BMCR 2017.08.39

La fin de l’Empire romain d’Occident: Rome et les Wisigoths de 382 à 551. Histoire. Série Histoire ancienne

, La fin de l'Empire romain d'Occident: Rome et les Wisigoths de 382 à 551. Histoire. Série Histoire ancienne. Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2015. 373. ISBN 9782753542952. €21.00 (pb).

Publisher’s Preview

If one were to notice Christine Delaplace’s monograph stacked in a library shelf, there could be an immanent risk of not being recognized for what it truly is. Labelled on its spine “La fin de l’Empire romain d’Occident”, a weary reader might skip over yet another book ostensibly recounting the end of western Roman power; a topic well covered over the last decade. The equally unfortunate choice of choosing Joseph-Noël Sylvestre’s 1890 Sac du Rome for the cover, featuring semi-naked Gerard Butler-esque warriors tearing down statues, might even urge one to skip another seemingly Romans-versus-Barbarians driven narrative. Fear not, weary reader, because its profound focus emerges via the front cover’s subtitle “Rome et les Wisigoths de 382 à 531”. While the Visigoths have obtained satisfactory attention in those recent surveys charting the late fourth to early sixth century CE, they have not yet received a modern monograph treating them on their own especially concerning their ninety-year long settlement in Aquitaine. This crucial episode is the core of Delaplace’s work, and a topic conspicuously absent in our ever-expanding libraries. Hence this is a most welcome addition to a recent growing body of scholarship treating groups such as the Huns, Ostrogoths or Vandals.

Part 1 surveys the historiography of the Goths. Part 2 gives us a longue durée grounding in Rome’s external relations with foreign powers, through assessments of envoys and embassies, espionage, and the mechanics of treaties, from the Republic to the fourth-century Empire. This is fundamental to understand one of Delaplace’s main theses: the Goths who emerged from the Adrianople fiasco and were integrated into Rome’s military structures after 382 were never conceived as an independent foreign nation on imperial soil. Part 3 charts the involvement of Gothic leaders during the many wars bedevilling imperial courts between 382-418. Delaplace argues that Alaric was not the ethnic leader of the ‘united Balkan Goths’, but essentially a war-leader with a significant military following in tow, willing to seek an agreement for armed service. She identifies the main problems destabilizing the imperial centre not as migrations, but politics—especially the vexed issue of how to counter usurpation.

Part 4 looks at the evolution of the Visigoths as auxiliaries of the western Roman army (c. 418-455). Delaplace demonstrates that the Goths who settled in Aquitaine got a considerably less favourable deal than Alaric had during his stints as imperial commander. The few times that their reges —kings of men but never kings of a state—went to war with the western court, the wars were almost inevitably driven by two factors: trying to revise the terms of Vallia’s 416 agreement, which enabled Gothic military reintegration, or having to take sides in conflicts emanating from the centre (such as Ioannes’ usurpation or the conflict between Aëtius and Sebastian). When a new foedus was finally awarded in 439, they continued playing their part in a substantially weakened defence system following the Vandal conquest of the Roman Maghreb (for which the onus is firmly squared on Aëtius’ shoulders). Part 5 shows how a Visigothic army finally ended up achieving a territorial kingdom between 455 and 477. Delaplace is at her finest when deconstructing Sidonius Apollinaris’ anti-Gothic testimony, originating from his collusion with the Burgundians who had propped up the illegitimate imperial upstarts Olybrius and Glycerius (472-474), which ultimately led to his exile. Only when the last western emperors had made themselves obsolete, and Odoacer struck a treaty with Euric that recognized the latter’s acquisition of Provence in 477, did a true successor kingdom come into being. Finally, an epilogue shows how even in the period up to 531, Clovis’ victory at Vouillé in 507 did not mark a terminus post quem for Visigothic history, but rather one more re-shuffling of the Late Roman ‘Commonwealth’ as had occurred in previous decades and was bound to continue until Justinian’s wars. Delaplace does a painstaking job analysing the fragmentary contemporary sources, and placing them in their proper context. This reviewer finds himself in agreement with many of her verdicts and guiding principles in her reconstruction of events, but with some caveats.

There is a rigid tendency to paint a consistent picture of the Visigoths as loyal to legitimate emperors throughout the period of 416-476. This certainly counts as an improvement over visions of “predatory migrants”, but sometimes the pendulum swings too far in the other direction. Occasionally one encounters some very special pleading, up to the point where, e.g., the generalissimo Ricimer suddenly becomes a bête noire for obstructing this Romano-Gothic dynamic. He is even found responsible for sabotaging Majorian’s fleet in 460 (p. 228), using Childeric’s Franks against Aegidius in the mid 460s (p. 238), and employing Rhiotamus’ Britons to the detriment of Anthemius in the late 460s (pp. 249-250). Ricimer will probably always be remembered as the western Roman Empire’s Kingslayer, but no source ever connected him to any of the aforementioned events.

While Delaplace should be applauded for placing Visigothic history in a suitable institutional framework, a few of her conceptual paradigms could have benefitted from more thorough elaboration. To state the most pertinent one, the Gothic groups emerging from the post-382 settlement are often described as mercenaries. This is a term that has merit for military actors in antiquity, especially during the Hellenistic era, but is fraught with much more difficulty for Late Antiquity. It conjures modern images of men willing to hire out their armed services to various parties in order to reap private gains. In fact, the only Late Antique groups whom we could identify serving the Empire thusly are the various Hunnic bands before Attila’s consolidation of autocracy in the 440s. Similarly, Delaplace often styles Gothic leaders such as Alaric or Sarus even more anachronistically as condottieri, suggesting a level of professionalism that may not always seem compatible with their modus operandi. Faute de mieux, these models can work if one is willing to define them more in depth, as seen in other recent studies on ancient warfare.1

In fact, Delaplace is at her most convincing when she analyses Visigothic military interaction with the Empire from a much better established Roman perspective, namely that of the Republic and its socii. Indeed, from the 380s to the 470s, the Goths essentially acted as clients and allies of a government that desired their military aid, but was generally unwilling to grant them the status that would have allowed them to participate in state affairs. This becomes abundantly clear in Alaric’s negotiations with Honorius (408-410), a rare case where the sources elucidate various terms, and where the former was much more concerned to become a magister militum than getting land to farm.

One has to admire the rigor with which Delaplace spells out the debate. Very few pages pass where a scholar is not properly credited in the main text, even to the extent of providing a chart to point out key differences between Wolf Liebeschuetz’ and Peter Heather’s views on the Visigothic genesis (p. 103). But one stumbles upon a striking limit in the status quaestionis. Delaplace admits that the brunt of this work was composed before 2008 and this is principally where the bibliography stops (pp. 16, 301). When one inspects the critical apparatus, however, it becomes clear that the literature rarely goes beyond the early 2000s.

More surprisingly, there is very little engagement with some of the major cited works defining and polemicizing the current debate, such as Heather’s Fall of the Roman Empire, Guy Halsall’s Barbarian Migrations and Michael Kulikowski’s Rome’s Gothic Wars. Sometimes this leads to awkward cases, such as her championing of Kulikowski’s re-dating of the Rhine invasion by Alans, Vandals and Sueves to 31 December 405 (p. 131). Yet Kulikowski himself has conceded that Anthony Birley’s vindication of the traditional date of 31 December 406 may stand after all. 2 Similarly, among the many dates proposed for the inception of a (semi) sovereign Visigothic polity, Halsall’s arguments in favour of 439 are glossed over.3 To list one final example: while there is a justified dismissal of Giuseppe Zecchini’s key argument to appraise Aëtius’ 442 treaty with the Vandals, i.e. that it allowed him to shore up defences against a Hunnic war that would not occur until a decade later, it goes unmentioned that this is also vital in Heather’s vigorous appraisal of Aëtius’ policies.4 None of this undermines Delaplace’s work, but it could have been rewarding to tease out the distinctions between these various landmarks and how they complement or contrast her central theses.

Some errata: The map depicting Alaric’s itinerary in the Balkans places his 397 battle with Stilicho in Epirus, but this should be the Peloponnese (p. V). Vandals, Alans and Sueves did not cross a frozen Rhine in 406 (p. 19)—this is a Gibbonian construct for which there is no source evidence. Ammianus was not the last Roman author producing a classical Latin historiography (p. 36), but Renatus Profuturus Frigeridus. John Rich’s Declaring War in the Roman Republic was published in 1976, not 1946 (p. 48, n. 2). “L’auteur de la Chronique de Prosper, publiée vers 443”, is naturally Prosper himself (p. 109). Honorius did not arrange the murder of Belleridus, but did allow the murder to go unpunished (pp. 149-150). Bonifatius did not participate in Castinus’ Spanish campaign, since he had already deserted it previously (p. 197). Prosper did hail from Aquitaine, but was no longer living there when he was writing his works (p. 210). The treaty of 475 was struck between Julius Nepos and Euric, not Theoderic II (p. 213). There is no evidence that Leo I ever appointed the warlord Marcellinus as magister militum Dalmatiae in 461 (p. 231), only that his nephew Julius Nepos became one later ( CJ 6.65.1). The comes Paulus killed near Angers c. 470 was perhaps a successor of Aegidius, but certainly not of Syagrius floruit c. 486 (p. 249, n. 76). Last but not least, the pagan historiographer Zosimus is probably spinning in his urn hearing that he wrote a Histoire ecclésiastique (p. 102).5 Nevertheless, at the end of the day, this reviewer cannot emphasize strongly enough that this book is one of the most important new contributions to the field of Gothic studies. It has all the hallmarks of becoming a seminal work. Indeed, in French literature it already stands unrivalled. In 21 st -century academia, where not only students but even scholars engage overwhelmingly with works published in their own language, one can only hope that Delaplace’s monograph will earn the recognition and impact it deserves via a revised English translation.


1. Cfr. Trundle, M. (2004), Greek Mercenaries from the Late Archaic Period to Alexander, London; Armstrong, J. (ed.) (2016), Circum Mare: Themes in Ancient Warfare, Leiden.

2. Kulikowski, M. (2007), Rome’s Gothic Wars from the Third Century to Alaric, Cambridge, p. 217 (n. 37).

3. Halsall, G. (2007), Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-558, Cambridge, pp. 245-247.

4. Heather, P. (2005), The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians, London, pp. 292-298.

5. Some typographical errors: ‘Transformation od the Roman World’ (p. 27, n. 21) ‘Journal of Mediaval History’ (p. 27, n. 22), ‘firts’ (p. 105, n. 19), ‘generallismos’ (p. 122), ‘Byzantines studies’ (p. 124, n. 76), ‘essentielly’ (p. 178, n. 25), ‘Manatianus’ instead of Namatianus (p. 180), ‘wardlords’ (p. 230), ‘Gillet’ instead of Gillett (p. 240), ‘Gestaltungspeilräume’ instead of Gestaltungsspielräume (p. 349), ‘Formasino’ instead of Formisano (p. 357), ‘Sarentis’ instead of Sarantis (p. 358), ‘Van Warrden’ instead of Van Waarden (p. 359).