In the course of the fifth and sixth centuries, barbarian warbands acquired property rights in the former provinces of the Roman west, in a process that established the broad structural characteristics of early medieval society in western Europe: that is the central contention of this essay. Focusing on the western Mediterranean heartlands of the Imperial government and senatorial aristocracy, it argues that these property transfers were fundamental to the emergence of ethnic identity as the crucial political marker in the post-Roman west. Latent conflict over the respective rights and obligations of barbarian ‘guests’ and their provincial ‘hosts’ structured the first attempts at post-Roman state-formation in the west, for the nature of the ‘hospitality’ offered to barbarian warbands accommodated within the Empire became a matter of contention as second and third generation ‘guests’ continued to enjoy the fruits of the property of their ‘hosts’. Interpreting these new social relationships in the light of established legal forms, barbarian kings identified agreed mechanisms for the legitimate transfer of Roman property to their followers: this process allowed Roman landowners to seek remedies for illegitimate or violent seizure, but at the price of acknowledging a significant redistribution of land to a new class of barbarian soldiers whose liberty was rooted in their military service. The result was the emergence, by the seventh century, of regionalised and militarised elites who appropriated the language of ethnicity to legitimate their position.