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Barbarian Tides: The Migration Age and the Later Roman Empire.

Barbarian Tides: The Migration Age and the Later Roman Empire. By Walter Goffart. (Philadelphia, Pa.: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. Pp. viii, 372. $69.95.)

The author of this book is no stranger to controversy. His Barbarians and Romans, A.D. 418-584 [1980] challenged the scholarly consensus regarding the mechanisms of ordered barbarian settlement in the late Roman West; his book, The Narrators of Barbarian History [1988], questioned the very notion of "barbarian history" and challenged a number of long-held assumptions concerning the authors discussed within. Now, with Barbarian Tides, Walter Goffart revisits and revises many of the ideas found in the aforementioned works, while at the same time taking on the theory that has largely informed discussions of barbarian identity and culture for the last two decades: ethnogenesis. Two central points drive this book: 1) that there were a multiplicity of barbarian peoples in late antiquity, none of which were ancient "Germans"; and 2) that no matter from where these peoples came and whatever their "ethnic" heritage, both were virtually meaningless by the time they entered the Roman Empire.

The book is divided into two halves, the first treating historiographical problems and the second consisting of case studies. Each chapter is a stand-alone essay and can be read in virtually any order, making the introduction and conclusion, both clearly and concisely written, essential; without these, the work as a whole would have much less cohesion. Goffart's sources are exclusively textual, and, although apologetic in his introduction, the absence of material culture is a glaring omission, particularly given the potential relevance of such evidence for the issues raised in this book.

In the first chapter, Goffart challenges the conventional understandings of the "Migration Age" (Volkerwanderungzeit), concluding that migration was not an inherent characteristic of the barbarians of late antiquity. In the second, he deconstructs and demolishes the idea of a "German" conquest of the West. In the third, he argues against the conventional idea of a "Germanic" world, identifying it as largely the product of sixteenth-century romanticism and unreflective of late-antique realities. In the fourth, he revisits his earlier discussions of the "Gothic" historian Jordanes, concluding even more decisively that the Getica was a work of Byzantine propaganda and hence an unreliable source for authentic tribal memory.

These shorter chapters are then followed by more extensive, and at times highly technical, case studies. Chapter five treats the Great Rhine Crossing of 405-406, echoing the general conclusions of chapters one and two. Chapter six revisits Goffart's famous "accommodation" thesis. Although the clever revisions within may now sway some nonbelievers, the chapter itself fails to be the "centerpiece" of the book, reading more like an excursus (8). Finally, chapter seven attempts to provide a new model for writing "tribal" histories by emphasizing the full extent to which the barbarians of late antiquity were a part of the Roman word. Here Goffart ultimately suggests that the "barbarian" West was as much a legacy of the Roman Empire as the Byzantine East.

This is a pugnacious book, providing a number of important contributions to the field of late antiquity. As one should expect from Walter Goffart, it will provoke waves of commentary, objection, and approval.

Jonathan J. Arnold

University of Michigan
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Author:Arnold, Jonathan J.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2008
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