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Barbarians 'absolved' over the fall of Rome

First Edition

History may have got it wrong after all about the Goths, Saxons, Vandals and other Germanic barbarians long held responsible for destroying the Roman Empire.

They may well have sacked Rome (several times), indulging in a bit of massacre and rape on the way. They may indeed have been an unrefined, violent lot - in short, a touch barbaric.

But a new study of the period by Dr Guy Halsall, of Birkbeck College, London, has found that few barbarians settled in the lands of the former empire, and that those who did made no impact on the standard of civilisation.

The empire had degenerated so far, he says, that the barbarian settlers merely adapted themselves to the 'savage' conditions they found.

Dr Halsall's work, which will be published by Cambridge University Press, is the first general history of the barbarian invasions in English for 30 years. It mounts a direct challenge to the orthodox explanation of the fall of Rome.

For centuries, historians have said that although Rome's institutions were growing ever shakier, it was the waves of migrating Germans, from about AD400, that sent the empire into terminal decline. Historians have largely only differed on whether they saw the German 'takeover' of the empire as a good thing (if they were German historians) or a bad thing (if they were French or Italian).

But recent archaeological discoveries show that most of the changes - new burial customs, new styles of dress, the collapse of provincial urban life - had already emerged long before the barbarian invasions.

Mass-migration of Germans only took place over short distances, Dr Halsall argues - as with the Saxons who crossed over to England. For the most part, Germans did not swarm all over Europe.

And many of those who claimed to be Germans were in fact Gauls and Italians, trying to identify themselves with the Germanic military elite as a means of escaping taxation.