Barbarians versus Romans: Violence and Urban Life in Late Antiquity
The image of the savage, violent barbarian is well-entrenched in Western culture and has been a part of our literary, popular culture and even our language for centuries. Most people would not question the association between “barbarian” peoples and violence, but why do we assume that the “uncivilized” or the “savages” are inherently violent? Where did this assumption come from? For the answers, we have to look back well over a thousand years ago to the Roman Empire.
In the latter centuries of the Roman Empire, a period known as Late Antiquity, the relationship between the Romans and the so-called “barbarian” tribes of Western Europe became increasingly complex, particularly after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Violence and barbarism abounded, with the innocent, peace-loving Romans seemingly being attack by hordes of bloodthirsty barbarians. But things were not so simple as they may seem at first glance. In fact, when looking closely at the real historical records, you might find yourself asking “who were the true barbarians?”.
Relief depicting Roman soldiers leaving captives away in chains. Roman brutality against non-Roman peoples during Late Antiquity was legendary. (Ashmolean Museum / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
The Dangers of Urban Life in Late Antiquity
There was major upheaval in the lives of regular Roman citizens in Late Antiquity, driven by the forces of the Christianization of the Empire and secular upheaval created by turmoil within Roman political structures. As central Imperial authority slowly collapsed and the emperor’s rule declined in the West, the prestige and security of smaller towns and cities took a downturn. Aristocrats began to withdraw from urban life into rural areas, taking their fortunes with them, while public spaces began to fall into disuse only to be repurposed for use by the new Christian church.
Populations began to decline and the threat of invasion increased as Imperial control weakened, particularly around border areas of Roman control. Security and defense became primary concerns, towns became walled and civilians abandoned the lowlands in favor of more easily defensible hilltop refuges. Military recruitment and supply increased and the population of border towns became largely military instead of civilian. By the 5th century, most formerly-Roman towns had become essentially cut off from each other, operating as insular, cellular units which acted more like tribes rather than the interconnected network that had existed under Imperial control.
Inevitably, there were violent clashes between Roman forces and invaders from barbarian tribes, who were seeking to take advantage of the Romans’ vulnerability following the withdrawal of Imperial authority. However, it was not always the barbarian tribes who were the aggressors, and there are many recorded incidents of Roman brutality against non-Roman peoples. The 7th century Byzantine historian Theophylact Simocatta chronicles the summer of 599, in which a Roman army crossed the Danube river into the Tisza plains.
In his chronicles, Simocatta explained that after a victorious battle against the Avars the previous day, the Romans marched across with four thousand men and a small number were dispatched to investigate the enemy’s movements:
“Accordingly, they encountered three Gepid settlements. The barbarians knew nothing of the previous day’s events, had arranged a drinking session, and were celebrating a local feast. Then they had entrusted their cares to drink and were passing the night in festivity. But in the twilight, as it is called, when remnants of night still remained, the Romans attacked the drunken barbarians and wrought extensive slaughter. For thirty thousand barbarians were killed.”
The account is horrifying to say the least. Thirty thousand people, whose only crime appears to have been that they were subjects of the Avar lords, slaughtered in one night. It is not however an isolated incident. Theophylact also recounted tales about how the Roman army spent the winter of 602 in the Slavic countries in the north, undertaking a “search and destroy” mission to systematically kill off the Slavs. The Romans knew that the trees would be bare in the winter and so the Slavs would be unable to hide out in the forest.
That is not to say the barbarian tribes did not inflict equal amounts of cruelty and slaughter on defenseless Roman civilians. The historian Procopius, a 6th century Byzantine author, describes the Gothic army’s invasion of Milan in 539 during the Gothic Wars:
“The barbarians razed the city to the ground, killing all the males of every age to the number of not less than three hundred thousand and reducing the women to slavery and then presenting them to the Burgundians by way of repaying them for their alliance. And when they found Reparatus, the praetorian prefect, they cut his body into small pieces and threw his flesh to the dogs.”
The sources no doubt distort reality, exaggerating numbers of people killed or embellishing the level of brutality inflicted, however the evidence seems to suggest that Romans and barbarians alike were both capable of great violence and barbarism. So if this is the case, why are the barbarians depicted as being more violent?
Painting of a Roman villa in Gaul being sacked by hordes of Attila the Hun, by Georges Rochegrosse. ( Public domain )
The Barbarian in Literature
The dichotomy of “Romans versus barbarians” was a compete falsehood in Late Antiquity. In reality, by the latter half of the Western Empire, Romans had been using barbarian auxiliaries in their military for so long that the “Roman” army was composed mostly of barbarians or those of barbarian descent. The barbarian tribes had been partially absorbed into Roman society, with auxiliaries in the army being settled on Roman lands and marrying Roman women. Many Roman citizens had a mix of Roman and barbarian blood in them.
The general perception among Roman society however, was that barbarians were naturally inferior. The name “barbarian” is actually a slight, as the Romans could not understand their languages and so referred to them as a kind of gibberish “bah-bah” and so one who speaks these foreign languages is a bah-bah-rian. Barbarian peoples were actually believed to have a more “animal” biology, and pseudo-scientific theories existed to explain how their animalistic nature inclined them towards violence and savagery.
Roman authors often compared barbarians to animals and used animal imagery to describe them. Ammianus Marcellinus, the most prolific historian of Late Antiquity before Procopius, is famous for invoking animal imagery when writing about barbarians in his work, the Res Gestae . Roman literature often characterizes barbarians as cruel, wild, and impious among other things. These depictions served to erase any sense of culture or civility from them and their culture, painting them as little better than beasts entirely subject to passion and violence. This characterization was, of course, entirely deliberate.
Any society considers outsiders to be inherently more violent than itself and the Romans were no exception. The barbarians certainly served a role of violence in the Roman public sphere as soldiers, gladiators, rebellious slaves and invaders, but that did not mean they were more inherently violent. It suited the Imperial agenda to demonize the barbarian outsiders, because it justified the huge expenditure most emperors outlaid into the Roman military .
These characterizations also glorified victory over the barbarian peoples by making the Romans appear to be the bringers of peace. As the Western Empire collapsed and the barbarian successor kingdoms rose to power, this idea of the violent barbarian served as an antithesis to the civilized Roman and was used to perpetuate the perception of the superiority of Roman culture.
Slave market in Ancient Rome, by Jean-Léon Gérome. ( Public domain )
The Rules of Violence in Late Antiquity
The analogy between barbarianism and violence was deeply rooted in the Roman social consciousness, and as well as reinforcing Roman superiority it was also a convenient excuse for “un-Roman” behavior exhibited by their army during wartime. Excessive bloodshed or unnecessary cruelty perpetrated by the Roman army would often be blamed on the barbarian elements within it, such as barbarian auxiliary troops. In reality the Romans had always struggled to control the behavior of their armies in battle and the addition of barbarians to their ranks did not mark an increase in violence or brutality.
Theoretically, both Roman and barbarian armies were governed by strict codes of conduct in wartime. Procopius records a speech made by the Roman general, Belisarius, after the Roman army had conquered the Gothic city of Naples in 536, in which we can see these codes of conduct being enforced:
“It behooves us on our part to shew ourselves not unworthy of His grace, but by our humane treatment of the vanquished, to make it plain that we have conquered these men justly. Do not, therefore, hate the Neapolitans with a boundless hatred, and do not allow your hostility toward them to continue beyond the limits of the war…do these men no further harm, nor continue to give way wholly to anger. For it is a disgrace to prevail over the enemy and then to shew yourselves vanquished by passion. So let all the possessions of these men suffice for you as the rewards of your valor, but let their wives, together with the children, be given back to the men.”
The Frankish historian Gregory of Tours recounted a similar incident when the Merovingian king Guntram’s army invaded Aquitaine in 585. Upon seeing the indiscriminate slaughter and destruction brought about by his army, the king gathered his commanders and chastised them that “Where such sins are committed, victory cannot be obtained.”
In reality however, both Roman and barbarian armies were often guilty of excessive violence in warfare. Even so, Roman commanders were slightly better equipped to control their troops because they were paid for their service, while most barbarian legions received no payment other than what plunder they could take for themselves.
Invasion of the Barbarians by Ulpiano Checa. ( Public domain )
The Rule of Law During Late Antiquity
The analogy between passion and barbarianism extended beyond warfare too, and the barbarian successor kingdoms were often depicted in Roman literature as being chaotic, violent places, where passions ruled. However, we know from the writings of men such as Cassiodorus, who served in the court of the Ostrogothic king Theodoric, that these successor kingdoms were just as civilized as they had been under Roman rule. In fact, most of these “barbarian” rulers either had Roman blood themselves or, like Theodoric, were raised under Imperial rule and given a Roman education.
The Western kingdoms often employed Roman-style judicial systems and legal systems, designed to bring about peaceful resolution to disputes, but these rulers were not in a position to monopolize dispensation of justice and legitimization of violence, given the tenuous hold many of them had on their authority, and so a certain amount of violence occurring outside the judicial system was allowed so that social order could be preserved.
In the Merovingian kingdom, for example, the perpetrator of a crime such as murder, assault, or robbery would be obligated by law to pay compensation to the victim or their family, but if compensation was not paid then it was the duty of the injured party to either compel payment or seek vengeance on the perpetrator, which could begin a chain of retaliation and lead to a feud.
Several other kingdoms appear to have employed a similar approach to social conflict, such as the Lombards, Burgundians and Franks, although towards the end of the 6th century the “feud” was gradually illegalized and justice became the sole province of the law courts. Although it was not governed by the state, the level of violence employed outside the confines of the justice system in these societies was not unregulated but was governed by local custom and public opinion.
The hard truth that the Romans of Late Antiquity did not want to admit to themselves is that while the barbarians were prone to excessive violence in warfare, as were the Roman armies, the Roman Empire had mastered the use of institutionalized violence on a scale that no barbarian tribe or kingdom could ever achieve. Legitimized, state-controlled violence was intrinsic to the Roman Empire’s ruling strategies, and was employed on a large scale at a sophisticated level as a tool of oppression under the guise of “preventing” violence.
Violence was incorporated into the Roman legal system , not just as punishment for those convicted of crimes but officials presiding over public law courts would often employ a carnifex, a torturer who also carried out executions, to maintain public order and also to perform “investigative torture” when required by the authorities. Imperial rulers were also known to employ violence as a way of exerting their authority over those who would defy them, sometimes to an extreme.
Perhaps the most famous example is the massacre at Thessalonica in 390, when the citizens revolted and killed the general, Buthericus, for refusing to release a charioteer he was holding prisoner. On hearing of this, Emperor Theodosius sent reinforcements to the city with orders to herd the rebellious civilians into the hippodrome and execute them. It is said, by the historians of the day, that over 7,000 Thessalonians were killed.
So as we can see, the association between “ barbarians” and violence that continues to hold sway in modern times was carefully cultivated to suit specific purposes within Roman Imperial power structures and has very little to do with the realities of life in Late Antiquity. While it is true that violence was a part of everyday life for barbarian peoples, it was no more an inherent part of their nature than it was for the Romans. Despite their clear sense of moral and cultural superiority, the Romans were just as much inclined towards violent behavior, and perhaps even more so given the level of institutionalized violence that was employed by Imperial authorities, which begs the question, who were the true barbarians?
Top image: Misleading 19th century depicting the “barbarian” Visigoths sack of Rome in Late Antiquity Source: Public domain
By Meagan Dickerson
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Procopius. The Wars of Justinian. Trans. H.B. Dewing, in History of the Wars, ed. Anthony Kaldellis. 2014. Hackett Publishing Company.