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Friday, 28 March 2014

The Peoples of Northern Europe (Part 3): Discussion and Conclusions

[Here is the concluding part, of my chapter for the Cambridge Archaeology of Late Antiquity.  Parts 1 and 2 are here and here.]

Part 3: Discussion

Developments in the Late Roman period

It is clear that, as in the Roman Empire, the third century brought big changes to Germanic-speaking barbaricum.  Many features have been noted as distinguishing the Late Roman Iron Age from its predecessor.  One of the most important, from the perspective of a ‘banded barbaricum’, is the increase in contact between Scandinavia and the Roman Empire, above all the eastern Roman Empire.  Glassware replaces bronze vessels as the most frequent import and such objects are found more widely throughout Scandinavia than before.[1]  This may reveal an increasing importance of the (possibly misleadingly-named) ‘amber routes’ from the Baltic to the Mediterranean.  The distribution of many objects reveals the importance of this artery (or cluster of arteries) of communication and, in turn the political value of controlling such a route.  The spread of political authority and identity up and down these routes is an important element of the patterns of migration in the Late Roman Iron Age.[2]  One effect of this increased power may be a more secure local power of the regional élites.  Note that the distribution of ‘lavish burials’ in Germanic-speaking barbaricum shifts noticeably westwards from the valleys of the key ‘amber route’ rivers to the ‘intermediate’ zone behind the western ‘frontier zone’ in the Late Roman period.[3]

Fourth-century archaeology generally reveals steadily increasing socio-political complexity in barbaricum, especially in the ‘frontier’ zone and Scandinavia, where it is visible across a wide range of data.  Settlements manifest a trend towards greater organisation and hierarchy.  Several features can be noted, including a degree of planning in settlement lay-out, as at the famous North Sea Coastal ‘terp’ of Feddersen Wierde, whose farms apparently follow a radial lay-out.  Feddersen Wierde also shows another trend: the appearance of the Herrenhof (see above).  Whether this relates to more rigid stratification has been questioned.[4]  Might it have represented a more communal settlement focus, for example?  Whether greater building size necessarily correlates directly with the wealth of the owners can be debated.  Nonetheless, set alongside other features of the archaeology of Germania Magna, it seems most plausible to see these buildings in terms of changing social hierarchy.  Possibly in line with this and the indications of organised planning, the late Roman period saw more frequent indications of the fencing off of individual farmsteads, plausibly demonstrating enhanced ideas of private, inheritable property.  Increasingly effective political organisation can also be seen, as noted, in the Danish bog-finds.  The rare and scattered fourth-century use of funerary ritual as a focus for local competition also suggests more settled social structures.  Relations with the Roman Empire were doubtless central to this, as noted earlier.  Although it would be as mistaken to view these as uniformly harmonious (or to downplay the seriousness of warlike interactions) as it is to see them as constantly confrontational, it is likely that peaceful social, political and economic relations were, proportionately, more normal than military.  A fairly tightly organised pattern of relationships and interactions with Rome is probably the most important element to emphasise in explaining the steady increase in trans-Rhenan barbarian socio-political complexity.

A similar picture might be posited for northern Britain.  Although the archaeological evidence is less plentiful and varied than in Germania, written indices of new confederations, the concentration of Roman imports in particular points and the emergence of large high-status sites suggests some parallels.  Close study has suggested the Empire’s ability to build up and knock down powerful groups here, just as east of the Rhine.[5]  Again, the northern frontier was, more often than not, fairly calm and the existence of an established order within which relationships could be structured must be underlined.

Ireland was drawn more tightly into the Roman orbit in the fourth century as archaeological evidence makes clear.  One element was doubtless the raiding referred to by contemporaries.  This should probably be seen alongside the possible élite distribution of late Roman imports.  Whether these come from such attacks, or from Roman payments, or from Irish leaders being able to organise exchange relations with Roman traders, they underline the increasingly important contacts across the Irish Sea.  As noted several times already, though, raiding was rarely the sole form of political relationship between the Empire and its neighbours.  Other links might have included recruitment as federate troops or into the élite auxilia palatina, two regiments of which are named ‘Attecotti’.[6]  Who the Attecotti were and where they came from are mysterious but they were certainly associated in some way with the Iris h.  Irish settlement in western Britain may have begun within the Roman period, although the evidence is nebulous.  Another form of Roman influence was, of course, Christianity.  Attempts to evangelise the Irish were made during the fifth century, but possibly began earlier.[7] This thickening network of connections doubtless lies at the root of the changes beginning in this period.  Here, however, such change may have involved the break-up of old, loose but extensive kingdoms.  It certainly seems reasonable to envisage more political stress in Ireland than in northern Britain or Germania in this period.

Fifth-Century Change

The fifth century is obviously crucial to considering the ‘late antique problematic’ beyond the limes.  As has been stressed, barbaricum was not a separate world, but the imperium’s increasingly intimately-connected periphery.[8]  The crisis into which the Western Empire was plunged from the 380s, after Magnus Maximus’ usurpation, lasting until c.420, and – more so – the failure to weather that crisis inevitably and profoundly affected the territories beyond the frontiers.  Closest to the limes, where local kings were apparently propped up by further Roman gifts and payments during the civil wars, this crisis had no immediate effect.  Franks and Alamans were only minimally involved in this period’s incursions.  Archaeologically, in some areas the period continues fourth-century developments, especially in settlements around the lower Rhine frontier.[9] 

Real problems arose further into barbaricum, however.  Here, contact with Rome was more precarious, although every bit as important in underpinning political authority and stability.  The late fourth- and early fifth-century civil wars ended the carefully managed frontier system.  This had ensured a rough parity between groups, and barbarian leaders in the interior had often been paid to counterbalance the frontier peoples.  When the managed system of diplomatic relations ended, and especially as the distracted Romans simply shored up their allies on the frontier, political stress was inevitable.  As mentioned, it had long been the case that the losing parties in barbarian political conflict took themselves to Roman territory and accordingly it is very significant that the barbarians who invaded Gaul in the early fifth century were from the ‘intermediate band’ of barbaricum: Sueves, Vandals and Burgundians.  The political stress in these regions may have led some factions to ask for support from the newly-hegemonic Hunnic leaders north of the Danube, which may have been decisive, propelling defeated elements towards the Rhine.  Nonetheless this crisis arose from internal Roman political difficulties from the 380s onwards and we should be very careful before assuming a general, exogenous Hunnic ‘push’ factor.

The early fifth-century crisis is most visible archaeologically in the North Sea Coastal regions.  The ‘Saxon Homelands’, although a frontier zone in some regards, in others have features of the interior band.  The socio-economic crises affecting the north-western Roman provinces at this time, very clearly visible in settlement abandonment, economic decline and changes in burial, doubtless impacted seriously upon the closely connected Saxon regions.  We noted this above in discussion of settlement change and abandonment and transformations in burial rites.  Saxon archaeology shares numerous features with the archaeology of Britain and northern Gaul, underlining the analytical usefulness of the concept of a North Sea cultural zone.  This period saw the re-emergence of Frisian, Anglian and Jutish identities, suggesting a break-up of the Saxon confederacy.  Migration to Britain was a crucial product of these developments.  Related to these changes are those mentioned in the heart of the interior band of Germania.  The Elbe Valley had been a crucial artery linking barbaricum and the Empire and the Roman crisis around 400 doubtless had a knock-on effect there.  By the end of the century the new Thuringian kingdom had established control of the river and spread its authority along it.

The changes around 400 had effects on the archaeology of Scandinavia.  Certain forms of import began to dry up for example.  By the sixth century something of an archaeological ‘Dark Age’ is noted in some parts of the region.  It does not, however, seem to be the case that this necessarily implied social or economic decline.  Many specialists believe that the relative archaeological invisibility of ‘Early Germanic Iron Age’ Denmark may attest more to a slow consolidation of power and social hierarchies.  It may be better to think of a longer term readjustment in response to Roman political change, rather than the short-lived but dramatic crises seen elsewhere.  Settlement patterns may intensify rather than decline, and new forms of agriculture were introduced.[10]  Nonetheless, bursts of larger or more lavish inhumations around 400 and 500 imply some crises during the period in some regions.[11]

Similar dynamics are visible in Britain.  Possible changes in Roman Britain’s governance meant that the frontier band, north of Hadrian’s Wall, became more like an interior zone.  This produced some archaeologically visible signs of crisis, such as the abandonment of hillforts, like Traprain Law,[12] and changes in burial rite, wherein funerals became important in local community politics.  As with the Saxons, fifth-century crisis apparently led to a break-up of the Pictish confederacies and, while one group retained (by the seventh century at least) the name of Picts, other identities reasserted themselves.  Earlier tribal names like the Votadini and Maetae resurfaced.  In Ireland, the break-down of the imperial links that had been developing earlier, and which had probably lain behind a certain amount of political change and stress, doubtless only emphasised the latter and, as elsewhere, produced migration into former Roman territory.

Along the Rhine frontier, crisis came later, with the Roman government’s failure to re-establish its authority along the limes and thus continue to back frontier kings.  This, as noted, is detectable in the archaeology of the Frankish and Alamannic areas.  The political stress produced led to incursions into northern Gaul and elsewhere.  Eventually the situation was resolved when the Frankish faction that controlled the Roman army on the Loire established its dominance first over the Paris Basin and then over its northern rivals.  This group, the Merovingians, extended its hegemony over the Alamanni, Thuringians and Saxons, as well as, by the 530s, removing the other barbarian kingdoms from Gaul.  Frankish overlordship extended well beyond the Rhine, though, and down the Danube.  The Empire’s demise had completely changed the relationships between the trans-Rhenan peoples and the territories west of the Rhine.  Although the Merovingian kingdom in some ways inherited the Empire’s role in what had been Germania Magna, the situation differed significantly.  Its relationships with Saxons, Thuringians, Hessians, Alamans, Bavarians were unlike those between the Empire and the barbarians, not least because Frankish territories straddled the old frontier.  Leaders of non-Frankish groups were often closely involved in Frankish politics, having marriage and other ties with Frankish aristocrats.  The Merovingian realm, although able to maintain a more or less effective trans-Rhenan hegemony during the sixth century, lacked the Empire’s prestige.  Consequently, the relationships that had cyclically produced migration from barbaricum to imperial territory ceased with the Empire’s collapse.  The fall of the Roman Empire ended the ‘Barbarian Migrations’.

Changes around 600

Change in the latter part of the sixth century and in the period around 600 has been mentioned in almost all the areas from Scandinavia to the Rhine and from Ireland to Bavaria.  We have seen changes in burials in several regions, with the increasing importance of above-ground monuments in many – northern Britain, Ireland, the Rhineland and Scandinavia.  If the archaeology of some areas, like Denmark, becomes less visible, this too must be seen as an important change.  New high-status settlements appeared in northern Britain whereas the number of small fortified farmsteads (raths, cashels and crannogs) in Ireland underwent something of an explosion.  Trading patterns changed, connecting Ireland and northern Britain with France.  This hardly exhausts the transformations of this important period.  Their explanation is complex and regionally varied but one element may, not insignificantly, have been internal political crises in the lands west of the Rhine, in Gaul.  Another, again significantly, was probably a further alteration in the nature of the relationships between the surviving, Eastern Roman Empire and the West.

The Merovingian kingdom experienced a profound political crisis from the 570s to the 620s, with royal minorities and civil wars.  As with the imperial civil wars 200 years previously, this produced faction-fighting and a slackening of control over peripheral peoples.  Within Gaul, the circumstances produced an increase in local aristocratic power and more rigid social stratification.  The very analogous archaeologically-visible changes in southern Germany suggest similar developments.  By the mid-seventh century Merovingian hegemony east of the Rhine was in tatters and this must have affected local social structures. 

These events surely cannot lie behind the changes in Scandinavia, northern Britain and Ireland, however.  Indeed they are unlikely entirely to explain the Gallic changes.  We should perceive some broader shifts under way, doubtless connected to the fall-out from the Emperor Justinian’s wars of reconquest, launched in the mid-sixth century.  These terrible and destructive conflicts failed to restore imperial hegemony and had effects far beyond the areas fought over.  They were, furthermore, accompanied by a terrible outbreak of plague, adding to the period’s generally apocalyptic feel.  These changes, which did much to rupture long-standing patterns of life in the Mediterranean, doubtless played a significant role in producing the change in economic patterns mentioned earlier, leading to closer links between Ireland and northern Britain and mainland Europe.  Those shifts in long-distance trade patterns were probably an important element in political change in northern Britain and Ireland, perhaps producing, as elsewhere, more intensive local authority and a break-up of earlier, looser hegemonies.  These Mediterranean crises may even have affected Scandinavia, where the Eastern Empire had been an important source of precious metals and other prestigious imports. 

A shift in ideas may have been as important as any of this.  The Roman Empire had been an overwhelming presence for the people beyond the frontiers, moulding all sorts of ideas about power and authority.  Imperial frontier policies had formed the system within which kings and other leaders interacted.  Diplomatic payments and gifts carried enormous importance, because of their connection with the emperor at least as much as for their intrinsic worth.  Some bracteates derived their models from depictions of the Emperor on much earlier, fourth-century Roman coins.[13]  Therefore, even after the Western Empire’s collapse, ideas continued to be shaped by notions of Rome and the emperor.  In the former imperial provinces, the fiction endured for some time that the new rulers were still encompassed within the imperium, deriving their authority from official Roman political and administrative titles.  Connections with a Frankish king’s imperially-bestowed honours, possibly even including a consulate of some sort, with a Burgundian king who was a patricius or with an Ostrogothic king who was a magister militum had much the same cachet as earlier relations with a governor, vicarius or Praetorian Prefect.  The Justinianic wars changed this.  Justinian based his wars on a strident proclamation that the Western Empire had been ‘lost’ to barbarian invasion and thus needed to be reconquered.  The ultimate failure to reintegrate all the western territories resulted in a formal boundary being drawn around the imperial territories in southern Spain and Italy.  It is thus no surprise that on the Rhine frontier the centuries-old dynamic, whereby losing political factions headed for and crossed the river into Gallic territory, came to an end.  A new, more integrated zone with what might loosely be called ‘inward-looking’ relationships and political dynamics developed within Germania Magna.   From this, eventually, the polity of ‘Germany’ emerged.[14]

Awareness that the Roman Empire no longer existed in western Europe produced a profound crisis in the former imperial territories there.  No more could legitimacy be based on an allegedly official position in imperial bureaucracy or a claim to represent the Emperor.  The Emperor himself had made it clear that his writ no longer ran in the West.  ‘Barbarian’ territory’s integration within the imperial orbit made this crisis as visible beyond the old limes as within them.  New ideological underpinnings were sought.  In the former provinces these largely came from the Old Testament and it may be no accident that this was a period when Christian (and again Old Testament) ideology became more influential beyond the old frontier – most obviously in Ireland but also in northern Britain.  Christian foundations spread into Germania Magna and, further away, shifts in the ideological bases of power apparently occurred.

The study of late antique barbaricum has very important points to make.  The experience of the peoples of northern Europe contradicts the view of Late Antiquity as a period of continuity or steady, uniform development in a particular direction.  There was constant change, and, frequently, periods of considerable upheaval.  North-western European archaeology shows, furthermore, that the fifth-century demise of the western Empire was a dramatic series of events producing crisis throughout barbaricum, as well as within the western provinces.  However, one thing that remained constant between c.300 and c.550 at least was the Roman Empire’s dominant influence in these regions.  In that sphere, the collapse of the West made little immediate difference and there the traditional framework of Late Antiquity would seem to be underlined.  It was the mid-sixth-century dramas and their fall-out in the century or so afterwards that made a huge difference, perhaps as much in these far northern and western regions as in the Mediterranean itself.  One reason for this was the awareness, finally, of living ‘after Rome’.  In that sense the period c.300-c.650 has a unity in barbaricum, very much a Late Antique unity, based perhaps ironically around the enduring influence of the Roman Empire.

[1] E.g. Hårdh (2003).
[2] Halsall (2007), p.131.
[3] Quast (2009).  Compare Gebühr (2009) and Becker (2009).

[4] Von Carnap-Bornheim (2015); Memorial Colloquium Haarnagel (2010). Nicolay (2014) sees Herrenhöfe as indicative of hierarchy, reasonably enough.
[5] Hunter (2007)
[6] Not Dig. occ. 5.197, 200.
[7] Ó Croínín (1995) pp.23-27
[8] Halsall (2014)
[9] Theuws & Hiddink (1997), pp.77-80.
[10] Robinson & Siemen (1988); Jensen, J., (2003).
[11] Fischer (2014).
[12] Feachem (1955-56).
[13] Magnus (1997), p.196; Pesch (2007), esp. her Formularfamilien A and C. On the chronology of bracteates, see Axboe (2004).
[14] Halsall (2014)

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