Wednesday, March 22, 2017

La fin de l'Empire romain d'Occident. Rome et les Wisigoths de 382 à 531, by Christine Delaplace,

I return to my old interest in Late Antiquity today, thanks to Michael Kulikowski, who has written an illuminating review of Christine Delaplace's La fin de l'Empire romain d'Occident for the Medieval Review. A boring title, says Michael, and one would not be surprised if the interpretation offered was a hundred years out of date.

Ah, but it's not. Says Michael:
Perhaps the single most important thing here is the authorial willingness to define terms and exercise a realistic parsimony of interpretation with the evidence. For instance, her exhaustive treatment of treaties and their related vocabulary (pax, foedus, deditio, amicitia) usefully demonstrates that the frequent scholarly attempts to normalize the semantic content of that vocabulary are completely untenable; so too is reading back a normative definition from Procopius and Jordanes into the fourth and earlier fifth century.

Such observations are not wholly new, but actually applying their analytical insight to the narrative evidence exposes the role that fixed definitions of Roman treaties/foedera play in traditional narratives of Gothic history--thus producing a spurious aura of inevitability stretching from 382 to the settlement of some Goths in Aquitaine forty years later and on into the sixth century. In a similar vein, Delaplace correctly notes that Alaric and all the barbarian generals and condottieri of the late fourth and fifth centuries were primarily leaders of armies; their royal status was secondary, indeed often quite notional, and rarely a meaningful factor in their power. In this approach she strengthens Guy Halsall's demonstration that only Roman military office and magisteria constituted success for such people. To fall back on claims to royalty signified failure.

Perhaps the most insightful part of Delaplace's account of the early fifth century follows from the recognition that--whether or not you read Alaric's following, or those of other barbarian leaders of the time, in ethnic terms or instead as relatively heterogeneous mercenary armies--you cannot read them in terms of external diplomacy, or foreign foes. The more precise historical analogy is the late Roman Republic, when the Senate had to deal with rival armies loyal primarily to their generals rather than the state. Mutatis mutandis (for "Senate," read "imperial court"), the endless back and forth of 395 to 418 operated according to the same dynamic. Ethnic difference, still less "foreignness," are not what was at issue.

The book's systematic successes are in a similar vein. A ruthless refusal to retroject later evidence means that the Gothic settlement in Gaul is judged at its correct worth: there was nothing new about 418 that had not been at least implicit in the treaty of the king Wallia and the magister militum Constantius in 416. Wallia's (and then Theoderic I's) Goths were in effect a mercenary army, contracted by the Roman state because they were less likely to slip into the usurpation to which rebellious Gallic armies had long been prone. The Gothic zone of action effectively displaced the western Rhine limes south to the Loire, where, from Aquitaine, the Gothic army could operate in any direction necessary, against barbarians and potential usurpers alike. Thus, there was no kingdom of Toulouse for the better part of a century. There was a Gothic rex (who very rarely used that title) and there were sortes Gothicae, but there was no regnum till the fifth century had run its course.

Again, Delaplace has a firm grip on later fifth-century events. In particular she rejects the lionisation of the general Aëtius as "the last of the Romans," a sort of incomparable bulwark against the encroaching barbarian tides. Aëtius, she demonstrates, fundamentally weakened the Roman state, perpetuating constant rivalries in Gaul and Italy that militated against coherent policy. She shows how the "Gothic wars" of the 430s and 440s should not be read as a Roman defence against aggressive barbarian expansion, but rather as an extension of the civil war that brought Aëtius to power, the initial rivalry of Boniface and Aëtius, allied respectively with Theoderic and the Amal Berimond, was perpetuated in the next generation by Sebastianus (son of Boniface) and Witteric (son of Berimond), supported respectively by Theoderic and Aëtius. The peace of 439 is not a Romano-Gothic peace, nor a taming of the unruly federates by Rome, but rather a final settlement of two decades of rivalry: Sebastian was expelled by Theoderic, Witteric disappears from the pages of history (murdered, one imagines), and Aëtius married a daughter of Theoderic, having repudiated his second wife Pelagia, herself the sister of Berimond and widow of Boniface.

... The book concludes with a more cursory survey of the period from 477-531, but here too, the guiding principles are correct. In particular, Delaplace considers the battle of Vouillé as a stage in the sorting out of post-imperial factions that characterizes the earlier sixth century, rather than as a caesura in Gothic history. Greater detail in this section would have been welcome, but that was not the author's primary goal. One would not have thought it possible to write a strikingly novel history of the last century of the western empire, but that is precisely what Delaplace has done. It is a grand accomplishment.
Think of Attila as John Hawkwood!

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