BMCR 1993.01.06

1993.01.06, Drinkwater, John and Elton, Hugh, Fifth-Century Gaul: A Crisis of Identity?

, , Fifth-century Gaul : a crisis of identity?. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. xxi, 376 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780521414852. $69.95.

This volume contains revised versions of twenty-eight of twenty-nine papers delivered at a Conference at the University of Sheffield in April 1989. To judge from the printed papers, the conference must have been a delight, while yet tightly organised: the papers in this volume are of high quality and almost uniform length. The editors have added introductory remarks to groups of papers, bibliographies of primary sources and secondary works (shared by the individual authors) and an index to the whole volume. Most of the cross-references in papers to others in the collection no doubt represent the editors’ work as well. Their obvious intent was to make the collection of disparate papers as unified a treatment of the subject as possible, in the sense that individual papers contribute to the book as a whole by focussing on one aspect of larger themes. For the most part, this is successful. Consequently, I will discuss the papers in the same way (instead of a meaningless sentence or two of platitude or invective sequentially on each paper), in short, primarily as a book, with some remarks on individual pieces.

As is appropriate, the first group of papers discusses aspects of the literary sources for fifth-century Gaul. While R. W. Burgess, S. Muhlberger, and S. Barnish concentrate on individual authors, I. N. Wood discusses broader issues relating to the sources for the period. Evidently, and this is hardly surprising, the authors whose works survive were rather a homogeneous group in terms of their social standing, though they differed in other ways, depending on their personal experience of events. The approach required of modern readers, Wood argues, is a careful study of the authors as individuals, with close attention to the purposes and attitudes of each. What Wood suggests in general outlines, the other three papers, by authors well-qualified for the task, follow up in detail.

The Visigothic settlement of 418 occupies the attention of the next four papers in the collection. Readers will look in vain for a final solution to the vexed question of the specifics of the Visigothic arrangement with the Romans, though both T. S. Burns and C. E. V. Nixon suggest at least the possibility that the Visigoths adopted or adapted the Roman system of taxation for their own benefit. Naturally, the kingdom needed to maintain itself; some access to revenue was therefore required. The source of this revenue was, of course, Aquitania; what is less clear is the level to which the previous population participated in the process. That the previous inhabitants coexisted with the Visigoths is evident from the archaeological absence of the new overlords. This is both remarkable and not: the undoubted presence of Gothic groups across the Danube can also not be specifically identified in the archaeological record (for a recent survey in English, see P. Heather and J. Matthews, The Goths in the Fourth Century [Liverpool, 1991]). One wonders, therefore, whether the Gothic peoples had chameleons, not mentioned by the legends, in their ancestry; or perhaps their numbers were much smaller than their successes would indicate. In any case, success was more dependent on the initiative of individual leaders like Alaric (see the paper of J. H. W. G. Liebescheutz) who operated largely within the Roman administrative structure, and, for the Huns, Attila, than innate in the various groups, especially in the early period; the stability of settlement later offered continuity, but even then aggressive leaders like Euric (treated amongst other topics by P. Heather, and see H. Elton’s remarks on Clovis in a later paper) were as necessary as earlier for expansion.

A single paper comprises the third section of the book, on “The immediate crisis, 406-418.” M. Roberts discusses three Christian poems which treat the unhappiness of the Gauls and point out that misfortune is indicative of moral decay. Some inhabitants turned to religion, according to Prosper of Aquitaine, for their solace; this tendency is noted again by M. A. Wes later in the collection. That the reaction to the depredations of the early part of the century was at least in part overreaction seems to be the underlying theme of the two sections of the book devoted to the recovery, the first on social and economic issues, the second on the political and military. The first of these sections points to the continuation of both a vibrant and powerful aristocracy (T. S. Mommaerts and D. H. Kelley; for the fact that this became more Gaul-centred, see below) and an economy based on the Mediterranean (R. B. Hitchner) with flourishing building programmes, both villas and churches (H. Sivan; S. T. Loseby; J. Percival). H. Elton, in the single paper in the second section, argues that the Roman forces were operationally superior during the first half of the fifth century, save for a few instances when surprise, numbers and competent leadership gave the barbarians a temporary advantage. The implication of these sections is that at many levels Gaul was relatively stable, though that stability had more to do with Gaul internally than with the region’s place in the Roman Empire.

The last part of this point is addressed in Section VI, titled “A Crisis of Identity?” by the editors. The chapters cluster around the theme of individual and group responses to the generally accepted collapse of imperial (read “Italian”) authority in Gaul, with attempts in some papers to distinguish northern from southern responses. Within the section itself, a progression from groups on the fringes of society (or rather, those who did not normally participate in the brokering of power) to the secular and ecclesiastical hierarchy is clearly evident. Noticeable too is a general progression from the more to the less desperate, as if to force the conclusion that those below the level of aristocracy had panicked to a greater degree than the aristocracy itself, an inversion of the normal view that dramatic change or great instability at the administrative peak is more traumatic for the top of the social hierarchy than the peasantry and worse elements huddled at the bottom of the social ladder. As such, the section picks up the theme of the previous two, where the chapters describe in certain ways at any rate, more local stability than instability after the military depradations of the first quarter of the century. At the aristocratic level at least, the perspective became much more local. Familial visits to and contact with Italy became much less important (R. W. Mathisen), while the Holy Land attracted greater attention (E. D. Hunt), as more and more of the wealthy indulged in ascetism for their self-satisfaction (M. A. Wes) and Salvian even ignored heresy to promote barbarians as purer than Romans (M. Maas). Not that these possible indications of a crisis of identity led to anything like a universal response: differences of opinion between aristocrats and between ascetics (Wes) left attitudes as diverse as they had been previously, and Hilary of Arles was unable to establish anything like pan-Gallic unity in the teeth of opposition from Gallo-Roman aristocrats still less Gallo than Roman (M. Heinzelmann). Nevertheless, the pendulum was swinging toward a new Gaul. The crisis of identity was therefore more external rather than internal: an important question to be asked (in the present tense for contemporaries) is not whether Gaul was falling apart, but what its relationship to Rome and the Roman Empire was going to be. At the very least, so the editors imply by their arrangement of chapters, this is the question to ask in the longer view. One wonders, in consequence, whether a different arrangement of chapters, i.e., from less to more desperate, would have created a wholly different impression for both the short and long views. The question is critical, because the occasional laments of upper class elements and the actions of fringe groups need to be brought into an overall interpretation that accounts for these alongside the general stability of the aristocracy.

The answer to the question lies in Section VII, “The resolution of the crisis.” The three papers in this section lead to the same conclusion: the inhabitants of Gaul resolved their crisis by reaching terms of accommodation, personal and societal, with their barbarian neighbours. Sidonius Apollinaris, as J. D. Harries shows, reached that conclusion later than some others, and was probably not very happy about the enforced decision to boot. That the response was considered treason or its equivalent by the Romans (i.e., Italians) is not surprising, but the political and social realities of Gaul in the fifth century left its inhabitants little other choice. A massive infusion of Roman might was hardly to be expected from puppet and “Greek” emperors interested more in salvaging what they could of Italy than in restoring the hopes of the Gallo-Roman aristocracy, the close relationship of Sidonius and Anthemius notwithstanding. In some ways, the earlier papers of the previous section might well have been included here, though the difficulty of deciding whether the activities of some segments of the population, such as runaway slaves over whom their masters had lost control (R. Samson) and the Bacaudae (papers by G. Halsall and J. F. Drinkwater) and whoever began to mint local and barbarian coinages (C. E. King), reflect more a crisis of identity or the response to an existing crisis. The answer may well be “both.” The disappearance of Roman control had left various groups temporarily suspended between structure and non-structure, creating both a crisis and its solution. What is left in the final analysis would have been seen, differently by different inhabitants of Gaul, as capitulation, accommodation and opportunity, as well as variegated blends of these.

R. Van Dam’s conclusion to the entire volume, the single paper of Section VIII, recalls a number of the themes discussed above. He disputes the tendency to test H. Pirenne’s thesis on the transformation of the Ancient World to the Medieval solely on economic and commercial grounds, arguing instead for a cultural, social and political interpretation, and concludes that the survival of Latin as a language is hardly indicative of the upheaval experienced by Gaul in the fifth century. He implies that any transformation occurred much earlier than Pirenne’s Carolingian period, suggesting that the most important transformation of Gaul was its Romanisation in the first place.

The treatment above in no way does justice to the rich variety of material in this book, but space prevents anything more than a few closing remarks. The papers are in general very readable, noticeable immediately to a non-specialist like myself in the papers on archaeological topics; this is, I imagine, a consequence of oral presentation in the first instance. The most difficult paper, both to read and to assess on first reading, is that by T. S. Mommaerts and D. H. Kelley, who construct a rather complex stemma of familial relationships in “The Anicii of Gaul and Rome.” Whether they are right or wrong, a full treatment of the topic would require at least a very long article, possibly an Einzelschrift. H. C. Teitler’s paper on the terminology ( rex and regnum) applied to the rule of Arvandus and Seronatus is in some ways the most limited in scope; on the other hand, it is useful for historians of all periods of the Roman Empire to realise that these terms were not abnormal as terms applied to Roman emperors, in spite of the general view that monarchic terminology was an abomination to the Romans. M. Maas’ treatment of Salvian does not consider one interesting question: why would Salvian in a religious treatise tolerate heresy to promote the barbarian cause at the expense of the Romans? The question has already been answered above; it is answered in the book by J. Harries’ treatment of Sidonius, who in the end was forced to recognise and find accommodation with the barbarians in spite of his doubts. How ever much Salvian already spoke for a portion of the aristocracy and to the desperate, he was also a prophet of the inevitable political and social reality, employing religious arguments to excuse his compatriots a generation before the last holdouts, such as Sidonius, capitulated. That this was inevitable emerges from the last few paragraphs of the book, where Van Dam calls into question the whole edifice of interpretation that considers “Roman” a synonym of “normal” for Gaul at any period, suggesting in stead that the Empire’s loss of Gaul was Gaul’s gain, because it could return to its normal state. What we need now is a second Conference and collection of papers on this theme, especially if it matches the quality of the first.