Friends, Romans or Countrymen? Barbarians in the Empire

Were the 'barbarians' who shored up Rome's armies and frontiers the empire's salvation or doom?

The importing of tribal 'barbarian' peoples (mainly Germanic) into the Roman Empire was a permanent imperial policy which expanded in scale over the centuries, and was continued by Byzantium after the Western empire had crumbled in the fifth century – supposedly destroyed by those same Germanic peoples. Like any strategy it had its risks and its critics 'The introduction of barbarians into the Roman armies,' intones Gibbon, 'became every day more universal, more necessary, and more fatal.'

It is a sombre observation that so many modern historians have split into anti- and pro-barbarian camps, like Roman writers themselves. To Gibbon, Bury, Piganiol, the Germans were a dangerous fifth column which undermined and eventually wrecked the empire. To German historians such as Otto Seeck (1923), W. Ensslin (1941, 1959) and Joseph Vogt (1964), they were an injection of new and vigorous blood which defended and then inherited an exhausted empire. This is not much of an advance on the rival polemics of the Greek rhetorician, Themistius, and the philosopher Synesius in the fourth century. It is surely time to free ourselves from this Punch and Judy approach.

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