Roman Aristocrats in Barbarian Gaul by Ralph W Mathisen

Book Review by Ian Hughes

In 1993, R W Mathisen, currently Professor of History at the University of Illinois, wrote ‘Roman Aristocrats in Barbarian Gaul: Strategies for Survival in an Age of Transition’. At the time of its publication the book was acclaimed as an excellent, scholarly examination of the impact of the barbarian invasions on the ‘Roman’ aristocrats of Gaul. Unfortunately, in the intervening years anyone wishing to buy the book has had to pay ever-more inflated prices, until at the time of writing (June,2011) copies of the original hardback are being offered for sale in excess of £100/$150. Now, 18 years later, the University of Texas Press have released a paperback edition, selling for less than £20/$25. To those of us with an interest in Late Antiquity, this is a great relief and will hopefully act as an example for other publishing houses to reprint and so help lower the extremely high prices being asked for vital textbooks.

The aim of the book was to analyse the then-accepted hypothesis that the barbarian take-over of Gaul was relatively peaceful and had little impact on the lives of the Gallic aristocracy (p IX-X). Mathisen’s approach was to scrutinize the mass of primary sources written by the Gallic aristocrats during the fourth and fifth centuries in an attempt to discover what changes were seen by contemporaries as taking place and how they reacted to these changes.

Part One of the book contains a brief study of the barbarians, of the origins of the Gallic aristocrats, and of the political changes taking place with regard to Gaul and Italy, highlighting the withdrawal of the Empire from the north and the beginnings of the ‘isolation’ of Gaul. The section ends with an analysis of the contemporary sources which portray the fifth century as one of ‘harassment, interference and oppression’. Although brief, these chapters read well and provide the context vital to the analysis of the changes taking place in Gaul. The final chapter also helps to explain why the barbarian invasions of Gaul were traditionally seen as scenes of violence and bloodshed.

Part Two begins the analysis of how the Gauls actually responded to the presence in their midst of large numbers of barbarians in nascent kingdoms. These chapters deal with the effects of the barbarian settlement and the reaction of different groups within Gaul to the disruption. As is to be expected, reactions varied: some members of the aristocracy chose exile way from their estates in Gaul, some continued to hold fast to imperial traditions, whilst a few chose to serve new masters, finding employment as high officials within the newly-created barbarian courts. On a personal level, the most interesting section is the chapter giving details of how the barbarians were portrayed by Gallic writers. This shows that, away from the stereotypes usually quoted by historians, the experience of close contact allowed the aristocracy of Gaul to change their opinions of ‘barbarians’, even allowing that some of them were worthy of respect. When it is seen that one of those accepting the change of perception was the ‘arch-traditionalist’ Sidonius Apollinaris (p.47f.), it becomes clear that Mathisen’s suggestion that, after the shock of first contact, the Gauls were not a homogenous group blandly restating traditional topoi is accurate.

The third and final part of the book details the response of the Gauls to barbarian rule, detailing how over time the ‘Gallo-Roman Aristocracy’ was forced to change their attitudes in order to survive. One method arrived at was to accept the changes that had occurred and treat the barbarian kings as they had formerly treated the empire, taking roles at barbarian courts as administrators and advisors in much the same way as they had with the imperial bureaucracy in Gaul. Another, more-favoured option, was to enter the church and use the church hierarchy as a means to gain the recognition and power they had earlier gained within the empire. Mathisen shows that the advantage of this career option was that it initially allowed the aristocracy the ability to gain influence over the (usually Arian) barbarian kings, as the latter respected the authority of Catholic bishops within the areas they ruled. Only later, with the total collapse of imperial authority in the West, did the barbarian kings take steps to control the appointment and behaviour of bishops in Gaul.

In most respects, I would agree with an earlier review from the International Journal of the Classical Tradition (which is quoted on the back of the paperback edition) that the book is a “well-planned, well-presented, lucid and illuminating work that confidently gathers together ideas that Mathisen and other scholars … have been floating for the past few years”.

Yet there are a few difficulties with the book, mainly concerning the use of a thematic approach - although it should be noted that Mathisen has since pointed out that any attempt to use a chronological approach “would have created a real mare’s nest of disorganized discussion of the particular themes” on which the book focuses. In some studies I would certainly agree, but when examining Gaul between the third and fifth centuries, I have doubts: the thematic approach may fail to take into account the profound changes that took place in different areas at different times, especially towards the end of the period, so distorting the analysis.

For the uninitiated, the thematic approach can lead to a somewhat confusing use of source material, since the reader is expected to be aware of the difference in context between the different periods: the rapid switch of emphasis between sources from different centuries or from different areas of Gaul, which were under separate barbarian kings, can be disorientating for a newcomer to the study of Late Antiquity. It may be this aspect of the work that resulted in Hugh Elton describing the book as ‘kaleidoscopic’ in his review for BMCR (94.10.20).

Therefore, my own opinion is that maybe the book’s sections should have been divided along chronological lines to develop the analysis, for example in an attempt to show which areas changed their modus operandi first. This could have been further used to illustrate any difference amongst the aristocracy which could be traced to the personalities of the different Germanic kings. However, in his defence Mathisen has stated that the book was intended only to take the discussion up to the creation of the barbarian kingdoms and as a result really doesn’t discuss in detail what happened after the creation of the barbarian kingdoms: “Post-Roman Gaul is quite a different place than Roman Gaul -- this book is about the critical period of transition and the different strategies Roman aristocrats adopted to try to deal with it”.

A further minor drawback is that, although the work relies on a large volume of primary sources, there is no attempt to delineate any of the strengths or weaknesses of these at the start of the book, before the reader is thrown into the cut-and-thrust of the intellectual debate. This is especially the case with the works of Sidonius Apollinaris, whose output is guaranteed to make him the most important source for the period. There is a need to stress that Sidonius’ tone and attitude towards the barbarians changed depending upon the status and personal circumstances of the recipient of the letter. Understandably, he also changed his attitude over the course of time. Mathisen has agreed with this, whilst also noting that a knowledgeable reader would not “accept anybody’s letters, ancient or modern, at face value, nor would they expect anyone’s views either to be consistent or to remain static over the course of 30 years”. Furthermore, Mathisen has noted that “Sidonius has a generic view toward barbarians and a personal view toward barbarians …” a point that could have been made more emphatically. It is unfortunate for Mathisen that when the reprint was produced he was unable to change these features, since they may leave the unwary or the novice disoriented and confused.

As a consequence, the book is not recommended for the novice to the period of Late Antiquity and the Fall of the Western Empire. Before reading this book, readers should ensure that they have a good background knowledge of affairs in Gaul throughout the last two centuries of the Roman Empire, as well as a more-than-passing acquaintance with events taking place throughout the West.

Yet despite what may appear to be a litany of criticisms, these are in most respects minor and revolve around the degree of complexity which Mathisen is forced to introduce to his in-depth analysis. Without doubt, Mathisen has produced a work that deserves to be on the shelf of every historian interested in the ‘Fall of the West’. His command of the source material and the details which he brings to light are a valuable insight into the values, perceptions and beliefs of the Gallic aristocracy of Roman Gaul as their world crumbled around them.

The book explodes the myth that the period was simply either one of turbulence and bloodshed, or one of peaceful cooperation and coexistence. The details of the barbarian ‘Conquest of Gaul’ are fascinating and extremely complex. Mathisen has done an excellent job of bringing these complexities to the surface and putting them on display for all to see.

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