- Barbarian Tides: The Migration Age and the Later Roman Empire
The Roman Empire is being assassinated by barbarians once more. The present barbarians are the products of a process called "ethnogenesis," invented and promoted in Vienna in the 1970s and 1980s, while the old flames of the Völkerwanderung have been further fanned by the combined tone and content of Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire (2005) and Bryan Ward Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (2005), both of which appeared too late for Goffart's Barbarian Tides. Even so, Goffart's new book may be considered a partial antidote to them, as it attempts to redefine the "Migration Age" and cut it free at last from German nationalism. This book consolidates and brings together under one roof two related threads of argument which he has gradually developed over almost three decades now: (1) exposing the cultural, nationalist, and historiographical presuppositions involved in modern understanding of the impact of the barbarians, including "ethnogenesis"; [End Page 131] (2) identifying the mechanisms for accommodating the different tribal groups onto Roman territory in the fifth and sixth centuries. Rather than a sustained process of invasion and violent confrontation involving successive waves of tribes forced out of their homelands, Goffart has proposed a more contingent and complex process of integration of barbarian soldiers into the Roman army and aristocracy. Barbarians were more concerned to take advantage of the empire than destroy it. His views were originally expounded in Barbarians and Romans: The Techniques of Accommodation (1980). In Barbarian Tides he devotes a chapter to revisiting his previous book in the light of its numerous critics and his own reconsideration of details (Chapter 6). Accordingly, he reinforces his essential thesis that in Gaul and Italy in particular barbarians were settled on Roman soil by being given a share of tax income rather than land.
The bulk of the book, however, is devoted to critiquing the embedded historiographical notions of "Germans" and other confected tribal histories. The picture Goffart offers (Chapters 1 and 2) is a Roman world in which various barbarian tribes had always been settled. They bore different names, but all had short histories based on short communal memories. Another chapter (7) shows convincingly that the modern notion of "Germans" and a unified "Germanic world" is a cultural and political artifact, so "the G-word must be dispensed with" (p. 222). Much of the ground contested by Goffart and his critics is based on archaeological definition of different cultures, but more especially on interpreting the texts previously treated in his Narrators of Barbarian History (1988) where he demonstrated the inadequacy of reconstructing Gothic, Frankish, and Lombard origins and traditions on the basis of Roman literary perspectives. Now he reformulates the literary problem (Chapter 3) and reiterates the fact that the most significant text, the Getica of Jordanes, cannot be deployed as a receptacle of folk memory (Chapter 4). Its picture of Gothic history was a recent invention set down in Justinian's Constantinople, although a doubt lingers over Goffart's dismissal of oral traditions and enduring memories. Finally, Chapter 5 provides an example of how an alternative narrative for the years 400–20 might be constructed. This is a useful model and worth emulating for later periods. Goffart's new book is buttressed by a characteristic command of often complex texts, forensic skill, and readability, plus a fine index. It also engages robustly with critics and doubters. As with all his previous books, Barbarian Tides is stimulating, challenging, and designed for impact. It simply cannot be ignored. Students of any era could benefit from watching up close how a master scholar deals with a perennial but disputed historiographical theme.