Peter Wells
The Barbarians Speak

The third century A.D. is regarded as a period of crisis throughout the Roman world that included intense political struggles in Rome, the decline in the power of the Roman Senate over the affairs of the empire, and a rise in the role of the army in internal as well as external matters. Written documents of the period make clear that the power of Rome and its central administration waned, and incursions by barbarians increased in scale and frequency on many of the empire's frontiers. Germanic peoples threatened the frontiers in the west and overran them several times after A.D. 259. On the eastern frontiers, the Goths disrupted the peace in the provinces along the lower Danube, while the Persians created unstable conditions further east. Archaeological evidence also indicates important changes during this time, but it provides a different perspective from the texts left by the Roman writers.

In many regions in Roman Europe, urban centers declined in size and in importance during the third century. Archaeologically, we can see an end to major building programs and often a reduction in the inhabited and fortified portions of the towns. Few new villas were established in the countryside, and many existing ones were abandoned. Settlement systems in rural areas returned to patterns that had been characteristic during the prehistoric Iron Age.

In the frontier zone in temperate Europe, textual sources describe attacks on the limes boundary and incursions across the border by a group called the Alamanni, first mentioned in A.D. 231. According to these written documents, in the years 259 and 260 the Alamanni attacked with such force that they effectively destroyed the imperial boundary, causing Rome to give up the Agri Decumates (roughly what is now the southwest German state of Baden-Wurttemberg) and to re-create the earlier imperial border along the upper Rhine and upper Danube Rivers. This view of the Alamanni destroying the Roman limes in massive attacks of the mid-third century has dominated thinking by historians and by many archaeologists, and the collapse of the imperial border in south west Germany is often portrayed as an archetypal example of the barbarian overwhelming of Roman frontiers.

But the results of extensive recent archaeological research in southwest Germany show a different situation. Although the written sources portray the fall of the limes as a rather sudden event caused by increased attacks by the Alamanni around the middle of the third century, the archaeology shows that the Roman forsaking of the Agri Decumates was the result of a long process of cross-border interaction and migration and of frequent small-scale incursions by different groups over an extended period of time, probably many decades. Numerous excavated settlements and cemeteries west of the frontier attest to the immigration of peoples from outside, probably to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the thriving economy in the Roman provinces and to enjoy the attractions of the provincial lifestyle. Archaeological investigation of many frontier watchtowers along the limes has failed to produce evidence for widespread burning and destruction at the time of the supposed collapse of the frontier defenses. Thus the evidence now suggests a long and gradual process of change from a landscape dominated by the Roman military and administrative apparatus to one transformed through interaction with and migration by peoples from across the frontier.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.