Walter Pohl finds a book

Seminar VII: Rethinking the Barbarians II – Ethnicity as a Political Stratagem

Among the most influential historians working on the ‘Barbarian’ problem since the 1960s has been a group based in Austria known loosely as ‘the Vienna School’. The leading proponents of this ‘school’ of thought are Herwig Wolfram (1934–) and Walter Pohl (1953–). Pohl, the author of the readings we will be discussing, is a professor of medieval history at the University of Vienna and the director of the Institute for Medieval Research at the Austrian Academy of Sciences.

Inspired by modern cultural anthropology and ethnography, these historians have sought to investigate the ways in which ‘ethnicity’ was deployed in the late Roman world, stressing ‘the differing forms of cohesion’ and distinguishing them from the ways in which identity has been constructed and used in other times and places. Like Goffart, these historians think that the ethnic groups who participated in the fall of Rome had ‘short histories’, but they differ in as much as they put greater emphasis on the role that ‘ethnic discourse’ played in the strategies of the barbarians and their leaders. Like Goffart they emphasise the fluidity of barbarian identity, but they stress the way in which collective identities were constantly being ‘re-fashioned’ and ‘constructed’ by their leaders, who were Roman (e.g. Aetius) as well as German or Asian in origin, the aim being to unite the diverse social elements among their followers into new ethnic groupings:

A lot of our evidence shows how fleeting ethnic identity in the early Middle Ages could be, and that no more than a generation was needed to make a people disappear from the sources (for instance, the Avars), to establish it as a first-rate political factor (for instance, the Bavarians). (Pohl, ‘Introduction: Strategies of Distinction’, p. 10.)

Ethnic identities were not, Pohl argues, received passively from the past, but had to be ‘actively promoted and preserved’, and this was achieved by the development of a distinctive set of social and cultural practices which could be adopted by those who were impelled by ambition or by social circumstance to join the group. Typically, these practices would take the form of (1) the use of certain personal names, (2) the development of a myth which used the notion of race to define origins of the group, and (3) the definition of laws, often formally recorded in a written law codes, which ‘privileged’ the members of the tribe – which gave its members an interest in claiming and retaining their identity.

For barbarian generals who could not pass themselves off as Roman the only feasible route to success within the Empire was by building a military following with a distinctive identity that would advertise its members’ skills as warriors whilst distinguishing them from the population whom they would serve. Some barbarian generals, like Stilicho, rose through the ranks of the army and succeeded by assimilating themselves into Roman society – by adopting a Roman identity; but most were obliged, like Alaric and Odoacer, to pursue a different strategy as the leaders of the alien groups. For leaders like Alaric developing an ‘ethnic discourse’ of this kind was necessary for the maintenance of their military position, but a delicate balancing act was involved:

The art of distinction lay in propagating a continuum of features that made one ethnic group special without too obviously excluding groups of different origin that had, or were about to, become part of its kingdom. Ethnic identity had to be exclusive, because the privileges of ethnic rule could not be shared indefinitely, and at the same time open enough to accommodate those who had recently been won over, or even those whose support might be desirable in the future. It should not bar a compromise with civil elites on the basis of late Roman civilitas, but it should prevent cultural assimilation from leading to a loss of political cohesion. Most of all, it should make clear boundaries among competing groups of warriors, and persuade barbarian and Roman subjects of the kingdom alike that ‘the nation of their days was a wonder from ancient days’. (Pohl, ‘Introduction: Strategies of Distinction’, pp. 6–7.)

Pohl is keen to suggest, moreover, that the new types of ethnic discourse which emerged with the creation of the successor states owed much to the ‘situational context’ (a phrase borrowed from Patrick Geary) in which they were created: he argues, for example, that they owed much to the Roman military system, which tolerated the development of diverse ethnic identities among the ranks; that they owed much to the influence of the Old Testament and Latin historical narratives – to texts which provided barbarian leaders with models of nationhood and kingship which they could apply to their own situation; and that they owed much to the use of the literate technologies and personnel provided by the Empire. Texts were used to propagate these new identities, and the new identities were defined with the help of ‘Roman specialists’, such as the Italian senator Cassiodorus who produced ‘high-sounding ethnic rhetoric’ for Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths (493–526). By these means new ways of engendering a sense of ethnic identity were invented – ways which allowed the barbarian leaders to fashion larger, more inclusive, groups than those which were common among the Germans beyond the frontiers of the Roman Empire. These barbarian identities were of a kind, Pohl suggests, ‘that could only take shape within the empire’.

In this seminar we look at two essays by Walter Pohl which exemplify this new approach. In the first he offers a revisionist account of the history of the Italian peninsula, in which he applies the ideas outlined above. Note, for example, the way in which he suggests that all the barbarian leaders who established themselves in the region were backed by ad hoc, fragile, alliances among persons and groups of diverse backgrounds. In the second essay, ‘Conceptions of Ethnicity’, he sets out theoretical positions which should, he thinks, govern approaches to medieval ethnicities. The importance of Pohl’s early work on the ‘Avars’ for the development of his ideas emerges clearly from the examples cited here. (Similar to the Huns, the Avars were an ‘Asiatic people’ who would have a major impact on the Eastern Empire from the late sixth century onwards.)

Paul Hayward (10.xii.07).

Photo: Professor Walter Pohl.

Set Texts

  1. Pohl, W., ‘Conceptions of Ethnicity in Early Medieval Studies’, Archaeologia Polonia, 29 (1991), 39–49, rpt. in L. K. Little and B. H. Rosenwein (eds), Debating the Middle Ages: Issues and Readings (Malden, MA, 1998), pp. 15–24. MB7.*
  2. Pohl, W., ‘The Invasions and Ethnic Identity’, in C. La Rocca (ed.), Italy in the Early Middle Ages, 476–1000 (Oxford, 2002), pp. 11–33. A relatively straightforward example of Pohl’s approach: read as far as the bottom of p. 25—that is, to the end of the section on the Lombards. MFP.

Worksheet Questions

  1. How, according to Pohl, has nineteenth- and twentieth-century nationalism distorted our understanding of ethnicity?
  2. Why, according to Pohl, did barbarian leaders need to invest energy in the development of ethnic identities? The contrast which he draws between the strategies of ‘Gothic leaders’ such as Alaric and Theodoric and the later development of the Lombard kingdom is important here.
  3. In what ways did the ethnic strategies of the barbarian groups (e.g. the Goths, Avars, Bulgars, Slavs, and so on) differ?
  4. How, according to Pohl, did the presence and nature of the Roman Empire promote the development of new ‘types’ or ‘styles’ of ethnicity among the various peoples of Europe?
  5. In what ways does Pohl’s approach to the barbarians differ from that of Goffart?

Strongly Recommended Reading

  • Pohl, W., ‘Gender and Ethnicity in the Early Middle Ages’, in L. Brubaker and J. M. H. Smith (eds), Gender in the Early Medieval World: East and West, 300–900 (Cambridge, 2004), pp. 23–43. MBD.H. Also rpt. in T. F. X. Noble (ed.), From Roman Provinces to Medieval Kingdoms (London, 2005), pp. 168–88. MBB.
  • Pohl, W., and H. Reimitz (eds), Strategies of Distinction: The Construction of Ethnic Communities, 300-800 (Leiden, 1998). MBB. Besides the introduction by Pohl, ‘Introduction: Strategies of Distinction’ (pp. 1–15), see also his essay, ‘Telling the Difference: Signs of Ethnic Identity’ (pp. 17–69), which is also reprinted in T. F. X. Noble (ed.), From Roman Provinces to Medieval Kingdoms (London, 2005), pp. 120–67. MBB.
  • See also the recommended reading for Seminar VI.

Other Books Concerned with the ‘Ethnicity’ of the Barbarians

  • Amory, P., People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy, 489–554 (Cambridge, 1997). MBH.
  • Barnish, S., and F. Marazzi (eds), The Ostrogoths from the Migration Period to the Sixth Century: An Ethnographic Perspective, Studies in the History of Archaeoethnology (Woodbridge, 2005). MBH.
  • Chadwick, H. M., The Origins of the English Nation (Cambridge, 1907; rpt., Washington, DC, 1983). MVC. An early critique of the theory of ‘tribal’ migrations, now acknowledged as a major influence on, or at least precursor to, the Vienna School.
  • Corradini, R., M. Diesenberger and H. Reimitz (eds), The Construction of Communities in the Early Middle Ages: Texts, Resources and Artefacts, The Transformation of the Roman World 12 (Leiden, 2003). MBD.H. This volume moves beyond the issues raised by the present topic, but includes some relevant items: e.g. the introduction in which Walter Pohl discusses his own theoretical influences (i.e. Pierre Bourdieu, constructivism and functionalist anthropology); Hagith Sivan’s study of the nature of Alaric’s authority as a ‘king’ of the Goths, and Hans-Werner Goetz, ‘Gens: Terminology and Perception of the “Germanic” Peoples from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages’, an article which echoes some of Goffart’s ideas.
  • Daim, F., ‘Archaeology, Ethnicity and the Structures of Identification: The Example of the Avars, Carantanians and Moravians in the Eighth Century’, in W. Pohl and H. Reimitz (eds), Strategies of Distinction: The Construction of Ethnic Communities, 300-800 (Leiden and Boston, 1998), pp. 71–79. An attempt to use material culture as evidence for understanding the status of non-Romans.
  • Ferreiro, A. (ed.), The Visigoths: Studies in Culture and Society, The Medieval Mediterranean 20 (Leiden, 1999). MBG.
  • Gillett, A. (ed.), On Barbarian Identity: Critical Approaches to Ethnicity in the Early Middle Ages, Studies in the Early Middle Ages 4 (Turnhout, 2003). MBB. A collection of essays criticising and defending the approaches developed by the so-called ‘Vienna School’.
  • Heather, P. J., (ed.), The Visigoths from the Migration Period to the Seventh Century: An Ethnographic Perspective, Studies in the History of Archaeoethnology 4 (Woodbridge, 1999). MBG.
  • Mathisen, R. W., and H. S. Sivan (eds), Shifting Frontiers in Late Antiquity (Aldershot, 1996), pt. 1. LTE.
  • Pohl, W. (ed.), Kingdoms of the Empire: The Integration of Barbarians in Late Antiquity (Leiden, 1997). LVR.
  • Pohl, W., I. N. Wood, and H. Reimitz (eds), The Transformation of Frontiers from Late Antiquity to the Carolingians (Leiden, 2001). LTE.
  • Wolfram, H., History of the Goths, trs. T. J. Dunlap (2nd edn, Berkeley, 1988). MBB.
  • Wood, I. N., ‘Defining the Franks: Frankish Origins in Early Medieval Historiography,’ in S. Forde, L. Johnson, and A. V. Murray (eds), Concepts of National Identity in the Middle Ages (Leeds, 1995), pp. 47–57; rpt. in T. F. X. Noble (ed.), From Roman Provinces to Medieval Kingdoms (London, 2005), pp. 110–9. MBB.

Some Latin Terms and Phrases Not Translated by Pohl

  • Magna Grecia = ‘Greater Greece’, i.e. the Greek settlements in the coastal regions of southern Italy (Pohl, ‘Invasions’, p. 12).
  • laeti = bonded settlers who received land to cultivate, for which they paid tribute (Pohl, ‘Invasions’, p. 13).
  • dediticii = captives (Pohl, ‘Invasions’, p. 13).
  • magister militum = master of the soldiers, commander-in-chief (Pohl, ‘Invasions’, p. 15; Pohl, ‘Conceptions’, p. 21).
  • patricius = a patrician, but in the fifth century the title of a person high in office (Pohl, ‘Invasions’, p. 15).
  • buccellarii (sing. buccellarius) = ‘biscuit-men’, the personal followers of the leading military figures, so-called because they received food from their lords (Pohl, ‘Invasions’, p. 15).
  • milites = soldiers (Pohl, ‘Invasions’, p. 23).
  • gens Langobardorum = literally, ‘the people of the long-beards’ = the Lombards (Pohl, ‘Conceptions’, p. 17)
  • rex gentis Langobardorum = king of the Lombard people (Pohl, ‘Invasions’, p. 24).
  • gentes, ethne = peoples (Pohl, ‘Conceptions’, pp. 18, 21 etc).
  • Romanitas = ‘Roman-ness, Romanity’ (Pohl, ‘Conceptions’, p. 21).

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