New light on the Dark Ages: Who are you calling barbaric?

It is generally assumed that the tribes which overthrew Roman civilisation were a bunch of... well, barbarians. A new exhibition suggests that this is grossly unfair. Peter Popham reports

The end of imperial Rome is no great mystery. The empire was brilliant, proud and cultivated, an elaborately complicated society capable of great cruelty, great beauty, and technical genius of every sort: a society in which we see our own far-away mirror. But it grew rich, fat, decadent, lazy and too big to defend. After slow centuries of decline, in the 5th century the defences crumbled and the barbarian hordes – the opposite of everything the Romans stood for, their dreadful Other – poured in.

Why it happened is a matter of endless scholarly debate. Edward Gibbon started it, and while still revered for the scale of his research (and by many for his diagnosis), dozens of others have added their own interpretations.

But now a vast new exhibition in Venice's most important museum, Palazzo Grassi, at the opposite end of Piazza San Marco from the Duomo, asks us to look at the cataclysmic end through a new pair of spectacles.

Rome collapsed, the barbarians poured in, and the Dark Ages got under way: that's the "1066 and All That-style" breakdown.

But what if the barbarians weren't all that barbaric after all? What if the black/white, good/bad, God's chosen versus axis of evil, neo-conservative type explanation for this historical event is just as much state propaganda as the claim that Saddam Hussein was an hour away from bombarding us all with nuclear missiles?

The new exhibition asks us to consider this revolutionary hypothesis, but it has not been plucked out of thin air. With the exception of the genuinely terrifying Hun, who came roaring across the steppe on their ponies and sacked the city of Aquileia in 452, all the other barbarians beating at the door of Rome had been around for a long time: the Visigoths and Lombards in northern Italy, the Ostrogoths in Spain, the Franks in what is now France and Germany.

Their intercourse with the mighty empire had continued for centuries, war and peace alternating, barbarians brought into the Roman armies, tempted within the pale of empire. In fact, one of the most persuasive explanations for the final collapse was that the Romans had grown too dependent for their imperial defence on treaties with these fickle outsiders.

But what the new exhibition lays finally to rest is the notion that the barbarians were barbaric. True, they were often blond, worshipped their own gods, lacked cities with sewerage systems, heated floors, bathhouses and aqueducts. Often they were nomads. But the idea that they were in some absolute sense less civilised was Roman state propaganda. Crueller than the Romans? Hardly possible. More violent, more militaristic than the most militaristic state in history? Hard to conceive.

Once one steps back from the paranoid them-and-us, self-and-other way of looking at it, one sees that rather than the cataclysmic end of a great civilisation and its replacement by the forces of darkness, something far more compelling and creative was under way: the creation (as the curators of this exhibition put it) of Europe as we know it, welded together by Christianity, and with deeply rooted memories of Roman heritage which make dramatic returns to our collective consciousness every few hundred years: during the Renaissance, for example.

"The Barbarian kingdoms," writes Jean-Jacques Aillagon in the catalogue, "gradually drew a new political map of Europe, dividing it between the Ostrogoths and the Lombards in Italy, the Franks in western Germany, Belgium and France, the Visigoths in Languedoc, Aquitaine and the Iberian peninsula."

He continues: "If Europe was born in Athens, Jerusalem and Rome, many of its roots also lie in the peoples of the north and east of the European continent." The aim of the exhibition, he writes: "Is to reveal the profound and subtle mix between Graeco-Roman and Germanic roots from which European culture stems."

Rome was first sacked by the Visigoths in September AD410. The rulers of the empire had seen the disaster approaching for decades and the capital had been moved to the more easily defended city of Ravenna years before. But the extent of the trauma is hard to exaggerate: the last time Rome had been treated this way was a full 800 years before, when besieged by the Gauls in 390 BC. Supremacy had long been a Roman habit.

The reason we have such difficulty grasping what happened to the Roman Empire in terms of continuity rather than disaster was because the Roman propagandists were very good. The word barbarian came from Greek, and Herodotus spelt out what was wrong with them. "Barbarians can neither think nor act rationally... barbarians are driven by evil spirits... which force them to commit terrible acts... Their lust for gold is immense, their love of drink boundless... They are given to gross personal hygiene [and] run dirty and barefoot... Their reproductive energy is inexhaustible."

And of course that's why they had such big families. And they all wanted to move in. And more and more did so, as demographic disaster within the empire made it ever harder to defend itself from its own resources. Some of them even became emperors, like Magnentius, who lived from AD303 to 353, who usurped the rule of Emperor Constantius but took his life three years later after the Eastern Empire in Constantinople refused to recognise him.

The greatness of Rome involved the ritual defeat, humiliation and enslavement of barbarians. Great works like the Portonaccio sarcophagus, among the 1,700 exhibits in this huge exhibition, shows in gory detail a battle between the two sides from which the Romans would emerge inevitably triumphant. Trajan's column and the triumphal arches of Rome are emblazoned with these victories.

Having defined their world, for the empire's greater glory in such stark terms, an eventual reversal was inevitable. The arrival of the Visigoths at the gates of Rome in AD410 was the beginning of a mighty nemesis for which Romans had prepared for centuries. But all the time they were parading their triumphs and dreading defeat, a quite different process was under way: Roman and barbarian culture were quietly inter-breeding. And finally, as the exhibition organisers spell it out, "together they gave birth to medieval Europe".

Rome and the Barbarians: Birth of a New World, is showing at Palazzo Grassi until 20 July

Franks

A West Germanic tribe originally living north and east of the lower Rhine, under the Merovingian dynasty, they founded one of several German monarchies that replaced the rule of the western Roman Empire after the fall of Rome. One group of Franks, the Salians, formed a kingdom on Roman soil recognised by the Romans. In the sixth century, after the collapse of Roman authority, the Franks were united under the Merovingians and ruled almost the whole of what is now France. The Salians were important in helping spread Christianity across Europe.

Visigoths

The Visigoths, the first barbarians to successfully attack Rome in 800 years, are one of two main branches of the eastern German Goth tribes. They were first heard of in Poland in 100BC, then migrated slowly south through Slovakia, stopping at the border of the Roman Empire on the north shore of the Danube, where they asked permission from the Romans to stay. They adopted a sedentary lifestyle, farming and trading with the Romans until they began to be forced southwards by the Huns in about AD300. They won a war against the Romans in AD378 and later became a dominant power in the Iberian peninsula.

Germanic tribes

The Germanic tribes from northern Europe came into collision with the Romans from the 2nd century BC, when they were reported to be moving into Gaul, Italy and the Iberian peninsula, provoking Julius Caesar to annex Gaul and warn of a growing threat of "Germania Magna" which Rome would have to meet. But the occasional wars with Rome were mixed with trade, military alliances and cultural exchanges typical of the complex Rome-barbarian relationship which the exhibition in Venice documents. The collapse of Roman power in the fifth century meant an intensifying period of migration for the tribes – but also in the longer run a regression to an Iron Age level of culture.

Huns

Possibly of Turkic origin, the dreaded Huns first appeared in Europe in the fourth century, having emerged from central Asia. They were first identified near the Black Sea, forcing a large number of Goths to seek refuge within the Roman Empire. The Romans rashly invited them inside their Empire in AD360. Under Attila they set up the Hunnish Empire in the fifth century, stretching from the steppes of central Asia to Germany and from the Black Sea to the Baltic, with an efficient system of taxation, augmented by the plundering of Roman cities in Italy. The Empire dissolved after Attila's death in AD453.

Vandals

Originally Germanic tribes living in eastern Germany, they invaded parts of what are now Romania and Hungary in AD270, forcing Emperor Constantine to make a treaty with them and give them land. Subsequently they moved to Spain then crossed into northern Africa, captured the Roman city of Carthage and made it their capital. They built up a strong army and navy and in AD455, under their leader Genseric, landed at Ostia, the port of Rome, and sacked and plundered the city for 14 days, the second such event after the attack by the Visigoths in AD410.Thousands of Romans were slaughtered and the Empress and her two daughters taken hostage.

Ostrogoths

The other great Gothic tribe along with the Visigoths, they migrated into Roman lands in the Balkans, driven by the Huns. The greatest Ostrogoth leader was Theodoric the Great, born around AD454, a refined and highly educated man, brought up as a diplomatic hostage in Constantinople. He took Ravenna in AD496, set up his capital there and attempted to revive the arts and sciences of the Romans. He was also an important force in the spreading of the influence of the Catholic Church, and oversaw the short-lived reunification of the Ostrogoths with their cousins the Visigoths.

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Extras
indybest
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
News
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
art
News
Matthew McConaughey and his son Levi at the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
advertisingOscar-winner’s Lincoln deal is latest in a lucrative ad production line
Life and Style
Pick of the bunch: Sudi Pigott puts together roasted tomatoes with peppers, aubergines and Labneh cheese for a tomato-inspired vegetarian main dish
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, Brokerage)

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

UNIX Application Support Analyst- Support, UNIX, London

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: UNIX Application Support Analyst-...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape