[Adapted from Robinson]
It was inevitable that thoughtful observers should be struck with the contrast between the habits and government of the Romans and the customs of the various barbarian peoples. Tacitus, the first to describe the manners and institutions of the Germans with care, is frequently tempted to compare them with those of the Empire, often to the obvious disadvantage of the latter.
Salvian, a Christian priest, writing about 440, undertook in his book Of God's Government to show that the misfortunes of the time were only the divinely inflicted punishments which the people of the Empire had brought upon themselves by their wickedness and corruption. He contends that the Romans, who had once been virtuous and heroic, had lapsed into a degradation which rendered them, in spite of their civilization and advantages, far inferior to the untutored but sturdy barbarian
In what respects can our customs be preferred to those of the Goths and Vandals, or even compared with them? And first, to speak of affection and mutual charity (which, our Lord teaches, is the chief virtue, saying, "By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another "), almost all barbarians, at least those who are of one race and kin, love each other, while the Romans persecute each other. For what citizen does not envy his fellow citizen ? What citizen shows to his neighbor full charity?
[The Romans oppress each other with exactions] nay, not each other : it would be quite tolerable, if each suffered what he inflicted. It is worse than that ; for the many are oppressed by the few, who regard public exactions as their own peculiar right, who carry on private traffic under tile guise of collecting the taxes. And this is done not only by nobles, but by men of lowest rank; not by judges only, but by judges' subordinates. For where is the city even the town or village which has not as many tyrants as it has curials ? . . . What place is there, therefore, as I have said, where the substance of widows and orphans, nay even of the saints, is not devoured by the chief citizens? . . .
None but the great is secure from the devastations of these plundering brigands, except those who arw themselves robbers.
[Nay, the state has fallen upon such evil days that a man cannot be safe unless he is wicked] Even those in a position to protest against the iniquity which they see about them dare not speak lest they make matters worse than before. So the poor are despoiled, the widows sigh, the orphans are oppressed, until many of them, born of families not obscure, and liberally educated, flee to our enemies that they may no longer suffer the oppression of public persecution. They doubtless seek Roman humanity among the barbarians, because they cannot bear barbarian inhumanity among the Romans. And although they differ from the people to Whom they flee in manner and in language; although they are unlike as regards the fetid odor of the barbarians' bodies and garments, yet they would rather endure a foreign civilization among the barbarians than cruel injustice among the Romans.
So they migrate to the Goths, or to the Bagaudes, or to some other tribe of the barbarians who are ruling everywhere, and do not regret their exile. For they would rather live free under an appearance of slavery than live as captives tinder an appearance of liberty. The name of Roman citi'en, once so highly esteemed and so dearly bought, is now a thing that men repudiate and flee from. . . .
It is urged that if we Romans are wicked and corrupt, that the
barbarians commit the same sins, and are not so miserable as we.
There is, however, this difference, that the barbarians commit
the same crimes as we, yet we more grievously. . . . All the barbarians,
as we have already said, are pagans or heretics. The Saxon race
is cruel, the Franks are faithless, the Gepidae are inhuman, the
Huns are unchaste, in short, there is vice in the life
of all the barbarian peoples. But are their offenses as serious
as ours? Is the unchastity of the Hun so criminal as ours? Is
the faithlessness of the Frank so blameworthy as ours? Is the
intemperance of the Alemanni so base as the intemperance of the
Christians? Does the greed of the Alani so merit condemnation
as the greed of the Christians? If Hun or the Gepid cheat, what
is there to wonder at, since he does not know that cheating is
a crime? If a Frank perjures himself, does he do anything strange,
he who regards perjury as a way of speaking, not as a crime?
James Harvey Robinson, ed., Readings in European History: Vol. I: (Boston:: Ginn and co., 1904), 28-30
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© Paul Halsall January 1998