Concessions to barbarians in the form of lands and titles were a necessity for the Empire. However, the constant rebellions for expansion strained the imperial treasury and the Empire taxed the goods produced by its territories to pay for the army and its administration. At the same time, the Empire was giving away either land or the tax revenue it generated, which reduced the resources available for defense and civil service. This reduction in resources significantly affected the Roman elite.
By the fourth century, as the church had expanded and the Roman bureaucracy shrank, Roman aristocrats became attracted to ecclesiastical offices as a means of exercising local political power. As a result, the line between imperial politics and ecclesiastical administration became blurred. There were also many who sought these office for more traditional, spiritual reasons and some, such as Martin of Tours and Ambrose of Milan, opposed imperial interference in Church affairs, though others, such as Felix of Trier, supported secular involvement in administration.
The Roman aristocratic class relied on imperial careers for prestige and class legitimization as well as moneymaking opportunities. The weakening of the Roman Empire, perceived by the lessening of revenue by these elite, weakened the attachment between them and Rome. Eventually, loyalty to Rome served no practical purpose and the elite landowners began to look to the barbarians who lived among them to preserve their societal standing and property.
This atmosphere prompted Salvian of Marseille, writing in the 440s, to observe that many Romans fled to the barbarian lands, despite their different religious beliefs. These Romans “prefer to live as free people under an outward form of captivity than as captives under an appearance of liberty.” As such, the idea of being a Roman citizen, once coveted, was abandoned. Gallo-Roman aristocrats perceived a lack of imperial interest in maintaining Gaul at the level they expected and this may have tended to both unify the Gallo-Romans and separate them from others of their class who lived in other parts of the empire.
By the time the Burgundians entered Gaul, the Gallo-Romans had already begun to think of themselves less as Romans, more as Gauls and more interested in their own immediate concerns than in preserving the concept of empire. Additionally, though they loved Rome, self-interested Gallo-Romans had considered a strong central government not in their best interests and a threat to their family-based commercial and political oligarchy. Aristocrats who assessed their situation and reacted appropriately often survived the barbarian conquerors and even profited from them.
However, this did not mean that they lost faith in the Roman method of government. According to Barnwell (Emperors, Prefects, & Kings), “Where Romans were in charge, it is not unreasonable to suppose that ‘Roman’ governmental traditions were continued at the local level.” While this Gallo-Roman flexibility contributed to their survival, it could not have succeeded without an accommodating barbarian king and his people. From their first contact with Rome, barbarians had been cognizant of the advantage of life in the Empire. Regardless of the exact nature of their entrance into the Empire, whether as raiders or foederati or refugees, they sought land of their own. Barnwell, again: “They were likely to look for militarily and economically secure places to settle, and to seek integration with the native population.”
UP NEXT: Gallo-Romans and Burgundians - Part 2
Mathisen, “The Gallic Church In The Fourth Century,” in Ecclesiastical Factionalism.
Heather, “The Huns.”
The Writings of Salvian the Presbyter, trans. Jeremiah F. O’Sullivan, (New York, 1947) in Murray, Merovingian Gaul.
Mathisen, Roman Aristocrats.
Geary, Before France and Germany.
Barnwell, Emperors, Prefects, & Kings.