Historians have long hated equating the fall of the last Roman emperor with the fall of the empire itself; in terms of classes, social structure, and customs, there are parts of the empire which persisted long after the emperor’s fall, while in other places, the system had been replaced long before the emperor’s fall. So, this being said, how did the barbarian tribes find Roman life after the emperor’s fall?
In this set of notes, professor Daileader focuses on those barbarian kingdoms in which continuity with the Roman past was especially strong. The Visigoth in Spain, Ostrogoths in Italy, and the Frankish kingdom in France (Gaul). These were the primary locales in which the barbarian connection to the Roman past were tightly round.
Visigoths were the Goths who entered Rome during the existence of the Roman Empire while the Ostrogoths were the Goths who would enter only after the fall of the Roman Empire. How the Visigoths became the rulers of Spain explains Roman policy: in 409, a group of barbarians led by the vandals had crossed into the Roman Empire during a harsh winter. The Romans decided to use the Visigoths to eject them from Spain. So, in 415, just a few years after the Visigoths had sacked Rome, they were hired to go and fight the Vandals. The Visigoths completed their task well and in a few years they had reclaimed nearly all of Spain; but this made the Romans nervous, as they thought that now the Visigoths would claim Spain as their own. So the Romans cut off food supplies to the Visigoths and they withdrew to France.
But the Goths had liked what they had seen in Spain. So after the fall of the last Roman emperor, they returned to Spain and once again fought the Vandals for control of the land. After a while, they had succeeded in conquering the territory and pushing the vandals out; the Vandals, meanwhile, traveled to Africa and established a kingdom for themselves there. For a while, the Visigoths were able to control both Spain and southern France/Gaul. But after experiencing a severe military defeat at the hands of the Franks, in 507, and are forced to confine themselves to Spain.
The Visigoths in Spain went to great lengths to preserve Roman culture and history in the early eighth-century. Under the Visigoths so much of Roman culture was renewed, a modern visitor, as Daileader remarks, might not have even known that the Roman Empire collapsed.
One such adopted tradition which the Visigoths up-took, concerns written law, something entirely alien to them. Before entering Spain, the Visigoths were illiterate and their law was oral based—something passed down from generation to generation; Romans, meanwhile, had developed a sophisticated jurisprudence based on written law. The goths decided to imitate the Roman custom as early as the latter half of the fifth century. Indeed, the Visigoth adoption of the Roman law code would be an inspiration for other barbarian kingdoms who would borrow the Visigoth adaptation.
After the Visigoths took over, the local Roman government remained intact. They were merely working for a new boss. The same officials, holding the same titles, performing the same functions, existed in the Visigoth kingdom as they did in the Roman. Officials in the Visigoth kingdom are distinctly un-medieval—they are lay-people, not clerics; paid moneyed salaries, these people are not rewarded with land.
Visigoth kings used the same form of rule, more or less, as the Roman emperors used: they continued to mint coins using the same slogans as the Romans did, they put on the same sort of displays—such as victory marches—which the Romans put on, and even the same gestures of the Roman emperors were appropriated by the Visigothic ones, such as the stomping on the defeated enemies throat.
Urban life in Visigothic Spain continued, though on a somewhat reduced form. The circuses, baths, and aqueducts are all still functioning. Problem is, the Goths are only about two or three percent of a much larger Hispano-Roman population; the fear that since the Goths had become so romanized, then they would be swallowed up by the native culture and cease to be Goths. One way, however, in which they attempted to salvage their distinct identity even as they borrowed so much from the Romans, was to restrict marriage between Goths and Romans (though, ironically, the Roman law code had also forbid marriage between barbarians and Romans). But the Goths continue to cling to their heavy furs, their language, and their own brand of Christianity.
When the Visigoths had crossed over into the empire under Emperor Valens, part of the requirement was to convert to Christianity. What they converted to was Aryan Christianity. Most native Spanish inhabitants, however, were Catholic. Though the Goths would try and force Aryanism on the local population, this, like their efforts at retaining their unique identity, would fail.
In the case of marriage, it was in the sixth century that a Visigoth ruler would admit to reality and remove the prohibition. During the late sixth and early seventh centuries, the Goths gave up on trying to convert Catholics and abandoned Arianism to adopt Catholicism. During the first half of the seventh century, the Goth abandoned their native form of dress—the practice heavy with furs—and began to dress in lighter clothes like the locals. They even give up their language during the course of the seventh century, thus becoming virtually indistinguishable from the local population.
As strong as Roman the influence was in Visigothic Spain, it would be even stronger in Ostrogothic Italy.
The Ostrogoths had crossed the Danube River in 453 after the Huns had left them behind. They decided to travel into the Eastern half of the Roman Empire and settle like the Visigoths before them south of the Danube, where they lived for about two decades, until about 473, occasionally performing military service for the Romans. But in 473, the Ostrogoths migrated deeper into the empire, going to the Balkans.
The Byzantine Emperor decided that he did not want the Goths living in his empire. He proposed a deal in which the Goths would do the dirty work of the Byzantine Emperor, to which the Goth leader accepted; the Goths go into Italy and attack a foe of the Byzantines. This struggle goes on for about five years until the Goths betray the Byzantines and come to an agreement with the Italians to become co-rulers. Shortly after coming into this agreement, however, the Italian ruler is murdered by the Gothic ruler, who becomes the new ruler of Italy in 493, establishing the Ostrogoth kingdom.
Though the Byzantines tried to spin these developments as ‘reclaiming Italy’, the truth of the matter is that the Goths were not subservient to the Byzantine Emperor. As a boy, the Goth ruler had been a hostage in Constantinople; important people of warring sides who essentially acted as collateral, in which if each side kept to their end of the bargain, then the hostages were treated quite well. So he had lived in the eastern half of the Roman Empire. In the ten years which he lived there, the Gothic ruler gained a real love of Roman/Byzantine culture, even serving in the Byzantine army.
Though as a ruler, the Goth king retains his distinctive facial hair and long hair, he is moderate in his religious policies. He never tries and converts the local Catholics to Aryanism and tries very hard to remain on good faith with the pope. Roman officials, like in Spain, continue to perform the same functions with the same titles and salaries. Even the Roman senate is still in existence. The Ostrogoth mint coins to celebrate victories, hold victory parades, and even adopting certain phrases of the Roman Emperors; the Ostrogoth ruler tries to remain on good terms with Roman senators by bribing them with luscious treats, he builds new aqueducts from scratch and rebuilds city walls, public baths. In some respect, he was even more Roman than the last Roman emperor, revising the distribution of free bread to the population, a tradition that had died out long ago.
It is mildly unsurprising that Gothic Spain and Italy were so thoroughly Romanized. They had had contact with the Romans long before crossing over and warring with them and serving them. So once they migrated into the empire, they had an easier time in adopting Roman culture. Additionally, it had to do with the areas that they settled; Spain and Italy had long experienced Roman rule. So it is not surprising that the local influence rubbed off on the new rulers.
But this all being said, it is surprising that the Franks become Romanized. The Franks, after all, did not have as much contact with the Romans. The Romans had not controlled Gaul for as nearly as long as they controlled Spain, for example. Roman roots are not as deep in this part of the world. So it is remarkable that the Franks become Romanized to the degree that they do.
The Franks, who have a long history ahead of them since they are never taken over by invaders, are a collection of tribes. King Clovis, the Frankish ruler who tries and homogenize the Franks into a single ethnic identity. He rules from about 481-511 A.D and destroys the political independence of the various tribes which form the Frankish Federation. Legendary for his underhanded tactics, Clovis also expands Frankish power claiming southern Gaul as Frankish territory. As a barbarian ruler, Clovis was rare since he converted to Catholicism. Since the Franks were to become the dominant barbarian group in Europe, other barbarian rulers would often convert to Catholicism as part a desire to form a better relationship with God and, presumably, have better fortune as rulers.
In Frankish Gaul, there is less Roman survival than in either Italy or Spain. But even within Gaul itself, things are divided: Southern Gaul has a better connection to the Roman past than Northern Gaul. For instance, the idea of an undividable kingdom does not persevere with the Frankish rulers seeing the Frankish kingdom as their own personal property to be divided among the sons. But continuity does exist in other respects: most of Gaul, for example, develops a form of romance language which is an altered Latin. The same public ceremonials, minting of coins, building of public spaces—such as race tracks—and more, such as the social distinctions, can be found in Frankish Gaul until the end of the sixth century.
In the seventh century, however, the distinctions in sociality which had dominated previous centuries—such as who were native Romans and who could trace their lineage back to all senatorial families—began to erode. The senatorial aristocracy vanishes with the only higher class left being that of the warrior class of the Franks. Contemporaries, for instance, can no longer distinguish between a Frank and a Gallo-Roman. There is a shift in the political ceremonial—victory parades are no longer held in towns but in the countryside as urban life declines. And there is a change in the minting of coins: whereas the Romans had silver, copper, and gold coins, the Franks stop minting gold and copper coins, only silver ones, adopting a monometallic money system.