I’ve been recently reading about the fall of Rome and understand that it was largely brought about by various barbarian tribes sweeping across Europe and settling in the various different regions, eventually leading to the Visigoths sacking Rome.
I also understand that many of these barbarian tribes after they settled the land lived in small farming villages and had very few large towns.
My question is, what happened to the populations of the Roman cities around this time? Did they carry on inhabiting the cities as normal and just swear fealty to these new kings, or did they abandon the cities largely?
The example that springs to mind is of a typical Roman family living in a Roman city in Gaul around the time that Clovis established the Frankish kingdom.
Iguana_on_a_stick: As with most questions regarding late antiquity and the fall of Rome, the answer is “It depends.” More specifically, the answer is “It depends on which part of the Roman world you’re talking about.”
You were helpful enough to specify which part you’re talking about, but I’ll discuss other parts of the Empire anyway, because the experience in Clovis’ realm isn’t typical of that in other parts.
One thing I should stress straight away though, is that the idea of “it was largely brought about by various barbarian tribes sweeping across Europe and settling in the various different regions, eventually leading to the Visigoths sacking Rome” is rather out-dated. For example, the Gothic (not “Visigothic”, that’s a later term) army that sacked Rome was a Roman army, led by a Goth and with a lot of Goths in it, that rebelled over lack of pay and because said leader felt he hadn’t been given a high enough rank. After the sack they went back to serving Rome. And it is quite possible that the main reason they even got away with sacking Rome is that the various Roman elites (Eastern and Western) wanted to keep Alaric (the Gothic leader) around to use against eachother, if need be.
[This earlier post] I’ve written goes into much greater detail on the narrative of the fall of the Roman empire, and whether that term is even meaningful to use. (There’s a nice bit of discussion with u/Shlin28 at the bottom of the page on this subject.) For the rest of this post I’ll instead discuss your actual question, about the life of Romans in the provinces after the fall of the central Roman state.
Let’s start in the north, in **Britain:** Here, cities disappear altogether not long after the Roman period. People just stop living in them. Note that this does not mean all the cities were destroyed: Historians do not agree on how violent the Saxon conquest was, or to what extent it even was a conquest, but either way the archaeological record does not support the wide-spread destruction of cities in the fifth century. What exactly *did* happen is harder to tell, as the very extent of the upheaval means our written sources are few and unreliable.
One plausible scenario is that the fragmentation and loss of security that accompanies the Roman withdrawal from Britain resulted in vast economic upheavals that made the previous economic system of prosperous market towns supplied by and providing services to a surrounding countryside no longer viable. Britain fell apart in dozens of squabbling little polities, some run by former Roman garrisons, some by British noblemen become strongmen, some run by Saxons/Angles/etc, be they newly arrived invaders, settlers who have been living there for a generation or two already, or formerly allied soldiers who struck off on their own. With this fragmentation, the cities disappeared quite quickly, as without trade the people there simply could no longer support themselves.
In **Africa**, where the Vandals take over, city life continues to thrive, and a place like Carthage remains a very prosperous city. Although unlike the Goths or Franks, the Vandals actually were invaders more closely fitting the classic barbarian archetype, they quickly adapt to Roman culture and become effective rulers of this very rich part of the Roman world. The people likewise quickly adapt to their new overlords. Most of the ships used by the Vandal kings to wage their wars against the Romans must have been build by and crewed by North African Roman citizens. Guy Halsall half-jokingly calls the ensuing war in the mid fifth century “The fourth Punic war” and the only one won by the Carthaginians. However, there are significant religious struggles: the Vandals are Arian Christians, and although our sources can’t be taken completely at face value, it does seem to be the case that the Vandals persecute some of the Nicean Christians.
In **Italy,** the Italian Romans were initially none too pleased when Odoacer supplanted the last emperor, but when the eastern Roman emperor sent Theoderic the Great (a Goth, though the meaning of that term in the late fifth century is ambiguous) they were much happier. Theoderic took great pains to emphasise his Romanness, his position as a Roman consul, and the importance of the Italian nobility to his cause. Initially, this policy was very effective, and the Italian people and the Goths integrated quite effectively and worked together more peacefully than they had with previous Roman military regimes. (Also often enough consisting of Goths or other “barbarians.”) At this late stage of Roman history, there simply wasn’t much of a difference between a Gothic army and a Roman army, since the Goths had fought for (and sometimes rebelled against) the empire for over a century and were not much more (or less) alien to the Romans than other soldiers were.
That said, as time went on, the idea of Theoderic’s Gothic kingdom being a continuation of the Roman state started to lose some of its luster, and after his death it became more and more clear that things were changing and a nasty succession crisis took hold. In the end, though, it took Justinian’s Roman armies invading and proclaiming they were restoring the Roman empire, to definitively scuttle any claims the Goths had to representing the Roman empire. The ensuing thirty years of brutal war did more to destroy the Roman way of life in Italy than Odoacer and Theoderic had ever done.
In **Gaul,** there is a significant difference between the experience of the rich, urbanised south, and the poorer, colder, militarised north. The northern parts of the province, where Clovis’ kingdom originated, had slowly been slipping from Rome’s grasp much earlier than the south, and in any case had never been quite the same as the heartlands of Italy, Africa, and southern Gaul. Even in the heydays of the empire, the north had been the region of the frontier, with an economy that revolved around and depended on the presence of the legions. When regions like Trier had experienced their golden age in the 4th century, it had been because the soldier-emperors of the later Roman empire had used it as one of their capitals and seats of government in their more military style of government. With the departure of the Roman central authorities, this way of life was upended almost as dramatically as it was in Britain… and our sources are, for the same reason, almost as bad.
We do know the Franks ended up becoming the most important power in the region, eventually establishing their kingdom under Clovis. The Franks had been long-standing allies of Rome, and as with the Goths the distinction between “A Roman field army” and “a Frankish allied army” had been blurring to the extent of them becoming interchangeable. As the central Roman authorities withdrew south in the wake of invasion and civil war, its seems these armies took over the region more or less by default, as they simply were the only authority left in the area. Of course, this does not mean they did so peacefully, as there were fierce wars to see *which* of the various strongmen and factions would end up in command, but most historians nowadays argue that there’s no reason to interpret these events as as “Frankish invaders conquering the Roman remnants” and more as “Various bits of the Roman army fighting it out amongst themselves and against Germans from across the frontiers, with one sub-set of the Franks eventually winning.” But the Franks had been part of the Roman side of the frontier here, not the “barbarian” side.
Either way, the world that emerged from these struggles was very different than it had been under the Roman emperors. One way of seeing the transformation of this region is to see it as an army take-over, with military culture supplanting civilian, and the way of life of the frontier extending south to encompass the whole, and the local civilians adapting this Romano-Frankish military culture more than than the other way around.
This was not the case in **southern Gaul,** though. There, whether it was in the Visigothic kingdom of Toulouse or later when they came under the sway of the Franks, the Roman way of life continued, with all its culture and sophistication. The Franks saw the value of having skilled and learned administrators in their realm, and civic careers in the church remained quite viable for the Roman elites. Even long after the Roman empire as a centralised state had fallen, the people in this region continued to see themselves as Romans and continued to live as Romans.
It did not last forever, as fragmentation and disruption continued apace, but for a century or so you could indeed be a Roman living in Clovis’ kingdom as a Roman, serving a Frankish ruler instead of a Roman emperor, but otherwise living and behaving much as your forefathers had done. This was mostly possible in the south, but even in the north pockets of Romanness persisted, with aristocrats in Trier still calling themselves senators and maintaining the trappings of Roman life as late as the 7th century.
* Guy Halsall, *Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West 376-568*
* Peter Heather, *The Fall of the Roman Empire*