The Roman Empire and its Germanic Peoples

Herwig Wolfram

translated from the German by Thomas Dunlap
University of California Press 1997
A book review by Danny Yee © 1998
In the introduction to The Roman Empire and its Germanic Peoples, Wolfram touches on the origins and evolution of the term "German". He proceeds with a sketch of Germanic proto-history, looking at kings, heroes, lineages, and tribal origin myths. In chapters two and three, he covers the third and fourth centuries, narrating the major political events (with the focus on his area of special interest, the Danubian Goths) and surveying the political organisation and social structure of the Empire and of the Germanic peoples. Chapter four considers broader political themes: constitutional issues, the differences between West and East, and the political foundations of the Romano-barbarian kingdoms. And chapter five covers the Huns and their complex relationship with the Goths.

After this background and early history, Wolfram deals with the Germanic peoples individually. Chapters six and seven cover the Visigothic kingdom of Toulouse and the Vandals. Chapters eight to ten tell the story of Odovacar, Theoderic, and the Goths in Italy. Here Wolfram stresses the continuity of institutions and forms (touching on the debate over just how important a turning point 476 was) and the importance of relationships with Constantinople. Chapter nine takes the form of a parallel life of Theoderic and Clovis. (There is no chapter on the Franks, and only at the beginning of the final chapter do we learn that "the purpose of this book is to describe and explain the most important non-Frankish successor states on Roman soil".) Chapters eleven to fourteen cover Britain (very briefly), the Burgundians, the Spanish kingdom of the Visigoths, and the Longobards. The conclusion glances at the Slavs and the Avars, and at Arianism and the Pirenne thesis.

The Roman Empire and its Germanic Peoples is solid but readable. It is largely narrative political history, interwoven with structural analysis, with the focus on the constitutional and institutional rather than the economic and social. While too unbalanced to be a general introduction to the period, it is broadly accessible and will appeal to lay readers interested in the end of the Western Empire and the Germanic migrations, as well as to specialist historians.

April 1998

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%T The Roman Empire and its Germanic Peoples
%A Wolfram, Herwig
%M German
%F Dunlap, Thomas
%I University of California Press
%D 1997
%O hardcover, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0520085116
%P xx,361pp