• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

The Ultimate LARP: How Germanics Mimicked Their Way Into Forging The West

Updated: Jan 11, 2020

The post-Roman states languish in an electric day-dream. Martial and ephemeral, they’re conventionally presented as biblical scourges i.e. useful only insofar as they pressed a civilizational reset button; making them a sort of more reliable, stolid form of Hun[1]. Sure, they might put your society to fire but at least they’d farm it afterwards rather than gallop off into the sunset. Talk about damning with faint praise.

It’s not really a fair picture of the Germanics, however. To cast one’s eye at the post-Roman states rarely reveals a culture of pristine Tacitean virtues or vices. Instead, they encompass a spectrum of Romano-Germanic hybrids, an alloy that would one day form a “western” vernacular.

Assimilation took different forms. Prokopios, for instance, was shocked at the behaviour of Vandals. Ironically, considering the later reputation of Byzantines, he reckoned them the most luxury-loving people he’d encountered[2]. Catapulted into to a world of baths, silks, dancers, mimes and garden estates, Prokopios’ sentiments may remind readers of Hippolyte Roux-Ferrand’s quip that the ruler of Russia had

“… il fit passer son pays sans transition de la barbarie à la décadence, de l’enfance à la caducité.” [3]

Appropriation did not always take such cordial forms, however. As when King Huniric (477-84) usurped imperial privilege and decided to rename the coastal town of Hadrumentum as “Unuricopolis” (a grim incident Justinian was quick to reverse when he dubbed it “Iustiniana” instead) or when Arian persecution adopted wholesale the Roman parade of infamy.

Germanic kings were not slow to fill the vacuum in Roman ideology left by the emperor either. Local Romans were happy to celebrate Germanic rulers as “victor,” “invictus” or “triumphator” as long as they roughed up the local barbarians – usually Moors in the case of the Vandals.

Many of these leaders could make a greater formal claim on Romanitas than bona fide Romans. Theoderic, for instance, was born to a Catholic concubine in the ruins of Roman Pannonia and spent most of his youth at court in Constantinople. He became a patrician and consul, built a palace at Ravenna based on the imperial palace on the Bosporus, promulgated his regime’s “humanitas” (rebuilding theatres, financing spectacles etc.) and even argued his kingdom was superior to its neighbours insofar as it was the closest imitation of Byzantium.[4]

Often the brakes on these tendencies didn’t originate in an envious Byzantium (that wondered where the hell all the Germanic larpers had come from) but reactionary elements within nativist aristocracies. Athalaric, for instance, was not considered barbaric/Germanic enough to lead by his own elites. This, instead, was a man so Roman that he died of debauchery according to their narrative.

Smuggling Romanitas into the mix was best achieved when the main other ingredient was Christianity. With indigenous forms of the faith still in their formative years, Theoderic could get away with participating in an adventus, visiting St Peter’s, giving a speech and then holding circus races.

Such Roman sentiments peaked in an inscription that recorded repairs to the Curia of the Senate. Theoderic – walking a political tightrope in which he had a right to be the most impressive Roman as long as he doffed the cap to the Emperor – was not a simple rex but one of “Our Lords.” Anastasius is recorded first, as the “Perpetual Augustus” and Theoderic follows as “Most Glorious and Triumphal Gentleman”.[5]

These were not uncontested waters. Indeed, when Theoderic annexed Sirmium in AD 504, Constantinople responded with a Frankish alliance that killed his Visigothic ally, Alaric II. These flames were fanned further by Ennodius’ insistence on mocking Anastasius’ title, Alamannicus; an action sure to please his master who’d assured such a people his protection when they’d fled to Rhaetia.[6] The favoured compromise in diplomatic correspondence was to call both Germanic and Roman leaders “our lords” while offering the latter a senior rank by indicating he was the father figure.

Even the least integrated and last Germanics on the scene, the Lombards, contained pungent Roman elements. Despite non-stop wars with Ravenna, they played middlemen exporting Egyptian bronzeware and Byzantine gold coinage north of the Alps, for instance. And when they decorated their visors, their scenes were clearly modelled on the art of Byzantine homage (see the Agilulf helmet).

When it came to political murder, the Lombard queen Rosamunda had no qualms about murdering her lover, the cubicularius Helmechis, in that most Roman of venues: the bath. When it came to finding a refuge for Adelchis (after Charlemagne had conquered Pavia) there was only one real contender: Constantinople. And when it came to raising Adalvald to the royal dignity no place could match Milan’s circus for spectacles.

Initially, it was the Visigoths who put up the highest barriers to Romanitas. They clung to their dress, customs, language and Arian confession – even specifying that their people should not intermarry with the Romans. Clovis smashed them, however, in AD 507 – a signal victory for Catholic propaganda – and assimilation slowly followed.

The fact remained that the international idiom of luxury was inescapably Byzantine. Theoderic II sat surrounded by “Greek elegance” at royal banquet according to Sidonius[7]; Leovigild sat on a Roman throne according to Isidore; unction was introduced into royal investiture in AD 621; the bishop of Masona had his clergy decked in Byzantine silks; again, the infamy parades were inescapably Roman.[8]

Some aspects of Roman power manifested themselves with equal force – despite potentially developing independently – in both Byzantine and Germanic societies. Take, for instance, Moses’ triumphal chant AKA “Exodus Canticle” which was associated with Christian victory as far back as the Battle of Milvian Bridge (AD 312). While in Byzantium it still formed part of the celebrations that vaunted the Anastasius in imperial victories, in the Mozarabic rite it was used to exalt Christ’s victory over death.

This leads to several difficulties. Did the Visigothic use of calcatio colli, for instance, derive from late Roman practice or a later borrowing from Byzantine customs?[9] The same question applies to the infamy ceremonials too. Were these patterned on Constantinople or earlier memories?

My money is on the former. The trajectory of peoples like the Visigoths shows that they always had one eye on the New Rome as well as the political football at home. To give one example, Leovigild’s eldest son Hermengild converted to Orthodoxy, allied himself with Constantinople and thus unleashed four years of Iberian civil war. Though clearly a toss-up, I’d wager it was more a society that saw itself more in the shadow of a Roman Empire that had fled east than as a continuator of a ghost empire that had left behind a strong people/demos/identity without a military.

What better note to finish on, then, than to recall Prokopios’ cryptic observation that concerned parts of Gaul. According to the Byzantine historian, in the regions where Germanics hadn’t yoked Romanitas to their own horse, there were still Romans of the old mould. Ex-imperial forces who lived in small enough numbers to make battle superfluous, yet large enough numbers to make homogeneity remarkable. These people retained their Roman identity, standards, customs, dress and laws. In an eccentric historical coda, the reality was they formed an old guard whose Romanitas was no longer pure and praiseworthy but odd and antiquated.[10]

[1] A latent connection that oddly became explicit when Wilhelm II sought to connect the military acumen of both Germans and the Hun in a speech delivered at Bremerhaven, 1900. This association was later seized upon by Allied propagandists who preferred to emphasise the barbaric parallels of the two identities.

[2] Prokopios, Bella, 4, 6-9, Haury, 1.444.3-16.

[3] Hippolyte Roux-Ferrand, Histoire des Progrès de la Civilisation en Europe, Vol. VI, (1841) p. 72

[4] Cassiodorus, Var., 1, 20, 1-4, Fridh 28.3-29.33 and Var., 1, 30, 1, Fridh, 36.5-9.

[5] Annee epigraphique (1953), no.68; cf. A. Bartoli, “Lavori nella sede del senato romano al tempo di Teoderico,” Bullettino della Commissione archeologica comunale di Roma, 73 (1949-50), 77-88: “Salvis dominis nostris Anastasio perpetuo augusto et gloriosissimo ac triumfali viro Theoderico…” Another inscription marking the drainage of the Pomptine Marshes went even further, calling Theoderic “Dominus noster gloriosissimus adque inclytus rex Theodericus, victor ac triumfator, semper Augustus, bono rei publicae natus, custos libertatis et propagator Romani nominis, domitor gentium…” (Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, 10, 6850-2.

[6] Pan., F. Vogel, 213.5-9.

[7] Ep. 1, 2, 6, Loyen 2.6: “uideas ibi elegantiam Graecam…”

[8] Count Argimund’s punishment during the reign of Reccared, for instance, included being seated on an ass after having his right hand amputated (John of Biclar, Chronicon, ed. J. Campos [Madrid, 1960], 99.380-3).

[9] Some customs clearly can be traced to late Roman society. Take, for example, the Gallican tradition of parading a new bishop on a sedan. This ritual imitates the same ceremonial used in Rome for the inaugural processions of the ordinary consulate. While subordinates who failed to perform the salutatio to their patrons in the Church were punished severely.

[10] Prokopios, Bella, 5, 12, 13-19, Haury, 2.64.23-65.24.

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