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1. Eunapius, ed. Blockley, fr. 42; cf. AM, 31. 2. 1-12; Zosimus, 4.20. 3 ff.; Jordanes, Getica 24. 123-8, ed. Th. Mommsen, vol. vi. 1 (MGH, AA, Berlin, 1882), Eng. trans. C. Mierow (Chicago, 1915). Secondary accounts: e.g. Maenchen-Helfen, World of the Huns, pp.26-7; L. Schmidt, Geschichte der deutschen Stamme bis zum Ausgang der Volkerwanderung: Die Ostgermanen (2nd edn., Munich, 1934), pp. 400 ff.; H. Wolfram, History of the Goths (Berkeley, 1988), pp. 71-2; E. Demougeot, La Formation de l'Europe et les invasions barbares. Vol. II: De l'avenement de Diocletien (284) a l'occupation germanique de l'empire romain d'occident (debut du VIe siecle) (Paris, 1979), pp. 138-9, 383 ff.; E. A. Thompson, A History of Attila and the Huns (Oxford, Based on the Mediterranean, the Roman Empire forged Europe as far as the rivers Rhine and Danube - and, for lengthy periods, extensive lands beyond those boundaries - together with North Africa and much of the Near East into a unitary state which lasted for the best part of 400 years. The protracted negotiations required to bring just some of this area together in the European Community put the success of this Empire into perspective. Yet since the publication of Gibbon's masterpiece (and long before), its very success has served only to stimulate interest in why it ended, 'blame' being firmly placed on everything from an excess of Christian piety to the effect of lead water pipes.(1) The aim of this paper is to reconsider some of the processes and events which underlay the disappearance of the western half of the Roman Empire in the fifth century AD. This was an area encompassing essentially modern Britain, France, Benelux, Italy, Austria, Hungary, the Iberian Peninsula, and North Africa as far east as Libya, whose fragmentation culminated in the deposition of Romulus Augustulus on or around 4 September 476. That groups of outsiders - so-called 'barbarians' - played an important role in all this has never been doubted. A full understanding of the barbarians' involvement in a whole sequence of events, taking the best part of a hundred years, lends, however, an unrecognized coherence to the story of western imperial collapse.
There are two main reasons why this coherence has not been highlighted before. First, most of the main barbarian groups which were later to establish successor states to the Roman Empire in western Europe, had crossed the frontier by about AD 410, yet the last western Roman emperor was not deposed until 476, some sixty-five years later. I will argue, however (and this provides the main focus for the second half of the paper), that the initial invasions must not be separated from the full working-out of their social and political consequences. Not just the invasions themselves need to be examined, but also the longer-term reactions to them of the Roman population of western Europe, and especially its landowning elites. While the western Empire did not die quickly or easily, a direct line of historical cause and effect nonetheless runs from the barbarian invasions of the late fourth and early fifth centuries to the deposition of Romulus Augustulus. The second reason lies in modern understandings of what caused the different groups of outsiders to cross into the Empire in the first place. These population movements did not happen all at once, but were stretched out over about thirty-five years, c. 376-410. Here again, however, a close re-examination of the evidence reveals that the years of invasion represent no more than different phases of a single crisis. In particular, the two main phases of population movement - c. 376-86 and 405-8 - were directly caused by the intrusion of Hunnic power into the fringes of Europe.
The Huns were very much a new factor in the European strategic balance of power in the late fourth century. A group of Eurasian nomads, they moved west, sometime after AD 350, along the northern coast of the Black Sea, the western edge of the great Eurasian Steppe. Illiterate, and not even leaving a second-hand account of their origins and history in any Graeco-Roman source, they remain deeply mysterious. Opinions differ even over their linguistic affiliation, but the best guess would seem to be that the Huns were the first group of Turkic, as opposed to Iranian, nomads to have intruded into Europe.(1) Whatever the answer to that question, the first half of this study will reconsider their impact upon the largely Germanic groups of central and eastern Europe which had previously been the main focus of Roman foreign policy on Rhine and Danube.
For the Roman imperial authorities, the first consequence of the arrival of Hunnic tribes on the fringes of Europe was the appearance in 376 of two substantial and separate Gothic groups, Tervingi and Greuthungi, on the banks of the Danube asking for asylum. That the activities of the Huns lay behind this request is well documented in Ammianus Marcellinus (by far the fullest of the contemporary accounts), and other primary sources.(2) It can also be found in every secondary account of the period. Close examination of the best evidence, however, suggests that the precise nature of the action has been misunderstood. The events of 376 are generally portrayed in terms of panic-stricken Goths fleeing to the river Danube before a solid mass of Huns, who had suddenly swept all before them, such a vision being firmly rooted in the rhetoric of the surviving sources.(1) But while there is no doubt that the Goths came to the Danube because of the Huns, the cumulative effect of the detail in Ammianus' account, especially when viewed in the light of other events beyond the frontier in the two decades or so after 376, makes it necessary to revise traditional conceptions of what precisely was happening.
To start with, the Huns did not overturn the established tribal pattern north of the Black Sea as quickly as has often been imagined. As Ammianus reports, they first attacked the Alans, another nomadic pastoralist group - situated at this date east of the river Don - and then, in company with some of them, turned on the easternmost Goths, the Greuthungi of Ermenaric. Nothing is said about the duration of the attacks on the Alans; but they had a warlike reputation and are unlikely to have been easily subdued.(2) Moreover, there was a considerable time-lag between the first attacks on the Greuthungi, and the arrival of Goths on the Danube in 376. Ermenaric first resisted the Hurts 'for a long time' (diu: 31. 3.2), and, after his death, Vithimer, his successor, continued the fight 'for some time' (aliquantisper). He eventually died in battle, but only after 'many . . . defeats' (multas . . . clades: 31. 3.3). It was Vithimer's death which directly precipitated the appearance of the two Gothic groups on the Danube (31. 3.3-4. I).(3) While no more than a few months need separate Vithimer's death from the arrival of Goths on the Danube, the period between the first Hunnic attacks on the Alans and Vithimer's death was clearly more considerable. Ammianus' chronological indicators are vague, but strongly suggest an overall time frame (encompassing Hunnic attacks upon the Alans, Ermenaric's resistance and Vithimer's defeats) reckoned in years rather than months: surely a minimum of (say) five campaigning seasons, and quite probably somewhat longer. My own instinct is that Ammianus is briefly summarizing the events of more like ten to twenty years, rather than the year or so which is generally allowed.(4)
Nor does Ammianus give any indication that Huns were pressing directly upon those Goths who came to the Danube in 376. For instance, the decision of Tervingi to seek asylum within the Roman Empire involved first a coup d'etat (replacing Athanaric with Fritigern and Alavivus), then long deliberation about how best to escape the Hunnic threat (diuque deliberans: AM 31. 3.8), and finally an approach to the local imperial commanders for permission to cross the frontier. These in turn referred the matter to the Emperor Valens, to whom the Goths despatched embassies (31. 4. 1). But Valens was actually in Antioch,(1) so that, even after their own internal political manoeuvring, the Goths had to wait patiently beside the Danube while their ambassadors made a round trip of over a thousand kilometres each way (cf. Map 1) and Valens made up his mind. The whole process must have taken some months,(2) during which we hear of no further Hunnic attacks. None of this is consonant with the idea that Huns were breathing down the Goths' necks.
It was, in fact, not until some years later that Hunnic groups established themselves as the major foreign power actually on Rome's Danube frontier. Hunnic raiding parties operated close to, and even south of, the Danube after 376;(3) but for some time other Gothic groups remained the major concern for the Empire in the region. Tervingi loyal to Athanaric, for instance, drove some Sarmatians out of Caucalanda - somewhere in the Carpathians - to establish a new settlement area for themselves. These men were perhaps identical with the Goths of one Arimer, who maintained an independent Gothic kingdom north of the Danube after 383.(4) More strikingly, another primarily Gothic group led by one Odotheus attempted to break across the river Danube in 386. Less significant for our purpose than the success of Theodosius' counter-expedition is the clear indication this provides that Goths still remained the main threat north of the Danube a full decade after 376.(5)
Indeed, even in 395 - nearly twenty years after the first Gothic crossing - the Hunnic centre of gravity was situated not beside the Danube, but much further east. In this year, many Huns crossed the Caucasus. Greek, Latin, and Syriac sources describe the subsequent devastation, as one group moved south and east towards Persia, and another attacked Roman territories in Armenia, Cappadocia, and Syria, reaching as far west as the cities of Antioch, Edessa, and Cilicia (Map 1). The size of the incursion is indicated by chronology as well as geographical range; fighting in the Roman Empire continued into 397 and very possibly 398.(1) It is normally reckoned that the obviously very substantial forces involved in these attacks were Danubian Huns who decided for once to outflank Roman defences by taking an unexpected route, but the distances involved make this exceedingly unlikely. The often aired view that there was also a substantial Hunnic raid across the Danube in 395 is based on a misreading of the sources.(1) If these were Huns already looming over the Danube, they would surely not have dragged themselves (and their horses) the thousand kilometres or so around the north and eastern shores of the Black Sea and through a rugged mountain range. All the journey's hardships (for man and beast) could only have reduced their fighting abilities long before they could even begin to plunder.(2) The size and direction of this incursion, combined with the absence of anything on a similar scale from the west in this period, thus indicate that the bulk of the Huns were still well to the east of Rome's Danubian frontier in 395.
This is not to say that there were no Huns at all further west by 395. In 383/4, Valentinian II had paid Huns and Alans to attack trouble-making Alamanni close to the Rhine frontier,(3) and the Huns who joined the Goths south of the Danube in 377 seem to have remained inside Roman borders, serving on the campaign against Maximus in 388.(4) Moreover, the Huns did not have to come west themselves to cause convulsions in more distant lands by indirect displacement. Some Alans were conquered by Hurts, for instance, but many others moved west; Gratian encountered some at Castra Martis, west of the Carpathians, in 378 (AM 31. 11. 6), later recruited others into his army (Zosimus 4. 35.2), and there were still more at large in 406 to join in the Rhine crossing.(5) Likewise, Sarmatians of the middle Danube were displaced into Roman territory by retreating Goths (AM 31. 4. 13), as were the Taifali of Oltenia (31. 9.2 ff.; cf. Map 1). It may even have been the continued uncertainty generated by these movements which made some Marcomanni ready to entrust themselves to Roman protection in 395/6.(6) By c. 395, then, there had been considerable displacement east and west of the Carpathians, of which, …