• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Stabbed in the Front: How Romans Facilitated Their Own Colonisation

In the fifth century, several barbarian peoples were accorded settlements on the provincial soil of the empire. The details are worth investigating because they tell us about how certain Roman institutions were prolonged into the early Middle Ages. Although one may doubt that the transfer of rule from Roman to barbarian hands took place without violence and disruption, there is no disputing the survival of a body of evidence that documents a lawful adaptation of Roman governmental practices to the novel requirements of the barbarians.

Sadly, almost no paper trail leads to the moment of transition when barbarians got the legal rubber stamp. However, the documented situation continues to betray its descent from Roman public law. So, what can be pieced together is how barbarians fitted into provincial society towards the end of the empire, mainly through the latter’s tax regime.

In the past, the majority of historians have assumed that barbarians like the Goths and Burgundians received allotments from the Romans based on an implementation of the billeting system prescribed by the Theodosian Code (CTh 7. 8. 5).[1] But that was concerned with temporary shelter, not permanent land grants. And, occurred in fifth century Gaul or Italy.

In reality, the allotments to the Goths and Burgundians were based on a distribution of the main asset of the Roman state, namely, the proceeds of taxation and the property assessments on which taxes were levied. Hence Ennodius’ comment that the “barbarians were enriched and the Romans felt no loss.”[2]

At what point this occurred is anybody’s guess. The Visigothic and Burgundian settlements of AD 418 and 443 were on a moderate scale; Constantius and Aetius could hardly have imagined they were founding barbarian kingdoms. If any model had been in the heads of the generals it was likely to have been that of distributing a given revenue between a dignitary (the commanding officer) and the various units of the army.

Whatever the direct cause, the unintended course taken by events in the West brought it about that this same division of tax spoils was integrated – without its moderator i.e. the Roman state – into the fabric of barbarian government. Over the long term, Roman bureaucrats were bound to be the main victims of a settlement that allocated a distinct slice of revenues directly to the barbarian troops.

Once it is understood that in both Gaul and Italy state resources were partitioned not land, the problem of how to chop up farms and farmhands into manageable bits that somehow managed to dispossess Roman landlords without them feeling it (hence leaving no protest in the historical record) is eliminated. This was obviously not the most ideal option; that would have been the Alan settlement which awarded deserta rura to the poor barbarians. But it would have been a close second-best.

While it’s impossible to document allotments in the guise of tax proceeds, there are sources that illustrate the passage of barbarian sortes from a configuration of tax revenue to one of lucrative property. One is the LBurg 54 (issued between AD 501–16), which shows Gundobad awarding a certain class (the ones previously allotted the Roman taxes?) Burgundians with an award of bondsmen and lands.

In Gaul and Italy, the same story is told in slightly different terms. There, barbarians reduced free landowners to the status of servile dependents. The result of such oppression is plain: by the loss of their personal freedom, the Romans relinquished to the barbarian harassing them the private proprietary title to their lands, slaves and livestock (whether or not the dispossessed owners stayed on the farm as bound peasants is less certain).

The presupposition of these incidents, though not spelled out, is that the barbarians originally had a lucrative claim on the Romans, based on their lands as security. And that by more or less legal means, the claimants were able to foreclose on their debtors and thus to turn what had been a revenue (perhaps not wholly reliable) into secure private ownership of productive real estate.

Hyper-wealthy Romans may have escaped this fate. Some of the relevant texts illustrate that the oppressors included Roman potentes as well as barbarians. In other words, the possibility of carrying out semi-legal raids on the economically feeble arose from the system itself, not just barbaric greed.

For further reading see Walter Goffart, Barbarians and Romans AD 418-584: The Techniques of Accommodation (1980)

[1] It is astonishing to observe how casually modern authors have accepted the idea that rules for temporarily dividing a house between owner and solider were extended to the division of someone’s complete property.

[2] Ennodius, Epistolae 9.23, p. 245, trans. Jones, LRE, p. 251.