The Medieval Review 13.02.12

Curta, Florin. Neglected Barbarians. Studies in the Early Middle Ages, 32. Turnhout: Brepols, 2011. Pp. xx, 656. $196.00. 978-2-503-53125-0. . .

Reviewed by:

Arnold A. Lelis
University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point

The concept of "neglected barbarians" was aired in a public forum at least as early as 2005, when Florin Curta and Michael Kulikowski co-organized a pair of panels on "Neglected Barbarians of the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Centuries" at the 40th International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, Michigan. Florin Curta is, of course, well known for his assiduous efforts to bring the relatively poorly known material from east-central and eastern Europe into the mainstream of western scholarship on the early Middle Ages. The present volume continues and expands the effort. Of the eighteen chapters in Neglected Barbarians, eight focus on barbarian peoples of the Danube and Balkans, two regard the Baltic Sea area, two are concerned with the North Pontic (North Caucasus region), and four treat Iberia and western North Africa. To complete the number, there is the "Introduction" by Florin Curta and an "Afterword" by Peter Heather. Between them, the articles span the first millennium CE, but with an emphasis on the fourth through seventh centuries.

What causes a particular barbarian group to become "neglected"? As Curta explains in the "Introduction," it is partly a matter of available source material, especially of early medieval foundation narratives such as those created by Jordanes for the Goths or by Gregory of Tours for the Franks. Problematic as these might be in the current view, they offer copious written material to engage the historian, while barbarians with a sparser record are less attractive as objects of study. Even barbarians with persistent and documented identities may fall into neglect, however, if the particular group has failed to be claimed as part of a modern nationalist-historical narrative. Consequently, "[a]round this core of extensively studied barbarian groups...shimmers a penumbra of many others, of greater and lesser accessibility in the literary and archaeological evidence" (1-2).

In the "Afterword," Heather engages many of the same issues in greater detail. The absence of homegrown literary traditions among the barbarian peoples meant that they had no independent historical voice except and until they either had established a kingdom on former Roman territory or adopted Christianity, i.e. had essentially ceased to be barbarians. By ca. 1000 CE, Europe's barbarians had been largely assimilated to what Heather calls the imperial civilization--whether Roman, Byzantine, or Frankish-Ottonian, including the institutions of feudalism and Christianity and their visible manifestations in castles and cathedrals. The region that we ever afterwards recognize as Europe was created through this process of barbarian assimilation, and the cultural norms and institutions of Europe derive overwhelmingly from the imperial rather than the barbarian side. Nevertheless, argues Heather, we need to recognize that the barbarian side had as much agency in creating Europe as did the imperial side. In every set of local times, places, and circumstances barbarian peoples made choices regarding whether, what, and how to adopt and adapt to the imperial culture. The articles in this volume not only help us to understand better the experience of barbarians in Europe in the first millennium but also improve our meta-narrative of the creation of Europe.

Heather's framing of the issues allows us to analyze further the approaches taken in the individual articles in Neglected Barbarians and the larger patterns that they reveal. First, archaeological data dominates in the majority of the entries, which rely largely or almost exclusively on the analysis of material evidence rather than texts. The preponderance is even greater if we consider the Balkans-Danube-Eastern Europe group, where only Roland Steinacher, "The Herules: Fragments of a History," and Alexander Sarantis, "The Justinianic Herules: From Allied Barbarians to Roman Provincials," are overwhelmingly text-based.

Second, there is the issue of ethnic ascription. Among the archaeology-based discussions, only Wojciech Nowakowski, "The Mysterious Barbarians of Mazuria: The Riddle of the Olsztyn Group," and Radu Harhoiu, "Where Did All the Gepids Go? A Sixth- to Seventh-Century Cemetery in Bratei (Romania)," identify a strong link between an archaeological complex and a named barbarian group, or, in the case of Anna Kharalambieva, "Gepids in the Balkans: A Survey of the Archaeological Evidence," a series of material-cultural changes and such a group. Conversely, Bartolomiej Szymon Szmoniewski, "The Antes: Eastern 'Brothers' of the Sclavenes?" concludes that, despite many attempts both by modern nationalists and modern archaeologists to claim the Antes or to assign them to a known material culture or linguistic affiliation, no currently discernible pattern in the archaeological data from the North Pontic region will support such an identification. Philipp von Rummel, "The Frexes: Late Roman Barbarians," is in a somewhat similar position, where he must attempt to amplify some very terse textual references by additional data. The archaeology of Africa is sufficient to demonstrate the socio-economic integration of the local Berber population--the later Mauri--into Roman provincial life in the first to fourth centuries but incapable, at present, to pinpoint the conditions that precipitated the alienation of a certain group within the province of Byzacena in the later fifth and sixth centuries. The other archaeology-based articles use ethnic ascription sparingly. The five text-based articles approach their material more or less critically, but cannot avoid the group designations as given in the sources.

A third overarching consideration that emerges from the studies in Neglected Barbarians is the strong correlation between barbarian identities and the vicissitudes of interaction both with the Roman or Byzantine imperial power and with other barbarian groups. Fernando López Sánchez, "Suevic Coins and Suevic Kings (418-456): The Visigothic Connection," demonstrates on the basis of numismatic evidence that the Sueves, like the Visigoths, became clients of Rome ca. 416-418, but on unequal terms, whereby the Suevic kings played the part of sub-contractors for Hispania under the Visigothic franchise in Toulouse. When Roman imperial power diminished after the mid-fifth century, and the Sueves overstepped their role as military deputies in Hispania and began to expand towards autonomous rule in the peninsula, the Visigoths intervened to curb them. Similarly, according to Guido M. Berndt, "Hidden Tracks: On the Vandals' Paths to an African Kingdom," a stable gens Vandalorum was not formed yet during the two decades that they wandered, without an imperial contract and buffeted by both Roman and other barbarian forces, through Gaul and Hispania. Rather, this identity crystallized in 429 when disparate barbarians coalesced for the successful transfer to Africa and the creation of the Vandal kingdom there. In other cases, as explained in Santiago Castellanos, "Astures, Cantabri, and Vascones: The Peoples of the Spanish North during the Late and Post-Roman Period," and in Rummel, "The Frexes," peoples who had been comfortably subsumed within the identity and culture of provincial Romanness emerged as separate, post-Roman "barbarian" entities when the imperial civilization weakened.

Similar forces were at work in the Danube-Balkans region. According to the narrative reconstructed in Steinacher, "The Herules," they appear first in the third century in the context of Gothic raids in the Aegean. In the fourth century, sources suggest that they became subject to the Ostrogoths, then both together subject to the Huns. The Herules emerge again after 450, and begin to form a state on the Danube around Vienna and Bratislava. When the Lombards destroyed this attempt, many Herules fled south into the Balkans, where they became soldiers in the East Roman armies of the sixth century. Picking up the narrative at that point, Sarantis, "The Justinianic Herules," explains that the Herules had enjoyed a persistent group identity and maintained a reputation as fierce fighters. They were doomed, ultimately, when they succeeded neither in establishing a stable state within barbaricum nor in winning official autonomy from the Romans, becoming increasingly fragmented and decimated trying to do so. Caught repeatedly in the Roman-barbarian crossfire in the sixth century, they either disappeared among the Gepids to the north or became indistinguishable from Balkan provincials.

Broad patterns in the formation and dissolution of barbarian identities may be discerned even in the absence of a detailed political narrative. This becomes clear from the many articles in Neglected Barbarians that trace shifts in the attributes of material cultures over time. Florin Curta, "Still Waiting for the Barbarians? The Making of the Slavs in 'Dark-Age' Greece," re-analyzes the archaeological record in mainland Greece in the context of the entrenched controversies regarding Hellenic ethnic continuity vs. Slav settlement in the area in the sixth through eighth centuries and finds that many assemblages have been miscast or misdated in a rush to judgment. Affinities of late sixth- and seventh-century finds are primarily with the Avar culture on the middle Danube--not with the "Sclavene" areas along the lower Danube. Byzantine presence remained unbroken along the Aegean coast throughout the period, and a certain type of cyst grave found in mainland Greece has Mediterranean affinities. In many cases, "Slavic" crude pottery is merely a reflection of non-commercial local crafts production without any ethnic implication, while the "Komoni culture" stretching across the north from Albania to southern Bulgaria appears to be associated with Byzantine garrisons of the seventh century. It is during the seventh century that Slavs begin to settle in Macedonia and later Thessaly, and tend to become Byzantine clients in the eighth century.

Anna Kharalambieva, "Gepids in the Balkans: A Survey of the Archaeological Evidence," summarizes Gepid history in the Carpathian basin from the late fourth to the mid-sixth century in reference to material-cultural epochs. These include the establishment of Gepid settlement in Transylvania ca. 400, the rapid waning of Hunnic attributes after ca. 450, the influx of Frankish influence after ca. 500, and a brief period of coin issues based on the Gepid occupation of Sirmium in the 540s. Gepid identity may have persisted in the Serbian area of the Balkans after the mid-sixth century, but the archaeological record is not definitive. Similarly, Harhoiu, "Where Have All the Gepids Gone?" uses the data from the Bratei III cemetery complex in Transylvania to demonstrate continued Gepid presence in the area after the 567 destruction of the Gepid state. After this date, the burials reveal an end of Reihengräber features, which characterized the Frankish-dominated areas of transalpine Europe in the sixth century, and begin to adopt Avar features. The Bratei data support the post-567 written sources, which continue to mention Gepids but now in association with the Avars.

No specific political narrative pertains in the two studies of burials unearthed around Budapest. Margit Nagy, "A Hun-Age Burial with Male Skeleton and Horse Bones Found in Budapest," traces the varied Eurasian influences, from the Volga to Silesia to Rome, that contributed to this internment of the later fifth century in the heart of the erstwhile Hun empire. While this grave represents the waning of Hun dominance in the Carpathian basin, the assemblage in Ágnes B. Tóth, "A Fifth-Century Burial from Old Buda (Budapest)," reflects the consolidation of a post-Hunnic but pre-Lombard cultural period in the region. Deposited before ca. 500 within an abandoned Roman building of the fourth century, the artifacts reflect a phase of barbarian settlement that included Hunnic, western Germanic and eastern Germanic associations. Though the burial shows that barbarians had settled in former northern Pannonia, the cultural traces are faint and difficult to match specifically with any of the named barbarian groups, or their ephemeral states, in that area in the late fifth and early sixth centuries.

The far-reaching effects of developments along the fifth-century Danube are highlighted in Igor O. Gavritukhin and Michel Kazanski, "Bosporus, the Tetraxite Goths, and the Northern Caucasus Region during the Second Half of the Fifth and the Sixth Centuries." Their purpose is to show, based on a close analysis of fibulae style distributions, that the Goths of the Kerch area served as mediators of the Danube influence to North Caucasian groups in the fifth and sixth centuries, but that an alternative stream of elite culture emanating from Byzantium undercut some of this influence in the seventh century. Backflow from the key, fifth-century Danube region is evident likewise in Wojciech Nowakowski, "The Mysterious Barbarians of Mazuria: The Riddle of the Olsztyn Group," whom he identifies with Ptolemy's Galindoi. The Mazurian or Olsztyn archaeological complex in the former East Prussia is best explained as the return ca. 500 of some Mazurian emigrants of about a century earlier to their ancestral territory, after participation in the fifth-century turmoil along the Danube and the acquisition of Danubian cultural traits. Both "Tetraxite Goths" and "Barbarians of Mazuria" show that interactions with the Late Roman empire involved not only those barbarian peoples that were situated in close proximity to the limes but also drew in others from farther afield. The northern limit of this interaction is the subject of Audrone Bliujiene, "The Backcountry Balts (Aesti) and the 'Northern Gold' in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages." From the first century, Roman imperial consciousness extended to the peoples of the southeastern Baltic, the Aesti, because these were the source of amber. In the fifth and sixth centuries, amber use was a regular part of barbarian elite fashion throughout the region from the Baltic to the Danube. Though lying on the northern periphery of this zone, four specific areas within Lithuania were among the richest in amber at this time, matched only by concentrations of amber in the Carpathian basin and in Crimea. Finally, Jaroslav Jirík, "Bohemian Barbarians: Bohemia in Late Antiquity," undertakes to clarify the historical context of the Vinarice and Prest'ovice-Friedenhain material cultures of the fifth to sixth centuries. The Elbe-Germanic culture of the fourth century responded to the Roman and later Ostrogothic imperial presence on the Danube as well as to changing currents in barbarian politics. The origins of the Vinarice complex ca. 410 showed marked influence both of the Chernyakhov barbarian culture to the east and of Roman military gear. During the height of Vinarice (ca. 440-490), however, the interactions shifted westwards, and both Vinarice and Prest'ovice-Friedenhain materials are found on the Rhine and in Bavaria. Jirík suggests that the distinction between the two is not ethnic but merely reflects greater provincial-Roman effect on the material culture of the latter. In the early sixth century, the peoples in Bohemia were involved in a confusion of political changes, including Ostrogothic diplomacy, Thuringian expansion, Lombard passage into Moravia, and the genesis of a Bavarian identity.

As Neglected Barbarians demonstrates, success in ascribing specific ethnic identities in early medieval Europe is almost directly proportional to the availability of verbal source material. Nevertheless, even in the absence of a written record, it should be possible to construct an archaeologically based, comparative framework of material-cultural developments and interactions within eastern European barbaricum, similar to what Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400-800 (Oxford, 2005), has done for select regions of western Europe and the Mediterranean. Many articles in the present volume point the way to the realization of such a project, and they might readily be combined with data from the overwhelmingly archaeology-based articles in Joachim Henning, ed., Post-Roman Towns, Trade and Settlement in Europe and Byzantium (Berlin, 2007). With sufficient density, the framework might allow us to identify additional loci of identity formation, even if we cannot assign proper names to them. Certainly, it would go far towards satisfying Heather's call for a more expansive and inclusive meta-narrative of the first millennium CE. In the minds of too many western medievalists, a forbidding blank spot hovers over the vast space between the Danube and Scandinavia. Only within the past decade have articles referring to the eastern Baltic begun to appear with any regularity in English-language edited volumes dealing with topics from the first millennium CE. To a slightly lesser extent, the same can be said of studies referring to the territory of present-day Poland, as the great amount of excellent work from Polish researchers also has become increasingly available to readers of English since the 1990s. Neglected Barbarians can be commended for continuing this trend.

The complaints to be lodged are few. In some cases, as in Bliujiene, "Backcountry Balts," there is an exaggerated avoidance of ethnic ascription, though her area I is almost certainly Couronian or proto-Couronian and areas III and IV Lithuanian. In other cases, contentious points are raised without adequate support. Curta's statement in "Still Waiting for the Barbarians?" that "before coming [the Slavs] had to be invented" (478) is incomprehensible unless one is familiar with the detailed argument in Florin Curta, The Making of the Slavs (Cambridge, 2001). Similarly, in "Hidden Tracks," Berndt offers opinions on the (non-) Germanness of the Vandals and the nature of barbarian settlement on Roman territory with minimal discussion or annotation. Among volumes published within the past decade or so, Walter Goffart, Barbarian Tides (Philadelphia, 2006) and Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire (Oxford, 2006) are the most immediately useful in building additional context for the material presented here. Altogether, Neglected Barbarians brings valuable contributions to the ongoing discussion and deserves a prominent place among the works dedicated to exploring the transition from Roman to post-Roman in Europe and the Mediterranean.