Book review of “Empires and Barbarians: the fall of Rome and the birth of Europe”

[ After these introductory comments is my book review of Heather’s “Empires and Barbarians: the fall of Rome and the birth of Europe.

What follows is from Ward-Perkins “The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilizationabout the role barbarians played.  Keep it in mind as you read Heather’s account, and the parallels with illegal immigration and refugees in Europe today.  In the past migrations were driven both by a desire for a better life and fear of the “terrorist” Huns, likewise today (except now it’s ISIS):

 “What the empire required was a concerted and united effort against the Goths (then marching through much of Italy and southern Gaul, and sacking Rome itself in 410), and against the Vandals, Sueves, and Alans (who entered Gaul at the very end of 406 and Spain in 409). What it got instead were civil wars, which were often prioritized over the struggle with the barbarians…these invading armies were able to pick up and assimilate other adventurers, ready to seek a better life in the service of a successful war band.”   Especially with “fleeing Gothic slaves, but also by miners escaping the harsh conditions of the state’s gold mines and by people oppressed by the burden of imperial taxation.”

These Goths on entering the empire left their homelands for good. They were, according to circumstance (and often concurrently), refugees, immigrants, allies, and conquerors, moving within the heart of an empire that in the early fifth century was still very powerful. Recent historians have been quite correct to emphasize the desire of these Goths to be settled officially and securely by the Roman authorities. What the Goths sought was not the destruction of the empire, but a share of its wealth and a safe home within it, and many of their violent acts began as efforts to persuade the imperial authorities to improve the terms of agreement between them.

The incoming peoples were not ideologically opposed to Rome–they wanted to enjoy a slice of the empire rather than to destroy the whole thing. Emperors and provincials could, and often did, come to agreements with the invaders. For instance, even the Vandals, the traditional ‘bad boys’ of this period, were very happy to negotiate treaty arrangements, once they were in a strong enough negotiating position. Indeed it is a striking but true fact that emperors found it easier to make treaties with invading Germanic armies who would be content with grants of money or land than with rivals in civil wars-who were normally after their heads.

Because the military position of the imperial government in the fifth century was weak, and because the Germanic invaders could be appeased, the Romans on occasion made treaties with particular groups, formally granting them territory on which to settle in return for their alliance.

Is it really likely that Roman provincials were cheered by the arrival on their doorsteps of large numbers of heavily armed barbarians under the command of their own king?  The interests of the center when settling Germanic peoples, and those of the locals who had to live with the arrangements, certainly did not always coincide. The granting to some Alans of lands in northern Gaul in about 442, on the orders of the Roman general Aetius, was resisted in vain by at least some of the local inhabitants. All this, as our text makes very clear, cost the locals a very great deal. But the cost to the central government was negligible or non-existent, since it is unlikely that this area of Gaul was any longer providing significant tax revenues or military levies for the emperor. If things went well (which they did not), the settlement of these Alans might even have been a small step along the path of reasserting imperial control in northern Gaul. The imperial government was entirely capable of selling its provincial subjects downriver, in the interests of short-term political and military gain.

European scholars have come to the conclusion that the fall of the Western Roman Empire was mainly due to barbarian invasions.  These invasions, just as in 1177 BC, broke vital supply chains, which were far more complex than most people realized until recently, though certainly nowhere near as complex as today:

“We sit in tiny productive pigeon-holes, making our minute and highly specialized contributions to the global economy and we are wholly dependent for our needs on thousands, indeed hundreds of thousands, of other people spread around the globe, each doing their own little thing. We would be quite incapable of meeting our needs locally, even in an emergency. The ancient world had not come as far down the road of specialization and helplessness as we have…The enormity of the economic disintegration that occurred at the end of the empire was almost certainly a direct result of this specialization. The post-Roman world reverted to levels of economic simplicity, lower even than those of immediately pre-Roman times, with little movement of goods, poor housing, and only the most basic manufactured items.

The sophistication of the Roman period, by spreading high-quality goods widely in society, had destroyed the local skills and local networks that, in pre-Roman times, had provided lower-level economic complexity. It took centuries for people in the former empire to reacquire the skills and the regional networks that would take them back to these pre-Roman levels of sophistication.”

You may also enjoy reading Ugo Bardi’s 2009 “Civilization: The fall of the Roman Empire” here

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

Heather, Peter. 2009. Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe. Oxford University Press.

Wealthy Rome at the birth of Christ was a “politically sophisticated, economically advanced and culturally developed civilization, a world of philosophy, banking, professional armies, literature, stunning architecture and rubbish collection.

Rome didn’t invade Europe because it was too poor

Poor Europe had subsistence-level farmers, organized in small-scale political units. Much of it was dominated by Germanic-speakers, who had some iron tools and weapons, but who worked generally in wood, had little literacy and never built in stone. The further east you went, the simpler it became: fewer iron tools, less productive agriculture, and a lower population density. A dominant Mediterranean circle lorded it over an undeveloped northern hinterland. This area was still heavily wooded, and the primitive farming techniques there couldn’t produce as much food as today on thick clay soils.  Less food production meant less agricultural surplus and fewer warriors, smiths producing metalwork, and other craftsmen.  Their poverty is one reason the Romans left them alone – the potential taxes weren’t enough to pay for the cost of invasion or garrisoning Roman troops afterwards.

The old view of Rome’s Collapse

Before WW II, migration was seen as a phenomenon of overwhelming importance in the transformation of barbarian Europe [when] large-scale Germanic migration in the 4th and 5th centuries brought down the western Roman Empire.  They were succeeded by more Germans and, above all, Slavs, whose activities put many more pieces of the European national jigsaw in place. Still more immigrants from Scandinavia and the steppe, towards the end of the period, completed the puzzle. Quarrels over details were fierce, but no one had any doubt that the mass migration of men and women, old and young, had played a critical role in the unfolding saga of Europe’s creation.

Migration, particularly in the form of the mass replacement of one population group by another, thus became the characteristic means by which observable changes to archaeological remains were explained.  In modern parlance, although the term had not yet been coined, the peopling of Europe was envisaged as being driven forward by one massive episode of ethnic cleansing after another, in what has been evocatively dubbed the ‘invasion hypothesis’ view of the past.

Thinking of archaeological cultures as ‘peoples’ carried within it a powerful tendency to explain major archaeological change in terms of migration. Given that each people had its own ‘culture’, when you suddenly found a new ‘culture’ on top of another, you then might well think that one ‘people’ must have replaced another.

The new view began in the 1960s.  Migrations weren’t easy. Transport costs in the past were huge.  Emperor Diocletian’s Edict on Prices (from c.300 AD) stated that the cost of a wagon of wheat doubled for every fifty miles it was carried.  That expense limited the ability of people to migrate as well.  Information didn’t spread widely, making it hard to know where a better place to live might even be.

Instead of one people replacing another, new artifacts found by archeologists may reflect new skills learned from another culture, or obtained in trade, not necessarily conquest followed by ethnic cleansing.

In the last generation or so, scholarly consensus around these big ideas has broken down because they have been shown to have been far too simple. No new overview has emerged, but the overall effect of a wide variety of work has been massively to downgrade the role of migration in the emergence of at least some of those distant first-millennium ancestors of the modern nations of Europe. It is now often argued, for instance, that only a few people, if any, moved in the course of what used to be understood as mass migrations.  From a position of overwhelming dominance before the 1960s, migration has become the great Satan of archaeological explanation.

We have now reached a point that is the mirror image of where we were 50 years ago. But while this is satisfyingly symmetrical as an intellectual progression, is it convincing history? Should migration be relegated to such a minor, walk-on part in the history of barbarian Europe in the first millennium AD?

The middle path (Heather’s theory)

Ambitious leaders and warriors naturally were attracted by Rome’s wealth.  Successful small raiding parties would have attracted increasing numbers of warriors, many of whom had migrated from somewhere else in the past who were used to moving onward for better land and greater wealth.  This eventually snowballed with their families and tens of thousands of others in the region migrating in large numbers to the border regions of the Roman Empire.   A billiard-ball view of group X entirely replacing group A, has been replaced by a snowball. Instead of large, compact groups of men, women and children moving with determination across the landscape, many now think in terms of demographic snowballs: originally small groupings, probably composed largely of warriors, who, because of their success, attracted large numbers of recruits as they traveled.

At times the migration members were mainly elite warriors, who replaced the old elite, sparing peasants and slaves from slaughter so they could continue to grow food.  The classic example of this phenomenon in medieval history is the Norman Conquest of England, where a few thousand Norman landholding families replaced their slightly more numerous Anglo-Saxon predecessors at the top of the 11th-century English heap.

The invasion hypothesis is dead and buried. No longer would we even want to litter prehistoric and first-millennium Europe with a succession of ancient ‘peoples’ carving out their chosen niches via a lethal cocktail of large-scale movement and ethnic cleansing.

The rise of Hunnic power was responsible for two bouts of mass migration into the Roman Empire before this (in 376-80 and 405-8).  These migrants then proceeded to generate huge disruptions on Roman territory, but it wasn’t until Attila the Hun died in 452 that so many migrated to the Roman territory that the empire collapsed.  This happened because the ethnic tribes the Huns had conquered were able to break away and migrate into Roman territory in the chaos and civil war that erupted after Atilla the Huns died.  If not for this, the Roman military could have held in check smaller migrations happening years apart from overwhelming the empire.

By the 460s, the Empire’s central authorities had lost control of much of their tax base, with the result that its power was in terminal decline. In Gaul, this manifested itself in an increasing difficulty in exercising control over both the Empire’s own army commanders and the various groups of outsiders (such as Alaric’s Visigoths) who had already been settled there.

As Europe evolved over the next 500 years, migration lessened as empires grew.  So much wealth lay in the stone structures of churches, homes, buildings, and productive farms, it made no sense for mass migrations into unknown or partially known territories with no certainty of success in gaining more wealth.  Social elites could gain wealth without relocating.  And the less they moved, the less likely there were to move, unlike centuries earlier, when farmers moved every generation after exhausting the soil and raiding could likely be profitable.  Everyone, elites and peasants alike became rooted in their localities.

Why empires don’t last forever

Even without the Huns the political and economic development of societies outside of the Roman world would eventually have undermined the Roman Empire. This is because living next to a militarily more powerful and economically developed imperial neighbor promotes a series of political changes in the societies on the periphery, which eventually enables them to fend off imperial aggression. In the first millennium, this happened twice. First in the emergence of Germanic client states of the Roman Empire in the 4th century, and again in the rise of the new Slavic states of the 9th and 10th. This repeated pattern is not accidental and provides a fundamental reason why empires, unlike diamonds, do not last forever. The way that empires behave, the mixture of economic opportunity and intrusive power inherent in their nature, prompts responses from those affected which in the long run undermine their capacity to maintain the initial power advantage that originally made them imperial.

Not all empires suffer the equivalent of Rome’s Hunnic accident and fall so swiftly to destruction. In the course of human history, many more have surely been picked apart slowly from the edges as peripheral dynasts turned predator once their own power increased. The exercise of imperial power generates an opposite and equal reaction among those affected by it, until they so reorganize themselves as to blunt the imperial edge. Whether you find that comforting or frightening, I guess, will depend on whether you live in an imperial or peripheral society, and what stage of the dance has currently been reached. The existence of such a law, however, is one more general message that exploring the interactions of emperors and barbarians in the first millennium AD can offer us today.


Migration played a major role in this unfolding story. And the Hunnic ‘accident’ threw enough more organized Germanic groupings on to Roman soil in a short enough space of time both to undermine the central Roman state and to generate a massive collapse in the old power structures of barbarian central Europe. This in turn allowed for an extraordinary Slavic diaspora whose cultural effects – the widespread Slavicization of central and Eastern Europe – remain a central feature of the European landmass to this day.

But aside from particular and unusual moments like the Hunnic or Avar accidents, patterns of migration were entirely dictated by and secondary to patterns of development. It was only when nomadic intruders became politically organized that migration was able to undermine both the west Roman state and Germanic Europe in one fell swoop.

In thinking about the transformation of barbarian Europe in the first millennium in overall terms, there is no doubt that development played a profoundly more important role in the process than migration.

Much more important than these occasional moments of arrival, many of which led precisely nowhere, were the dynamic interactions between the imperial powers of more developed Europe and the barbarians on their doorstep: Germanic, largely, in the first half of the millennium, then Slavic, largely, in the second. It was these interactions, not acts of migration, that were ultimately responsible for generating the new social, economic and political structures which brought former barbarian Europe much more to resemble its imperial counterpart by the end of the millennium.

The kinds of large-scale predatory migration flow studied in this book – essentially combining peasants and elites within the same migrating groups, where the later Middle Ages saw them move separately – were equally appropriate to their own area. In the first millennium, highly disparate patterns of development then combined with a lack of agricultural rootedness and relatively low agricultural outputs. This meant that the economy of barbarian Europe could support only very few military specialists, so that it was necessary and possible for ambitious leaders to put together large and hence necessarily broad-based expeditions to secure wealth-generating positions on the fringes of more developed, imperial Europe.

This in turn generated forms of migration that were different from those operating in the central Middle Ages, and different again from those we are used to in the modern world.

There is every reason to respond to the limitations of the old invasion-hypothesis model not by rejecting migration as an important explanatory factor in first-millennium history, but by bringing a series of more complex migration models back into the picture. Migration then ceases to be a catch-all, simplistic alternative to ‘more complex’ lines of explanation focusing on social, economic and political change. Understood properly, and this is the central message screaming out from the comparative literature, migration is not a separate and competing form of explanation to social and economic transformation, but the complementary other side of the same coin. Patterns of migration are dictated by prevailing economic and political conditions, and reflect existing inequalities, and sometimes even help to equalize them, and when viewed from this perspective the real significance of migratory phenomena can begin to emerge. So historians should not be too quick to reject predatory migration as a periodic contributor to the evolution of Europe. If predatory forms of migration in the first millennium were generated by geographical proximity between zones of highly disparate levels of development, combined with the existence of societies where those who farmed also fought and were not deeply rooted in one particular patch of soil, then these conditions likely existed in many other ancient contexts with periodic predatory migration could expected as a natural consequence.

As currently construed, elite replacement fails to distinguish the particularity of a case such as the Norman Conquest, where the invading elite could fit easily into existing socio-economic structures, leaving them intact, and any broader effects on the total population remain correspondingly small, if not so minimal as those wanting to undermine the importance of migration might think.  But this kind of elite replacement applies only when the incoming elite was of broadly the same size as its indigenous counterpart, and I strongly suspect, even if I could never prove it, that, over the broad aeons of human history, this will have been true only in a minority of instances.

Certainly the first millennium AD throws up more examples of a different kind of case, where the intruding elite, if still a minority – and even quite a small one – compared to the totality of the indigenous population, was still too numerous to be accommodated by redistributing the available landed assets. This kind of elite migration could not but have huge socioeconomic consequences, and potentially also much greater cultural ones as the indigenous population came into intense contact with an intrusive elite, which was more numerous than its old indigenous counterpart.

Different again were cases of only partial elite replacement, particularly common in more Mediterranean regions of the old Roman west in the fifth and sixth centuries. Here there was some economic restructuring to accommodate the intruders – Goths, Vandals, Burgundians and others – but considerable elements of the old Roman landowning elites survived. In the longer term, it was the immigrants in these cases who struggled to hold on to their existing culture, and long-term linguistic change moved in the other direction.

The disappearance in the medium to longer term of large-scale, centrally organized taxation of agricultural production, and the consequent weakening of state structures in the post-Roman west, are best explained in terms of the militarization of elite life that followed the creation of those structures at the hands of intrusive new elites.

Goods and ideas can move without being attached to people, and if what you observe archaeologically is no more than a limited transfer of either, it will always be possible to explain it in terms of something other than population displacement. But the fact that it will always be possible to do this does not mean that it will necessarily be correct to do so, and the inherent ambiguity of archaeological evidence is sometimes misinterpreted. Ambiguity means exactly that. If the archaeological evidence for any possible case of migration is ambiguous – which it usually will be – then it certainly does not prove that migration played a major role in any observable material cultural change – but neither does it disprove it. What all this actually amounts to is that archaeological evidence alone cannot decide the issue. It is important to insist on this point because there has been a tendency in some recent work to argue that ambiguous archaeological evidence essentially disproves migration, when it absolutely does not. Overall, of course, this forces us back on to the historical evidence. How good a case can be made from historical sources for the importance of large, organized and diverse groups of invaders on the move in the first millennium? The answer has to be complex.

The final modification that must be made to the old invasion-hypothesis model of large-group migration concerns its supposition that large-scale intrusions drove out existing populations. There are several good examples of large-scale invasion in the first millennium, but none where the evidence suggests mass ethnic cleansing. Indigenous populations were often faced with a choice between accepting subjugation or moving on, a choice which would have felt particularly brutal to indigenous elites who had most to lose from the arrival of a new set of masters. But there is no convincingly documented case where the response to this choice led to the complete evacuation of an extensive landscape. At the very least, indigenous populations supplied good agricultural labor, and many of our immigrant groups anyway had lower social-status categories into which newly subjugated indigenous populations could easily be slotted. These alterations are important, but they remain modifications rather than denials of the basic proposition that the evidence for large, mixed, and organized migrant groups from the first millennium is convincing.

Nationalist visions of whole ancestral ‘peoples’ clearing out new landscapes for themselves to enjoy can be consigned to the recycle bin of history. The groups documented in our sources were political entities, which could grow or fragment, which contained individuals occupying lesser- and higher-status categories, and which inserted themselves in correspondingly complex ways into new but already thoroughly inhabited environments.

Kindle Notes

Barbarians. Archaeologically, the picture of the inhabitants of these wooded and forested zones of eastern Europe around the birth of Christ is reasonably straightforward. As Tacitus’ comment about permanent settlements implies, it was a world of farmers, but farmers with an extremely simple material culture, less developed even than that prevailing further west in Germanic Europe. The remains of its pottery, tools and settlement are so simple, in fact, that they frustrate any attempt at stylistic or even chronological categorization, being extremely slow to change before the second half of the first millennium AD.

With only a little simplification, therefore, barbarian Europe at the start of our period can be divided into three main zones. Furthest west and closest to the Mediterranean was the most developed, with the highest levels of agricultural productivity and a material culture that in its pottery and metalwork was already rich and sophisticated. This had long been controlled largely by Celtic-speakers, and much of it had just been brought under Roman rule. Further east lay Germanic-dominated Europe, where agriculture was less intensive, and which consequently lacked the same richness of material culture. Even Germanic Europe practiced a relatively intensive agriculture, however, compared with the inhabitants of the woods and forests of eastern Europe, whose material culture has left correspondingly minimal remains. Nothing in this brief survey is really controversial, except, perhaps, where Slavs might be found. What has become highly disputable, however, is the role played by migration in the astounding transformation of barbarian Europe which unfolded over the next thousand years.

The Details (if you’re interested): History of the barbarian invasion

In 452, after a decade of mayhem stretching from Constantinople to Paris, Attila the Hun died from the after-effects of one too many wedding nights. Following the odd drink or two, the great conqueror retired to bed, burst a blood vessel and died. This sudden demise fired the starting gun on a frenzied race for power among his sons, which quickly degenerated into outright civil war. Events then took a yet more dangerous turn. Attila’s Empire consisted not just of Huns but large numbers of non-Hunnic subjects besides.

The vast majority of these non-Huns, like the Huns themselves, were living in and around the Middle Danube c.450 AD. But many of them had not occupied land in the Middle Danube in the 4th century, and neither would they in the 6th. Not only did the Huns themselves move west into the heart of Europe, but they seem to have been responsible in some way for gathering many other groups together on the Great Hungarian Plain, most of whom subsequently left as Attila’s Empire collapsed.

Of all the migrants featured in this book, the Huns are perhaps the most mysterious. They wrote absolutely nothing themselves, but that’s pretty much par for the first-millennium course. More problematic is the fact that very little appears about them even in Roman sources until the time of Attila, or perhaps half a generation before: the later 420s onwards, but above all the 440s. By that date, profound transformations had distanced the Hunnic world from its counterpart of c.370, when the region north of the Black Sea first felt the weight of Hunnic assault. The reason for this dearth of information is not hard to deduce. From a Roman perspective, the crises of 376–80 and 405–8 both saw the Huns push other groups across the imperial frontier. As a result, our ignorance of the Huns is astounding.  We do not know what language the Huns spoke, and probably never will.

The Huns did not just meander around the Great Eurasian Steppe until they happened to come across its western edge north of the Black Sea and take a liking to it. The decisions to switch their centers of operation westwards – in two distinct stages separated by about a generation – must have been taken for specific reasons, and carefully calculated. The potential gains of these moves had always to be balanced against the dangers of failing to find, or – more likely – establish, rights over sufficient grazing for their flocks at the new destinations. But no easy answers are available.

One of the possible factors is climate change. Around the year 400 AD, Western Europe was basking in a climatic optimum, with long hot summers and plenty of sunshine. But what was good for western Europeans was less good for the world beyond the Don, where the same climatic optimum meant that there was less summer rainfall to make the grass grow. The trouble with applying this argument to the fourth century, however, is that, for the moment at least, it is impossible to know how severe or, indeed, limited the effects of fourth-century climate change actually were. There are no precise data.

Also, Huns under ecological pressure could have moved in any of several directions.

The other possible factor is political revolution. At least two of the nomadic groups that followed the Huns out of the steppe into Europe in the later first millennium did so, in part, because they were under political and military pressure from other nomadic groups to their east. The 6th-century Avars were on the run from the Empire of the Western Turks, while the 9th-century Magyars moved from north of the Black Sea to the Great Hungarian Plain because of the attacks of Petchenegs. In the absence of specific information about the western steppe in the 4th century, it would be foolish to rule out the possibility that the Huns too were facing this kind of pressure.

From c.390 and particularly the 420s onwards, we find Huns engaged in a variety of activities in relation to the Roman world. Sometimes they raided it.  Sometimes Huns served the Empire as mercenaries.

With the arrival of Huns in large numbers in central Europe from c.410 onwards, however, mercenary service reached its apogee. They were possibly already providing major military support to the de facto ruler of the western Empire, Flavius Constantius, in the 410s, but it was in the time of Aetius, from the 420s, that they became a crucial bulwark of the western Empire. Not only did Aetius use their support to keep himself in power against Roman rivals, but they were also deployed to keep in check the aggressive ambitions of the other barbarian groups now well established on western imperial territory: most notably in major campaigns against the Visigoths and the Burgundians in the 430s. Then, finally, as Hunnic power grew in the time of Attila, the Huns turned from raiding and mercenary service to large-scale invasion. Two massive attacks on the east Roman Balkans, in 442 and 447, were followed by invasions of Gaul and Italy in 451 and 452.

What all of these activities had in common was that they were different methods of tapping into the greater wealth available within the more developed economy of the Mediterranean-based Roman world. Raiding, obviously enough, was all about movable shiny stuff and other forms of negotiable booty, and this too was the point of mercenary service. For all of Aetius’s Hunnic connections, the Huns did not fight for him without receiving generous payment. And even Attila’s invasions were undertaken with cash in mind. We have very detailed accounts of the diplomatic contacts that preceded and followed these attacks, and Attila’s central concern was always the size of the diplomatic subsidy he could secure. Extra territory and other types of gain were of only marginal interest. If it is legitimate to import this vision of the Huns’ basic attitude towards the Roman Mediterranean back to the 370s then the Huns’ decisions to move westwards in two stages make complete sense. Increased proximity to the political centers of the Roman world in northern Italy and Constantinople meant greater opportunities for extracting a share of Roman wealth. The Huns were acting like the Goths and the other largely Germanic-speaking predators of the third century AD: their migrations were a response to fundamental inequalities of wealth. Like the Goths, they were moving from the less developed outer periphery of the Empire, and perhaps from beyond even that, into richer inner zones where there was a wide variety of wealth-generating opportunities available to groups able, like themselves, to deploy military force of sufficient potency.

The evidence suggests that Hunnic migration into Europe was similar to reasons it happened in the 3rd century.  It began when war bands raided the richer Roman lands on the periphery to get rich, not to migrate there.  But when the war band activity proved highly profitable, larger and more organized groups became involved, probably aiming to maximize the amount of wealth that could be extracted by actually seizing total control of the landscape. In this case, the Huns’ later actions suggest that the attraction was not the land of the Middle Danube in terms of its agricultural, but the fact that it was conveniently placed for maximizing profits via closer ties of various kinds with the Roman world. As a result, small-scale raiding north of the Black Sea elided into a population flow of steadily increasing momentum, until large-scale group migration emerged as the logical mechanism for maximizing profits by seizing control of the Great Hungarian Plain.

Like the nineteenth-century Boers, the Huns enjoyed a telling advantage in military hardware. One of their characteristic weapons was the composite reflex bow, long known on the steppe. Now, however, they employed a longer bow – up to 150 centimeters rather than the usual 100 – than had previously been seen on the western steppe. This gave them longer-range hitting power whose effects are visible in the rhetoric of Roman sources. These report Huns able to devastate the ranks of their Gothic opponents while themselves staying safely out of range.

The Huns large-scale predatory migration eventually involved women and children. The numerous dependents of large military forces assembled from non-professional sources cannot be left behind in safety when the military activity encompasses any intent to migrate. As with so many of the other immigrants we have encountered, moreover, the Huns had established traditions of mobility which, all the comparative evidence again emphasizes, must have greatly facilitated their decision to respond to potential gains to be had from the Roman world by upping sticks and moving closer towards it. The biannual migrations common to the nomadic lifestyle meant that the Huns had a greater than usual capacity to organize large-group movement.

Another major reason for the substantial chronological gap between the two main phases of Hunnic intrusion into Europe must have been the need to build up geographical knowledge about the new possibilities that opened up for them after they had displaced Goths and Alans from regions north of the Black Sea. From this perspective, the massive Hunnic raid launched into the Roman and Persian Empires through the Caucasus in 395 can be seen as part of a learning curve. This caused huge disruption and attracted a great deal of coverage in Roman sources, not least because one group of raiders even got close to the Holy Land. But the raiders suffered heavy losses, and the experiment was never repeated.  Its relative failure may well have played a role in their eventual decision to move further west on to the Hungarian Plain rather than in any other direction

When Olympiodorus visited them in 411/12 he encountered a political structure based on a series of ranked kings, which was highly appropriate for a nomadic society. Economic logistics require nomad populations to be relatively dispersed. Bunched populations with herds would quickly lead to exhausted grazing and economic disaster. At the same time, subgroups need their own organization for matters such as settling disputes, and the larger group has to be able to act decisively as one on occasion, above all to protect the grazing rights upon which all depend. Well-organized devolution rather than centralized rule is a natural political form for nomadic societies, therefore, and a kingly hierarchy fits the bill nicely.

But when a second east Roman historian and diplomat – the famous Priscus – visited the Huns in the mid-440s in the time of Attila, the system of ranked kings had disappeared. Attila was surrounded by many great men, and although he had originally shared power with his brother, there were no other individuals of royal rank to be seen.

This relates to migration for the following reasons. What went on was that one leader came to monopolize the political support that used to be divided between several. This requires the successful leader to have access to unprecedented wealth so as to outbid his rivals in the patronage stakes and win over enough of their supporters, in the process forcing them either to leave the group or to accept more junior, non-royal positions. In the case of the Huns, the source of that new wealth was the profits that flowed from the new relationships they were able to develop with the Roman Empire. Putting yourself by hook or by crook in charge of distributing the combined profits flowing from a potent mixture of raiding, mercenary service and diplomatic subsidy was the shortest path to political triumph. Hunnic migration to the Middle Danube naturally brought political revolution in its wake.

There is not the slightest doubt that the Huns’ intrusion into Europe in the later 4th and early 5th centuries must be considered mass migration. It was a flow of gradually increasing momentum, not a sudden, single migratory pulse.

It may well be correct that it was the wealth of the Roman Empire’s periphery that first sucked in the Hunnic raiders, and that migration momentum built up slowly from that point. New information on climate change or on political developments may transform this view in due course, but for the moment, the attractions of the wealthy imperial periphery seem the best option.

The Hunnic Empire was not something that people joined voluntarily. Evidence for this is plentiful and consistent. Non-Huns became part of the Empire through conquest and intimidation.  All of our evidence indicates that the ranks of Attila’s subjects were filled not with volunteers, but with those who had failed to get out of the way in time. This suggests that relations between the Huns and their subjects are unlikely to have been that harmonious.

In the 420s, for instance, the east Romans stripped away a large body of Goths from Hunnic control when they expelled the Huns from parts of Pannonia. The Goths were transferred to Thrace and seem to have served loyally thereafter in the east Roman military. On other occasions, the subjects took the initiative themselves: When Rua was king of the Huns, the Amilzuri, Itimari, Tounsoures, Boisci and other tribes who were living near to the Danube were fleeing to fight on the side of the Romans.

This records how the separate contingents in a mixed force of Goths and Huns was brought to blows by a Roman agent provocateur. He did so by reminding the Gothic contingent of exactly how the Huns generally behaved towards them: These men have no concern for agriculture, but, like wolves, attack and steal the Goths’ food supplies, with the result that the latter remain in the position of slaves and themselves suffer food shortages.

For most people, the reality of becoming part of the Hunnic Empire was a nasty experience of military conquest followed by economic exploitation, spiced up from time to time by being marched out to fight Attila’s wars.

This is where it differed so markedly from the Roman Empire – the Hunnic Empire lacked the governmental capacity to run the affairs of its subject peoples at all closely. Famously, the Hunnic bureaucracy consisted of one Roman secretary supplied by Aetius, the de facto ruler of the western Empire, and a Roman prisoner who could write letters in Latin and Greek. What this meant in practice is that, once conquered, subject groups still had to be left largely to run their own day-to-day affairs themselves. This does not mean that everything carried on absolutely as before. Hunnic supervision often involved preventing the emergence of overall rulers among the larger concentrations of their defeated subjects. By suppressing the rise of an overall leader by stimulating political competition within a group, the possibility of mounting effective resistance was lessened.

Gold, it should be stressed, is a rare find in Germanic archaeological remains before the Hunnic period, so the amount of new wealth that became available as Attila ransacked the Roman world can hardly be over-stressed. Alongside military domination, then, he clearly also used the distribution of booty captured in his campaigns against the Romans to give subject leaders a further incentive to consent to his rule, just as the Romans granted annual gifts even to barbarian leaders they had just defeated or otherwise subdued.

The Hunnic Empire was certainly multicultural, but, as is often the case in multicultural societies, this did not mean that group identities within it were either infinitely malleable or easily eroded. Because being a Hun meant higher status, the Empire’s multicultural character effectively erected barriers around Hunnic identity. The Huns’ lack of bureaucratic capacity left their subjects with at least their intermediate leaderships intact, thereby perpetuating the structures around which their existing sense of group identity might survive. At the same time, the exploitation they had to endure gave them the incentive to maintain these identities, since they were the only vehicle through which they might be able to overthrow Hunnic domination, either by escaping into the Roman Empire or at some point regaining their political independence by force. Neither of these options would be possible for a group that fragmented and lost all capacity for group action. There is every reason, then, why old identities should not have slipped easily away under Hunnic rule.

Recitach’s assassination thus completed an astonishing process of amalgamation. Theoderic’s uncle Valamer had probably been the first member of the family to achieve an unusual pre-eminence by killing, subduing and forcing out rival Gothic warband leaders in order to unite the Amal-led Goths: manoeuvrings that occurred either in Ukraine before the Goths’ move to Pannonia, or in the Middle Danube after Attila’s death (if these Goths were already established there). None of these warbands can have numbered much more than a thousand fighting men, and perhaps even only several hundreds. Within two lifetimes, therefore, uncle and nephew had taken the Amal line from one among a set of warband leaders to pre-eminent Gothic kings commanding in excess of twenty thousand warriors. It was this much larger force, complete with women, children and wagon train and amounting to between fifty and a hundred thousand souls, that took the road for Italy in the autumn of 488. There’s more you’d like to know, of course, but for the mid-first millennium this is pretty decent evidence. It also gives us some parameters for considering the other forces that came and went from the Middle Danube as the Hunnic Empire rose and fell, and it’s instantly clear that none of the other population groups on the move in this period was quite as big as this truly monstrous force.

In 473 several tens of thousands of people left Hungary for the Balkans, possibly the same group that had moved to Hungary from Ukraine about twenty years before; and in 488 an even larger group, close to a hundred thousand souls if you add in the Thracian Goths and the refugee Rugi, set off from the Balkans for Italy. Other moves were made by smaller population groups, refugees from the military defeats that had dismantled old hegemonies, notably the Huns and Sciri in the 460s, the Rugi in the 480s and the various groups of Heruli after 508. And to complete the picture, the period also saw one predatory flow of migration of the kind we have met before, in the form of the Lombards.

In broad terms, the demographic effect of the Hunnic Empire was to suck large numbers of militarized groups into the heart of central Europe. Once the constraining influence of Hunnic power had disappeared, such a concentration of military potential could not but generate intense competition in which some of the smaller entities lost their independence, but which, overall, prompted many of the groups to leave the region quite as quickly as they had entered it.

The Huns built their war machine in the Middle Danube region because it was a conveniently situated base from which to launch the raids and protection rackets that would give them a share of the wealth of the Mediterranean as mobilized by the taxation structures of the Roman Empire.  Attila’s demands really were all about cash. Holding the Huns’ war machine together would have been quite impossible without Roman wealth. Variations in the prevailing levels of economic development also dictated, after Attila’s death, the general directions of the moves made by the various groups who wanted to opt out of the competition. The vast majority, as we have seen, moved south, attracted, again, by the wealth of the Mediterranean.

The rise of Frankish power under the Merovingian dynasty was essentially a phenomenon of Roman imperial collapse.  At this point, like so many Germani all along Rome’s European frontiers, the different Frankish groups were the Empire’s semi-subdued clients. Individual Franks were regularly recruited into the Roman army, some rising to top commands, while whole auxiliary contingents occasionally served on particular campaigns. Yet at the same time, campaigning was periodically required to keep them from raiding the Empire too successfully and too often; or even, when opportunity presented itself, from seeking to annex pieces of Roman territory.

With the decline of the western Empire in the fifth century, this balance of power was undermined, and the Frankish cat leapt vigorously out of the bag.

It was in these centuries, too, that the history of the British Isles took a decisive turn with the arrival of Anglo-Saxon immigrants from Denmark and northern Germany. Of greater importance still, arguably, was Slavic migration. Slavic origins were always hotly debated, but, wherever they came from, there was no doubting the fact that from relative obscurity in the 6th century Slavic-speakers spread across vast tracts of central and eastern Europe over the next two hundred years. Substantial parts of this landscape had previously been dominated by Germanic-speakers, so the rise of the Slavs represented a huge cultural and political shift. It created the third major linguistic zone of modern Europe alongside the Romance and Germanic tongues, and the boundaries between the three have remained little altered since they were first created. Scandinavian migration in the ninth and tenth centuries then completed a millennium of mass migration. In the Atlantic, entirely new landscapes were colonized for the first time in Iceland and the Faroes, while Viking migrants in western Europe established Danelaw in England and the Duchy of Normandy on the continent. Further east, other Scandinavian settlers played a key role in creating the first, Kievan, Russian state, whose limits established and delineated the boundaries of Europe down to the modern era.  No single view of any of these migrations and their significance ever won universal acceptance. Many of the details, as we shall see in the chapters that follow, have always been and will remain highly controversial.

The kinds of national identities that came to the fore in 19th-century Europe were created in historical time, and did not represent the re-emergence of something fundamental but long submerged. Without the kind of mass communications that became available in the 18th and 19th centuries, it would have been totally impossible to bind together numerically huge and geographically dispersed populations into national communities. Group identity simply did not function in the same way in earlier eras without canals, railways and newspapers, a world where ‘country’ meant ‘county’, for instance, for the vast majority of the British population. The creation of modern nationalism also required the conscious input of intellectuals, who created national dictionaries, identified national costumes, and collected the dances and folktales which were then used to ‘measure’ ethnicity. These same individuals then also generated the educational programs that solidified the elements of national culture that they had identified into a self-reproducing cultural complex which could be taught at school, and by that means reach a still larger body of humanity in an era when mass primary education was rapidly becoming – for the first time – a European norm. The emergence of nationalism is a great story in itself, and has rightly attracted a lot of attention in the last generation or so of scholarship. The point for us, though, is straightforward. Europe has not been peopled since the first millennium by large blocks of population conscious of distinct nationalist affiliations which fundamentally shaped their lives and activities. Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century affiliations cannot be imposed on the deeper past.

Major material cultural changes can have causes other than outside invasion. Since patterns of observable archaeological similarity can be generated for a variety of reasons – trade, social interaction, shared religious belief or anything else you can think of – then changes in one or more of any number of these areas might be responsible for an observable change. Changes do not have to reflect the arrival of a new social group but might be caused by any substantial alteration in the system that originally created it. Indeed, it was deep dissatisfaction with the intellectual limits of the invasion hypothesis, overemployed as a monolithic model of change, as much as the impact of the new understandings of group identity, that drove a whole generation of archaeologists in the English-speaking world to reject its tenets in the 1960s, and in many other parts since. For very good reasons, therefore, archaeologists have increasingly looked beyond the invasion hypothesis to other types of explanation altogether, since the 1960s. These new approaches have been highly fruitful, and in the process undercut much of the broader sweep of the old Grand Narrative. Up to about 1960, European prehistory was envisaged as one population group after another using their new skills – in farming technology or metallurgy – to establish dominance over the landmass and expel their predecessors. Nowadays, much of the evolution of central-western European society between the Bronze Age and the Roman Iron Age (roughly the last two millennia BC) can be convincingly explained without recourse to mass migration and ethnic cleansing. Instead of one set of invaders after another overthrowing each other, the European past is now peopled with human beings who could learn new skills and, over time, develop new economic, social and political structures.

Anyone dealing with the geographical displacement of archaeologically observable artefact types or habits, who wants to produce an account of the past that is at all ‘subtle’ or ‘complex’, should avoid migration at all costs. The tables have turned.

So convinced now are some historians that large, mixed migration units could never have been a feature of the past that they have started to argue that the handful of historical sources that apparently report the opposite – the source of the invasion-hypothesis model of migration – must be mistaken. Graeco-Roman sources, it has been suggested, are infected with a migration topos, a cultural reflex that made Mediterranean authors describe any barbarians on the move as a ‘people’, whatever the real nature of the group. A European history composed of long-distance, large-scale population moves is being replaced by a history of small-scale mobile groupings, gathering in followers as they went.

Two alternatives to the invasion-hypothesis model of mass migration have consequently come into use. The first is the ‘wave of advance’ model. Applicable to small migration units, it provides an alternative view of how a group of outsiders might take over a landscape. It has been applied in particular to the spread across Europe of its first proper farmers in the Neolithic period, and shows how, even with individually undirected moves, farming populations might nonetheless have come to dominate all suitable points in that landscape.  According to this model, Neolithic farmers did not arrive en masse and oust the hunter-gatherers in an invasion. Rather, the farmers’ capacity to produce food in much greater quantities meant that their population numbers grew so much more quickly that, over time, they simply swamped the hunter-gatherers,

Even more popular among archaeologists, because of its greater range of potential applications, is the ‘elite transfer’ model. Here, the intrusive population is not very large, but does aggressively take over a territory by conquest. It then ousts the sitting elite of the target society and takes over its positions of dominance, while most of the underlying social and economic structures which created the old, now expelled or demoted, elite are left intact.

Again the vision of migration suggested by this model is much less dramatic than that envisaged under the invasion hypothesis. It retains the latter’s intentionality, and some violence, but because we’re talking only of one elite replacing another, with broader social structures left untouched, this is a much less nasty process than the ethnic cleansing that was central to the old model. And because it is merely a question of swapping a few elites around, the outcome is likewise much less dramatic and in one sense less important, since all the main existing social and economic structures are left in place, as they were in England by the Norman Conquest.

The changes that took place in Germanic society in the early Roman era have another dimension: we can discern in them the first glimmers of the overarching process that would eventually even out the massive regional disparities in development characteristic of the European landscape at the beginning of the first millennium. Well beyond those regions that had fallen under direct Roman control, contact with the Empire on every level unleashed forces whose cumulative effect was to transform Germanic society. The result by the fourth century  was that much more substantial political structures had come to hold sway over a much larger population. These forces were felt most intensely close to the frontier, but they had some effects beyond, most obviously because some of the economic networks – those producing amber and slaves, for instance – extended long tendrils.

Barbarian Migration and the First Millennium. That some migration occurred within and out of barbarian Europe in the first millennium would be accepted by everyone.

This was the era when Goths from the northern Black Sea littoral moved over 1200 miles to south-western France in three discrete leaps over a thirty-five-year period (c.376–411 AD). Vandals from central Europe went nearly twice that distance and crossed the Mediterranean to end up, again after three discrete moves, in the central provinces of Roman North Africa. This took 33 years (c.406–39), including a lengthy sojourn in Spain (411–c.430).

Of still greater importance was the appearance of a richer inner periphery, surrounding the Roman Empire proper, which generated a tendency towards predatory migration into it from the regions beyond. Thus, much more than a thin client strip around Rome’s European frontiers now fell within range of wider-ranging processes of transformation that would eventually undermine the Mediterranean’s dominion. Even by the late Roman period, however, vast areas of east-central and eastern Europe remained unaffected. This would change when the new political order of client states created by the second-and third-century migration flows was thrown into tumult in the later fourth century. And if migration had so far played a secondary role to development that too was about to change. The era of the Huns had begun.


By the late summer of 376, the majority of the Gothic Tervingi, the Empire’s main clients on the Lower Danube frontier for most of the 4th century, turned up on the northern banks of the river asking for asylum. They were led by Alavivus and Fritigern, who had broken away from the confederation’s overall ruler Athanaric. The equally Gothic Greuthungi, who had previously lived further from the frontier, east of the River Dniester, soon followed them. Both Tervingi and Greuthungi had been established south and east of the Carpathian Mountains for at least three generations, so it is not surprising that their sudden displacement towards the Danube was associated with a broader wave of regional unrest. After some thought, the east Roman Emperor Valens decided to admit the Tervingi into the Empire, offering them assistance across the Danube, but to exclude the Greuthungi. The latter, however, soon found an opportunity to cross the river without help or permission, and were quickly joined by other uninvited guests: Taifali plus some Huns and Alans in 377, more Alans in 378, and some of Rome’s Middle Danubian Sarmatian clients in 379. Long-established inner clients like the Tervingi, Taifali and Sarmatians, outer clients such as the Greuthungi and Alans, and previously unknown Hunnic intruders were battling it out for control of the zone north of Rome’s east European frontier, and the struggle had spilled over on to imperial territory. About a generation after 376, the established order beyond Rome’s central European frontier – the Middle Danube basin west of the Carpathians – suffered an equally spectacular collapse.

Four major groupings of barbarians figured in the action. A largely Gothic group, first of all, led by a certain Radagaisus, crossed the Alps into Italy in 405/6. These were followed at the end of 406 by a mixed force of Vandals, Alans and Sueves, who crossed the Rhine into Gaul and cut a swathe of destruction through to Spain. Shortly afterwards, a mixed force of Huns and Sciri crossed into the east Roman Balkans, capturing the fortress of Castra Martis in the province of Dacia. Finally, Burgundians elbowed their way past their western neighbors, the Alamanni, to establish themselves on and over the River Rhine around Speyer and Worms. We don’t know when the Burgundians did this, exactly, but it was sometime between 406 and 413. In fourth-century terms, this again represented a mixture of established frontier clients (Sueves), groups who were occasionally part of Rome’s diplomatic web (Burgundians and Vandals), and complete outsiders to the Middle Danubian region (Alans).

From a Roman perspective, sequential collapse of its eastern and central European frontiers was not the end of the misery. The Tervingi and Greuthungi who crossed the Danube in 376 eventually made a kind of peace with the Roman state in 382, after six years of warfare which, famously, had seen them destroy the Emperor Valens and two-thirds of his field army on 9 August 378. Some of them gathered round the leadership of Alaric and his successors. This force moved first around the Balkans, then into Italy – twice – and finally on to Gaul, where another agreement rooted them more firmly this time, in Aquitaine, from 418. From this settlement eventually emerged the Visigothic kingdom: a first-generation successor state to the western Roman Empire. A similar capacity for continued movement was shown by some of the groups bound up in the central European frontier collapse. Most famously, some of the Vandals and Alans who had ended up in Spain from 409 took ship, twenty years later, for North Africa, where they too eventually established an independent kingdom. And in the meantime the Burgundians too moved on, if in less dramatic fashion. After a heavy defeat at the hands of the Huns, many were resettled by the Roman state around Lake Geneva in the later 430s. From this settlement eventually emerged a third successor state to the old Roman west.

Some of the distances here are extraordinary. The extended trek of the Tervingi and Greuthungi from the north-west corner of the Black Sea to Aquitaine totaled about two and a half thousand kilometers, even just as the crow flies (and as the Goths didn’t). The Vandals went from Slovakia or thereabouts to Tunisia, via Spain and Morocco, not far short of four thousand kilometers, and the Alans who accompanied them even further.

In traditional accounts of the first millennium, these tumultuous events on Rome’s European frontiers and beyond were heralded as the beginning of the great Germanic Völkerwanderung: literally, ‘the movement of peoples’ (even if not all of those involved were Germanic-speakers). The Goths, Vandals, Burgundians and many others who feature in the two chapters that follow were thought of as complete populations of both genders and all ages who had long-standing group identities and deliberately moved in compact groups from one piece of territory to the next. In the process, they destroyed the power of the Roman state in western Europe, and in some accounts of the action this represented the denouement of a struggle that had begun as long ago as 9 AD when Arminius’ coalition destroyed Varus and his three legions in the Teutoburger Wald. And if this were not a big enough story, the events associated with Roman frontier collapse had, as we have seen, a still bigger role to play in understandings of the creation of Europe. The model they seemed to provide – of entire peoples on the move – was applied wholesale to European pre-history, which was all explained in terms of migration, invasion and ‘ethnic cleansing’. The frontier intrusions of the late Roman period thus provide a crucial test case. Were they undertaken by large population aggregates, mixed in age and gender, or were they not?

Several contemporary sources mention the arrival of the Goths on the Danube in 376. All share the same basic view that its ultimate cause was the emergence of a new force on the fringes of Europe: the mysterious Huns (of whom more in a moment). One even puts a figure on the number of refugee Goths gathered on the riverbank: two hundred thousand people of all ages and both genders.

The scale and character of the migration flows of 376 are not out of step with modern case studies. For, as Ammianus and all our sources unanimously report, the underlying cause of the Goths’ move to the river was political and negative. The Huns were undermining the stability of the entire north Pontic region, and the Goths were looking to remove themselves to a safer locale. In Ammianus’ formulation, the Goths had two motives in mind: the attractions of Roman territory and a desire to escape the insecurity of life north of the Danube.

FIGHTING FOR SURVIVAL. The histories of all the major groups who crossed into the Empire at the two moments of frontier collapse followed a similar course. Their initial – overwhelmingly uninvited – penetrations of Roman territory were followed by periods of armed struggle. They had to force the Empire to accept that they could not be defeated, and that its normal policies for the subjugation and integration of immigrants could not be imposed upon them. For the Tervingi and Greuthungi, these initial struggles lasted for about six years until the negotiation of a compromise peace agreement with the Roman state, which came into force on 3 October 382. That the Empire was willing to agree to such a deal was entirely due to the Goths’ military capacity, in particular their successive defeats of two Roman emperors – Valens, most famously, at Hadrianople on 9 August 378, then Theodosius in Macedonia in the summer of 380. Other, smaller migrant groups of the period – Taifali, Sarmatians and isolated Gothic subgroups – who failed this initial military test received much harsher treatment, their defeats being followed by total loss of identity, as group members were distributed as unfree labor to Roman landowners.

The history of the migrants involved in the crisis of 405–8 is similar. Again uninvited, they had to fight, initially, to carve out new homes for themselves. Some failed. Many of the followers of Uldin and Radagaisus, as we have seen, met with disaster, killed or distributed again as unfree labor, though some elements of each group managed to do a deal with the Roman authorities. Initially at least, the Vandals, Alans and Sueves were more fortunate. After a career of wild violence in Gaul, in 409 or 410 they forced their way over the Pyrenees into Roman Spain, which offered them new opportunities. In 412, six years after their initial crossing, they divided up the bulk of its provinces between them. The Siling Vandals took Baetica, the Hasdings most of Gallaecia, the Sueves north-western Gallaecia, and the Alans, underlining that they were the largest component of the force at this stage, the richer provinces of Lusitania and Carthaginensis. There is no evidence that this partition was authorized by the central Roman authorities, but it would seem to represent a more ordered exploitation of economic assets, beyond mere looting.

History shows that migrants into the Roman Empire could – and did on occasion – come in large blocks of organized military manpower with their families in tow. If they entertained ambitions that went beyond mere integration into the Roman system as military cannon fodder or agricultural labor, this kind of migratory unit was essential. Only by recruiting well outside military retinues could enough military manpower be put together for expeditions likely to stand any chance of success. Equally important, the better evidence indicates that the immigrants could and did engage in repeat migrations. The vast majority had a well-established tradition of movement even before they crossed into Roman territory, and repeat migration, alongside a renegotiation, under Roman pressure, of group identity which steadily increased overall numbers, provided a two-pronged strategy for long-term survival on Roman soil.

The inclusion of freemen warriors and their social and familial dependents made for major migrant groups numbering several tens of thousands of individuals. The migrations were also mass in the qualitative sense used in migration studies, in that the flow administered a distinct political shock at its points of departure or arrival, or indeed both. The migrants who brought down Rome’s east and central European frontiers quickly stacked up between them one emperor dead on a battlefield along with his army, a forced reversal of standard imperial policies towards migrants, and the extraction of some key provinces from full imperial control. The shock in the lands they left behind is equally marked.

Migration Mechanics.  The crucial importance of active fields of information in dictating precise destinations is just as prominent in the first millennium as in later eras. Germanic expansion towards the Black Sea in the third century was clearly exploiting information about the region which had built up through the operations of the Amber Route. Slavic groups first came to know the Roman Balkans as raiders before exploiting that knowledge to turn themselves into settlers as and when political conditions permitted. Scandinavian expansion to the west in the Viking era likewise operated on the back of intelligence acquired by participation in the emporia trading networks of the eighth century, while those working to the east took a generation or so to find their way down the river routes of western Russia to the great centers of Islamic demand for northern goods, having originally opened up the eastern hinterland of the Baltic to feed western markets. To these entirely uncontroversial examples, I would also add some others. A major contributory factor to the apparently odd stop/start migratory patterns of some of the groups entering Roman territory either side of the year 400 was the need to acquire information about further possible destinations before hitting the road again. The Goths, especially the Tervingi who entered the Empire in 376, already knew about the Balkans, for instance, but not about Italy and Gaul, to where they moved on in the next generation. It took twenty years (and their participation in two Roman civil wars that took some of them lengthy distances in that direction) before they were ready to take the next step.

Likewise the Vandals and Alans: Spain marked the end of their original migratory ambitions, and it again took twenty years and some exploratory sea raids before they were prepared to venture across the Straits of Gibraltar to North Africa. The phenomenon of migration flows of increasing momentum is clearly a product of growing knowledge. It was precisely the fact that exploratory expansionary ventures into a new region produced profitable outcomes for the pioneers that encouraged others to participate.

In the cases of large-group migration reported in any detail in our sources, there is no instance where the decision to move did not generate some kind of split among the affected population group. The same is true, only more so, of the more extended migration flows. For all the Germani of Polish origin who ended up by the Black Sea in the third century, there were many others who stayed behind, shown by the fact that the Wielbark and Przeworsk cultural systems continued to operate. Likewise, many Angles and Saxons did not relocate to England in the 5th and 6th centuries, and Scandinavia was not emptied in the Viking period.

All modern migration flows see substantial numbers of immigrants returning to their original homelands.  The initial phases of Scandinavian expansion were all about gathering wealth, whether by raiding or trading, or both. Having gathered their wealth, different individuals then made different choices about how to invest it. Some chose, even early on, to stay put at their points of destination in the east and west (as shown by the early settlements in northern Scotland and the isles), whereas others chose to take their new wealth back home to Scandinavia, eventually prompting a massive shake-up in Baltic politics.

At least two of the broader population flows, those of the Wielbark and Przeworsk Germani in the second and third centuries, and of the early Slavs three hundred years later, involved populations whose farming techniques were then insufficient to maintain the fertility of any individual piece of arable land for more than a generation or two. A general, periodic local mobility was simply a fact of life for these populations, and there is every reason to suppose that this facilitated the eventual transformation of a more random wave-of-advance-type expansion into a channeled migration flow when information began to filter back about the opportunities available at an entirely new set of longer-distance destinations.

The fourth-century Gothic Tervingi are probably most famous for the fact that a majority of them decided to seek asylum inside the Roman Empire in 376. That decision was greatly facilitated, however, by active memories of recent migrations. This same Gothic group had taken possession of their existing lands in Wallachia and Moldavia between the Lower Danube and the River Dniester only in the decades either side of the year 300, and a generation or so later, in the 330s, had attempted to move bodily to new locations on the fringes of the Middle Danube region. It was the children of those who had moved into Moldavia and Wallachia who were on the move again in the 330s, and their children and older grandchildren who decided to seek a new life inside the Roman Empire in 376.

The willingness of some Norse to move on to Iceland and Greenland in the later 9th century was likewise facilitated by the fact that they were the immediate descendants of Viking immigrants to Scotland and the isles.

Aside from the emotional costs of migration, financial ones were also a major factor in any migrant’s calculations. Most first-millennium migration that we know anything about was a question, more or less, of walking and wagons. It involved no major transportation costs, apart from wear and tear to animals, peoples and wheels, and participation was consequently open to many. It nonetheless involved many indirect costs, above all the potential food shortages that were bound to result when movement disrupted normal agricultural activity. As a result, food stocks had to be maximized before moving, unless circumstances were completely overwhelming, and this meant that autumn was the classic moment to make a move – just after the current year’s harvest had been gathered and while there was still a chance of some grass growing to feed the oxen pulling the wagons and other animals. Alaric’s Goths moved into Italy in both 401 and 408 in the autumn, Radagaisus’ Goths in autumn 405. The Vandals, Alans, and Sueves who crossed the Rhine at the very end of 406 likewise presumably began their trek from the Middle Danube in the autumn of that extended periods of movement left groups particularly vulnerable in economic terms. Flavius Constantius was able to bring Alaric’s Goths – now led by Athaulf and Vallia – to heel by starving them out in 414/15. By that date, they had been living off the land without planting crops for six or seven years.

Later in the fifth century, similarly, after the collapse of the Hunnic Empire, the surviving sources give us just a little insight into the logistic strategies adopted by Theoderic the Amal. His grouping journeyed around the Balkans with wagonloads of seedcorn in the 470s, and one dimension of its diplomatic negotiations with the Roman state involved providing it with agricultural land. Even on the march, noticeably, this group always sought to establish more regular economic relationships with Balkan communities, rather than merely robbing them. This meant that the communities could keep on farming and producing surpluses, from which the Goths could siphon off a regular percentage, whereas destroying them by pillage would only have fed Theoderic’s followers once.

Mass access to sea transport did not even become a possibility until the advent of steerage class in the enormous transatlantic liners of the later nineteenth century. Before that point, travel costs necessarily limited participation in any kind of maritime-based expansion. Again, the Viking period provides the best-documented first-millennium example. Ships were highly expensive, and even specialist cargo ships could carry only limited numbers of people and their goods. Thus Viking raiding required the less well-off to come to some kind of joint arrangement for funding the purchase or hire of a ship (though how many ship owners, I wonder, would be willing to hire out shipping for raiding ventures?), or to attach themselves to a leader of higher status.11 Logistic limitations figured even more strongly when it came to the settlement phases, when so many more types of people and a wider range of bulky farming equipment were required.

Logistics may also have limited the number of Scandinavian women who participated in the Norse migration flow compared to the other land-based movements of our period. Modern DNA patterns suggest that only one-third of immigrant women to Iceland came all the way – directly or indirectly – from Scandinavia, with the rest moving a shorter distance from the British Isles. This may reflect the fact that it was too expensive for more than a minority of warriors to bring their Scandinavian sweethearts with them.

Comparative studies provide two basic points of orientation when thinking about the likely causes of any observable migration flow. First, it is overwhelmingly likely that a substantial difference in levels of economic development between adjacent areas will generate a flow between the two, from the less-developed towards its richer neighbor.

In the vast majority of cases, the precise motivation of any individual migrant will be a complex mixture of free-will and constraint, of economic and political motives. There are exceptions, not least when political refugees are driven forward by fear of imminent death, but most migrants are motivated by some combination of all four factors.

Comparative migration studies would lead you to expect flows of population from less developed regions to the more developed (i.e. in broadly southerly and westerly directions). And in the Roman period – the first three centuries AD – this is essentially what occurred. The economic and sociopolitical structures of more developed Roman Europe sucked in population from its less developed neighbors in a variety of forms, particularly from adjacent, largely Germanic-dominated post-Jastorf Europe. Many individuals entered the Empire as voluntary recruits for Roman armies or involuntary slaves. These population flows are well known. But the larger and more contentious Germanic population flows of the second and third centuries also fall into line with this pattern, in the general sense that they too moved broadly south and west towards more developed Europe.

The military and political structures of the Roman Empire fundamentally explain the geographically asymmetrical outcome of Germanic expansion in these years. The forces behind the expansion seem to have been operating very generally in Germanic-dominated central Europe, but the resulting population flows had much more dramatic effects in the south-east, and particularly north of the Black Sea, than in the south-west. Where Germanic immigrants took over no more than the Agri Decumates in the south-west, further east Dacia was abandoned and political structures north of the Black Sea were entirely remade. There may have been some difference in the scale of the migratory flows in operation in each direction, but this, too, was reflective of the more fundamental cause of the different scale of outcome. Flows south and east were operating against the clients of Rome’s inner frontier zone, rather than directly against the military power of the Empire itself. As a result, the likelihood of success was that much greater than in the south-west, where the Empire’s military power had to be tackled directly.

Not only was it militarily much less dangerous for the leaders of Germanic expansion to restrict their operations to areas beyond the imperial frontier, but two centuries of interaction with the Empire, and the subsequent accumulations of wealth, had made the frontier zone an attractive target for predatory expansion in its own right. Before these processes had unfolded, there would have been little point for ambitious Germanic warlords in moving, say, from northern central Europe to southern central Europe, or from north of the Carpathians to the south-east, since the potential material gains for such efforts would have been minimal.  The best opportunities to benefit from the new wealth-generating interactions with the Roman Empire were all limited geographically to the immediate frontier zone, so it is therefore hardly surprising that raiding gave way to migration in the second and third centuries as more ambitious leaders and followings from the outer periphery looked to win control of the new Rome-centered wealth flows operating in barbarian Europe.

But by the end of the first century AD, there was no potentially lucrative spot along the frontier that was not already occupied by a warlord of some kind, and no sitting tenants were likely to surrender their highly advantageous position without a fight. Any permanent relocation towards Rome’s frontier therefore necessarily required the destruction of existing political structures, and this explains why the second- and third-century migration flows eventually encompassed substantial military forces numbered in the thousands, rather than war bands of just one or two hundred men. War bands might raid effectively enough, but their power was insufficient to remake an entire political structure, so that ambitious wannabes from the outer periphery had no choice but to recruit larger expeditionary forces to achieve their aims.

It is worth pausing to consider this pattern of migratory expansion in the light of more recent and better-documented examples. This kind of intentional, predatory intrusion on the part of thousands of armed individuals is not generally seen in the modern world, and this is sometimes put forward as an objection to supposing that it ever occurred in the past. Half of the answer to this objection is that, though not common, this kind of activity has indeed been seen in the relatively modern world: it is exactly the same basic kind of migratory pattern observable among the Boers of the Great Trek. In that case, the intrusive units could be smaller because the Boers enjoyed a massive advantage in firepower over their Zulu and Matabele opponents. In the second and third centuries, any technological advantage was probably more likely to have lain with the groups of the inner periphery being targeted, since they may well have been buying Roman weaponry, so that the intrusive forces from the outer periphery had to be more or less as large as those deployed by the sitting kings of the frontier region.

All the economies of first-millennium Europe were essentially agricultural, and extremely low-tech. As a result, even in the developing periphery of the Roman Empire, they did not offer many well-paid jobs for individual migrants, except for a few who could attach themselves to the military followings of frontier kings. For those with ambitions to unlock the wealth of this world on a much larger scale, coming as an individual immigrant, or merely within a small group, was a pointless exercise. In such a context, you had to arrive with enough force to defeat the sitting tenant, and prompt the Empire to identify you now as its preferred trading and diplomatic partner on your particular sector of the frontier. Although this kind of migrant group is not commonly seen in the modern world, it actually accords with the fundamental principles behind all observed migration flows. Large-scale predatory intrusion was as appropriate to wealth acquisition via migration in the first millennium, as individual movement is now.

Levels of development also explain the other fundamental oddity of these 2nd and 3rd-century population flows: that many of the warriors were accompanied by women and children. Germanic-dominated Europe of the early centuries AD was a world of low-tech, small-scale farms producing only limited food surpluses. As a result, the economy could not support large warrior retinues; the kind of food renders available even to 4th-century kings could support only one or two hundred men. Again like the Boers, therefore, the kind of larger military expeditions that were required to take over a revenue-producing corner of the Roman frontier could never have been mounted using just the small numbers of military specialists that existed in the Germanic world. Recruits were required from a broader cross-section of society, many of whom already had dependents. These participants would obviously not have wanted to leave their dependents behind in the long term – aside, perhaps, from a few of the younger teenage ones – but even to have left them in the short term, while the expedition reached a hopefully successful conclusion, would have been to expose them to substantial risks. In context again, therefore, it was only natural for Germanic expeditionary forces of more than one or two hundred men to be accompanied by numerous familial dependents.

Völkerwanderung and Beyond. The evolving patterns of development and migration unfolding in the Roman era came to a head in the Völkerwanderung. In the later 4th and 5th centuries, documented European history is marked by the appearance of a whole series of migrant groups comprising 10,000 or more warriors and a large number of dependents, which were powerful enough to survive direct confrontation with the military and political structures of the Roman imperial state. Seen in the broadest of terms, these extraordinary pulses of large-group migration were produced by the intersection, at a critical moment, of a number of related lines of development. First, by the mid- to late fourth century, processes of economic and political development among the Germani had reached a point where political structures had sufficient strength to hold together such enormous groups of warriors and their dependents within a reasonably solid edifice. But, second, these structures had been generated by the expansionary processes of the second and third centuries, and were close enough in time to those events to retain a tradition of migration that could be mobilized when circumstances were appropriate or demanded it. And, third, perhaps the other side of the same coin, their economic structures were not yet so rooted in the arable cultivation of any particular landscape that it was impossible for them to conceive of shifting their center of operations to another locality.

The existence and activities of these very large migrant groups are certainly explicable, but that should not take away from the extraordinary nature of the action. For, though larger and more cohesive than their counterparts of the first century, none of the groups that initially emerged from the imperial periphery was in itself large enough to confront the Roman Empire with success, and yet the aggregate outcome of their collective activities, as we have seen, was the destruction of the west Roman state.

First, it took the unintentional stimulus provided by the Huns to get sufficient numbers of these largely Germanic groups from beyond Rome’s Rhine and Danube frontiers moving on to Roman soil at broadly the same time to make it impossible for the Roman state merely to destroy them. Had these groups – even given that they were larger and more cohesive – arrived separately on Roman territory, the result would eventually have been their destruction, and there were still far too many of them to organize any unified plan for the Empire’s destruction. The key element missing from the Germanic world of the imperial periphery, as opposed to its Arab counterpart, was the lack of a Muhammad to provide an alternative and unifying ideology to that of the Roman state. But, second, once established on Roman soil, the processes of political amalgamation that had been unfolding over the long term beyond the frontier reached a relatively swift climax. This key point was missed in much of the traditional nationalist historiography. By insisting on treating the groups who eventually founded successor states to the western Roman Empire as ancient and unchanging ‘peoples’, this historiography missed the fact that most of them were explicitly documented as new coalitions which formed on Roman territory out of several groups – usually three or four – and who had been independent of one another beyond the frontier. Visigoths and Ostrogoths, Merovingian Franks, the Vandal–Alan coalition – all represented a further step-change in the organization of barbarian political structures, and it was this further evolution which really produced groups that were large enough (deploying now 20,000 warriors and more) to destroy the western Empire.

Contingent as much of this was – there is no sign that there would have been such an influx on to Roman soil without the intrusion of the Huns – one dimension of the action was far from accidental. The new and much larger political formations that became the basis of the successor states could not have come into being on the far side of the frontier. The level of economic development prevalent in the periphery of the Empire in the fourth century did not produce sufficient surplus to allow political leaderships enough patronage to integrate so many followers in that context. Only when the economy of the Empire could be tapped directly for extra wealth, and when the Roman state was providing extra political stimulation towards unification in the form of a real outside threat, was there a sufficient economic and political basis for these larger entities to come into existence. Political structures were the product of, and limited by, prevailing levels of development, and the new state-forming groups could not have emerged in a purely barbarian context.

The epicenter of supra-regional power in western Europe shifted decisively north around the year 500, the second half of the millennium being marked not by Mediterranean-based imperial power, but a series of broadly Frankish dynasties whose prominence was based on economic and demographic assets located north of the Alps between the Atlantic and the Elbe. Again, this can be seen as a culmination of trends of development set in place in the Roman period. The fact that the new imperial power of western Europe should be based on a combination of a chunk of former Roman territory with a substantial part of its ex-periphery is a clear sign of how profoundly that periphery had been transformed by its interaction with Roman power in the preceding centuries. At the birth of Christ, this landscape on either side of the Rhine could never have supported an imperial power, not being remotely wealthy or populous enough, but Roman-era development on both banks of the river radically transformed this situation.

The militarization of its landed elites, meant that this new imperial state was different in kind to its Roman predecessor. Lacking the power to tax agricultural production systematically, it was a less dominant and less self-sufficient kind of entity, which required the profits of expansion to provide its rulers with enough patronage to integrate its constituent landowners. And when broader circumstances did not allow for expansion, fragmentation followed, with power quickly seeping away from the center to the peripheral localities. Periods of great central authority and external aggression – the hallmarks of empire – thus alternated with others of disunity in the second half of the millennium, where Roman imperialism had previously presented a more consistently cohesive face.

At this point, a second nomadic ‘accident’ bent existing processes of development substantially out of shape, and acted as a crucial catalyst in the further transformation of barbarian Europe. Like the Huns, the Avars swiftly built a powerful military coalition in central Europe, one of whose main effects was to siphon off still larger amounts of Mediterranean-generated wealth into now largely Slavic-dominated central Europe. This, of course, further stimulated the competition for control of that wealth, which had already been producing a new kind of military kingship in the Slavic world even before the Avars appeared. Equally important, and just like the Huns, the Avars lacked the governmental capacity to rule their large number of subject groups directly, operating instead through a series of intermediate leaders drawn in part from those subject groups. We lack much in the way of detailed information, but there is every reason to suppose that this would have had the political effect of cementing the social power of chosen subordinates, further pushing at least their Slavic subjects in the direction of political consolidation. The third major effect of the Avars was both to prompt and to enable a wider Slavic diaspora, as some Slavic groups moved further afield to escape the burden of Avar domination. Large-scale Slavic settlement in the former east Roman Balkans – as opposed to mere raiding – only became possible when the Avar Empire (in combination with the Persian and then Arab conquests) destroyed Constantinople’s military superiority in the region. But at least some of these Slavs were as much negatively motivated by a desire to escape Avar domination as they were by a positive desire to move on to Roman territory. Elsewhere we lack historical narratives, but the same desire to escape Avar domination surely played a substantial role in the widespread further dispersals of Slavic groups from c.550 onwards: westwards towards the Elbe, northwards to the Baltic, and even eastwards into the heart of Russia and Ukraine. It remains unclear to what extent this eastern expansion represented the first intrusion of Slavic-speakers into western Russia, or whether we are really looking at the expansion of particular groups of Slavic-speakers who had been made more politically organized and militarily potent through their interactions with the East Romans and Avars, and were thus able to assert their dominance over fellow Slavic-speakers who had not participated in the same process.

Either way, the process of Slavicization – the establishment of the dominance of Slavic-speaking groups across vast areas of central and eastern Europe – again combined processes of migration and development in intimate embrace. Interaction with the Roman Empire’s more developed economy generated new wealth flows which prompted political consolidation and militarization among at least some Slavs. But the groups who benefited from this new wealth were only able to do so because they had already physically moved into a tighter Roman orbit after the collapse of the Hunnic Empire, presumably in order to make precisely these kinds of gain. The sociopolitical revolution they experienced as a consequence then pre-prepared them, especially under the extra stimulus provided by the Avars, to spread their domination by further migration across broad swathes of central and eastern Europe. Some of this certainly involved the absorption of the clearly numerous indigenous populations that had survived the processes of Germanic collapse. Some of that absorption will have been peaceful, as some east Roman sources suggest, but at the same time many Slavic groups were becoming increasingly militarized, and the results of Slavicization were strikingly monolithic.

The Birth of Europe

East Roman wealth and Avar interference marked only the beginning of a much broader development process, which unfolded right across the vast area of Slavic-dominated Europe in the second half of the millennium. By the tenth century, this had produced the first state-like dynastic structures that much of northern and eastern Europe had ever seen.

Much bigger in geographical scale than the Germanic client states that emerged on the fringes of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, they were also capable of greater acts of power. They built more and bigger buildings, supported larger, better-equipped, and more professional armies, and quickly adopted some of the cultural norms of more developed, imperial Europe: above all the Christian religion.

Everything suggests that the transformative mechanisms that produced these new entities were similar in nature to those that had generated the larger Germanic client states of the fourth-century Roman periphery. In both cases, a whole range of new contacts – via trading, raiding, and diplomacy – led to unprecedented flows of wealth into the non-imperial societies. The internal struggle to control these flows of wealth then led to both militarization and the emergence of pre-eminent dynasts, who eventually used their domination of this wealth to generate permanent military machines that could institutionalize their authority by destroying and/or intimidating pre-existing, more local authority structures. As a result, potential rivals were steadily eliminated and power was increasingly centralized.

The other obvious explanation for the faster development of Slavic Europe is the impact of the new military technologies of the last two centuries of the millennium – notably armored knights and castles – which made it much easier for those dynasts who could establish control over the new wealth flows to intimidate potential opponents. For even if the new states all encompassed less intensively governed peripheries, the power that they could exercise in dynastic core territories is (horribly) impressive. The brutal power inherent in the destruction of old tribal strongholds and their replacement with new dynastic ones – in both Bohemia and Poland – emerges strikingly from the dramatic archaeological evidence that has become available in recent years

For the purposes of this study, however, the processes of development are more immediately important for the role they played in bringing to an end the kind of conditions that had generated the large-scale often predatory forms of migration, whether in the concentrated pulse form of the Völkerwanderungen or the more usual flows of increasing momentum, which had been a periodic feature of first-millennium Europe. Inequalities of development across the European landmass had not completely disappeared, but they had been greatly reduced. Essentially, the new trade networks, combined with more general agricultural expansion (the latter still very much a work in progress), meant that politically organized power structures in central and eastern Europe were now able to access wealth in large quantities in their existing locations. Agricultural and broader economic development also meant that they were busy entrenching themselves in some entirely new ways in some specific geographical zones of operation, at least in their core territories.

Migration was never an easy or universally prevalent option in first-millennium Europe, but rather a strategy that was sometimes adopted when the gains were worth the stress of mounting expeditions into only partly known territory with no absolute guarantees of success. Once social elites could access wealth without the extra insecurity of relocation, they became much less likely to resort to that strategy. And, of course, the less they did so in practice, the less they were ever likely to, as previously ingrained migration habits unwound both among themselves, and among the broader population under their control as more intense patterns of arable farming were generating more permanent patterns of cultivation. Overall, both elites and broader populations within barbarian Europe were becoming much more firmly rooted in particular localities, and, as a result, were much less likely to respond by migration even when faced with powerful stimuli that might in other circumstances have led them to shift location.

Where many Goths and other Germani (though certainly not all) responded to the Hunnic menace, and the Slavs to its Avar counterpart, by seeking new homes elsewhere, the arrival of the nomadic Magyars on the Great Hungarian Plain engendered no known secondary migration. The actions, nature and eventual fate of the Moravian state encapsulate the difference. Rather than run away, the Moravians stood and fought the Magyars, just like the armies of Frankish imperial Europe. They lost, but the fact that the Moravians stayed put reflects the deeper roots they had sunk in their own particular locality, and the fundamentally different nature of political power in barbarian Europe as it had developed by the end of the first millennium. Earlier, the prevailing limitations of agricultural technique in barbarian Europe generated a broad local mobility, and large disparities in levels of wealth and development had encouraged the more adventurous periodically to attempt to take over some more attractive corner of the landscape, closer, usually, to imperial sources of wealth. The Moravians, by contrast, built castles and churches in stone, on the back of wealth generated by more intense agricultural regimes and wider exchange networks. With so much invested where they stood, it was not going to be easy to shift their center of operations. The same was true of the other new dynasties of the late first millennium too. All were much more firmly fixed in particular localities than their earlier counterparts, both because of developing agricultural technique and because trade networks made other types of wealth available well beyond the imperial borderlands. In overall terms, processes of development had both eliminated the massive inequalities that had previously made long-distance, large-group migration a reasonably common option for Europe’s barbarians, and rooted central and east European populations more deeply in particular landscapes.

This is what really spelled the end of migration. Some human beings are always on the move in search of greater prosperity or better conditions of life, and European history from the 10th century onwards is still marked by migration on a periodically massive scale. From late in the first millennium onwards, however, medieval migration generally took one of two characteristic forms. On the one hand, we see knight-based elite transfers. The Norman Conquest is a particularly large-scale and successful example of this phenomenon. Much more usual were bands of one or two hundred well-armed men looking to establish small principalities for themselves by ousting sitting elites and/or establishing their rights to draw economic support from a dependent labor force.  The productive rootedness of peasantry and the empowering effect of new military technologies were key factors in dictating the characteristics of this particular migratory form. Castles and armor allowed them to establish a form of local domination based on quite small numbers of men that was extremely hard to shift.

The other common form of migration was the deliberate recruitment of peasantry to work the land, with lords offering attractive tenurial terms to provide the incentive, and employing agents to run recruiting campaigns. Again, new patterns of development were of crucial importance here, since the extra agricultural productivity of the new arable farming technologies being put into practice in the late first millennium made it highly desirable for the masters of the landscape to secure sufficient labor to maximize agricultural outputs.

Though they had come a long way, the new Slavic states still lagged behind western and southern Europe in levels of economic development. They therefore figured among the chief customers for the new peasant labor being mobilized from more developed parts of Europe where higher population levels reduced opportunities for ambitious peasants to get more land on better terms. As a result, hundreds of thousands of peasants from west-central Europe would be attracted eastwards by the offer of land on much better terms than could be secured at home, and the Slavicization of much of old Germanic Europe that had occurred in the early Middle Ages was partly reversed by an influx of Germanic-speaking peasants.

The prevalence of these different forms in a later era, however, is no objection to the broader argument of this book, that larger-scale, socially more broadly based predatory forms of migration than knight-based expansion had played a hugely important role in the making of Europe in the first millennium. The later migratory forms were entirely appropriate to the economic and political conditions prevailing across the Europe of the central Middle Ages.

Note: The Barbarian Europe of this book is the non-Roman, non-imperial world of the east and north and the word barbarian is not being used in a moral sense, since certainly the Romans would be considered barbarians for feeding people to animals for entertainment.


This entry was posted in Collapse of Civilizations, Roman Empire, Supply Chains and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.