The fundamental problem with most of ancient history is that the vast bulk of everyone involved left no records behind. There are bright spots, and sometimes stories that were later written down, but sometimes even those iffy sources are missing.

We have some idea of the cultural landscape of central Europe from the first century BC on thanks to Roman records about the ‘barbarians’, but there are no native records to combat Roman bias and prejudice. The Barbarians Speak by Peter Wells is a reassessment of what central Europe was like from about 100 BC to AD 300 based on over a half-century of archaeology, and modern cultural anthropology. It is also kept to a tightly constrained scope, looking mostly at the border regions of the Empire (along the Rhine and Danube), with some study of what has been found in the interior of modern-day Germany, and into the Jutland peninsula. While the conquest of Gaul is very important in the structure of events, the bulk of provincial Gaul is not considered in the book. This isn’t polished history, but rather a first step of synthesizing general trends from a large mass of data.

A number of traditional conceits come up for reexamination. Rome did not conquer an area and then turn the inhabitants into ‘proper’ Roman citizens over the course of the next few generations. Most areas were not incorporated into any sort of Roman administration for at least a generation, and then the higher stratas of society started adopting Roman practices while more rural areas show no real change at all until much later, by which time urban native society is re-emphasizing local traditional practices and art.

The book has a nice section on a few different new styles of pottery forms and decoration that emerged during the third century. I find it interesting that most of them can be described in terms of Roman provinces for their geographic spread, and wonder if any of the more ‘nationalistic’ forces that seem to be cropping up in this period are more in the line of provincial regionalism.

A running theme of the book is settlement patterns: Settlements in Germany start out as simple single farms, and then move towards larger, more centralized patterns during the first century BC. There are signs of disruption around the time of the conquest of Gaul, but it is worth repeating that Wells points out that it can be hard to date many sites, as most rural populations had no contact with Roman goods, making early Roman period finds look just like pre-Roman ones. This difficulty is made worse by the fact that Roman and Pre-Roman archaeology are separate disciplines, who don’t talk to each other as much as is needed.

By the late first century AD there is a pattern of even larger settlements that traded luxury goods from the Romans (presumably in return for cattle, meat, hides, and other everyday goods not well recorded in Roman sources). During the fourth century, as the Roman border erodes (and it is noted that there is no sign of wide-spread destruction of Roman forts and bases that would be expected from how Roman writers talk about the invasions of the later Western Empire), settlements end up going back to the pre-empire pattern of settlement. …Which argues that there were indeed large-scale cultural dislocations, instead of the ‘society continued much as before’ model that this same author was arguing for in Barbarians to Angels.

In all, it is a good starting point for understanding where scholarship in this subject is going, and worth reading from that perspective. It may even be a good starting point for further broad discussion for those specialists. But if you’re wanting lots of substance, it isn’t here; there’s just too many unknowns.