cities such as London and Marseille flourished following the collapse of Imperial power, whilst other economic centres collapsed. Wherever the Barbarians didn’t see profit, they laid siege destroying the societies civilisation, seen from the economic damage left to industries such as farmland, and the loss of citizens either through capture or violence.  Evidence of the Barbarian trail of destruction can be seen from the sack of Mainz all the way to Toulouse and into Spain.  It may be unfair to criticise Pirenne exceedingly, as Ward-Perkins had the best part of seventy years’ extra research available following Pirenne’s posthumously published ‘Thesis’. Considering the information Pirenne had in the 1920s he provides a detailed, accurate analysis of Mediterranean trade and Roman Civilisation. But, when we add the years of development, with widespread archaeological analysis, predominantly a post-World War II development; in the Mediterranean and Central/Western European we see a new light. Thus, we are able to come to the conclusion that whilst areas of the former Western Empire fell into a state of economic devastation, other areas improved, rising to new heights under Barbarian occupation.

In conclusion, whilst the Barbarians catalysed the ending of the most vast and complex institution in the ancient world, the notion they conclusively marked the end of civilisation in the west for a thousand years is a claim that does not stand true conclusively.  There is undoubtable evidence to suggest that after the occupation of the Empire by the barbarian peoples, the systems implemented by the Romans were still in place, and that both the administrative[40] and day to day status quo remained largely unchanged for over two hundred years. Archaeological and literary evidence suggests, after the Barbarian invasions individual provinces and communities continued to carry out daily life in much the same way that they had done in the later days of the Empire the early seventh century. Following the Barbarians penetration of the empire it’s undeniable that certain tribes sought to ruthlessly destroy, as can see be in Pesaro and Fano in Italy which had their walls destroyed and internal structures burnt to the ground.[41] Milan too, where the Milanese women and children were enslaved and the men all killed[42]. But, there were clear examples of the preservation of Roman culture as we can see through case studies such as Marseille, and Barbarian kingdoms originally characterised by their Roman way of life. Leading to the assertion that the extent to which Roman civilisation survived depended on where you happened to live. Predominantly, Romanic culture appears to continue for decades after the first crossing of the Danube by the Barbarians, the period of Germanic rule ushered “a time of narrowing horizons, strengthening local roots, and consolidating old loyalties.”[43]

Bibliography


[1] A series of papers published from 1922 to 1939. Each book or paper shall be referenced as the title of the book in the footnotes but referred to as the ‘Pirenne Thesis’ in the document for ease of understanding.

[2] The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation (Ward-Perkins, 2005) p. 104.

[4] The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation (Ward-Perkins, 2005) p. 37.

[5] Writers and Readers in Medieval Italy (Petrucci, 1995) p. 66.

[6] Of the Literate: 53 Lay, 37 ecclesiastics, 2 women and 9 uncertain.

[7] Mohammed and Charlemagne (Pirenne, 1939, reprint 2012 edition) p. 284.  Originally published as: De l’état de l’instruction des laïques à l’époque mérovingienne(translation: Lay Education in the Merovingian Epoch) (Pirenne, 1934)

[8] Traditional Yeoman for instance, as they would be classified as ‘lay.’

[9] Writers and Readers in Medieval Italy (Petrucci, 1995) ‘Book, Handwriting and School.’

[11] The Historia Francorum: Ten books recounting the world’s history from Creation to the Christianization of Gaul, as well as Frankish conquests and the Christianisation of Gaul.

[13] Terry Jones’ Barbarians, Episode 4 “End of the World” (BBC Two, 2006)

[14] The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation (Ward-Perkins, 2005) p. 220.

[15] Key theme of all books in the ‘Pirenne Thesis’ mentioned throughout Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade

[16] http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/halsall/source/sidonius2.html

[17] The father of Western Theology: Tertullian published the book ‘De Pallio‘, which in part outlined what it meant to be an ideal Roman man, with special focus on those in higher society.

[18] Apollinaris on Theodoric II: “Silent at a good throw, he makes merry over a bad, annoyed by neither fortune, and always the philosopher. He is too proud to ask or to refuse a revenge; he disdanisn to avail himself of one if offered’ and if it is opposed will quietly go on playing.”- Footnote 16 for the web address to the quote.

[19] http://imgur.com/gallery/J41Jl

[20] Tacitus ‘Germania’: a historical and ethnographic work on the Germanic tribes outside the Roman Empire. The book outlines different characteristics and details of each tribe, describing them as a purer race compared to the decadent Romans, the antagonists of Tacitus’ polemic.

[21] This is arguably very Roman. However, we are following the idealised Roman perspective as outlined by Tertullian. 

[24] The Chronicle of Hydatius and the Consularia Constantinopolitana (Burgess, 1993) pp. 72-83.

[25] The Chronicle of Hydatius and the Consularia Constantinopolitana. (Burgess, 1993) p. 4.

[26] The Chronicle of Hydatius and the Consularia Constantinopolitana. (Burgess, 1993) p. 96.

[27] Hydatius records events such as the eclipse of the sun on the 11th November 402AD which was a total eclipse where it was scarcely visible in Northern Spain, where he was, but almost total in Constantinople.

[28] The Chronicle of Hydatius and the Consularia Constantinopolitana. (Burgess, 1993) p. 32.

[29] Romans and Barbarians: The Decline of the Western Empire. (Thompson, 1982) p. 149.

[30] The name Finisterre even directly translates to Latin as finis terrae, meaning “end of the earth.”

[32] Mohammed, Charlemagne & the Origins of Europe: Archaeology and the Pirenn


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