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Foederatus (pl. foederati) is a Latin term whose definition and usage drifted in the time between the early Roman Republic and the end of the Western Roman Empire. Early in the history of the Roman Republic, a foederatus identified one of the tribes bound by treaty (foedus), who were neither Roman colonies nor had they been granted Roman citizenship (civitas) but were expected to provide a contingent of fighting men when trouble arose, thus were allies. The Latini tribe were considered blood allies, but the rest were federates or socii.


The Republic

During the Roman republic, the friction between these treaty obligations without the corresponding benefits of Romanity led to the Social War between Romans, with a few close allies, and the disaffected Socii. A law of 90 BC (Lex Julia) offered Roman citizenship to the federate states that accepted the terms. Not all cities were prepared to be absorbed into the Roman res publica (e.g. Heracleamarker and Naplesmarker). Other foederati lay beyond Italymarker: Gadesmarker in Spainmarker, and Massilia (Marseilles).

The Empire

Later the sense of the term foederati and its usage and meaning was extended by the Roman practice of subsidizing entire barbarian tribes — which included the Franks, Vandals, Alans and, best known, the Visigoths — in exchange for providing soldiers to fight in the Roman armies. Alaric began his career leading a band of Gothic foederati.

The word federations came from the Latin word foedus, which indicated a solemn binding treaty of mutual assistance between Romemarker and another nation for perpetuity. At first, the Roman subsidy took the form of money or food, but as tax revenues dwindled in the fourth and fifth centuries, the foederati were billeted on local landowners, which came to be identical to being allowed to settle on Roman territory. Large local landowners living in distant border provinces (see "marches") on extensive, largely self-sufficient villas, found their loyalties to the central authority, already conflicted by other developments, further compromised in such situations. Then, as loyalties began to fractionate and become more local, the Empire began to crumble into smaller and smaller territories.

The Franks became foederati in 358, when Julian the Apostate let them keep the areas in northern Gaul, which had been depopulated during the preceding century. Roman soldiers defended the Rhinemarker and had major armies south and west of the Rhine. Frankish settlers were established in the areas north and east of the Romans and helped with the Roman defense by providing intelligence and a buffer state in place. The breach of the Rhine borders in the winter of 406 and 407 made an end to the Roman presence at the Rhine when both the Romans and the allied Franks were defeated by an incursion of Vandals and Alans.

In 367 certain Goths asked Emperor Valens to allow them to settle on the southern bank of the Danube river, and were accepted into the empire as foederati. In 378 AD the Goths then rose in rebellion and defeated the Romans in the Battle of Adrianoplemarker. The serious loss of military manpower forced the Roman Empire to rely much more on foederati thereafter.

The loyalty of the tribes and their leaders was not reliable and in 395 the Visigoths, this time under the lead of Alaric, once again rose in rebellion. One of the most powerful late Roman generals, a Vandal called Stilicho, was born of parents who were from the foederati.

By the fifth century lacking the riches of the Eastern Empire needed to pay a professional army, the Western Roman military strength was almost completely based upon foederati units. In 451, Attila the Hun was defeated only with help of the foederati (who included the Visigoths and Alans). The foederati delivered the fatal blow to the dying Roman Empire in 476 when their commander Odoacer deposed the last Western Roman emperor Romulus Augustulus.



Primary Sources

- Ammianus Marcellinus- Zozimus

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