It’s been a long time, since anyone has been successfully convincing that with the collapse of the Roman empire, an objectively superior civilisation somehow ‘fell’, whatever that means, leading to ‘dark ages’ from which the peoples of Europe would only gradually manage to extract and redeem themselves.Its the dark side of the moon theory. It’s not just that the evidence never really sustained this story very conclusively; to assert it would require a style of cultural confidence no longer remotely fashionable, while the message it would send regarding our own times might sound less than entirely encouraging.
”Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?
Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
And some people arrived from the borders,
and said that there are no longer any barbarians.
And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?
Those people were some kind of solution.” ( Constantine Petrou Cavafy )
The barbarian invasions is a general term to encompass the interactions between the Western Roman Empire and the waves of peoples who came out of the North and East, first to challenge its borders but eventually transforming its very nature, over a period of about the first 900 years of the C.E. and with a geographical remit stretching from Tunisia to Scandinavia, Romania and the Crimea to East Anglia.
Culturally, the common view is of a present-tense Europe enduringly proud of its Roman roots, yet quick to repress the memory of its barbarian heritage . The use of he heavily-loaded term ‘barbarian’ constituting, in itself, an attempt to reclaim and reformulate its implications. We are still far from a point where calling something ‘barbaric’ will evoke not thuggish brutality underpinned by ignorance and credulity, but rather good manners, engaging cultural diversity, the production of some extraordinarily attractive art and metal-work and, perhaps some clear and grammatical speech as well.
There is still a difficulty of finding something endearing to say about the barbarians ;— the invention of the ‘noble savage’ view of barbarians, is somewhat condescending that denies culture extending beyond defined geographical boundaries. We are still chipping away at distinctions. The most evident result, however, was the synthesis and redefinition of the form of Christianity that came to define Western Europe and distinguished itself in marked ways from the Orthodox East and Islamic South. this owed as much to its barbarian adherents, and opponents, as it did to Graeco-Roman civilisation. Quite soon, in any case, it becomes difficult to make much of a distinction between these two notionally antithetical cultures. Out of cultural collision and conflict, it seems, comes ‘rebirth’, however awkward and painful the process may be. The Barbarians were the agents, often unwittingly, of one of the most astounding and reinvigorating instances of cultural synthesis in the history of humanity.
The Roman historian of the first century, Tacitus, describes the dress of the barbarians as a cloak fastened by a clasp , or if none were available, by a thorn, and the ”wealthiest are distinguished by a dress which is not flowing, like that of the Sarmatians and the Parthians, but is tight and exhibits each limb”, in other words, trousers. They also wore furs. The women ”have the same dress as the men , except that they generally wrap themselves in linen garments embroidered with purple , but the upper part is not extended into sleeves. The upper part and lower arm is bare, and part of the breast is likewise revealed”.
Although overfond of drink and warfare, these Germans were strict in their morals. They had formed a class society, with a nobility at the top , freemen in the middle, and slaves or semi-serfs at the bottom. They had an organized religion and a town-meeting form of democracy. There was no fixed bureaucracy, nothing resembling a ”respublica” in the Roman sense, and no system of taxation. In such matters the Germans were far removed from the Roman concept of civilization.
In many respects, Tacitus’s picture of the early Germans is representative of the eighteenth-century view of the Noble Savage. His nostalgia for the heroic days of the early Roman Republic may have prompted him to exaggerate such matters as the chastity of german women or the loyalty of the men toward their chiefs. Even his account of their appearance cannot be taken at face value. We do not know whether he ever visited the lands he describes.
He may have based his description of the people on his observations of Roman slave markets and gladiatorial schools, without considering that slaves and gladiators would have been chosen for their stature and brawn. At any rate, Strabo remarks that the Germans scarcely differed in physique from the Gauls except perhaps for being somewhat more fair-haired.
”Tacitus was naturally a child of his time and the high senator has other goals than Cesar. He used the “noble Barbarians” as example for the degenerated Romans.Tacitus was primarily concerned with the concentration of power into the hands of the Roman Emperors. His writings are filled with tales of corruption and tyranny in the governing class of Rome, and display a particular hatred for the emperor Tiberius.
His treatment of the Germanic peoples outside the empire is of mixed value to historians. Tacitus uses what he reports of the German character as a kind of ‘noble savage’ as a comparison to contemporary Romans and their (in his eyes) ‘degeneracy’. Despite this drawback, he does supply us with many names for tribes with which Rome had come into contact. Tacitus’ information was not, in general, based on first-hand knowledge, and more recent research has shown that many of his assumptions were incorrect. In fact, contemporary historians debate whether all these tribes were really Germanic in the sense that they spoke a Germanic language – some of them, like the Batavii, may have been Celts.”
Tacitus does seem to wax poetic into the realm of fantasy and imagination. Plausibility aside, there are no other sources to confirm or deny his assertions. At times it reads like the narrative of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels:
”As the characteristic of their national superstition, they wear the images of wild boars. This alone serves them for arms, this is the safeguard of all, and by this every worshipper of the Goddess is secured even amidst his foes. Rare amongst them is the use of weapons of iron, but frequent that of clubs. In producing of grain and the other fruits of the earth, they labour with more assiduity and patience than is suitable to the usual laziness of Germans. Nay, they even search the deep, and of all the rest are the only people who gather amber. They call it glasing, and find it amongst the shallows and upon the very shore. But, according to the ordinary incuriosity and ignorance of Barbarians, they have neither learnt, nor do they inquire, what is its nature, or from what cause it is produced…
…Upon the Suiones, border the people Sitones; and, agreeing with them in all other things, differ from them in one, that here the sovereignty is exercised by a woman. So notoriously do they degenerate not only from a state of liberty, but even below a state of bondage. Here end the territories of the Suevians….
…Naked youths who practise the sport bound in the dance amid swords and lances that threaten their lives. Experience gives them skill and skill again gives grace; profit or pay are out of the question; however reckless their pastime, its reward is the pleasure of the spectators. Strangely enough they make games of hazard a serious occupation even when sober, and so venturesome are they about gaining or losing, that, when every other resource has failed, on the last and final throw they stake the freedom of their own persons. The loser goes into voluntary slavery; though the younger and stronger, he suffers himself to be bound and sold. Such is their stubborn persistency in a bad practice; they themselves call it honour. Slaves of this kind the owners part with in the way of commerce, and also to relieve themselves from the scandal of such a victory.” ( www.fordham.edu Medieval Sourcebook )
Many of the characteristics of the early Germans merit comparison not with the Indians of North America but with the pioneers who conquered the continent. In fact, the Germans may once have enjoyed a higher state of civilization, but then adapted to the exigencies of a new land of swamps and forests. Such a retreat from civilization, rather than aboriginal primitiveness, is suggested by the unevenness of their cultural level . They were aware of writing, for example. Runes, peculiar Germanic alphabetic characters based on Greek, Latin, and possibly Etruscan antecedents, were in use at least as early as the second century. But instead of developing a literature, the Germans used their alphabet chiefly for magic and inscriptions.
As metalworkers , they were capable of inlaying iron spearheads with silver ornamentation and producing beautiful gold filigree work. They were especially skilled in making body ornaments ; but elegant ceramics , silver drinking vessels, and delicately incised combs were also within their powers.
There are various reasons why a good European might seek to shut down the Romans-versus-Barbarians fixture confrontation — roughly corresponding to the reasons why, no matter how little scholarly encouragement it receives, its memory is sporadically re-animated. The blood-soaked trauma of the Teutoburg Forest for instance, surely came to carry nearly as much symbolic weight for nineteenth and early twentieth century German nationalists as it had for the architects of post-Augustinian Roman foreign policy, and we all know where that walk into the enchanted led, a kind of Hansel and Gretel with a gruesome ending. Similarly, the subliminal conviction that the super-civilised sophistication of Rome deserves an unworldly and primitivemin the literal sense, riposte unites the followers of Huss and Luther, Knox and Herder, with generally baleful implications for Europe’s peaceful existence.
The rhetoric in which European nations defined their own strands of exceptionalism has as often hinged on the patient recollection of tribal names, customs and resentments as recourse to that universalising language as freely on loan from classical antiquity as from Christianity’s central text.