The Migration Age is still envisioned as an onrush of
expansionary "Germans" pouring unwanted into the Roman Empire and
subjecting it to pressures so great that its western parts
collapsed under the weight. Further developing the themes set forth
in his classic Barbarians and Romans, Walter Goffart
dismantles this grand narrative, shaking the barbarians of late
antiquity out of this "Germanic" setting and reimagining the role
of foreigners in the Later Roman Empire.
The Empire was not swamped by a migratory Germanic flood for the
simple reason that there was no single ancient Germanic
civilization to be transplanted onto ex-Roman soil. Since the
sixteenth century, the belief that purposeful Germans existed in
parallel with the Romans has been a fixed point in European
history. Goffart uncovers the origins of this historical untruth
and argues that any projection of a modern Germany out of an
ancient one is illusory. Rather, the multiplicity of northern
peoples once living on the edges of the Empire participated with
the Romans in the larger stirrings of late antiquity. Most relevant
among these was the long militarization that gripped late Roman
society concurrently with its Christianization.
If the fragmented foreign peoples with which the Empire dealt gave
Rome an advantage in maintaining its ascendancy, the readiness to
admit military talents of any social origin to positions of
leadership opened the door of imperial service to immigrants from
beyond its frontiers. Many barbarians were settled in the provinces
without dislodging the Roman residents or destabilizing
landownership; some were even incorporated into the ruling families
of the Empire. The outcome of this process, Goffart argues, was a
society headed by elites of soldiers and Christian clergy-one we
have come to call medieval.
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