What happens when the clout of imperial forces fades, and when the order they had created and sustained is doubted by those who benefited from it as well as by those who aspire to challenge it? What are the new dynamics that arise? How do those who were under the empire’s protective power respond? One way of answering this question is by looking at how the outer edges of empires coped with the fraying of the imperial order. That is where imperial sway is at its most fragile—and where usually its waning is felt first. This is the unquiet frontier.
In those frontier outposts, the locals have to make difficult decisions based on an assessment of how resilient their empire is, how persistent and dangerous the enemy appears, and how strong their own will is. And they experience different stages of geopolitical grief from denial and delusion to perhaps, in the best case, an attempt at indigenous security provision.
A telling case is the second half of the 5th century C.E., along the Danube that still separated a tenuous Roman order from the barbarian lands. The empire was in disarray, already weakened by internal mismanagement and foreign incursions. And the barbarian lands, as far as we know, were shaken by various tribal forces, unleashed after Hunnic dominance had quickly disintegrated with Attila’s death (of a nosebleed induced by heavy drinking, so rumor has it). Roman settlements along the Danube were thus in a dangerous spot between a frail empire and a gaggle of raiding barbarians. What to do?
The story of a most unusual character, Saint Severinus, supplies us with a picture of the situation and the challenges facing the frontier locals. Severinus (c. 410–482 C.E.) came from a Roman family and was well educated, but all we know with certainty is that he appeared on the Danube shortly after Attila’s death in 453 C.E. A man of great faith—indeed the “saint of the open frontier,”1 as the historian of late antiquity Peter Brown calls him—Severinus devoted the last decades of his life to Noricum, the region roughly congruent with modern-day Austria.
Severinus moved from city to city on the right bank of the Danube—a string of small villages with terrified populations sheltering behind walls (castella), targeted by small barbarians raids, sustained by sporadic commerce, and mostly abandoned by imperial troops. The might of Rome was absent on the Danubian limes and local political elites seemed to have more frequent audiences with barbarian leaders than contacts with their own imperial authorities.
Recounted in a biography written by Eugippius, Saint Severinus’s peregrinations along the Danubian frontier illustrate different stages of coping with a growing insecurity on a frontier that was gradually abandoned by Roman forces and harassed by small tribes roaming the area.2
First, there is the gradual recognition that imperial forces were not what they used to be. The tangible presence of the empire was disappearing, and the towns were losing their main security providers. “So long as the Roman dominion lasted, soldiers were maintained in many towns at the public expense to guard the boundary wall. When this custom ceased, the squadrons of soldiers and the boundary wall were blotted out together.” But the gradual withdrawal of Roman troops did not seem to have had a shocking impact on the locals, who perhaps did not notice immediately that their security required the presence of armed men. Indeed, few consider how security and deterrence are maintained while peace reigns.
The Roman troop at Batavis (modern day Passau), however, held out. The place was itself a military base rather than a town; located on the confluence of two important rivers, the Danube and the Inn, it occupied important strategic real estate that most likely was deemed more valuable than other towns east of it. It was a remnant of a string of military outposts, and the soldiers there seemed to be severed from the bulk of the legions. At some point, “some soldiers of this troop had gone to Italy to fetch the final pay to their comrades.” They did not make it far because the barbarians marauding in the area killed them. For a while no one was aware of this massacre, but “one day, as Saint Severinus was reading in his cell, he suddenly closed the book and began to sigh greatly and to weep. He ordered the bystanders to run out with haste to the river, which he declared was in that hour besprinkled with human blood; and straightway word was brought that the bodies of the soldiers mentioned above had been brought to land by the current of the river.”
That was a shock.
The role of these few Roman soldiers was first and foremost one of reassurance. They could not have defended the small towns in case of a prolonged barbarian assault. They also did not maintain the safety of the surrounding areas, leaving it open to small but frequent barbarians incursions—and as the violent end of the few soldiers heading to obtain the overdue pay indicates, they could not even protect their own forces. Finally, these scarce imperial forces certainly did not serve as a “tripwire” because it was unlikely that, in case of a barbarian attack on them, Roman legions would have marched north in retaliation. In brief, they did not deter the barbarians. But they were there to reassure the locals. They were good enough to reassure, even if not good enough to deter and defend. And that is why when imperial forces melted away the locals were discouraged.
Second, after the reassuring presence of imperial might has vanished, the next stage does not include calls for defense or balancing or stronger walls. No. It is the stage of disbelief and self-delusion. As Roman power waned, the locals comforted themselves with the delusion that the threats did not exist or, if they did, that the menace was not great. Perhaps the enemies would seek other targets. Perhaps the walls would suffice. Perhaps the barbarians liked peace and commerce as much as they did. Perhaps they would just go away. Perhaps they would peacefully blend in. The list of possible justifications for this delusion is as long as it is wrong.
In the first town he visited, Asturis, Severinus warned the population that the enemy was indeed near and dangerous. They should repent, he told them. They should pray and fast, and they should unite by abandoning the search for the selfish fulfillment of material desires. Of course, as was to be expected from a complacent and materially satisfied polity, Severinus was laughed out of town. People who are deluded—and do not see higher reasons for their own existence—will gladly justify their material self-satisfaction. Severinus left “in haste from a stubborn town that shall swiftly perish.” And perish Asturis did.
Third, in the next town, Comagenis, Severinus had more luck—the locals were on their next stage of grief. Because one man escaped from Asturis bringing the terrible news, the people of Comagenis could no longer ignore the hard fact that the barbarians were near and in search of destruction.
They recognized that security was a creation of force, not a self-sustaining reality.
But even before the technical question of how to defend themselves, the locals needed a reason to do it. They needed what Roman troops, however scant, had provided before: some reassurance. And this was Severinus’s greatest contribution: he reassured the local populations. He supplied the surviving towns with a firm motivation to resist and defend themselves, a reassurance that defense was worthwhile. With his presence the frontier “castles felt no danger. The trusty cuirass of fasting, and praiseworthy humility of heart, with the aid of the prophet, had armed them boldly against the fierceness of the enemy.”
This stage of geopolitical grief can be productive because it is characterized by the nascent desire to engage in the competition at hand. Security, these frontier towns realized, was not guaranteed by impersonal forces, but needed to be underwritten by somebody. And they had to do it themselves.
The problem at this stage is that the passage from delusion and panic to the desire to produce indigenous defense is not automatic. Before the “how” and the “where” of defending oneself, it is necessary to have a clear and firm answer to the “why.” A polity can have all the technical marvels, logistical supplies, and tactical skills, but without a strong motivation to defend itself they will all be useless. A castellum can be architecturally pleasing and surrounded by thick walls, but if the people inside it do not know who they are and why they should fight, it is as undefended as a wide open field.
In one of the Danubian towns, the local commander Mamertinus was concerned that the forces at his disposal were insufficient. (He was also future bishop—a pattern that replicated itself elsewhere in the decaying western Roman Empire. Bishops quickly became the main city authorities, caring not only for the spiritual life but also for the material survival of their flocks.) Mamertinus told Severinus: “I have soldiers, a very few. But I dare not contend with such a host of enemies. However, if thou commandest it, venerable father, though we lack the aid of weapons yet we believe that through thy prayers we shall be victorious.” Material capabilities are important, indeed essential; yet motivation and morale is even more so. Severinus stiffened their spines. Go out and engage the enemy, he told them. “Even if thy soldiers are unarmed, they shall now be armed from the enemy. For neither numbers nor fleshly courage is required, when everything proves that God is our champion.” Mamertinus’s troops went out, found some of the barbarians, attacked, and succeeded in routing most of them while obtaining a stash of their abandoned weapons.
Success and survival are of course never certain. Indeed, a few years after Severinus’s death the Danubian frontier was abandoned, and Eugippius, his biographer, emigrated to safer areas (as most of the Roman elites did, leaving the lower classes to fend for themselves), becoming an abbot near Naples. But without a clear sense of the value of one’s own social order, defeat is guaranteed.
Severinus’s story parallels our times (with all the necessary caveats). The stages of geopolitical grief are not as vivid today as in this story, but doubts are growing about the resilience of U.S. power and Washington’s commitment (under the current Administration or future ones) to allies. As U.S. power retrenches or is questioned, the frontier regions then experiences a series of adjustments. Insouciance about how security arises gives way to shock and panic when the security provider vanishes; then, self-delusion follows, as people convince themselves that security will sustain itself or that the threat is not real; and finally, if lucky to be fortified by a firm belief in something more than material goods or the satisfaction of one’s own transient preferences, the polity may find a reason to defend itself. The West may be going through all three stages at the same time, as many seem to put faith in the automatic harmony of international relations, do not necessarily believe in the dangerous nature of geopolitical competition with assertive rivals, and—perhaps most worrisome, and different from Severinus’s tale—do not seem to find a strong reason to devote resources to sustain the order from which they benefit.
1Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom (Blackwell Publishing, 2003), p. 123.
2Eugippius, The Life of Saint Severinus, trans. George W. Robinson (Harvard University Press, 1914).