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Barbarian Tides: The Migration Age and the Later Roman Empire, by Walter Goffart

Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009. Pp. 374. Appends., notes , biblio., index. $26.50. ISBN: 0812221052.

A Different Slant on the “Fall” of Rome

In this revisionist work, Prof. Goffart (Yale), author of Barbarians and Romans, A.D. 418-584, The Narrators of Barbarian History, and many other works on late Antiquity in the west, makes a good reassessment of the “Barbarian Invasions.” As do many recent scholars, he has long argued that the “Fall” of the Roman Empire was more of a “transformation.” 

Goffart points out that the “Barbarians” who settled on imperial soil usually had the consent of imperial authorities, albeit at times reluctantly, and rather rapidly assimilated, as evidenced by the fact that the Goths, Franks, Burgundians, Suevi and the others have long vanished, leaving descendants noticeably more Roman than German. Many “Barbarian” rulers, such as the Ostrogoth Theoderic the Great, prided themselves on the protection and preservation of Roman institutions. Goffart also argues that the concept of the “German” peoples north of the empire constituting a common ethnic group with ancient Scandinavia roots is largely a construct of Renaissance and Enlightenment scholars. 

Goffart notes that much scholarship on the ancient “Germans” is based on the over-mining of sources such as Tacitus’s Germania and other ancient Roman and Greek writers, none of whom spoke “Barbarian.” He cites several examples of very dubious conclusions that became commonplace. For example, there’s a reference to a people named the “Sciri” in a work of about 200 BC, and the name does not appear again for over 500 years, when a like named people are mentioned in a work written around AD 350, whom some scholars presumed were the same people (rather like assuming the ancient Albanians of the Causasus are the same people as the Albanians of the Balkans) . Similarly, was the man the Romans called “Arminius” really named “Hermann,” or did nineteenth century German nationalists just decide to make the connection?; consider how the Romans and Greeks massacred Persian names, so that “Khashayarsha” became “Xerxes” and so forth.

Barbarian Tides, a volume in the University of Pennsylvania Press’s series “The Middle Ages,” is a rich, thought-provoking work, of value to specialists in ancient history and worth a read for anyone with even a passing interest in the subject.


Note: Barbarian Tides is also available in hardback, $69.95, ISBN 978-0-8122- 3939-3, and as an e-Book $26.50, ISBN 978-0-8122-0028-7


Reviewer: A.A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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