Some time ago, in a 4chan thread on /lit/ (or maybe /his/?) I was shitposting in while wagecucking, I was called out for daring to compare the US to Rome in some manner. I remember feeling the comparison was not too egregious, but my accuser did make a good point: I had not, within the bounds of my 2,000 character-limited post, made a convincing argument that the US was at all similar to Rome. The US gets compared to Rome quite a lot. All Western states do, however. There’s certain apt comparisons, and certain big differences. I’d like to explore the collapse of the Roman Empire, and let you, the reader, be the judge on if there’s anything we can glean from this or not.
Rome’s1 collapse is novel compared to that of other empires. The Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire were both picked apart by entirely functional competing empires (The UK, France, Russia, Germany, etc). The Byzantine Empire was entirely swallowed by a neighboring empire. The collapses of Chinese Dynasties bring up the problem of “China” as being a geo-economic-socio-religious-cultural entity that exists separate from the actual state governing it, and due to its sheer size and complexity any state that does govern it will eventually begin to adopt similarities to prior Chinese states in order to properly extract profit from China; thus, “China” has really been going on since the Han mastered irrigation, with various military and profit-extracting regimes just quibbling about who gets to extract profit from the Han. The USSR, similarly, broke apart due to the complete and utter failure of its political ideology, and collapsed into a central core (like China, but not as large in scope ) surrounded by buffer states that in many cases were actually better off as part of the USSR.
Rome, meanwhile, collapsed within a century due to being flooded with barbarians who were not part of any competing power that was more or less stable of its own accord. There’s all sorts of stuff looking at this process from a perspective of military history, or court intrigue, but not that many examining the fall of Rome from the point of view of the Romans that weren’t in the seat of power in Rome. I’d like to change that. What did the Fall of Rome look like for a the common Roman?
This piece is going to be reviewing Roman Aristocrats in Barbarian Gaul, by Ralph Whitney Mathisen. This book focuses less on the military and political history of the Gallo-Romans and instead focuses more on the social and economic events. It’s not about Gaul so much as the Gallo-Romans. It’s focused mostly on the wealthy ones, as they’re the ones who left written records behind, but it does go into the lower classes as well. I won’t follow his formatting strictly, but rather a looser historical track: describing Gaul, the entry of the Germanics, how the Romans reacted, and how it ended up.
Another work I find important, that my brief citations cannot do justice, is Roman Honor by Carlin A. Barton, which similarly deals with the psychology and study of the Romans as people with thoughts and feelings. If you want to get to know the Roman people as people, that’s the book for it. Both of these books are very good, and both are on Library Genesis. *cough* All of the books I’ll cite are *cough*.
One, Setting the Stage in Gaul.
Our story is set in GALLIA. Galli est omnis divisa in partres ters, as Caesar tells us, but by this time Gaul, and indeed the Roman world itself, had been broken up a bit differently. Roman Western Europe was broken up into (at the time of Trajan, where the political units more or less ossify): Italia, Sicilia, and Corsidica et Sardinia (Italia); Tarraconensis, Lusitania, Baetica (Hispania); Aquitania, Narbonensis, Lugdunensis, Belgica, Alpens Poeniae, Cottiae, and Maritimae (Gallia); Raetia, Noricum, Germania Superior, Germania Inferior (Germania). Thus, around Italy north, we can see Germania, Gaul, and Hispania (East to West). Gaul was home to various Celtic peoples, who culturally were utterly wrecked by the Romans. Rome had long been mistreated by the Celtic peoples from the north, and when it was Rome’s turn to enact violence upon the Celts they dealt out suddenly as much as the Celts had dealt out over hundreds of years. To be sure, Celtic culture was , again utterly smashed, and Christianization proved the final blow, erasing the last vestiges of Celtic polytheism and pre-Roman Celtic culture. This is sometimes referred to as a genocide.
Broadly, we can break modern France up into a few regions based on the results of migration patterns2. The North and Northeast are largely Germanic, with the East being increasingly Italic as one heads further south. The very center of France is a Celto-Italo-Germano-Vasconic mutt patch, but the surrounding regions are largely Celto-Italic. The West coast, namely Brittany, and sothwest of France present firm strongholds of Celtic DNA, with the very southwest of France being Basque Country, with Vasconic (Basque) genes holding out. This more or less represents the pattern of migration that we see. At the time, moving large numbers of men west is simply hard to do. The Germanics, Italics, and even Celts spread slowly through this region.
The Gallo-Romans, as described by the author, are viewed as backwater hicks; in truth, they’re far more industrious than that stereotype would imply. They’re needy, and whiny, and justifiably so as the Gallo-Romans are viewed as a tax farm by their social betters. Gallia as a place sports a novel phenomenon, in that whenever a military leader contesting for absolute power with his competitors goes to Gaul, he ends up winning glory when he leaves it (Caesar, Augustus, Constantine, and Julian all demonstrate this). The Gauls are always whining for the Emperor. The Gauls are seen as secessionists, and indeed would almost certainly have been better off on their own by the time the book takes place (400AD). They did actually seceede, forming the short lived Gallic Empire.
For some time, the Germanics had been migrating west. The Romans thought little of the Germanics. The Picts, another barbarian group at the edge of civilization, were incredibly stupid, but capable of civilization as all Celts were. The Germanics were not. The Germanics were physically incapable of writing, could not speak in verse or song, had no clue how to work fire, and ate raw onions and garlic for every meal as a result of being too dumb to engage in agriculture. This is, of course, wrong on several fronts, but it shows how little the Romans thought of the Germanics. The Germanics, for their worth, were utterly devastated by the Romans. The Germanic way of life was not focused on hyper-centralized cities or big-men, and was instead based around distributed family networks. Tribal patronage would, eventually, go on to form feudal liege homage. As time goes on, these structures broke down. Roman interference, both economic and military, irreparably damaged the social systems of any Germanic people it was levied against. By 400AD, many Germanic groups, namely the Goths, had suffered a complete social breakdown and were more or less migrating militias desparately seeking land to settle. The precise numbers are contestable, but there are far, far more people in the Roman Empire than there are Germanics. What seems to differentiate these Germanics is that they, as a whole, are willing to do what the Romans aren’t.
So why are the Germanics doing this? The simplest answer is that they’re running from the Huns, who are running from the Slavs, who are running from some other group, a chain reaction started by the Chinese forcing westward the Xiongnu, among other steppe groups. That’s a quaint theory, but the reality is that the situation was far messier. Broadly, a collapse of Germanic society, probably owing to raids and violence by other barbarian groups, lead to various Germanic tribes collapsing into ethno-linguistic militant bands. At this time, if you speak Gothic, you ARE a Goth. With the exception of the Saxons and the elite of the Franks, it is inappropriate to use “tribe” to mean some sort of “extended family”. These are migrant caravans full of armed men desparately looking for land to call their own. Ulfilas, the Byzantine priest who converted the Goths, was entirely Greek but knew Gothic, hence he “was” a Goth. How quickly a Germanic tribe converted to Christianity is inversely proportional to how stable its society was. The Saxons, who migrated west not out of necessity but simply because they needed to expand due to population growth, were for the most part socially intact and continued to worship Wotan and Donar. The Goths, on the opposite end of the spectrum, had experienced total societal collapse. The Franks were somewhere in between, as their later desire to integrate themselves into the Jewish bloodlines going back to King David attest. The Goths, however, had no bloodlines. A porous border, fractured societies on the periphery, and total mistreatment by the Romans lead to westward migration.
Germania is quickly taken by the Germanics, and is simply viewed as having been lost to the civilized world, and all of the Romans inhabiting it were rounded up for the slaughter. This, is of course, fanciful. The Romans did not in fact settle far into Germania, and much of Roman Germania was integrated within the barbarian chiefdoms and kingdoms. The origin of the “soveriegn city”, with powers, rights, and privileges independent of the nobility and aristocracy, begins here. The Romans would retreat to their fortified cities, impregnable to the Germans. The Germans would then have to parley with the city, reaching some accord. Cologne and Stuttgart were founded by Roman settlements in Germania, and their civic governments trace their history back to that settlement. A similar pattern will be seen later in Gallia.
But the Germans did not view the Romans as gullbile sheep to be cowed. In fact, they were terrified of them. The Germans viewed the Romans as comfortable wolves of a sort; as long as they were kept at a bare minimum level of comfort, they’d let you do whatever you wanted to them. Go below that, and they’d murder you. They were also, in matters of business and economics, supremely intelligent and would quickly outfox any Germanic in matters of law and business. Brute force and the Roman’s own disorganized nature (owing to their incredible wealth inequality) were the only advantages the Germans had. This becomes particularly of importance later.
So who exactly is writing this history? A group of men referring to themselves as the Boni. Singular Bonus, translated literally from Latin as “good”, the implication is “the Good”. The Boni are late imperial elite. At this time, the taxation rate is crushingly high, and forms an income trap: only the wealthy can afford to be anything but poor. This was not just due to the sheer amounts levied, but also the systems used to do so. Diocletian (Emperor 284-311) brought forth the unpopular reforms of requiring all business to be conducted in the presence of a tax collector so that the new 4% sales tax (as in, taking an additional 4% as sales tax) could be collected. This is indicative of the society the Romans live in, and what measures the state goes to in order to ensure order and control. At this time legibilization of society can only be done through crude, brute methods. The Boni make their wealth from the Latifundia, massive plantations spread across the Empire. They then sold these products to the urban centers, full of teeming masses. These urban masses would then receive the food for free from the bread dole, which by this time gives out fish, beef, olives, wine, and other goods. But nothing is free, and the government (city, Republican, and Imperial) would buy these goods to then distribute. The government would get the money to pay for this by taking booty from foreign conquered peoples, at first in the form of raids, later via taxes extracted from the provinces (in particular, in the East). The Emperor’s primary role was as the man charged with keeping this system running by constantly pumping in capital (slaves, land) and currency (taxes, booty) to fuel the massive subsidies given to the Boni.
The Boni owned land they would never trod, sold crops they would never see, harvested from soil they would never till, by slaves they would never meet. Two centuries prior, the rise of Stoicism, Christianity, and Mystery Cults correlated with the rise of the Latifundiae: the inability of the Romans to control their own destinies lead to them withdrawing inwards, becoming slaves to forces beyond their control, seeking an interior life that they could retreat to4.
Around the same time Diocletian takes power, the proud Roman tradition of the wealthy funding temples, roads, government buildings, housing projects, etc completely dies. It had been waning for years, but the massive increases in government size, scope, capacity, and revenues (and thus, taxation) killed it. All Pagan temples from this point are built by government decree, as are all churches of importance after Constantine takes power. Julian (of Apostasy fame) made impressive tax cuts and gave significant political power back to the urban centers, but even during this brief period it’s local governments, not local elites, building anything. In fact, all buildings period are built by government decree, unless they’re built by Germanic (Client-)Kings. This is a curious fact about the Boni: They’re lazy. Incredibly so. The Boni remind me of Boomer Canadians from a Palladiummag3 article I read some time ago. They whine about everything, and do nothing to fix it. They complain about how the roads are bad, and do nothing to fix them. Why should they? That’s what the government is for! Part of this is their Gallo-Roman sense of entitlement (the government isn’t doing enough for them), but most of it is a sort of structural laziness.
The Boni love literature. Their education sets them apart. The complicated history of Christianity’s ~intersection~ with ethnicity in the Roman Empire is really beside this point, but the Boni of Gallia did not share their Semitic fellow citizens’ opinions about the Classics (that is, that they deserve to be burned for being Roman). The Boni are well educated, and enjoy reciting poetry, in Latin, and when they can, Greek. Many don’t know Greek, and lament that fact. Learning Greek was a rarity at that time, few in the West knew it. They formed poetry circles, attendance of which were the primary means of getting business done away from the prying eyes of the state. Most admit they’re shitty poets, but ah, to even attempt poetry is a sign of the beauty of the soul! The purity of ones mind! The view that the Germanics are incapable of even communicating in verse is not just idle bigotry, it’s an idealogical statement. The precise meaning of “Bonus” is as well. They are the ideal elite, stripped of ambition and drive. The Boni have drank so heartily of uncompetability4 that they are suffused with it. Christianity was, in many ways, an excuse looking for a justification, and the reforms of Diocletian were power structure needing justification: Constantine took them to their logical conclusion. The Boni are the ideal “elites” of a regime that wants willing slaves with bowed heads.
The Boni are nothing like the Patricians of old. The very term “Bonus” as it is used by them is a carefully wrapped idealogical statement: they are good because they are rich, they are rich because God loves them, God loves them because they are virtuous, they are virtuous because they are of good blood, they are of good blood because they are rich… repeating circularly. At no point is there any expectation that they actually “earned” their status because of any achievement. The claim of “good breeding” is farcical, most of Boni trace their breeding back to a slave or other lowborn individual who suddenly gets their freedom by government fiat in the 200sAD. What silliness, claiming “good breeding” yet being unable to trace their lineage back to a Senatorial family from the Kingdom! The Patricians earned their status, as every man was a small king. If he wanted to fight the Germans, he’d gather an army and do it, he wouldn’t beg the state to come save him. If he wanted a road, he’d fix it himself, hell he’d build it himself. This quote, from a poem (The Poem of a Husband to His Wife) that is apparently relayed by Gregory of Tours in his Historia Francorum but that I sadly cannot find within it, states the following sad story of a Bonus down on his luck, who
“who once tilled the earth with a hundred plows,
[but] now yearns to possess a yoke of oxen.”
The Boni would, later, lament the loss of the Romans. Woefully, they cried to heaven, asking where the strong, virile, powerful Romans of yesterday had gone. Why was no one rising to the occasion to repulse the Germans before? Roman methods of agriculture involved plowing done by a single man with at least one oxen. While we cannot be certain that the poet in question is being literal, owning one hundred slaves (or having one hundred men indentured as clients to you, there is little difference in this period) was not unheard of, and most bishops and abbots could claim such numbers. That means that this poet alone had 100 men working for him, as his property, bound to a lifestyle used to fuel his wealth. Livy tells us that in 479BC, the Fabii, an ancient and venerable patrician family, gathered 306 landed men of their gens, alongside some 3694 clients and retainers, for war. The Fabii’s immense size was unusual, most Patrician gens could only gather 100 or so men. Where were the Legions of Rome, that had been raised from the soil? Where were the caligae, marching to defend the borders? Where were the farmer-soldiers? Tilling the fields of the Boni.
Two, Germanic Migration, and what the Romans thought.
How the Germans actually got into Gallia is misunderstood. In the 600s, Frankish historians, seeing that just a generation prior Gallia had been filled with self proclaimed Romans and yet in their day there were none to be found, came to the obvious conclusion that the Franks had arrived, established a kingdom as if it were a simple and easy act, and then on a whim rounded up all of the Romans and murdered them all. Genetics and history tell a different story.
The Romans, as all Empires do, played the barbarians against each other. This isn’t about the military specifics, but if you want a good book on this, and about the Huns (of which we actually know tragically little), The End of Empire, by Christopher Kelly, is good on this. Suffice to say, eventually the Romans start to lose their control over the Barbarians, and then the Romans and Byzantines try to use the Barbarians against each other. It goes very poorly for everyone involved. But what about Gallia? How do these barbarians gain control?
Piecemeal. A group simply shows up at the border, marches a little inwards, and violently acquires territory. What these Warlords do is is violently invade, take hold of a patch of territory, and offer their services to the Roman government, either that of Gallia or the Imperial government itself. Gallia is still run by a Roman government, after all. Often, these newcomers offer to help unseat the older, prior barbarians. This rarely succeeds in benefiting the Romans, as even if this actually occurs (in which case, the older barbarians just move further inwards and the cycle repeats) the new barbarians just now claim more dominion over more territory. The barbarians, in short, violently wedge themselves in between the Gallo-Roman populace and the Imperial government. In addition to providing desparately needed military support to the government, the barbarians allow the government to more easily interface with the public. By offshoring the work of governance to the barbarians, the government actually becomes more efficient. Taxes needed? Let some blonde barbarbar collect them, do you really care where he got the money? The barbarians create a necessary wedge of illegibility in between the governors and the governed. Diocletian’s new political order, cemented and refined by Constantine, is in many ways a massive attempt at legibilizing an enormous and diverse empire. This legibility was suffocating. Every barbarian incursion, however, brought with it further illegibility. Eventually, some of these barbarian leaders simply declared themselves independent of Rome in certain areas. This is important to keep in mind: the Germanics did not “conquer” territory from Rome in a formal process, with official maps drawn up, treaties signed, etc they simply occupied it and enforced their will in it.
The exact political scenario for how this arrangement was justified varied. At its best, Germanics willingly entered into service as official, entirely legitimate Roman military forces. Midway, a variety of Germanic chieftains were given ceremonial Latin titles that had absolutely no meaning what so ever, such as comes, magister, milites, rex, patricus, etc, and were used to enact violence upon other barbarians, and Romans, in return for gold and territory. At its worst, the barbarian chieftain Ricimer forcibly made himself a comes domesticorum (essentially “head of the imperial guard and the emperor’s chief protector”), entirely co-opted the Roman military for his own purposes by propping up a puppet emperor, and later with the aid of the Byzantine Empire assumed the title of magister militum (essentially “head of the army) and then smoothly slid into the Roman Empire’s skin and wore it like a grisly suit by propping up another three puppet emperors, all over a period of 15 years. Ricimer would die peacefully (that is, of a hemorrhage, not by assassination) in 472, and his nephew Gundobad would take over. Depending upon your personal view, the Roman Empire dies in 476 when the last Roman Emperor Romulus Augustulus6 was bribed to abandon his throne by Odoacer who promptly declared himself Rex of Italy and in doing so took the rest of Italia from Gundobad, or in 480 when Julius Nepos, who was actually the Emperor preceeding Romulus Augustulus but who fled to Dalmatia to escape the wrath of Orestes (a Roman general), was assassinated. To understand the speed at which this complete and utter collapse occurred, remember that Theodosius, the last man to rule both halves of the empire, died in 3957.
Back to Gallia. These repeated incursions, in the north, lead to massive upheaval of the populace. Not just the wealthy, but for the commoners too. The border between Gallia and Germania saw the majority of this upheaval. The interior, west, south, and southwest were not as harmed. Communication and travel broke down. The roads became unsafe, and not solely because of the Germans that could be lurking in the forests. Many left Gallia for Italy, or Greece; there is not a a single record of any Roman going to Gallia from elsewhere. Most disturbing of all, the Barbarians began to settle. They did not expect equal treatment under the law, and indeed actually sought to be protected from it. The Romans were predatory creatures in the eyes of the Germanics, and Germanic farmers needed to be protected from hungry, devious Romans. This view, that the Romans would take advantage of the Germans, is entirely correct.
For the Boni, however, what this meant was a loss of status. Many in Barbarian occupied areas had to give up land. At this point we cannot be certain how the less wealthy Gallo-Romans saw this matter, but it will be touched on later. Remember, the Germans aren’t literally slaughtering everyone as much as they are forcibly entering into Roman society. The Germans don’t want to burn everything down and rape everyone, they want to take a piece of the pie for themselves. Their intrusion in the Roman government in particular shook the Boni. As the Germanic chieftains acquired more power from the state, the state lost power and prestige. The traditional cursus honororum (at this time little more than a circlejerk of rigged elections) and positions of imperial office (institutionalized good-old-boy networks) lost most of its prestige. The Germanic interference in religious matters is important, but will be touched on later.
For the most part, the Germanic invasion is attested as being awful and terrible, but rarely outright lethal. The Germanics are more likely to engage in kidnapping and hostage taking than outright murder. This isn’t a slaughter, it’s a settlement. When it does turn violent, it’s quick and to the point, and rarely just for kicks. To quote directly from the text:
“Imprisonment led to an even worse fate for a friend of Sidonius, the
vir inlustris Eucherius of Bourges, who had been unsuccessful in a bid
to become bishop of the city circa 470. At the end of the decade, he ran
into difficulties with the visigothic-appointed
duke Victorius. According to Gregory of Tours, Victorius
“poured malicious accusations down upon
the senator Eucherius, whom one night he ordered to be dragged from
the prison in which he had been placed, and having tied him next to an
ancient wall, he ordered this very wall to be pulled down on top of him.
Eucherius did not survive.”
Three, Roman coping methods
The eastern border leaked Germans like a sieve, so what did the Gallo-Romans do about it? We can divide this into three responses: The first is teaming up with the barbarians, the second is striving for localist ambivalence, and the third is fighting back. These occurred in no particular order, and were done well after the last inch of Gallia had fallen to Germanic hands.
Many Gallo-Romans sought to earn the favor of the barbarian lords. The complex, rigid, highly legible society of the Romans alienated most Gallo-Romans from the actual process of political power. Rome was, in theory, a republic, in which any man of good character could take part in politics. While there were, traditionally, restrictions based on bloodline and lineage, by this point these had eroded. In practice, politics in Rome was a massive circlejerk done entirely through good-ol’-boys networks. It was utterly impenetrable, owing to the massive amount of money and connections necessary to take part. Remember, everything is done by hand at this point. The bribes and connections with the secular centers of power alone were crippling, to say nothing of the religious connections necessary. Remember, the positions of “Bishop” and “Abbot” have, at this point, a single qualification: that you’re willing to pay the Pope more money than the other candidates; there is no training, or even theological knowledge, required.
The barbarians changed that, and allowed many men to rise above their station. The Germanics knocked over established power structures and smashed hierarchies. A group of Germanics come along, kidnap the local Bonus to ransom, and his servants, slaves, and workers do… what, exactly? Why, they divvy up the land with the Germanics, and everyone gets a promotion, of course! And when he comes back, his land is no longer his. The great levelling agent here is that of violence. The Germanics were willing to enact violence, and the Romans were not. This is to say nothing of the Gallo-Romans themselves using the Germans, who could be bribed to enact violence. The Gallo-Romans, in turn, acted as mediators and learned ministers (remember, the Boni view their education as being one of their better qualities) to the Germanics.
This took a darker turn, as there were, of course, instances of the Gallo-Romans betraying each other. The city of Angouleme sported a grisly incident, wherein the local Bishop Ausonius was bribed by the Vandals to open the gates and let them, and their entire siege party, in. Ausonius was butchered by the Vandals upon their entry. Likewise, a senator (at this point a meaningless title held by influential Boni) by the name of Lucius, of the city of Trier, let the Franks in after a fellow Roman (either the emperor Avitus or the usurper Jovinus) seduced his wife. The opposite could happen, too: the city of Orleans, held by the Alans, was almost surrendered to the Huns (only the arrival of a Roman army stopped this).
The Romans themselves weren’t above raping and pillaging, either. The Bagaudae, springing up in the Crisis of the Third Century, never went away. This was a loose term referring to essentially any Roman who got fed up with the system and started lashing out. These men were rebels, revolutionaries, political agitators, marauders, brigands, and bandits. Before Constantine, Christians are often lumped in here, as Christians had a habit of burning down buildings, forming bands to destroy literature and works of art they disagreed with (Saint Cyril of Alexandria lead mobs through Alexandria destroying all literature that was not the Torah, the Gospels, and his personal commentaries on either). There’s also recorded cases of Christians willingly engaging in punishable-by-death skullduggery in order to get martyred, such as walking into court rooms and attacking judges. We have no way of knowing why these Bagaudae did what they did, as everything from sexual immorality to Christianity were blamed. They event went so far as to hold territory8, and allied with the Germanics. We have no record of these alliances every turning sour, and, really, why would they? The Germanics at this point (with the exception of the Saxons and the Frankish elite) are just linguistic militant confederacies, they’ll take whoever they can get.
The Gallo-Romans, pitted between their Germanic “friends” and local miscreants, frequently engaged in schemes to win favor and influence from the Germanic chieftains, or to fall under the patronage of certain chieftains in particular. The Chieftians, for their part, often sought out the wealth and influence of the Boni. Mind you, the Roman Imperial government is still operating in these regions. The positions and posts, however, continue to lose power and importance.
There were armies, and there was fighting back. It was never enough. The Gallo-Romans simply couldn’t mount a coherent, long-term offensive. The problem was that even though specific Germanic chieftains and their militant retainers could be pushed back, the Germanic settlers, and the Gallo-Romans who’d defected to them, were never removed. Once they’d settled, they stayed settled. Aetius, a Gallo-Roman general, campaigned, and it didn’t even make a dent. In his defense, the Huns came in and fucked everything up for everyone, so it wasn’t the Germanics per se9. Indeed, it’s almost as if the Gallo-Romans didn’t want the Germanics gone, they just wanted them to peacefully integrate. They didn’t actually want Gallia to remain necessarily Gallo-Roman, they just didn’t want things to get too uncomfortable. The author notes this idea, and that other thinkers have said this before. The Gallo-Romans only resisted the Germanics when it was convenient for them as Gallo-Romans, and in the broader interests of Gallia as a sort of loose nation.
Violence by the Gallo-Romans against the Germanics was, as a whole, a temporary measure: a bargaining chip. An army would be present, and that could be leveraged; and then it would be gone, and could no longer be leveraged. The Barbarians, however, would remain. Some of the Boni retreated to their Castella, well fortified pleasure palaces. A “Castellum”, the precusor to the castle in both linguistics and usage, was invaluable at this time. Much of the Gallo-Roman elite simply retreated to their inner lives. This had been happening for a long time now, in fact for centuries. Roman Honor details this more. Christianity, like Stoicism and various Mystery Religions, was in many ways a symptom of this, not a cause. The Gallo-Romans couldn’t fight back, but some could slink away into their private sanctums, away from the outside world, where nothing could harm them. In some cases, they were right. Sometimes these castella were co-opted by Gallo-Roman armies and used as bases. Some of the larger ones were used to house refugees, sometimes entire cities. Theopolis (“[the] City of God”), was built in 410AD in the Alps. Its dedicatory inscription calls it a “common refuge for everyone”.
So how did the Gallo-Romans cope? The Barbarians are here, they’ve taken over, what does that mean? Many Gallo-Romans defected to the Germans, to be sure, but then the Germans stayed for a bit. What happened then? In many ways, the Germanics freed the Gallo-Romans from themselves. With the breakdown in the Imperial government, law changed. The idea of law as some abstract thing that just exists and gets enforced because it exists ended. The idea of law as something that exists independent of its enforcement by human agents ended. The reign of law as fiat by strong men was born. You could do anything you wanted, as long as no one would decide that they personally wanted to hurt you for it. Here, many Gallo-Romans saw opportunity.
The poor found the economic levelling of the Germanics to be a breath of fresh air. Later, separate laws for Germanics and Romans would be enacted. Many Gallo-Romans simply started to identify as Germanics so that these beneficial laws would be applied to them. Remember, the Germanics are terrified of the Romans taking advantage of them. For many there was no justice under Roman rule, not just in the sense of punishment of a crime but of true justice, a true order to the world, a true knowledge that the world operates on ordered principles and that bad men are punished for their wickedness. The Germanics offered a more liberating alternative. If someone wrongs you, go and kill them. If anyone cares, you’ll be brought before the King, and if he finds your cause just, you’ll be free to go. Imagine that, that if someone rapes your daughter, or kills your brother, or steals your property, that you, YOU, you personally, would be allowed to do what is just. That you’d be allowed to just… do it. Under the Roman rule, only the rich could ever have anything close to justice. Many found the Germanics to be far more honest, far more open, and far more just than the Romans.
By the time the 500s roll around, Roman administration has more or less collapsed. Rome is no longer ruled by an emperor, and what vestiges of Roman Imperial Government are left are just shallow titles held by the Boni. The Gallo-Romans began to come around. They re-evaluated their identies in relation to the Germanics. Eventually, only the rich, the Boni, were “Roman” anymore. The poorer classes began to identify as Germanics: Vandals, Goths, Visigoths, Alans, Franks, even Saxons. The Germanic kings had, for some time, been trying to stymie the power of the Boni in their courts. This relationship would prove… daunting, and when religion gets involved it has some important effects. Law codes such as the Breviarium Alarici and the Liber constitutionum sive lex Gundobada took pains to separate Romans and Germanics. Romans were given special privileges: if a Burgundian sold his land, something he could only do if he had land elsewhere (this is a form of protection of the Burgundian, as the Romans were wolves in these matters), Romans were given preference in the sale. The borders between Romans and Germanics began to ossify.
Thus begins what I call the “period of shenanigans”. Freed from themselves, the Romans are allowed to truly be themselves. As law is only enforced when the king personally enforces it, we see a string of silly crimes. This include:
-A mother trying to poison a wealthy man to get his property; she poisons her son by mistake.
-A Jew by the name of Armentarius was killed and dumped in a well by a vicar and tribune when said Jew tried to collect debts he owed10; his killers went unpunished.
-Bolenus, and an armed band, killed the entire estate of Domnula, and was only punished with property confiscation due to political reasons two years later; Domnula had quarreled with Bolenus over vineyard ownership.
-Gregory of Tours would deny communion to anyone he personally disliked; this is the least offensive thing Bishops in the day did in the middle of church services, which could apparently involve political assassinations in the middle of Mass.
-Ritual cursing against property was utilized at least once.
-Eucherius’ death-by-wall apparently became a common execution method.
-A man murdered his wife, a small child, and his wife’s lover; he was then murdered by a mob of Franks for this.
-In Tours, a wife’s lover slaughtered her husband and the husband’s brother; they then eloped.
-A cleric from Le Mans and a lover escaped the city together, the woman disguised as a man; her family found her, kidnapped her, and burned her alive. The Germanics forced the family to pay twenty solidi as wergild (wogild?) in return for this.
-Eulalius strangles his mother with her own hairshirt; he then marries Tetradia, but cheats with the maids, so Tetradia elopes with Verus, Eulalius’ nephew. Verus sends Tetradia to flee to the dux Desiderius. Eulalius murders Verus, so Desiderius marries Tetradia, and Eulalius then marries a nun he had kidnapped from a convent in Lyons. He then kills the ex-nun’s cousin, Aemerius. Then he murders the brother of his half-sister along the way. A church synod later orders Tetradia to reimburse Eulalius four-fold for any property that she had taken from him.
-Syagrius of Verdun alongside a band of retainers murdered a random bystander, tore down a wall, and then murdered Syrivaldus for a denouncing of Bishop Desideratus (the father of Syagrius) to the local king.
-Gregory of Tours brother was lanced to death by the son of the Bishop of Langres, believing that Gregory’s brother had magically killed his father the bishop. He then murdered another man on the road, and was then hacked limb from limb by the second man’s relatives.
-Nanthinus, count of Angouleme, set out to avenge his uncle. He murdered a presbyter, several laymen, and then died of plague.
-A man dies in a riot; his brother kills his killer. He flees to the tomb of a Christian holyman, and was forgiven by the Germanic authorities, I presume for his piety.
-Sicharius, a Roman, celebrated Chirstmas with Austreghysilus, a German. A local presbyter sent a slave to invite some friends of Austreghysilus, but they, for no apparent reason, killed the slave. Sicharius then attempted to murder Austreghysilus with a band of retainers, but instead four of Sicharius’ men died. Sicharius got a larger band together, and killed Austregysilus, his brother Ebergulgus, and his son Auno. Auno’s son Chramnesindus then plundered Sicharius’s house and killed his slaves. Sicharius and Chramnesindus then became fast friends (fucking how?). One night, while drinking, Sicharius began to brag about killing Chramnesindus’ relatives, and was promptly stabbed him to death for this. Chramnesindus was pardoned.
-Asterioulus and Secundinus got into a fist fight in the local king’s court. The king dismissed the former, who stuck around because the queen liked him. When she died, Secundinus murdered Asterioulus. Asterioulus’ son, later, would corner Secundinus, who would drink poison.
These are fun and all, and the fact that this happens roughly over the same century isn’t that big of a deal (see: Florida), but they belie how personal (and petty) justice had become, alongside a sort of odd asymmetry between how the upper and lower classes reacted to violence. For the lower classes, Germanic rule was a means of protection, but for the upper classes, it was a means of liberation. Both were now free to levy violence against those who’d wronged them, and in order to advance.
Now, finally, we come to religion. The Gallo-Romans were, as a whole, Nicene. There was an established organized orthodoxy, with a hierarchical clergy. The Germanics were as a whole Arian. The Nicenes are, as a religious faction, not at all worried about Arianism. Arians just sort of exist and can be converted to proper Nicene Christianity. They have no intellectuals to worry about, just occasional heresiarchs propped up by Germanic kings. The kings can be swayed, and the heresiarchs go away. I find this bizarre, as Julian the Apostate makes Christianity shit its pants. The Nicene’s don’t consider Arianism to be a threat, even at a time when essentially every Germanic king is a Pagan or an Arian and the Byzantine Emperor is possibly an Arian (depending on who precisely is in charge). My theory, and this is purely mine, feel free to disagree, is that Arianism was seen as a popular Germanic superstition, and an improvement on Paganism. It brought the Germanics closer to being human, and proper treatment could make them take the next few steps necessary to be fully human. The Germanics, for their worth, viewed Arianism as “their Christianity”. The Visigoths, Goths, and Burgundians all took this stance, and their leaders sought to empower Arianism alogside Nicene Christianity11. It ultimately was moot, and Nicene Christianity won out, but it is still a noteworthy point.
Some Roman aristocrats, finding seclusion in hedonism distasteful, and working with the barbarians to be even worse, sought a life of piety and virtue, serving their Lord. This did not mean that they had to give up their wealthy villas, stately latifundia, hundreds of slaves, or political ambitions. Indeed, their status was actually increased by this maneuver. The divine authority of the secular aristocracy was, if intellectual sources can be trusted to describe a wide swathe of society, stripped and transplanted to the clergy. The divine authority and goodness of the Boni had only increased! Abbots and Bishops were among the wealthiest of the Boni at this period, and were incredibly politically influential, ruling as small kings in urban centers. The Arian Germanics had qualms about killing Nicene clergymen, so simply being part of the clergy suddenly made one much harder to murder. All of this time off from work and business also gave one plenty of time to study the classics, to compose poetry, and to read history! Here, we see the start of the strange love affair the Catholic Church has with the Classics, which are by all acounts the literary work of a foul and disgusting Pagan people that need to be eradicated. The Gallo-Roman aristocracy en masse moved into the Gallo-Roman clergy, and brought with them their love of literature.
Much to the Italian church’s dismay, episcopal dynasties began to form. Sidonious, in a letter to the his brother in law, said that “our nobility has decided… to give up either its homeland or its hair”, a reference to the practice of tonsure. There were, however, only a select number of ecclesiastical offices available before one had to enter a position requiring actual work or asceticism. These positions were hotly contested, and presumably the same sort of ~shenanigans~ that we saw earlier occurred here too.
Four, Britannia, Hispania, Africa, and Italia
But what about the rest of the world? Britannia, on the absolute ass end of the Empire, was essentially abandoned. Initially, the Roman-British fought the Anglo-Saxon invaders, and were simply crushed. The survivors were integrated in more or less peacefully. This was coming on the end of a long economic depression, which lead to Britain essentially losing the ability to make sculptures and buildings out of marble, as everyone who knew how to do those things had left.
Africa, meanwhile, came under Vandal occupation. There was a third element in Africa, however, the Moors (A Greco-Berber group). The Vandals were far more hostile to Roman culture and Nicene Christianity in Africa, and the Moors still hadn’t gotten over the entire concept of foreign rule. Ultimately, the Vandals were repulsed, by Byzantine forces and aid, and Africa was recouped into the broader Romano-Byzantine sphere. Then Islam happened, and we all know how that goes.
Hispania was a sublter, more gentle occurrence. The Germanics arriving in Hispania had already gone through Gaul and understood how things worked. The Visigoths took over by more or less wedging themselves in between the state and the populace, and the populace just sort of gave up on the state. The aristocracy, similarly, took refuge in the church. Barbarians integrated themselves into Roman culture, and ingratiated themselves to the people as useful violence-men. A succession of Visigothic kings, Sisebut, Chintila, Reccesvinth, and Wamba even wrote Latin poetry! This was a case of successful integration. Islamic invasion would change everything, of course.
The Italo-Romans, however, were not as keen as the Gallo-Romans or Hispano Romans. There was little integrationl little rapproachement, and local power centers (urban and rural) were a constant thorn in the side of the Germanics. The Aristocracy never lost their hold on local power, leading to the situation that would be Renaissance Italy, fractured and disunited. This would have an impact in Papal history, as the Papacy was often the puppet (in theory or practice) of some power other than the actual Vatican establishment. The Germanics did try to integrate, but the Romans would have none of it. There was never a sense of communion between the two peoples, and eventually the Germanics would be entirely repulsed and driven out. Firmly into the Medieval period, Italy was the only place in Europe that was once ruled by the Roman Empire that was not run by a monarchy deriving authority from Barbarian conquests of Roman territory.
As the differences faded, and the aristocracy and the peasantry learned to cope, leading to the slow birth of the Three Estates of France. The Germanic traditions of hands off hierarchy paved the way for the creation of the peasantry as loosely independent (compared to the Roman slave-agriculture practices) agrarian simple living. The Gallo-Roman aristocracy merged with the Germanic warrior traditions, leading to the nobility as violent-men who got to harvest taxes and take corvee labor in return for protecting the realm. Other Gallo-Roman aristocrats joined the clergy, and took the educated detachment of their station to its logical conclusion: the church as an extra-national organization in the background of every government, serving as bureaucrats and scholars. Frankish scholars adopted the “we slaughtered the Romans” theory, even though their ancestors just a few generations back would scoff at the idea of anyone from their bloodline being a “Frank”. The precise birth of Francia is a different historical matter. Francia goes on to form France and Germany, two of the greatest nations in Europe, and Spain, also the product of Germanic invasion, originates in Hispania. The Anglo-Saxons go on to from Britain from Brittania. Italy, although not as much of a colonial or imperial power, remains important throughout the rest of history.
I, personally, see many things in the US in ancient Rome. I don’t necessarily think that they’re unique to Ancient Rome, however. Certain apt comparisons can be made about Hispanics to the Germanics. I see comparisons of Narcos and Cartels to Germanic tribes and their ability to violently fill power vacuums made on twitter. Around this same time in Ancient rome, huge population movements of “friendly barbarians” throughout the empire are going on, particularly in the East; Byzantium’s holdings outside of Greece were constantly churning. For what it’s worth, if I had to make a comparison to Rome, I’d say we’re certainly prior to the Crisis of the Third Century. Prior to that, the Germanics were still entirely under Roman control, locked in a containment zone unless needed.
Economically, there is a similarity in the massive centralization of profits, capital, and power in the hands of a handful of large business interests. Walt Disney Company, which inches ever closer to a monopoly of fictional media, will be one-hundred years old in three years. The West has a massive problem with refusing to let things die in order that other things may live. I mean this in the sense of the analogy of how “the man who truly loves life hacks off the hands off of those clawing to get into the lifeboat”, but also literally, as the Boomers are kept alive through advances in medicine and Ruth Bader Ginsburg is kept alive through advances in necromancy.
There are also comparisons in the stagnant government, the Westerner’s seeming inability to do anything without government approval. I mean this both in the sense that the government will actively work to curtail any unforseen activity by those it rules over, and in the sense that many Americans truly believe that the government holds a monopoly on morality and justice. The highest office in the land is really just the guy who gets to take orders from the plutocrats.
Notes and citations
1. “Rome” here refers to the Western Roman Empire, or the unified empire up until the death of Theodosius, depending on the context; when the independent Eastern Roman Empire is relevant, I refer to it as the “Byzantine Empire”. This is purely as a means of convenience. The actual history of why “Rome”, “Byzantium”, and the “Ottoman Empire” are three different entities in Western Europe is complicated but it involves the complex political machinations of the Pope, Western Europe, and the Byzantine Empire, and then later the Pope, Western Europe, and the Ottoman Empire. This piece is not on that, although an exploration of such would be very interesting.
2. On French genetics
3. Palladiummag’s article on Canada’s b**mer induced housing woes
4. Roman Honor; for more on Mystery Religions, Religions of Rome, Volume 1 and Religions of Rome, Volume 2 by Mary Beard (Yes, I know) are very good, and encyclopedic in nature. If you really want to go down the rabbit hole, In Search of God the Mother, by Lynn E. Roller, and Romanising Oriental Gods, by Jaime Alvar, both cover the Isiac (Egyptian Isis), Mithraic (Mithraism, NOT the Persian/Zoroastrian worship of Mithras, however), and Phrygian (Cybele and the Galli) go into the encylcopedic specifics of some of the ~weirder~ Mystery Cults.
5. Seeing Like a State
6. The interfix “-ul-” in Latin is a diminutive. This name means something akin to “Romulus the little Augustus” or more etymologically autistic,“The little majestic man from Rome”.
7. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/5b/Roman_empire_395.jpgThe empire at the time of Theodosius’ death.
8. The Chronicle of Hydatius
9. The Huns were some form of steppe people who followed a polytheistic religion. Attila had a magic sword given to them by their god of war; everything I’ve read on this fact emphasizes that this god of war was not just a god who happened to be in charge of war among many things, but was a “god of war”. We know of three words in Hunnic: “Medos”, mead or millet, “kamos”, a barley drink, and “strava”, a funeral feast. They might’ve been Germanics; or Slavs; or Turkics; or some weird linguistic isolate. They practiced head binding. Priscus of Panium, a Byzantine diplomat, scholar, thinker, chronicler, miltary strategist, geopolitical analyst, and spy who wanted to be absolutely none of that, wrote an eight volume series on the Huns (he hated them), their language (he was fluent), their religion (he despised it), their culture (he found it barbaric), their history (he thought it was brutal), their leader (he reluctantly dined with Attila several times), and their relations with Rome and Byzantium (he was instrumental in Byzantium not getting steamrolled by the Huns). Some six centuries later, Constantine VII had the entire imperial library cut and pasted into 53 books, leaving us with just 32 fragments of Priscus’s original 8 books remaining, because God found it too hard to read all of the books in the library.
10. As this is Pre-Charlemagne, the Jews as a specific high-liquidity class has not been formalized yet. This is not a case of some skeevy moneylending Yid getting offed, it’s a case of “a foreigner with no allies got shivved by locals with allies”.
11. Roman Barbarians: The Royal Court and Culture in the Early Medieval West, by Yitzhak Hen. That probably echoes, I don’t care, he cites his sources, they all lead back to “Germanic chieftains gave money to build Arian churches and Nicene churches”, which is all I’m citing him for.