Walter Goffart

Seminar VI: Rethinking the Barbarians I – Invaders or Settlers?

The western concept of the ‘barbarian’ originated among the Ancient Greeks, for whom the ‘bas-bas’ were those who muttered indistinct gibberish instead of speaking proper Greek. Over time the word came to refer to ‘non-Greeks’, and it was then taken over by the Romans to refer to ‘non-Romans’, and in particular to the people living beyond the Empire’s well-defined frontiers. Modern historians of the later Roman Empire use the term to refer chiefly to the Germanic and Asiatic peoples of northern and eastern Europe. The role which these peoples played in the fall of the Western Empire has been a key theme in histories of the period. Traditionally, the barbarians were seen as enemies of the Empire and of classical civilisation in general. It cannot be denied that groups of barbarians did ‘enter’ parts of the Empire in the late fourth and fifth centuries and that these peoples played a role in the collapse of imperial authority in the West and in the formation of the ‘successor states’ which emerged after the Empire’s fall.

One trend evident amongst historians based in northern European countries which have inherited the identities forged by these barbarians has been a tendency to give a favourable spin to their actions, either by stressing their creativity or by playing down the destructiveness of their invasions. This tendency can even be detected in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. Historians based in southern European countries have been less willing to forgive the barbarians for their excesses. But regardless of where their sympathies lay, earlier historians had little doubt that the empire’s conflict with the barbarians was a ‘national struggle’: it was assumed that the various barbarian groups were united by a clear sense of their own identity as a people and that the Empire which resisted them was itself united by a strong sense of its own identity – they were the Romaioi (in Greek) or Romani (in Latin). It was assumed that these identities were securely grounded in shared histories which stretched back into the distant past and in shared linguistic, cultural and, to some extent, racial affinities. It is these fundamental assumptions that have been questioned in recent decades by historians who have stressed, on the one hand, the ambiguity of the processes by which the barbarians entered into the Roman world and, on the other, the complexity of the ways in which barbarian and Roman identities were invented and re-invented by those who were caught up in the long series of events which led to the empire’s fall.

This week’s seminar is the first of two in which we will examine this change in perspective. It is about the theories of Walter Goffart (1934–), an historian who has argued that the central ‘theme of relations between Rome and the barbarians in late antiquity was not antagonism and strife but mutual need and cooperation’. The barbarians were not, according to Goffart, the enemies of Rome but its all-too-eager allies and workers:

I would stress: first, that the barbarians (with the notable exception of the Huns) were familiar, settled neighbours of the Empire and not unknown aliens from far away; second, that after the third century the Roman government was increasingly open to other methods of dealing with them than armed force and often found constructive employment for them inside the Empire; third, that barbarian invasions of Roman territory after the 370s were neither numerous nor long-lasting, and that their goals tended to be the same as those which the imperial government had already shown itself willing to grant, namely, an advantageous place within an undamaged Roman society; fourth and finally, that the barbarians were so lacking in ethnic assertiveness that only a very few of them retained their name and identity beyond the sixth century and did so then with the support and adhesion of the Romance population....        The Empire after Constantine had better things to do than engage in a ceaseless, sterile effort to exclude foreigners for whom it could always find useful employment. (Goffart, ‘The Theme of “The Barbarian Invasions”’, pp. 129–30).

If, in other words, there was strife between the barbarians and the Romans, it was not an attempt by the former to overthrow and destroy the latter, but merely a matter of labour-relations – of migrant labourers having a wee tiff with their employers. Or as Goffart puts it, in the introduction to his book Barbarians and Romans, AD 418–584 (1980), the text which comprises the first of this week’s set readings:

When set in a fourth-century perspective, what we call the fall of the Western Roman Empire was an imaginative experiment that got a little out of hand (p. 42).

The introduction to Barbarians and Romans is mainly concerned with refuting the older, traditional, view that the barbarians ‘invaded’ the Empire: its main point is that the barbarian groups which entered the Roman territory did not have a long history of migratory movement or of aggression against the Empire – that the ‘historical background’ to their intrusion was not ‘long’ but ‘short’. However, the book as a whole is about the ways in which the incoming barbarians were ‘accommodated’ within the social and fiscal structures of the western Empire and its successor states. The established view before Goffart was that actual allotments of land were made available to the barbarians which they then exploited to produce their own food. Some older historians held that the method for allocating land evolved out of the rules for billeting soldiers and that there was enough regularity to the practice to warrant the name ‘the hospitalitas system’. Goffart also believes that a routine system was involved, but he holds that the Empire handed over, not land, but shares of the tax revenues due from specified estates – the shares which had previously been used to support the army and in some cases also those intended to support the state itself. The effect of this argument is to minimise the disruption to Roman society caused by the intrusion of the Barbarians. Under these terms the ‘settlement’ of a barbarian group would not require the breaking up and expropriation of estates, but only the redirection of the taxes due from them. The pain suffered by Roman landowners, the economic impact, and the difficulties encountered by the agents of the state responsible for administering the settlement would have been minimal.

This argument has been enthusiastically received by some, most notably by Jean Durliat, a French historian who has developed it further, suggesting that the fiscal devices which were used to accommodate the barbarians helped to preserve the Roman tax system to the extent that it survived in parts of Italy and France as far as the tenth century: see his Les finances publiques de Diocletien aux Carolingiens (284–889), Beihefte der Francia 21 (Sigmaringen 1990). But Goffart’s views have also been dismissed by many, and the other set text for this week comprises a telling critique of Goffart’s arguments together with those of Durliat by Wolf Liebeschütz, a former Professor of Classics at the University of Nottingham.

The son of a Belgian diplomat, Goffart was educated at Harvard (1951–61); he taught history at the University of Toronto (1960–2000). Since his retirement, he has been a Senior Research Scholar at Yale.

Paul Hayward (10.xii.07).

Photo: Walter Goffart.

Set Texts

  1. Goffart, W. A., Barbarians and Romans, AD 418-584: The Techniques of Accommodation (Princeton, NJ, 1980), pp. 3–39 [MBB*], as reproduced in L. K. Little and B. H. Rosenwein (eds), Debating the Middle Ages: Issues and Readings (Malden, MA, 1998), pp. 25–44. MB7.*
  2. Liebeschütz, J. H. W. G., ‘Cities, Taxes and the Accommodation of the Barbarians: The Theories of Durliat and Goffart’, in W. Pohl (ed.), Kingdoms of the Empire: The Integration of Barbarians in Late Antiquity, The Transformation of the Roman World 1 (Leiden, 1997), pp. 135–51. LVR. Rpt. in T. F. X. Noble (ed.), From Roman Provinces to Medieval Kingdoms (London, 2005), pp. 309–23. MBB.

Worksheet Questions

  1. On what grounds does Goffart question the traditional view that the Roman Empire was invaded by the Barbarians?
  2. How, according to Goffart, should we interpret (a) the textual evidence provided by the early histories of the barbarians (such as the History of the Goths by Jordanes) and (b) the archaeological data?
  3. How, according to Goffart, were the barbarians accommodated by the Roman Empire?
  4. Without getting bogged down in the technical details of Liebeschütz’s counter-argument, what are his objections to Goffart’s view of what the hospitalitas system involved?
  5. How plausible is Goffart’s theory? What are its strengths and weaknesses?

Strongly Recommended Reading

Other Relevant Works by Walter Goffart

  • Goffart, W. A, Barbarian Tides: The Migration Age and the Later Roman Empire, The Middle Ages Series (Philadelphia, PA, 2006). MBB. Goffart’s latest contribution to the debate. On popular loan.
  • Goffart, W. A., ‘Does the Distant Past Impinge on the Invasion Age Germans?’ in A. Gillett (ed.), On Barbarian Identity: Critical Approaches to Ethnicity in the Early Middle Ages, Studies in the Early Middle Ages 4 (Turnhout, 2003), pp. 21–37. MBB.
  • Goffart, W. A., ‘Jordanes’s Getica and the Disputed Authenticity of Gothic Origins from Scandinavia’, Speculum, 80 (2005), 379–98. Also reworked in W. A. Goffart, Barbarian Tides: The Migration Age and the Later Roman Empire, The Middle Ages Series (Philadelphia, 2006), chp. 4 (pp. 56–72). MBB.
  • Goffart, W. A., The Narrators of Barbarian History (A.D. 550–800): Jordanes, Gregory of Tours, Bede, and Paul the Deacon (Princeton, NJ, 1988; 2nd edn, 2005). MBB.
  • Goffart, W. A., ‘The Theme of “The Barbarian Invasions” in Late Antique and Modern Historiography’, in E. K. Chrysos and A. Schwarz (eds), Die Reich und die Barbaren, Veröffentlichungen des Instituts für österreichische Geschichtsforschung 29 (Vienna, 1989), pp. 87–107; rpt. in idem, Rome’s Fall and After (London, 1989), pp. 111–32. LVS.

Additional Reading

  • Balsdon, J. P. V. D., Romans and Aliens (Chapel Hill, NC, 1979). LTH.
  • Burns, T. S., A History of the Ostrogoths (Bloomington, IN, 1984). MBH.
  • Burns, T. S., Barbarians within the Gates of Rome: A Study of Roman Military Policy and the Barbarians, c. 375–425 AD (Bloomington, IN, 1994). LVR.
  • Bury, J. B., The Invasion of Europe by the Barbarians (1st edn, London, 1928; New York, 1963). MBB.
  • Cunliffe, B., Rome and the Barbarians (London, 1975). LV.
  • Gillett, A., ‘The Mirror of Jordanes: Concepts of the Barbarian, Then and Now’, in P. Rousseau (ed.), A Companion to Late Antiquity, Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World (Oxford, 2007), pp. 392–408. LVL.
  • Heather, P. J., The Goths (Oxford, 1996). MBB. A ‘well-balanced’ treatment of the issues.
  • Jones, A. H. M.,  The Later Roman Empire: A Social, Economic and Administrative Survey, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1964). LV.
  • Murray, A. C., ‘Introduction: Walter Andre Goffart’, in idem (ed.), After Rome’s Fall: Narrators and Sources of Early Medieval History: Essays Presented to Walter Goffart (Toronto, 1998), pp. 3–7. MBR7.
  • Musset, J., The Germanic Invasions: The Making of Europe, AD 400–600, trs. E. and C. James (London, 1975). MBB. An example of the older approach.
  • Thompson, E. A., A History of Attila and the Huns (Oxford, 1948; rpt. Westport, CN, 1975). MBJL.
  • Vanderspoel, J., ‘From Empire to Kingdom in the Late Antique West’, in P. Rousseau (ed.), A Companion to Late Antiquity, Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World (Oxford, 2007), pp. 426–40. LVL.
  • Whittaker, C. R., Frontiers of the Roman Empire: A Social and Economic Study (Baltimore, 1994). LTE.

Some Latin Terms and Phrases Used by Liebeschütz

  • curia = a court, in this case the town council (p. 310).
  • principales = the leaders, in this case the town councillors (p. 310).
  • sors = share, lot, allotment (pp. 311, 314, etc).
  • consors = sharer, partner, especially in the common ownership of a property (p. 311).
  • De silvis inter Gotum et Romanum indivisis = ‘On undivided forests between Goths and Romans’ (p. 312).
  • hospes = stranger, but here ‘guest’ (pp. 312, 315).
  • annona = provisions, food (pp. 312, 317).
  • hospitalitas = hospitality, Goffart’s term the arrangement which he thinks was used to accommodate the barbarians on the estates of Roman landowners (p. 314).
  • tertia = a third of the taxes due from a particular estate (pp. 314, 315).
  • a sorte barbari = ‘from the barbarian share’ (p. 315).
  • millenarii = a man in charge of a thousand soldiers, but see p. 316.
  • possessiones, praedia, cespes, pars agri = possessions, estates, fields, parts of fields (p. 317).
  • fiscus = the resources owned by the state, including the taxes due to it (p. 317).

< Seminar Index