Thursday, April 18, 2013

Old Europe: Puck's Gold

Puck says:  "Weland gave the Sword, The Sword gave the Treasure, and the Treasure gave the Law. It's as natural as an oak growing." Apparently, the lesson is that Puck can't be trusted. The Urwald was willow, birch and lime, Puck. You should know that. Why are you lying to these children? Is there something that you're hiding? Probably. The Fey are tricksome folk, with treasure to hide.

Uncle Scrooge has to hide his treasure, too, albeit only from the Beagle Boys. We see him smiling above, but he wouldn't be smiling today. Except that, Scrooge McDuck being Scrooge McDuck, I imagine he shorted gold a month ago or so. (You can short commodities, right?)

Now I should probably motivate this post: half of it comes from listening to goldbugs. Yesterday, I actually got to hear someone ask, on CBC Radio, no less, "Is there gold in Fort Knox?" Apparently, he thinks that all the gold has been shipped to China. Because reasons. Anyway, the point is, unless you've actually bought physical gold coins and hidden them away in a money bin of your own, you'll be very sorry. Real soon.

Also, I was rereading the exemplary David Mattingly, An Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire (2006), another in the fine Penguin "History of Britain" series for academics looking to read themselves into an unfamiliar period so that they can do a Very Important Project, and not just because it's cool, and, look, Dean, I don't need to justify this to you, because there will be a Groundbreaking Publication imminently. Can haz tenure now? And Mattingly chanced to observe that what we assume to be (since we've all got "informal empire" in the back of our minds) Roman client states in southeastern England minted above a million gold coins in the century between Caesar and Claudius.

A. Million. Gold. Coins. That's 50 tons of gold, less rather than more. (83.5 grains for this one.) What the hell? Now let's motivate the conversation: let's suppose, just for the sake of the conversation, that the Roman Empire, fell, more or less, because its failure to manage its monetary system led its citizens to go Croat[o]an. Someone might say that this has some small contemporary relevance, but I'm not sure what to make of that article. I'm not even sure that "going Croatoan" is a thing, yet, even though it godamn well should be. Take it from someone who supervises a great many hardworking young people who keep taking one vocational course after another just to find themselves with more student loan debt and yet another line on their resume to justify sending out letters to employers that ignore them, because "supply side economic stimulus" means pushing the price of things lower, and why the fuck are we driving the price of educated and skilled people lower in this economy of ours....

Never mind, answered my own question there, I did. Anyway, Rome, informal empires, and gold.

...And Watling Street, with a jaunt to Camulodunum.

Whittaker's iconoclastic take on the Roman sense of geography is that they thought in terms of itineraries rather than space. It's a pretty bold claim, and since I'm going to wave at the even weirder Munn in defence of this idea and mumble about the spatialising of sacro-political power through processions, and maybe again at the brief dawn of the new cultural history when we were all talking about parades as a means of understanding society, I won't stretch any further to claim credibility.

Put it another way: it's actually a little hard to tell just that you are on Watling Street. I've anchored it to Canterbury and St. Albans, because otherwise the pilgrims can't get where they're going on the one hand, and because St. Albans is St. Albans. 

Here's Wikipedia's version of Watling Street:

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On this scale, the point is that the ancient gold mines at Dolaucothi drain out to the continent via Watling Street. On the scale I've chosen, the issue becomes the relative importance of Richborough, Canterbury, and the rivers, since I've forced the Google Maps trace through fords of the Dart and the Thames.

 I am tempted to try to push the road upstream of the Roman Medway bridge at Rochester, but the result is not likely to be very exciting.

Wikipedia. Very neat bit of cartography on the original scale.
As you can see, there's not a lot of room to push the road upstream of Rochester without pushing beyond the line of the Surrey Downs. Thomas Codrington, the authority, is impressed by how straight many sections of Watling Street is, while more recent authors sometimes present this as a defect of Roman mensuration, which could not stray off the straight line and easily find it again. 

Codrington also says that the road starts at Portus Ritupis, which he thought was down on the marshland between the Isle of Thanet and the mainland, and which I think we're more likely to put at Richborough, if there is a substantive difference. Anyway, the road then follows a causeway through the marsh, while passengers, especially high prestige ones, ascended the Stour to Canterbury by boat, unless they came in through Dover instead. From Canterbury the road climbs out of the valley of the Stour to a point 600 feet above sea level ten miles distance.

Straight it may be, but the exceptions are, interesting, for Codrington notes that from there, the road follows almost a semi-circle as it winds down to the 400' contour. From there it is straight on to the bridge at Rochester, with its archaeologically-recovered Roman oak piles and stone foundations.From there it climbs to Swanscombe Wood (200'), thence on to Shooter's Hill (400') and then follows the high ground with very occasional turns except to dip down to the ford of the Dart, and then to the Thames ford at Thorney Island (Westminster),  and from thence to St. Albans, where, as always, we are pleased to meet various ruinous Iron Age monuments on the site of the later Christian place of pilgrimage. (Pagan sacred site appropriated by Christian missionaries, etc, etc, Christmas/Easter/Halloween is a fraud, and so on.)

The description as I have given it is intended to highlight Watling Street's similarities to the Coalwood Road and the Via Aemilia. Romans are "itinerary oriented" in part because they follow the lay of the ground, and the function imposed by the ground. But more on that in a moment....

One of the things that comes out of Mattingly's discussion of Rome's informal empire in Britain, the one that Claudius decided to conquer, is how small it is. If you do not have a fingertip feel for the specifics of English county geography, and I'll be the first to admit that I don't, you can read his reduction of the historiography to the idea of an "eastern kingdom" based at Colchester and a "western" one at St. Albans and get the sense that we are talking about a large span of the island. But, as the map shows, we are not. The Romans were concerned with, and in the first place conquered, a very smal part of the island. It was the best bit, I'm told by some. (A Yorkshireman, I've a feeling, would disagree.) 

That being said, from the Roman point of view, it was deficient in at least one critical way. It's not where the gold mines are. It's probably not going to come as a surprise to anyone to hear that the gold of Britain somehow ended up being concentrated in the vicinity of London rather than in the places from which it was extracted. The details of the mechanism are another matter. 

This is not an inquiry that needs to be pushed to the limit. One good theory about these numerous gold coins is that they represent a standard warband payment, in which case there was a great deal of warlike mobilisation going on in England in the century between Caesar's invasion and that of Claudius. Machiavelli tells us that "a good army can always get you gold." On the other hand, Montecuccoli, whom I trust on these specific matters rather more than I do Machiavelli, answers that the "three things necessary for war are gold, gold and gold." Put it this way: some demand is pulling gold from the ground, and it is ending up being minted on the St. Albans--Colchester axis. 

What makes the Thames basin so special, besides its agricultural productivity so special is the Channel crossing points. You can descend the river and pass through the maze of waters around its mouth into the southern North Sea, or you can cross it and make for the ports along the coast of Kent. Either way, given the winds, the twenty-foot tides of the Atlantic, and the problems of silting and sanding, from there you are headed for Boulogne-sur-Mer, or possible Etaples, if it is the ancient Portius Itius. There are just not that many places to haul your boat and your belongings up out of the drink on this sea.

 I throw this out in part to answer John Haywood, who wants the Roman-era North Sea to be the home of proto-Vikings. The nature of Antique seafaring in the Atlantic is . . . .odd. I have a feeling that the voyage of Pytheas of Massilia might be an astronomical fiction, that is, not having a better way of articulating hypotheses flowing from cutting edge astronomy, ancients told stories about places where the Sun switched places in the sky, or there was a midnight sun. But that's a feeling. On the other hand, we have Skara Brae and, a the most romantic extreme, St. Kilda, even in historic times reached by small boats making the forty mile transit from the nearest of the Outer Hebrides by voyages under sail and oar lasting two or three days at a time. 

There is nothing in the technology of any great interest. It's the motivation for making a trip that grueling in order to get to a storm-wracked pile in the sea that's in question. Until we find evidence of pre-Roman fishermen pushing out into the deep Atlantic, something that I do not think that we are going to find, the answer would seem to be that these islands made great sheep ranches, and Neolithic people were strongly motivated by the idea of "living places where there's food." 

That's presumably not the reason that Claudius went to Britain. It is not, in a practical sense, why 40,000 men, legionaries, auxiliaries and mahouts all found, would ever go to an island. Even an island that might have supported over 2 million people in 43 AD. I'm saying, I'm thinking, that it's the gold that motivated that. Oh, and Claudius's compelling desire to celebrate a triumph, so that he did not end up like Caligula. On the other hand of that, there's the issue of reality versus substance. All the nominal triumphs in the world lack a certain moral force that being able to distribute a million pieces of gold in loot will give you. 

But, again, another step back. These peripheral non-Roman kingdoms in this tiny corner of Britain are building up a huge surplus of coinage very quickly. What is motivating all of this financial activity? I am going to push my theory the same place that I've pushed it before. St. Kilda is a small island in the middle of the River Ocean that's a very good, but small sheep ranch. Britain is a very large island in the middle of the River Ocean that is a very good and very large sheep ranch, and horse farm, and cattle ranch. The historians of Watling Street, if not of Roman Britain, are quick to remind us that Strabo tells us that Britain is exporting cattle and corn in this period. Earlier, I called Watling Street a drain for the gold of Wales. It's almost equally clearly a drain for the cattle of the Thames Valley and the Midlands. 

People argue about whether the Roman Empire had an economy. I am not sure that it did, but, once again, I am reminded that the debate over Roman demography begins with the claim that labour-intensive arable is being replaced by capital-intensive ranches in Latium. I am reminded of my skepticism that the Roman Empire, so forthrightly organised around the interests of the elite, would have seriously run a "corn dole" for the inhabitants of Rome that did not serve the interests of the elite along with the poor supposedly kept happy with games and circusses. 

And I am reminded that the senators (you know, the part time generals who commanded the legions) routinely spent vast amounts of money to bring large numbers of animals to Rome for the games. Usually we understand these animals as victims for the arena. But now I am visualising great barbecues in the street, and the slaughter of vast numbers of cattle from Hertfordshire and Holland, Saxony and Hesse --driven over the passes of the central Alps, perhaps, and so explaining why the Romans were so uninterested in developing them as carriage roads-- and then recovered to sale weight on the corn of the annona.

I've put this theory in the context of early empire in Sumer, and in the context of the Oregon Trail, where it's not a theory at all. Chicago really was the sheep, as well as hog butcher, to the world. And it seems right to me in the Roman context as well. It is not a trade that needs to be profoundly important to the lives of the average Roman, or even to make economic sense in any deep way. Assuming, as I think that we are assuming, that there is no way of making substantial amounts of money by exporting stuff from Rome to the north, the  mechanism is that one is making a profit by buying cattle in the North, selling them in Rome, then physically moving the money back north and buying even more cattle. (Which explains why business is being done in gold, rather than silver or bronze.)

So you'd just keep on making more money that way, right? Ever more cattle, ever more money being moved, cycle after cycle, on and on. Now, even a Roman's eye view of economics could detect an incipient bubble when it is put this baldly, but given that money is going north to pay for the legions, and bullion is coming south from the mines, it is not likely to be anywhere near that obvious, at least for a while. To pile one more hypothesis on top of the groaning mass, I am going to point to Carausius as the moment when it comes apart. No coincidence, then, that the last act of the Roman Empire starts in Britain. 

*Uncle Scrooge relaxing in his money bin, high on Killmule Hill above the town of Duckberg in the great state of Calisota. From this Carl Barks fansite.

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