Monday, April 27, 2009

The End of the Limes

The Rhine-Danube limes was short-lived, though it withstood the Marcomannic Wars of A.D. 166-175 and A.D. 178-180. When not trading with the Romans, the Germans were less concerned with destroying the frontiers of the Rhine and Danube than with raiding the lands beyond them. The garrisons along the limes were systematically weakened by both these attacks and troop withdrawals to other areas of need. By A.D. 259-60, the barbarians had for the most part succeeded in pushing the Romans out of the frontier lands. Historian C.D. Gordon remarked:

What Roman armies there were, were employed mostly in the service of pretenders to the supreme power rather than in the defence [sic] of the frontiers, and it was only diplomatic measures, including the widespread use of subsidization, that for long years preserved what little territorial integrity remained to the Empire… Indeed, all the northern tribes along the Rhine and Danube seem to have been more or less constantly bribed by the weak empire to keep the peace. These subsidies were not backed, however, by any reliable army and so led only to further demands and, when these were not promptly met, to invasion and devastation of all the northern provinces.

This was also true of the situation that led to the invasions of A.D. 406 (but more on that later!).

Rome pushed back when Emperor Gallienus (A.D. 253-268) and his successors defeated the Franks and Alamanni and Aurelian (A.D. 270-275) defeated the Goths, thus securing the frontiers against major Germanic raids for another century. For some of the barbarians, defeat meant destruction of their social identity. The Roman army was often vicious in pursuing and destroying tribes and their villages and selling survivors into slavery.

For warriors who surrendered, they were often sent in small groups throughout the empire and were assimilated into the Roman army. More common than total destruction was the reconstitution of the people in much the same form as before, but with certain obligations toward Rome as foederati. As such, they pledged they would defend Rome’s frontiers, provide troops when needed to the Roman army and, sometimes, to provide supplies.

The third century saw the emergence of many new barbarian groups, “peoples” such as the Franks (“the Fierce” or “the Free”) or the Alamanni (“the People”), neither of which could be traced to older, “ancient” peoples. Modern historians were wedded to theories of ethnological homogeneity and sought to discover and explain the origins of these groups as being splinters of larger groups mentioned by Tacitus. In fact, these were entirely new confederations of people located, in the case of the Franks, generally around the lower Rhine, and the Alamanni, generally around the upper Rhine.

Beyond the Franks and Alamanni lay still other groups. The Burgundians and Saxons, neighbors to the Alamanni and the Franks, respectively, were new tribes who had assumed old names. In the case of the Burgundians, it would be impossible to believe that all came from Bornholm and more likely that, as observed by Lucien Musset, that only the “nucleus” of this tribe, “the bearers of its traditions,” had originally come from this place.

UP NEXT: The Probus and the Burgundians


Todd, Northern Barbarians.
C.D. Gordon, “Subsidies in Roman Imperial Defence.”
Geary, The Myth of Nations.
Musset, The Germanic Invasions.