Barbarians and the Western Empire

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Rutgers University
History, European
Anthonydi Battista

Barbarians and the Western Empire (P. 19) • While the Roman Empire was adjusting to Christianity, it was also accommodating to the settlement of barbarian peoples • The term “barbarian” meant foreigner • Initially, the Greeks even called the Romans “barbarians” o Sometimes these new settlers are called “Germanic” • Barbarians both challenged the culture of the Western Empire and reinvigorated it Barbarian Customs ad Institutions • The Rhine and Danube rivers created the Roman border th • Outsiders began to press hard across these rivers in the 4 century • Most of the pressure came from central and southeastern Europe, and across those borders came some people who spoke Germanic languages but also considerable numbers of Celts, Slavs, and even people from the Middle East • Before their first contacts with the Empire, all these people were illiterate and “prehistoric” b/c they left no written records • Most reliable evidence comes from Roman commentaries • Barbarians were good for trade and soldiering, merchandise moved regularly across the Rhine and Danube • Romans were not supposed to sell weapons to barbarians, but they traded various luxury goods for which they were paid in good coin • From the late 3 century, the Rhine and Danube frontiers became recruitment areas for the Roman Army, and some barbarian bands were allowed to settle in the Roman territory and then defend it against other barbarians • By the 370s, the barbarians have absorbed Roman culture and many had been converted toArian Christianity • Many Barbarians were settled into farm or villages from which they cultivated surrounding fields • The artisans produced metalwork, barbarians used iron tools and weapons like Romans • Few cities (unlike Romans) and organized their societies on 4 foundations: kindred, war-bands, law codes, and ethnicity • Kinship networks were large, family was important • If a barbarian was killed or injured, kinfolk had to avenge the deed which led to feuds. Eventually it became customary to establish a wergild, a sum of money that the offender could pay to the victim or relatives of the victim to appease their vengeance • Wergilds varied in size depending on the victim’s sex, age, and social status (highest for women of childbearing age and aristocratic males), also varied according to injury • When wergild was not accepted, blood feuds ensured • Comitatus:Agroup of warriors bound together by their loyalty to a warlord, kind of a military brotherhood based on honor, courage, respect, etc. • Barbarian law was based on custom and tradition, enforced by general agreement, and applicable only to those in a specific tribe (community-rooted principles). Roman law on the other hand was backed by the power of the Roman state, administered by the work of judges and lawyers, and applicable to all (state- rooted principles) • Although each tribe had its own laws, all barbarian law codes shared the primary aim of resolving disputes that might otherwise end in bloodshed and feud • Compurgation: The oaths by the accused and their “oath-helpers” were sworn as to the veracity of a case (for people of high rank only) • Trial by ordeal: The accused would grab a bar of red-hot iron or take a stone from a boiling cauldron. If the hand healed properly, the accused was innocent. If not, he/she was guilty • Eventually, barbarians began to form more permanent tribal kingdoms • Created myths and tales • Custom of election for kings! (Assembly of tribe’s warriors chose ablest member of royal family to be the next king) Migration and Settlement • Barbarians began to move into the Roman Empire in the late 4 century (from the 370s) • Barbarians were lured by the relative wealth, productive fields, and sunny climate of the Mediterranean world • Huns: Tribe of Asiatic nomads, looked terrifying, great horseback skills, conquered many barbarian tribes • Visigoths appealed for sanctuary on the Roman side because pressure from Huns • The Eastern emperor Valens permitted them to cross peacefully into the empire, but trouble began • Corrupt imperial officials cheated and abused the Visigoths, who retaliated by going on rampage • Valens fought against them, losing his army and his own life at the battle ofAdrianople in 378 • Valens’successor Theodosius pacified the Visigoths and permitted them to settle peacefully in the Balkans and provided them with food and revenue in return for their loyalty and military backing • Pressure  Immigration  Conflict  Settlement • When Theodosius died in 395, the empire was split between his 2 young sons and the western and eastern halves were never joined again under a single ruler • Visigothic leader Alari
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