Book Review: The Fall of the Roman Empire: A new history of Rome and the barbarians

PrefaceMost historians see the fall of the Roman Empire as due to the invasion of barbarians from the North, partly pushed towards Italy by the brutal Huns.  These lands had never been conquered by Roman armies because they were too poor, too forested, produced too little food or other goods, and more costly to invade and occupy than any tribute or taxes that could be paid.  While the Romans were preoccupied with Persia as a threat, the barbarians to the north in Germania and Gaul were progressing rapidly in iron making, agriculture, and their population was exploding.

The Army: With no courts of human rights to worry about, instructors were at liberty to beat the disobedient – to death if necessary. And if a whole cohort disobeyed orders, the punishment was decimation: every tenth man flogged to death in front of his comrades.

Because I worked for a shipping / rail / trucking company for so long, I’m fascinated by logistics, especially since we are headed back to civilizations of old when wood was the main energy and infrastructure source, as in the Roman Empire:  Logistics made it likely that Rome’s European frontiers would end up on river lines somewhere. Rivers made supplying the many troops stationed on the frontier far easier. An early imperial Roman legion of about 5,000 men required about 7,500 kilos of grain and 450 kilos of fodder per day, or 225 and 13.5 tonnes, respectively, per month.  

In light of the deplorables and xenophobia today: Killing barbarians still went down extremely well with the average Roman audience. Roman amphitheaters saw many different acts of violence, of course, from gladiatorial combat to highly inventive forms of judicial execution. A staggering 200,000 people, it has been calculated, met a violent death in the Colosseum alone, and there were similar, smaller, arenas in every major city of the Empire. Watching barbarians die was a standard part of the fun. In 306, to celebrate his pacification of the Rhine frontier, the emperor Constantine had two captured Germanic Frankish kings, Ascaricus and Merogaisus, fed to wild beasts in the arena at Trier.

Barbarians thus provided the crucial ‘other’ in the Roman self-image: the inferior society whose failings underlined and legitimized the superiorities of the dominant imperial power. Indeed, the Roman state saw itself not as just marginally better than those beyond its frontiers – but massively and absolutely superior, because its social order was divinely ordained. This ideology not only made upper-class Romans feel good about themselves, but was part and parcel of the functioning of Empire. In the fourth century, regular references to the barbarian menace made its population broadly willing to pay their taxes, despite the particular increases necessitated by the third-century crisis.

Heather maintains that corruption was not a reason for the Collapse: Ever since Gibbon, the corruption of public life has been part of the story of Roman imperial collapse.  But whether any of this played a substantial role in the collapse of the western Empire is much more doubtful.

Uncomfortable as the idea might be, power has, throughout history, had a long and distinguished association with money making: in states both big and small, both seemingly healthy and on their last legs. In most past societies and many present ones, the link between power and profit was not even remotely problematic, profit for oneself and one’s friends being seen as the whole, and perfectly legitimate, point of making the effort to get power in the first place.  The whole system of appointments to bureaucratic office within the Empire worked on personal recommendation. Since there were no competitive examinations, patronage and connection played a critical role. Nepotism was systemic, office was generally accepted as an opportunity for feathering one’s nest, and a moderate degree of peculation more or less expected.

And this was nothing new. The early Roman Empire, even during its vigorous conquest period, was as much marked as were later eras by officials (friends of higher officials) misusing – or perhaps one should just say ‘using’ – power to profit themselves and their associates.  Great magnates of public life had always been preoccupied with self-advancement, and the early Empire had been no different. Much of what we might term ‘corruption’ in the Roman system merely reflects the normal relationship between power and profit.

It is important to be realistic about the way human beings use political power, and not to attach too much importance to particular instances of corruption. Since the power-profit factor had not impeded the rise of the Empire in the first place, there is no reason to suppose that it contributed fundamentally to its collapse.

LOCALIZATION. The electric grid will go down someday since it depends on fossil fuels (especially for natural gas as storage), so it is interesting to see how that will affect communications in the U.S. postcarbon and reverting to far fewer government services:

The problem was twofold: not only the slowness of ancient communications, but also the minimal number of lines of contact. We know that in emergencies, galloping messengers, with many changes of horse, might manage as much as 155 miles (250 km) a day. But Theophanes’ average on that journey of 3.5 weeks was the norm: in other words, about 25 miles (40 km), the speed of the oxcart. This was true of military as well as civilian operations, since all the army’s heavy equipment and baggage moved by this means too.

Running the Roman Empire with the communications then available was akin to running, in the modern day, an entity somewhere between five and ten times the size of the European Union. With places this far apart, and this far away from his capital, it is hardly surprising that an emperor would have few lines of contact with most of the localities that made up his Empire.

Primitive communication links combined with an absence of sophisticated means of processing information explain the bureaucratic limitations within which Roman emperors of all eras had to make and enforce executive decisions.

The main consequence of all this was that the state was unable to interfere systematically in the day-to-day running of its constituent communities. Not surprisingly, the range of business handled by Roman government was only a fraction of that of a modern state. Even if there had been ideologies to encourage it, Roman government lacked the bureaucratic capacity to handle broad-reaching social agendas, such as a health service or a social security budget. Proactive governmental involvement was necessarily restricted to a much narrower range of operation: maintaining an effective army, and running the tax system. And, even in the matter of taxation, the state bureaucracy’s role was limited to allocating overall sums to the cities of the Empire and monitoring the transfer of monies. The difficult work – the allocation of individual tax bills and the actual collection of money – was handled at the local level. Even here, so long as the agreed tax-take flowed out of the cities and into the central coffers, local communities were left autonomous, largely self-governing communities. Keep Roman central government happy, and life could often be lived as the locals wanted.

Landowning was always the way to be wealthy in the past, and it will soon be again. 

About half of what follows has to do with the eventual invasion of the Barbarians and fall of the Roman Empire, a great story, though only partly shown below, get the book for the greater amount of history left out.

Heather, Peter. 2005. The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians. Oxford University Press.

The Fall

In 357, 12,000 of the emperor Julian’s Romans routed an army of 30,000 Alamanni at the battle of Strasbourg. But within a generation, the Roman order was shaken to its core and Roman armies, as one contemporary put it, ‘vanished like shadows’.

In 376, a large band of Gothic refugees arrived at the Empire’s Danube frontier, asking for asylum. In a complete break with established Roman policy, they were allowed in, unsubdued. They revolted, and within two years had defeated and killed the emperor Valens – the one who had received them – along with two-thirds of his army, at the battle of Hadrianople.

On 4 September 476, 100 years after the Goths crossed the Danube, the last Roman emperor in the west, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed, and it was the descendants of those Gothic refugees who provided the military core of one of the main successor states to the Empire: the Visigothic kingdom. This kingdom of south-western France and Spain was only one of several, all based on the military power of immigrant outsiders, that emerges from the ruins of Roman Europe.

The fall of Rome, and with it the western half of the Empire, constitutes one of the formative revolutions of European history.

The Roman Army

If the roots of Roman imperial power lay firmly in the military might of its legions, the cornerstone of their astonishing fighting spirit can be attributed to their training. As with all elite military formations – ancient and modern – discipline was ferocious. With no courts of human rights to worry about, instructors were at liberty to beat the disobedient – to death if necessary. And if a whole cohort disobeyed orders, the punishment was decimation: every tenth man flogged to death in front of his comrades.

But you can never base morale on fear exclusively, and group cohesion was also generated by more positive methods. Recruits trained together, fought together and played together in groups of eight and shared a tent. And they were taken young: all armies prefer young men with plenty of testosterone. Legionaries were also denied regular sexual contact: wives and children might make them think twice about the risks of battle. Basic training was grueling. You had to learn to march 36 kilometers in five hours, weighed down with 25 kilos or more of armor and equipment. All the time you were being told how special you were, how special your friends were, what an elite force you belonged to.

The result of all this was groups of super-fit young men, partly brutalized and therefore brutal themselves, closely bonded with one another though denied other strong emotional ties, and taking a triumphant pride in the unit to which they belonged. This was symbolized in the religious oaths sworn to the unit standards, the legendary eagles. On successful graduation, the legionary vowed on his life and honor to follow the eagles and never desert them, even in death. Such was the determination not to let the standards fall into enemy hands that one of Cotta’s standard bearers, Lucius Petrosidius, hurled his eagle over the rampart at Tongres as he himself was struck down, rather than let it be captured. The honor of the unit, and the bond with fellow soldiers, became the most important element in a legionary’s life, sustaining a fighting spirit and willingness to obey orders which few opponents could match. To this psychological and physical conditioning, Roman training added first-rate practical skills. Roman legionaries were well armed by the standards of the day, but possessed no secret weapons. Much of their equipment was copied from their neighbors: the legionary’s distinctive and massive shield – the scutum – for instance, from the Celts. But they were carefully trained to make the best use of it. Individually, they were taught to despise wild swinging blows with the sword.

These were to be parried with the shield, and the legionary’s characteristic short sword – the gladius – brought up in a short stabbing motion into the side of an opponent exposed by his own swing. Legionaries were also equipped with defensive armor, and this, plus the weapons training, gave them a huge advantage in hand-to-hand combat. Throughout Caesar’s wars in Gaul, therefore, his troops were able to defeat much larger opposition forces;

A Roman legion also had other skills. Learning to build, and build quickly, was a standard element of training: roads, fortified camps and siege engines were but a few of the tasks undertaken. On one occasion, Caesar put a pontoon bridge across the Rhine in just ten days, and quite small contingents of Roman troops regularly controlled large territories from their own defensive ramparts.


Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul belong to a relatively late phase in Rome’s rise to imperial domination. It had started life as one city-state among many, struggling first for survival and then for local hegemony in central and southern Italy. The city’s origins are shrouded in myth, as are the details of many of its early local wars. Something is known of these struggles from the late sixth century BC, however, and they continued periodically down to the early third century, when Rome’s dominance over its home sphere was established by the capitulation of the Etruscans in 283, and the defeat of the Greek city-states of southern Italy in 275. As winner of its local qualifiers, Rome graduated to regional matches against Carthage, the other major power of the western Mediterranean. The first of the so-called Punic wars lasted from 264 to 241 BC, and ended with the Romans turning Sicily into their first province. It took two further wars, spanning 218–202 and 149–146, for Carthaginian power finally to be crushed, but victory left Rome unchallenged in the western Mediterranean, and added North Africa and Spain to its existing power-base. At the same time, Roman power also began to spread more widely. Macedonia was conquered in 167 BC and direct rule over Greece was established from the 140s. This presaged the assertion of Roman hegemony over all the rich hinterlands of the eastern Mediterranean.

By about 100 BC, Cilicia, Phrygia, Lydia, Caria and many of the other provinces of Asia Minor were in Roman hands. Others quickly followed. The circle of Mediterranean domination was completed by Pompey’s annexation of Seleucid Syria in 64 BC, and Octavian’s of Egypt in 30 BC The Mediterranean and its coastlands were always the main focus of Rome’s imperial ambitions, but to secure them, it soon proved necessary to move the legions north of the Alps into non-Mediterranean Europe.

The assertion of Roman dominion over the Celts of northern Italy was followed in short order by the creation in the 120s BC of the province of Gallia Narbonensis, essentially Mediterranean France. This new territory was required to defend northern Italy, since mountain ranges – even high ones – do not by themselves a frontier make, as Hannibal had proved. In the late republican and early imperial periods, roughly the 50 years either side of the birth of Christ, the Empire also continued to grow because of the desire of individual leaders for self-glorification. By this date, conquest overseas had become a recognized route to power in Rome, so that conquests continued into areas that were neither so profitable, nor strategically vital.

Thanks to Julius Caesar, all of Gaul fell under Roman sway between 58 and 50 BC. Further conquests followed under his nephew and adopted successor Octavian, better known as Augustus, the first of the Roman emperors. By 15 BC, the legionaries’ hob-nailed sandals were moving into the Upper and Middle Danube regions – roughly modern Bavaria, Austria and Hungary. Some of these lands had long belonged to Roman client kings, but now they were turned into provinces and brought under direct control.

By 9 BC all the territory as far as the River Danube had been annexed, and an arc of territory around the Alpine passes into Italy added to the Empire. For the next thirty years or so, its north European boundary moved back and forth towards the River Elbe, before the difficulty of conquering the forests of Germany led to the abandonment of ambitions east of the Rhine. In AD 43, under Claudius, the conquest of Britain was begun, and the old Thracian kingdom (the territory of modern Bulgaria and beyond) was formally incorporated into the Empire as a province some three years later. The northern frontiers finally came to rest on the lines of two great rivers – the Rhine and the Danube – and there they broadly remained for the rest of the Empire’s history.

Rome ran this territory in pretty much its entirety for a staggering 450 years, from the age of Augustus to the fifth century AD.  The sheer extent of this success that has always made the study of its collapse so compelling.

Why the Roman Empire collapsed

For Edward Gibbon, famously, the Christianization of the Empire was a crucial moment, its pacifist ideologies sapping the fighting spirit of the Roman army and its theology spreading a superstition which undermined the rationality of classical culture.

In the 20th century, there was a stronger tendency to concentrate on economic factors: A. H. M. Jones, argued that the burden of taxation became so heavy in the fourth-century Empire that peasants were left with too little of their produce to ensure their families’ survival

Feeding Rome

Rome numbered perhaps a million in the fourth century, whereas no more than a handful of other cities had more than 100,000 inhabitants, and most had under 10,000. Feeding this population was a constant headache, especially as large numbers still qualified for free daily donations of bread, olive oil and wine assigned to the city as the perquisites of conquest. The most striking reflection of the resulting supply problem is the still stunning remains of Rome’s two port cities: Ostia and Tibur. One lot of docks was not enough to generate a sufficient through-put of food, so they built a second. The huge UNESCO-sponsored excavations at Carthage, capital of Roman North Africa, have illuminated the problem from the other end, unearthing the massive harbor installations constructed there for loading the ships with the grain destined to supply the heart of the Empire.

The increasing power of Roman Emperors

The fourth-century Senate numbered few, if any, direct descendants of these old families. There was a simple reason for this. Monogamous marriage tends to produce a male heir for no more than three generations at a time. In natural circumstances, about 20% of monogamous relationships will produce no children at all, and another 20% all girls.

The imperial title was a novelty when it was claimed and defined by Caesar’s nephew Octavian under the name Augustus. Since then the office had been transformed out of all recognition. For one thing, all pretense of republicanism had vanished. Augustus had worked hard at pretending that the power structures he had created around himself did not represent the overthrow of the old Republic, and that, in a mixed constitution, the Senate continued to have important functions. But even in his lifetime the veneer had looked pretty thin, and by the fourth century no one thought of the emperor as anything other than an autocratic monarch.

Ideologies argued that legitimate rulers were divinely inspired and divinely chosen. The first among equals became a sacred ruler, communing with the Divinity, and ordinary human beings had to act with due deference. By the fourth century, standard protocols included proskynesis – throwing yourself down on the ground when introduced into the sacred imperial presence – and, for the privileged few, being allowed to kiss the hem of the emperor’s robe. And emperors, of course, were expected to play their part in the drama.  For example, Emperor Constantius II in 357:  ‘As if his neck were in a vice, he kept the gaze of his eyes straight ahead, and turned his face neither to the right nor left, nor . . . did he nod when the wheel jolted, nor was he ever seen to spit, or to wipe or rub his face or nose, or move his hands about.’ Thus, when the occasion demanded it – and on the big days, as was only fitting in a divinely chosen ruler – Constantius could behave in superhuman fashion, showing no signs whatsoever of normal human frailty.

Nor did fourth-century emperors merely look more powerful than their first-century counterparts. From Augustus onwards, emperors had enjoyed enormous authority, but the job description widened still further over the centuries.

Law-making. Up to the middle of the third century, the Roman legal system developed via a variety of channels. The Senate could make laws, and so could the emperor. However, the group primarily responsible for legal innovation had been specialist academic lawyers called jurisconsults. These were licensed by the emperor to deal with questions of interpretation, and with new issues to which they applied established legal principles. From the first to the mid-third century Roman law had developed primarily on the back of their learned opinions. By the fourth, though, the jurisconsults had been eclipsed by the emperor; doubtful legal matters were now referred to him. As a result, the emperor completely dominated the process of law-making. A similar story could be told in a number of other areas, not least in the fiscal structure, where by the fourth century the emperor’s officials played a much more direct role in the taxing of the Empire than they had in the first. Emperors had always had the potential authority to expand their range of function. By the fourth century much of that potential had become reality, in both ceremonial presentation and function.

Equally fundamental, it was now well-established custom for the office to be divided – for more than one emperor to rule at the same time. In the fourth century, this never quite formalized into a system of distinct eastern and western halves of Empire, each with its own ruler, and there were times when one man did try to rule the entire Empire on his own. The emperor Constantius II (337–61) ruled alone for part of his reign, his immediate successors Julian and Jovian did so again during 361–4, and Theodosius I once more in the early 390s. But none of these experiments in sole rule lasted very long, and for most of the fourth century the job of governing the Empire was split. Power-sharing was organized in a variety of ways. Some emperors used younger relations – sons if they had them, nephews if they didn’t – as junior but nonetheless imperial colleagues with their own courts.  For much of the fourth century there were two emperors, one usually based in the west and the other in the east, and by the fifth this had crystallized more or less into a formal system.

By the fourth century, emperors hardly visited Rome at all. While the city remained the Empire’s symbolic capital, and still received a disproportionate percentage of imperial revenues in the form of free food and other subsidies, it was no longer a political or administrative center of importance.

Within Italy, Milan, several days’ journey north of Rome, had emerged as the main seat of active imperial government. Elsewhere, at different times, Trier on the Moselle, Sirmium by the confluence of the Save and the Danube, Nicomedia in Asia Minor, and Antioch close to the Persian front, had all become important, particularly under Diocletian’s Tetrarchy when the four active emperors had had separate geographical spheres. In the fourth century, things stabilized a little: Milan and Trier in the west, together with Antioch and a new capital, Constantinople, in the east, emerged as the dominant administrative and political centers of the Empire.

One reason for emperors abandoning their original home was administrative necessity. The pressing external threats that commanded their attention were to be found east of the River Rhine, north of the River Danube, and on the Persian front between the Tigris and the Euphrates. This meant that the strategic axis of the Empire ran on a rough diagonal from the North Sea along the Rhine and Danube as far as the Iron Gates where the Danube is crossed by the Carpathian Mountains, then overland across the Balkans and Asia Minor to the city of Antioch, from which point the eastern front could be supervised. All the fourth-century capitals were situated on or close to this line of power. Rome was just too far away from it to function effectively; information flowed in too slowly, and commands sent out took too long to take effect.

In Caesar’s time, all of this wealth had been redistributed within the confines of the city of Rome in order to win friends and influence people in that crucial arena. But to follow such a strategy in the fourth century would have been political suicide. Four hundred years on from the Ides of March, patronage had to be distributed much more widely.  Rather than in the Roman Senate, the critical political audience of the fourth-century Empire was to be found in two other quarters. One of these was a long-standing player of the game of imperial politics: the army, or, rather, its officer corps.

Distributing the wealth of Empire to the Military and Bureaucracy

By the fourth century, the key figures in the military hierarchy were the senior general officers and staffs of mobile regional field armies. Broadly speaking, there was always one important mobile force covering each of the three key frontiers: one in the west (grouped on the Rhine frontier and – often – in northern Italy as well), another in the Balkans covering the Danube, and a third in northern Mesopotamia covering the east.

The other key political force in the late Empire was the imperial bureaucracy (often called palatini: from palatium, Latin for ‘palace’). Although bureaucrats did not possess the military clout available to a senior general, they controlled both finance and the processes of law-making and enforcement, and no imperial regime could function without their active participation.

What was new in the late Empire was the size of the central bureaucratic machine. As late as AD 249 there were still only 250 senior bureaucratic functionaries in the entire Empire. By the year 400, just 150 years later, there were 6,000. Most operated at the major imperial headquarters from which the key frontiers were supervised: not in Rome, therefore, but, depending on the emperor, at Trier and/or Milan for the Rhine, Sirmium or increasingly Constantinople for the Danube, and Antioch for the east. It was no longer the Senate of Rome, but the comitatensian commanders, concentrated on key frontiers, and the senior bureaucrats, gathered in the capitals from which these frontiers were administered, who settled the political fate of the Empire.

A potent combination of logistics and politics had thus worked a fundamental change in the geography of power. Because of this, armies, emperors and bureaucrats had all emigrated out of Italy. This process also explains why, more than ever before, more than one emperor was needed. Administratively, Antioch or Constantinople was too far from the Rhine, and Trier or Milan too far from the east, for one emperor to exercise effective control over all three key frontiers. Politically, too, one center of patronage distribution was not sufficient to keep all the senior army officers and bureaucrats happy enough to prevent usurpations. Each of the three major army groups required a fair share of the spoils, paid to them in gold in relatively small annual amounts, and much larger ones on major imperial anniversaries

The imperial bureaucracy had emerged as the new Roman aristocracy, replacing the demilitarized and marginalized Senate of Rome.

The Roman world in Caesar’s day had been physically just as large, but there had been no need for two emperors or for such a wide distribution of patronage to prevent usurpation and revolt. What, then, had changed between 50 BC and AD 369?

The transformation of life in the conquered provinces thus led provincials everywhere to remake their lives after Roman patterns and value systems. Within a century or two of conquest, the whole of the Empire had become properly Roman.

By the late Empire, the Romans of Roman Britain were not immigrants from Italy but locals who had adopted the Roman lifestyle and everything that came with it. A bunch of legionaries departing the island would not bring Roman life to an end. Britain, as everywhere else between Hadrian’s Wall and the Euphrates, was no longer Roman merely by ‘occupation’.

These astonishing developments changed what it meant to be Roman. Once the same political culture, lifestyle and value system had established themselves more or less evenly from Hadrian’s Wall to the Euphrates, then all inhabitants of this huge area were legitimately Roman. ‘Roman’, no longer a geographic epithet, was now an entirely cultural identity accessible, potentially, to all. From this followed the most significant consequence of imperial success: having acquired Romanness, the new Romans were bound to assert their right to participate in the political process, to some share in the power and benefits that a stake in such a vast state brought with it. As early as AD 69 there was a major revolt in Gaul, partly motivated by this rising sense of a new identity. The revolt was defeated, but by the fourth century the balance of power had changed. Symmachus, in Trier, was shown in no uncertain terms that ‘the better part of humankind’ comprised not just the Senate of Rome, but civilized Romans throughout the Roman world.

Germania east of the Rhine was not swallowed up by Rome’s legions in the conquest period because its inhabitants fought tooth and nail against them, and eventually had their full revenge more than four centuries later in the destruction of the Empire.

Barbarians in Germany

Germanic-speaking groups dominated most of central and northern Europe beyond Rome’s riverine frontiers in the first century AD.

Trying to reconstruct the way of life and social institutions, not to mention the political and ideological structures of this vast territory, is a hugely difficult task. The main problem is that the societies of Germanic Europe, in the Roman period, were essentially illiterate. There is a fair amount of information of various kinds to be gleaned from Greek and Latin authors, but this has two major drawbacks. First, Roman writers were chiefly interested in Germanic societies for the threat – potential or actual – that they might pose to frontier security. What you find for the most part, therefore, are isolated pieces of narrative information concerning relations between the Empire and one or more of its immediate Germanic neighbors. Groups living away from the frontier hardly ever figure, and the inner workings of Germanic society are never explored. Second, what information exists is deeply colored by the fact that, to Roman eyes, all Germani were barbarians. Barbarians were expected to behave in certain ways and embody a particular range of negative characteristics, and Roman commentators went out of their way to prove that this was so. Little survives from inside the Germanic world to correct the misapprehensions, omissions and slanted perspectives of our Roman authors.

If you had asked any fourth-century Roman where the main threat to imperial security lay, he would undoubtedly have said with Persia in the east. This was only sensible, because in about AD 300 Persia posed an incomparably greater threat to Roman order than did Germania, and no other frontier offered any real threat whatsoever.  To some extent, the lack of first-hand contemporary Germanic sources has been filled by archaeological investigation.

It could hardly be clearer that 19th-century visions of an ancient German nation were way off-target. Temporary alliances and unusually powerful kings might for a time knit together a couple or more of its many small tribes, but the inhabitants of first-century Germania had no capacity to formulate and put into practice sustained and unifying political agendas. Why did Roman expansion fail to swallow this highly fragmented world whole, as it had done Celtic Europe?

River transport of supplies to armies determined the Empires borders

Logistics made it likely enough that Rome’s European frontiers would end up on river lines somewhere. Rivers made supplying the many troops stationed on the frontier a much more practical proposition. An early imperial Roman legion of about 5,000 men required about 7,500 kilos of grain and 450 kilos of fodder per day, or 225 and 13.5 tonnes, respectively, per month. Most Roman troops at this date were placed on or close to the frontier, and conditions in most border regions, before economic development had set in, meant that it was impossible to satisfy their needs from purely local sources. Halting the western frontier at the Rhine, rather than on any of the other north-south rivers of western or central Europe – of which there are many, notably the Elbe – had another advantage too. Using the Rhône and (via a brief portage) the Moselle, supplies could be moved by water directly from the Mediterranean to the Rhine without having to brave wilder waters.

The real reason why the Rhine eventually emerged as the frontier lay in the interaction of the motives underlying Roman expansion and comparative levels of social and economic development within pre-Roman Europe. Roman expansion was driven by the internal power struggles of republican oligarchs such as Julius Caesar and by early emperors’ desires for glory.

Barbarian territory not worth fighting for, too little wealth

Expansion as the route to political power at Rome had built up momentum at a point when there were still numerous unconquered wealthy communities around the Mediterranean waiting to be picked off. Once annexed, they became a new source of tribute flowing into Rome, as well as making the name of the general who had organized their conquest. Over time, however, the richest prizes were scooped up until, in the early imperial era, expansion was sucking in territories that did not really produce sufficient income to justify the costs of conquest. Britain in particular, the ancient sources stress, was taken only because the emperor Claudius wanted the glory. With this in mind, the limits of Rome’s northern expansion take on a particular significance when charted against levels of economic development in non-Roman Europe.

Expansion eventually ground to a halt in an intermediate zone between two major material cultures: the so-called La Tène and Jastorf cultures.  As well as villages, La Tène Europe had also generated, before the Roman conquest, much larger settlements, sometimes identified as towns (in Latin, oppida – hence its other common name, ‘the Oppida culture’). In some La Tène areas coins were in use, and some of its populations were literate. Caesar’s Gallic War describes the complex political and religious institutions that prevailed among at least some of the La Tène groups he conquered, particularly the Aedui of south-western Gaul. All of this rested upon an economy that could produce sufficient food surpluses to support warrior, priestly and artisan classes not engaged in primary agricultural production.

Jastorf Europe, by contrast, operated at a much starker level of subsistence, with a greater emphasis on pastoral agriculture and much less of a food surplus. Its population had no coinage or literacy, and, by the birth of Christ, had produced no substantial settlements – not even villages. Also, its remains have produced almost no evidence for any kind of specialized economic activity.  The Roman advance ground to a halt not on an ethnic divide, therefore, but around a major fault-line in European socio-economic organization. What happened was that most of more advanced La Tène Europe was taken into the Empire, while most of Jastorf Europe was excluded.

This fits a much broader pattern. As has also been observed in the case of China, there is a general tendency for the frontiers of an empire based on arable agriculture to stabilize in an intermediate, part-arable part-pastoral zone, where the productive capacity of the local economy is not by itself sufficient to support the empire’s armies.

Expansionary ideologies and individual rulers’ desires for glory will carry those armies some way beyond the gain line; but, eventually, the difficulties involved in incorporating the next patch of territory, combined with the relative lack of wealth that can be extracted from it, make further conquest unattractive. A two-speed Europe is not a new phenomenon, and the Romans drew the logical conclusion. Augustus’ successor Tiberius saw that Germania just wasn’t worth conquering. The more widely dispersed populations of these still heavily forested corners of Europe could be defeated in individual engagements, but the Jastorf regions proved much more difficult to dominate strategically than the concentrated and ordered populations occupying the La Tène towns. It was the logistic convenience of the Rhine-Moselle axis and cost-benefit calculations concerning the limited economy of Jastorf Europe that combined to stop the legions in their tracks. Germania as a whole was also far too disunited politically to pose a major threat to the richer lands already conquered. It was not the military prowess of the Germani that kept them outside the Empire, but their poverty.

As the Res Gestae Divi Saporis makes clear, the rise to prominence of the Sasanian dynasty was not just a major episode in the internal history of modern Iraq and Iran. Defeat at the hands of a succession of Roman emperors in the second century was a fundamental reason behind the collapse of Arsacid hegemony, and the Sasanians were able rapidly and effectively to reverse the prevailing balance of power. Ardashir I began the process. Invading Roman Mesopotamia for the first time between 237 and 240, he captured the major cities of Carrhae, Nisibis and Hatra (map 3). Rome responded to the challenge by launching three major counterattacks during the first twenty years of the reign of Ardashir’s son Shapur I (reigned 240–72). The results were as Shapur’s inscription records. Three huge defeats were inflicted on the Romans, two emperors were dead, and a third, Valerian, captured.

The rise of a Persian superpower next door

The rise of the Sasanians destroyed what was by then more or less a century of Roman hegemony in the east. Rome’s overall strategic situation had suddenly and decisively deteriorated, for the Sasanian superpower, this new Persian dynasty, despite Rome’s best efforts in the middle of the third century, would not quickly disappear. The Sasanians marshalled the resources of Mesopotamia and the Iranian plateau much more efficiently than their Arsacid predecessors had done. Outlying principalities were welded more fully into a single political structure, while the labor of Roman prisoners was used for massive irrigation projects that would eventually generate a 50% rise in the settlement and cultivation of the lands between the Tigris and Euphrates.

The rise of a rival superpower was a huge strategic shock. It had reverberations not just for the eastern frontier regions but for the Empire as a whole. Not only did a much more powerful enemy have to be confronted on its eastern frontier, but the defense of all the other frontiers still had to be maintained. For this to be possible, a major increase in the power of the Roman military was necessary. By the fourth century, this had produced both larger and substantially reorganized armed forces.

The late third and early fourth centuries saw a major financial restructuring of the Empire. The largest item of expenditure had always been the army: even an increase in size of one-third, a conservative estimate, represented a huge increase in the total amount of revenue that needed to be raised by the Roman state.  Revenues weren’t enough to cover the entire cost of the new army, and in the late third century emperors also pursued two further strategies. First, they debased the coinage, reducing the silver content of the denarii with which the army was customarily paid.

Debasement and price-fixing were no long-term solution, since merchants just took their goods off the shelves and operated a black market instead.

In the longer term, the only remedy was to extract a greater proportion of the Empire’s wealth – its Gross Imperial Product – via taxation. This too was instigated in the depths of the third-century crisis, when, at particular moments of stress, emperors would raise extraordinary taxes, in the form of foodstuffs. This bypassed problems with the coinage, but, by the nature of its unpredictability, was very unpopular.  

The sudden appearance of a Persian superpower in the east in the third century thus generated a massive restructuring of the Roman Empire. The effects of the measures it took to counter the threat were not instant, but the restructuring eventually achieved the desired outcome. By the end of the third century, Rome had the strategic situation broadly under control: enough extra troops had been paid for to stabilize the eastern front.  

Confiscating city revenues and reforming general taxation were not easy matters. It took over 50 years from the first appearance of the aggressive Sasanian dynasty for Rome to put its financial house in order, and all this required a massive expansion of the central government machine to supervise the process. From AD 250 onwards there was a substantial increase in the number of higher-level imperial bureaucratic posts. Military and financial restructuring, therefore, had profound political consequences. The geographical shift of power away from Rome and Italy, already apparent in embryo in the second century, was greatly accelerated by the Empire’s response to the rise of Persia. And while multiple emperors co-reigning had not been unknown in the second century, in the third it was the political as well as administrative need for more than one emperor that cemented the phenomenon as a general feature of late Roman public life.

As a string of emperors was forced eastwards from the 230s onwards to deal with the Persians, this left the west, and particularly the Rhine frontier region, denuded of an official imperial presence. As a result, too many soldiers and officials dropped out of the loop of patronage distribution, generating severe and long-lasting political turmoil at the top. In what has sometimes been called the ‘military anarchy’, the fifty years following the murder of emperor Alexander Severus in AD 235 saw the reins of Roman power pass through the hands of no fewer than 20 legitimate emperors and a host of usurpers, between them each averaging no more than 2.5 years in office. Such a flurry of emperors is a telling indicator of an underlying structural problem. Whenever emperors concentrated, at this time, on just one part of the Empire, it generated enough disgruntled army commanders and bureaucrats elsewhere to inspire thoughts of usurpation.

At least 200,000 barbarians violently killed in the colosseum alone

Killing barbarians still went down extremely well with the average Roman audience. Roman amphitheaters saw many different acts of violence, of course, from gladiatorial combat to highly inventive forms of judicial execution. A staggering 200,000 people, it has been calculated, met a violent death in the Colosseum alone, and there were similar, smaller, arenas in every major city of the Empire. Watching barbarians die was a standard part of the fun. In 306, to celebrate his pacification of the Rhine frontier, the emperor Constantine had two captured Germanic Frankish kings, Ascaricus and Merogaisus, fed to wild beasts in the arena at Trier.

Barbarians thus provided the crucial ‘other’ in the Roman self-image: the inferior society whose failings underlined and legitimized the superiorities of the dominant imperial power. Indeed, the Roman state saw itself not as just marginally better than those beyond its frontiers – but massively and absolutely superior, because its social order was divinely ordained. This ideology not only made upper-class Romans feel good about themselves, but was part and parcel of the functioning of Empire. In the fourth century, regular references to the barbarian menace made its population broadly willing to pay their taxes, despite the particular increases necessitated by the third-century crisis.

Overall, then, Rome’s relations with its fourth-century European frontier clients didn’t fit entirely comfortably within the ideological boundaries set by the traditional image of the barbarian. The two parties now enjoyed reciprocal, if unequal, relations on every level. The client kingdoms traded with the Empire, provided manpower for its armies, and were regularly subject to both its diplomatic interference and its cultural influence. In return, each year they generally received aid; and, sometimes at least, were awarded a degree of respect. One striking feature is that treaties were regularly formalized according to norms of the client kingdom as well as those of the Roman state. The Germani had come a long way from the ‘other’ of Roman imaginations, even if the Empire’s political elite had to pretend to Roman taxpayers that they hadn’t.

Germanic Agriculture led to wealth and social revolution

In the last few centuries BC, an extensive (rather than intensive) type of arable agriculture had prevailed across Germanic Europe. It alternated short periods of cultivation with long periods of fallow, and required a relatively large area of land to support a given population. These early Iron Age peoples lacked techniques for maintaining the fertility of their arable fields for prolonged production, and could use them for only a few years before moving on. Ploughing generally took the form of narrow, criss-crossed scrapings, rather than the turning-over of a proper furrow so that weeds rot their nutrients back into the soil. Ash was the main fertilizer.  Then, early in the Roman period, western Germani developed entirely new techniques, using the manure from their animals together, probably, with a more sophisticated kind of two-crop rotation scheme, both to increase yields and to keep the soil producing beyond the short term.

For the first time in northern Europe, it thus became possible for human beings to live together in more or less permanent, clustered (or ‘nucleated’) settlements.   In what is now Poland, the territories of the Wielbark and Przeworsk cultures, Germanic settlements remained small, short-lived and highly dispersed in the first two centuries AD. By the fourth, however, the new techniques had taken firm hold. Settlements north of the Black Sea, in areas dominated by the Goths, could be very substantial; the largest, Budesty, covered an area of 35 hectares. Enough pieces of ploughing equipment have been found to show that populations under Gothic control were now using iron coulters and ploughshares to turn the earth properly, if not to a great depth. Recent work has shown that villages had emerged in Scandinavia too. More intensive arable agriculture was on the march, and pollen diagrams confirm that between the birth of Christ and the 5th century, cereal pollens, at the expense of grass and tree pollens, reached an unprecedented high across wide areas of what is now Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany. Large tracts of new land were being brought into cultivation and worked with greater intensity.

The main outcome was that the population of Germanic-dominated Europe increased massively over these Roman centuries. The basic constraint upon the size of any population is the availability of food. The Germanic agricultural revolution massively increased the amount available.  Iron production in Germania increased massively as well.

Economic expansion was accompanied by social revolution.  Only in the third century BC did richer burials (the grandest among them often referred to by their German term, Fürstengraber, princely graves’) begin to appear. Clearly, therefore, the new wealth generated by the Germanic economic revolution did not end up evenly distributed, but was dominated by particular groups. Any new flow of wealth – such as that generated by the Industrial Revolution, in more modern times, or globalization – will always spark off intense competition for its control; and, if the amount of new wealth is large enough, those who control it will erect entirely new authority structures. In Western Europe, for instance, the Industrial Revolution eventually destroyed the social and political dominance of the landowning class who had run things since the Middle Ages, because the size of the new industrial fortunes made the amount of money you could make from farming even large areas look silly. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Germania’s economic revolution triggered a sociopolitical one, and other archaeological finds have illuminated some of the processes involved.

The most astonishing set of finds of the third century, made at EjsbØl Mose in southern Jutland, gives us the profile of the force to which the weapons originally belonged. In this excavation archaeologists found the weapons of a small army of two hundred men armed with spears, lances and shields (at least sixty also carried swords and knives); an unknown number of archers (675 arrowheads were excavated) and twelve to fifteen men, nine of them mounted, with more exclusive equipment. This was a highly organized force, with a clear hierarchy and a considerable degree of military specialization: a leader and his retinue, not a bunch of peasant soldiers.  If one generation of a family could use its new wealth to recruit an organized military force of the kind found at EjsbØl Mose, and then pass on both wealth and retainers, its chances of replicating power over several generations were considerably increased.

From the early medieval texts we learn that generous entertaining was the main virtue required of Germanic leaders in return for loyal service, and there is no reason to suppose this a new phenomenon. It required not only large halls, but also a regular flow of foodstuffs and the means to purchase items such as Roman wine, not produced by the local economy. As the existence of specialist craftworkers also emphasizes, Germania’s economy had developed sufficiently beyond its old Jastorf norms to support a far larger number of non-agricultural producers.

Military retinues were not only the result of sociopolitical revolution, but also the vehicle by which it was generated, and large-scale internal violence was probably a feature of the Germanic world from the second to fourth centuries. The hereditary dynasts who dominated the new Alamannic, Frankish and Saxon confederations probably established their power through aggressive competition. In both east and west, the growing wealth of the region generated a fierce struggle for control, and allowed the emergence of specialist military forces as the means to win it. The outcome of these processes was the larger political confederation characteristic of Germania in the fourth century.

The changes that remade the Germanic world between the first and fourth centuries clearly shows why Roman attention remained so firmly fixed on Persia in the late imperial period. The rise of that state to superpower status had caused the massive third-century crisis, and Persia remained the much more obvious threat, even after the eastern front had stabilized. Germania, by contrast, even in the fourth century, had come nowhere close to generating a common identity amongst its peoples, or unifying its political structures. Highly contingent alliances had given way to stronger groupings, or confederations, the latter representing a major shift from the kaleidoscopic first-century world of changing loyalties. Although royal status could now be inherited, not even the most successful fourth-century Germanic leaders had begun to echo the success of Ardashir in uniting the Near East against Roman power. To judge by the weapons deposits and our written sources, fourth-century Germani remained just as likely to fight each other as the Roman state.

That said, the massive population increase, economic development and political restructuring of the first three centuries AD could not fail to make fourth-century Germania much more of a potential threat to Roman strategic dominance in Europe than its first-century counterpart. It is important to remember, too, that Germanic society had not yet found its equilibrium. The belt of Germanic client kingdoms extended only about 100 kilometers beyond the Rhine and Danube frontier lines: this left a lot of Germania excluded from the regular campaigning that kept frontier regions reasonably in line. The balance of power on the frontier was, therefore, vulnerable to something much more dangerous than the periodic over-ambition of client kings. One powerful exogenous shock had been delivered by Sasanian Persia in the previous century – did the Germanic world beyond the belt of closely controlled client kingdoms pose a similar threat?

Throughout the Roman imperial period, established Germanic client states periodically found themselves the targets of the predatory groups settled further away from the frontier. The explanation for this is straightforward. While the whole of Germania was undergoing economic revolution, frontier regions were disproportionately affected, their economies stimulated not least by the presence nearby of thousands of Roman soldiers with money to spend. The client states thus tended to become richer than outer Germania, and a target for aggression.

The first known case occurred in the mid-first century AD, when a mixed force from the north invaded the client kingdom of one Vannius of the Marcomanni, to seize the vast wealth he had accumulated during his thirty-year reign.

And it was peripheral northern groups in search of client-state wealth who also started the second-century convulsion generally known as the Marcomannic War. The same motivation underlay the arrival of the Goths beside the Black Sea. Before the mid-third century, these lands were dominated by Iranian-speaking Sarmatian groups who profited hugely from the close relations they enjoyed with the Roman state (their wealth manifest in a series of magnificently furnished burials dating from the first to third centuries). The Goths and other Germanic groups moved into the region to seize a share of this wealth.

The danger posed by the developing Germanic world, however, was still only latent, because of its lack of overall unity. In practice, the string of larger Germanic kingdoms and confederations – now stretching all the way from the mouth of the Rhine to the north Black Sea coast – provided a range of junior partners within a dominant late Roman system, rather than a real threat to Rome’s imperial power. The Empire did not always get what it wanted in this relationship, and maintaining the system provoked a major confrontation between senior and junior partners about once every generation. Nonetheless, for the most part, the barbarians knew their place:

The later Roman Empire was doing a pretty good job of keeping the barbarians in check. It had had to dig deep to respond to the Persian challenge, but it was still substantially in control of its European frontiers. It has long been traditional to argue, however, that extracting the extra resources needed to maintain this control placed too many strains on the system; that the effort involved was unsustainable. Stability did return to Rome’s eastern and European frontiers in the fourth century, but at too high a price, with the result that the Empire was destined to fall – or so the argument goes.

The argument against corruption as a main factor of collapse

Ever since Gibbon, the corruption of public life has been part of the story of Roman imperial collapse.

But whether any of this played a substantial role in the collapse of the western Empire is much more doubtful.

Uncomfortable as the idea might be, power has, throughout history, had a long and distinguished association with money making: in states both big and small, both seemingly healthy and on their last legs. In most past societies and many present ones, the link between power and profit was not even remotely problematic, profit for oneself and one’s friends being seen as the whole, and perfectly legitimate, point of making the effort to get power in the first place.  The whole system of appointments to bureaucratic office within the Empire worked on personal recommendation. Since there were no competitive examinations, patronage and connection played a critical role. Nepotism was systemic, office was generally accepted as an opportunity for feathering one’s nest, and a moderate degree of peculation more or less expected.

And this was nothing new. The early Roman Empire, even during its vigorous conquest period, was as much marked as were later eras by officials (friends of higher officials) misusing – or perhaps one should just say ‘using’ – power to profit themselves and their associatesGreat magnates of public life had always been preoccupied with self-advancement, and the early Empire had been no different. Much of what we might term ‘corruption’ in the Roman system merely reflects the normal relationship between power and profit.

It is important to be realistic about the way human beings use political power, and not to attach too much importance to particular instances of corruption. Since the power-profit factor had not impeded the rise of the Empire in the first place, there is no reason to suppose that it contributed fundamentally to its collapse.

Communication issues

A leap of imagination is required to grasp the difficulty of gathering accurate information in the Roman world. As ruler of just half of it, Valentinian was controlling an area significantly larger than the current European Union. Effective central action is difficult enough today on such a geographical scale, but the communication problems that Valentinian faced made it almost inconceivably harder for him than for his counterparts in modern Brussels. The problem was twofold: not only the slowness of ancient communications, but also the minimal number of lines of contact

We know that in emergencies, galloping messengers, with many changes of horse, might manage as much as 155 miles (250 km) a day. But Theophanes’ average on that journey of 3.5 weeks was the norm: in other words, about 25 miles (40 km), the speed of the oxcart. This was true of military as well as civilian operations, since all the army’s heavy equipment and baggage moved by this means too.

Packing lists also make highly illuminating reading. Theophanes obviously needed a variety of attires: lighter and heavier clothing for variations in weather and conditions, his official uniform for the office, and a robe for the baths. The traveler brought along his own bedding – not just sheets, but even a mattress – and a complete kitchen to see to the food situation. This suggests Theophanes did not travel alone. We don’t know how many went with him, but he was clearly accompanied by a party of slaves who dealt with all the household tasks. He generally spent on their daily sustenance just under half of what he spent on his own.

Running the Roman Empire with the communications then available was akin to running, in the modern day, an entity somewhere between five and ten times the size of the European Union. With places this far apart, and this far away from his capital, it is hardly surprising that an emperor would have few lines of contact with most of the localities that made up his Empire.

Moreover, even if his agents had somehow maintained a continuous flow of intelligence from every town of the Empire into the imperial center, there is little that he could have done with it anyway. All this putative information would have had to remain on bits of papyrus, and headquarters would soon have been buried under a mountain of paperwork. Finding any particular piece of information when required would have been virtually impossible, especially since Roman archivists seem to have filed only by year.

Primitive communication links combined with an absence of sophisticated means of processing information explain the bureaucratic limitations within which Roman emperors of all eras had to make and enforce executive decisions.

The main consequence of all this was that the state was unable to interfere systematically in the day-to-day running of its constituent communities. Not surprisingly, the range of business handled by Roman government was only a fraction of that of a modern state. Even if there had been ideologies to encourage it, Roman government lacked the bureaucratic capacity to handle broad-reaching social agendas, such as a health service or a social security budget. Proactive governmental involvement was necessarily restricted to a much narrower range of operation: maintaining an effective army, and running the tax system. And, even in the matter of taxation, the state bureaucracy’s role was limited to allocating overall sums to the cities of the Empire and monitoring the transfer of monies. The difficult work – the allocation of individual tax bills and the actual collection of money – was handled at the local level. Even here, so long as the agreed tax-take flowed out of the cities and into the central coffers, local communities were left autonomous, largely self-governing communities. Keep Roman central government happy, and life could often be lived as the locals wanted.

Until very recently, scholars have been confident that the higher tax-take of the late Roman state aggravated these conditions to the extent that it became impossible for the Empire’s peasant population to maintain itself even at existing low levels. The evidence comes mostly from written sources. To start with, the annual volume of inscriptions known from Roman antiquity declined suddenly in the mid-third century to something like 20% of previous levels. Since chances of survival remained pretty constant, this massive fall-off was naturally taken as an indicator that landowners, the social group generally responsible for commissioning these largely private inscriptions, had suddenly found themselves short of funds. A study of the chronology also led the heavier tax burden imposed by the late Roman state to be seen as the primary cause, since the decline coincided with the tax hikes that were necessary to fight off the increased Persian threat. Such views were reinforced by other sources documenting another well-known fourth-century phenomenon, commonly known as the ‘flight of the curials’ — landowners of sufficient wealth to get a seat on their town councils. They were the descendants of the men who had built the Roman towns, bought into classical ideologies of self-government, learned Latin, and generally benefited from Latin rights and Roman citizenship in the early imperial period. In the fourth century, these descendants became increasingly unwilling to serve on the town councils their ancestors had established. Some of the sources preserve complaints about the costs involved in being a councilor, others about the administrative burden imposed upon the curials by the Roman state. It has long been part of the orthodoxy of Roman collapse, therefore, that the old landowning classes of the Empire were overburdened into oblivion. Other fourth-century legal texts refer to a previously unknown phenomenon, the deserted lands. Most of these texts are very general, giving no indication of the amounts of land that might be involved, but one law, of AD 422, referring to North Africa, indicates that a staggering 3,000 square miles fell into this category in that region alone. A further run of late Roman legislation also attempted to tie certain categories of tenant farmers to their existing estates, to prevent them moving. It was easy, in fact irresistible, to weave these separate phenomena into a narrative of cause and effect, whereby the late Empire’s punitive tax regime made it uneconomic to farm all the land that had previously been under cultivation. This was said to have generated large-scale abandonment as well as governmental intervention to try to prevent this very abandoning of the lands that the new tax burden had made uneconomic. Stripped of a larger portion of their production, the peasantry could not maintain their numbers over the generations, which further lowered output.

Into this happy consensus a large bomb was lobbed, towards the end of the 1950s, by a French archaeologist named Georges Tchalenko who discovered that prosperity first hit the region in the later third and early fourth centuries, then continued into the fifth, sixth and seventh with no sign of decline. At the very moment when the generally accepted model suggested that the late Roman state was taxing the lifeblood out of its farmers, here was hard evidence of a farming region prospering.

Further archaeological work, using field surveys, has made it possible to test levels of rural settlement and agricultural activity across a wide geographical spread and at different points in the Roman period. Broadly speaking, these surveys have confirmed that Tchalenko’s Syrian villages were a far from unique example of late Roman rural prosperity. The central provinces of Roman North Africa (in particular Numidia, Byzacena and Proconsularis) saw a similar intensification of rural settlement and production at this time. This has been illuminated by separate surveys in Tunisia and southern Libya, where prosperity did not even begin to fall away until the fifth century. Surveys in Greece have produced a comparable picture. And elsewhere in the Near East, the fourth and fifth centuries have emerged as a period of maximum rural development – not minimum, as the orthodoxy would have led us to expect. Investigations in the Negev Desert region of modern Israel have shown that farming also flourished in this deeply marginal environment under the fourth-century Empire. The pattern is broadly similar in Spain and southern Gaul, while recent re-evaluations of rural settlement in Roman Britain have suggested that its fourth-century population reached levels that would only be seen again in the fourteenth. Argument continues as to what figure to put on this maximum, but that late Roman Britain was remarkably densely populated by ancient and medieval standards is now a given. The only areas, in fact, where, in the fourth century, prosperity was not at or close to its maximum for the entire Roman period were Italy and some of the northern European provinces, particularly Gallia Belgica and Germania Inferior on the Rhine frontier. Even here, though, estimates of settlement density have been revised substantially upwards in recent years.

The case of Italy is rather different. As befitted the heartland of a conquest state, Italy was thriving in the early imperial period. Not only did the spoils of conquest flood its territories, but its manufacturers of pottery, wine and other goods sold them throughout the western provinces and dominated the market. Also, Italian agricultural production was untaxed. As the economies of the conquered provinces developed, however, this early domination was curtailed by the development of rival enterprises closer to the centers of consumption and with much lower transport costs. By the fourth century, the process had pretty much run its course; and from Diocletian onwards, Italian agriculture had to pay the same taxes as the rest of the Empire. So the peninsula’s economy was bound to have suffered relative decline in the fourth century, and it is not surprising to find more marginal lands there being taken out of production. But as we have seen, the relative decline of Italy and perhaps also of north-eastern Gaul was more than compensated for by economic success elsewhere. Despite the heavier tax burden, the late Roman countryside was generally booming. The revolutionary nature of these findings cannot be overstated.

The laws forcing labor to stay in one place, for example, would only have been enforceable where rural population levels were relatively high. Otherwise, the general demand for labor would have seen landowners competing with one another for peasants, and being willing to take in each other’s runaways and protect them from the law.

Tenant subsistence farmers tend to produce only what they need: enough to provide for themselves and their dependents and to pay any essential additional dues such as rent. Within this context there will often be a certain amount of economic ‘slack’, consisting of extra foodstuffs they could produce but which they choose not to because they can neither store them, nor, thanks to high transport costs, sell them. In this kind of world, taxation – if not imposed at too high a level – can actually increase production: the tax imposed by the state is another due that has to be satisfied, and farmers do sufficient extra work to produce the additional output. Only if taxes are set so high that peasants starve, or the long-term fertility of their lands is impaired, will such dues have a damaging economic effect.

None of this means that it was fun to be a late Roman peasant. The state imposed heavier demands on him than it had on his ancestors, and he was prevented by law from moving around in search of the best tenancy terms. But there is nothing in the archaeological or written evidence to gainsay the general picture of a late Roman countryside at or near maximum levels of population, production and output.

Written sources and archaeological excavation both confirm that the late Roman landowning elite, like their forebears, would alternate between their urban houses and their country estates.  

There is also more than enough here to prompt a rethink about claims that, from the mid-third century, the army was so short of Roman manpower that it jeopardized its efficiency by drawing ever increasingly on ‘barbarians’. There is no doubt that the restructured Roman army did recruit such men in two main ways. First, self-contained contingents were recruited on a short-term basis for particular campaigns, returning home once they were over. Second, many individuals from across the frontier entered the Roman army and took up soldiering as a career, serving for a working lifetime in regular Roman units. Neither phenomenon was new. The auxiliary forces, both cavalry and infantry of the early imperial army had always been composed of non-citizens, and amounted to something like 50% of the military.

Nothing about the officer corps of the late Empire suggests that barbarian numbers had increased across the army as a whole. The main difference between early and late armies lay not in their numbers, but in the fact that barbarian recruits now sometimes served in the same units as citizens, rather than being segregated into auxiliary forces. Training in the fourth century remained pretty much as fierce as ever, producing bonded groups ready to obey orders. From Ammianus Marcellinus’ picture of the army in action we find no evidence that its standards of discipline had fallen in any substantial way, or that the barbarians in its ranks were less inclined to obey orders or any more likely to make common cause with the enemy.

It is entirely possible that the extra costs incurred in the running of the fourth-century Empire could have alienated the loyalty of the provincial populations that had bought into the values of Romanness with such vigor under the early Empire.

Different emperors sold their frontier policies in different ways, but there was no disagreement on this basic purpose of taxation. The population was daily reminded of the point on its coinage: one of the most common designs featured an enemy groveling at the emperor’s feet.  Fourth-century emperors did manage to sell to their population the idea that taxation was essential to civilized life, and generally collected the funds without ripping their society apart.

On the religious front Constantine’s conversion to Christianity certainly unleashed a cultural revolution. Physically, town landscapes were transformed as the practice of keeping the dead separate from the living, traditional in Graeco-Roman paganism, came to an end, and cemeteries sprang up within town walls. Churches replaced temples; as a consequence, from the 390s onwards there was so much cheap second-hand marble available that the new marble trade all but collapsed.

Christianity was in some senses a democratizing and equalizing force. It insisted that everybody, no matter what his economic or social status, had a soul and an equal stake in the cosmic drama of salvation, and some Gospel stories even suggested that worldly wealth was a barrier to salvation. All this ran contrary to the aristocratic values of Graeco-Roman culture, with its claim that true civilization could only be attained by the man with enough wealth and leisure to afford many years of private education and active participation in municipal affairs.

While the rise of Christianity was certainly a cultural revolution, Gibbon and others are much less convincing in claiming that the new religion had a seriously deleterious effect upon the functioning of the Empire. Christian institutions did, as Gibbon asserts, acquire large financial endowments. On the other hand, the non-Christian religious institutions that they replaced had also been wealthy, and their wealth was being progressively confiscated at the same time as Christianity waxed strong. It is unclear whether endowing Christianity involved an overall transfer of assets from secular to religious coffers. Likewise, while some manpower was certainly lost to the cloister, this was no more than a few thousand individuals at most, hardly a significant figure in a world that was maintaining, even increasing, population levels. Similarly, the number of upper-class individuals who renounced their wealth and lifestyles for a life of Christian devotion pales into insignificance beside the 6,000 or so who by AD 400 were actively participating in the state as top bureaucrats. In legislation passed in the 390s, all of these people were required to be Christian. For every Paulinus of Pella, there were many more newly Christianized Roman landowners happy to hold major state office, and no sign of any crisis of conscience among them.

Many Christian bishops, as well as secular commentators, were happy to restate the old claim of Roman imperialism in its new clothing. Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea was already arguing, as early as the reign of Constantine, that it was no accident that Christ had been incarnated during the lifetime of Augustus, the first Roman emperor. Despite the earlier history of persecutions, went his argument, this showed that Christianity and the Empire were destined for each other, with God making Rome all-powerful so that, through it, all mankind might eventually be saved.

Taxes were paid, elites participated in public life, and the new religion was effectively enough subsumed into the structures of the late Empire. Far from being the harbingers of disaster, both Christianization and bureaucratic expansion show the imperial center still able to exert a powerful pull on the allegiances and habits of the provinces. That pull had to be persuasive rather than coercive, but so it had always been. Renegotiated, the same kinds of bonds continued to hold center and locality together.

A fundamental problem in the structure of power within the late Empire

The imperial office had to be divided. Harmony between co-rulers was possible if one was so predominant as to be unchallengeable. The relationship between Theodosius and Valentinian worked happily enough on this basis, as had that between Constantine and various of his sons between the 310s and the 330s. But to function properly, the Empire required more or less equal helmsmen. A sustained inferiority was likely to be based on an unequal distribution of the key assets – financial and military – and if one was too obviously subordinate, the politically important factions in his realm were likely to encourage him to redress the balance – or, worse, encourage a usurper. This pattern had, for example, marred Constantius II’s attempts to share power with Gallus and Julian in the 350s.

Equal emperors functioning together harmoniously was extremely difficult to achieve, and happened only rarely. For a decade after 364, the brothers Valentinian I and Valens managed it, and so did Diocletian, first with one other emperor from 286, then with three from 293 to 305 (Diocletian’s so-called Tetrarchy). But none of these partnerships produced lasting stability, and even power-sharing between brothers was no guarantee of success. When they succeeded to the throne, the sons of Constantine I proceeded to compete among themselves, to the point that Constantine II died invading the territory of his younger brother Constans. Diocletian’s Tetrarchy, likewise, worked well enough during his political lifetime, but broke down after his abdication in 305 into nearly twenty years of dispute and civil war, which was ended only by Constantine’s defeat of Licinius in 324.

The organization of central power posed an insoluble dilemma in the late Roman period. It was an administrative and political necessity to divide that power: if you didn’t, usurpation, and often civil war, followed. Dividing it in such a way as not to generate war between rivals was, however, extremely difficult. And even if you solved the problem for one generation, it was pretty much impossible to pass on that harmony to your heirs, who would lack the habits of trust and respect that infused the original arrangement. Consequently, in each generation the division of power was improvised, even where the throne was passed on by dynastic succession. There was no ‘system’, and whether power was divided or not, periodic civil war was inescapable. This wasn’t just a product of the personal failings of individual emperors – although the paranoia of Constantius II, for example, certainly contributed to the excitement. Essentially, it reflected the fact that there were so many political concerns to be accommodated, such a large spread of interested landowners within the much more inclusive late Empire, that stability was much harder to achieve than in the old Roman conquest state, when it had been only the Senate of Rome playing imperial politics.

This is much better viewed, though, as a limitation than as a basic flaw: the Empire was not fundamentally undermined by it.  The civil wars of the fourth century did not make the Empire vulnerable, for instance, to Persian conquest.

The spread of Roman culture and the adoption of Roman citizenship in its conquered lands resulted from the fact that the Empire was the only avenue open to individuals of ambition. You had to play by its rules, and acquire its citizenship, if you were to get anywhere.

The one-party state analogy points us to two further drawbacks of the system. First, active political participation was very narrowly based. To participate in the workings of the Roman Empire, you had to belong to the wealthier landholding classes.  The politically active landowning class probably amounted, therefore, to less than 5% of the population. To this we might add another percentage or so for a semi-educated professional class, found particularly in the towns.

The vast majority of the population – whether free, tied or slave – worked the land and were more or less excluded from political participation. For these groups, the state existed largely in the form of tax-collectors making unwelcome demands upon their limited resources. Again, it is impossible to estimate precisely, but the peasantry cannot have been less than 85% of the population. So we have to reckon with a world in which over 80% had little or no stake in the political systems that governed them. Indifference may well have been the peasants’ overriding attitude towards the imperial establishment. Across most of the Empire, habitation and population levels increased in the course of its history, as we have noted, and it is hard not to see this as an effect of the Pax Romana – the conditions of greater peace and stability that the Empire generated.

The Empire had always been run for the benefit of an elite. And while this made for an exploited peasantry and a certain level of largely unfocused opposition, there is no sign in the fourth century that the situation had worsened.

The second, rather less obvious, drawback was potentially more significant, given the peasantry’s underlying inability to organize itself for sustained resistance. To understand it, we need to consider for a moment the lifestyles of the Roman rich.

There were other forms of wealth in the Roman world apart from landowning; money could be made from trade and manufacture, the law, influence-peddling and so on. But landowning was the supreme expression of wealth, and, as in pre-industrial England, those who made money elsewhere were quick to invest it in estates -because, above all, land was the only honorable form of wealth for a gentleman. Land was an extremely secure investment, and in return for the original outlay estates offered a steady income in the form of annual agricultural production. In the absence of stock markets, and given the limited and more precarious investment opportunities offered by trade and manufacture, land was the gilt-edged stock of the ancient world (and indeed of all worlds, pretty much, prior to the Industrial Revolution). First and foremost, landowners needed to keep the output of their estates up to scratch. A piece of land was in itself only a potential source of revenue; it needed to be worked, and worked efficiently, to produce a good annual income. The right crops had to be grown, for a start. Then, investment of time, effort and capital always offered the possibility of what in pre-industrial England was termed ‘improvement’: a dramatic increase in production.

Roman landowners spent much of their lives checking on the running of their estates, either directly or through agents. The lifestyle of Symmachus and his friends provides a blueprint for that of the European gentry and nobility over much of the next 1600 years. Leisured, cultured and landed: some extremely rich, some with just enough to get by in the expected manner, and everyone perfectly well aware of who was who.  And all engaged in an intricate, elegant dance around the hope and expectation of the great wealth that marriage settlement and inheritance would bring.

A further limitation imposed by the Roman imperial system stems from this elegant, leisured and highly privileged lifestyle. It rested upon the massively unequal distribution of landed property: as noted earlier, less than 5% of the population owned over 80%, and perhaps substantially more. And at the heart of this inequality was the Roman state itself, in that its laws both defined and protected the ownership rights of the property-owning class

A huge amount of Roman law dealt with property: basic ownership, modes of exploiting it (selling, leasing for longer or shorter terms, simple renting and sharecropping), and its transfer between generations through marriage settlements, inheritance and special bequests. The ferocity of Roman criminal law, likewise, protected ownership: death was the main punishment for theft for anything beyond petty pilfering. Again, we can see a resemblance here to later ‘genteel’ societies based on similarly unequal distributions of landed wealth in an overwhelmingly agricultural economy. When Jane Austen was writing her elegant tales of love, marriage and property transfer, you could be whipped (for theft valued at up to 10d), branded (for theft up to 4s 10d) or hanged (theft over 5 shillings).

The Roman state had to advance and protect the interests of these landowning classes because they were, in large measure, the same people who participated in its political structuresThe state relied on the administrative input of its provincial landowning classes at all levels of the governmental machine, and in particular to collect its taxes – the efficient collection of which hung on the willingness of these same landed classes to pay up.  This delicate balance manifested itself in two ways. First, and most obviously, taxes on agriculture could not rise so high that landowners would opt out of the state system. Second, the landowners’ elite status and lifestyles depended upon a property distribution so unequal that the have-nots had a massive numerical advantage – which should surely have led to a redistribution of wealth unless some other body prevented it. In the fourth century, this other body was, as it had been for centuries, the Roman state.

We might understand the participation of the landowners in the Roman system, therefore, as a cost-benefit equation. What it cost them was the money they paid annually into the state coffers. What they got in return was protection for the wealth on which their status was based. In the fourth century, benefit hugely outweighed cost.

But should the taxman become too demanding, or the state incapable of providing protection, then the loyalty of the landowning class could be up for renegotiation.

There is no sign in the fourth century that the Empire was about to collapse. The late Empire was essentially a success story. The rural economy was mostly flourishing, and unprecedented numbers of landowners were keen to fill the offices of state. As the response to the Persians showed, the Roman imperial structure was inherently rigid, with only a limited and slow-moving bureaucratic, economic and political capacity to mobilize resources in the face of a new threat. But the Persian challenge had been successfully seen off, and the overwhelming impression the Roman state gave was one of continuing unmatchable power. It was not, however, destined to be left to its own devices. While fourth-century Romans continued to look on Persia as the traditional enemy, a second major strategic revolution was about to unfold to the north.

 ‘The seed-bed and origin of all this destruction and of the various calamities inflicted by the wrath of Mars, which raged everywhere with extraordinary fury, I find to be this: the people of the Huns.’ Ammianus was writing nearly twenty years later, by which time the Romans had a better understanding of what had brought the Goths to the Danube. Even in the 390s, though, the full effects of the arrival of the Huns were far from apparent. The appearance of the Goths beside the river in the summer of 376 was the first link in a chain of events that would lead directly from the rise of Hunnic power on the fringes of Europe to the deposition of the last western emperor, Romulus Augustulus, almost exactly one hundred years later. None of this was even remotely conceivable in 376, and there would be many twists and turns on the way. The arrival of Goths on the Danube marked the start of a reshuffling of Europe-wide balances of power, and it is to this story that the rest of the book is devoted. We must begin, like Ammianus, with the Huns.

The origins of the Huns are mysterious and controversial. The one thing we know for certain is that they were nomads from the Great Eurasian Steppe. The Eurasian Steppe is a huge expanse, stretching about 3,400 miles (5,500 km) from the fringes of Europe to western China, with another 1865 miles (3,000 km) to its north and east. The north-south depth of the steppe ranges from only about 300 miles (500 km) in the west to nearly 3,000 in the wide-open plains of Mongolia. Geography and climate dictate the nomadic lifestyle. Natural steppe grasslands are the product of poor soils and limited rainfall, which make it impossible, in general terms, for trees and more luxurious vegetation to grow. The lack of rainfall also rules out arable farming of any sustained kind, so that the nomad makes a substantial part of his living from pastoral agriculture, herding a range of animals suited to the available grazing. Cattle can survive on worse pasture than horses, sheep on worse pasture than cattle, and goats on worse than sheep. Camels will eat anything left over. Nomadism is essentially a means of assembling distinct blocks of pasture, which between them add up to a year-round grazing strategy. Typically, modern nomads will move between upland summer pasture (where there is no grass in the winter because of snow and cold) and lowland winter pasture (where the lack of rain in summer means, again, no grass). In this world, grazing rights are as important in terms of economic capital as the herds, and as jealously guarded.

The distance between summer and winter pasture needs to be minimal, since all movement is hard both on the animals and on the weaker members of the human population. Before Stalin sedentarized them, the nomads of Kazakhstan tended to move about 50 miles (75 km) each way between their pastures. Nomadic societies also form close economic ties with settled arable farmers in the region, from whom they obtain much of the grain they need, though some they produce themselves. While part of the population cycles the herds around the summer pastures, the rest engage in other types of food production. But all the historically observed nomad populations have needed to supplement their grain production by exchanging with arable populations the surplus generated from their herds (hides, cheese and yoghurt, actual animals and so on). Often, this exchange has been one-sided, with the arable population getting in return no more than exemption from being raided, but sometimes the exchange has been properly reciprocal.

We can only guess at the motives behind the Huns’ decision to shift their center of operations westwards. The idea that it was the wealth of the northern shores of the Black Sea that attracted Hunnic attentions is perfectly plausible.  In the case of the Huns, we have no firm indication that a negative as well as a positive motivation was at work, but we can’t rule it out [my comment: another book suggests drought].

The Avars, who would have much the same kind of impact on Europe as the Huns, but two centuries later, were looking for a safe haven beyond the reach of the western Turks, when they appeared north of the Black Sea. At the end of the 9th century, likewise, the nomadic Magyars would move into Hungary because another nomad group, the Pechenegs, was making life intolerable for them further east.

Mysterious as the Huns’ origins and animating forces may remain, there is no doubt at all that they were behind the strategic revolution that brought the Goths to the Danube in the summer of 376.

In 375/6, there was no massive horde of Huns hotly pursuing the fleeing Goths: rather, independent Hunnic warbands were pursuing a variety of strategies against a variety of opponents. What was happening, then, was not that a force of Huns conquered the Goths in the sense we normally understand the word, but that some Goths decided to evacuate a world that was becoming ever more insecure. As late as 395, some 20 years later, the mass of Huns remained further east – much closer, in fact, to the northern exit of the Caucasus than to the mouth of the Danube.  And it was other Gothic groups, in fact, not the Tervingi or Greuthungi, who continued to provide Rome with its main opposition on the Lower Danube frontier for a decade or more after 376.  

What was it about the Huns, then, that allowed them in the later fourth century to redress the military balance in favor of the nomadic world?

The Huns were totally incapable and ignorant of conducting a battle on foot, but by wheeling, charging, retreating in good time and shooting from their horses, they wrought immense slaughter. The Huns were cavalry, and above all horse archers, who were able to engage at a safe distance until their opponents lost formation and cohesion. At this point, the Huns would move in for the kill with either bow or sabre. The essential ingredients in all this were skilled archery and horsemanship, the capacity to work together in small groups, and ferocious courage.

The key to Hunnic success seems to lie in one particular detail whose significance has not been fully recognized. Both the Huns and the Scythians used the composite bow, then, but whereas Scythian bows measured about 31 inches (80 centimeters) in length, the few Hunnic bows found in graves are much larger, measuring between 51-63 inches (130-160 centimeters. The point here, of course, is that size generates power. However, the maximum size of bow that a cavalryman can comfortably use is only about 40 inches (100 centimeters). The bow was held out, upright, directly in front of the rider, so that a longer bow would bang into the horse’s neck or get caught up in the reins. But Hunnic bows were asymmetric. The half below the handle was shorter than the half above, and it is this that allowed the longer bow to be used from horseback. It involved a trade-off, of course. The longer bow was clumsier and its asymmetry called for adjustments in aim on the part of the archer. But the Huns’ asymmetric 130-centimetre bow generated considerably more hitting power than the Scythians’ symmetrical 80-centimetre counterpart: unlike the Scythians’, it could penetrate Sarmatian armor while keeping the archer at a safe distance and not impeding his horsemanship.

Hunnic horse archers would probably have been effective against unarmored opponents such as the Goths from distances of 500 to 650 feet (150 to 200 meters), and against protected Alans from 250 to 325 feet (75 to 100 meters).

The bow wasn’t the Huns’ only weapon. Having destroyed the cohesion of an enemy’s formation from a distance, their cavalry would then close in to engage with their swords, and they often used lassos, too, to disable individual opponents. There is also some evidence that high-status Huns wore coats of mail. But the reflex bow was their pièce de résistance.

With a rare unanimity, the vast majority of our sources report that this sudden surge of would-be Gothic immigrants wasn’t seen as a problem at all. On the contrary, Valens happily admitted them because he saw in this flood of displaced humanity a great opportunity. The affair caused more joy than fear and educated flatterers immoderately praised the good fortune of the prince, which unexpectedly brought him so many young recruits from the ends of the earth, that by the union of his own and foreign forces he would have an invincible army. In addition, instead of the levy of soldiers, which was contributed annually by each province, there would accrue to the treasury a vast amount of gold.

Most of the sources also give a broadly similar account of what went wrong after the Goths crossed the river.  The blame for what happened next is placed mostly on the dishonesty of the Roman officials on the spot. For once the immigrants started to run short of supplies, these officials exploited their increasing desperation to run a highly profitable black market, taking slaves from them in return for food. Unsurprisingly, this generated huge resentment, which the Roman military, especially one Lupicinus, commander of the field forces in Thrace (comes Thraciae), only exacerbated. Having first profited from the black market, then having made the Goths move on to a second camp outside his regional headquarters, he made a botched attack on their leadership, at a banquet supposedly given in their honor. This pushed the Goths from resentment to revolt.

Normal Roman policy towards asylum seekers.  Immigrants, willing or otherwise, in 376 were a far from new phenomenon for the Roman Empire. Throughout its history, it had taken in outsiders: a constant stream of individuals looking to make their fortune (not least, as we have seen, in the Roman army), supplemented by occasional large-scale migrations. There was even a technical term for the latter: receptio. An inscription from the first century AD records that Nero’s governor transported 100,000 people from across [north of] the Danube  into Thrace. As recently as AD 300, the tetrarchic emperors had resettled tens of thousands of Dacian Carpi inside the Empire, dispersing them in communities the length of the Danube, from Hungary to the Black Sea.

There was no single blueprint for how immigrants were to be treated, clear patterns emerge. If relations between the Empire and the would-be asylum seekers were good, and the immigration happening by mutual consent, then some of the young adult males would be drafted into the Roman army, sometimes forming a single new unit, and the rest distributed fairly widely across the Empire as free peasant cultivators who would henceforth pay taxes. This was the kind of arrangement agreed between the emperor Constantius II and some Sarmatian Limigantes, for instance, in 359. If relations between the Empire and migrants were not so good, and, in particular, if they’d been captured during military operations, treatment was much harsher. Some might still be drafted into the army, though often with greater safeguards imposed.

An imperial edict dealing with a force of Sciri captured by the Romans in 409, for instance, records that 25 years – that is, a generation – should pass before any of them could be recruited. The rest, again, became peasant cultivators, but on less favorable terms. Many of the Sciri of 409 were sold into slavery, and the rest distributed as unfree peasants, with the stipulation that they had to be moved to points outside the Balkans, where they had been captured. All immigrants became soldiers or peasants, then, but there were more and less pleasant ways of effecting it.

There is, however, another common denominator to all documented cases of licensed immigration into the Empire. Emperors never admitted immigrants on trust. They always made sure that they were militarily in control of proceedings, either through having defeated the would-be immigrants first, or by having sufficient force on hand to deal with any trouble.

In 376 the Roman army was demonstrably not in charge of the situation, and when things started to go wrong after the crossing, order could not be restored. Lupicinus, whatever his personal culpability for the Goths’ revolt, simply didn’t have enough troops on hand. After the banquet, he immediately rushed his available forces into battle against the rebellious Goths and was soundly defeated. In the absence of total military superiority, which was central to normal Roman receptiones, it is just not credible that Valens was anything like as happy about the arrival of the Goths on the Danube as the sources claim.   When the Goths arrived on the Danube, therefore, Valens was already fully committed to an aggressive policy in the east, and it was bound to take him at least a year to extract his forces diplomatically, or even just to turn them around logistically.

Of the two Gothic groups who arrived at the Danube, only the Tervingi were admitted. The Greuthungi were refused permission to enter the Empire, and such troops and naval craft as were available in the Balkans were placed opposite them to keep them north of the river. Valens did not, then, rush to accept every Goth he could find so as to build up his army and fill the treasury’s coffers at one and the same time.

The main cause of the Tervingi’s revolt was food shortages and black-marketeering beside the Danube. The Goths, it seems, spent autumn and part of winter 376/7 beside the river, and only moved on to Marcianople sometime in late winter or early spring. Even when the revolt got under way, they still had difficulty in finding food, because all the necessities of life had been taken to the strong cities, none of which the enemy even then attempted to besiege

The Goths, of course, had no means of growing their own food at this point, since the agreement hadn’t yet got as far as land allocations. Once their stocks had been consumed, securing all other food supplies gave Valens a lever of control over them.

The botched attack was the result of misunderstanding and panic, but banquet hijacks were a standard tool of Roman frontier management. Removing dangerous or potentially dangerous leaders was an excellent means of spreading confusion amongst opponents.  Ammianus describes four other occasions over a span of just 24 years when Roman commanders made dinner invitations an opportunity for kidnap.

The arrival of a huge number of unsubdued Goths in Roman territory at a point when the main Roman army was mobilized elsewhere, was much too potentially dangerous not to have been thought through.

Lupicinus had been told that if things looked as if they might be getting out of hand, then he should do what he could to disrupt the Goths – and hijacking enemy leaders, as already mentioned, was a standard Roman reflex. But it was Lupicinus’ call. In the event, he went for that worst of all possible worlds: first one thing, then the other, with neither stratagem whole-heartedly pursued. Instead of a continued if uneasy peace or a leaderless opposition, he found himself facing an organized revolt under an established leader.

Both the Goths and the Romans had been thrown by the Huns into a new and more intense relationship. Neither side trusted the other, and neither was totally committed to the agreement negotiated – when both were under duress – in 376. That this initial agreement failed to hold cannot really have surprised anyone. The way was now clear for a test of military strength, upon whose outcome would hang the nature of a more durable settlement between the immigrant Goths and the Roman state.

Valens’ jealousy of Gratian, and his impatience, had undone the Empire.

Victory left the Goths masters not only of the battlefield, but of the entire Balkans. Roman military invincibility had been overturned in a single afternoon, and Gratian could only look on helplessly from the other side of the Succi Pass, about 300 kilometers distant, as the triumphant Goths rampaged through the southern Balkans. Against all the odds, and despite their opponents’ advantages in equipment and training, the Goths had triumphed and the path to Constantinople lay open. As Ammianus reports, From Hadrianople they hastened in rapid march to Constantinople, greedy for its vast heaps of treasure, marching in square formations.  Victory over Valens at Hadrianople in 378 was just enough to give the Goths a glimpse of the prize that was Constantinople; but that in turn was enough to convince them that they hadn’t the slightest chance of capturing it.

The Gothic force at large south of the Danube between 377 and 382 wasn’t just an army, but an entire population group: men, women and children, dragging themselves and their possessions around in a huge wagon train. With no secure lands available to them for food production, and unable to break into fortified storehouses, the Goths were forced to pillage in order to eat, and, because so much food was required, it was extremely difficult for them to stay in the one place. Already in autumn 377, there was nothing left north of the Haemus Mountains, and the pattern of the subsequent war years, in so far as we can reconstruct it, saw them moving from one part of the Balkans to another. Sometimes it was the Roman army that forced them on, but this restlessness was largely attributable to their lack of secure food supplies.

We are still a long way from imperial collapse. The war on the Danube had affected only the Empire’s Balkan provinces, a relatively poor and isolated frontier zone, and even here some kind of Romanness survived. The late 4th and early 5th century layers of the recently excavated Roman city of Nicopolis ad Istrum are striking for the number of rich houses – 45% of the urban area – that suddenly appeared inside the city walls. It looks as though, since their country villas were now too vulnerable, the rich were running their estates from safe inside the city walls. At the end of the war, moreover, both eastern and western emperors remained in secure occupation of their thrones, with their great revenue-producing centers such as Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt and North Africa entirely untouched.

On a hot August day in 410, the unthinkable happened. A large force of Goths entered Rome by the Salarian Gate and for three days helped themselves to the city’s wealth. The sources, without being specific, speak clearly of rape and pillage. There was, of course, much loot to be had, and the Goths had a field day. By the time they left, they had cleaned out many of the rich senatorial houses as well as all the temples, and had taken ancient Jewish treasures that had resided in Rome since the destruction of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem over 300 years before.

The crisis of 405–8 must be seen as a rerun of 376, with the further movements of nomadic Huns as the trigger. Huns in large numbers had not themselves been directly involved in the action of 376. As late as 395, 20 years after the Goths crossed the Danube, most of the Huns were still well to the east.

Tens of thousands of warriors, which means well over 100,000 people all told – just possibly a few hundred thousand – were on the move.

The first step on the road to the sack of Rome in 410 was taken far off on the northern shores of the Black Sea. The further advances of the Huns threw Germania west of the Carpathians into crisis, and the major knock-on effect observed by the Romans was large-scale armed immigration into their Empire. For the eastern Empire, the new proximity of the Huns generated a heightened anxiety which betrayed itself in new and far-reaching defensive measures. But it was the western Empire that bore the brunt of the fall-out both immediately and in the longer term. The collision of the invaders with the central Roman authorities and local Roman elites would have momentous repercussions.

The immediate effects of these population displacements were exactly what you would expect. None of the refugees entered the Empire by agreement; all behaved as enemies and were treated as such. The Goths of Radagaisus at first met little opposition, but when they reached Florence, matters came to a head. They had blockaded the city and reduced it virtually to the point of capitulation, when a huge Roman relief force, commanded by Stilicho, generalissimo of the western Empire, arrived just in the nick of time.

Fire, rape and pillage in Gaul was thus followed by the forced annexation of Spain, but this is only the beginning of the catalogue of disasters that followed the breakdown of frontier security in the western Empire.  The Goths were now back in the political wilderness, worse off in some ways than before 406. At least then they had had a well-established base. Now, they were in an unfamiliar territory and lacking ties to any local food-producing population. But in one important respect, Alaric’s Goths were soon to be better off. Shortly after Stilicho’s execution, the native Roman element in the army of Italy launched a series of pogroms against the families and property of the barbarian troops that he had recruited. These families, who had been quartered in various Italian cities, were massacred wholesale. Outraged, the menfolk threw in their lot with Alaric, increasing his fighting force to perhaps around 30,000. Nor was this first reinforcement the end of the story. Later, when the Goths were encamped outside Rome in 409, they were joined by enough slaves to take Alaric’s force to a total of 40,000 warriors.

In the autumn of 408, now in command of a Gothic supergroup larger than any yet seen, Alaric made a bold play. Gathering all his men he marched across the Alps and into Italy, sowing destruction far and wide as he made a beeline for Rome. He arrived outside the city in November and quickly laid siege to it, thus preventing all food supplies from entering. It soon emerged, however, that Alaric had not the slightest intention of capturing the city. What he wanted – and what he got by the end of the year – was, most obviously, booty. The Roman Senate agreed to pay him a ransom of 5,000 pounds of gold and 30,000 of silver, together with huge quantities of silks, skins and spices

The Sack of Rome

There followed one of the most civilized sacks of a city ever witnessed. Alaric’s Goths were Christian, and treated many of Rome’s holiest places with great respect. The two main basilicas of St Peter and St Paul were nominated places of sanctuary. Those who fled there were left in peace, and refugees to Africa later reported with astonishment how the Goths had even conducted certain holy ladies there.

All in all, even after three days of Gothic attentions, the vast majority of the city’s monuments and buildings remained intact, even if stripped of their movable valuables.

The contrast with the last time the city had been sacked, by Celtic tribes in 390 BC, could not have been more marked. Celtic warbands were able to walk straight into Rome. The few men of fighting age left there defended the capitol with the help of some geese, which provided early warning of surprise attacks, but they abandoned the rest of the town. Older patricians refused to leave, but sat outside their houses in full ceremonial robes.

At first the Celts approached reverentially beings who . . . seemed in their majesty of countenance and in the gravity of their expression most like to gods. Then a Celt stroked the beard of one of them, Marcus Papirius, which he wore long as they all did then, at which point the Roman struck him over the head with his ivory mace, and, provoking his anger, was the first to be slain. After that, the rest were massacred where they sat and . . . there was no mercy then shown to anyone. The houses were ransacked, and after, being emptied, were set aflame.  In 390 BC, only the fortress on the Capitol survived the burning of the city; in AD 410 only the Senate house was set on fire.

The extent of Saxon inroads made between 410 and 420 is another hotly contested issue. Everything suggests that the real cataclysm came a bit later, but, for present purposes, the date doesn’t really matter. Whether at the hands of Saxons or of local self-defense forces, Britain dropped out of the Roman radar from about 410, and was no longer supplying revenues to Ravenna.

In addition to the territories lost outright to the Roman system, tax revenue was substantially down in those much larger parts of the west that had been affected by warfare or looting over the past decade. Much of Italy had been pillaged by the Goths, Spain by the survivors of the Rhine invasion, and Gaul by both. How much of these territories had been damaged is difficult to say, and agriculture could of course recover, but there is good evidence that warfare had caused serious medium-term damage.

The willingness of the landowning elite to do deals with barbarians was a very different phenomenon – and much more dangerous for the Empire – but it too had its origins in the nature of the system. Given its vast size and limited bureaucratic technology, the Roman Empire could not but be a world of self-governing localities held together by a mixture of force and the political bargain that paying tax to the center would bring protection to local landowning elites. The appearance of armed outside forces in the heart of the Roman world put that bargain under great strain. The speed with which some landowners rushed to support barbarian-sponsored regimes is not, as has sometimes been argued, a sign of lack of moral fiber among late Romans, so much as an indicator of the peculiar character of wealth when it comes in the form of land. In historical analysis, not to mention old wills, landed wealth is usually categorized in opposition to moveable goods, and that captures the essence of the problem. You cannot simply pick it up and move, as you would a sack of gold or diamonds, should conditions in your area change. If you do move on, you leave the source of your wealth, and all of your elite status, behind. Landowners have little choice, therefore, but to try to come to terms with changing conditions, and this is what was beginning to happen around Rome in 408/10 and in southern Gaul in 414/15. In fact, it didn’t get far, because Constantius reasserted central authority pretty quickly. He also seems to have been aware of the political problem, and acted swiftly to contain it.

Much of the real business of political negotiation and policy-making took place at a further remove from the public gaze, at council sessions with a few trusted officials present or in private rooms out of sight of pretty much everybody. The decision to admit the Goths into the Empire in 376 emerged only after heated debate amongst Valens and his closest advisers, but the public face put on the decision when announced in the consistory was cheerful consensus. Likewise, Priscus tells us that when wanting to suborn a Hunnic ambassador to murder his ruler, an east Roman official invited him back to his private apartments after the formal ceremonies in the consistory were done. The imperial court had to show complete unanimity in public, but knives were kept sharpened privately, and a constant flurry of rumours spread to advance friends and to destroy foes. Winning and exercising influence backstairs was how the political game was played by everyone.

The rewards of success were enormous: staggering personal wealth and a luxurious lifestyle, together with both social and political power, as you helped shape the affairs of the day and those below you courted your favors. But the price of failure was correspondingly high; Roman politics was a zero-sum game. A top-level political career generated far too many enemies for the individual to be able to take his finger off the pulse for a moment. You don’t hear of many retirements from the uppermost tiers of late Roman politics. The only exit for Stilicho, as we’ve seen, was in a marble sarcophagus, and the same was true for many other leading figures. Regime change, especially the death of an emperor, was the classic moment for the knives to come outIf you were lucky it was just you who snuffed it, but sometimes entire families were wiped out and their wealth confiscated.

Their power came from being seen to do a myriad of small favors, from people knowing that so much influence was within their gift. Patrons were constantly harassed by petitioners, therefore, who would go elsewhere if the particular favor was not forthcoming. Once you stepped on the up escalator, it was hard to get off.

TWELVE YEARS of political conflict, involving two major wars and a minor one, had finally produced a winner. By a combination of assassination, fair battle and good fortune, Aetius had emerged by the end of 433 as the de facto ruler of the western Empire. This kind of court drama was nothing new. It was, as we have seen, a structural limitation of the Roman world that every time a strong man bit the dust, be he emperor or power behind the throne, there was always a protracted struggle to determine his successor. Sometimes, the fall-out was far worse than that witnessed between 421 and 433. Diocletian’s power-sharing Tetrarchy had brought internal peace to the Empire during 285–305, but the price was horrific: multiple, large-scale civil wars over the next 19 years, until Constantine finally eclipsed the last of his rivals. This was a much longer and bloodier bout of mayhem than what took place in and around Italy between the death of Constantius and rise of Aetius.

There was nothing that unusual, then, in the jostling for power that took place during the 420s; but there was something deeply abnormal about its knock-on effects. While a new order was painfully emerging at the center, the rest of the Roman world would usually just get on with being Roman. The landed elites carried on administering their estates and writing letters and poetry to one another, their children busied themselves with mastering the subjunctive, and the peasantry got on with tilling and harvesting. But by the second and third decades of the fifth century there were untamed alien forces at large on Roman soil, and during the 12 years after the death of Constantius they were occupied with more than the business of being Roman. As a result, if the events of 421–33 were in themselves merely a retelling of an age-old Roman story, the same was not true of their consequences. Political paralysis at Ravenna gave the outside forces free rein to pursue their own agendas largely unhindered, and the overall effect was hugely detrimental to the Roman state. For one thing, the Visigothic supergroup settled so recently in Aquitaine got uppity again, aspiring to a more grandiose role in the running of the Empire than the peace of 418 had allowed them. There was also disquiet among some of the usual suspects on the Rhine frontier, particularly the Alamanni and the Franks.

Above all, the Rhine invaders of 406, the Vandals, Alans and Suevi, were on the move once again. They were in origin rather a mixed bunch.

The Alans, Iranian-speaking nomads, as recently as AD 370 had been roaming the steppe east of the River Don and north of the Caspian Sea. Only under the impact of Hunnic attack had some of them started to move west, in a number of separate groups, while others were conquered. The two groups of Vandals, the Hasdings and the Silings – each under their own leaderships like the Gothic Tervingi and Greuthungi of 376 – were Germanic-speaking agriculturalists living, in the fourth century, in central-southern Poland and the northern fringes of the Carpathians.

The Suevi consisted of several small groups from the upland fringes of the Great Hungarian Plain. This odd assortment of peoples may have made common cause in 406, but they were far from natural allies. First, the Hasdings and Silings and Suevi could certainly have understood each other, even if speaking slightly different Germanic dialects, but the Alans spoke another language entirely. Second, both Vandal groups and the Suevi are likely to have shared the tripartite oligarchic structure common to fourth-century Germanic Europe: a dominant, if quite numerous, minority free class, holding sway over freedmen and slaves.

Tied to a nomadic pastoral economy, however, the Alans’ social structure was completely different. Slavery was unknown amongst them, and everyone shared the same noble status. A more egalitarian social structure is natural to nomadic economies, where wealth, measured in the ownership of animals, has a less stable basis than the ownership of land.

Although rather odd bedfellows, the press of events prompted these groups to learn to work together, and this happened progressively over time. Even before crossing the Rhine, Gregory of Tours tells us in his Histories, the Alans under King Respendial rescued the Hasdings from a mauling at the hands of the Franks. We have no idea how closely the groups cooperated in Gaul immediately after the crossing, but in 409, in the face of the counterattacks organized by Constantine III, they again moved en bloc into Spain. By 411, when the threat of any effective Roman counteraction had disappeared, the groups went their own separate ways once more, dividing up the Spanish provinces between them. As we saw, the Hasdings and Suevi shared Gallaecia, the Alans took Lusitania and Carthaginensis, and the Siling Vandals Baetica. The fact that they took two provinces indicates that the Alans were, at this point, the dominant force in the coalition,

Between 416 and 418, the Silings in Baetica (part of modern Andalucia) were destroyed as an independent force, their king Fredibald ending up at Ravenna; and the Alans suffered such heavy casualties, Hydatius reports, that: ‘After the death of their king, Addax, the few survivors, with no thought for their own kingdom, placed themselves under the protection of Gunderic, the king of the [Hasding] Vandals.’ These counterattacks not only returned three Hispanic provinces – Lusitania, Carthagena and Baetica – to central Roman control, but also reversed the balance of power within the Vandal-Alan-Suevi coalition. The previously dominant Alans suffered severely enough to be demoted to junior partners, and for three of the four groups a much tighter political relationship came into force. Hasding Vandals, surviving Siling Vandals and Alans were all now operating under the umbrella of the Hasding monarchy.

In the face of both the greater danger and the greater opportunity that being on Roman territory brought with it, much in the manner of Alaric’s Gothic supergroup, by 418 the loose alliance of 406 had evolved into full political union.

A second barbarian supergroup had been born. these people knew perfectly well that, when a new supremo eventually emerged at court, they would be public enemy number one. They were in Spain by force, and had never negotiated any treaty with the central imperial authorities. So, while presumably making the most of the extended interregnum, they also knew that they needed to be making longer-term plans for their future. In 428, on Gunderic’s death, leadership of the Vandals and Alans passed to his half-brother Geiseric who now had his sights set on Africa. The move was a logical solution to the Vandals’ and Alans’ problems. What they needed was a strategically safe area; in particular, somewhere as far away as possible from any more Roman-Goth campaigns. Africa fitted the bill perfectly – it was only a short hop from southern Spain, and much safer.

It is normally reckoned that, for a successful landing, a seaborne force needs five or six times more troops than land-based defenders.  The explanation for Geiseric’s success is twofold. First, on simple logistic grounds, it is nigh inconceivable that he could have got together enough shipping to move his followers en masse across the sea. Roman ships were not that large. We know, for example, that in a later invasion of North Africa an east Roman expeditionary force averaged about 70 men (plus horses and supplies) per ship.

If Geiseric’s total strength was anywhere near 80,000, he would have needed over 1,000 ships to transport his people in one lift. But in the 460s the whole of the western Empire could raise no more than 300, and it took the combined resources of both Empires to assemble 1,000. In 429, Geiseric had nothing like this catchment area at his disposal, controlling only the coastal province of Baetica. It is overwhelmingly likely, therefore, that he would not have had enough ships to move all his followers in one go. To move a hostile force piecemeal into the heart of defended Roman North Africa would have been suicidal, offering the Romans the first contingent on a plate, while the ships went back for the second. So rather than trying to move his force a long distance by sea, Geiseric simply made the shortest hop across the Mediterranean, from modern-day Tarifa across the Straits of Gibraltar to Tangier (map 10): a distance of only 39 miles (62 km) – even a Roman ship could normally make it there and back again inside 24 hours. For the next month or so, from May 429 onwards, the Straits of Gibraltar must have seen a motley assortment of vessels shunting Vandal-Alans across the Mediterranean.

The intinerary is confirmed by the chronology of the subsequent campaign. It was not until June 430, a good 12 months later, that the Vandals and Alans finally appeared outside the walls of Augustine’s town Hippo Regius, about 2,000 kilometers from Tangier, having travelled there by the main Roman roads.

Once disembarked, the coalition headed slowly east.

Finding a province which was at peace and enjoying quiet, the whole land beautiful and flowering on all sides, they set to work on it with their wicked forces, laying it waste by devastation and bringing everything to ruin with fire and murders. They did not even spare the fruit-bearing orchards, in case people who had hidden in the caves of the mountains . . . would be able to eat the foods produced by them after they had passed. So it was that no place remained safe from being contaminated by them, as they raged with great cruelty, unchanging and relentless.

Finally, on the borders of Numidia, the advancing horde was met by Boniface and his army. Boniface was defeated, and retreated to the city of Hippo Regius, where in June 430 a siege began that would last for 14 months. While Geiseric’s main army got on with the business of besieging, some of his outlying troops, lacking credible opposition, spread out across the landscape. Leaving devastation in their wake, looting the houses of the rich and torturing the odd Catholic bishop, they moved further west towards Carthage and the surrounding province of Proconsularis.

Boniface’s failure to hold the line was the result of the same financial stringencies that had hampered Constantius’ reconstruction of Empire everywhere outside Italy.  In the fourth century there had been no field army in North Africa, only garrison troops.  Of the 31 regiments only four – maybe 2,000 men – were top-grade imperial field army units.

Boniface did what he could, but the Vandal-Alan coalition was much more awesome than the Berber nomads that most of his troops had been trained to deal with. The key North African provinces were now under direct threat, and the future of the western Empire lay in the balance.

Numidia and its two eastern neighbors, Procon-sularis and Byzacena, clustered around their administrative capital Carthage, were a different matter. These provinces played such a critical role in the Empire’s political economy that it is no exaggeration to state that, once the siege of Hippo had begun, Geiseric’s forces were looming directly over the jugular vein of the western Empire.

By the fourth century, Carthage was the port from which North African grain tributes flooded into Ostia, to be offloaded on to carts and smaller boats for the shorter trip inland and upstream to Rome. Carthage and its agricultural hinterland were responsible for feeding the bloated capital of Empire. But keeping the capital fed was no more than a specific application of a much more general point. By the fourth century AD, North Africa had become the economic powerhouse of the Roman west.

Where the average is 16 inches (400 millimeters) per year or more, wheat can be grown. The broad river valleys of Tunisia and the great northern plains of Algeria, together with parts of Morocco in the west, fall into this category. Where precipitation is between 8-16 inches (200-400 millimeters), irrigation is required, but Mediterranean dry farming can still be practiced.  Where rainfall is between 4 to 8 inches (100 – 200 millimeters), olive trees will grow – olives requiring less water, even, than palm trees.

Roman authorities grasped the potential of the well-watered coastal lands to provide grain for Rome. Caesar’s expanded province of Africa was already shipping to the capital 50,000 tons of grain a year. One hundred years later, after the expansion of direct rule, the figure was 500,000 tons, and North Africa had replaced Egypt as the city’s granary, supplying two-thirds of her needs. A substantial process of development was required to guarantee and facilitate this flow of grain.

The governmental capacity of the Roman state was at all periods limited by its primitive bureaucratic technologies. It tended to contract out, recruiting private parties to fulfil vital functions on its behalf. The African grain tax was a classic case in point. Rather than finding and monitoring the thousands of laborers that would be required to operate the huge public estates that had come into its hands in North Africa, it leased land out to private individuals in return for a portion of the produce.

By the fourth century, olive groves could be found 150 kilometers inland from the coast of Tripolitania, where there are none today.

it wasn’t just settlers from Italy who flourished. The kind of irrigation regimes being used in the late Roman period in North Africa were actually ancient and indigenous: everything from terraced hillsides – to catch water and prevent soil erosion – to cisterns, wells, dams, to full-blown and carefully negotiated water-sharing schemes such as that commemorated on an inscription from Lamasba (Ain Merwana). These traditional means of conserving water were simply being applied more vigorously.

Nor were nomads excluded from the action: not only did they provide crucial extra labor at harvest time, working the farms in travelling gangs, but their goods attracted preferential tax treatment.

Fourth-century Carthage, then, was a cultural and, above all, an economic pillar of the western Empire. Huge and bustling, it was a city where the cramped houses of tens of thousands of ordinary citizens offered a sharp contrast to the lofty public buildings and the mansions of the rich. Above all: high on productivity and low on maintenance, North Africa was a massive net contributor to western imperial coffers.

The revenue surplus from North Africa was essential for balancing the imperial books. Without it, the west could never have afforded armed forces large enough to defend its other, more exposed territories. Not only in Africa, but everywhere in the Roman west, predatory immigrants had been left to pursue their own agendas largely unhindered since the death of Constantius in 421. Along the Rhine frontier Franks, Burgundians and Alamanni, particularly the Iuthungi in the Alpine foothills to the south, had conducted raids over the frontier and were threatening further trouble. In southern France, the Visigoths had revolted and were making menacing noises in the direction of the main administrative capital of the region, Aries. In Spain, the Suevi were loose in the north-west and rampaging throughout the peninsula. With the arrival of the Vandal Geiseric on the fringes of Numidia in the year 430, the sword of Damocles was hanging over the entire western Empire.

Into the breach stepped the last great Roman hero of the fifth-century west, Flavius Aetius.  When Aetius finally took control of the western Empire in 433, the consequences of nearly ten years of paralysis at the center could be seen right across its territories. Each of the unsubdued immigrant groups within the frontiers of the west had taken the opportunity to improve its position, as had outsiders beyond. Also, as had happened in the aftermath of the Rhine crossing, the trouble generated by immigrants triggered the usurpation of imperial power by locals. In northern Gaul, in particular Brittany, disruption had been caused by so-called Bagaudae. Zosimus mentions other groups labelled Bagaudae in the foothills of the western Alps in 407/8, and Hydatius tells us in his Chronicle that they had appeared in Spain by the early 440s. Who these people were has long been a hot topic among historians. The term originated in the third century, when they were characterized as ‘country folk and bandits’. For historians of a Marxist inclination it has been impossible not to view them as social revolutionaries who from time to time generated a groundswell of protest against the inequalities of the Roman world, and who appeared whenever central control faltered. Certainly, Bagaudae do consistently make an appearance where central control was disrupted by the hostile activities of barbarians, but the glimpses we get of their social composition don’t always suggest revolutionaries. The smart money is on the term having become a catch-all for the perpetrators of any kind of dissident activity. Sometimes those labelled Bagaudae were bandits. Those of the Alps in 407/8, for instance, demanded money with menaces from a Roman general on the run. But self-help groups seeking to preserve the social order in their own localities when the long arm of the state no longer reached there, also seem to have been referred to as ‘Bagaudae’. In the 410s Armorica had already asserted independence in an attempt to quell disorder; later, something similar was happening in Spain.

Either way, Bagaudae plus barbarians spelt trouble. By the summer of 432, the threat was widespread and imminent: in north-west Gaul there were the Bagaudae; in south-west Gaul, Visigoths; on the Rhine frontier and in the Alpine foothills, Franks, Burgundians and Alamanni; in north-west Spain, Suevi; and in North Africa, the Vandals and Alans. In fact, much of Spain had not seen proper central control since the 410s. Given, too, that Britain had already dropped out of the western orbit, the only places in decent shape from an imperial viewpoint were Italy, Sicily and south-east Gaul.

Aetius’ achievement during the 430s was prodigious. Franks and Alamanni had been pushed back into their cantons beyond the Rhine, the Burgundians and Bagaudae had been thoroughly subdued, the Visigoths’ pretensions had been reined in, and much of Spain returned to imperial control. Not for nothing did Constantinopolitan opinion consider Aetius the last true Roman of the west.

Just as Merobaudes was putting the last full stop to his latest opus in Aetius’ praise, and Aetius was contemplating sending his trusty breastplate to the cleaners, a new storm burst on the horizon. In October 439, after four and a half years of peace, Geiseric’s forces broke out of their Mauretanian reservation and came thundering into the richer provinces of North Africa.

The logistic limitations characteristic of the Roman Empire ruled out all thoughts of an instant counterstrike, and for now the advantage lay with Geiseric. A series of laws issued in the name of Valentinian III in spring 440 testify to the impending sense of crisis. On 3 March, special license was granted to eastern traders in order to guarantee food supplies for the city of Rome: the cutting off of the African bread dole to the capital was not the least of Aetius’ worries. The same law also put in place measures to rectify holes in Rome’s defenses, and to ensure that everyone knew what their duty was with regard to garrisoning the city. On 20 March, another law summoned recruits to the colors, at the same time threatening anyone who harbored deserters with the direst of punishments. A third law, of 24 June, authorized people to carry arms again ‘because it is not sufficiently certain, under summertime opportunities for navigation, to what shore the ships of the enemy can come.’

Late in 440, after the onset of bad weather had forced the Vandals back to Carthage, a joint imperial army began to assemble in Sicily: 1,100 ships to carry men, horses and supplies. Aetius’ ‘large force’ crossed to the island, and was joined there by a substantial expeditionary force from the east. No source puts a figure to the Roman forces gathered there, but the shipping was enough to carry several tens of thousands of men.

Why did the joint expeditionary force never sail?

A new threat, well beyond anything the Vandals might pose, had arisen, and Aetius was needed back in harness to save the Roman world yet again.  It was this threat that compelled the troops gathered in Sicily to return to their bases, thus leaving Carthage in the hands of the Vandals. And the western Empire would have to cope as best it could with the consequences of Geiseric’s success.

Thus, in 442 a second treaty was made with the Vandals, this one licensing Geiseric’s control of Proconsularis and Byzacena, together, it seems, with part of Numidia.

In return for peace, now that he had got what he wanted, Geiseric was willing to be generous. A grain tribute of some kind, although presumably rather diminished, continued to arrive in Rome from the Vandal provinces, and his eldest son Huneric was sent to the imperial court as a hostage. In a massive break with tradition the ‘hostage’ Huneric was betrothed to Eudocia, the daughter of the emperor Valentinian III.  For the first time, a legitimate marriage was being contemplated between barbarian royalty and the imperial family. The continuation of food supplies to the city of Rome probably seemed worth the humiliation.

Just like Jovian’s surrender of provinces and cities to the Persians in 363, so the loss of Carthage to the Vandals and Alans in 442 was presented as a Roman victory, and for the same reasons. A God-protected Empire simply could not admit to defeat: the image of control had to be maintained, come what may.

None of this meant, of course, that the consequences of the new peace treaty weren’t disastrous. In Africa, Geiseric proceeded with the kind of pay-out that his followers were expecting, and that was essential to his own political survival. To provide the necessary wherewithal, he confiscated senatorial estates in Proconsularis such as those belonging to Symmachus’ descendants, and reallocated them to his followers.  The same old peasantry continued to farm the same old bits of land. The difference was that the rent was now paid to new landowners.

The loss of its best North African provinces, combined with a massive seven-eighths reduction in revenue from the rest, was a fiscal disaster for the west Roman state. A series of regulations from the 440s show unmistakable signs of the financial difficulties that now followed. In 440 and 441, initial efforts had been made to maximize revenues from its surviving sources of cash. A law of 24 January 440 withdrew all existing special imperial grants of tax exemption or reduction.80 In similar vein, a law of 4 June that year attempted to cut back on the practice of imperial officials – palatines – taking an extra percentage for themselves when out collecting taxes. On 14 March 441, the screw was tightened further: lands that had been rented annually from the imperial fisc, with tax privileges attached, were now to be assessed at the normal rate, as was all Church land. In addition, the law cast its glance towards a whole range of smaller burdens from which the lands of higher dignitaries had previously been immune: ‘the building and repair of military roads, the manufacture of arms, the restoration of walls, the provision of the annona, and the rest of the public works through which we achieve the splendour of public defence’. Now, for the first time, no one was to be exempt.

Roman historians tend to consider that the late Empire spent about two-thirds of its revenues on the army, and this figure can’t be far wrong. The army was bound to be the main loser, therefore, when imperial revenues declined drastically. There were no other major areas of spending to cut. And the piecemeal measures of 440–1 were insufficient to compensate for the overall loss in African revenue.

The total tax lost from these provinces in 445, because of the new remissions, amounted to 106,200 solidi per annum. A regular infantryman cost approximately six solidi per annum, and a cavalry trooper 10.5. This means that the reduced tax from Numidia and Mauretania alone implied a reduction in army size of about 18,000 infantrymen, or about 10,000 cavalry. This, of course, takes no account of the complete loss of revenue from the much richer provinces of Proconsularis and Byzacena, so that the total of lost revenues from all of North Africa must have implied a decline in military numbers of getting on for 40,000 infantry, or in excess of 20,000 cavalry. And these losses, of course, came on top of the earlier ones dating from the post-405 period.

Only a massive new threat, therefore, could have made Aetius call off the joint east-west expedition and accept these disastrous consequences. Where had this threat come from?

Arrow-firing hordes from Scythia? In the middle of the fifth century, that could mean only one thing: Huns. And the Huns were, indeed, the new problem, the reason why the North African expedition never set sail from Sicily. Just as it was making final preparations to depart, the Huns launched an attack over the River Danube into the territory of the east Roman Balkans. Constantinople’s contingent for Carthage, all taken from the Danube front, had to be recalled immediately, pulling the plug on any attempt to destroy Geiseric. Yet all through the 420s and 430s, as we have seen, the Huns had been a key ally, keeping Aetius in power and enabling him to crush the Burgundians and curb the Visigoths. Behind this change in attitude lay another central character in the story of Rome’s destruction. It’s time to meet Attila the Hun.

From 4411 to 453, the history of Europe was dominated by military campaigns on an unprecedented scale, the work of Attila, ‘scourge of God’. Historians’ opinions about him have ranged from one end of the spectrum to the other. After Gibbon, he tended to be viewed as a military and diplomatic genius. Edward Thompson, writing in the 1940s, sought to set the record straight by portraying him as a bungler. To Christian contemporaries, Attila’s armies seemed like a whip wielded by the Almighty. His pagan forces ranged across Europe, sweeping those of God-chosen Roman emperors before them. Roman imperial ideology was good at explaining victory, but not so good at explaining defeat, especially at the hands of non-Christians. Why was God allowing the unbelievers to destroy His people? In the 440s, Attila the Hun, spreading devastation from Constantinople to the gates of Paris, prompted this question as it had never been prompted before. As one contemporary put it, ‘Attila ground almost the whole of Europe into dust.’

In their first campaign against the east Roman Empire, Attila and Bleda had shown that they had the military capacity to take fully defended front-rank Roman fortresses. They may have gained Margus by stratagem; but Viminacium and Naissus were both large and well-fortified, and yet they had been able to force their way in. This represented a huge change in the balance of military power between the Roman and non-Roman worlds in the European theatre of war. As we have seen, the last serious attack on the Balkans had been by Goths between 376 and 382; and then, although they had been able to take smaller fortified posts or force their evacuation, large walled cities had been beyond them. Consequently, even though at times hard-pressed for food, the cities of the Roman Balkans had survived the war more or less intact. The same was true of western Germania. When Roman forces were distracted by civil wars, Rhine frontier groups had on occasion overrun large tracts of imperial territory: witness the Alamanni in the aftermath of the civil war between Magnentius and Constantius II in the early 350s. All they had done then, though, was occupy the outskirts of the cities and destroy small watch-towers. They did not attempt to take on the major fortified centers such as Cologne, Strasbourg, Speyer, Worms or Mainz, all of which survived more or less intact. Now, the Huns were able to mount successful sieges of such strongholds.

By the 440s the Huns had been in the employ of Aetius certainly, and quite possibly of Constantius before him, so that close observation of the Roman army could easily have been the source of their knowledge – in other eras, Roman techniques and weaponry had quickly been adopted by non-Romans.

As recently as 439, Hunnic auxiliaries had been part of the western Roman force that had besieged the Goths in Toulouse, and would have seen a siege at first hand.

Just as important for successful siege warfare was the availability of manpower. Men were needed to make and man machines, to dig trenches and to make the final assault. As we shall see later in this chapter, even if the designs for siege machinery did come from old knowledge, it was only recently that manpower on such a scale was available to the Huns.

Whatever its origins, the barbarians’ capacity to take key fortified centers was a huge strategic shock for the Roman Empire. Impregnable fortified cities were central to the Empire’s control of its territories. But, serious as the capture of Viminacium and Naissus was, what mattered most at this moment was that the Huns had picked their first fight with Constantinople at exactly the point when the joint east-west expedition force was gathering in Sicily to attempt to wrest Carthage from the Vandals. As we noted earlier, much of the eastern component for this expedition had been drawn from the field armies of the Balkans, and of this, no doubt, the Huns were well aware. Information passed too freely across the Roman frontier for it to be possible to hide the withdrawal of large numbers of troops from their normal stations. I suspect that by raising the annual tribute so readily at the start of the reign of Attila and Bleda to 700 pounds of gold, the authorities in Constantinople were trying to buy a big enough breathing space for the African expedition to be launched. If so, they spectacularly failed. Instead of being bought off, the Huns decided to exploit the Romans’ temporary weakness farther, and so, with havoc in mind, hurled their armies across the Danube. The authorities in Constantinople thus had no choice but to withdraw their troops from Sicily; and after the unprecedented loss of three major bases – Viminacium, Margus and Naissus (although the latter had probably not yet fallen when the orders were given) – it’s hard to blame them. The Hunnic army was now poised astride the great military road through the Balkans and pointing straight at Constantinople.

Man aspects of the reign of Attila are less certain. Illiterate when they first hit the fringes of Europe in the 370s, the Huns remained so 70 years later, and there are no Hunnic accounts of even the greatest of their leaders. Our Roman sources, as always, are much more concerned with the political and military impact of alien groups upon the Empire than with chronicling their deeds, so there are always points of huge interest, particularly in the internal history of such groups, that receive little or no coverage.

On 27 January 447, during the second hour after midnight, an earthquake had struck Constantinople. The whole district around the Golden Gate was in ruins, and, even worse, part of the city’s great landwalls had collapsed. Attila was on the point of invading anyway, but news of the earthquake may have altered his line of attack. By the time he got there, the crisis was over. The Praetorian Prefect of the east, Constantinus, had mobilized the circus factions to clear the moats of rubble and rebuild gates and towers. By the end of March the damage was repaired and, as a commemorative inscription put it, ‘even Athene could not have built it quicker and better’. Long before Attila’s forces got anywhere near the city the opportunity to take it had gone, and the Huns’ advance led not to a siege but to the second major confrontation of the year. Although the Thracian field army had been defeated and scattered, the east Romans still had central forces stationed around the capital on either side of the Bosporus. This second army was mobilized in the Chersonesus, where a second major battle, and a second huge defeat for the Romans, duly followed.

Attila had failed to force his way into Constantinople, but having reached the coast of both the Black Sea and the Dardanelles, at Sestus and Callipollis (modern-day Gallipoli) respectively, he had mastery of the Balkans in all other respects. And he proceeded to wield his domination to dire effect for the Roman provincial communities. In the aftermath of victory the Hunnic forces split up, raiding as far south as the pass of Thermopylae, site of Leonidas’ famous defense of Greece against the Persians nearly a thousand years before.  

The dig revealed that these houses, as well as the city center, terminated in a substantial destruction layer, which the end of a more or less continuous coin sequence dates firmly to the mid- to late-440s.

There is little doubt, therefore, that in the total destruction of the old city we are looking at the effects of its sack at the hands of Attila’s Huns in 447.

Roman urban development north of the Haemus Mountains, a phenomenon stretching back 300 years to the Romanization of the Balkans in the first and second centuries AD, was destroyed by the Huns, never to recover. This was evidently no cozy little sack, like that of Rome in 410 when the Goths were paid off, then went home. What we’re looking at in Nicopolis is large-scale destruction.

Whether it was like this everywhere the Huns descended is impossible to say. Of those places that managed to survive, the most famous is the town of Asemus, perched on an impregnable hilltop. Armed and organized, its citizens not only weathered Attila’s storm but emerged from the action with Hunnic prisoners. Their city would survive further storms in the centuries to come. But there can be no doubt that the campaigns of 447 were an unprecedented disaster for Roman life in the Balkans: two major field armies defeated, a host of defended strongholds captured and some destroyed. It’s hardly surprising, then, that in the aftermath of their second defeat in the Cherso-nesus the east Romans were forced to sue for peace. An extract from Priscus’ history gives us the terms: [Any] fugitives should be handed over to the Huns, and 6,000 pounds of gold be paid to complete the outstanding instalments of tribute; the tribute henceforth be set at 2,100 pounds of gold per year; for each Roman prisoner of war amongst the Huns who escaped and reached his home territory without ransom, twelve solidi [one-sixth of a pound of gold] were to be paid . . . and . . . the Romans were to receive no barbarian who fled to them. As Priscus went on to comment wryly: The Romans pretended that they had made these agreements voluntarily, but because of the overwhelming fear which gripped their commanders they were compelled to accept gladly every injunction, however harsh, in their eagerness for peace.

Attila’s habits and self-presentation were not what you might expect. Priscus reports on dining with him that for the other barbarians and for us there were lavishly prepared dishes served on silver platters, for Attila there was only meat on a wooden plate . . . Gold and silver goblets were handed to the men at the feast, whereas his cup was of wood. His clothing was plain and differed not at all from that of the rest, except that it was clean. Neither the sword that hung at his side nor the fastenings of his barbarian boots nor his horse’s bridle was adorned, like those of the other Scythians, with gold or precious stones.  For the god-appointed conqueror, plain was good.

Good relations also demanded the regular sharing of the booty of war. None of this takes us far inside Attila’s head, but it gives us some insight into his recipe for success: total self-confidence and the charisma that often flows from this; ruthlessness when called for, but also a capacity for moderation, married to shrewdness; and a respect for his subordinates, whose loyalty was so vital.

Set against what we know about nomad anthropology, political centralization – the first of the two transformations that concern us here – must also have been associated with a broader transformation among the Huns. Devolved power structures occur very naturally among nomadic groups, because their herds cannot be concentrated in large groupings, for fear of overgrazing. In the nomad world, the main purpose of any larger political structure is simply to provide a temporary forum where grazing rights can be negotiated, and a force put together, if necessary, to protect those rights against outsiders. This being the case, the permanent centralization of political power among the Huns strongly implies that they were no longer so economically dependent upon the produce of their flocks.

Nomads always need to form economic relationships with settled agricultural producers. This was clearly the case with the Huns, and commercial exchanges were still taking place in the 440s. But by the time of Attila, the main form of exchange between Hunnic nomad and Roman agriculturalist was not grain in return for animal products, but cash in return for military aid of one kind or another. This form of exchange had its origins in previous generations, when Huns had performed mercenary service for the Roman state. Uldin and his followers were the first we know of to have fulfilled this role, in the early 400s, and larger Hunnic forces may have aided Constantius in the 410s, and certainly supported Aetius in the 420s and 430s. Shortly after, military service for pay evolved into demands for money with menaces. Precisely when the line was crossed is impossible to say, but Attila’s uncle Rua certainly launched one major assault on the east Roman Empire with cash in mind, even if he also provided mercenary service for the west. By the reign of Attila, targeted foreign aid had become tribute, and it clearly emerges from Priscus’ record of Romano-Hunnic diplomacy that the main thing the Huns wanted from these exchanges, and from their periodic assaults across the frontier, was cash and yet more cash. As we saw earlier, the first treaty between Attila and Bleda and the east Romans fixed the size of this annual tribute at seven hundred pounds of gold – and from there the demands could only escalate. Hunnic warfare against the Romans also brought other one-sided economic exchanges in its wake: booty, slaves and ransoms such as the one Priscus and Maximinus negotiated. By the 440s, then, military predation upon the Roman Empire had become the source of an ever-expanding flow of funds into the Hunnic world.

Cornering the market in the flow of funds from the Empire was the ideal means of putting sufficient powers of patronage into the hands of just one man, and rendering the old political structures redundant. Only by controlling the flow of new funds could one king outbid the others in the struggle for support. Already in the mid- to late-fourth century, Huns had presumably been raiding and intimidating both other nomads and Germanic agriculturalists north of the Black Sea, but real centralization only became possible once the main body of the Huns was operating close to the Roman world. Raid and intimidate the Goths and you might get some slaves, a bit of silver and some agricultural produce, but that was about it – not enough to fund full-scale political revolution. But do the same vis-à-vis the Roman Empire, and the gold would begin to roll in, first in hundreds of pounds annually, then thousands – enough to transform both economic and political systems.

We could understand these transformations as an adaptation away from nomadism, rather than a complete break with the past. As mentioned earlier, in normal circumstances nomads rear a range of animals to make full use of the varying qualities of available grazing. The horse figures primarily as an expensive, almost luxury animal, used for raiding, war, transport and trade; its meat and milk provide only a very inefficient return in terms of usable protein compared with the quality and quantity of grazing required. As a result, nomads generally keep relatively few horses. If, however, warfare becomes a financially attractive proposition, as it did when the Huns came within range of the Roman Empire, then nomads might well start to breed increasing numbers of horses for war – evolving, in the process, into a particular type of militarily predatory nomadic group. This could never have worked as a subsistence strategy out on the steppe, where the potential proceeds from warfare were so much less.

It is impossible to prove that this is what happened, but one relevant factor is the size of the fifth-century Hunnic homeland, the Hungarian Plain: while providing good-quality grazing, it was much smaller than the plains of the Great Eurasian Steppe the Huns had left behind. Its 42,400 square kilometers amount to less than 4% of the grazing available, for instance, in the republic of Mongolia alone. And because the grazing was now so limited, some historians have wondered whether the Huns were evolving towards a fully sedentary existence in the fifth century. This is a possible argument, but not a necessary one. The Hungarian Plain notionally provides grazing for 320,000 horses, but this figure must be reduced so as to accommodate other animals, forest and so on; so it would be reasonable to suppose that it could support, maybe, 150,000. Given that each nomad warrior requires a string of ten horses to be able to rotate and not overtire them, the Hungarian Plain would thus provide sufficient space to support horses for up to 15,000 warriors. I would doubt that there were ever more Huns than this in total, so that, as late as the reign of Attila, there is in fact no firm indication that the Huns did not retain part of their nomad character. Whatever the case, the real point is that, once they found themselves within hailing distance of the Roman Empire, the Huns perceived a new and better way to make a living, based on military predation upon the relatively rich economy of the Mediterranean world.

Why had Germanic languages come to play a prominent role in the Hunnic Empire? The explanation lies in the broader evolution of Attila’s Empire. As far back as the 370s when they were attacking Goths beyond the Black Sea, Huns were forcing others they had already subdued to fight alongside them. When they first attacked the Greuthungi, starting the avalanche that ended at the battle of Hadrianople, they were operating in alliance with Iranian-speaking Alan nomads. And whenever we encounter them subsequently, we find that Hunnic forces always fought alongside non-Hunnic allies. Although Uldin was not a conqueror on the scale of Attila, once the east Romans had dismantled his following, most of the force they were left with to resettle turned out to be Germanic-speaking Sciri. Likewise, in the early 420s, east Roman forces intervening to curb Hunnic power west of the Carpathian Mountains found themselves left with a large number of Germanic Goths.

By the 440s, an unprecedented number of Germanic groups found themselves within the orbit defined by the formidable power of Attila the Hun. For example, his Empire contained at least three separate clusters of Goths.

We can’t put figures on this vast body of Germanic-speaking humanity, but the Amal-led Goths alone could muster 10,000-plus fighting men, and hence had maybe a total population of 50,000. And there is no reason to suppose that the other groups were much, if at all, smaller. Many tens of thousands, therefore, and probably several hundreds of thousands, of Germanic-speakers were caught up in the Hunnic Empire by the time of Attila. In fact, by the 440s there were probably many more Germanic-speakers than Huns, which explains why ‘Gothic’ should have become the Empire’s lingua franca. Nor do these Germani exhaust the list of Attila’s non-Hunnic subjects. Iranian-speaking Alanic and Sarmatian groups, as we saw earlier, had long been in alliance with the Huns, and Attila continued to grasp at opportunities to acquire new allies. 

The Hunnic Empire was all about incorporating people, not territory: hence Attila’s virtual lack of interest in annexing substantial chunks of the Roman Empire. It is clear that his armies, like those of his less powerful predecessors, were always composites, consisting both of Huns and of contingents from the numerous other peoples incorporated into his Empire.

Since 1945 a mass of material has been unearthed from cemetery excavations on the Great Hungarian Plain and its environs, dating to the period of Hunnic domination there. In this material, ‘proper’ Huns have proved extremely hard to find. In total – and this includes the Volga Steppe north of the Black Sea as well as the Hungarian Plain – archaeologists have identified no more than 200 burials as plausibly Hunnic.  The kinds of items found in the graves, the ways in which people were buried and, perhaps above all, the way women, in particular, wore their clothes – gathered with a safety-pin, or fibula, on each shoulder, with another closing the outer garment in front – all reflect the patterns observable in definitely Germanic remains of the fourth century. One possible answer to the question of the lack of Hunnic burials, then, is that, quite simply, they started to dress like their Germanic subject peoples, in just the same way that they learned the Gothic language. If so, it would be impossible to tell Hun from Goth. But even if our ‘real Huns’ are lying there in disguise, as it were, this doesn’t alter the fact that there were an awful lot of Germani buried in and around the Great Hungarian Plain in the Hunnic period.

Every time a new barbarian group was added to Attila’s Empire, that group’s manpower was mobilized for Hunnic campaigns. Hence the Huns’ military machine increased, and increased very quickly, by incorporating ever larger numbers of the Germani of central and eastern Europe. In the short term, this benefited the embattled Roman west. The reason, as many historians have remarked, that the rush of Germanic immigration into the Roman Empire ceased after the crisis of 405–8 was that those who had not crossed the frontier by about 410 found themselves incorporated instead into the Empire of the Huns; and there is an inverse relationship between the pace of migration into the Roman Empire and the rise of Hunnic power.

For the first time in imperial Roman history, the Huns managed to unite a large number of Rome’s European neighbors into something approaching a rival imperial superpower.

The full ferocity of this extraordinary new war machine was felt in the first instance by the east Roman Empire, whose Balkan communities suffered heavily in 441/2 and again in 447. After the two defeats of the 447 campaign, the east Romans had nothing left to throw in Attila’s direction. Hence, in 449, their resorting to the assassination attempt in which Maximinus and Priscus found themselves unwittingly embroiled. Still Attila didn’t let Constantinople off the hook. Having refused to settle the matter of the fugitives and repeated his demands for the establishment of a cordon sanitaire inside the Danube frontier, he now added another: that the east Romans should provide a nobly born wife (with an appropriate dowry) for his Roman-born secretary. These demands, if unsatisfied, were possible pretexts for war, and his constant agitating shows that Attila was still actively considering another major assault on the Balkans.

What quickly emerged, however, was that Attila had settled with Constantinople not because – as the stereotypical barbarian – he had been blown away by the wisdom of his east Roman interlocutors, but because he wanted a secure eastern front, having decided on a massive invasion of the Roman west.

Having followed the Upper Danube northwestwards out of the Great Hungarian Plain, the horde crossed the Rhine in the region of Coblenz and continued west. The city of Metz fell on 7 April, shortly followed by the old imperial capital of Trier. The army then thrust into the heart of Roman Gaul. By June, it was outside the city of Orleans, where a considerable force of Alans in Roman service had their headquarters. The city was placed under heavy siege; there are hints that Attila was hoping to lure Sangibanus, king of some of the Alans based in the city, over to his side. At the same time elements of the army had also reached the gates of Paris, where they were driven back by the miraculous intervention of the city’s patron Saint Genevieve. It looks as if the Hunnic army was swarming far and wide over Roman Gaul, looting and ransacking as it went.

Aetius was still generalissimo of the west, and he had been anticipating the possibility of a Hunnic assault on the west from at least 443. When it finally materialized, nearly a decade later, he sprang into action. Faced with this enormous threat, he strove to put together a coalition of forces that would stand some chance of success. Early summer 451 saw him advancing north through Gaul with contingents of the Roman armies of Italy and Gaul, plus forces from many allied groups, such as the Burgundians and the Aquitainian Visigoths under their king Theoderic. On 14 June, the approach of this motley force compelled Attila’s withdrawal from Orleans.

A stalemate followed, with the two armies facing each other, until the Huns began slowly to retreat. Aetius didn’t press them too hard, and disbanded his coalition of forces as quickly as possible – a task made much easier by the fact that the Visigoths were keen to return to Toulouse to sort out the succession to their dead king. Attila consented to his army’s continued withdrawal and, tails between their legs, the Huns returned to Hungary. Although the cost to the Roman communities in the Huns’ line of march was enormous, Attila’s first assault on the west had been repulsed. Yet again, Aetius had delivered at the moment of crisis. Despite the limited resources available, he had put together a coalition that had saved Gaul.

In the spring of 452, his force broke through the Alpine passes. The stork, of course (not to mention Attila), was right. The Huns’ precocious skill at taking fortified strongholds prevailed, and Aquileia fell to them in short order. Its capture opened up the main route into north-eastern Italy. The horde then followed the ancient Roman roads west across the Po Plain. One of the political heartlands of the western Empire and agriculturally rich, this region was endowed with many prosperous cities. Now, as in the Balkans, one after the other these cities fell to the Huns, and they took in swift succession Padua, Mantua, Vicentia, Verona, Brescia and Bergamo. Attila was at the gates of Milan, a long-time imperial capital. The siege was protracted, but again Attila triumphed, and another center of Empire was looted and sacked.

But, as in Gaul the previous year, Attila’s Italian campaign failed to go entirely to plan. It was essentially a series of sieges, and lacked substantial logistic support. In their often cramped conditions, the Hunnic army was vulnerable in more ways than one, succumbing to famine and disease.  

By the time Milan was captured, disease was taking a heavy toll, and food running dangerously short. Also, Constantinople now had a new ruler, the emperor Marcian, and his forces, together with what Aetius could put together, were far from idle: In addition, the Huns were slaughtered by auxiliaries sent by the Emperor Marcian and led by Aetius, and at the same time they were crushed in their settlements by both heaven sent disasters and the army of Marcian. It looks as though, while the Hunnic army in Italy was being harassed by Aetius leading a joint east-west force, other eastern forces were launching a raid north of the Danube, into Attila’s heartland. The combination was deadly, and, as in the previous year, the Hun had no choice but to retreat.

Nothing suggests that the Huns had any equivalent, therefore, of the Romans’ capacity for planning and putting in place the necessary logistic support, in terms of food and fodder, for major campaigns. No doubt, when the word went out to assemble for war, each warrior was expected to bring a certain amount of food along with him, but as the campaign dragged on, the Hunnic army was bound to be living mainly off the land. Hence, in campaigns over longer distances, the difficulties involved in maintaining the army as an effective fighting force increased exponentially. Fatigue as well as the likelihood of food shortages and disease increased with distance. There was also every chance that the army would spread so widely over an unfamiliar landscape in search of supplies that it would be difficult to concentrate for battle.

In 447, during the widest-reaching of the Balkan campaigns, for their first major battle Attila’s armies had marched west along the northern line of the Haemus Mountains, crossed them, then moved south towards Constantinople, then southwest to the Chersonesus for their second: a total distance of something like 500 kilometers. In 451, the army had to cover the distance from Hungary to Orleans, about 1,200 kilometers; and in 452 from Hungary to Milan, perhaps 800, but this time they were laying siege as they went, which made them yet more susceptible to disease. As many historians have commented, in campaigns covering such vast distances into the western Empire, Attila and his forces were almost bound to experience serious setbacks.

The Huns and Rome

The full effect upon the Roman world of the rise of the Hunnic Empire can be broken down into three phases. The first generated two great moments of crisis on the frontier for the Roman Empire, during 376–80 and 405–8, forcing it to accept upon its soil the establishment of enclaves of unsubdued barbarians. The existence of these enclaves in turn created new and hugely damaging centrifugal forces within the Empire’s body politic. In the second phase, in the generation before Attila, the Huns evolved from invaders into empire-builders in central Europe, and the flow of refugees into Roman territory ceased. The Huns wanted subjects to exploit, and strove to bring potential candidates under control. In this era, too, Constantius and Aetius were able to make use of Hunnic power to control the immigrant groups who had previously crossed the Empire’s frontier to escape from the Huns. Since none of these groups was actually destroyed, however, the palliative effects of phase two of the Hunnic impact upon the Roman world by no means outweighed the damage done in phase one. Attila’s massive military campaigns of the 440s and early 450s mark the third phase in Hunnic-Roman relations. Their effects, as one might expect, were far-reaching. The east Roman Empire’s Balkan provinces were devastated, with thousands killed as one stronghold after another was taken. As the remains of Nicopolis and Istrum so graphically show, Roman administration might be restored but not so the Latin- and Greek-speaking landowning class that had grown up over the preceding four centuries. The Gallic campaign of 451, and particularly the assault upon Italy in 452, inflicted enormous damage upon those unfortunate enough to find themselves in the Huns’ path.

But if we step back from the immediate drama and consider the Roman state in broader terms, Attila’s campaigns, though serious, were not life-threatening. The eastern half of the Roman Empire depended on the tax it collected from a rich arc of provinces stretching from Asia Minor to Egypt, territories out of reach of the Huns. For all the latter’s siege technology, the triple landwalls surrounding Constantinople made the eastern capital impregnable; and the Huns had no navy to take them across the narrow straits that separated the Balkans from the rich provinces of Asia.

A similar situation prevailed in the west. By the time of Attila, it was already feeling a heavy financial strain, as we have seen, but given the logistic limitations of the Hunnic military machine, Attila came nowhere near to conquering it. In fact, far more serious damage was indirectly inflicted upon the structures of Empire by the influx of armed immigrants between 376 and 408. Moreover, it was again the indirect effects of the age of Attila that posed the real threat to the integrity of the west Roman state. Because he had to concentrate on dealing with Attila, Aetius had less time and fewer resources for tackling other threats to the Roman west in the 440s. And these other threats cost the western Empire much more dearly than the Hunnic invasions of 451 and 452. The first and most serious loss was the enforced abandonment of the reconquest of North Africa from the Vandals.

The picture was bleak. The western Empire had by 452 lost a substantial percentage of its provinces: the whole of Britain, most of Spain, the richest provinces of North Africa, those parts of south-western Gaul ceded to the Visigoths, plus south-eastern Gaul ceded to the Burgundians. Furthermore, much of the rest had also seen serious fighting in the last decade or so, and the revenues from these areas too would have been substantially reduced. The problem of diminishing funds had become overwhelming. The Huns’ indirect role in this process of attrition, in having originally pushed many of the armed immigrants across the frontier, did far more harm than any damage directly inflicted by Attila.

The fall of the Hunnic empire, the fall of Attila’s empire, is an extraordinary story in its own right. Up to about AD 350, the Huns had figured not at all in European history. During 350–410, the only Huns most Romans had encountered were a few raiding parties. Ten years later, Huns in significant numbers had established themselves west of the Carpathian Mountains on the Great Hungarian Plain, but they still functioned mostly as useful allies to the Roman state. In 441, when Attila and Bleda launched their first attack across the Roman frontier, the ally revealed his new colors. In 40 years, the Huns had risen from nowhere to European superpower. By anyone’s standards, this was spectacular. But the collapse of Attila’s Empire was more spectacular still. By 469, just 16 years after his death, the last of the Huns were seeking asylum inside the eastern Roman Empire. Their extinction would cause deep reverberations in the Roman west.

Key stages in the process of Hunnic collapse

Over the years, many explanations have been offered for this extraordinary phenomenon. Historians of earlier eras tended to argue that it was testament to the extraordinary personal capacities of Attila: the Empire could only exist with him at the helm. Edward Thompson, by contrast, rooted the Huns’ demise in the divisive social effects of all the wealth they acquired from the Roman Empire. There is something in both of these theories. Attila the Hun, as we have seen, was an extraordinary operator, and no doubt the gold extracted from Rome was not distributed entirely evenly among his people. But a full understanding of the Hunnic Empire must turn on its relations with its largely Germanic subjects. As already suggested, it was the ability to suck in so many of these militarized groups that underlay the sudden explosion of Hunnic power in the 420s-40s. After Attila’s death, likewise, it was his successors’ increasing inability to maintain control over those same groups that spelled their own decline. The key starting-point is that the Hunnic Empire was not generally enrolled voluntarily. All the evidence we have suggests that non-Hunnic groups became caught up in it through a combination of conquest and intimidation.

While Attila was capable of deft political maneuvering when the occasion demanded, the basic tool of Hunnic imperial expansion was military conquest. It was, of course, to avoid Hunnic domination that the Tervingi and Greuthungi had come to the Danube in the summer of 376 in the first place. And it was after a savage mauling at the hands of the Huns in the 430s that the Burgundians also ended up in the Roman Empire. All this is consistent with the fact that there was, as we have seen, one way, and one way only, of quitting Attila’s Empire: warfare.

They reminded 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.’ Taking the subject peoples’ supplies was, of course, only part of the story. They were also used, as we have seen, to fight the Huns’ wars. Few civilian prisoners are likely to have been very good at fighting, and casualty numbers during Hunnic campaigns were probably enormous.

Clearly, then, the Hunnic Empire was an inherently unstable political entity, riven with tensions between rulers and ruled. Tensions of a different kind also existed between the subject peoples themselves, who had a long history of mutual aggression even before the Huns appeared. This particular instability tends to receive little coverage from historians because most of our source material comes from a Roman, Priscus, and dates to the time when Attila’s power was unchallengeable. Cast the net wider, though, and the evidence rapidly gathers itself. The greatest strength of the Hunnic Empire – the ability to increase its power by quickly consuming subject peoples – was also its greatest weakness. The Romans, for instance, were happy to exploit, whenever they could, the fact that these subject peoples were not there of their own free will. In the 420s, the east Roman counteraction against the rising Hunnic power in Pannonia was to remove from their control a large number of Goths whom they then settled in Thrace.

Unlike the Roman Empire, which spent centuries dissipating the tensions of conquest turning their subjects – or, at least, the landowners among them – into full Romans, the Huns lacked the necessary stability and the bureaucratic capacity to run their subjects directly. Instead of revolutionizing the sociopolitical structures of the conquered peoples or imposing their own, they had to rely on an indigenous leadership to continue the daily management of the subject groups. As a result, the Huns could exert only a moderate degree of dominion and interference, and even that varied from one subject people to another. The Gepids, as we have seen, had their own overall leader at the time of Attila’s death, and so were quickly able to assert their independence. Other groups, like the Amal-led Goths, first had to produce a leader of their own before they could challenge Hunnic hegemony. Some, like the Goths in thrall to Dengizich when he invaded east Roman territory in the 460s, never managed to do so.

If the sources were more numerous and more informative, I suspect that the narrative would show the Hunnic Empire peeling apart like an onion after 453, with different subject layers asserting independence at different times, in inverse relation to the degree of domination the Huns had previously exercised over their lives. The two key variables were, first, the extent to which the subjects’ political structure had been left intact; and second their distance from the heartland of the Empire where Attila had his camps. Some groups, settled close to the Huns’ own territories, were kept on a very tight rein, with any propensity to unified leadership suppressed. Groups living further away preserved more of their own political structures and were less readily controlled.

Rich burials are not just quite rich: they are staggeringly so. They contain a huge array of gold fittings and ornamentation, the stars of the collections being the cloisonné gold and garnet jewelry in which the stones are mounted in their own gold cases to give an effect not unlike mosaic. This kind of work would later become the mark of elites everywhere in the late and post-Roman periods. For instance, the style of the cloisonné jewelry found in the Sutton Hoo ship burial of the early seventh century in East Anglia originally gained its hold on elite imaginations in Hunnic Europe. One burial at Apahida (modern Transylvania) produced over 60 gold items, including a solid gold eagle that fitted on to its owner’s saddle. Every other piece of this individual’s horse equipment was likewise made of gold, and he himself was decked from head to foot in golden jewelry. There are other similarly wealthy burials, as well as others containing smaller numbers of gold items. The presence of so much gold in Germanic central and eastern Europe is highly significant. Up to the birth of Christ, social differentiation in the Germanic world manifested itself funerarily, if at all, only by the presence in certain graves of larger than usual numbers of handmade pots, or of slightly more decorative bronze and iron safety-pins. By the third and fourth centuries AD, some families were burying their dead with silver safety-pins, lots of beads, and perhaps some wheel-turned pottery; but gold was not being used to distinguish even elite burials at this point – the best they could manage was a little silver. The Hunnic Empire changed this, and virtually overnight.

The gold-rich burials of the ‘Danubian style’ mark a sudden explosion of gold grave goods into this part of Europe. There is no doubt where the gold came from: what we’re looking at in the grave goods of fifth-century Hungary is the physical evidence of the transfer of wealth northwards from the Roman world

The Huns were after gold and other moveable wealth from the Empire – whether in the form of mercenary payments, booty or, especially, annual tributes. Clearly, large amounts of gold were recycled into the jewelry and appliques found in their graves. The fact that many of these were the rich burials of Germans indicates that the Huns did not just hang on to the gold themselves, but distributed quantities of it to the leaders of their Germanic subjects as well. These leaders, consequently, became very rich indeed.  The reasoning behind this strategy was that, if Germanic leaders could be given a stake in the successes of the Hunnic Empire, then dissent would be minimized and things would run relatively smoothly.

Gifts of gold to the subject princes would help lubricate the politics of Empire and fend off thoughts of revolt. Since there are quite a few burials containing gold items, these princes must have passed on some of the gold to favored supporters. The gold thus reflects the politics of Attila’s court.  Equally important, the role of such gold distributions in countering the endemic internal instability, combined with what we know of the source of that gold, underlines the role of predatory warfare in keeping afloat the leaky bark that was the Hunnic ship of state.

First and foremost, success in warfare built up the reputation of the current leader as a figure of overwhelming power. Witness the case of Attila and the sword of Mars. But there is every reason to suppose that military success had been just as important for his predecessors. A reputation for power brought with it the capacity to intimidate subject peoples, and it was also military success, of course, that provided the gold and other booty that kept their leaders in line -although the speed with which subject groups opted out of the Empire after Attila’s death suggests that the payments did not compensate for the burden of exploitation. In contrast to the Roman Empire, which, as we have seen, attempted to keep population levels low in frontier areas so as to minimize the potential for trouble, the Hunnic Empire sucked in subject peoples in huge numbers. The concentration of such a great body of manpower generated a magnificent war machine, which had to be used – it contained far too many inner tensions to be allowed to lie idle. The number of Hunnic subject groups outnumbered the Huns proper, probably in a ratio of several to one. It was essential to keep the subject peoples occupied, or restless elements would be looking for outlets for their energy and the Empire’s rickety structure might begin to crumble.

Attila was the greatest barbarian conqueror in European history, but he was riding a tiger of unparalleled ferocity. Should his grip falter, he would be mauled to death. To my mind, this in turn explains his otherwise mysterious turn to the west at the end of the 440s.

Between 441 and 447, Attila’s armies had ransacked the Balkans except for some small areas protected by two major obstacles: the Peloponnese because of its geographical isolation, and the city of Constantinople because of its stunning land defenses. The eastern Empire was on its knees: the annual tribute it was having to pay out was the largest ever expended by a factor of ten. The Huns had squeezed out of Constantinople just about everything they were likely to get; at the very least, further campaigning against it was bound to run into the law of diminishing returns. But there on the Hungarian Plain Attila sat, still surrounded by a huge military machine that could not be left idle. With nothing to attack in the Balkans, another target had to be found. Attila turned to the west, in other words, because he’d exhausted the decent targets available in the east.

This suggests a final judgement on the Hunnic Empire. Politically dependent upon military victory and the flow of gold, it was bound to make war to the point of its own defeat, then be pushed by that defeat into internal crisis. The setbacks in Gaul and Italy in 451 and 452 must anyway have begun to puncture Attila’s aura of invincibility. They certainly caused some diminution in the flow of gold, and some of the outlying subject peoples may already have been getting restive. Quite likely, Attila’s death and the civil war between his sons provided just the opportunity they were looking for. Overall, there can be no more vivid testament to the unresolved tensions between dominant Hunnic rulers and exploited non-Hunnic subjects than the astonishing demise of Attila’s Empire. The strange death of Hunnic Europe, however, was also integral to the collapse of the western Empire.

A New Balance of Power

Instead of one huge power centered on the Great Hungarian Plain, its tentacles reaching out towards the Rhine in one direction, the Black Sea in another, the Roman Empire both east and west now found itself facing a pack of successor states. Much of the time fighting amongst themselves, they also pressed periodically upon the Roman frontier. As the Empire became ever more deeply involved in the fallout from the Hunnic collapse, the nature of Roman foreign policy on the Danube frontier began to change. In confronting their new situation, the Roman authorities had two priorities. They needed to prevent the squabbling north of the Danube from spilling over into their own territory in the form of invasions or incursions, while safeguarding that what emerged from the chaos should not be another monolithic empire. The surviving sources refer to overflows of various kinds on to Roman territory, the result of the ferocious struggle for Lebensraum on the other side of the Danube. Into the western Empire large numbers of refugees now flooded, individuals and groups who had decided that life south of the river looked preferable to the continuing struggle north of it.  By the early 470s, the Roman army of Italy was dominated by central European refugees: Sciri are specifically mentioned, along with Herules, Alans and Torcilingi, who had all been recruited into its ranks.

The historical significance of Petronius Maximus’ first move as emperor

Both Flavius Constantius and Aetius had strained every political sinew to prevent the Visigoths from increasing their influence within western imperial politics. Alaric and his brother-in-law Athaulf had both had visions, if fleeting, of the Goths as protectors of the western Empire. Alaric had offered Honorius a deal whereby he would become senior general at court, and his Goths be settled not far from Ravenna. Athaulf married Honorius’ sister and named his son Theodosius. But Constantius and Aetius, those guardians of the western Empire, had resisted such pretensions; they had been willing to employ the Goths as junior allies against the Vandals, Alans and Suevi, but that was as far as it went. Aetius had preferred to pay and deploy Huns to keep the Goths within this very real political boundary rather than grant them a broader role in the business of Empire. Avitus’ embassy, which, as Sidonius makes clear, sought from the Visigoths not just peaceful acquiescence but a military alliance, reversed at a stroke a policy that had kept the Empire afloat for forty years.

The immediate aftermath only reinforces the point. While Avitus was still with the Visigoths, the Vandals under the leadership of Geiseric launched a naval expedition from North Africa which brought their forces to the outskirts of Rome. In part, its aim was fun and profit, but it also had more substantial motives. As part of the diplomatic horse-trading that had followed the frustration of Aetius’ attempts to reconquer North Africa, Huneric, eldest son of the Vandal king Geiseric, had been betrothed to Eudocia, daughter of Valentinian III. On seizing power, however, in an attempt to add extra credibility to his usurping regime, Petronius Maximus married Eudocia to his own son Palladius. The Vandal attack on Rome was also made, then, in outrage at being cheated, as Geiseric saw it, of this chance to play the great game of imperial politics. Hearing of the Vandals’ arrival, Maximus panicked, mounted a horse and fled. The imperial bodyguard and those free persons around him whom he particularly trusted deserted him, and those who saw him leaving abused him and reviled him for his cowardice. As he was about to leave the city, someone threw a rock, hitting him on the temple and killing him. The crowd fell upon his body, tore it to pieces and with shouts of triumph paraded the limbs about on a pole.

So ended the reign of Petronius Maximus, on 31 May 455; he had been emperor for no more than two and a half months.

When the imperial capital was sacked for the second time, the damage sustained was more serious than in 410. Geiseric’s Vandals looted and ransacked, taking much treasure and many prisoners back with them to Carthage, including the widow of Valentinian III, her two daughters, and Gaudentius, the surviving son of Aetius. Upon hearing this news, Avitus immediately made his own bid for the throne, declaring himself emperor while still at the Visigothic court in Bordeaux. It was later, on 9 July that year, that his claim was ratified by a group of Gallic aristocrats at Aries, the regional capital. From Aries, not long afterwards, Avitus moved on triumphantly to Rome and began negotiations for recognition with Constantinople. The senior Roman army commanders in Italy – Majorian and Ricimer -were ready to accept him because they were afraid of the Visigothic military power at his disposal.

A new order was thus born. Instead of western imperial regimes looking to keep the Visigoths and other immigrants at arm’s length, the newcomers had established themselves as part of the western Empire’s body politic. For the first time, a Visigothic king had played a key role in deciding the imperial succession.

The full significance of this revolution needs to be underlined. Without the Huns to keep the Goths and other immigrants into the Roman west in check, there was no choice but to embrace them. The western Empire’s military reservoirs were no longer full enough for it to continue to exclude them from central politics. The ambition first shown by Alaric and Athaulf, and later by Geiseric in his desire to marry his son to an imperial princess, had come to fruition. Contemporaries were fully aware of the political turn-around represented by Avitus’ elevation. Since time immemorial, the traditional education had portrayed barbarians – including Visigoths – as the ‘other’, the irrational, the uneducated; the destructive force constantly threatening the Roman Empire. In a sense, with the Visigoths now having served for a generation as minor Roman allies in south-western France, the ground had been well prepared. Nonetheless, Avitus’ regime was only too well aware that its Visigothic alliance was bound to be controversial.

The revolution was gathering pace. Barbarians were being presented as Romans to justify the inescapable reality that, since they could no longer be excluded, they now had to be included in the construction of working political regimes in the west.

At first sight, this inclusion of the alien would not seem to be a mortal blow to the integrity of the Empire. Theoderic was Roman enough to be willing to play along; he saw the need to portray him as a good Roman in order to satisfy landowning opinion. There were, however, a couple of very big catches which made a Romano-Visigothic military alliance not quite the asset you might initially suppose. First, political support always came at a price. Theoderic was entirely happy to support Avitus’ bid for power, but, not unreasonably, he expected something in return. In this instance, his desired reward was a free hand in Spain where, as we have seen, the Suevi had been running riot since Aetius’ attention had been turned towards the Danube in the early 440s. Theoderic’s request was granted, and he promptly sent a Visigothic army to Spain under the auspices of Avitus’ regime, notionally to curb Suevic depredations. Hitherto, of course, when the Visigoths had been deployed in Spain, it was always in conjunction with Roman forces. This time, Theoderic was left to operate essentially on his own initiative, and we have a first-hand -Spanish – description of what happened. The Visigothic army defeated the Suevi, we are told, capturing and executing their king. They also took every opportunity, both during the assault and in the cleaning-up operations that followed, to gather as much booty as they could, sacking and pillaging, amongst others, the towns of Braga, Asturica and Palentia. Not only did the Goths destroy the kingdom of the Suevi, they also helped themselves uninhibitedly to the wealth of Spain. Just like Attila, Theoderic had warriors to satisfy. His willingness to support Avitus was based on calculations of profits, and a lucrative Spanish spree was just the thing.

The inclusion of barbarians into the political game of regime-building in the Roman west meant that there were now many more groups maneuvering for position around the imperial court. Before 450, any functioning western regime had to incorporate and broadly satisfy three army groups – two main ones in Italy and Gaul, and a lesser one in Illyricum – plus the landed aristocracies of Italy and Gaul, who occupied the key posts in the imperial bureaucracy. The desires of Constantinople also had to be accommodated. As in the case of Valentinian III, should western forces be divided between different candidates, eastern emperors disposed of enough clout and brute force to impose their own candidate. Though too far away to rule the west directly, Constantinople could exercise a virtual veto over the choices of the other interested parties.-Incorporating this many interests could make arriving at a stable outcome a long-drawn-out business.

After the collapse of the Hunnic Empire, the Burgundians and Vandals were the next to start jockeying for position and clamoring for rewards. The Burgundians had been settled by Aetius around Lake Geneva in the mid-430s. Twenty years later, they took advantage of the new balance of power in the west to acquire a number of other Roman cities and the revenues they brought with them from their territories in the Rhône valley: Besançon, le Valais, Grenoble, Autun, Chalon-sur-Saône and Lyon. The Vandal-Alan coalition’s sack of Rome in 455, as we have seen, betrayed a desire to participate in imperial politics. On the death of Valentinian, Victor of Vita tells us, Geiseric too, expanding his powerbase, seized control of Tripolitania, Numidia and Mauretania, together with Sicily, Corsica and the Balear-ics. Allowing just some of the barbarian powers to participate in the Empire massively complicated western politics; and the greater the number, the harder it was to find sufficient rewards to generate long-term coalition.

We see here, then, in a nutshell the problem now facing the west. Avitus had the support of the Visigoths, the support of at least some Gallic senators, and of some of the Roman army of Gaul. But faced with the hostility of the Italian senators, and especially of the commanders of the Italian field army, the coalition didn’t stand a chance. By the early 460s, the extent of the crisis in the west generated by the collapse of Attila’s Empire was clear. There were too many interested parties and not enough rewards to go round.


Some historians have criticized Constantinople for not doing more in the fifth century to save the embattled west.

Its mobile forces, therefore, mustered between 65,000 and 100,000 men. Also, the east disposed of numerous units of frontier garrison troops. The archaeological field surveys of the last 20 years have confirmed, furthermore, that the fourth-century agricultural prosperity of the east’s key provinces – Asia Minor, the Middle East and Egypt – showed no sign of slackening during the fifth. Some believe that the eastern Empire thus had the wherewithal to intervene effectively in the west, but chose not to. In the most radical statement of the case, it has been argued that Constantinople was happy to see barbarians settle on western territory for the disabling effect this had on the west’s military establishment because it removed any possibility of an ambitious western pretender seeking to unseat his eastern counterpart and unite the Empire. This had happened periodically in the fourth century, when the emperors Constantine and Julian took over the entire Empire from an originally western power-base. But in fact, bearing in mind the problems it had to deal with on its own frontiers, Constantinople’s record for supplying aid to the west in the fifth century is perfectly respectable.

Constantinople and the West

The eastern Empire’s military establishment was very substantial, but large numbers of troops had always to be committed to the two key sectors of its eastern frontier in Armenia and Mesopotamia, where Rome confronted Persia. If you asked any fourth-century Roman where the main threat to imperial security lay, the answer would have been Persia under its new Sasanian rulers. And from the third century, when the Sasanian revolution worked its magic, Persia was indeed the second great superpower of the ancient world. As we saw earlier, the new military threat posed by the Sasanians plunged the Roman Empire into a military and fiscal crisis that lasted the best part of 50 years. By the time of Diocletian in the 280s, the Empire had mobilized the necessary funding and manpower, but the process of adjustment to the undisputed power of its eastern neighbor was long and painful. The rise of Persia also made it more or less unavoidable to have one emperor constantly in the east, and hence made power-sharing a feature of the imperial office in the late Roman period. As a result of these transformations, Rome began to hold its own again, and there were no fourth-century repeats of such third-century disasters as the Persian sack of Antioch.

When assessing the military contribution of the eastern Empire to the west in the fifth century, it is important to appreciate that, while broadly contained from about 300, the new Persian threat never disappeared.

The great Hunnic raid of 395 wreaked havoc not only in Rome’s provinces south of the Black Sea but also over a surprisingly large area of the Persian Empire. So, in this new era of compromise when both Empires had Huns on their minds, they came to an unprecedented agreement for mutual defense. The Persians would fortify and garrison the key Darial Pass through the Caucasus, and the Romans would help defray the costs.

None of this meant, however, that Constantinople could afford to lower its guard. Troop numbers were perhaps reduced in the fifth century, and less was spent on fortifications, but major forces still had to be kept on the eastern frontier. The Notitia Dignitatum – whose eastern sections date from about 395, after the Armenian accord – lists a field army of thirty-one regiments, roughly one-quarter of the whole, based in the east, together with 156 units of frontier garrison troops stationed in Armenia and the provinces comprising the Mesopotamian front, out of a total of 305 such units for the entire eastern Empire. And this in an era of relative stability. There were occasional quarrels with Persia, which sometimes came to blows, as in 421 and 441. The only reason the Persians didn’t capitalize more on Constantinople’s run-in with the Huns in the 440s seems to have been their own nomad problems.

Just as, for Rome, Persia was the great enemy, so Rome was for Persia, and each particularly prized victory over the other. As we noted earlier, the provinces from Egypt to western Asia Minor were the eastern Empire’s main source of revenue, and no emperor could afford to take chances with the region’s security. As a result, Constantinople had to keep upwards of 40% of its military committed to the Persian frontier, and another 92 units of garrison troops for the defense of Egypt and Libya. The only forces the eastern authorities could even think of using in the west were the one-sixth of its garrison troops stationed in the Balkans and the three-quarters of its field forces mustered in the Thracian and the two praesental armies.

Up until 450, Constantinople’s capacity to help the west was also deeply affected by the fact that it bore the brunt of Hunnic hostility. As early as 408, Uldin had briefly seized the east Roman fortress of Castra Martis in Dacia Ripensis, and by 413 the eastern authorities felt threatened enough to initiate a program for upgrading their riverine defenses on the Danube and to construct the triple land walls around Constantinople. Then, just a few years later, eastern forces engaged directly in attempts to limit the growth of Hunnic power. Probably in 421, they mounted a major expedition into Pannonia which was already, if temporarily, in Hunnic hands, extracted a large group of Goths from the Huns’ control and resettled them in east Roman territory, in Thrace. The next two decades were spent combating the ambitions of Attila and his uncle, and even after Attila’s death it again fell to the east Roman authorities to clean up most of the fall-out from the wreck of the Hunnic Empire. It was the eastern Empire that the remaining sons of Attila chose to invade in the later 460s. Slightly earlier in the decade, east Roman forces had also been in action against armed fragments of Attila’s disintegrating war machine, led by Hormidac and Bigelis. In 460, likewise, the Amal-led Goths in Pannonia had invaded the eastern Empire to extract their 300 pounds of gold

Judged against this strategic background, where military commitments could not be reduced on the Persian front, and where, thanks to the Huns, the Danube frontier required a greater share of resources than ever before, Constantinople’s record in providing assistance to the west in the fifth century looks perfectly respectable. Although in the throes of fending off Uldin, Constantinople had sent troops to Honorius in 410, when Alaric had taken Rome and was threatening North Africa. Six units in all, numbering 4,000 men, arrived at a critical moment, putting new fight into Honorius when flight, or sharing power with usurpers, was on the cards. The force was enough to secure Ravenna, whose garrison was becoming mutinous, and bought enough time for the emperor to be rescued. In 425, likewise, Constantinople had committed its praesental troops in large numbers to the task of establishing Valentinian III on the throne, and in the 430s Aspar the general had done enough in North Africa to prompt Geiseric to negotiate the first treaty, of 435, which denied him the conquest of Carthage and the richest provinces of the region.

Troops – we are not told how many – were sent to Aetius to assist him in harassing the Hunnic armies sweeping through northern Italy in 452. This is not the record of an eastern state that had no interest in sustaining the west.

The most obvious problem facing the Roman west round about 460 was a crisis of succession; since the death of Attila in 453 there had been little continuity. Valentinian III had been cut down by Aetius’ bodyguards, egged on by Petronius Maximus, who seized the throne but in no time at all was himself killed by the Roman mob. Soon afterwards, Avitus had appointed himself emperor in collusion with the Visigoths and elements of the Gallo-Roman landowning and military establishments. Then came his ousting in 456 by Ricimer and Majorian, commanders of the Italian field forces.

As western regimes came and went, then, eastern emperors tried, it seems, to identify and support those with some real hope of generating stability.

The disappearance of the Huns as an effective force left western imperial regimes with no choice but to buy support from at least some of the immigrant powers now established on its soil. Avitus won over the Visigoths by offering them a free hand – to their great profit, as it turned out – in Spain. Majorian had been forced to recognize the Burgundians’ desire to expand, and had allowed them to take over some more new cities in the Rhône valley; and he continued to allow the Visigoths to do pretty much as they wanted in Spain. To buy support for Libius Severus, similarly, Ricimer had handed over to the Visigoths the major Roman city of Narbonne with all its revenues. But now, there were simply too many players in the field, and this, combined with rapid regime change, had created a situation in which even the already much reduced western tax revenues were being further expended in a desperate struggle for stability.

Three things needed to happen in the west to prevent its annihilation. Legitimate authority had to be restored; the number of players needing to be conciliated by any incoming regime had to be reduced; and the Empire’s revenues had to rise. Analysts in the eastern Empire came to precisely this conclusion, and in the mid-460s hatched a plan that had a very real chance of putting new life back into the ailing west.

Anthemius went to Italy with a plan for dealing with the more fundamental problems facing his new Empire. First, he quickly restored a modicum of order north of the Alps in Gaul. It is difficult to estimate how much of Gaul was still functioning as part of the western Empire in 467. In the south the Visigoths, and certainly the Burgundians, accepted Anthemius’ rule; both of their territories remained legally part of the Empire. We know that institutions like the cursus publicus were still functioning here. Further north, things are less clear. The Roman army of the Rhine, or what was left of it, had gone into revolt on the deposition of Majorian, and part of it still formed the core of a semi-independent command west of Paris. Refugees from battle-torn Roman Britain also seem to have contributed to the rise of a new power in Brittany, and for the first time Frankish warbands were flexing their muscles on Roman soil. In the fourth century, Franks had played the same kind of role on the northern Rhine frontier as the Alamanni played to their south. Semi-subdued clients, they both raided and traded with the Roman Empire, and contributed substantially to its military manpower; several leading recruits, such as Bauto and Arbogast, rose to senior Roman commands. Also like the Alamanni, the Franks were a coalition of smaller groups, each with their own leadership. By the 460s, as Roman control collapsed in the north, some of these warband leaders began for the first time to operate exclusively on the Roman side of the frontier, selling their services, it seems, to the highest bidder.

The arrival in their midst of the engaging Anthemius led to queues of Gallo-Roman landowners anxious to court and be courted by the new emperor. We know that the cursus publicus was still working because Sidonius used it on his way to see Anthemius at the head of a Gallic deputation. Anthemius responded in kind. Sidonius wormed his way into the good graces of the two most important Italian senatorial power-brokers of the time, Gennadius Avienus and Flavius Caecina Decius Basilius, and with their help got the chance to deliver a panegyric to the emperor, on 1 January 468. As a result, he was appointed by Anthemius to the high office of Urban Prefect of Rome. A time-honored process was in operation: with self-advancement in mind, likely-looking landowners would turn up at the imperial court at the start of a new reign to offer support and receive gifts in return. But fiddling with the balance of power in Gaul wasn’t going to contribute anything much towards a restoration of the western Empire.

There was only one plan that stood any real chance of putting life back into the Roman west: reconquering North Africa. The Vandal–Alan coalition had never been accepted into the country club of allied immigrant powers that began to emerge in the mid-fifth century.

The treaty of 442, which recognized its seizure of Carthage, was granted when Aetius was at the nadir of his fortunes; it was an exception to the Vandals’ usual relationship with the Roman state, which was one of great hostility. The western Empire, as we have seen, from the 410s onwards had consistently allied with the Visigoths against the Vandals and Alans, and the latter’s history after 450 was one of similar exclusion. Unlike the Visigoths or the Burgundians, the Vandals and Alans did not contribute to Aetius’ military coalition that fought against Attila in Gaul in 451; nor were they subsequently courted or rewarded by the regimes of Avitus, Majorian or Libius Severus. Their leader Geiseric was certainly after membership of the club, as his sack of Rome at the time of Petronius Maximus paradoxically showed. This was partly motivated by the fact that Maximus had upset the marriage arrangements between his son Huneric and the elder daughter of Valentinian III. After they sacked Rome in 455, the Vandals continued to raid the coast of Sicily and various Mediterranean islands. This was an enterprise undertaken in large measure for profit.


When the amalgamation of groups and subgroups that had been going on for so long beyond Rome’s borders interacted with the arrival of the Huns, supergroups that would tear the western Roman Empire came into being. The Roman Empire had sown the seeds of its own destruction not due to internal weaknesses evolving over centuries, nor new ones, but as a consequence of its relationship with the Germanic world.  The Germanic society along with the Huns responded to Roman power in ways the Romans couldn’t have foreseen.  By virtue of unbounded aggression, Roman imperialism was ultimately responsible for its own destruction.

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4 Responses to Book Review: The Fall of the Roman Empire: A new history of Rome and the barbarians

  1. Fred says:

    Wow! That was way more than I expected to read this morning. Very interesting, but I’m not so sure that speculating on what happened to the ancient empire of Rome is going to help what we face as a species at this time. We have altered the planet in ways, and have threats to our environment that are existential as a species. If I could role back the hands of time I would freeze it at the point of nomadic tribes, or better yet hunter and gatherers. That is when we were close to a sustainable species living a more harmonious existence with other species and the environment. I fear that we have gone too far.

    • hugh owens says:

      well spoken Fred. History may not repeat itself as we sometimes hear but it may Rhyme but maybe not in our case. We are headed into an ecological chasm and will outrun our food supplies when oil runs short or supply lines fail. Not much in the Roman experience to help us prevail against overshoot.

  2. RomeMinor says:

    Logistics between Asia Minor-Rome and Newcastle-China: “More than 60 Australian coal-carrying ships kept waiting to unload off ports in China

    China cannot become a super power when it needs 17.5 million barrel of crude oil to be imported every day to keep China running.

    The US has become a super power last century only because it had its oil, coal and gas extracted side by side, until the the 1970s.

    The Guardian doesn’t tell its readers how many Capesize coal ships have successfully unloaded during the reported period, though – they must be in hundreds.

    Another hundreds of oil tanker ships must be docking and unloading oil around the clock, too.

    When a 1 million-population Rome needed a control over vast territories up to Asia Minor to sustain itself, no wonder a 1.3+ billion-population China requires all the oil produced in Russia and Saudi combined every day to sustain its experiment – until running now out of unloading fossil fuels-capacity.

    The China-dollar, the twin of the petro-dollar – where every single item produced by China for export ends up putting dollars into New York banking system – is unsustainable.

    Collapse can also happen when energy supplies put on the market so abundantly, cheaper than water – sea ports start running out of unloading capacities.

    Humans have mistreated finite fossil fuels hugely – like children or looters.


  3. Luca Heine says:

    In my view only Hyun Jin Kim has provided a narrative of the fall of the Western Roman Empire that sees the forest for the trees and avoids getting lost in unproductive blubbering by Western Europeans who also have an undue fixation with the (peripheral actually) Germanic role in the drama because they see themselves and the roots of their own nations and states in it.

    In fact the poorer Western Roman State collapsed for a quite simple and banal reason. The unrivaled military superiority of the nomadic Huns (the Eastern part of which also vassalized Persia) and the blunders of the Roman emperors in dealing with these same Huns. It wasn’t the Germanics (even less so the Western ones) who directly caused the collapse. They rather filled the power vacuum that the Huns created when they annihilated the Eastern and Western Roman field armies and then self-destructed in a civil war over the pieces of Attila’s Empire. The richer and far more important Eastern Roman Empire collapsed (or rather shrank to the point of a small regional power we call the “Byzantine Empire”) because of strategic blunders which led to most of it being conquered by the Arabs in Africa and Asia and the Bulgarians and Slavs in the Danube. Nobody says that the Arabs destroyed the Roman Empire but it actually contains more truth than the traditional Germanic-focused narrative as it was they who deprived the Empire of its best wealth-generating provinces and transformed Eastern Rome from a Great Power to little more than a petty Greek city state fighting for mere survival.

    It’s also silly to accuse the Eastern Roman Empire as some historians have done that it didn’t do much to save the West. In fact it did too much, to the point of Justinian and Maurice exhausting the state coffers to fight strategically pointless wars in the West where they should have been focusing entirely on the East where immensely rich provinces were being threatened by a resurgent Persia.