Tag Archives: guy halsall

Immigration and the Fall of Rome

There was a recent Twitterstorm involving a UKIP backer millionaire by the name of Arron Banks, Dame Averil Cameron, and Prof. Mary Beard, OBE (full details on Buzzfeed). The Tweet that started it said:

True the Roman Empire was effectively destroyed by immigration.

Dame Averil Cameron — author of the excellent and recently-updated The Mediterranean World in Late Antiquity AD 395-700 the first edition of which, alongside her volume The Later Roman Empire, was my Late Antique textbook in undergrad — weighed in against Banks, soon joined by Mary Beard. Cameron tweets:

Since when has this been true? Terribly out of date idea, what has he been reading?

Of course, the answer to Dame Averil’s question is that he studied Roman history in school. Which is all fine and good, but doesn’t necessarily give you the knowledge and chops to hold your own against the likes of Cameron and Beard.

Finally, before I get to my own thoughts, a Tweet from Banks:

yes sacking Rome nothing to do with the down fall ( eyes to sky )

Not a contemporary picture of the sack of Rome

Not a contemporary picture of the sack of Rome

Let’s take the sack of Rome as our starting point. I’m wondering which sack of Rome Banks has in mind — or if perhaps he has in mind both the sack of 410 by Alaric and the Goths or 455 by Geiseric and the Vandals. This is a good starting point for addressing the idea that the (western) Roman Empire fell because of ‘immigration’, I think.

First: Does sacking Rome lead to the fall of the Empire?

Short answer: No.

Medium answer: Still no. The western Roman Empire is still intact for decades after the first sack and well entrenched in her problems by the second.

For people who argue that ‘immigration’ caused the Fall of the Roman Empire, what the sacks of Rome really are is emblematic — the psychological shock that struck hearts from Orosius in Spain to Augustine in Africa to Jerome in Palestine. And, of course, they were wrought by immigrant barbarians.

Let us, for the moment, concede that the barbarian migrations are the cause of the Fall of the Western Roman Empire. Certainly, anyone must concede that the new kingdoms to arise in former western provinces under the rule of Vandals, Suevi, Visigoths, Franks, Anglo-Saxons, and Ostrogoths, are founded by persons of non-Roman culture and from non-Roman nations (usually Germanic and from across the Rhine-Danube frontier). And certainly these peoples in their Voelkerwanderung had something to do with the loss of imperium by the Roman West.

But is an army under the command of a man who calls himself a king really a group of ‘immigrants’? Whether Late Antique ethnicity is almost purely performance, as argued by Guy Halsall in Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, or whether there is something deeper to it, I agree with Halsall that these groups are primarily military, not national — even if Peter Heather is right in his counter-argument that Alaric’s Goths are direct, biological descendants of the Goths who killed the Emperor Valens at the Battle of Adrianople in 378.

All of them come to Roman territory seeking fame and fortune — within the existing structures of the Roman polity. They do not actually turn up wanting to conquer Rome, dismember her empire, or seize all her land. These things ultimately happen because of the failure of the Roman government to negotiate with them successfully and give them their rights.

The Roman Empire had met barbarians before. She had met barbarian warlords, kings, and warbands. And they had even settled on Roman land. The Roman Empire could deal with immigration; it was an incredibly diverse place, and people from one end of the Empire could travel to the other and maintain their home traditions. Thus we see shrines to Jupiter Dolichenus on Hadrian’s Wall, for example, let alone the Anatolian worship of the Persian god Mithras everywhere from Musselburgh in Edinburgh to Dura Europos in Syria.

The Roman world in Late Antiquity included speakers of Latin, Greek, Syriac, Coptic (the latest form of the Egyptian language), Arabic, Armenian, Gaulish, and no doubt Gothic. It had a flexible system of culture and economy; this is one of the great hallmarks of the Romans, was it not? Roman culture is never ‘pure’ — it starts off a little bit Italic, a little bit Latin, a little bit Etruscan, a little bit Greek. It shifts and reshapes itself everywhere its legions, its proconsul, its Praetorian Prefects, go. There is no great cultural monolith of ‘the Romans’.

And its borders are always porous. As David Breeze (who wrote the book on Hadrian’s Wall) argues, Hadrian’s Wall is not to keep the Caledonians out but simply to monitor traffic between Britannia and Caledonia. When the Picti do finally band together in 367, yes, it serves a purpose (but it also gets overrun). Similarly, people cross the Rhine and Danube. The Romans had bridges over them! Sure, our main image of the Rhine frontier is the one in Ammianus, of Julian burning down the homes of the Alamanni. But that’s not ‘normal life’. The desert peoples of North Africa were also part of this Roman system — indeed, some of the Berbers in the post-Roman period saw themselves as the continuators of Roman culture. In the East, it was  not the ‘immigrant’ groups like the ‘Saracens’ (as our sources call them) or Arabs who cause the real problems, but the acutal military endeavours of the Sassanian Persian Empire — another political force with a real army.

If we concede that barbarians cause the Fall of the Roman Empire, it’s not because they are ‘immigrants’. It is because they are highly organised groups of soldiers whom the Roman officials are unable, and often unwilling, to appease or treat humanely. And sometimes, they are actually invaders who come to conquer Roman land and settle it for themselves.

Armies and immigrants are not the same thing.

And it is not immigration that led to Roman military failures against the barbarians, either. That was due to poor planning, bad weather, civil war, sheer exhaustion, and so forth. Not immigrants.

Thus, ultimately, even if we want to put the weight for the Fall of Rome on the barbarians, to unproblematically call them ‘immigrants’ is to completely miss the mark in determining who they were and what they were doing when they entered Roman territory.

(But then, I’m a foreigner, aren’t I? So I, an immigrant, would say this.)

Discover Fifth-century Politics II: The West from 423 to 500ish

Today’s post will include THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE

Fall_of_roman_empire_(1964)Picking up the narrative where we left it last time, at the death of Honorius. 423 was somewhat disastrous, with a usurper named John taking the throne, only to be deposed by an eastern army sent by Theodosius II to elevate Valentinian III, nephew of Honorius and son of Constantius III, to the purple. Valentinian was another boy emperor, and the leading figure at the start of his reign was his mother, Galla Placidia. Later, power would be negotiated by generals, as it had been under Honorius’ reign. What the empire needed to recover and survive was strong leadership, and western child emperors failed to provide this. (Gross generalisation — hopefully the rest of these posts make that clear!)

Spain, for example, was never really reintegrated into the Roman Empire. The final barbarian group sent in to clear out Rome’s enemies was the group called the Visigoths. They established themselves in Spain and southern Gaul and eventually became one of the successor states when there was no empire anymore in the late 400s. In 468, one Spanish bishop named Hydatius had this to say in his Chronicle:

having been undeservedly elected to the office of bishop and not unknowing of all the calamites of this wretched age, I have subjoined <an account of> the frontiers of the narrowly-confined Roman Empire that are doomed to perish, and, what is more lamentable, <an account of events> within Gallaecia at the edge of the entire world: the state of ecclesiastical succession perverted by indiscriminate appointments, the demise of honourable freedom, and the downfall of virtually all religion based on divine instruction, all as a result of the domination of heretics confounded with the disruption of hostile <barbarian> tribes. Such then are the contents of the present volume, but I have left it to my successors <to include an account of> the Last Days, at that time at which they encounter them. (Intro. 6, ll. 50-57, trans. Burgess, p. 75)

In ch. 38: The barbarians who had entered Spain pillaged it with a vicious slaughter.

Meanwhile, in the 420s, having been driven out of Spain by clever military action, the Vandals under King Gaiseric moved on to North Africa, which they took piece by piece, despite negotiating treaties with Roman generals along the way. By 439, they had taken Carthage, and all of North Africa was a Vandal kingdom to last until Justinian’s invasion 100 years later. They were in a strong enough position not only to engage in piratical activity in Spain, but also to take Sardinia, and, in 455, to follow the Gothic lead in sacking Rome, which they pillaged mercilessly and took off Valentinian III’s widow and daughter in the booty. Hence vandalism.

Gaul, modern France, was also disappearing—southern Gaul was under effective control of the Visigoths, despite any formal arrangements as yet. Burgundians had been settled on the Rhine with Worms as their capital. Northern Gaul, such as Brittany, had basically risen up in insurrection against the faraway and powerless empire and was being ruled by its own aristocracy. Elsewhere in northern Gaul, the Franks had moved in—mind you, they claimed to be ruling with Roman titles, something most barbarians did. Roman power was failing all over the West, but everyone kept claiming to have power sent from on high. And the generals were too busy fighting each other to keep any invaders out with armies that were too small, despite their enormous paper strength.

Up to 455, the General Aetius was the leading power behind the throne. A Roman, he had spent time as a hostage among both Vandals and Huns, and used his contacts amongst these groups to the Empire’s advantage by allying them to Rome. However, his actions were as short-sighted as everyone else’s; if Aetius wasn’t busy fighting off Huns, Goths, or Vandals, he was engaged in civil war against other generals.

Leo and Attila by Raphael

Leo and Attila by Raphael

In 450, Attila invaded the Western Empire after a long career in the East where he had wrought devastation and extracted money. In 451, Aetius defeated Attila in what has been called one of the most significant battles in ancient history, in Gaul at the Catalaunian Plains. However, since Aetius spent as much time fighting civil wars as Huns, Rome was never able to exploit any measure of stability he may have gained for the empire in 451. Attila and his Huns proceeded to pillage northern Italy taking notably Milan and Aquileia, ppl moved to Venice (legend), until an envoy including Pope Leo the Great convinced them to turn back in 452, an event immortalised by Raphael and commemorated on Pope Leo’s tomb:

IMG_2367It is likely that Attila and his army needed to regroup and were weakened by sickness. Attila died shortly thereafter in 453, and the Huns were no longer a great power. However, in 455, Valentinian III became afraid that Aetius would make a bid for power, so assassinated him with his own hand. Soon, Aetius’ men assassinated Valentinian.

The short-lived emperors come next. The next emperor was Petronius Maximus, from one of the leading aristocratic families of Rome. He lasted two and a half months before being killed in the Vandal sack. Then a Gallo-Roman aristocrat, Avitus, was emperor. His policies were a bit more wide-reaching, trying to reincorporate the Gallic aristocracy into the political life of Italy and making good terms with the Visigothic King Theoderic, but his actions only served to infuriate the short-sighted Italian aristocrats, so our next barbarian generalissimo, Ricimer, went to battle against him and deposed him.

Ricimer set up Majorian in 457, a potentially helpful emperor who tried to dislodge the Vandals from Africa. Eventually, Majorian tired of Ricimer’s control. So, in 461, Ricimer raised Severus to the purple. Emperor Leo I in the East refused to recognise Severus. Severus died in 465, possibly poisoned by Ricimer. Ricimer ruled without an emperor for 18 months before Leo appointed Anthemius in 467. Anthemius may have stood a chance had he been emperor decades earlier. However, things had been spiralling downward for too long; although he headed a combined East-West force against the Vandals in Africa, when he made an ill-advised five-day truce with the Vandals, they built a fireship and subsequently destroyed the large East-West coalition fleet. Anthemius’ ultimate failure was secured. Three more nonentities followed Anthemius, the last Romulus Augustulus. The final generalissimo was Odoacer who decided that he had no need of a puppet emperor and deposed Romulus, who went to live in a monastery. The insignia were sent East, and Odoacer was formally ruling Italy under the Eastern Roman Emperor’s authority.

Now, there was still, however, a western emperor kicking around in Dalmatia, one Julius Nepos, still officially recognised by his Eastern colleague. In 480, he was murdered, possibly due to Odoacer’s connivance.

Eight years later, in 488, Theoderic ‘the Great’ was commissioned by the Eastern Emperor Zeno to do battle with Odoacer and take Odoacer’s place as patrician and ruler of Italy. Theoderic had been making a small amount of trouble in the East until then, but also making himself useful. Zeno thus made him useful and got him out of his direct territory. Theoderic defeated Odoacer after a three-year struggle. He was master of Italy.

It has recently been argued that at this period and up to the accession of Justin I in 519, Theoderic viewed himself as a new Western Roman Emperor. He certainly acted like it, visible in the Anonymus Valesianus. But most of his story in Italy belongs to the sixth century, not the fifth.

In southern Gaul and Spain, the Visigoths were busy forging a kingdom in these decades. In northern Gaul, the Franks were consolidating their power. They would eventually rule all of Gaul in the 500s; as a kingdom, the Franks are first united under Clovis in 511. Various things are shadowily transpiring in Britain — we get nary a glimpse, but amidst the swirl of later legends and teleological readings of archaeology, we can see that Germanic persons are slowly gaining a foothold in the 400s, and that perhaps this century, perhaps the next, battles between them and the Romano-British leaders would lead to Arthurian tales.

Breathlessly, then, the West reaches 500.

****

Much in these two posts comes from Guy Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West: 376-568. See also his Worlds of Arthur (my review here). The rest comes from my mind or notes from a lecture I delivered, and I cannot at present recall all of my sources!

Review: Worlds of Arthur by Guy Halsall

Worlds of ArthurWorlds of Arthur by Guy Halsall

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you read one ‘historical King Arthur book’, make it this one. Halsall gives us the lay of the land, providing sophisticated analysis of what little documentary evidence exists for ‘Arthur’ as well as thorough discussions of the archaeology of late and post-Roman Britain. I admit that, since archaeology is not my strong suit, I do not always follow the arguments in that regard (in fact, sometimes I skim them by accident, which doesn’t help), but when I could keep the details about the different types of artefacts in my mind, the archaeological portions seemed sound and plausible, even if not the only available solution.

That last sentence is why I doubt very few people of this book’s target audience — non-academic readers who like King Arthur — will find this book satisfying. The history of post-Roman Britain is extremely poorly documented, and what few documents we do have (Gildas, Bede, welsh Annals, ‘Nennius’, the Life of Germanus of Auxerre) can provide different reconstructions of events. Archaeology, of course, is very much a matter of the most plausible vision of the given material. Those who want to sit down and read a book that tells the story of a Romano-British warlord fighting Anglo-Saxons will be sorely disappointed.

Instead, what Halsall gives us is actually more exciting and interesting. This whole book is, in fact, a good entry into the history and archaeology of late and post-Roman Britain through the sources themselves. Most of what is discussed is, properly speaking, historiography — how we know (or don’t know) what history says. First, Halsall gives us the traditional account of Arthur and post-Roman Britain as based upon our textual sources. I was pleased and interested to know that the ‘Paschal chronicle’ that Elizabeth Jenkins mentions in The Mystery of King Arthur is actually the Welsh Annals and not a paschal chronicle of any sort; Jenkins was working from older historiographical assumptions about the origins of chronicles that Burgess and Kulikowski have recently proven entirely false in Mosaics of Time Vol. 1. The Welsh Annals, with their mention of Mt Badon and Camlann are, thus, not a sixth-century paschal chronicle but eleventh-century, and any material they gain from earlier sources is likely to be ninth-century texts such as ‘Nennius’.

After discussing the traditional narrative from textual sources, Halsall sets it out for us from archaeology. Then he goes into greater depth, applying the scrutiny of the professional historian to this evidence and asking how far we can trust it and whether it actually tells the story we think it tells. By the end of Part III, he has set out for the reader the current scholarly assessment of the evidence c. 2012. Along the way, he deals with many of the myths and falsehoods purveyed by ‘pseudo-histories’ and why we cannot trust them.

Part IV is Halsall’s own reconstruction of post-Roman Britain, itself an interesting read. It is definitely plausible and well-argued, but my own acquaintance with many of the sources comes mostly from his own work, so I am not yet in a strong enough position to critique any of its weaknesses. What he does that I think is vital to post-Roman Britain, and something I hope other historians of the island and period begin to do as well, is make comparisons with the continent in the same period, thus adding nuance to the arguments and showing where the traditional narrative need not be the only approach.

One important aspect of his approach to material culture is something he discussed earlier in Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568, which is the fact that a material cultural horizon need not mean that everyone within it is biologically related. People can change ethnicity, especially in the Roman and post-Roman worlds. ‘Anglo-Saxon’ artefacts need not always be evidence of newcomers from the continent. Another important reassessment he used in his earlier work and here applies to the British situation is the interpretation of furnished burials as evidence for local struggles for power, since such burials would be a way to reinforce the power of the deceased’s family.

All in all, this is an excellent book. It could be used by the interested reader to learn the methods and tools of the professional historian, shedding light on how history is itself constructed and not simply the story we tell in the history books. It is also a refreshing corrective to many of the crazy King Arthur theories that are so confident about theories in which we can place no confidence.

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