The Barbarians at the Gates

Were the "barbarian" invasions of the western Roman Empire key to its collapse? The answer is more complex than most of us have thought.

Barbarians: their very name conjures images of an uncivilized hoard hell-bent on wreaking havoc on society and bringing an empire to its knees. When it comes to Rome’s encounters with barbarians, the truth is a bit more complex. In this article, I explore some of those complexities in the light of archaeological evidence, historical documents and social theory. Questions such as the role barbarians played in late Imperial society and their impact on Roman identity, as well as the Empire’s evolving policies toward different tribal groups will be discussed. This I shall cover within a theoretical framework that tests the dichotomy of decline and transition.

The “barbarian” invasions of Late Antiquity are intimately associated with the decline of Western Roman Imperialism (c. AD 300-550) and seen historically as the inauguration of an era commonly called the Middle Ages (Fig.1). Much later, medieval historians, such as Francesco Petrarca, referred to this period of history as the ‘Dark Ages’ (Findlen 2002: 219-21). The Renaissance had revived an interest in the classical arts and ancient figures such as Saint Jerome — who observed the sacking of Rome in AD 410 as an apocalyptic event — had great influence on neoclassical authors. Germanic tribes looking to become part of Roman society and reap the blessings thereof were described as illiterate hoards of dirty, smelly, uncultured sub-humans.

Figure 1: A romantic interpretation of the sack of Rome on August 24, 410 by Alaric. Here, the Visigoths are depicted as an uncivilized mob of semi-nude Hessians. (WC 2013)

To be sure, barbarian settlement within Roman provinces contributed greatly to the sociocultural fragmentation of the Western Empire. However, once examined closely, the classical view of ‘barbarian invasions’ transforms into a complex event involving generations of ethnic migrations, cultural diffusions and sociopolitical acculturation that broke down Roman cohesion and redefined Roman identity. In the end, organized tribal governments carved independent kingdoms out of the Roman state carcass (Holmes 1988: 3-5, 64; Scarre 2009: 37-38; Halsall 2007: 417-22).

Consequently, the provincial Roman citizenry became more culturally diverse with barbarian societies having their own individual and unique historical trajectory with Rome. For example, in Gaul, Frankish customs diffused with Romano-Gallic society to create a distinctive material culture. These factors led to a uniquely stratified post-Roman reality were Germanic kingdoms continued a ‘Roman’ self-awareness to varying degrees (Halsall 2007: 19-22; Holmes 1988: 82-83). For this reason, I will begin briefly by examining the identity of barbarians and their role within the devolving late Roman world before moving to a case-by-case analysis of the archaeology of the Franks, Goths, Burgundians, Angles, Saxons and Jutes within Roman territories, or provinciae.

Barbarian Identity

The subject of whether these barbarian invasions were actually ethnic migrations is a debate that is spawn from an ethical analysis of the historical accounts. While both points of view have merit, they are without any doubt equally interwoven into the disarticulation of various provinciae and therefore a wide and interdisciplinary examination must be taken during discussion (Holmes 1988: 34, 64; Halsall 2007: 19-20). With that in mind, broadly speaking, the contraction of the Western Roman limites along barbaricum and the subsequent retracement of the imperial conception of a ‘transcending Roman Empire’ was part of a gradual fragmenting process (Fig. 2) that can be described philosophically as a negative reflection of Roman expansion during the Republic and Early Empire.

Figure 2: Barbarian invasions in the West. (NC 2007)

Here it should be pointed out that the Mediterranean usage of the term ‘barbarian’ was simply a description of someone who was foreign born and — in the case of late Imperial Rome — had no status of citizenship, or civitas Romana (Holmes 1988: 82; Sherwin-White 1979: 5, 427, 433, 461). Consequently, this relegated barbarians to a second class status in Roman society (Fig. 3). Barbarians who had been received by and therefore acquiescent to Roman authority were often classified as peregrini dediticii. Additionally, those who legally homesteaded had the special designation of laeti, as is seen in late Roman Britannia and Gaul where they were used as transplanted pastoralists to facilitate cultivation of agricultural land that had fallen into disuse (Halsall 2007: 149, 152; Mousourakis 2003: 265; Cleary 1990: 6, 28-29)

Figure 3: A kneeling barbarian. Sculptures such as this reinforce the classical view of the mastery of Romans over their barbarian subjects. (WC 2013)

None of this should be construed as implying that the barbari were outside of Rome’s jurisdiction. The Republic and early-to-mid-Empire never allowed a non-Roman community an autonomous ‘home rule’ status (Halsall 2007:153). This would have been an absurdity. As an alternative, barbarous communities of dediticii and laeti were effectively ‘military colonies’ and as such an important source of conscription for the legions as archaeological data from 4th century Gallic cemeteries suggest (Cleary 1990: 6-7; Halsall 2007: 102, 147; Pohl 1997: 37).

The spatial distribution of the late 4th century Frankish and Saxon graves is quite extensive and the excavated goods include ornate spears, ceremonial belt fittings and gold brooches, inferring both ordinary Romano-Germanic warriors and officers. Additionally, an excavated female inhumation contained two large gold plated brooches strongly suggesting a migration from the Danube (Cameron and Garnsey 1998: 465-66). It should also be noted that the existence of Germanic women alongside men suggests not a roving band of brigands, but an intransigent community. However, Halsall (2007: 153-60) clearly takes issue with the interpretation of these cemeteries as ‘Germanic’ evidence of mid 4th century migration, suggesting otherwise that the remains are actually that of Gallic-Romans being acculturated thru barbarian inter-association, thus highlighting one of the difficulties in identifying the material remains of the transitory migrants. Nevertheless, the ‘invasion of migrates’ were as much a contributing factor, as they were an effect of the decline of the Western Empire (Halsall 2007: 34, 142; Holmes 1988: 3).

Retreat from Empire: the arrival of the Franks

It should be noted here that while interpreting Barbarian archaeology it is an injudicious habit to conflate tribes together within their own larger cultural group and refer to them by a generic nomenclature such as ‘German’. We must not forget that each barbarian culture was often made up by smaller “tribal ethnicities” and their distinctions are diverse, allowing for much richer identities and therefore demanding more academic inquiry (MA 2008: 42). The Franks were a heterogeneous people with numerous sub-cultures: the Riparians, Chamavians, Sicambrians, however, it was to be the Salians that subdued the others and expanded significantly west of the Rhine and south of the Seine to create an enduring kingdom through the Merovingian and Carolingian dynastic monarchs (Sergeant 1898: 16; Holmes 1988: 89, 92-105).

By AD 358, the Salian Franks, or Salii, had migrated south of the North Sea and were permitted to settle in Toxandria, Gaul with an official status of foederati or military ally of Rome (Bury 1911: 296; Blom and Lamberts 2006: 5; Hodgett 2005: 7; Sherwin-White 1979: 285). This event represented a reversal in Roman policy, allowing a politically independent non-Roman culture, colonization within the Western Roman limites, with the purpose to act as a “militarized buffer” against other barbarians (Heather 1998: 138; Holmes 1988: 65; Halsall 2007: 180; Bury 1911: 296).

Interestingly, in northern Gaul, there is a marked decrease of archaeological material related to the villa system in the latter Imperial Period (Wickham 2005: 201). These changes to social living patterns coincided with the arrival of the Salii. The Roman villa system was ‘the expression of power’ for elite members of society, and such a reduction in their presence in the landscape was a vivid sign of Roman decline in the rural hinterland (Halsall 2007: 70). That being said, it was also an indication of social transformation. For example, the decline of the villa system corresponded with an increase in Germanic ‘pit dwellings’ or Grubenhäuser (Fig. 4). Consequently, by the 5th century, development of a proto-medieval village social system can be seen. Examples of this may be seen in Ile de France, or Lutetia Parisiorum, were excavations of settlements reflect Germanic patterns imported from barbaricum (Wickham 2005: 476, 505).


Figure 4: A Grubenhäuser was a rural hall-shaped medieval abode common among Germanic peoples. (LepoRello 2012)


However, Halsall (2007: 159) notes that other socioeconomic issues could have contributed to the decline of the villa system and the adoption of the Grubenhäuser. Yet, Wickham (2005: 307-10) stresses that no considerable economic crisis is present in the archaeological record of Northern Gaul for the 5th century. At Lutetia Parisiorum, for instance, excavations of a marketplace revealed the remains of earthenware and jewelry, suggesting continuity of trade and thus little possibility of economic calamity (Wickham 2005: 676-77). Nonetheless, a ‘barbarization’ of Northern Gaul was taking place with the breakdown of traditional Roman social systems and this cannot be ignored.

At Vron and especially Frénouville, late Roman cemeteries continue alongside Frankish expansion. However, at Frénouville, difficulty arises in the interpretation of the grave deposits which reveal a dearth of weaponry, suggesting that there were no Frankish migrations (Noble 2006: 207). Nevertheless, the traditional Roman south-north axis interments are superseded by a Germanic west-east burial alignment, or Reihengräber (King 1990: 203; MA 2008: 31-32). The latter is explained as a breakdown in the ‘Christian devotion’ of those interred, which is of course supposition (Noble 2006: 206). However, the anthropological examination revealed subtle physiological changes over continued use (implying a community of Gallic-Romans persisted). Yet, it should be noted that the assigning of biological traits to a specified ethnicity (e.g. ‘this skull belonged to this culture because it is this wide’) is unscientific (Effros 2003: 149; Noble 2006: 206). Regardless, if these Reihengräber are not Frankish, then they depict a substantial decline (or if one prefers ‘transformation’) in Roman culture, as the Romano-Gallic populace adopted pagan customs.

Probably the best known Salian grave is from Tournai. The burial site of the renowned Childeric, first monarch of a unified Frankish kingdom, it contained several Eastern Roman gold coins, weapons and his signet ring embossed in Latin with the regal designation Childirici Regis, along with a golden cloak brooch indicating his rank in exercitus Romanorum (Holmes 1988: 70; Halsall 2007: 269; Wolfram 1988: 349). While the signet’s likeness of Childeric wearing a Roman uniform infers a romanized Frankish king, excavations also yielded horse remains interred with the body — a custom associated with traditional Germanic chieftain burials (Fletcher 1999: 102; Noble 2006: 332).

Gothic Horror

In the late 4th century, the Gothic tribes of the Tervingi and the Greuthungi, fleeing Hunnic oppression, migrated along the Danube limites of Thrace (Heather 1998: 108; Halsall 2007: 170). While the Tervingi were allowed to legally enter as part of the Roman method of immigration known as receptio, the Greuthungi, having recently engaged in a war with Rome, were not permitted entrance (Halsall 2007: 170-76; Burns 1994: 12; Burns 2003: 302). The Tervingi were admitted for the purposes of agro industrial improvement and conscription, however, food shortages and exploitation of Tervingi destitution from Roman elites, led to a deterioration of conditions along the Danube (Halsall 2007: 176-77). A war ensued (Fig. 5), with the Greuthungi crossing the Danube en masse and joining with the Tervingi to wreck havoc on the Roman provincia (Wolfram 1997: 82; Halsall 2007: 177). The climaxing battle at Adrianople, although technically a defeat for the Eastern Empire, forced Rome to grant the Tervingi and Greuthungi the status of foederati and settlement within the Empire at Moesia (Halsall 2007: 178-80; Fletcher 1997: 72).


Figure 5: A marble scene from a sarcophagus depicting Late Antique Roman conflict with barbarians. (Chris73 2012)


From this point on, barbarian units swelled within the legions, transforming the ethnographic appearance and demographic statistics of the late Roman army, with evidence of this visible in late Roman pictorials such as the silver plated Missorium of Theodosius where we see ‘Romans’ wearing barbarian fashion such as the familiar neck collars, or torques (Holmes 1988: xvi). Although Halsall (2007: 105) has suggested that torques were not worn by all barbarians and that this is more of an indication of barbarian fashion being adopted at court, it is nonetheless interesting to see ‘Romans’ prominently wear them. Contemporary historical works citing many late Roman legions as barbaricaria, as well as the host of German ethnic appellations for ‘Roman’ regiments, also reflect a substantial barbarian presence (Halsall 2007: 104-106, 184-185; Kantorowicz and Bukofzer 1946: 237). For instance, the Notitia Dignitatum collectively calls Gothic recruits Visi, or Vesi, and designates other units by their ethnic (Scythian) heritage (Halsall 2007: 106, 194).

By the late 5th century, Visigoths controlled a large swath of southwestern Gaul along with much of the Iberian Peninsula. However, it appears that Roman culture not only endured but was honored by the new Visigoth monarchs. For example, by order of Alaric II, Constantinian era laws were painstakingly codified and published in Latin as the Breviarium Alaricianum (Halsall 2007: 289, 296-300; Drinkwater and Elton 1992: 73; Brown 2003: 136). Consequently, Wickham (2005: 83) notes that by the mid 7th century Visigoth legalities emulated Roman law considerably. Nonetheless, in the 6th century the villa system nearly vanishes throughout much of Western Europe (Wickham 2005: 229; Halsall 2007: 88).

We also see terra sigillata fabrication replaced by a lesser quality of earthenware, local trade disappears and a corresponding decrease in the Roman social stratification, as is evidenced at excavated sites such as the northern Guadalquivir valley, Granada and the Alicante-Murica region of Hispania (Wickham 2005: 229-30). Conversely, sites such as Meseta, Lusitania and Ebro all reveal villa survival into the sixth century, as does Baetica, however at Baetica the interpretation of the data is disputed with Carr (2002: 92) suggesting that while wealthy Roman aristocracy kept the villa system alive, the poorer communities are invisible in the archaeological record, simply because they could not procure African Red Slip ware (Wickham 2005: 229). Of course, this is speculation and even if true it does not undo the fact that provincial life had been aesthetically altered.

With the collapse of Hunnic hegemony in the provincia of Pannonia, the Ostrogoths began an invasion and in AD 493 wrestled control of Italy (Todd 1995: 177-78; Holmes 1988: 6; Halsall 2007: 287). It is at this time that the villa system begins to rapidly fade in the Italian peninsula (Wickham 2005: 475). The Ostrogothic leader, Theodoric, began construction of Arian cathedrals at Ravenna, for example the S. Apollinare Nuovo and the Basilica Spirito Santo, as well as at Rome, such as S. Agata (Holmes 1988: 6-7; Amory 1997: 256-57; Christie 2006: 138, 140).

Interestingly, the stone architecture of the Arian churches is not unlike Roman types and this, coupled with their use of Latin and toleration of Orthodox Christianity, may imply a sense of assimilation (Christie 2006: 137-38). Furthermore, there is a strong continuity of Roman administrative districts in Ostrogoth Italy by the Christian bishopric, such as the municipium of Fulginiae, which maintains an orthodox bishop, eventually evolving into the diocese of Foligno (Cameron and Garnsey 1998: 400; Christie 2006: 187; MA 2008: 75; Bradley 2000: 143). However, architectural mosaics from Arian churches clearly depict Christ as less then divine, as opposed to the established Roman mosaics which show Him as a part of the Godhead (Christie 2006: 139; Cf. Epistle to the Colossians 2:8-9).

The Burgundian ‘bulge’

In AD 407/8, Burgundians, along with Vandals, Sueves and Alani began a major migratory offensive toward the Rhine at Worms, where they eventually breached the Roman frontier lines leaving behind many temporary settlements (Holmes 1988: 2; Todd 1995: 211; Société de l’histoire 1847: 93). The archaeology of this early settlement activity is sparse and quite difficult. For instance, at cemeteries in Lampertheim and Gross-Gerau, unmistakably Germanic objects are present, but cultural distinctions between Burgundians and other barbarian tribes are nearly impossible to substantiate from these inhumations (Todd 1995: 212; Halsall 2007: 401).

However, a subsequent rebellion led to the critical defeat of Aëtius in AD 436. Consequently, a relatively small settlement was bestowed on the Burgundians at Sapaudia (Goffart 2006: 253). The regional Reihengräber burials at Sapaudia display an unusually high degree of acculturation with existing Gallic-Romans while creating unique intercultural remains, such as a romanized gravestone of a Burgundian in service to Romano-Gallic legions (Todd 1995: 212; Halsall 2007: 108). Additionally, in 1899, a large cemetery at Bassecourt yielded unspecified ‘swords, daggers and lances’ attributed to Burgundians (Frothingham et al. 1899: 582). More recently, a copious degree of Latin belt-plates, some depicting a ‘Christian-pagan’ decorative design containing the Tree of Life flanked by Pegasi, have also been uncovered (Todd 1995: 215; Schutz 2001: 20).

Angles, Saxons and Jutes

The beginning of Anglo-Saxon and Jutish migration to Britannia is a turning point in the affairs of humanity, for the simple reason that this former Roman province — through its religion, language and laws would ultimately influence world affairs. The ‘Great Invasion’ of AD 407-08 created a crisis in the European mainland and Roman soldiers were recalled to Gaul from Britain, allowing the local Romano-Briton social hierarchy, or tyranni, administrative control of British defenses (Holmes 1988: 66; Morgan 1984: 49-51). Consequently, the tyranni began soliciting mercenary support from north-west barbaricum — specifically Anglo-Saxon military aid (Holmes 1988: 67-68). The presence of these factions complicates the archaeological record. However, the earliest Anglo-Saxon settlements in the east included somewhat nuanced Grubenhäuser and several hundred have been found at East Anglia, with cemeteries yielding Germanic buckle-plates (Fig. 6), most probably sported by Anglo-Saxon conscripts employed by the Romano-Britons (Wickham 2007: 310-11; Halsall 2007: 360; Morgan 1984: 53).

Figure 6: A gold Germanic buckle-plate of unknown provenance dated to the 4th century. (WC 2013)

By the first quarter of the 5th century, the Romano-Briton ceramic industry vanishes, as does the use of coinage (Morgan 1984: 50). However, Morgan (1984: 51) has proposed the villa system did not end abruptly, with Millet (1990: 223) suggesting a gradual phasing out of Roman dwellings as continued use of former Roman living spaces persisted for many years. This would make sense if these settlements were from early Anglo-Saxon migrates living under the Roman-Britain auspices (Morgan 1984: 53). Yet, Wickham (2005: 311, 475) states unequivocally that the evidence does not infer continued usage, inferring that it points to a new influx of Anglo-Saxon adjunct agricultural settlements; for instance, settlement continuity is all but absent at Iceni, Trinovantes and eastern Catuvellauni in East Anglia (Millet 1990: 67). Additionally, Halsall (2005: 359-60) notes the nonexistence of the continental ‘long houses,’ or Wohnstahlhäuser, lending to further dissimilarity between these early settlements and typical Gallic Anglo-Saxon sites. Nonetheless, the introduction of cremations and the design of the urns, suggest Saxon potters from barbaricum (Halsall 2007: 361; Morgan 1984: 54).

In the middle 5th century, the Jutes migrated to Kent, or Cantiaci, and from them came many exceptionally affluent pieces. Glassware and gold are common-place on many sites, as are burials with studded belt-plates, gold jewelry and tableware (Leeds 1913: 102-03, 106). A remarkable early female grave yielded among other items: two golden brooches, two bronze brooches, an iron belt-plate, ivory armlet, and silver earrings with glass and amber beads (Leeds 1913: 107-08). A terminus post quem being established by a Roman coin found in the grave baring the image of Procopius Anthemius (AD 469-515). In contrast, elsewhere in Britain early affluent graves are quite uncommon (Wickham 2005: 313).

All good things…

The barbarian invasions are a complex subject dealing with the superimposing of cultures on an existing indigenous society. Further complicating matters is the regionally specific patterns established by inhabitants of varying parts of the Empire. As a result, a heavily stratified post-Roman culture emerges throughout Europe. Considering these issues, I have endeavored thru select case studies to outline the various archaeological interpretations of the regional invasions within their respected chronological framework, in order to provide a comparative/contrastive overview to a very large historical narrative. In the end, one may observe that the sociocultural dissolution of Roman order was as complex and varied as the rise of Rome herself.



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Paul Joseph De Mola, FRGS
Paul Joseph De Mola, FRGS is a Postgraduate of the School of Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Leicester in England.
His principle areas of interest are Roman and early Medieval history, archaeology, and politics, as well as Classical philology. He has broad secondary interests in the archaeology of Bronze Age Mesopotamia, and the political history of Middle Kingdom through Late Period Ancient Egypt, as well as general interests in both Classic and Postclassic Mesoamerican sociopolitical structures. 
Paul has studied Ancient Greek and Latin under Professor Graham Shipley, FRHistS, FSA (University of Leicester, British School at Athens), worked with Professor Jerry Howard (Arizona State University) in the Southwest United States, and researched Roman military history under Professor Simon James, FSA (University of Leicester).
Paul has earned two graduate scholarships from the University of Arizona. His postgraduate dissertation is titled The Archaeology of Classical Greek Citizenship.
Paul is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (London).

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