Thus, the result of Roman and barbarian interaction along the limes was a destabilization. Rome, with her money and political power, enabled some chiefs to gain riches previously unimagined. More importantly, these chiefs were trained in the politics and economics of Rome and were able apply these principles successfully among their tribes. At the same time, those barbarian groups not embraced by Rome often grouped into large confederations and wreaked havoc along the borderlands. These new groups formed and re-formed continually, some around a strong, Romanized barbarian and others around a particular leader at the head of a barbarian confederation. These new “tribes” often associated themselves with much older traditions for the sake of unity and continuity.
The incessant barbarian conflicts that occurred during the latter part of the second century increased the importance of the military leaders in the tribes. As Patrick Geary observed, these reiks often attributed their military prowess as “a sign of the gods’ favor,” which enabled them to “add a religious aura to their position.”
The god Tiwaz was a war god (his rune is to the left), influential on the battlefield, but was also more importantly the god of law and order and was associated with the Germanic Thing, the essential governing body of a traditional tribe. As the tribe began to identify itself less with its land of origin, it also de-emphasized the role of the god Tiwaz, and the thiudans, and identified itself more with the new, successful war leader and the corresponding god of war, Woden.
According to Geary, “[v]ictories created new traditions,” and, according to Malcolm Todd, regardless of race, language, or political origin, if an individual fought along side a certain war leader, he was a member of that war leader’s tribe. Geary also believes that the Marcomannic Wars were evidence of “a radical restructuring of the Germanic world” and “the last decades of the second century were the most vital period of ethnogenesis in Germanic history.”
Barbarians had been used by Rome for her armies almost from their first exposure to the Empire. Caesar used Germanic troops during his Gaul campaign. Initially serving as separate, tribe-based auxiliary forces, they were eventually merged into the general Roman auxiliary forces. Some were picked to be special body guards for the emperor, which formed an important political counterweight to the Praetorian Guard. Most important were the German leaders who learned the Roman way of war and brought their knowledge back to their tribes. Barbarian war-leaders also identified themselves as both members of barbarian society and Roman officers and often used one position to advance the other. Some, such as Arbogast, used their position as Roman generals to marshal the necessary forces to attack their barbarian rivals, as Arbogast did by attacking Marcomer and Sunno across the Rhine. However, most often, accepting a high position in the Roman army usually meant forfeiting tribal political power.
Roman money was important, especially to the barbarian leader, because victory alone could not maintain a king’s prestige against other leaders in the tribe. Money equaled power, and Rome had a seemingly endless supply of the former. In exchange for money, barbarian kings provided Rome with military manpower. They used Roman money and booty acquired while pursuing Roman military ventures to satisfy their supporters and attract more warriors to their tribe. As such, military leaders did not rely solely on strict tribal bonds to attract warriors. Warrior bands, called comitatus, were based on personal loyalty to a leader rather than tribal bonds, and these became prevalent and added to the confusion among tribal society.
Often, individual members of these bands participated in raids against tribes with whom their ancestral tribe was ostensibly at peace. This in turn caused more widespread conflict. Also, when a tribe moved, and inevitably encountered and fought other tribes, a natural upward social mobility occurred within its ranks as warriors proved themselves on the battlefield. Skill was prime, not ethnic or social background, and those that distinctly exhibited these characteristics emerged as leaders. This near-constant state of warfare resulted in the splintering and reformation of tribes, often with a war leader and his comitatus serving as the nucleus for a new tribe. The war leaders of these new or reformed tribes called upon their own tribal heritage to provide an identity for their new tribe, often recycling remembered and revered tribal names to add an air of authenticity and respect. While probable that the mixed ethnicity of a comitatus could cause problems for a leader, being able to overcome such internal unrest would bolster his reputation. Further, according to Lucien Musset, perhaps the solutions reached by such successful leaders eventually led them "to modify their institutions, and thus pav[ed] the way for an eventual reconciliation with the Romans.”
The Romans did not recruit barbarians for only military purposes. They also settled them on their lands to provide a needed workforce in regions that had been ravaged of their former population by war or famine. These barbarian were usually those who themselves had been defeated in war and were either held by the Romans or had asked the emperor for permission to settle on Roman lands. In exchange, these groups paid tribute and lived under Roman law, though they were not considered to be freemen and were subject to the emperor’s whim. “Privileges could not be accorded to those whose origin lay beyond the boundaries of the Roman state.” Thus, barbarian workers in the Roman Empire helped to convert uncultivated land into cultivated and taxable land and provided manpower for other endeavors, such as mining.
This constant state of societal flux as tribes formed, splintered, and re-formed both within and outside of lands under imperial control has revealed that tribes “were more processes than stable structures.” In essence, the tribes were similar to modern political parties. Each exalted a founding father, or concept, and included people and families of different ethnic stock, but shared cultural values. Additionally, given the inability of the Germans to act in concert at the tribal level, the traditional belief that they had acted in concert to raid the Roman Empire en masse has been shown as incorrect.
Geary has argued that the Romans applied a faulty template to the Germanic tribes in an attempt to put a familiar societal structure over the chaotic Germanic tribal world, which strengthened the perception that Germans were both similar and even united in action. Further, Walter Goffart has concluded that this faulty theory of united Germanic action led to the belief that Germanic tribes consciously set out to set up kingdoms on Roman soil and these mistaken assumptions contributed to the flawed motif of Barbarian Invasions. It also implied that a single, united German entity opposed the Roman Empire and that both entities were conscious of being on opposing sides. Conversely, Peter Heather asserts that, while the independent Germanic tribes didn’t act in concert to attack the Roman Empire, the widespread displacement caused by the Huns effectively produced this effect. Finally, Malcolm Todd observes that while:
...the history of the Germanic peoples in the fourth and fifth centuries, particularly in western Europe, is inextricably bound up with that of the declining Roman provinces… the tale is by no means always one of destruction and waste. Barbarians were by this time better equipped for life inside the empire than most ancient writers believed.
UP NEXT: Evolution of Barbarian Arms and Tactics
Geary, Before France and Germany.
Goffart, Barbarians and Romans.
Ralph Whitney Mathisen, Roman Aristocrats in Barbarian Gaul: Strategies for Survival in an Age of Transition (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993).
Whittaker, Frontiers of the Roman Empire.
Todd, The Northern Barbarians.
Musset, Germanic Invasions.
Miroslava Mirkovic, “The Later Roman Colonate and Freedom,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 87, no.2 (1997).
Peter Heather, in “The Huns and the End of the Roman Empire in Western Europe,” The English Historical Review 110, no.435 (1995).