Many barbarian tribes arrived in the Mediterranean world during Late Antiquity. They established new kingdoms in these regions and changed the cultural and social scenery of these areas. Some historians believe that they settled in these regions after violent invasions. However, other historians have suggested rethinking the relationships between the barbarians and the Romans.
Who Is Roman and Who Is Barbarian?
One historian has pointed out: “[We] must seriously modify traditional claims that the empire was invaded by northern barbarians. Instead, the original historical sources are replete with repeated solicitations of northern ethnic groups and their leaders to enter the service of a given emperor.”
This historian also debunks the idea of violent invasion: “The presence of large armed polyethnic bands within the borders of the empire cannot be blamed in any simple fashion on barbarian invasions.” The historians are not willing to use the term barbarians, replacing it with “nations of northern peoples.” They have also used “migration” or “settlement” instead of “invasion.”
In addition to the notion of barbarian invasions, the distinction between Romans and barbarians is also questioned. Many barbarians served in the military to fight for Romans and held Roman titles, so there is no clear distinction between who is Roman and who is barbarian. Some of the most significant personalities in this period frequently crossed the line between the barbarian and Roman identities and had positions in both societies at the same time.
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Three Prominent Figures with Blurred Identities
In this period, identity was ambiguous and political alliances were not clearly defined, which is manifested in the life of three of the most significant military figures of that time: Stilicho, Theodoric the Great, and Aetius.
Stilicho was born to a Vandal father and a Roman mother. He climbed up the Roman ranks and became the consul and rose to Magister Militum, General of the Armies. At the same time, he allied with the Visigoths and supported Alaric, the Visigothic leader who later sacked Rome in 410.
Theodoric the Great was an Ostrogoth. When he was a boy, he was taken a hostage and sent to Constantinople, where he was taught Roman values and received a Roman education. When he grew up, he became the king of his tribe, but he did not break with his Roman identity and became a Roman aristocrat and general.
Flavius Aetius was born to a Roman mother and a barbarian father and was raised among the Huns. When he grew up, he joined the Roman army, became a general, and informally ruled the western empire for a short period. With the help of his Huns allies, his Roman armies drove out the Burgundians and the Visigoths. However, after Attila became the king of Huns, Aetius turned against the Huns and conspired with the Burgundians and Visigoths. He was killed by the Roman emperor Valentinian because he was jealous of Aetius’s power.
The biographies of these three figures show that in Late Antiquity, the inheritors of the classical world had widespread cultural and political allegiances.
Learn more about gladiators and beast hunts.
Different Perspectives about Late Antiquity
According to the proponents of the positive view of Late Antiquity, the western Mediterranean has received too much attention while the eastern Roman or the Byzantine Empire deserves more emphasis. During Late Antiquity, the Byzantine Empire continued to thrive. Some of the main attainments, like Hagia Sophia and the Code of Roman Law, belong to the reign of Emperor Justinian. These accomplishments in the eastern half are convincing enough to avoid calling Late Antiquity a period of stagnation and decline.
On the other side of the spectrum, some scholars hold a negative view about Late Antiquity. They believe that many of the barbarian migrations were violent invasions involving killing, bloodshed, and destruction. They admit that the eastern half continued to prosper, but the sophisticated civilization in the west was wiped out, and the quality of life dropped considerably due to this decline.
Although it seems that the views about the Late Antiquity period are incompatible, it depends on how to approach it. If the era is considered in terms of material gains, it was a definite decline, but in terms of intellectual growth, it was a huge success.
No matter what the prevalent view is, Late Antiquity experienced massive improvements in terms of the dominance of Christianity, the emergence of Islam, and the separation of Europe and the Middle East from the Mediterranean world. The heated controversies about the nature of this era show its importance in the course of history.
Learn more about the Byzantine Empire.
Common Questions about Late Antiquity: Barbarian Invasion Or Settlement?
During Late Antiquity, the Byzantine Empire continued to thrive. Some of the main attainments, like Hagia Sophia and the Code of Roman Law, belong to the reign of Emperor Justinian. These accomplishments are convincing enough to avoid calling Late Antiquity a period of stagnation and decline.
Some scholars hold a negative view about Late Antiquity. They believe that many of the barbarian migrations were violent invasions involving killing, bloodshed, and destruction. They firmly believe that the sophisticated civilization in the west was wiped out, and the quality of life dropped considerably due to this decline.
During Late Antiquity, many barbarians served in the military to fight for Romans and held Roman titles, so there was no clear distinction between Romans and barbarians.