What was, then, the effect of the great barbaric invasion upon the social classes of the Romans? Superficially, one might imagine that the leadership would be taken over by the conquerors -- that is the essence of the conquest social class theory. Actually, although there were instances of flight by some members of the upper classes, 54 the Roman class structure held its own with astonishing tenacity. In the light of what happened in the century following the first sacking of Rome, it is altogether probable that St. Jerome's account of its effect upon the superior families of Italy was greatly exaggerated. 55Next Page
There were, of course, flight, terror, and murder. The barbarians, unfamiliar with city life, had broken into the cities and towns. But life had to go on. Artisans were called back to their posts. More important still was the fact that during the long reign of Theodoric 56
all the forms of the Roman administration survived . . . . Theodoric had done his utmost to conciliate the Catholic clergy and the Italian nobility . . . . Romans had retained all the official posts; not one had been given to an Ostrogoth.
It is well known that the towns of northern Italy never died out, nor did they lose their memory of Roman political, judicial, economic, and social life. The bishops, mostly of senatorial family, were Roman for centuries. Ataulf, even before Theodoric, had found that the world could be governed only by Roman laws.57
For all this there was reason: Who were the literate? Who was familiar with civilized administration and affairs? Who led the church, which greatly awed the barbarians? Who kept the records? Who impressed the invaders with their nonchalance? With their estates and villas? They were the strong and old families who lived in the reflected glory of the patrician Republic and the senatorial Empire.
Of these things much will be shown in the case of Gaul. Italy was no different. If anything, there was even more continuity of Roman class divisions in Italy than in Gaul, which had to endure a dual invasion, first by the Franks and Burgundians, later by the Northmen.
It can be said without error that although the centralized Empire disintegrated and fell apart in the West, the family lines and the social class structure did not fall apart or disintegrate. Whatever will be said in the next chapter about Gaul will apply well to Italy. The classical theory of social classes (subordination and super-ordination) formed by the mechanism of conquest will be shown to have little applicability in the case of the barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire. Here the theory of social class continuity holds true.
Conclusion. The theory that Roman social classes are first "closed," then "open," and "closed again" should give way to the interpretation that Roman civilization was aristocratic and socially class conscious from the outset, through the middle years, and at the end. Documented history does not substantiate the theory of Sorokin, Fahlbeck, and Knight that there were alternating periods of intensive mobility and intensive rigidity.
54. Gibbon, op. cit., p. 1125; Dill, op. cit., (38) p. 244.
55. Ibid, (Dill) pp. 307 - 308.
56. Hulme, op. cit., pp. 153 - 154.
57. Edward A. Freeman, History of the Norman Conquest, vol. V (Oxford, 1876) p. 58.