Barbarians and the Roman Order


The Persian King Shapur I using the captured Roman Emperor Valerian.




In the summer of AD 370, a group of shipborne Saxon raiders slipped out of the River Elbe, and headed west along the north coast of continental Europe. Avoiding the defended Roman frontier, they eventually disembarked in northern France, probably somewhere west of the Seine. The Romans quickly brought up enough troops to force them to negotiate. As Ammianus Marcellinus, our best fourth-century Roman historian, reports it:

After a long and varied discussion, since it seemed to be in the interest of the state, a truce was agreed upon, and in accordance with the conditions that were proposed the Saxons gave as hostages many young men fit for military service, and then were allowed to depart and return home without hindrance to the place from which they had come.

But things were not what they seemed. While negotiating, the Romans secretly placed heavy cavalry, together with some infantry, between the Saxons and their ships:

The Romans with strengthened courage pressed upon the Saxons from all sides, surrounded them, and slew them with their drawn swords; not one of them could again return to his native home, not a single one was allowed to survive the slaughter of his comrades.

Ammianus continues:

Although some just judge might condemn this act as treacherous and hateful, yet on careful consideration of the matter he will not think it improper that a destructive band of brigands was destroyed when the opportunity at last presented itself.

As far as Ammianus was concerned, when it came to despatching barbarians, double-dealing wasn’t a problem.

Killing barbarians still went down extremely well with the average Roman audience. Roman amphitheatres 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. He also made very sure that a wider audience around the Empire heard of his triumph. If no barbarian kings were available, there were always alternatives. In 383 our old friend Symmachus, then Urban Prefect of Rome, wrote to the emperor Valentinian II to say how much the Roman audience had enjoyed feasting their eyes on the spectacle of some rank-and-file Iranian-speaking Sarmatian being slaughtered by gladiators. What’s striking is Symmachus’ commentary:

Rumour does not conceal the splendid outcome of your wars, but a victory gains greater credence if it is confirmed by sight . . . We have now seen things that surprised us when they were read out to us: a column of chained prisoners . . . led in procession, and faces once so fierce now changed to pitiable pallor. A name which was once terrifying to us [is] now the object of our delight, and hands trained to wield outlandish weapons afraid to meet the equipment of gladiators. May you enjoy the laurels of victory often and easily . . . let our brave soldiers take [the barbarians] prisoner and the arena in the city finish them off.

For him these deaths symbolized that civilized Roman order would continue to prevail over the barbarian forces of chaos.

The antipathy towards barbarians so uninhibitedly expressed in the arena rested, for articulate Romans, on much more than mere hatred. At more or less the same moment as the Saxons were being ambushed on Rome’s north-west frontier, the orator and philosopher Themistius, employed as an imperial spin-doctor, was standing in front of the Senate of Constantinople to justify the policies of his employer, the emperor Valens. The speech contains one particularly telling remark: ‘There is in each of us a barbarian tribe extremely overbearing and intractable – I mean temper and those insatiable desires which stand opposed to rationality as Scythians and Germans do to the Romans.’

Barbarians had their own well defined place in this Roman universe, based on a specific vision of the cosmos. Human beings, Romans argued, consist of two elements: an intelligent, rational spirit, and a physical body. Above humankind in the cosmos there exist other beings who, although endowed with greater and lesser powers, all share the characteristic of being formed purely of spirit. Below humankind are animals, encompassing pure physicality. Humanity is unique in combining both spirit and body, and from this flowed the Roman vision of rationality. In fully rational people – such as elite Romans, of course – the rational spirit controlled the physical body. But in lesser human beings – barbarians – body ruled mind. Barbarians, in short, were the reverse image of Romans loving alcohol, sex and worldly wealth.

Barbarian irrationality showed up in other ways too. As far as a Roman was concerned, you could easily tell a barbarian by how he reacted to fortune. Give him one little stroke of luck, and he would think he had conquered the world. But, equally, the slightest setback would find him in deepest despair, lamenting his fate. Where Romans would calculate probabilities, formulate sensible plans and stick to them through thick and thin, hapless barbarians were always being blown all over the place by chance events. Barbarian society was also collectively inferior: a world where might equalled right, and where those with the largest biceps triumphed. 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.

Although the strategy worked well enough, casting their neighbours beyond the frontiers as the antithesis of Roman order while using them as a peg on which to hang the burden of taxation was not without its own costs. The image of the barbarian made anyone from outside the Empire seem a threat, and also, by definition, a lesser human being belonging to a benighted society. The overwhelming implications of this attitude were, first, that conflict should be the normal state of relations between Roman and non-Roman; and second, that the Roman Empire should be victorious in whatever it aspired to. What did divine favour mean, if not security against defeat at the hands of those lacking that divine favour? The supreme imperial virtue – again often represented pictorially on coinage as a deity awarding a crown of laurel leaves as this suggests, was one of victory. And any failure to deliver it could be taken as a sign that the current incumbent of the purple was not the right man for the job.

Imperial spokesmen faced the task, therefore, of angling their accounts of events on the frontier to maintain the required image of imperial invincibility. In early 363, for instance, the emperor Julian took a huge military gamble, leading his army 500 kilometres across Persian soil right up to the outskirts of the capital, Ctesiphon. The Persian King of Kings, Shapur, had let him advance, then sprung a trap. The Romans were forced into a fighting retreat all the way back to home territory. By the end of June, when Julian was killed in a skirmish, the situation was hopeless. The Roman army still had 250 kilometres to go, had more or less run out of supplies, and was managing to retreat only about five kilometres a day because of Persian harassment. Julian’s successor Jovian – elected on the campaign – had no choice but to negotiate a humiliating peace. The Roman army was allowed to depart, but surrendered to the Persians two major cities, Nisibis and Sangara, a host of strongpoints and five border provinces. But so pressing was the expectation of victory, especially at the start of a reign when the seal of divine approval needed to be particularly evident, that Jovian could not afford to acknowledge defeat. His coinage proclaimed the Persian peace a victory and Themistius was trundled out to reinforce the point. The spin-doctor’s discomfort is only too evident. The best he could come up with was this: ‘The Persians showed that they were voting for [Jovian as emperor] no less than the Romans by throwing aside their weapons as soon as they became aware of the proclamation, and shortly after were wary of the same men of whom before they had had no fear.’ He followed up with the quip, based on a famous story about the election of the Achaemenid King of Kings Darius in 522 BC, that the – obviously irrational – Persians chose their rulers according to the neighing of horses.

Not a bad effort at a brave front, perhaps, but this was one spin that no one was buying. By January 364, Jovian had already faced protests from eastern cities complaining about the surrender and, tellingly, in a speech to the Senate that lasted at least three-quarters of an hour Themistius devoted only about a minute to the Persian question before moving on smartly to more promising matters. In this case, policy could not be made to square with expectations of victory, and Themistius, shortly after, was on much safer ground when he could admit it. Jovian died in February 364, and, at the end of the year in a first speech for his successor Valens, Themistius seized upon Jovian’s early death, after only eight months in power, as a clear sign that his rule had not been divinely sanctioned. In this way, the loss to the Persians could be satisfactorily explained, and a nasty dent in the Roman self-image removed.

But such catastrophic losses even to the Persians were now rare, as we have seen, and Rome held an overall military advantage on its European frontiers. With just the odd white lie, expectations of victory could usually be satisfied and inconvenient reality prevented from scrambling the key message: the barbarian on the other side of the frontier had no place in the Roman order, and was being duly and regularly destroyed. Indeed, violent confrontation was a significant element in Roman foreign policy on all its frontiers, but reality – as much on the Rhine and Danube as in the east – was much more complicated than was implied by the simple ‘them and us’ view.

To explore this reality in more detail, we can narrow the focus to one corner of Rome’s European frontier, the lower reaches of the River Danube separating the Roman diocese of Thrace from the Germanic-speaking Goths who, in the fourth century, dominated lands between the Carpathians and the Black Sea.

Thrace: The Final Frontier

In 369, the same year that Symmachus’ embassy presented the emperor Valentinian with crown gold, a summit meeting took place in the middle of the River Danube, close to the fortress of Noviodunum. Valentinian’s brother, the emperor Valens, ruler of the eastern Empire, pushed off from the south bank in a magnificent imperial barge. From the north bank he was joined by Athanaric, leader of the Tervingi, the Germanic Goths settled closest to the frontier. Athanaric had been at war with Valens for the best part of three years. For once, we have an eyewitness account of the event, penned by Themistius for the Senate of Constantinople. He had attended the meeting as the head of a senatorial embassy to the emperor. As Themistius tells it, Valens managed thoroughly to perplex his enemy:

Valens was so much cleverer than the man who spoke for the barbarians that he undermined their confidence in him and rendered the verbal contest [on the boat] even more hazardous than the armed [contest of the previous three years]. All the same, having thrown his opponent he then set him on his feet once more, stretched out his hand to him in his confusion and made him a friend before witnesses . . . And so [Athanaric] went away highly contented, in the grip of contrary emotions: at once confident and fearful, both contemptuous and wary of his subjects, cast down in spirit by those aspects of the treaty in which he had lost his case but exulting in those in which success had fallen to him.

Athanaric’s followers were in pretty poor shape too:

[They] were dispersed in groups along the bank in docile and amenable mood, a horde defying enumeration . . . Looking at both banks of the river, [I saw] the [Roman one] glittering with soldiers who in good order looked on with tranquil pride at what was being done, the other burdened with a disordered rabble of suppliants cast down upon the earth.

Athanaric and his Goths thus played their parts perfectly, according to the traditional Roman script. The details of the peace agreement mentioned by Themistius only confirmed Valens’ domination. The emperor now discontinued the annual gifts that the Goths had been accustomed to receive, confined cross-border trade to only two designated centres, and inaugurated a programme of defensive building to ensure that Gothic raiders would have no opportunity for causing further trouble. Expectations of Roman dominance over pathetically inferior barbarians had been magnificently fulfilled.

But looked at more closely, the story as told by Themistius doesn’t quite add up. Hostilities had not been opened by Valens, but by Athanaric. In 364/5, Roman intelligence reports were already indicating that the Goths were becoming restive, and Valens had sent reinforcements to the Danube front. When, in 365, those reinforcements were bribed by Procopius, the uncle of the former emperor Julian, to kick-start his usurpation, Athanaric sent the would-be usurper a contingent of three thousand Goths. If the Goths had been happy being paid to keep the peace, as Themistius reports, why had Athanaric behaved so aggressively? Valens also failed, despite three years of campaigning, actually to defeat the Goths in battle. In 367 and 369 his armies ranged at will in Gothic territories, looting as they went. And they were only kept at bay in 368 by a premature melting of the Alpine and Carpathian snows. The flooding Danube made it impossible for the Romans to string up the pontoon bridges by which they customarily moved their heavy equipment across the river. Through strategic manoeuvre – running away – Athanaric managed to avoid being cornered. By the time peace was made, the Goths were massively inconvenienced and suffering major food shortages, but they were never trapped into total submission in the way that they had been some thirty years earlier, in the time of the emperor Constantine, who had forced their unconditional surrender. Since the Romans had not so decisively defeated them as Themistius would have us believe, it seems odd that the treaty of 369 enforced harsher terms upon them than that of 332.

In his speech, Themistius ‘forgot’ to mention, however, one crucial extra detail. Halfway through Valens’ Gothic campaign, all hell had broken loose on a corner of the Persian front. Having made major gains in Mesopotamia through the treaty with Jovian, the Persian King of Kings Shapur now turned his attention to Caucasia. In 367/8 he ousted the rulers of Armenia and eastern Georgia, who had been Roman allies, and replaced them with his own nominees. Safeguarding the Persian front was much more important to Valens than reducing the Goths to total submission, so that this new threat exerted huge pressure on him to extract his forces from the Balkans and redirect them eastwards. But Valens had already mobilized on the Danube and his taxpayers were expecting victory. He also had the Goths’ support of Procopius to avenge. He thus kept the war going into 369, but when total victory again proved elusive, he needed to make a compromise peace. That the meeting between Valens and Athanaric did generate a compromise is clear. Themistius notes that the Goth was ‘exulting in those [aspects of the treaty] in which success had fallen to him’. The same point is made, interestingly, by the location of the summit meeting. Roman emperors normally paraded their standards triumphantly on barbarian soil, and forced barbarian kings to submit to them there. Only one other waterborne summit is recorded in fourth-century sources, this time on the Rhine – again, a Roman emperor (Valentinian) needed to secure one frontier to tackle a problem on another. That peace was also a compromise.

The real task facing Themistius in selling the Gothic peace to the Senate now comes into focus. He presented the discontinuation of annual gifts to the Goths as a great gain to the Roman state. In fact, it was a rather small one. The state had used gifts for centuries to build up the position of client kings. We would call it ‘foreign aid’. The great loss to the Romans – which Themistius doesn’t mention – was the right, now rescinded, to call on Gothic military assistance against Persia. What emerges particularly clearly is the slickness of Themistius. A vivid scene of Gothic submission was conjured up for his audience, with Valens all-powerful at the peace-making. And the orator’s bravado performance seems to have done the trick, since two contemporary sources describe the peace as a reasonable end to the war. Valens’ face had been successfully saved.

For our purposes, however, there is a shadowy but much more important point lurking behind Themistius’ smoke-screen. It is impossible to know everything that Athanaric had in mind, since his precise aims are not recorded by our Roman sources, but he was clearly no mere stock barbarian of the Roman ideological ‘other’. He and his fellow Tervingi had been in receipt of Roman gifts for thirty years but were willing to put them at risk to avoid having to fight for the Empire. The same went for the trading privileges inherent in the open frontier established by their earlier treaty with Constantine. That these privileges were real and enjoyed by the Goths is visible in the archaeological record. Fourth-century Gothic sites are littered with the pottery sherds of Roman amphorae, most of them broken wine containers (by the sixth century biberunt ut Gothi – ‘drinking like Goths’ – had become proverbial). Despite this, Athanaric had a determined agenda to extract the Tervingi from the least acceptable constraints of Roman domination. He was able to rally support for this stance from among his Goths, and then used sophisticated strategies to achieve his ends. At first he had been ready to fight the Empire outright, but when Procopius’ plans for usurpation offered him the opportunity to fiddle in internal Roman politics instead, he took this route – hoping, presumably, that a successful Procopius would grant willingly what the Goths would otherwise have had to extract from Valens by force.

Here, reality contradicts Roman ideology in substantial ways. The usurpation of Procopius saw one Roman allying with a barbarian against another Roman, although, admittedly, Athanaric was no more than a junior ally. Nor was he an aimless barbarian intent only on the nearest bit of plunder. He had, rather, pursued a variety of means to renegotiate the bundle of obligations and privileges that Constantine had imposed on the Tervingi after his great victory of the 330s. Constantine had also tried – in a stock Roman diplomatic manoeuvre – to impress upon the ruling house of the Tervingi the benefits of Roman civilization. One of the hostages sent to Constantinople as part of his treaty was the son of the then ruler. Such hostages could be, and were, executed if the terms of peace were broken. But, more generally, they were used to convince the next generation of barbarian movers and shakers that hostility to Rome was pointless, and that they would be much better off embracing it. Sometimes the strategy worked; in this case it didn’t. The prince of the Tervingi sent to Constantinople was Athanaric’s father, and even though they put up a statue to him behind the Senate house, he was not won over (maybe they should have tried putting it in front). When handing on power in due course to his son, he forbade Athanaric ever to set foot on Roman soil, and Athanaric continued to press for as much separation as possible. The shipborne setting of his summit meeting with Valens implicitly acknowledged the Goth’s sovereignty over lands beyond the Danube, and, in the aftermath of the new agreement, Athanaric found himself free to persecute Gothic Christians. Christianization had been promoted among the Goths by previous emperors, as we shall see in a moment, so here was another deliberate rejection of Roman ideologies. No low-level barbarian, Athanaric was a client king with a coherent agenda for renegotiating his relationship with the Roman Empire.

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