isis -isil 2015 marching into a local town. Source:

Barbarian Hordes and Pitiful People

Sometimes politicians comment upon the fugitive crisis in Europe 2015 by referring to the ‘Barbarian Hordes’ and the events in the 4th and 5th centuries. Does this make sense?

Refugees from Syria in Bulgaria 2013 - source pislanonausacentral-blogspot

In 2015, It was difficult to find estimates concerning the projected influx of fugitives and migrants to Europe 2015. Only Germany unveiled a number. They expected 800.000 applicants, which amounted to approximately 1% of their total population. This was four times as many applicants as they received in 2014. In July 2015, the actual figures showed the number of applicants in Germany had doubled compared to 2014).

Any estimate was of course wrought with the challenges of prediction. However, since most of Europe was shirking its responsibilities in terms of finding practical solutions to this complex problem, it was obvious that Germany was shouldering more than their share. It later appeared that Germany shouldered 1/3 of all applicants. As it could not be expected that they would continue to take on more than this share, it was at that time thought that a whopping 2.4 mill fugitives and migrants were expected by the Germans to fight their way into fortress Europe in 2015 (app. 0.8% of the present population in EU). On average 45% of these people were expected to receive the coveted status as “bona-fide refugee”. To this should be added countless illegal immigrants. What might this mean?

Obviously Europe has been there before. Last time was post WW2, which was characterized by a massive exodus to the Americas and Australia, as well as the massive internal displacement of people fleeing from the ravages of war. At that point, however, the war had ended, and people fleeing (or being expelled) from the East to the West were hapless victims of whatever solutions were found by the allied armies. Nothing but floods of pitiful people.

However, a much less recent set of events – the migration period in the 4th and 5th century – looks superficially like a precursor (although the end-result will not necessarily be the same). As it happens politicians and commentators are known to compare the present situation with the Early Medieval events. But does this make sense?

The Migration Period

As it happens renewed interest in these events is currently throwing new light upon what actually happened at that time. Especially since the fashion of denying that any large-scale migration took place in Late Antiquity is busy fading and historians, linguists and some archaeologists are offering a new rethinking of the old question on the “decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”.

This is not the place to offer a résumé of the academic swirls, which has taken place in this roundabout since the 1960’s. However, Peter Heather has obligingly offered an easily read summary in a very recent article on migration, which is available as open-source and may be read by anyone interested. Happily the conclusion is that it appears we no longer have to subscribe to the postmodern and archaeologically fostered idea that nothing really did take place. This was not a nice garden-variety tea-party. However, what was the size of the events?

The Events AD 376 and 406

Ludovisi Battle sarchophagus wikipedia web
Ludovisi Battle sarcophagus from the 3d century. Source: Wikipedia

First the events: for some time now it has been considered manifest that the migratory movements in the 4th and 5th century cannot be seen as anything but reactions to the influx of Huns into Europe, propelling the Germanic and Slavic “barbarians” in front of them [1]. Three events play a special role as they are rather well documented in the sources.

In 376 a group of displaced people, which later coalesced into the Visigoths crossed the Danube. Whether “asylum-seekers” or “economic migrants” seeking a safe haven inside the Roman Empire, they were according to a contemporary chronicler (Ammianus), treated harshly. Nevertheless, they were able to win the battle at Hadrianople two years later. This was against a very large Roman army (30 – 40.000 imperial troops). It is conceivable that the “Goths” fielded a corresponding number of fighting-men, making the original contingent of migrants (consisting of woman, children and the elderly plus the estimated number of warriors) measuring somewhere in the neighbourhood of 200.000 people. Later, after having sacked Rome in AD 410, they banded together with new “barbarian” recruits and walked into Gaul. Although a motley and probably diverse “ethnic” crowd, they succeeded in founding one of the first “barbarian” kingdoms in the soon to be former Western Roman Empire: the Visigothic kingdom based in Toulouse. Likely, the new settlers numbered constituted 10-20% of the indigenous Gallo-Romans in Aquitaine.

It has recently been argued that the group of fugitives who crossed the icy river Rhine on the eve of New Year 406 was similar in size [2].  These were people, who moved through Southern Gaul, crossed the Pyrenees until finally (some of them) crossed over to Northern Africa. It has been estimated that the armies involved in the war in AD 472–3 mustered 20.000+

People stemming from these two events may have mustered between 400 – 450.000 all-in-all. To this should be added any number of other migratory movements, for which we do not know the numbers – the Franks, the Angles, the Saxons, the Frisians and later the Lombards etc. The events in 376 and 406 are just two major events of which we know.

The Numbers

Any estimates of the size of populations in Late Antiquity remain highly controversial. On the other hand, the above figures need to be balanced by at least some sort of estimate concerning the number of people living on both sides of the Limes. Conservative estimates based on later evidence claims that the Early Medieval number of people per km2 west of the Rhine was perhaps 8-10. East of Limes perhaps no more than 4-5 pr. km2. If so, it appears that the waves of people listed above – which are probably no more than the tip of the iceberg – might have represented up to a sixth of the population in the area encompassing present day Germany, Poland and Austria. [3]

It would also be probable that the influx of people to Aquitaine after AD 410 might have represented approximately the same proportion of the indigenous population, which at that time was living in South Western Gaul at that time [4]. Of course these figures are extremely tentative. However, they do give us an inkling of the proportions, which were at stake.

The Consequences

It seems fairly obvious that such waves of migration would have significant impact on the local population in a region like Gaul; as is also evidenced by the later events, when the formation of local identities took place as part of the creation of new Barbarian Sucessor Kingdoms. This is the process normally termed ethnogenesis.[5]

A Parallel?

It is fairly obvious that the present European situation is NOT comparable to what happened more than 1600 years ago. There is no way an influx of 10 – 15%, which a more conservative estimate would have to reckon with, measure up to the current events. Neither is the situation in any way the same. While the bulk of the 5th century immigrants came to reside in the countryside, modern-day immigrants are primarily settled in cities and towns. However, there is no doubt a process of ethnogenesis (or rather indigeneity as anthropologists call it) does take place today among both immigrants and fugitives. As is well known Immigrants to modern Europe do not readily acquiesce and adopt the culture of the country in which they reside. Instead they built new and prominent identities out of the cultural bric-a-brac, which is brought from home, primarily religion, language and to some extent law and social structure. It is also evident that this identity-formation is fed by the ties, which it so obviously is possible to uphold in a global world, where are lives are formed by the media, we subscribe to. However, this is more a cultural-political issue of what (if anything) should be done about the creation of “ghettos”, than a question of the new-comers being in a position to literally take over the old world. As did happen in the 5th and 6th centuries.

One parameter, though, happens to coalesce with the events in the 5th century, which might be worthy of some reflection. At least the fugitives from Afghanistan and the Middle East are pushed here by terrorists and warring factions of a particularly brutal kind. Isil must be recognized as the Huns of our time. As such, many of the people, who are currently entering Europe, are used to be able to navigate in warzones. Even the more robust of these people will be war-scarred. Some of them may also to some extent be used to take upon themselves the role of warriors… what all this this might mean for the future of Europe is as yet unknown.

Karen Schousboe


Isis/Isil might very well be considered the modern version of the Huns. Photo from their programmatic material.


[1] See the combined work of Peter Heather and Bryan Ward-Perkins listed below.

[2] Some Observations regarding Barbarian Military demography: Geiseric’s Census of 429 and Its Implications. By Bernard S. Bachrach. In: Journal of Medieval Military History Vol XII, 2014 pp. 1 – 38. In a footnote (no. 3) Bachrach takes issue with Peter Heather in his more conservative stance and his wish to avoid “numerical quibbling”. Basically they are nevertheless in agreement: the events in the end of the 4th century were of a significant magnitude.

[3] It is a fact we do not possess any really viable evidence for the size of the population in the large tracts of wilderness, which used to cover Germany, Poland, Austria etc. However, we do possess one precious piece of information from a landscape in present-day Sweden, Halland, from 1240’s concerning households. According to recent computations the probable size of the population at that time was 9.66 persons pr. km2. (with a presumed average household size of 5). This number is from a period when the population had definitely been growing from some time. It is presumed that it was at its highest around 1250 before the crisis of the 14th century set in. Halland was a heavily forested area with no particular large town (as it is today) and may thus – very tentatively – be considered a proxy for the vast wilderness of “Germania”. However, it is conceivable that the population density was only half = 4.5 -5 persons pr km2 generally mentioned in the literature. Based on this the population of Germany, Poland and Austria (768.530 km2) would be able to muster a population of no more than perhaps 3.711.999. 450.000 immigrants would constitute 13 – 15% of the population at that time. Most of these people may of course have been living in the frontier-zone on the Eastern banks of the Rhine and the Danube. But this only leads to another conclusion: that these tracts might have been completely emptied of people at the end of the 4th century if the origin of the exodus was limited to these regions. The information about Halland is from Middelalderens landbrug (ca. 1050 – 1536) By Helge Nielsen and Tommy Dalgaard. In: Danske Landbrugslandskaber gennem 2000. År. I: Digevoldninger til støtteordninger. Århus Universitetforlag 2009. See also: The Danish Resources c. 1000 – 1550. Growth and Recession. By Nis Hybel and Bjørn Poulsen. Brill 2007, p. 127). Another estimate may be had from: Social Structure and Relations, p. 182 . By Frank Siegmund: In: Franks and Alemanni in the Merovingian period. An Ethnographic Perspective. Boydell Press 1998. Siegmund’s estimate is based on the size of cemetaries. According to his estimate app. 250.000 people lived in Alemannia – the South-Western corner of present-day Germany plus the German-Speaking parts of Switzerland,

[4] These calculations are obviously highly speculative. Figures gleaned from the polyptychs of the 9th century has demonstrated a population density of between 20 – 39 on the large abbeys in the île des France and elsewhere. However, this was at a time when significant growth in population is believed to have taken place after the climatic and epidemic “catastrophes” of the 6th century. Also, such abbeys functioned as a sort of local towns.

The general estimates of the size of the population in Gaul does not count the inhabitants in cities; this would tilt the equation. But an influx of people measuring up to just 10% would still be experienced as overwhelming. However, this is not accounting for the fact that we do not know to what extent the migratory groups of people held together (although this is likely); on several occasions deals were negotiated en bloc with representatives of the Roman Empire securing land and income to the new inhabitants (such as was the case with the Goths in Aquitaine). The case with the Goths in Aquitaine is interesting. These Goths were the ambulating army of people, which had recently been employed in Iberia to defeat the Sueves. Mustering an army corps of 20.000, they would have represented a group of people, approximately 100.000. Half of what may have been resident in Aquitaine ca. AD 400. Perhaps we may simply conclude that the 500.000+ immigrants (the total of the people who were on the move after the events in 376 – 406) constituted a third of the resident population, they were “guesting”; and receiving a third as hospites.

As a kind of correction it might be pertinent to note that the total area in km2 of Aquitaine, Poitou-Charentes, Limousin, Auvergne, Midi-Ptrénées and Languedoc-Rouissillon – the regions which together roughly corresponds to the Visigothic kingdom of Alaric before the battle at Vouillé 511. Encompassing 182.793 km2 it would have had a probable registered population of a maximum of 822.000 – 1.645.000 (averaging 4.5 or 9 persons pr. Km2). The former figure  – or something in between – is probably more accurate than the 9-10 persons normally listed in the literature, as this would also take into account the population in the major cities in Gaul, which probably did not have to make room for the “Barbarians”. This lands us on exactly the same conclusion: the influx of people probably represented a sudden explosion in the population in South-Western Gaul of perhaps a third. (That is, of course, before they moved into Iberia and finally – some of them – to Northern Africa founding the Visigothic and Vandal kingdoms of the 6th century.

[5] The concept of ethnogenesis: The process whereby disparate bands of people created a self-identity as Goths, Lombardians, Burgundians etc. while establishing the successor-kingdoms. A recent introduction to this may be found in Geary, Patrick J. The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002. See also review of the debate in History Compass: Ethnogenesis: A Contested Model of Early Medieval Europe. By Andrew Gillett. In: History Compass 2006, Vol. 4, No. 2, pp. 241 – 260.


How many asylum seekers would other EU countries need to match Germany?



The Fall of the Roman Empire by Peter HeatherThe fall of the Roman Empire. A New History.
By Peter Heather.
Pan-Macmillan 200
ISBN-10: 0330491369
ISBN-13: 978-0330491365





Empires and barbarians CoverEmpires and Barbarians. Migration, Development and the Birth of Europe
By Peter Heather
Pan-Macmillan 2010
ISBN: 9780330492553







The Fall of Rome by Bryan Ward Perkins VoverThe Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization 
by Bryan Ward-Perkins
OUP Oxford 2006
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0192807285
ISBN-13: 978-0192807281



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