The Roman Empire in the West did not end with a sudden bang in 476AD, when the last emperor, Romulus Augustus, was deposed and pensioned off to a villa near Naples. Instead, it withered away, sometimes with convulsive fits and starts, over the entire fifth century. In some instances, by direct conquest, as with the Vandal assault on Africa (modern-day Tunisia), while in others it was the slow disappearance of the emblems of the state, the withdrawal of soldiers or the end for maintaining the roads and aqueducts that were the hallmark of Roman civilization.
Our knowledge of what it was like for the inhabitants of Roman provinces is limited but one source I've run across in several recent books is the Life of St Severinus (Vita Sancti Severini), which provides us with glimpses of the slow collapse of the Roman way of life in the remote frontier province of Noricum along the Danube River in modern-day Austria. I recently read a translation of the full original text.
The biography of St Severinus was written by the priest Eugippius, a follower of the saint, towards the beginning of the 6th century. It is in the form of a draft, accompanied by a letter sent in 511 by Eugippius to the Deacon Paschasius seeking editorial assistance which, in those times, meant adorning the account with flowery classical rhetoric:
The testimonies concerning his marvellous life accompany this letter, arranged as a memoir, with a table of chapters prefixed. Grant my request, and let them gain greater fame through thy editorial care. It remains to ask that thou cease not to associate thy prayers with his for the pardon of my sins.At the end of the memoir, is attached Paschasius' response, declining the request:
Thou hast sent me a memoir to which the eloquence of the trained writer can add nothing, and in a short compendium hast produced a work which the whole church can read.Let's take a look at what we can learn about life in Noricum from the work of Eugippius and then discuss the historical setting in which Vita Severini was written.
The lands between the northern Alps and the Danube River were incorporated into the Roman Empire in 16 BC, during the reign of Augustus. Along the Danube, the province boundaries ran from a few miles west of Vienna to a point just across the current German/Austrian border at Passau. Though the province supplied minerals, including iron and gold, its primarily served as a communications, military and trade route, connecting more prosperous provinces, like Pannonia, further downstream on the Danube, with the headwaters of the Rhine and Rome's German and Gaulish provinces to the west, as well as being situation along the Amber Road running from Italy to the Baltic.
For much of its first two centuries in the Empire it was a quiet backwater, with only some auxiliary military units stationed there. It was only with the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-80) and the outbreak of the Marcommanic War that a Roman legion was stationed in Noricum. Though Noricum remained more peaceful than Pannonia and the Balkan provinces to its east, the province's prosperity waned over the course of the 3rd and 4th centuries. Worse was to come.
While much of the Western Empire was wrestling with the Visigoths, Vandals, Burgundians and other tribes (see Adrianople for more), it was in the 430s that the plague of Hunnish horsemen under Attila entered central Europe and crossed the Danube, making Pannonia their home and raiding adjacent provinces. After invading Gaul in 451 and Italy the following year, Attila suddenly died in 453, triggering chaos in his realm, a revolt of subject tribes and the defeat of his sons two years later. It is at this point that Severinus enters the picture in Noricum, or as Eugippius tells us:
At the time of the death of Attila, king of the Huns, confusion reigned in the two Pannonias and the other borderlands of the Danube. Then Severinus, most holy servant of God, came from the parts of the East to the marches of Riverside Noricum and the Pannonias . . .Although his birth date is traditionally given as 410, we know little of his life before he appears on the Danube. Along with telling us he "came from the parts of the East", the letter accompanying the memoir informs Pachasius:
It may perhaps be asked, and with justice, from what country Severinus sprang . . . I confess I have no clear evidence. For many priests and clerics, and lords temporal and spiritual, natives of the country or drawn together to him from afar, often debated the nationality of this man of such great and resplendent virtue. And they were at a lost, but no one ventured to question him directly.Eugippius goes on to add, "Yet his speech revealed a man of purest Latin stock; and it is understood that he first departed into some desert place of the East because of his fervid desire for a more perfect life", but left to come to Noricum after a divine revelation.
Modern scholarship believes Severinus was of southern Italian or Sicilian origin and spent time in the Roman East (Syria or Egypt) as a monk or hermit, possibly as an adherent of cenobitic monasticism (see Gometz, 2008).
When he came to Noricum, Severinus found a land "harassed by frequent incursions of the barbarians". The townspeople were still Roman, but on both sides of the Danube, barbarians roamed through the countryside, and anyone was in danger once beyond town walls. We hear of many tribes in the Vita, some wandering through, some settling in the area; Rugi, Alemanni, Heruli, Goths, Thoringi. The Vita contains a long litany of their depredations. Some examples:
"barbarian robbers made an unexpected plundering incursion, and led away captive all the men and cattle they found without the walls"The new arrival had no official position in the church hierarchy - the Roman inhabitants were already Christian and many of the barbarians were Arian Catholics, but apparently the force of his personality, his devotness and gift of abstinence:
"the constant incursions of the Alamanni"
"a few barbarians attacked the town of Batavis . . . put to death forty men of the town"
"the Heruli made a sudden, unexpected onslaught, sacked the town, and led most of the people into captivity"
"a vast multitude of Alamanni, minions of Death, laid everything waste"
He subdued his flesh by innumerable fasts, teaching that the body, if nourished with too abundant food, will straightway bring destruction upon the soul. He wore no shoes whatever. So at midwinter, which in those regions is a time of cruel, numbing cold, he gave a remarkable proof of endurance by always being willing to walk barefoot . . . Thus we taught men humility by his wondrous example.along with a demonstrated ability to negotiate and work with the barbarians while providing practical advice to the Romans, bestowed upon him an authority he would exercise for many years. As James J O'Donnell writes in The Ruin Of The Roman Empire:
In this world of fading power, Severinus became the new figure of authority - an authority that earthly disasters could not undermine. He encouraged people and they were cured; he chastised people and they changed their ways; he knew things at a distance and people were in awe.
Although the Vita is intended as a compilation of saintly deeds and provides no strict chronological accounting, a picture emerges of life in Noricum.
Amidst cold and snow (Europe had entered a cooling period in the 4th century), privation and insecurity, the Romanized urban population tried to maintain itself. Trade and import of goods from Italy and distant provinces has virtually ceased. There is no mention of any functional Roman administration in the province. The legions are long gone, with only one town, Batavis (Passau, Germany) mentioned as still having an army garrison of any type. Eugippius tells of the sad demise of this unit:
So long as the Roman dominion lasted, soldiers were maintained in many towns at the public expense to guard the boundary wall [frontier]. When this custom ceased, the squadrons of soldiers and the boundary wall were blotted out together. The troops at Batavis, however, held out. Some soldiers of this troop had gone to Italy to [Ravenna] fetch the final pay to their comrades, and no one knew that the barbarians had slain them on the way.The townspeople only discovered what happened when the bodies of the dead soldiers floated down the river. With no more pay coming, the surviving members of the garrison disbanded.
(Roman era relief found in Lauriacum)
Along with the workings of miracles and his preaching, the account presents Severinus as constantly working to maintain the peace between the dwindling Roman population and the barbarian tribes, amidst continuous tensions and outbreaks of violence. He negotiates the return of hostages from raiders and advises the towns on the strategies they need to employ to survive. To help address the growing impoverishment of the populace he institutes a system of tithing to provide for the needy.
He also managed to become a trusted advisor to some of the tribes, particularly the Rugi, the strongest and most settled in the area. Asked to intervene in quarrels with the towns and among the ruling families, he remained a figure respected by all. Eugippius recounts one such example:
The King of the Rugi, Flaccitheus, felt unsafe in his power at the very beginning of his reign because the Goths from Lower Pannonia were violently hostile to him, and he was alarmed by their huge numbers. In this dangerous situation, he consulted the blessed Severinus as a divine oracle . . .He was not only a man of peace. After the people of Quintanis fled their town for Batavis because of constant Alemanni attacks, the barbarians followed them. Severinus encouraged the Romans to resist, predicting victory:
Therefore, the Romans in a body, strengthened by the prediction of the saint, and in the hope of the promised victory, drew up against the Alemanni in order of battle, fortified less with material arms than by the prayers of the saint. The Alemanni were overthrown in the conflict and fled.But even after this victory, the saint provided the local inhabitants with sober, practical, advice:
"Children, do not attribute the glory of the present conflict to your own strength. Know that ye are now set free through the protection of God to the end that ye may depart hence within a little space of time, granted you as a kind of armistice. So gather together and go down with me to the town of Lauriacum".And so it went over the years, as one by one the towns of Noricum fell to the barbarians, until only Lauriacum (Lorch, Austria) was left. In one of his final acts, Severinus negotiated the surrender of that town to the Rugi king under terms that allowed its inhabitants to be "amicably established in the towns, and live in friendly alliance with the Rugi".
Severinus may have been in his early seventies when he died on January 8, 482, near Lauriacum. Eugippius reports his last words as "Praise ye the Lord in his sanctuary; let everything that hath breath praise the Lord". Six years later, he was disinterred and the body brought by his followers, probably including Eugippius, accompanied by much of the remaining Roman population of Noricum, over the Alps and into Italy. Sometime between 492 and 496, the saint's remains found a permanent home near Naples.
The Time Of Eugippius
Eugippius is thought to have been born around 460 and died circa 535. He wrote amidst the last flickering of classical civilization. Theodoric the Great (an Ostrogoth) ruled Italy, but still followed many of the forms of Roman law and culture. Boethius, Theodoric's magister officiorum until he was executed in 524, authored the Consolation of Philosophy and his successor, Cassiodorus, oversaw the copying of many of the classical manuscripts that survived the next few centuries. The city of Rome was much smaller than at its peak, but the palaces and monuments still existed, though perhaps not as well maintained as in the past. The Roman Senate and its membership of wealthy landowners had survived the formal end of empire with minimal disruption.
At the time he wrote Vita Sancti Severini, Eugippius was abbot of the Castellum Lucullanum monastery near Naples, dedicated to the memory of the entombed saint.
(Modern view of the area of the Castellum Lucullanum)
All this was to be ended shortly after Eugippius' death with the outbreak of the long Gothic Wars and, by century's end, the last remnants of classical world had disappeared (for more on this transition read Belisarius Enters Rome), and by the time of Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) we have entered a different land.
The remains of St Severinus remained at Castellum Lucullanum until 904, when they were removed to protect them from Saracen raiders from Sicily (for more on this period of history see The Song of Jan Sobieski). They were returned several centuries later.
We look back today on these events with the full knowledge of what was to come, as well as an appreciation of what the Roman world was like at its peak What was it like for those who lived through these disturbing and unpredictable times?
Vita Sancti Severini, Eugippius (511)
The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, Bryan Ward-Perkins (2005)
The Reach of Rome, Derek Williams (1996)
The Inheritance of Rome, Chris Wickham (2009)
The Fall of the Roman Empire, Peter Heather (2006)
The Ruin of the Roman Empire, James J O'Donnell (2008)
Eugippius of Lucullanum: A Biography, Abigail Kathleen Gometz, Doctoral Thesis, University of Leeds, Institute for Medieval Studies (2008)
Eugippius and the Closing Years of the Province of Noricum Ripense, Charles Christopher Mierow (1915)