In the fourth century, Roman society was not on the brink of collapse. Otherwise, it would be hard to explain why so many Germanic tribes and families aspired to the status of foederati (relatively autonomous vassals) and laeti (immigrants).
Contemporary German scholars are therefore entirely correct in disputing the label “barbaric invasions” to designate what, for centuries, had been a flux of immigrants that enriched and re-invigorated Roman society. African and Arabic nomadic populations were allowed to cross the borders, Bedouins were sometimes hired to garrison the frontier and their chiefs could adopt Roman names and have their villas built next to Roman villas. Most of the time, frontier garrisons only controlled immigration and prevented violent confrontations between communities living along the border.
Rhine frontier, Germanic peoples had gradually become sedentary and were less interested in waging wars, than in establishing profitable commercial exchanges with the Mediterranean basin. Thousands of them served in the Roman army and died for the Roman emperors as mercenaries or soldiers and, more often than not, their skills and valour enabled them to reach the highest ranks of the military elite.
In the West, leaving aside the occasional forays of more aggressive Germanic populations like the Alamanni and the Franks, the situation was substantially under control and the rhetoric of the “Germanic menace” was generally regarded as outmoded. The Romans knew that they could strike hostile tribes and subdue them through ferocious retaliations, enslavement and the forcible recruitment into the army of their offspring. Furthermore, they had realised that the so-called “Barbarians” represented a limitless source of cheap labour and valiant recruits.
These “Barbarians” were often poor people looking for a better life and, albeit the Roman/Greek elites never used terms such as “immigrants” or “refugees”, as we do now, their conceptualization of these foreigners living on Roman soil was reminiscent of today’s portrayal of refugees, asylum seekers, and legal or illegal immigrants in affluent countries.
The very same agencies that had been established to relocate Roman families who had lost their farms and shops during Germanic incursions, were also entrusted with the task of ensuring that these families and groups of “immigrants” could find a place to live, a job – as farmers, soldiers, craftsmen, miners, merchants, etc. – and education. In exchange, they were expected to “romanize” their manners, pay taxes, and have their children join the army. It was mainly thanks to the contribution of these new Roman citizens that the imperial economy recovered from the disastrous third century, and their absorption does not seem to have had dramatically destabilizing effects.
But things were different along the
Danube frontier. The Eastern plains were ruled by nomadic tribes that had troubled for centuries all classic civilizations: the Chinese, the Indians, the Persians and the Romans. Such peoples were ill at ease with the Roman sedentary lifestyle. Their restlessness was altogether incompatible with Roman civilization and incomprehensible to its chroniclers and amateur ethnographers, who identified civilization with sedentarianism and urban life. For the Romans, human beings were defined less by their lineage than by the place where they were born. They were truly disconcerted by the nomadic way of life. For them, as for most Mediterranean peoples, including the Greeks, the only life worth living was the one led by city- and town-dwellers. True virtues, like Roman justice and “liberality”, could only be learned and practiced in a space enclosed by moenia (walls), that is, by adhering to the lifestyle of “civil society” (societas civilis). In Roman opinion, cities had the power to transform all those who entered it, from “savage” to “civilized”.
We can now understand why, at first, Romans were persuaded that the Asiatic Huns were inassimilable. The iconography of Attila, the greatest of all Hunnish kings, bears testimony to this confrontation, for it borrowed from the Christian iconography of the devil.
Hellenic historian Ammianus Marcellinus sensed the novelty of the Huns’ appearance. Germanic peoples were partly uncivilized, but nobody seriously questioned their membership in the human species. Instead, at least initially, the Huns were portrayed as anthropoids, shorter and chubbier than the average human being, and their description tended to be more vivid and sensationalistic than rigorous and inquisitive. Huns never settled down, seldom dismounted from their horses, slept on them, negotiated on them and tenderized raw meat beneath their saddles. They were irreligious and only craved for gold.
Nevertheless, Romans had little or no interest in racial taxonomies, and preferred to deploy sociological categories in their classification of “the Other”. On this count, they were more anthropologically cognizant than many nineteenth-century Euro-American anthropologists and historians. What they quickly discerned was that peoples were not self-contained, impermeable wholes, and that Barbarian tribes were as ethnically heterogeneous as the Romans, and alternated migrations with long periods of respite, assimilation of Roman cultural traits and “Romanophobia”.
That their analysis was substantially correct is testified by the Gothic roots of the name “Uldin”, the first known Hunnish king, which corresponded to the Gothic Wölflein (young wolf), and the Gothic termination of the name of the most famous Hunnish king, Attila. This is a clear indication of the fact that these these diverse ethnic groupings were generally brought together by charismatic and successful leaders, and rapidly dissolved after their death.
On the other hand, because of this sociological-geographical bias, the Romans, who could not rely on modern philological comparisons, believed that all Germanic “Barbarians” lived in
Western Europe. They therefore classified Eastern Goths, who really were Germanic, as nomadic people from the steppes, because they lived in the Balkans and were skilful horsemen, and could not easily distinguish them from the Huns, even though these latter were short and somatically Asian.
Nevertheless, because they admired their fighting skills, the Romans were willing to periodically hire Goths as mercenaries. They would transport them by boat, down the Danube, across the Black Sea and to the Eastern front, to die in
Armenia, Syria, or Mesopotamia. In return, Gothic chiefs would receive money, subsidies, gifts and food provisions for their tribes, and gradually assume the functions, the attire, and the mentality of princes.
Without either people becoming aware of the long-term repercussions of this relationship, they grew mutually dependent, almost symbiotic: Romans needed Gothic warriors, Goths needed Roman supplies and converted to Christianity in the thousands; especially when Wulfila (311-383), a Gothic bishop, devised a special Gothic alphabet to translate the Bible from Greek into Gothic. This was an astonishing accomplishment, given that it occurred prior to the completion of the Latin translation, but it was also the trigger of a series of persecutions of Gothic Christian preachers and believers on the part of those Goths who saw adherence to Christian values and principles as a betrayal of what stood for “Gothness” itself.
Even so, mutual suspicions and xenophobic sentiments could at times run deep, if anything because the development of an “ethnic consciousness” best served the political aims and vested interests of the respective elites. The rhetorical device of an eternalized Roman/Germanic antagonism was so serviceable that, in AD 962, approximately five centuries after the demise of the Western Roman Empire, Liutprand, the bishop of Cremona, in Northern Italy, thought it necessary to lambaste the Romans with a remarkable vehemence: “we Lombards, Saxons, Franks, Lotharingians, Bavarians, Swabians, and Burgundians have such utter contempt for the Romans that when we try to express out indignation we can find no term with which to insult our enemies more damaging than that of Romans. This single word means for us all that is ignoble, cowardly, sordid, obscene”. Several prominent Romans held Germanic and Hunnish peoples in much the same contempt. Take, for instance, Saint Ambrose, bishop of
and one of the founders of Roman Catholicism, who argued that promoting the abuse of alcohol among barbarians was a sensible way to sap their strength and spirit. Milan
Yet, there is no proof that ideological constructs of ethnicity were very popular amidst ordinary people. Most contemporary scholars agree that the Byzantine ruling classes created the Slavs, while the Slavs themselves were not aware of their being members of an allegedly cohesive and self-assertive ethnic group. In all likelihood, Germanic and Roman lay-people learnt to co-exist and accommodate to the presence of strangers, as their ancestors had done for centuries, from the time of the Roman invasion of
Gaul, and became increasingly open to intermarriage and cultural syncretism.
After all, Barbarian resettlements in Roman provinces were carefully planned operations, executed with the collaboration of Barbaric chiefs, who had no interest in shedding their people’s blood when they could reach a mutually advantageous agreement with the Romans and move to areas of the empire that were comparatively underpopulated. At least up to the end of the fourth century, no large-scale arbitrary expropriation took place.
But what about the Huns? When the Huns migrated into the Balkans from the Asian steppes, they signed a pact with the Romans: they would live in
and protect the empire as Foederati against the common enemy, the Goths. Therefore, initially, the relationship between Romans and Huns was one of full collaboration. In the year Hungary 400, a Gothic contingent of the Roman army under the command of Gainas attempted to occupy Costantinople. Most of them had to flee due to a popular uprising, while hundreds of them were slain by civilians inside an Orthodox church. Eventually, Gainas was defeated by the Huns, and Uldin had his head delivered to the emperor.
This was not an isolated instance of Hunnish aid to the Roman Empire. Thousands of Huns served the Roman emperors and groups of them even fought against African Bedouins to protect the southern Roman border. In
406, a Barbaric coalition that was heading south was defeated by Stilicho at Fiesole, near Florence, also with the help of the Huns. Aetius himself, the “Last of the Romans”, lived three years among the Huns, learnt their language and customs and became the commander of a large contingent of Hunnish mercenaries who participated in the periodical confrontations between emperors and usurpers.
In the 420s the Huns federated under the leadership of Attila’s uncle, Rua (Ruga), and gradually extended their hegemony from the Black Sea to the Rhine by means of a “carrot-and-stick strategy”. Attila (406AD–453AD) ascended the throne in 434 and negotiated the Roman cession of Pannonia to the Hunnish empire. Then, in 437, together with the Romans led by Aetius, now commander in chief of the Western army, the Huns crushed the Burgundians, an unruly population of federati residing in South-West Germany.
This was to be the last alliance between Huns and Romans. Later on, Aetius struck several agreements with the Burgundians, the Franks, the Visigoths and other Germanic populations, who were allowed to peacefully resettle within the confines of the Western Empire. These separate agreements demonstrated Aetius’s foresight, for when Attila ordered his vassals – the Alans, the Burgundians, the Gepids, the Ostrogoths, the Thuringians, etc. – to march westwards, across the Gaul, with the Hunnish army, the Romans could rely on the Frank and Visigoth armies to stop his advance at Chalons en Champagne in 451.
Ironically, Attila’s death sealed the fate of both the Roman and the Hunnish empires. Afterwards, the nominally subject peoples of the Roman and the Hunnish empire broke away from the former allies and took the initiative, bringing the international balance of power to an abrupt end, together with the residual political authority of Rome. Their peoples finally settled in various western provinces, Germanic kings obtained from the Eastern Emperors the authorization to rule over Western Romans on behalf of Constantinople. This marked the end of Late Antiquity and of Rome as a secular, imperial power.