“What did the barbarians do with the gold they got from the Roman Empire as tribute? Where could they spend it, and on what?”
Thanks for asking this ‘Ask the Expert’ question! First of all, let’s talk about ‘barbarians’ – what is a barbarian, anyway? The Romans applied this term with a broad brush – they called anyone who didn’t speak Latin, a barbarian. Other civilizations have also used the term, generally to mean something along the lines of ‘Those people who aren’t as advanced as we are.”
Once they had their tribute gold, most people outside Rome actually turned right around and spent the tribute on Roman goods, while a few tribes and cultures who had a tradition of working with gold produced all kinds of ornamentation because of the rare properties of gold. This brings us to a deeper question – why was gold so valuable to early cultures?
Valuable Metal Prior to Currency
Gold and other precious metals had value to many people well before the Romans came along and turned it into an organized currency. This applies to gold especially, as it is incredibly easy to work with and it never tarnishes. The fact that gold never tarnishes is the reason we think it often becomes associated with divinity in many cultures.
The Celts, for example, used round bits of gold as a standard for trading well before Roman contact.
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Gold Gave Access to Variety of Goods and Ornaments
But as for what the “barbarians” could do with their gold – nearly anywhere the Roman army went, merchants followed, and army camps often sprouted areas of commerce that would remain even after the legions moved.
At least later into the empire, any barbarian friendly to Rome would have had access to goods from all corners of the empire. For those less interested in using their money to buy Roman goods, and for those that did not have metal-based economies of their own, metalsmithing is most likely what they did with their Roman gold.
In areas like Thrace, working with gold was a centuries-old tradition, and ornamental jewelry, masks, and figures for religious or political use were common. It is important to remember that the Romans had done such a good job of standardizing gold-for-goods that even cultures who weren’t Roman had a big interest in participating in the Roman economy.
Barbarian Gold Working and The Rise of Rome
This “Barbarian” gold-working, which started well before the rise of Rome, became part of the legacy of Rome as it passed to the early Church in western Europe.
So, in answer to your question, the so-called barbarians had many options when it came to uses for their Roman tribute gold. From making coins to buying goods from merchants and even using the gold for elaborate decorations and jewelry, the sky was the limit for early civilizations during the Rise of Rome.