Barbarian Invaders and Roman Collaborators
By E.A. Thompson
Florilegium, Vol. 2 (1980)
Introduction: The first ten years of the fifth century A.D. were the worst decade that Italy had experienced at the hands of foreign enemies since the days of Hannibal. In seven of these years powerful armies of barbarian invaders were on Italian soil. In each of the years 408, 409, and 410 Rome itself was besieged, and in 410 the city fell to a foreign enemy for the first time since Brennus and his Gauls captured it 800 years earlier. The civilized world was dumbfounded. There were less civilized Romans, however, who were by no means at a loss to know how to handle the situation.
In a law drawn up on December 10, 408 Honorius stated that a barbarian inroad was expected in Illyricum, and that numbers of the inhabitants had taken flight to other provinces. He declared that their freedom was therefore in danger: they were likely to be kidnapped by unscrupulous men and enslaved. In another law drafted on the same day he speaks of prisoners sold by the barbarians and bought by Romans. Since it was unreasonable to expect the purchaser to stand the loss of the the sum which he had paid, such a prisoner, if he had been a free nan before his capture by the barbarians, must refund the price which the purchaser had given for him or he must work for five years for him. One great danger to prisoners of the barbarians, who had previously been free, was that after being released by the enemy they would fall into the hands of the large landowners or their bailiffs or agents, who were permanently short of labour. These might illegally force them to work on the great estates, and then they would never be heard of again. The Emperor accordingly laid down severe penalties for estate-owners and their agents; and Christian priests and town-councillors living in the neighbourhood of a raid were warned to watch out for such cases and to see that the prisoners in fact reached their homes. Legislation continued in the following year. On March 23, 409 Honorius took further steps to ensure that, when the armed forces recovered the barbarians’ booty, soldier and provincial alike should see to it that those free persons who had been taken prisoner should regain their freedom.
There are two points of particular interest in this legislation. In the first place, in this desperate crisis of the Roman Empire trade between Roman merchants and the invaders was accepted by the government as a matter of course. It was illegal to sell certain commodities to the barbarians, but trade in itself was not regarded as illegal or even apparently as undesirable. Secondly, Roman slave-traders had no scruples in buying from the barbarians Roman prisoners who had been free men before the barbarians captured them. It was a recognized practice, and the government knew that there were traders who would not hesitate, if given a free hand, to keep such persons permanently enslaved. The government’s aim was to’see that free Romans, who had been captured by the barbarians and sold back by them to Roman traders, should regain their freedom. It was by no means self-evident that this would happen automatically. St. Ambrose tells us that after some raids on Illyricum and Thrace in 378-82 there were numberless prisoners on sale throughout the whole world: even prisoners who had been ransomed by the Church were o re-enslaved by unscrupulous Romans before they could reach home.