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Ruminations on the Fall of Rome

Mike Duncan, of The History of Rome podcast, on the coming war between Theodosius and Maximus (in the late 380s). Here's Duncan's description of Theodosius' army:

“Theodosus' top field generals, Ricimer and Ricimer's nephew, Arbogast, were both ethnic Franks from the lower Rhine. They would be leading a mixed band of Roman legionaries drawn from the Danube provinces, Gothic auxiliaries called up according to the terms of their settlement agreement [following the Gothic War], and Hun and Alan mercenaries. . . They would be fighting against Maximus, who hailed from the same region of Spain as Theodosius, but whose army consisted mostly of Gallic legionaries, who were basically just ethnic Germans living on the west side of the Rhine, and Alemanni auxiliaries. . .

“In other words, when looked at from a few miles up, this Roman civil war resembles nothing so much as a giant squabble between rival barbarian tribes. Take out Maximus and Theodosius, and, really, how many Romans in this Roman civil war are left?

“Not many, I can tell you that.”

Combine that description from Duncan with this description by Will Durant of Theodosius' army that he brought to fight against Eugenius: "Theodosius marched against Eugenius “with an army of Goths, Alani, Caucasians, Iberians, and Huns; among its generals were the Goth Gainas who would seize Constantinople, the Vandal Stilicho who would defend Rome, and the Goth Alaric who would sack it.” The Age of Faith.

Now contrast those descriptions with this common presentation of how the Roman Empire fell: “The centuries-long expansion of the Germanic peoples, mainly occasioned by population increase and migration in search of more and better land, resulted in continual hammering at the gates of the Roman Empire, in sharply mounting pressure on its frontiers, and eventually in the great Germanic invasions carried out by wave upon wave of Germanic peoples, before whom the Empire succumbed (at least in the West), leaving the future in the hands of Germanic kingdoms and opening it to Germanic culture. So the Germanic world overcame the Roman world that it had long opposed and inaugurated a new era.” (This is the Walter Goffart's rendering of the common understanding that you'll find in textbooks; the understanding, Goffart says, is ludicrous, but “it still stands, majestic and undimmed, at the dawn of European history.”)

Do those two accounts, Roman armies comprised primarily of barbarians and those same barbarians attacking the Roman Empire, make sense?

It doesn't. I realize, of course, the two accounts can be reconciled. A person, for instance, could merely argue: “There were many barbarian tribes. Some tribes joined Rome; other tribes attacked Rome. The ones who attacked eventually won.”

The problem is, no one claims that (not that I've found, anyway). Everyone, for instance, knows the most infamous barbarian, Alaric, the sacker of Rome, was the head of the Visigoths, the barbarians who had a mixed history with Rome: they often fought with Rome, but often served in Roman armies, traded with the Romans along the Danube, requested and gained friendly admission into the Empire's borders when the Huns smashed into the eastern Europe, were mistreated, revolted and beat the Romans at Adrianople, fought the Gothic Wars against Theodosius, then became federati within (the “within” part is what makes the Visigoths particularly significant) the borders of Roman Empire, after which their armies were considered crucial auxiliary forces for the Empire. Alaric himself aligned himself with the East or West parts of the Empires, this or that Augustus, depending on the best position he could gain for himself and his people by working within the Empire. He had no more desire to topple the Empire than most people have to lop off their own legs.

Likewise, the infamous Vandals worked intimately with the Roman Empire. A person needs only read the biography of the Vandal Stilicho to realize that many “barbarians” were cultured, talented, and wholly absorbed by the “thing” that was the Empire. Stilicho even pacifically gave up his life when the time came in, instead of fighting against his execution, for fear that another Roman civil war would bring the Empire down.

The third major barbarian force that is often listed among the big players who took over the Empire is the Franks. But again, the Franks worked with the Roman Empire. In Gaul, the Frankish rulers and established Roman citizenry and Senatorial close worked closely to administer things, always with the understanding that they were all part of the Empire. It's also worth noting that, like Stilicho was a Vandal, Arbogast was a Frank.

To be continued tomorrow