Salvian: Romans and Barbarians, c. 440
[Adapted from Robinson]
It was inevitable that thoughtful observers should be struck
with the contrast between the habits and government of the Romans
and the customs of the various barbarian peoples. Tacitus, the
first to describe the manners and institutions of the Germans
with care, is frequently tempted to compare them with those of
the Empire, often to the obvious disadvantage of the latter.
Salvian, a Christian priest, writing about 440, undertook in
his book Of God's Government to show that the misfortunes
of the time were only the divinely inflicted punishments which
the people of the Empire had brought upon themselves by their
wickedness and corruption. He contends that the Romans, who had
once been virtuous and heroic, had lapsed into a degradation which
rendered them, in spite of their civilization and advantages,
far inferior to the untutored but sturdy barbarian
In what respects can our customs be preferred to those of the
Goths and Vandals, or even compared with them? And first, to speak
of affection and mutual charity (which, our Lord teaches, is the
chief virtue, saying, "By this shall all men know that ye
are my disciples, if ye have love one to another "), almost
all barbarians, at least those who are of one race and kin, love
each other, while the Romans persecute each other. For what citizen
does not envy his fellow citizen ? What citizen shows to his neighbor
[The Romans oppress each other with exactions] nay, not each other
: it would be quite tolerable, if each suffered what he inflicted.
It is worse than that ; for the many are oppressed by the few,
who regard public exactions as their own peculiar right, who carry
on private traffic under tile guise of collecting the taxes. And
this is done not only by nobles, but by men of lowest rank; not
by judges only, but by judges' subordinates. For where is the
city even the town or village which has not as many
tyrants as it has curials ? . . . What place is there, therefore,
as I have said, where the substance of widows and orphans, nay
even of the saints, is not devoured by the chief citizens?
. . .
None but the great is secure from the devastations of these plundering
brigands, except those who arw themselves robbers.
[Nay, the state has fallen upon such evil days that a man cannot
be safe unless he is wicked] Even those in a position to protest
against the iniquity which they see about them dare not speak
lest they make matters worse than before. So the poor are despoiled,
the widows sigh, the orphans are oppressed, until many of them,
born of families not obscure, and liberally educated, flee to
our enemies that they may no longer suffer the oppression of public
persecution. They doubtless seek Roman humanity among the barbarians,
because they cannot bear barbarian inhumanity among the Romans.
And although they differ from the people to Whom they flee in
manner and in language; although they are unlike as regards the
fetid odor of the barbarians' bodies and garments, yet they would
rather endure a foreign civilization among the barbarians than
cruel injustice among the Romans.
So they migrate to the Goths, or to the Bagaudes, or to
some other tribe of the barbarians who are ruling everywhere,
and do not regret their exile. For they would rather live free under an appearance of slavery than live as captives tinder an
appearance of liberty. The name of Roman citi'en, once so highly
esteemed and so dearly bought, is now a thing that men repudiate
and flee from. . . .
It is urged that if we Romans are wicked and corrupt, that the
barbarians commit the same sins, and are not so miserable as we.
There is, however, this difference, that the barbarians commit
the same crimes as we, yet we more grievously. . . . All the barbarians,
as we have already said, are pagans or heretics. The Saxon race
is cruel, the Franks are faithless, the Gepidae are inhuman, the
Huns are unchaste, in short, there is vice in the life
of all the barbarian peoples. But are their offenses as serious
as ours? Is the unchastity of the Hun so criminal as ours? Is
the faithlessness of the Frank so blameworthy as ours? Is the
intemperance of the Alemanni so base as the intemperance of the
Christians? Does the greed of the Alani so merit condemnation
as the greed of the Christians? If Hun or the Gepid cheat, what
is there to wonder at, since he does not know that cheating is
a crime? If a Frank perjures himself, does he do anything strange,
he who regards perjury as a way of speaking, not as a crime?
James Harvey Robinson, ed., Readings in European History: Vol.
I: (Boston:: Ginn and co., 1904), 28-30
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