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How Did Barbarians Use Gold Received from Rome?

Originally published under Ask Mr. History. Published Online: February 11, 2014 
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What did the barbarians, most notably the Huns, do with the gold they got from the Romans in tributes? How did they spend it? On what?


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Dear Steven,

Gold, with its ability to withstand corrosion, has been a valuable currency standard around the world for about as long as mankind has been aware of it. Any "barbarians" who pillaged a "civilized" society are equally aware of its value as such. Inevitably, then, an ambitious warrior whose stock in trade is pillaging thinks not only of the money he steals but of the things that money can buy. Otherwise, of what use is it? No matter what crisis a major civilization faces, life goes on for the people—farmers farm, artisans create, and the barbarians always find someone in the countryside or towns willing to do business in the things they cannot make for themselves (and if the barbarians just kill everyone and take what they produced, then there will be no one left to produce them…so it makes sense to pay for something every now and then). Other than that, the more powerful leaders were sometimes buried with their wealth and some fashioned death masks from the gold. It depends on which nomadic raiders you're referring to—and it's unfair to generalize.

A case in point is the Vikings, roving opportunists for whom rape and pillage was just business, if they could get away with it. And if they encountered a place too strong to raid? Then they came to trade, exchanging whatever (or whoever) they'd stolen from the last place for whatever the new port had to offer. And if a Viking found himself in Byzantium with nothing to offer but his strong right arm and the sword it held, well, there was plenty of good money to be made by enlisting in the Varangian Guard. Whatever the situation, for a Viking, business was business.



Jon Guttman
Research Director
Weider History Group
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