Wednesday, July 27, 2011 :: Roman Aristocrats in Barbarian Gaul

Roman Aristocrats in Barbarian Gaul
By Ian Hughes
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.

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