Ancient History & Civilisation


There is not the slightest doubt that even at elite-warrior level the rise and fall of the Hunnic Empire forced major renegotiations of group identity. One bout was stimulated by conquest, and the mechanisms of control this brought in its wake: particularly the suppression of dangerous larger-scale lordships. A second followed Attila’s death, sparking a rush towards reorganization, as concentrations of military manpower formed among those subject groups powerful enough to throw off Hunnic control. But there is no reason to suppose that either of these processes substantially eroded the distinction between Huns and their subjects. The Huns themselves had a clear interest in maintaining this divide in broad terms, even if Attila, by targeted blandishments, was careful to cultivate a compliant or semi-compliant set of subject rulers. Without such demarcation, the benefits of having conquered all these subjects in the first place would have been lost, and, in any case, some probably more peripheral groups, like the Gepids, do seem to have been left with their kingships intact. Here was a structure, therefore, in which there were clear barriers to wholesale changes of group identity. But if as a result the successor kingdoms start to look more like alliances than ‘peoples’, and the kinds of identity they created were more obviously political than cultural, they nonetheless managed to create firm group identities among large cores of supporters, to judge by the fact that extensive military counteraction would be required to dismantle them and that, even after major defeats, these identities would sustain themselves for another couple of generations.

That at least is the conclusion suggested by the historical evidence, and there is no good reason to disbelieve it. The evidence on which this narrative is based passes all the normal tests of credibility, and the only reason to reject it would be an a priori assumption that identity in the fifth century could not have worked like this. But modern understandings of group identity do not sustain that assumption; in fact, it fits perfectly well with a vision of group identities operating in layers, and with individuals having some freedom to alter their allegiances according to circumstance. Even if they did not belong to culturally homogeneous ‘peoples’, the names need to be taken seriously as considerable concentrations of human beings. This in turn suggests that when these groups moved into and out of the Middle Danube region as the Hunnic Empire rose and fell, it should have generated substantial migratory activity. The limited amount of detailed contemporary evidence available to us confirms this suggestion.

Attila’s Peoples

Most of the best historical evidence for barbarians on the move again concerns Goths, this time the Amal-led Goths who burst into Middle Danubian history under the leadership of Valamer, eldest of three brothers, soon after the death of Attila. It’s worth exploring the evidence for these Goths in some detail because it provides a reasonably solid benchmark against which to think about other migratory moments which are referred to much more briefly. The case is still open, in fact, on whether they arrived west of the Carpathians only after the death of Attila, or whether their sudden pre-eminence in the mid- to late 450s was due to Valamer’s unification of several separate Gothic warbands who were already settled in the Middle Danube region as Hunnic control collapsed. Either way, in 473, soon after their great victory at the battle of the Bolia, they left Pannonia for the Balkan provinces of the eastern Roman Empire, now led by Thiudimer, the second of the brothers. There followed a number of long-distance treks as a series of complicated political manoeuvres worked themselves out over the next six years. Initially, the group moved about a thousand kilometres from the Lake Balaton area to the canton of Eordaia, just west of Thessalonica. At this point Thiudimer died and leadership devolved on his son Theoderic. In 475/6 they moved on another 600 kilometres to Novae on the Danube, followed by another 800-kilometre trek from the Danube via Constantinople, which in 479 resulted in the seizure of the fortified port of Dyrrhachium on the Adriatic coast.

The negotiations that followed between Theoderic and the east Roman Empire are reported in detail by the contemporary historian Malchus of Philadelphia, who gives us some sense of this group that had covered two and a half thousand kilometres in six years since its departure from Pannonia. In the course of those negotiations, the Goths’ leader offered six thousand picked warriors to Adamantius, Constantinople’s ambassador, to participate in a number of possible enterprises. This clearly wasn’t the sum total of his armed forces, since the non-combatants were to be left in Dyrrhachium, which required a garrison of at least two thousand. In the case of the Amal-led Goths, therefore, we must be dealing with a fighting force of around or perhaps slightly over ten thousand men. In the same negotiations, Theoderic referred to the ‘large number of non-combatants among his forces’, and women and children formed an integral part of this force when it subsequently made its way to Italy. If not a people in the nineteenth-century sense of the word, the Amals led a large mixed group of several tens of thousands into the Balkans, analogous to those earlier Gothic groups that crossed the Danube in 376 or the large groups participating in the Rhine crossing of 406.59

This central point has been denied by one major study of Gothic identity in Italy (the kingdom that Theoderic’s Goths went on to create after their Balkan adventures). This claims that the presence of women and children among the group is reported by only one east Roman historian, Procopius, and that his evidence is tainted by a classical migration topos. Theoderic’s force was not a cohesive group of refugees fleeing from the chaos of the post-Hunnic Middle Danube, but a new group that snowballed in the Balkans, composed largely of disparate elements of the east Roman military and very largely of warrior males. That Theoderic’s highly mobile force included substantial numbers of women and children is mentioned, however, in a range of sources: not just Procopius, but also a contemporary panegyrist of Theoderic, speaking in 507 to some of those who had made the trek just eighteen years before, and in an Italian saint’s life, again composed in Italy under Theoderic’s rule.60 The accusation against Procopius is as unconvincing, therefore, as it was when levelled against Ammianus Marcellinus’ account of the events of 376. And in fact, again like Ammianus, Procopius was demonstrably capable of describing a range of barbarian activities. Not all the barbarians found on the move in his histories are described as migrating ‘peoples’. Slavic and other raiding all-male warbands for instance, are found there aplenty. We also know that, like the Goths of 376, the Amal-led Goths trailed behind them a huge wagon train. While Theoderic and Adamantius were negotiating, a Roman force surprised this slower-moving tail, which had not yet reached the safety of Dyrrhachium, and captured two thousand wagons. It was presumably in this extraordinary appendage that the group transported its women and children, its possessions, and apparently also its seed grain and agricultural equipment. For it was expected by all the Byzantine negotiators who dealt with Theoderic in the Balkans that any political settlement with him would involve granting his Goths unpopulated agricultural land.61 Though not a ‘people’, these Goths formed a large, mixed population, which could plausibly be expected to farm as well as fight. The idea that one group of men might engage in both activities has again been questioned in some recent studies, but, as we have seen before, it makes perfect sense in the light of the limited number of specialist warriors that prevailing levels of economic development in Germanic society could actually support. Any large-scale military enterprise undertaken by Germanic groups in this era had no choice but to recruit from a broader social range than military retinues, among men who held land and had families, as well as among more rootless youngsters. Farmer-fighters, as among the Boers, are a natural corollary of any agricultural society that cannot support a large professional military.

Even this, however, fails to capture the full scale of the following Theoderic led to Italy. During his stay in the Balkans, he added to his entourage a large contingent of new recruits, taken from a second and entirely distinct Gothic force that had been established in Thrace for some time before the Amal-led Goths arrived in the Roman Balkans in 473. How long is a moot point. The origins of these Thracian Goths are obscure, and they could easily have been the product of several separate bouts of immigration into the Roman Balkans. One major influx occurred as early as the 420s, when Roman military action, as we saw earlier, removed many Goths from Hunnic rule in the Middle Danube. These Goths were then resettled in Thrace, which is precisely where we find the second Gothic force well established in c.470. This means, of course, that there is pretty much a two-generation gap between the initial settlement and the point where the Thracian Goths are mentioned as a separate force in contemporary historical sources.

This raises an obvious issue. Linking the two would require the settled Goths to have maintained some kind of group identity in the intervening period, during which time they appear not to have had their own king. The first king of the Thracian Goths we know of established his authority only in the early 470s, when the group revolted following the murder of its patron in Constantinople, the general Aspar. But before Aspar’s murder, they had enjoyed a special status, that of foederati. The significance of this term seems to have been that it was given only to groups so favoured that their internal cohesion was not destroyed when they were incorporated into the east Roman military. And enough Goths and Gothic-named generals, likewise, turn up among Roman forces in the Balkans between the 420s and c.470 to suggest that the Thracian Goths of the 470s really can be traced back in some way to the earlier settlement. That said, Attila’s Empire contained other Gothic groups besides, and its collapse prompted some to move into the eastern Empire. Bigelis led his Gothic force to defeat on east Roman territory in the mid-460s, and its survivors (together, possibly, with others who don’t happen to be mentioned) could easily have been incorporated into an existing body of Gothic soldiery. Nor is it necessary to suppose that all the Thracian ‘Goths’ were indeed Goths, even if contemporary sources describe them as such.62

Whatever their origins, by the early 470s the Thracian Goths formed a distinct element within the Balkan military establishment, one again complete with its own women and children. At this date, they too numbered well over ten thousand fighting men. In 478, their leader – also, unfortunately, called Theoderic, but usually known by his nickname Strabo, ‘the squinter’ – extracted from Constantinople pay and rations for thirteen thousand men. The force was also cohesive enough to elect its own leader to conduct negotiations with the Roman state, and had been its trusted ally. In receipt of large subsidies (nine hundred and ten kilos of gold per annum), they were settled quite near to the imperial capital, with close ties to some important political figures there. The magister militum and patrician Aspar, their political patron up to 471, was a power broker and kingmaker who had been responsible for the election of the Emperor Leo in 457. Aspar continued to wield much of the real power in Constantinople, to the extent that Leo – known as ‘the butcher’ because of it – organized his assassination in 471 so as to claim his political independence. Their closeness to a figure of this stature demonstrates that the Thracian Goths were a major force in the eastern Empire, and they revolted, presumably, because the murder raised questions about the continuation of their privileged status. But even after Aspar’s death, Strabo retained ties to the extended imperial family, and other supporters in Constantinople kept him informed of events at court. The Thracians’ evident integration into the east Roman body politic also reinforces the idea that some of them had been established there as a privileged body of soldiery since the 420s.63

Initially, the arrival of the Amal-led Goths in the Balkans set up a three-way conflict, as the two Gothic groups manoeuvred for position around the eastern imperial court. It was partly resolved when Theoderic the Amal organized the assassination of Strabo’s son Recitach in 483/4. He was then the newly elected leader of the Thracian Goths, his father having met an equally grisly end when a rearing horse threw him on to a spear rack. On Recitach’s demise, most of the Thracian Goths threw in their lot with Theoderic. No source says this out loud – the east Roman history covering the period survives only in extracts made in the Middle Ages, and the relevant fragment records only the assassination and not its consequences – but, at this exact moment the Thracian Goths suddenly disappear from the historical record as a distinct group, and only a few dissenting individuals, who refused to join the Amal, remained in the east in the sixth century. There was also a logic pushing the two groups to unite, since together they could operate more effectively against Constantinople, whose policy had been to get them to fight each other and then mop up the remains. And the results were momentous. To judge by the separate indications we have for the size of the two forces, this added another 10,000 men to his own, thereby approximately doubling the Gothic military manpower at Theoderic’s disposal; and 20,000-plus does seem more or less the order of magnitude of later Gothic forces in Italy.64

Recitach’s assassination thus completed an astonishing process of amalgamation. Theoderic’s uncle Valamer had probably been the first member of the family to achieve an unusual pre-eminence by killing, subduing and forcing out rival Gothic warband leaders in order to unite the Amal-led Goths: manoeuvrings that occurred either in Ukraine before the Goths’ move to Pannonia, or in the Middle Danube after Attila’s death (if these Goths were already established there). None of these warbands can have numbered much more than a thousand fighting men, and perhaps even only several hundreds. Within two lifetimes, therefore, uncle and nephew had taken the Amal line from one among a set of warband leaders to pre-eminent Gothic kings commanding in excess of twenty thousand warriors. It was this much larger force, complete with women, children and wagon train and amounting to between fifty and a hundred thousand souls, that took the road for Italy in the autumn of 488.

There’s more you’d like to know, of course, but for the mid-first millennium this is pretty decent evidence. It also gives us some parameters for considering the other forces that came and went from the Middle Danube as the Hunnic Empire rose and fell, and it’s instantly clear that none of the other population groups on the move in this period was quite as big as this truly monstrous force. No source gives us figures for any of those smaller groups of former Hunnic manpower that entered the Roman Empire in the 460s – the forces of Hormidac, Bigelis, and of the two surviving sons of Attila. But none could establish the kind of independent position enjoyed by Theoderic’s Goths, and many ended up scattered in small clusters along the Danube frontier. It is hard to envisage that any could have fielded more than a thousand or two fighting men, and most perhaps mustered only a few hundreds.65

Somewhat larger, though still nowhere near as big as Theoderic’s force, were the population clusters set in motion by the defeats of the Heruli and Rugi. The one other plausible-looking figure we have from the events that followed the death of Attila is from as late as 549. When the Herule allies of the Gepids and of Byzantium faced each other in battle that year, the two contingents numbered, respectively, fifteen hundred and three thousand men. This postdated a second split among the group, the first of which, you will recall, had sent an unspecified number of Heruli spinning off to Scandinavia. It also seems unlikely that either of the remaining concentrations of Heruli left in the Danube area would have been willing to commit its entire military manpower to war on someone else’s behalf. Before the splits occurred, and before their heavy defeat at the hands of the Lombards, therefore, the Heruli may have been able to field somewhere between five and ten thousand warriors, making them just a touch less powerful, perhaps, than the Amal-led Goths before Theoderic recruited the Thracian Goths into his following. We have no figures at all for the Rugi, but the fact that they could be defeated so thoroughly by Odovacar indicates that they amounted to no more than a medium-rank power in the Danubian scheme of things, so again perhaps a force of a similar size to or slightly smaller than the Heruli.66

The most difficult to envisage of all the comings and goings during this era are those of the Lombards. That Lombard power eventually became dominant in the Middle Danube is clear enough, but the historical process behind this development is opaque. Late Lombard sources report that the seizure of Rugiland and the subsequent occupation of Pannonia, not to mention the earlier moves that had brought them that far from the mouth of the Elbe, were all invasions led by individual kings – the invasion hypothesis trundled out once more. On the other hand, all the contemporary evidence suggests that Lombard royal authority was not a very powerful phenomenon. After the move to Italy, second-rank leaders murdered the king and operated without central royal authority for a decade. It is quite possible, therefore, that independent initiatives on the part of intermediate leaders played an important part in the action, particularly in its earlier stages. Like Jordanes’ account of third-century Gothic expansion, later Lombard accounts have surely become infected with a migration topos that recasts the action in the form of one king, one people, one move.67

On the other hand, migrant Lombards were never moving into a complete power vacuum as they came south down the Elbe, and by the time they got to the lands of the Heruli they were taking on a not inconsiderable power in head-to-head confrontation. Lombard expansion into the Middle Danubian region may well have been analogous, therefore, to third-century Germanic expansion towards the Black Sea (Chapter 3). While some of the action was carried forward by separate groups, some or many of which may have been small, especially at the beginning, the migration flow also had the capacity to generate larger groups at crunch moments to fight major battles. It looks like another example, in other words, of the classic pattern widely observable in groups from third-century Goths to ninth-century Scandinavians to nineteenth-century Boers, where the successes of initial intruders into a landscape encourage others, and eventually higher-status leaders enter the fray with larger followings. The lack of historical sources means that we have no indication of the overall numbers involved in these moves, or even whether they were primarily all-male warbands or groups encompassing women and children as well. By the time of the move to Italy in the 560s, whole families were certainly involved, and, since at least from the defeat of the Heruli in 508 large military forces were being assembled, the presumption must again be that militarized manpower beyond the scale of that available in specialist warrior retinues was required. If so, mixed social groups will have played a substantial part in the action in all but the very earliest phases of Lombard expansion.

The archaeological evidence relevant to Lombard migration is not much more informative. The characteristic funerary ritual in Bohemia by the late Roman period was inhumation. In the late fourth and earlier fifth centuries, however, some cremation cemeteries started to appear there which bear strong similarities to those found further north where the Lombards originated (the northern Elbe, northern Harz, Altmark and Mecklenburg regions). These intrusive funerary rites could be the result of some indigenous Bohemians deciding to cremate their dead, but given that Lombards had certainly made their way to the Middle Danube in some numbers by the end of the fifth century, the cemeteries probably provide us with an indication of their route68 – hardly overwhelming evidence, but, as we have seen, archaeological finds will almost never provide entirely unambiguous evidence of migration. The material cultures of the populations of the northern Elbe were too similar to one another for shorter-distance population flows within the region to show up with any clarity, so that it is not possible to say where, precisely, the first northern intruders into Bohemia came from. And, in any case, the migrating groups may well have recruited from right across the region.

The archaeological evidence from the Middle Danube after the Lombards took power there, likewise, is in one sense clear enough: in the course of the sixth century, a coherent set of well-dated remains centred on old Roman Pannonia spread over those territories where historical sources report Lombard domination. These without doubt reflect the Lombard kingdom. On the other hand, there is nothing very distinctive about them compared with other Middle Danubian remains, especially those stemming from areas which, the historical sources tell us, were dominated by Gepids. This does not mean that the differences between the Lombard kingdom and its Gepid rival were insignificant. What the resemblance really shows is that sixth-century Lombard material culture followed a similar trajectory to that of the Huns in the fifth. Over time, it lost its original distinctiveness and firmly adapted itself to Middle Danubian norms, which reinforces the idea, perhaps, that the Huns of Attila’s time are archaeologically invisible because they too had adopted new material cultural norms. In the case of the Lombards, their original cremation rite was replaced with a new habit of burying unburnt bodies in cemeteries laid out approximately in rows, oriented broadly east–west (German:Reihengräber). Lombard women wore their clothes – at least those they were buried in – in the same Danubian fashion as everyone else, with a pair of brooches one on each shoulder. Handmade ceramics with idiosyncratic designs of the kind marking out different northern Elbe groups in the early Roman period made way for wheel-made pottery of a fairly uniform Middle Danubian design. The most that can be argued, and this is in line with modern ethnographic parallels, is that particular fibula designs became symbolic of Lombard and Gepid allegiance, since two entirely different designs are found, with their distribution patterns confined to each half of the Middle Danubian plain.69

A range of migratory phenomena can be seen intertwined in the rise and fall of the Hunnic Empire. Some of the moves were made by large, concentrated groups, notably those of the Amal-led Goths. In 473 several tens of thousands of people left Hungary for the Balkans, possibly the same group that had moved to Hungary from Ukraine about twenty years before; and in 488 an even larger group, close to a hundred thousand souls if you add in the Thracian Goths and the refugee Rugi, set off from the Balkans for Italy. Other moves were made by smaller population groups, refugees from the military defeats that had dismantled old hegemonies, notably the Huns and Sciri in the 460s, the Rugi in the 480s and the various groups of Heruli after 508. And to complete the picture, the period also saw one predatory flow of migration of the kind we have met before, in the form of the Lombards.

Even though the historical sources give us few decent figures, many of these movements of armed immigrants into and out of the Middle Danubian region represented mass migration at least in the qualitative terms used in comparative migration analysis. The overall ‘shock’ of Attila’s tribal gathering in the first half of the fifth century is visible archaeologically in the so-called Danubian style, and, in narrative terms, in the attacks the Huns launched into the Mediterranean using their unprecedented concentration of military manpower. New political and social relations were generated in the region under Hunnic domination, representing a further level of shock. The whole creaky structure relied on a flow of Roman gold, extracted by war and intimidation, to lubricate its operations. War and its profits kept the mass of the Huns’ armed subject groups in line via a potent mixture of intimidation and reward, and intense political and indeed cultural dislocation are visible in all of this.

Much of the undocumented, or insufficiently documented, population displacement of the era of Hunnic collapse, likewise, amounted to mass migration in qualitative terms. Odovacar’s intervention came as a huge political shock for the Rugi, since it destroyed their kingdom and set survivors off on two forced treks, each of several hundred kilometres, first to join Theoderic in the Roman Balkans and then on, in his train, to Italy. The intervention of the Amal-led Goths had earlier had similar effects upon the Sciri. That all the Sciri and Rugi left the Middle Danube region following these defeats is unlikely, but their independence was extinguished and enough Sciri left for the army of Italy to contribute to a changing balance of forces there. Hence, in due course, Odovacar became the effective ruler of the first post-Roman successor state on Italian soil. The Lombards’ arrival in the Middle Danube, likewise, was a shock for the Heruli, who also saw their independence and their unity destroyed, and many of them felt forced to move on. In pretty much every case, then, though there are few figures worth a damn, we are dealing with groups possessing substantial military power whose migratory responses to the rise and fall of the Hunnic Empire generated substantial restructuring of the political systems operating not only in the Middle Danubian region itself, but also in adjacent and not so adjacent areas of the Balkans, the northern shores of the Black Sea, and even within Italy itself. The detailed narrative evidence available to us thus broadly confirms the picture that emerged from the analysis of the operation of group identities in the Hunnic Empire. The group labels we encounter in our sources belonged to functioning concentrations of human beings, some of them tens of thousands strong, whose lives were wrenched out of shape by the tumultuous events of the rise and fall of Hunnic domination in central Europe, and who often took to the road as a result.

Several different types of migration can be observed, from concentrated mass pulses to more extended flows, but many clearly went far beyond the bounds circumscribed by wave-of-advance or elite-transfer models. Though not all are covered in the same detail as the Amal-led Gothic diaspora, it is clear that many of these moves were hugely traumatic, whether measured in terms of distance, violence or loss of political independence. Viewed from the migrants’ perspective, much of the action was ‘mass’ in a more absolute sense as well. For many of the migrant groups, as we have seen, there is either good (Amal-led Goths, Rugi), or reasonable (Heruli, Huns, Lombards), evidence that they comprised men, women and children. In some cases, such as the Amal-led Goths, these groups numbered several tens of thousands of people, and in many cases, as in 376 and 405/6, they moved in compact masses.70 None of the participating groups was a ‘people’ in the old sense of the word, and there is much evidence that the process of migration, as any reading of the comparative literature would lead us to expect, caused splits among the migrants, who were faced with enormously difficult decisions. Some of the Amal-led Goths refused to move south into the Roman Balkans in 473, for instance, preferring the leadership of Thiudimer’s younger brother Vidimer. They moved west instead, where they were eventually absorbed into the Visigothic kingdom. Not all the Goths in the Balkans, likewise, were ready to move with Theoderic to Italy in 489. Some preferred a Byzantine allegiance. And the repeated splitting of the Heruli is eloquent testimony to just how difficult these decisions to move actually were, leading some to Scandinavia and others to subordination to the Gepids or east Rome, depending on the outcome of wars and the conditions offered by potential hosts.71 But despite all the problems with the evidence, the only reasonable conclusion to derive from the rise and fall of the Hunnic Empire is that the migratory phenomena outside the Roman Empire were just as substantial as those that characterized the crises of 376–80 and 405–8.

Ways and Means

The reasons why some of the migratory processes should have taken this form, so different from any encountered in the modern world, are similar to those that explain its appearance in other first-millennium contexts, and don’t need extensive discussion again. Take, for example, the two moves of the Amal-led Goths, first into the east Roman Balkans in 473, then on into Italy in 488/9. Both were underpinned by a substantially economic and hence voluntary motivation. The first was undertaken with the aim of supplanting the Thracian Goths as Constantinople’s favoured allies, in order to lay hands on the benefits they enjoyed. Amongst other perks, the Thracian Goths received subsidies measured in thousands of kilos of gold per annum, whereas those of the Amal-led Goths out in Pannonia amounted to just a few hundreds. In the move to Italy, likewise, Theoderic had it in mind to enrich himself and his followers at the expense of Odovacar and such Roman fiscal structures as remained in operation. Theoderic’s extant building works at Ravenna, and his many other known monuments besides, bear eloquent testimony to just how much disposable income continued to be delivered to Italy’s early-sixth-century ruler. He also recycled some of the tax income to invent salaried posts for his more important Gothic followers: a device surely designed to ensure their political support. Both of these strategies for economic advance were entirely dependent, however, on having sufficient military muscle to transform an existing political situation – to persuade the Emperor Leo to choose a new set of Gothic allies in the first instance, to defeat Odovacar’s army in the second. And certainly in the second case there was an extra political dimension, since relations between Theoderic the Amal and the Emperor Zeno had reached deadlock. Neither trusted the other, and a series of confrontations had shown that neither could easily rid himself of the other.72 In these migrations, economic and political motivations cannot easily be separated, and, to have any chance of success, Theoderic had to field a substantial army. As we have seen before, the number of specialist warriors that could be supported by the non-Roman European economy in this era was not sufficient for large-scale campaigning. Freemen and their families thus became integral to the enterprise.

The play of motivations behind Lombard expansion looks very similar. As far as we can tell, their move into the Middle Danube was not made in response to any kind of threat, but inspired by the region’s attractions. The Middle Danube had long formed part of the inner periphery around the Roman Empire, and over the first four centuries AD had steadily built up levels of wealth and development far beyond anything to be found at the mouth of the Elbe. The apogee of Attila hugely accentuated this imbalance. The amount of gold stashed away in Middle Danubian burials of the Hunnic period is without precedent in the Germanic world. And this can only be a fraction of the total amount, much of which was stored, presumably, in the treasuries of the kings who now ruled in the region. Even if we lack explicit evidence, it’s much more than a guess that Lombard migration had in mind a share of this booty, still being reinforced by the smaller diplomatic subsidies that continued to be paid by Constantinople after Attila’s death. But acquiring any part of this wealth required, as usual, the application of main force to alter existing political configurations – in other words, the Heruli needed to be defeated. While Lombard expansion may have started with warband-size groupings seeping south, both the Lombards and other immigrants caught up in the flow had to reform themselves into a more cohesive group, at the latest by the time they left Rugiland, whence they proceeded to destroy the kingdom of the Heruli.73 Even where largely economic, and hence voluntary, these kinds of migration always had a political dimension. Did the migrants pack sufficient military punch to succeed in the enterprise they were about to undertake or did they not?

Some other bouts of migration, by contrast, were pretty much entirely political. The Sciri, Rugi, Heruli and Huns all faced, at different moments, a powerfully negative and thoroughly political impetus pushing them out of their existing territories: defeats, respectively, at the hands of the Amal-led Goths, Odovacar and the Lombards, and, in the case of the Huns, the steady erosion of an original position of advantage until their situation became unsustainable. In each case, military defeat destroyed the group’s ability to maintain its independence, even if its victims responded to disaster in a variety of ways. Whereas the Rugi and Heruli (or large numbers of them) moved en masse to different areas, the Sciri seem to have broken down into small groups and negotiated their future piecemeal. The Life of St Severinus refers to a small group of Sciri, not a major force, on its way to Italy. It was remarkable only for the fact that Odovacar was a member of the party.74 The post-Attilan history of the Huns may have combined both types of activity. As we have noted, the mid-460s saw both small groups of Hunnic manpower and two larger concentrations, under the surviving sons of Attila, seek asylum in the east Roman Empire. Economic factors contributed to their choice of direction, but not to the fact that they were on the move in the first place.

The pay and other rewards still available to Roman soldiers were presumably the main reason why so many Sciri and others eventually headed south of the Alps. Larger concentrations of Rugi, Heruli and Huns, likewise (sometimes in more than one group), were forced in the aftermath of defeat either to leave the Middle Danube region or establish dependent relationships with other powers. The nature of these relationships is not made clear in the sources, but again influenced their choice of direction. The Heruli found Gepid hegemony so burdensome that they moved on to a Byzantine allegiance, until the civil war over succession further divided them, leading some back to the Gepids. These refugees were clearly expected to fight for their hosts (whether east Roman or Gepid) and were happy enough, it seems, to do that much, suggesting that this can’t have been at the root of the Heruli’s problem with the Gepids. The refugees may have been expected to provide some kind of economic tribute as well, therefore, but perhaps not as much as they had previously paid to the Huns. The Rugi, perhaps, procured better terms from Theoderic the Amal. Although they swapped sides to Odovacar at one point during the conquest of Italy, they quickly returned to him, and seem to have been content to be part of the Ostrogothic kingdom until 540, a record suggestive of greater contentment than the Heruli enjoyed.75

Unfortunately, we don’t know what terms Dengizich and Hernac, the sons of Attila, sought from Constantinople. Their move on to east Roman territory was preceded by a demand that the Emperor Leo grant them access to markets. The Huns’ declining political hegemony had presumably had economic consequences by the mid-460s, in terms of lost tribute as different subject peoples established their independence, and this erosion of position eventually made accommodation with Constantinople an attractive option. For one of the sons but not the other, the move led to disaster. It is unclear why. The Byzantines presumably perceived a threat in the forces of Dengizich that they did not perceive in Hernac’s. It is noticeable, however, that Hernac appears to have been content with only a very limited territory on Roman soil, right on the frontier in the north of the Dobruja, so perhaps Dengizich was too demanding.76 For all these groups, however, defeat had major consequences. It turned them into political refugees, and forced them to accept sometimes burdensome terms from senior partners. At the very least, it cost them any revenues that had previously accrued to them as the dominant local force, as well as, at least in the case of those Heruli attached to the Gepids, extra tribute that they now had to pay to their ‘hosts’. They were also expected to perform military service. Even though it is impossible to study motivation in detail, the intertwining of economic and political factors in the motivations of all our migrants is clear, with economics having the edge, as you might expect, among the more voluntary migrants, and politics among the involuntary. But because even the voluntary had of necessity to remake political circumstances to their benefit in order to enjoy the wealth they were targeting, they had to operate in large and cohesive groupings. If the size and nature of these migrant groups was not in line with modern examples, the complex nature of their motivation was.

Other aspects of the migration process observable across the span of the Hunnic era recall modern exemplars more closely. The degree to which migration was adopted as a strategy in this era by population groups who already had an established propensity for mobility is striking. The Amal-led Goths who eventually moved on to Italy had, at some point in the recent past, moved from east to west of the Carpathians, then south into the east Roman Balkans, where they remained highly mobile. There the group covered another fifteen hundred kilometres and more, as Theoderic the Amal twisted and turned geographically and politically in his attempt to supplant the Thracian Goths as imperial allies. Although we have much less specific information, the same was seemingly true of the Lombard groups who ended up in the Middle Danube. We have little grasp of the chronology, but somehow they got there from the northern Elbe, almost certainly via a number of intermediary moves – or pauses in a flow, perhaps – that had led to an immediate jumping-off point in Bohemia. The point equally applies to the main losers in the fallout from the Hunnic Empire: the Huns themselves, together with the Rugi, Sciri and Heruli. Again, even if the details are not recoverable in every case, all of these groups first made their way to the Middle Danubian region at some point in the late fourth or early fifth century, and their departures followed within two or, in the case of the Heruli, at most three generations. For the populations of all these groups, migration had become an entrenched strategy, a reflex stored in the collective memory that might be drawn upon in appropriate circumstances; for them it was a possible response to a much wider range of stimuli than to groups without an established history of migration.

The importance of fields of information in influencing the directions of these migrations is also apparent. Information clearly played a critical role in shaping the individual moves of the Amal-led Goths. Theoderic the Amal’s ten-year spell as a hostage in Constantinople finished when he was eighteen, in 472 or thereabouts. This was precisely the right moment for him to return with news both of the much greater wealth accruing to the Thracian Goths as a result of their court connections, and of the fact that these Goths were currently in rebellion against the Emperor Leo because he had assassinated their patron Aspar. That within the year the Amal-led Goths had moved south to attempt to supplant them as Constantinople’s favoured Gothic allies can’t be coincidence. That Theoderic’s Goths had sufficient geographic and political knowledge to understand, later on, that Italy represented another possible destination is equally apparent, but perhaps requires less explanation. Their old home in Pannonia lay on the fringes of the eastern Alpine passes that gave access to northern Italy, and Odovacar, its ruler, was the son of an ancient enemy of the Amal dynasty. As early as 479, a full decade before his forces moved there en masse, Theoderic was already suggesting to Constantinople’s ambassador Adamantius, as they negotiated outside Dyrrhachium, that he might lead some of his troops to Italy on a joint expedition to overthrow him.77

Most of the other migrations stimulated by the collapse of Hunnic power operated within discernibly active fields of information too. It is no surprise, for instance, that groups of Lombards settled in adjacent Bohemia should have realized that Odovacar’s destruction of the kingdom of the Rugi had created a power vacuum into which they might now move. The Sciri, likewise, had formed part of Attila’s army that had raided Italy in 451, and like Theoderic’s Goths were settled close to the routes that led into it. The Heruli who accepted Gepid hegemony and then that of Byzantium remained, of course, within the region where they had been established for at least fifty years, so it is safe to assume that they too understood the implications of the moves they decided to make. This leaves two more interesting cases: the Rugi and the wider Herulic diaspora. Somehow or other, the Rugi knew where to find Theoderic after their kingdom had been destroyed by Odovacar in 487. But Theoderic’s career in the east Roman Empire had been spectacularly successful, culminating in a consulship in 484, so it is perhaps no wonder that his not too distant neighbours should have had accurate knowledge of his whereabouts within the Balkans. More arresting is the case of those Heruli who made their way to Scandinavia. In Procopius’ account it is unclear whether they had any idea of where they were going when they first headed north in the aftermath of defeat. You would think not, except for the fact that those Heruli who remained by the Danube were able to find them again, twenty odd years later, when they needed a prince of the royal clan, despite the eighteen hundred or so kilometres that now separated them. The Heruli who moved north perhaps already had contacts or knowledge that suggested Scandinavia as a possible destination, information shared by those who remained close to the Danube. Alternatively, the two groups may have maintained some contact in the meantime. A case in point is the Scandinavian king, Rodulf of the Rani, who later sought refuge at Theoderic’s court in Italy. Vignettes like this make it apparent that you underestimate the circulation of knowledge beyond the old Roman limes at your peril.78

Knowledge could translate into actual movement, however, only where large-scale transfers of population were a practical possibility. Often the ancient sources give us little relevant information, but some migrations were shaped by transport logistics. Like their Gothic predecessors under Alaric from the 390s, the Amal-led Goths travelled with a massive wagon train. The two thousand Gothic wagons captured by the east Romans in 479 were probably not even its full complement. The ambush occurred before Theoderic integrated the Thracian Goths into his command, so that the wagon train of the united Goths (together with the Rugi) who set off for Italy will have been an even more imposing sight. In single file, two thousand wagons will have stretched over perhaps fifteen kilometres. With this monster at their heels, the Amal-led Goths were naturally limited to the Roman road network in the mountainous Balkans. We happen to know that their initial trek in 473 made use of both of the available branches of the great military road from Naissus to Thessalonica; in their later retreat west from the outskirts of Constantinople in 478/9 they plodded along the Via Egnatia. Presumably all their intervening and subsequent moves, likewise, followed the main Roman arteries of communication. It seems extremely unlikely, moreover, that only the Goths made use of wagon trains for transporting possessions and non-combatants. In fact, there are enough references to suggest that they were the characteristic mode of transport of all these migrant groups.79

Perhaps above all, as modern examples would lead us to expect, the ‘shape’ of existing political structures is firmly imprinted upon the action. It was the rising power of the Huns that caused such a gathering of militarily powerful groups in the Middle Danube region in the first place, as they were either brought there by the Huns or were seeking – in vain – to escape their attentions. Nor, without the Huns’ constraining influence, could so many militarized groups have existed in such close proximity to one another, as the violent competition sparked off among them by Attila’s death underlines. The continuing survival of the east Roman Empire as a cohesive state was likewise central to the action. It prompted, for instance, the decision of the Amal-led Goths to head south into its Balkan territories. This landscape was not naturally rich – not nearly as agriculturally productive, for instance, as the old province of Pannonia which the Goths had left behind. The rugged Balkans were an attractive destination, though, because they were close enough to Constantinople to allow the Goths to exert pressure on the authorities there, and hence to try to make them hand over some of the wealth they accrued in tax revenues from their much richer territories of Egypt and the Near East. These Goths’ ultimate choice of destination was also dictated by political structures. If the western Roman Empire had not ceased in the meantime to exist, they could have had no hope of establishing an independent kingdom in the Italian peninsula, nor would the eastern Emperor Zeno have encouraged Theoderic in the enterprise. Similarly with the Lombards: they could not have moved into the Middle Danube in force, had the Hunnic Empire continued to exist.

As mentioned earlier, in the last decade or so it has become fashionable in some quarters to argue that the rise and fall of the Hunnic Empire shows that group identity in the period was highly malleable, and that the process involved little in the way of migration. This is certainly an area where the evidence base is less than we would like it to be. There are enough solid pointers, however, to indicate that both of these stands require modification. The historical evidence, first of all, makes it clear that becoming part of the Hunnic Empire did not mean that one became a Hun. The Empire was an essentially unequal, involuntary confederation. All the participating non-Huns we know about were forced to join, were systematically exploited under its auspices, and eventually fought their way free of its domination. In light of this, it becomes less surprising that larger group identities were not broken apart by participation in its structures. The Huns themselves had a basic interest in maintaining these identities, since being a Hun was to occupy a position of privilege over others, while from the subjects’ perspective holding on to a larger group identity offered the likeliest route, when opportunity arose, of throwing off Hunnic domination.

For many of the groups mentioned in our sources, the information available to us is not good, and for some, particularly the Lombards, seriously deficient; but these observations on identiy sit entirely comfortably alongside the better information, such as there is, about the migratory processes involved in the Empire’s creation and destruction. The Amal-led Goths are consistently described as a large, mixed population, comprising ten thousand-plus warriors on the move with dependent women and children and a wagon train several thousand strong. This description is derived from a variety of contemporary historical sources whose reports are consistent, detailed and circumstantial. It is also the image of these Goths on the move given at the court of their king in Italy. Any evidence can be disputed, but the grounds have to be reasonable, and in this case objections are largely based on only a partial reading of the modern scientific literature on the workings of group identity. In broadest terms, the demographic effect of the Hunnic Empire was to suck large numbers of militarized groups into the heart of central Europe, whether as part of its build-up of power or to take advantage of the chaos of its collapse. Once the constraining influence of Hunnic power had disappeared, such a concentration of military potential could not but generate intense competition in which some of the smaller entities lost their independence, but which, overall, prompted many of the groups to leave the region quite as quickly as they had entered it.

At first sight, the role played by different degrees of development in all this action is not so obvious as, say, in the third-century Germanic expansions. Most of the migratory action examined in this chapter looks initially very political, associated either with Hunnic empire-building or the fallout from that Empire’s collapse. But first impressions can be misleading. The Huns built their war machine in the Middle Danube region precisely because of unequal degrees of development. It was a conveniently situated base from which to launch the raids and protection rackets that would give them a share of the wealth of the Mediterranean as mobilized by the taxation structures of the Roman Empire. And Attila’s demands, recorded for us in detail by Priscus, really were all about cash. Holding the Huns’ war machine together at all, moreover, would have been quite impossible without Roman wealth to lubricate its mechanisms. Variations in the prevailing levels of economic development also dictated, after Attila’s death, the general directions of the moves made by the various groups who wanted to opt out of the competition. The vast majority, as we have seen, moved south, attracted, again, by the wealth of the Mediterranean; but political structures then again enter the frame. Only if a group was content to be broken up and lose its political independence, following the path trodden by the last son of Attila and some of the smaller former satellites, could it move permanently south and east towards the Byzantine Empire, whose military strength remained largely intact. Theoderic’s Amal-led Goths were numerous enough to survive there in the short term, but not numerous enough to force Constantinople into a lasting agreement, so that this seeming exception in fact reinforces the point.

For those with grander ambitions, then, south and west were the directions to take. The obstacle posed to western migration in previous eras by west Roman frontier fortifications and the troops that manned them had been removed, and there was no repeat of third-century patterns of expansion, which had seen Germanic groups spill eastwards to become dominant in areas north of the Black Sea (Chapter 4). During the Hunnic imperial period, central and southern Europe periodically witnessed great concentrations of warriors and their families clogging the roads of the region. At more or less the same time, different kinds of migration were affecting the northwestern fringes of the Roman Empire. To complete our survey of the traditional Völkerwanderung, we need now to turn the spotlight on the Anglo-Saxons and the Franks.

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