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Concise and interesting review of the end of Rome in the West,
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This review is from: The Invasion of Europe by the Barbarians (Paperback)
_The Invasion of Europe by the Barbarians_ by J. B. Bury is a very readable and well written book that outlines the sequence and consequences of the migratory movements of the northern barbarians into Roman territory, migrations of the third through sixth centuries AD that eventually lead to Germanic peoples occupying the western half of the Roman Empire, from Britain to North Africa and ultimately largely dismembering the Empire.
It would be difficult for one to guess how old this work is from reading it; the book was basically a compilation of lectures Bury gave on the subject originally in 1903 (Bury himself passed away in 1927). The book read quite well for the most part as it had a brisk pace and the author a rather dry wit. My only complaints are that the final sections delved too much into what were for me the esoteric nature of Roman versus Lombard law (not as interesting or as useful to me at least as his coverage of the migrations and their consequences) as well as the complete lack of maps.
One of Bury's main themes was that the barbarians became a threat from inside the Empire's borders - what he called disintegration from within - as various Germanic peoples became federates of the Empire, invited to settle within its boundaries and in return generally for some form of tribute protected the frontiers and supplied contingents of troops. Nearly all the German peoples were for a time federates of the Empire before becoming independent masters of the lands they seized. Sometimes the rulers of the various tribes worked closely with the Emperor, at other times they were actually kings of their people and only nominally within the Empire. A system of establishing federate states within the Empire paved the way for the system of independent states that eventually replaced the Empire, a process that though not without conflict was also not cataclysmic either.
The Germanic federati became quite important in part because as Bury wrote the population of the old civilized lands around the Mediterranean had become "too highly civilized, and not physically fit enough" and thus were "quite useless for military service." The bulk of the army came from frontier provinces and from adventurers, many of which were barbarian volunteers from outside the Empire. Before Germanization of the lands under the federates began a dangerous Germanization was underway in the military (a military which was increasingly important, particularly in the West), a Germanization he called a "peaceful penetration," as by the end of the fourth century Germans had largely replaced most of the peoples from within the Empire and due to their ability had risen to hold the highest officer posts as well. This "grave danger" was overlooked by too many Emperors, too liberal in their policies in allowing Germans to occupy positions of supreme command due to their desire to attract the best men for the job. Eventually when the Empire had to face not only the threat of Germanic invaders from without but from the Germanic peoples already within the Empire military leadership fell predictably to Germans. Two of the chief actors of the fifth century for instance - the enemy leader Alaric and the Roman military leader Stilicho - were both German.
The traditional end given for the Western Roman Empire (AD 476) is addressed by Bury and in a manner supporting some of his key points. First, he said "Western Empire" is improper; it was the western provinces of the Empire, as there was really only one Empire. Second, on several occasions in the fifth century the death or deposition of an emperor in the west was followed by a considerable span of time with no emperor in Rome or Ravenna. Third, the rule of the Germans Odovacar and later that of Theoderic the Ostrogoth in Italy was not at all unlike that of other federates leaders; they acted with some coordination with the Emperor in Constantinople and both leaders respected Roman laws with regard to their Roman subjects; they were but intermediary stages between Italy being part of the Roman Empire and being a true Germanic kingdom.
Bury spent some time analyzing the populations of the Germanic peoples during the migrations and comparing military sizes with that of the Romans, noting that from the fourth to the sixth centuries most battles were fought by roughly even numbers of troops; the problem of military defense was not all hopeless or even "superlatively difficult," and it was not through battle alone that the Empire was dismembered.
For their part the Germans did not feel like hostile invaders, but rather regarded the Empire as a great institution that they had a rightful place within, their struggles less that of hostile external enemies but more a disenfranchised segment of society struggling for its rights. Alaric marched through Italy and attacked Rome not to destroy the Empire but to put pressure upon the imperial government to meet his various demands.
An interesting thread was the real legacy of the Huns. The Huns defeat of the Visigoths lead the latter to seek the shelter of the Roman Empire, an unprecedented decision as Emperor Valens permitted a nation of 80,000+ people to settle within his borders, allowing in essentially a foreign nation of a warlike nature and with strong national unity, a situation that eventually resulted in a war, culminating in the battle of Hadrianople in AD 378, one of the greatest disasters that befell Rome due to the Germans (and by the way the last battle the Romans fought mainly with infantry, as cavalry prevailed as a result and Europe did not see much infantry use again until the fourteenth century). Also the Hun invasion served to delay the process of German dismemberment of the Empire, both by the Huns controlling many of the East German peoples beyond the Danube (the ones most a threat to Rome) and by providing Roman generals with auxiliaries that proved an invaluable resource against their German enemies.