Romans, Barbarians and Provincials: Social Boundaries and Class Conflict in Late Roman Gaul
By Leslie Dodd
ESharp, Issue 3 (2004)
Introduction The Romans traditionally characterised their identity in very simple, very stark terms. Romans were defined by their romanitas (Roman culture) which included the use of Latin, regard for classical Latin literature, adherence to Roman law and ancestral mores and even the custom of having three names. Everyone else – everyone who was not a Roman and did not share in this culture – was a barbarian (a word which could, but need not always, be pejorative). All the disparate peoples living beyond Rome’s frontiers were conceptualised by Romans in terms of their foreignness and their cultural distance from the civilised ideal of romanitas. By the same measure, all those who lived within the frontiers of Rome’s empire were, theoretically, united by their common participation in Roman civilisation and culture.
In this paper, I will argue that this conception of Roman identity can be refined. The Gallo-Romans, far from being a homogenous group, can be shown to have been divided by boundaries of class, wealth and social status. Their relations with barbarian incomers were often shaped by internal stresses and conflicts and by the need of an increasingly insecure Roman elite to control and dominate a restive peasantry.
In 418 or 419, the Visigoths were recalled from Spain, where they had been campaigning on Rome’s behalf against the marauding Vandals, Alans and Sueves, and settled in the Roman province of Aquitanica Secunda (a region on the Atlantic coast of Gaul, bounded roughly by the valleys of the Loire to the north and of the Garonne to the south). The plantation of barbarians in Roman provinces was itself nothing new. It had many precedents and has been described as “a very ancient feature of imperial policy”. MacMullen and de Ste. Croix have each identified a number of barbarian groups and tribes residing, at various times, within the Roman Empire in northern Gaul, reinforcing the idea that there was nothing innately exceptional in allowing barbarians to settle inside the empire. For the Roman state, these barbarian settlements offered a new source of manpower and a manageable system for the entry of Germanic barbarians into the empire. The fundamental difference between earlier settlements and that of the Goths (and, later, the Burgundians) in the fifth century is in scale. Never before had so many barbarians been settled together in a Roman province, with the approval of the Roman government, effectively making the region into a Romano-Gothic condominium. Yet, the Roman elite had their own reasons for seeking to involve barbarians in provincial life.