Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Old Europe: Bad Generals

Everybody! The General needs your help! The rights owners have done a heroic job of making sure that you'll never see White Christmas (1954) on the Youtube, but here's the opening. And here's today's proximate inspiration: "What's to be Done for a General who Retires?"

I know that it's only the foreshortening effect of history that lets me associate a movie released in October 1954 with the relief of Douglas MacArthur in the spring of 1951, but it's all still just slightly creepy.

You know what else is creepy? The foremost military intellectual of the United States Army getting into bed with a sycophant because she liked to go on 5 mile runs with him and talk about, I don't know, "state-building." I didn't compose this post with General Petraeus in mind, but this won't be the first time that I've mused aloud that the Pentagon could do with more engineering and less "counter-insurgency." That's not a knock on five mile runs, and I'm not saying that technocracy can solve the problems of Afghanistan better than grass-roots political organisation at the muzzle end of a Barrett Cal. 50. As I understand it,  building roads in Afghanistan is supposed to complement state-building, so if they've failed, they've failed together. There. But I'm not talking about there.

I'm talking about here. Generals are in society. Armies come out of societies, and go back into it. NATO has been fighting a double war in Afghanistan, but it's also been sending soldiers home at the end. What happens to them is important, too. Who these veterans from the wars returning are happens to differ from one kind of war to the next. On the one hand, there's a Special Ops war, all climbing mountains and, I assume, given all the Seal Teams, swimming places. On the other there's a drone war, which is all about autonomous devices synching  remotely so that fewer wedding parties get Hellfired.

 Again, I'm trying to pass judgments about morality and efficacy, just highlight two choices for our modernity here in North America and coming down in favour of the technocratic one. You can't demob and invest your pension in a neighbourhood running-up-mountains-and-stabbing-people-to-produce-favourable-political-outcomes shop, whereas people are always blowing up their crappy Vaio laptops and looking for a convenient repair guy. (And by "people," I mean, "Stupid Sony. Never again.") And who knows? If you get your policy right for North America, maybe it'll have an impact on the ground in Afghanistan, too. Weirder things have been known to happen than emulation when you model something that actually, you know, works.*

So the choice, at least here, is between an economy that works, and one that has to find a place for political-operatives-with-bayonets (and sometimes horses). It's not much of a contest, is all I'm saying, and I'm not sorry that General Petraeus is in trouble, but he's not the inspiration for this posting. That would be the fact that the "Boulogne" in "Boulogne-sur-Mer," (terminus of the Coal Wood Road) isn't accidentally similar to the fat city of "Bologna," home of the sausage. They're both vulgarisations of "Bonnona," from "Bonna." I take that fact, and the involvement of Gaius Marius, five times consul, Mark Antony, and, perhaps, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, the faithful sword at Octavian's side, and ancestor of Roman emperors in the same parts of the world, as evidence that something is going on. That would be the little historical mystery that tweaked my interest in the first place, and the problem to be explained (bad generals) in this post.  It's an attempt to understand them in terms of an economy that works.

The point is that there is a top down interpretations that says that the foundation of the Roman Empire is sufficiently explained by some political stuff that happened.** The causes of an empire that spanned the entire Mediterranean, one further capable of conquering all of the Maghreb, Spain, France, and England in a little over a century are to be found in faction fighting in Rome. On the other hand, there are oak forests sheltering browsing pigs, oblivious to the Mediterranean sun and to the loads of salt coming down to them on the trails in swaying donkey loads.

Let's set the scene. First of all, "Bonna" might mean something Celticish for foundation/citadel/granary, in which case the fact that towns named "Bonona" appear in Serbia, Italy and multiple places in France isn't much of a mystery, apart from the problem of explaining how the Gallic language came to be so widespread. However, it could also come from "Boii," which the Romans identify as a tribal name, but which can be etymologically established as meaning "cattle owners," suggesting that the Latin historians have taken a class identity for an ethnonym. 

The Boii, along with the Senones, Lingones and Cenomani,  are one of the Gallic tribes who invaded northern Italy about 400BC. Our source is Polybius, who is setting the scene for a Roman-Gallic war fought between the two Punic wars. Livy gives us an account of the era of the conquest itself that climaxes in the  Senones capturing Rome in 390BC. "Vae victis," King Brennus told the Romans hiding up on the Capitol Hill, before despoiling the city. Thus, we are told, the Romans came to fear Northerners, which is why Marius making war on the Cimbri and Teutones was such a big deal.

Talk about burying the lede! But, look:

Hur Hur. He said "spoils." Peter Joseph Jamin.  

Look, when Marius went marching north on campaign in 105BC, the sack of Rome was almost three centuries old. Rome had been threatened more recently (and more effectively, given that Rome, you know, survived) by Carthaginians and Epirotes since. Allies, and slaves would soon be an issue. Seriously, the problem here starts with the premise. Try this: get in your time machine, go back to 130BC, and propose to a Roman male that he's all, like, scared of anyone. Northern barbarians, southern barbarians, eastern barbarians, whatever. Just bring a gun or something.

No, we can take the lead from the painting, even if it comes to us from a much later generation of dirty old man. People are fascinated by the sack of Rome, all right, but it's not "fear" coming off that painting. Or, if it is fear, it's the delightful kind that comes from fetishistic, self-indulgent social transgression. If the 390BC sack of Rome was "good to think with" in the Rome of 105BC, it was not because it aroused imminent threats of the military extinction of the state.

So what's going on? Well, that much is obvious. Gaius Marius is a rising politician. Forget the idea that he is a free actor, driven by overweening ambition. He's the head of faction, and by the late second century BC, his course of action is pretty much stereotyped. He needs to raise an army, win a war, gain a triumph, and provide freehold farms to his veterans as a reward for their service. And although he takes the unusual step of recruiting men with no property for his army, we should take the actions of his nephew's nephew under advisement. When Augustus's legionaries pressed him for their retirement benefits in the early 20s and the Princeps could not make good, he settled for distributing "official robes" in lieu. The veterans were apparently not impressed, but the point was clear. Whether Augustus was helping them with an expense in advance, or just symbolically reminding them of their future, the point is that the farms that the veterans would, in the future, hold, signified that they would also hold magistracies in the local res publica in which the farm was located. His veterans were being offered a future that centred on the political office that came with the land, Marius wanted useful clients, not an Arcadian peasant's republic.

So that's Marius's point. He is a politician. He has to build up a clientage to support him and his successors. This clientage will consist of families of local magistrates in provincial towns who will look to his leadership, and that of his sons after him, as grand magistrates in the Roman metropolis. War, which will allow him to take spoils, slaves and land, is a means to that end. Are the Cimbri and Teutones threats to Rome? As well ask whether they are Celts or Germans. As well ask if they're real.***

Frankly, the notion that a social group large enough to defeat a hundred-thousand-man Roman army was capable, in late Iron Age conditions, of wandering down from Jutland to Provence, then making side trips to Spain and northern France before jaunting off to Austria and back to France, is something that only a Roman historian ought to be able to buy. At least they have the excuse of not having modern cartography. That modern scholars repeat it just leaves me cringing. I mean, for fuck's sake, assuming that the Romans are exaggerating by a magnitude of 10, we have 10,000 warriors here. They need someone to bring them five tons of grain every day just for subsistence. The whole point of "barbarian" Gaul is that it's barbaric. It lacks cities because it lacks a sufficient productive surplus to support non-subsistence labour. Add dependents? We're supposed to, and now we need even more grain. Horses and cows? One assumes so. Add lots of forage. Where do all these people go into winter quarters? What the fuck? It's been a century since Delbruck debunked this nonsense.

But stop for a moment here, because the geography here is all melting into each other. One way of looking at this is that the "Cimbri" and "Teutones" don't even have to exist. (If you're wondering why I haven't made a snide remark about the Iraq war yet, you haven't been clicking on all my links.) Nothing more is needed than a narrative on which to operate a rhetoric of "just war," and given that the old Roman gods were a narrow and legalistic lot, that was not hard to come by. Marius can pivot on a north Italian base, launching plundering raids, and, yes, actual wars, perhaps against defensive confederacies that his own activities have promoted. He can take loot and spoils, settle his veterans, and establish his political future. 

Is it entirely a coincidence that his nephew, Gaius Julius Caesar also operated in Gaul? I ask because of the final mystery here, Augustus. When I first asked myself, quite recently, how Octavius/Octavian/Augustus Caesar ended up with an army that he needed to send into winter quarters on the Rhine, I was led to his general, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, an amazingly prominent figure for someone of his shadowy background (another fascinating Internet crackpot theory); and Augustus' other boyhood companion, the professional literary patron, Maecenas. The argument here is that when a 19-year-old Octavian shows up in Rome to claim his inheritance from his uncle, he's pushed forward as the head of Caesar's faction more-or-less because there has to be one, and there is dissent within it against the other choice, Mark Antony, who is so closely connected with Bologna that Augustus agrees not to recruit there. 

So Augustus's lieutenants, boys of his own age, chosen as his companions by his guardians, represent interests within his faction. I mean, that's how dynastic politics work, right? If we come up short in understanding Augustus from his own antecedents, and we do, at least by my authority, Barbara Levick, then his lieutenants offer another opening. Vipsanius seems to have been from the northeast, while Maecenas was of Etruscan origin. So our eyes are pointed north. But north exactly where?

Here's a Bologna-centred Italy. Bologna. As you can see, Bologna commands the northern exit of the pass through the Appenines leading from Tuscany to the Pianura Padana, the Po Valley.

Leaching from Wikipedia, here.

Bologna proper is not in the Po Valley as such, thanks to modern hydraulic engineering. Formally, it sits on a bench at 54 meters elevation above sea level, at the juncture of the Reno and Savena, but these Appenine rivers no longer fall into the Po. Instead, they point south and east along the Via Aemiliana to its juncture with the Via Flaminia, the old road of war from Rome to the Gallic country to the north.

Taken from Wikipedia, but not hot-linked, because I've imposed enough.
It's not my favourite angle, because you can't quite see the Rubicon. Here's a plain vanilla Google Earth image of the area around the famous river that marks the border between Gaul and Italy that Caesar crossed to start his iteration of the civil war.

That's right. If you go all the way down the Via Aemiliana to the Adriatic coast, just at the point that the Roman road that follows the coast through Ravenna and all the way up to Aquilaea and to the east beyond, you meet the river Rubicon on the first short leg of the Via Flaminia that leads to the sources of the Tiber, which pierces the Appenines in its upper course and leads, eventually, to Rome. Somehow, our search for Roman Gaul has led us to a very un-Gaullish place, you would think. Except that if you look a little further down the coast, you find Senigallia in the Marche, or, formerly, the Pentapolis. Here it is: official and Roman, the city of the Gauls who sacked Rome. 

I see a pattern here, one implicit in historical geography. Let Wikipedia explain:

The [Po] valley is broadly divided into an upper, drier part, often not particularly suited for agriculture, and a lower, very fertile, and well irrigated section, known in Lombardy and western Emilia as la Bassa, "the low (plain)". The upper areas of the Po valley take local names which reflect in their meanings their being modestly suited for farming. So we have the Piedmontese vaude andbaragge, the Lombard brughiere and Groane, or, exiting from the Po valley proper, the Friulian magredi, areas remote from easily reachable water tables and covered with dense woods or dry soils.
This specific meaning for "lower plain" derive from a geologic feature called the fontanili ("spring") line or zone, a band of springs around the Val Po, heaviest on the north, on the lowermost slopes of the anticline. It varies from a few kilometres to as much as 50 km (31 mi) wide. The fontanili line is the outcrop, or intersection, of the anticline's water table with the surface at the edge of the bassa. The rock above the line is porous. Surface water in the intermittent streams of the mountains tends to disappear below ground only to spring out again in the spring zone.[5] The spring zone is often called "the middle valley."
Surface runoff water (the Po and its affluents) is not of much value to the valley's dense population for drinking and other immediate uses, being unreliable, often destructive and heavily polluted by sewage and fertilizers. Its main anthropic value is for hydro-electric power, irrigation and industrial transport. The cost of purifying it for human consumption makes that process less feasible. The fresh drinking water comes from hundreds of thousands of wells concentrated especially in the fontanili zone. The major settlements therefore are also in that zone, which has become the center of economic development andindustry in Italy, and now is an almost continuous megalopolis stretching from Turin to Trieste.[6]
The bassa Padana was settled and farmed earliest, in Etruscan and Roman times, and has been completely devoted to agriculture since the Middle Ages, when efforts from monastic orders, feudal lords and free communes converged. The older and smaller cities deriving from ancient times are still located there.

The Po Valley is a gigantic syncline of 46,000 square kilometers created by as part of the Eurasian collision with Africa, a huge chasm partially infilled with sediment, its edges forced up into heights. Like the much more modest uplands at the edge of the Anglo-Belgian plain, the heights are water permeable, and there is a "spring line" where fountains and streams emerge from the earth. Above it is a land of dry forest, and (much) below it is "la Bassa" waterlogged country that required the highest level of organisation and investment to remediate for intensive farming. When we hear about the limitless farming land of the Po Valley and its unlocking by the Romans, we need to look at the course of the Roman roads across it to see what the Romans see. Not the Po as a whole, but the fountain zone around the spring line through which the roads pass. With wet pasture below and oak forests above, this is a country where Roman cities can be built. 

Back up a little, and we start to see a historical picture. Late Bronze Age Europe is the era of the Urnfield culture (1200--800BC), first detected from the great fields of cremated burials. Archaeologists have been known to conjure cultural complexes out of pretty evanescent evidence, and then hijack the inquiry with beyond-pointless speculation about ancestral language families --not that I'm going to avoid that today. 

With the Urnfield Culture, I think we're safe in seeing some kind of broad cultural continuity. Two groups in two different places don't start making funeral vases like this by coincidence. It's a little hard to make deeper statements about the Urnfield complex without getting vaguely cosmic, but if Barry Cunliffe and this doyen of Slovenian archaeology can agree that it was a period of intensive land clearances that sees the establishment permanent field systems, than that is what we'll agree that it was. Robert F. Drew thinks that it's a military system, as well, in which chariots are replaced by bronze slashing swords, which are certainly a characteristic feature of Urnfield burials, but I think I'm just going to politely disagree with him on that one. "Swords" and "chariots" are not cognate things. One is a mode of enabling cavalry, the other a weapon that cavalry or infantry can use. Cunliffe, more intriguingly, points out that while Urnfield swords have brought typological similarities, Urnfield axes don't. Pragmatically, I'm going to say that the tool that evolves multiple local iterations is more likely to be the one in wide use than the one with a single ideal type. The Urnfielders are land-clearers more than they are fighters. 

The Urnfield Culture is associated with the Villanovan culture, which is generally taken as ancestral to the Etruscan civilisation in northern Italy, the typesite being just 8 km from Bologna. This is interesting on multiple levels, because the Etruscans have been the a magnet for linguistic crackpots for a very long time due to their apparently non-Indo-European language, and the ancient story that they emigrated from Asia, which is about as plausible as any other Ancient migration story, notwithstanding the Etruscanlike inscription on the island of Lemnos in the northern Aegean. Much more interestingly, increasing attention to the Raetian inscriptions suggests a continuity with Etruscan, not in the distant lands around the Aegean, but in northeast Italy and neighbouring parts of Austria and Slovenia. People are inclined to point to the "Amber Road" at this point, but I'm left thinking, again, of the overland connection with Anatolia via the Sava and the Danube. Perhaps there is a connection between the Aegean and Etruria, but one that is much more prosaic than a bunch of prehistoric, pre-Indo-European colonists travelling on Bronze Age ships. 

Anyway, archaeologists confirm the story of a "Gallic" invasion to the extent of seeing an intrusion of the Urnfield-replacing Hallstatt Culture in the cemeteries of Bologna. They do not, however, see conquest, any more. Though, to be fair, archaeologists hardly ever see conquest, these days. Instead, they prefer to see an Italian modality of the general evolution of "Hallstatt" out of Urnfield. The key ideological move is the changeover from cremation to inhumation. The key economic move is indicated by the central role of the huge burial field at Hallstat in the Salzkammergut

Here's the thing: the agricultural system at the beginning of the Urnfield Europe is a development of underdevelopment. Take the absence of attested field systems as diagnostic. The productive potential of the land, in terms of wheat, beans, and forage, is potentially far greater than it is. The point of the centuries-long unfolding of Urnfield is precisely its development to a greater potential productivity, albeit one still far short of its potential.

Why is this the case? Because in 1200BC, the population will not support greater production in the face of food glut. There is certainly a problem with crop failure and famine, but these episodes just undermine attempts to build up financial instruments. Who wants to be paid for food with money, much less "social capital" when they are starving?

So someone needs to take the bull by the horns and compel society to produce an agricultural surplus. Whether Bonona signifies a granary located in a high, central place, or Boii refers to a class of chiefs rich in cattle, this is the process that gets underway in the Urnfield. The transition to Hallstatt, vaguely remembered by the Roman historians as the "Gallic invasion of 400BC," is an intensification of the process. I would argue that the centrality of the village of Hallstatt in the Salzkammergut is no accident. Salt is vital to an agriculture that aims for surplus, whether of cattle or for a snug cabin where you can look out the fat-soaked parchment window at the first snow of winter, and then look up, complacently, at fat hams dangling from the rafters. 

Hallstatt culture is marked in transalpine Europe by the revival of pre-Urnfield hillforts, and by the building of many more. Along the spring line, at the margins of the marshy bottom of the Po, it is marked by the founding of Roman and allied "colonies." I'm saying that they're not necessarily different phenomena, and that "Gallic barbarians" are getting in the way of understanding what is actually going on here. Marius, as far as he knew, was using the rallying cry of "the Republic is in danger" to march armies up and down the spring line, lunging into the mountains to take bullion and slaves, and returning to the roads to establish new clientages. Little did he know that he was setting in motion an empire that would conquer itself.

The point here is that Marius was entering (or, rather, completing his entrance) into the Hallstatt economic niche. This was a niche that could be  propagated beyond the Alps: in fact, already had been. It is not a continuous field of power, but rather a self-propagating chain of economically-productive niches of similar basic geography. It can start small, with little towns looking down on the Po from the south, at the openings of the Appenine roads that lead south to Rome. 

From there, it propagates as quickly as retired veterans have multiple sons. Marius and his nephew and his nephew's nephew want clients. Each Roman "conquest" makes it possible for his older clients to place another son in another new res publica. He will own land from which he can extract a revenue because, in the end, his tenants need salt, whether it comes down through the Alpine passes or from some much more convenient salt spring. He will dress in his local magistrate's robes that allow him to take his place in networks of patronage and clientage that reach up to Rome. If his patron is assassinated on the floor of the Senate, he will not look to the niceties of the Roman constitution, about which he will neither know nor care, but rather at the demands of honour, and but damn well expect that someone will take up the position of "heir" and avenge his patron in blood until blood will not answer. This network can stretch from one Bonona to the next, from Bologna in Italy to Boulogne-sur-Mer to Goethe's Bonn to the Danube shores of Bayern, because it links systems of agricultural knowledge across a common environment. Those who claim it will be the heirs of Marius, by definition

Could something similar happen today? I have no idea, but I do know where I'd start: with the drone operators, not the SEAL teams.

Silly Petraeus. 

*Not that I have a more practical solution than hiring all the Afghans who want to come over here and drive trucks and send tons of money home by Western Union. On the other hand, it's worked everywhere else, so give it a shot?

**Marius+Sulla+Caesar+"tyrannicides"+Augustus/Mark Antony=Empire!. How can you argue? It's math! Or a cautionary story.  Because, you see, it's all about political choices and regular elections. Ignore all that economic and demographic stuff, because it'll probably solve itself. What matters is that the other guy is, like, a Dark Lord of the Sith or something.

***Nationalist linguistic scholars: fight now!


  1. Not sure what to make of much of this, but as for the Boii, from an African perspective it seems quite normal for a job title to become an ethnonym. Chaoui, Shuwa, Bedouin all come to mind, and the Baggara offer an exact parallel. This makes sense, since the correlation between ethnicity, occupation, and language is often rather strong: in Mali, broadly speaking, Bozos fish, Fulanis herd cows, Tuaregs herd camels, and Bambaras farm, each keeping their own language, even if they all happen to be in the same area. And appropriately enough, according to whoever Wikipedia is referencing, "the Germanic *χimbra- finds an exact cognate in Slavic sębrъ "farmer." Sadly, "Roman" does not seem to have been an occupation, at least not in the sense of "job title".

  2. Actually, "Roman" probably is a job title in this context: civil magistrate. To be Roman is to live a civic political life. So if you're going to raise huge armies of would-be Romans to plunder the Mediterranean, you're going to need more cities!

    Or maybe I'm just saying that because I downloaded the first season of Parks and Recreation

  3. Ooh. Good one, Alex. A story that has a tribe of "civil magistrates" proliferating res publica across a changing agricultural landscape, too: the Vryburgers.

    1. Endlessly moving back and forth over the crumbling imperial frontier, too - either cooperating in the project, overreaching, and being reined in, or else picking a fight with the natives and then crying to mummy, and then moving out again when she wanted them to pay taxes and stop having slaves. Muuuum! You're such a drag!

      we need a post on the Sand River Convention.

  4. Just remembered this, but "Cossack" or Kazakh is a job title: light horseman.