Monday, February 14, 2011

And Chicks for Free: The Fall of Rome, V

("Know, O prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars.....Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.")

So you'd think people who can read a script can read in general and notice the problem here. Not that I'd build some kind of castle in the air on that basis here. I'd do that elsewhere, although I have to admit that this isn't a promising start. It's what you'd call a systemic error. Here: have a bunch of arguments about whether it was "historically accurate" for Brad Pitt to wear his hair blonde in Troy. You'll notice that people get awfully excited about whether or not the Danaeans were blonde, hence "northern barbarians." Did northern climes formerly produce vast surplusses of people who would, every once and awhile, jump on their oxcarts and their boats and overrun southern climes, where the people of the Middle Kingdom and the Indus, the Mediterranean littoral or Roman Britain were just too decadent to oppose them?

Obvious answer: no. Because

i) Rude, barbarous climes are generally characterised by their inability to support large numbers of people. A few good seasons might produce an excess of, say, rabbits or reindeer in Sweden, but people aren't reindeer, except in the minds of a few ideologues.
ii) "Decadent" assumes what it wants to prove. Historically, large and sophisticated states are distinguished by their tendency to invade their neighbours, not by their "softness" and "unwarlikeness." Generally, we get lines like this from commentators within these societies who are concerned that they're not invading their neighbours enough.
iii) Moving large numbers of people across country is hard. This is why the world's first professional military historian spent so much of his masterpiece cutting down the size of the "barbarian" armies that overran the late Roman Empire from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands of men. (Also because the turn of the Nineteenth Century was one of those going-off-the-rails eras for our thought-leaders.) When you look at the problems of allocating, clearing, and building roads; or feeding troops, cavalry horses and draft animals, you soon realise that it was impossible to move coherent bodies of people across country in demographically significant numbers before the invention of the internal combustion engine. Even seaborne movements are harder than people tend to give them credit for being. And if you want to stop these kinds of things, it's not hard to completely prevent it by systematically building small forts to for surveillance and control at river crossings and on hilltops --the kind of places that the Romans, by and large, didn't bother to fortify because they were so busy building walls around cities and across border marches. (Romans obviously built forts in such places and in large numbers. But they didn't nail down the countryside by doing it systematically, unlike, say, the Normans, who are rarely called better engineer/administrator/statebuilders than the Romans.)

Now, we might see one-way demographically significant population transfers over time. Obviously there was a time before which Iceland was not populated. Yet the better we get at DNA analysis, the less common such movements are in the historical record. The people living around the North Sea and Irish Sea basins are genetically similar to each other, and have been since the Ice Age. For example, Britain, the two populations sort of bleed into each other in the middle. Greeks, if they are related to any groups that moved into the country at any point, are related to people who entered the country from Turkey in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B. (Or there has been continuous gene flow east-west across the Aegean since before recorded history.)

And yet in the 98 years between the Battle of Adrianople in 378AD and the abdication of Romulus Augustulus in 476AD, the western Roman empire was overrun by a series of barbarian invasions. By 576AD, with the completion of the "Lombard conquest of Italy," we can safely speak of an era of Barbarian successor states. When people see a blonde north Italian, they are apt to speak of Lombard blood, and we remember, if we do not exactly regret, the old Lombard League's delightful theory that northern Italy has all the industry and the money because north Italians are superior to southern Italians due to the one having an admixture of Germanic "Lombard" blood, while the latter has intermixed with Africans. (Because Africans are genetically incapable of securing patronage contracts from Turin, or something. Look, I don't know. It's science.) Meanwhile, Latin disappeared as a spoken language in Britain, and in the East, they went so far as to go prospecting for barbarians in the middle of the empire in search of a good, warlike strain.

That's pretty funky population genetics right there, combined with a lot more certainty about how our genes influence us than regular old scientists have. You'd think that when historians start leading the medical genetics research field that they'd look back, notice that no-one's following them, and begin to suspect that they'd turned off the actual race track at some point. As it turns out, they have.


They call it "ethnogenesis." Now, I've talked about this several times on this blog already. Perversely, "ethnogenesis" was first adopted by historians of late antiquity as a way of defending the barbarian invasion thesis. Small numbers of barbarian invaders could produce large effects because people wanted to be like them. A Gothic king and warband conquers Italy, and soon there are vast numbers of social-climbing nobles and groupies who want to be Goths, too. Hey. It's been known to happen. Walter Goffart, as, again, I've mentioned, is all over this theory. He gets like that sometimes. The difference is perhaps sometimes hard to see. Wolfram calls Gothicness "an identity that dissolved on its overthrow into a myth available to all." Goffar focusses on tax law. Late Roman tax codes allowed the Emperor's "federates" a tax exemption in return for maintaining troops for imperial service. While this applied as much to local militias and town watches as to the colonels of "barbarian" regiments of the regular army, the latter get more attention because, well, because they're barbarians. For Goffart, once the tax code baked in a deduction for being a barbarian, everyone promptly became a barbarian, tax collection became impossible, and the "fall" of the Empire is just an epiphenomena of that. If I am not oversimplifying, you can see how to get from here to Wickham's picture of an increasingly "flat" post-imperial society, again by consequence of the end of state taxation.

But consider how much more ethnogenesis might mean in this review of an "anarchist history of upland southeast Asia." Uplanders have a fixed interest in resisting the lowland state. So when the state organises itself around literacy, uplanders embrace orality; when it embraces organised religion, uplanders become heterodox; when it adopts national identity, uplanders become "tribal." We see all three phenomena in the late Roman Empire, and for all that we mountain folk like to embrace resistance to define identity.

We've got causes and effect confused. Goffart is partly right, in that he's identified (or rather drawn attention to) one reason people underwent ethnogenesis: to get out of paying taxes. But, in general, we can expect to see ethnogenesis as the consequence, not the cause, of a failed state. If the Roman state-led economy failed in the fourth century as an inadvertent consequence of Constantine's military reforms and the wars with Persia, ethnogenesis would follow. Stories about barbarian invasions are just that.

Which leads me to repeat that last link:

If I were drawn to meditate on what that might mean to "identity politics" today, this is where I would put the hotlink, by the way.

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