VII: Trial Runs for the Middle Ages

From: 428 AD

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Trial Runs for the Middle Ages F  , Italy was not afraid of the barbarian menace, due to the rapprochement between Ravenna and Constantinople, and also the wisdom and competence of the determined and, it has to be said, utterly ruthless imperial generals. Not everyone, however, was willing to give them the recognition they deserved. First among these were the pompous and phlegmatic senators, whose feelings were ambivalent.The military men protected their lives and their property, but at the end of the day they were still coarse soldiers, often of barbarian origin. Moreover , the aristocrats were alarmed by the increasing influence of court officials. It was during this period that Macrobius wrote: What can we say of the generals and military leaders? They are only interested in bringing their own enterprises into the conversation , while they remain silent in fear of being accused of arrogance . But if by some chance they are asked to tell their stories, then you can be sure that they will feel rewarded for all their hard work! Indeed, it is recompense enough for them that someone wants to listen to their heroic deeds.The problem is that such tales evoke a climate of glory. Consequently any rivals or resentful persons among the public start to raise noisy objections or to tell other stories in order to prevent the orator from being praised for the deeds he speaks of. (Macrobius, Saturnalia, , , –) In the exclusive circles frequented by Macrobius, generals came into a room on tiptoes and kept a low profile to avoid some gossip complaining to the court about their uppishness. But it did not take much—perhaps  C H A P T E R V I I an invitation to speak or the presence of a rival—for a military commander to remove his mask and to appear before his learned public as a “glorious soldier” of the kind Plautus used to write about. The cleverer military leaders entrusted their image to writers who they could rely on to praise them in poems and panegyrics.There was no shortage of material for these writers: any one of the battles of varying degrees of importance on different fronts, which were fought to shore up the defenses against the continual barbarian incursions. Indeed, imperial territories in both the East and the West had been occupied by numerous external populations over the previous thirty years. During difficult periods, the empire had preferred to accept their presence and control it, but now the situation was more favorable and legions could be sent on the counterattack. The most important military sectors were in the prefecture of Gaul, where recent migrations of peoples had upset the structure of the territory. From , the supreme commander of this operational sector was the rising star of the Roman army, General Aetius.1 The invading peoples attempted to establish themselves in the Roman provinces primarily for the advantages provided by imperial organization . Their settlement was confirmed by a treaty with Rome called a foedus, which allocated them a territory to settle with their families. Moreover, the barbarian foederati were not entirely integrated, given that they did not have a right to Roman citizenship. They were used as settlers and soldiers, and constituted a separate social category.2 In theory , they were distinct communities, whose customs and lifestyles set them apart from the Romans. In practice, many of these groups managed to preserve their ethnic identity to some extent, and this might explain a phenomenon observed by Peter Heather in the written documentation on the great migrations: some ethnic groups, which had apparently disappeared at a particular time, “reappeared” a few decades later. Of course, not all groups had such a strong identity, and in some cases they were simply absorbed into other, stronger groups.3 It was believed that these coalitions of peoples already had a wellde fined ethnic identity at the time.This erroneous interpretation mainly derived from ideological trends in the modern era, which attributed precocious “national” identities to the barbarians.4 In reality, the ethnic identity of a warrior or warrior clan in the fifth century often depended T R I A L R U N S F O R T H E M I D D L E A G E S  on the origins of the commander they chose to serve. Even the identification of a people with a language, which for us has become a selfevident truth, was a much more blurred...