Men of Mars: Martial Virtues and Theoderic’s Goths





Today’s blog takes a closer look at  the first half of chapter 5  Men of Mars from Jon Arnold’s new book Roman Restoration.  These are notes meant mostly for a review I am preparing at the moment. Indeed, warning! I am typing this off the top of my head, so please forgive any typos or strange shifts of thought. For those interested in a more literary version on my views you can see my preliminary review here:

This chapter (5) is important for Arnold’s main argument because here is where he lays out the Roman Empire’s tradition of absorbing “others” traditionally described as barbarians and turning them into Romans. Arnold’s story opens at the dawn of the fifth century with the arrival of Alaric and his Goths into Italy. Not to nit-pick but perhaps starting with the battle of Adrianople— the dramatic Gothic victory over the Eastern Roman emperor Valens in 378 would have been a better starting point; since this dramatic defeat shaped Roman fears about the dangers that amalgamating this martial people into the Empire might cause, a inhibition made no better by Alaric’s sack of Rome in 410. Indeed, part of Theodosius I success was linked to his ability to absorb many of the Goths that fought the Romans at Adrianople into his own armies. By 399, in fact, all three Eastern magistri militum (top-level commanders) were Goths—Alaric, Gainas, and Fravitta.

Arnold is then correct that, despite Alaric’s “gentle” sack of Rome, groups of Goths were becoming more and more integrated within both halves of the Empire. Arnold comments:

The very nature of the Empire aided in the acceptability of such diversity, its existence an inevitable consequence of the assimilation process that radiated outward from the Roman core to its periphery (and back again). The Roman world was a heterogeneous composition of numerous ethnic and subethnic groups all of which had adopted various Roman cultural aspects to differing degrees and over different amounts of time thus becoming “Roman”, but with diverse manifestations that were constantly in flux. (122).

Fine so far, one early fifth-century historian, Orosius, even tells us that in the years after the sack of Rome, many Goths had taken to more peaceful pursuits like farming (an optimistic view of the Western empire seen as naive by many modern historians knowing of the coming “fall”, but an optimistic view I would suggest reflects accurately the period (416-17) that Orosius had composed his account).

The next assertion and analogy is more problematic. Arnold continues, “Gallo-Roman culture was still in flux….Gallo-Roman culture was still readily identifiable to outsiders as different or even bizarre, and to some degree Gallic society really did retain certain Celtic attributes.” Okay this is true to a degree, indeed, in his writings the Emperor Julian calls Celts “fierce and warlike” and Syrians,  “intelligent and effeminate”, North Africans “argumentative”, and Greeks and Romans “warlike and intelligent”, which of course is a bit strange for the modern reader since all these peoples were now Romans. Kaldellis, I believe correctly, sees these not so much as ethnic but as regional stereotypes: a bit like some Americans seeing southerners as a bit dim-witted. Indeed, as I wrote in a previous blog, Romans in the Later Empire followed Greek notions found in ancient medical writings that believed that climate and geography created many of these differences. Indeed, if a Greek moved somewhere cold, it might transform them into an unstable barbarian…an argument, however, for a different day.

Arnold then concludes that these regional stereotypes help to explain why the Goths could “retain certain native characteristics, and still become Roman”. While I agree with the contention, the analogy of Gauls and Goths is not apt. The Gauls had been part of the Empire for over five hundred years, and indeed, as he later mentions, a people with a non-Roman homeland who  the Romans had conquored, whilst the Goths were  recent arrivals carving out territories within the Empire. This to me is a major difference.


In the next section, From Savage to Saviour, Arnold offers wisely a caveat to his previous story of a gentle merging between two peoples. He suggests that many Romans, and by this I assume he means Italian elites, never fully accepted peoples like the Gauls as “true” Romans and, indeed, continued to view them in some cases as barbarians. There is a problem when one relies on the upper-crust of Romans’ views on things, which like many rich people was very traditional and perhaps not typical of the majority of Romans, especially those serving in the army. While I am sure the opposite belief can be found in the literary record, one that sees  Gauls, Syrians,  Anatolians, and Greeks as full-fledged Romans. Such ethnic  tropes are old standbys in Roman literature and one needs to be careful to accept them completely as accurately reflecting contemporary views. Arnold knows this and he warns his audience once again, but he still makes the tenuous claim. Why? I would suggest that it is because he needs to explain away evidence that is rife in fifth and sixth-century literature depicting the Goths as typical barbarians. My hesitance to accept his methods, however, does not mean I do not accept his argument that the Goths…or a least certain peoples and individuals who called themselves Goths were gradually being amalgamated into the Empire.

Writers like Procopius and Jordanes in the sixth century certainly depicted the Goths as semi-civilised and semi-Roman. Arnold then offers another caveat (one I offered earlier) the fact was that the Gauls, Syrians, Britons, and countless other had been conquered by Roman arms. He writes: what separated the Goths from these (other Romanised peoples) was the fact that they remained proudly, perhaps even defiantly, unconquered by Rome. I would suggest that this statement needs some added nuance. Yes, the Goths remained unconquered by the Romans. But which Goths is Arnold speaking of?  Groups of men described as Gothic warriors had, in fact, been conquered and assimilated into Roman armies several times in the fourth and fifth centuries. For example, the Gothic king Radagaisus[1] leading a huge force of Goths (though we can discount the figure of 400,000 given by one source!) was destroyed by the Western Generalissimo Stilicho in April 406. Moreover, though not conquered by the Romans the Goths defeats by the Huns and subsequent absorption by many Goths into the Hunnic confederation, if Jordanes is to be believed, continued to be a source of embarrassment in Theoderic’s Italy.[i]

So just how one would defeat the Goths….since many served in the Roman armies, and had settled on Roman lands remains unclear. Indeed, the shifting and complex nature of Gothic identity made stamping them out a difficult task (sorry about the politically incorrect language, but this is a blog). . So I would suggest that the Goths’ military record and legacy even in the fifth century was less glorious and nuanced than Arnold allows.  Later Visigothic historians tended to focus on the victories. The seventh-century Visigothic scholar Isidore of Seville, for example , largely  ignores Theoderic’s successors’ defeats and, indeed, utter disappearance and proclaimed that the Goths (he means Visigoths) had ultimately defeated the Romans because of their superior martial virtues

I agree with Arnold that service within the Roman army offered many Goths an easy path to acceptance as “true” Romans. He is correct when he says that “the “barbarian category was negotiable and especially subject to manipulation in the fifth and early sixth centuries.” Even a staunch critic of foreigners, like the early fifth-century eastern Roman Eunapius, could praise a “barbarian” such as Fravitta for his martial virtues, “proper” religious views, and proven loyalty to the Roman state.[ii]

The supposed barbarisation the Eastern and Western armies in the fifth century has long been seen as one of the causes of decline of the Western Roman Empire. These men, however, did not so much want to bring down the Empire as carve themselves a place within it. Non-Romans like the Goths were not the only ones using the army as an avenue to power and acceptance in the fifth century. We see in fact a large number of Romans like Aetius, Boniface and the future Constantius III rising up through the ranks of the army. Indeed, two-thirds of soldiers were considered as Romans even in the last years of the Western Roman Empire. In the East by the sixth-century around 4/5 thirds of soldiers were “Roman”. (See, A.D. Lee, War in Late Antiquity). Roman elites had long had trouble accepting their declining prestige and influence in the increasingly militerized world of the fifth century.


I would agree with Arnold that years of service within the armies of Rome and integration into Roman society would have made it difficult for one to distinguish the Roman from the non-Roman. The question that might be asked and Arnold, as far  I can  recall, never ponders, is why did these men hang onto their Gothic and/ or Alan identities so vigorously. Was this perhaps not a sign of non-acceptance by Romans, but a personal choice? When Arnold discusses (146) the Eastern generalissimo and Alan Aspar, he makes a point of noting the Romanised name of his first son Patricius, a son who he had hopes for taking purple, and indeed, had arranged to marry to the emperor Leo I’s daughter. However, though he mentions that his two other sons were given un-Roman names of Ardabur and Hermineric and were expected to “follow in his footsteps” as military men, he never considers the ramifications such a move might have to his larger arguments. His assumption behind these names may be true, but what Arnold does not explore here or indeed discuss in his account of Theoderic, is why non-Romans like Aspar and Theoderic even after years under the umbrella of Roman culture may have wanted to maintain their non-Roman identity and culture.[iii]

That’s it for now. Tomorrow I will tackle the second half of the chapter and Arnold’s more controversial idea that the increasingly non-martial Italo Romans saw the Goths as the manly martial saviours of a troubled Western Roman Empire beset on all sides by barbarians and Greeks.


[1] For the problematic nature of just what Goths Radagaisus ruled is discussed by Goffart, Barbarian Tides, 78.


[i] Jordanes tries to explain away these setbacks by suggesting the Huns’ ugly appearance played a role, not superior martial prowess.


[ii] Eunapius, frag. 69.2. Fravitta’s support of Hellenic religious practices for Eunapius showed his “Roman-ness,” whilst the dispatching of his fellow Goth, Gainas, proved his loyalty. Cf. a similar view of Fravitta by the largely anti-barbarian ecclesiastical historian Socrates (HE 6.1).


[iii] Aspar’s father had served in the Roman army, and Aspar was the senior senator in Constantinople at the time of his assassination in 471, having served the Roman state for nearly fifty years.


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