Barbarians and Romans

See works of art
  • Brooch in the Form of a Cicada
  • Funerary Fillet
  • Gold Bracteate
  • Gold Earring
  • Bow Brooch
  • Shoe Buckle
  • Bow Brooch
  • Gold Neck Ring
  • Gold Buckle with Garnets
  • Plate, Loop, and Tongue of Belt Buckle
  • Crossbow Brooch
  • Rock Crystal Belt Buckle
  • Belt Buckle with an Eagle
  • Mount for Spear Shaft

Works of Art (15)


The rivers Rhine and Danube defined the borders of the Roman empire in continental Europe, separating the citizens of Rome from the many peoples who inhabited Germania, the Roman term for the area stretching as far north as Scandinavia and as far east as the Vistula River. The empire had never isolated itself from the Germanic peoples they called barbarians, recruiting them as soldiers for the Roman army and developing commercial and diplomatic ties with their leaders.

Service as Mercenaries
From the time of Julius Caesar, barbarians had been deployed to protect the Roman frontiers. The increasing strength and reach of the military in the later centuries of the empire required the incorporation of ever greater numbers of barbarian units—known as foederati—into the army. By the fourth century, some 75,000 soldiers were stationed in the Roman province of Gaul (modern France), most of them Germanic. Many of these barbarians would in time return to their homeland, while others would remain with their families in Roman territories, some rising to the highest military ranks. Germanic burial rites, as distinct from Roman practices, included weapons and military equipment; thus the burial goods of Germanic graves both in and outside the empire’s borders offer a rich evocation of the money, gifts, and often elaborately decorated military insignia that such service accrued to soldiers (17.192.14517.190.697). They also give a sense of the distinctive costumes of barbarian women (98.11.67; 95.15.100a).

Diplomatic Relations
The empire developed diplomatic ties with those Germanic rulers who occupied lands just beyond the borders in an effort to protect itself from hostile barbarians even farther afield. Promises of Roman citizenship and military and economic support encouraged barbarian leaders to assist their wealthy neighbor, primarily by providing troops. Such arrangements permitted barbarians of high status to accumulate great wealth, in the form of direct gifts of jewelry from the empire (1995.97; 1986.341) and payments in gold coin. These, in turn, could be used to commission luxury objects of personal adornment from local artists (47.100.19; 2001.583).

Melanie Holcomb
Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 2002


Holcomb, Melanie. “Barbarians and Romans.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2002)

Further Reading

Brown, Katherine Reynolds, Dafydd Kidd, and Charles T. Little, eds. From Attila to Charlemagne: Arts of the Early Medieval Period in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. See on MetPublications

Geary, Patrick J. Before France and Germany: The Creation and Transformation of the Merovingian World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Nees, Lawrence. Early Medieval Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Additional Essays by Melanie Holcomb