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Roman Aristocrats in Barbarian Gaul

Roman Aristocrats in Barbarian Gaul
Strategies for Survival in an Age of Transition

In this pioneering study, Ralph W. Mathisen examines the "fall" in one part of the western Empire, Gaul, to better understand the shift from Roman to Germanic power that occurred in the region during the fifth century A.D.

April 1993
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293 pages | 6 x 9 | 3 maps |

Skin-clad barbarians ransacking Rome remains a popular image of the "decline and fall" of the Roman Empire, but why, when, and how the Empire actually fell are still matters of debate among students of classical history. In this pioneering study, Ralph W. Mathisen examines the "fall" in one part of the western Empire, Gaul, to better understand the shift from Roman to Germanic power that occurred in the region during the fifth century AD

Mathisen uncovers two apparently contradictory trends. First, he finds that barbarian settlement did provoke significant changes in Gaul, including the disappearance of most secular offices under the Roman imperial administration, the appropriation of land and social influence by the barbarians, and a rise in the overall level of violence. Yet he also shows that the Roman aristocrats proved remarkably adept at retaining their rank and status. How did the aristocracy hold on?

Mathisen rejects traditional explanations and demonstrates that rather than simply opposing the barbarians, or passively accepting them, the Roman aristocrats directly responded to them in various ways. Some left Gaul. Others tried to ignore the changes wrought by the newcomers. Still others directly collaborated with the barbarians, looking to them as patrons and holding office in barbarian governments. Most significantly, however, many were willing to change the criteria that determined membership in the aristocracy. Two new characteristics of the Roman aristocracy in fifth-century Gaul were careers in the church and greater emphasis on classical literary culture.

These findings shed new light on an age in transition. Mathisen's theory that barbarian integration into Roman society was a collaborative process rather than a conquest is sure to provoke much thought and debate. All historians who study the process of power transfer from native to alien elites will want to consult this work.

  • Preface
  • Introduction. The Barbarians in Gaul: In Search of an Identity
  • Part One. Setting the Stage: Romans and Barbarians in Conflict
  • Chapter One. The Aristocratic Background of Late Roman Gaul
  • Chapter Two. Gaul, Italy, and Isolationism in the Fifth Century
  • Chapter Three. The Barbarian Settlement: Impressions of Harassment, Interference, and Oppression
  • Part Two. Immediate Responses: The Disruption of Old Institutions
  • Chapter Four. The Intellectual Response: Conflicting Perceptions of the Barbarians
  • Chapter Five. Gallic Traditionalists and the Continued Pursuit of the Roman Ideal
  • Chapter Six. Flight and Dislocation, Emigrants and Exiles
  • Chapter Seven. Between Romania and Barbaria: The Barbarian Alternative
  • Chapter Eight. Conflicting Loyalties: Collaborators, Traitors, and the Betrayal of Territory
  • Part Three. Coming to Terms with the Barbarians: The Restructuring of the Gallo-Roman Aristocracy
  • Chapter Nine. The Acquisition of Church Office and the Rise of an Ecclesiastical Aristocracy
  • Chapter Ten. The Pursuit of Literary Studies: A Unifying Element
  • Chapter Eleven. Coming to Terms with the Barbarians
  • Chapter Twelve. The Final Resolution: Aristocratic Options in Post-Roman Gaul
  • Epilogue
  • Appendix A. Roman Emperors
  • Appendix B. Barbarian Rulers
  • Glossary
  • Abbreviations
  • Notes
  • Primary Bibliography
  • Secondary Bibliography
  • Index

Ralph Mathisen is Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign.


“I can warmly recommend Mathisen's latest book to all students of the western provinces in Late Antiquity. It 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 last few years, and takes them to a very satisfying conclusion. In brief, Mathisen provides an excellent summary of recent research in his field . . . enlivened by his own interpretation of a number of important issues.”
International Journal of the Classical Tradition


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