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.

In the early first century, following the disastrous defeat of Varus' three legions in the German forests by Arminius the chief of the Cherusci, Augustus abandoned the earlier ambition of conquering Germany to the Elbe, and set limits to the empire. The Rhine and Danube were to be permanent frontiers. Henceforth, frontier policy involved not just roads, garrisons and fortified points, but an active diplomacy among the external tribes. Trade, protectorship, assistance, subsidies and influence in tribal politics played just as important a role as war or the threat of war.

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