Cookies on this website
We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. If you click 'Continue' we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies and you won't see this message again. Click 'Find out more' for information on how to change your cookie settings.

A podcast of this seminar is now available. 


Up to the mid-fourth century AD, the language of refuge regularly appears in Roman sources in the context of frontier management. It is employed both of high status individuals, but also – more strikingly – of very much larger groups: certainly several tens of thousands of individuals, and sometimes apparently a hundred thousand plus-strong. The basic political economy of the Empire – powered by unmechanised agricultural production in a world of low overall population densities – meant that there was always a demand for labour, and, in the right circumstances, refugees could expect reasonable treatment. Provided that their arrival posed no military or political threat to imperial integrity, refugees would receive not only lands to cultivate on reasonable terms, but might also be settled in concentrations large enough to preserve structures of broader familial and even cultural identity. In other circumstances, however, imperial control was enforced by direct military action and survivors were sold into slavery and might themselves redistributed as individuals in adverse socio-economic conditions over very wide geographical areas.

In the late fourth and early fifth centuries, a distinct change becomes apparent in imperial policy. Some very large refugee groups – particularly those that were Gothic – were granted lands within the Empire on terms which broke with long-established Roman norms. These groups were so large and retained so much autonomy that they posed a distinct threat to the continued integrity of imperial rule over the particular regions in which they were settled. Over time, some of the settlements eventually became the basis of independent successor kingdoms as the power of the west Roman centre unravelled. This transition poses an obvious question. Why did traditional Roman policy towards refugees change so markedly in the late imperial period?  

about the speaker

Professor Heather joined the History Department at King's College London in January 2008 as the Chair of Medieval History. He was educated at Maidstone Grammar School, before moving to New College Oxford to complete his undergraduate degree and doctoral work. Prior to joining King’s, Peter Heather worked at University College London, Yale University and Worcester College, Oxford.

His research interests lie in the later Roman Empire and its successor states. He is widely published in these matters, with a focus on the Goth and Visigoth kingdoms of the Medieval period and publications including The Goths (Oxford, 1996) and (with D. Moncur), Politics, Philosophy, and Empire in the Fourth Century (Liverpool, 2001). In recent years, his research has looked at propaganda in the late Roman elite, and issues of migration and ethnicity among the groups who dismantled the western half of the Roman Empire. Future work is likely to centre on developing legal systems of the Roman Empire and its successor states, and the evolution of particularly Christian authority structures in the same contexts.

related content

Peter Heather External 

The history of refuge News & Media