Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Old Europe: Always Falling: A Technical Appendix

This is the Rhine, the river that breaks the rules of the old Ionian School geographers and flows out of the Hercynian Forest away from the equator. (Via Wikipedia.)

Here's another look at it:

Floodmaster Intranet
According to the experts at Floodmaster, who might make a little too much use of Google Translate, the governor of Transalpine Gaul did a remarkable job in 38BC in founding what would become in Vespasian's time the capital of the new province of Lower Germany, Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium,

"[I]s located just downstream of the middle Rhine and [is] one of the most of flood prone cities in Europe. The old part of the city is located at low altitude and object to plain floods, especially in winter time.
The mean water level in Cologne is 3.21 m, corresponding to discharge of 2000 m³/s. The lowest water level recorded was 0.80 m in 2003, with a discharge of 630 m³/s. The last hundred year floods (HQ100) in Cologne were the floods in 1993 with a water level of 10.63 m Cologne level and in 1995 with a water level of 10.69 m and a discharge of 11000 m³/s. The high water level of 1995 flood was due to a number of flood surges coming down the Mosel, leading to long-lasting flooding. The highest water level ever measured (HHQ) was 13.55 m in February 1784.

If this were in the west of North America, where dykes and ditches have barely even begun to unlock the managed potential of the landscape, Cologne would not meet the river with a neat concrete-and-masonry wall. Those are, you may have heard, not natural formations. Okay, that's my natural facetiousness coming out, but this technical expansion of my last post is not going to make much sense if I don't spell this out. Again, if Cologne were a half-settled townsite on the edge of a major river that is unaccountably not developed because there just aren't enough people (and these places exist in my part of the world), it would not have that embankment. It would not look like that. The flats down by the river would be overgrown in rank grass and, the voyageurs would probably have called it the "Greasy Grass." The phrase is out of the French to the English in a way that was never intended to communicate the point I am now trying to make, but the point is clear nonetheless. This kind of place is not to be called that because it is thick with grass, but because it is where the grass makes fat. By which I mean to ask you to set aside our common nearing-middle-age concern for the thickness of our middles and to remember the good grease that gets on your fingers and dribbles down the chin at a good old-fashioned cookout: butter on corn, butter on salmon, baron of beef dip, shrimp chips carried cradled from home in tupperware to impress the white kids.

 Okay, technical stuff:

At the risk of recycling fact into factoids, here is some great research by Robert van de Noort*:

Biotic Productivity (g exploitable carbon per square meter year
Dryland pasture
Dry Arable
Open deciduous woodlands
River bank plus floodplain

None of this is news. I learned in grade school that the old French habitants carved out their farms in narrow strips leading back from the river, so that everyone got an equal share of the more fertile riverbanks, whereas Anglo homsteads were all scientifically square. I learned much later that that kind of ethnic essentialism was not nearly as insightful as I was told, and also something something Northwest Rebellion. 

The point is that those flooding, underbuilt, "marginal" spaces on the edges of rivers and seas are far more productive than the classic rolling farmlands that we tend to think of as "fertile" land. It's just that they are usually used to produce livestock instead of wheat. The Eighteenth Century agronomists tended to roll their eyes at this kind of productivity. Either land should be under wheat to pay rent, or enclosed by the landlord to run sheep. Something suspicious and subversive was happening when it was left as "waste" and grazed by village communes in some surely unscientific and wasteful way. Enclose it, drain it, plough it, perhaps impose some elaborately scientific crop rotation. Then you'll see the land live up to its potential, they used to say.

With which point I will not disagree. Nineteenth Century High Farming really did produce a great deal more from these lands than letting cows graze and pigs root on them. Acorns are not a substitute for grain. That being said, the Romans, well, they did not do high farming.

What did they do? They fought. Let us, just for a moment, meditate on "Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium." It is appropriate that it carries the name "Agrippa," as many things Augustan do. It is not an uncommon cognomen, after all. However, it hides a most uncommon family name: Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa was governor of Transalpine Gaul in 38BC. Wikipedia calls him Augustus' close friend, son-in-law, lieutenant and defence minister." 

Which is crazy. If we want to  understand Roman politics in the last century of the Republic and the Principate, we do not want to talk about "defence ministers." We want to watch Monty Python:

If you're short of time, just skip to the end where the archaeologists are jousting on piggyback. That's Roman politics for you: clan chiefs perched uncertainly on top of substructures of family-based networks of treachery and patronage, jousting with each other. Augustus was still a boy when his uncle died, under his uncle's supervision, and, more importantly, that of the women of the Julian gens. It was they who had arranged his companions, including Agrippa. I would not go as far as Barbara Levick, my recent guide, and call Augustus a sociopath, but I am going to put it out there that princeling's companions are chosen for them for reasons other than personal chemistry. 

It is too bad, therefore, that we know so little of the Vipsanian gens. There are tantalising hints that they were from northeastern Italy, and the inference from their obscurity is that they would have had difficulty making their way in the world as far as they did unaided. But that's all that you can say. Julius Caesar died in 44BC, and a 21 year-old Augustus hurried to Rome with his friends and decided to avenge his uncle. Which is to say, the massive pyramid lurched into action and gave him the choice of being on top, or underfoot. Presumably, that pyramid included a Vipsanian interest, as well as all the other clients that the Julians had gathered beneath them, and it was as much to keep the pyramid in line as for any other reason that Augustus began to make daring, illegal, and vicious moves in order to stay on top of Roman politics. All too frequently, those moves included calling on the armies of the proconsular governor of transalpine Gaul.

In 38BC, that governor was Agrippa. Agrippa was the first after Caesar, we are told, to cross the Rhine on campaign. We read this, with out modern preconceptions, as a military feat. If we were Romans, we would think of the king/consul/former consul/dictator crossing the sacred perimeter of the city. Perimeters exist to be transgressed, as ritual pollution exists for the sake of lustration, or lustration for the sake of transgression. Crossing boundaries is transgressive, but every year the commander does it, once a just war has been found to justify it.  Going outwards, he gathers the young men of Rome on the Campus Martius to make war all summer. In the fall he re-enters the city like the groom entering the bride that is the city, celebrating his triumph by dedicating victims and spoils to the Capitoline Jupiter. 

Coming back from the salus, the wild lands, Agrippa brought a handsome offering of dedicants, not to the Storm God of Rome, but to the River Rhine. An entire tribe of Ubi were settled on an eminence in the midst of the flooding lowlands of Cologne. Some eighty years later, it would take that name from, I think, his grand-daughter, Julia Agrippina, wife of Nero. Cologne was only one of many places honoured by names taken from the imperial family in this era, but it is characteristic in at least one sense. Notwithstanding the way that the family honoured its descent from the Julian gens, the names mark the triumph of the Claudians and the Vipsanians. The Claudians, being one of Rome's greatest clans, stand by their name, while the Vipsanians let their ignominious name fade into the background. 

I point this out as an illustration of the undertows in the history of the Principate. Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa is a far more important figure in Augustus's Rome than he lets himself be seen as being. That would probably not be the case had he not died before Augustus. Chances are, he would have succeeded Augustus. It is even conceivable that he contemplated arranging that during the crisis of 23BC. 

Never mind, no-one needs to care about that. What matters here is that I am demanding a radical revision of our understanding of how the Roman legions got to the Rhine, one in which every movement is dictated by urgent demands for patronage and wealth. Last time, I dismissed the idea that there was a security issue. Romans did not think that way, in many dimensions. They did not think in terms of defended frontiers, in terms of using the legions of the governor of Gaul to defend Rome's security, in terms of having the firm sense of geography that would have allowed them to conceive of the Rhine as a frontier. This is all old news, and the reason that classical historians are more likely to talk about the Rhine-Danube line as a road than as a frontier these days. 

So how did the armies get to this line? The new answer is politics. The legions went into action, looking up from the depths of the pyramid, to build up the political legitimacy of successive contenders to Augustus's position, and, looking down, to pay off the men below with patronage. Wars are about victims for sacrifice and spoils for dedication, up and down. The armies went looking for loot, to put it more crudely, and for a good time when they were not on campaign. They had to be put, therefore, somewhere that they could be easily supplied with the relishes of life that we know that they got, and wanted: oil, wine and fish sauce from the south. So it makes sense to send them into winter quarters along the rivers. River transport is cheaper than land transport, right?

Well, okay, sure, although we have no evidence that the Romans cared about the cost of transport, which they simply requisitioned from provincials. It is not as if this part of the economy was monetised, or would be any time soon. I could quibble here, point out the length of the overland portages, the likely cost of bringing stuff up the Rhone, the mysterious lack of a Roman nautical archaeology to indicate that they used even cheaper sea transport, the absence of Roman works that would have opened up the  inland waterways between the Scheldt and the Rhine that medieval shippers found to be the only practical way for Atlantic goods to reach the Rhineland. 

I am not going to quibble about that today because I am going to invoke another way in which Romans can think about roads: as boundaries between the salus and the settled, between centuriated fields and  'unoccupied waste.' In very concrete terms, the Roman Rhine frontier is exactly that. It's just that the waste that I am referring to is not the vast expanse of barbarian Germany, but rather the very few miles of lowlying flooding land on either side of the Rhine. 

When we talk about "grassland," the phrase that leaps to mind for me, because the DVDs are here and I have an evening off to watch them, is "the Dothraki Sea." The idea is a vast expanse of waving grass, wandered by nomadic pastoralists. I conjured with this image last time in talking about the way that the Romans recrutied, had to recruit, barbarians as cavalry. 

It is deceptive in crucial ways. The sea is a featureless expanse because water finds its level. That is why land where grass can grow cannot be a sea. The  rain and snow that falls on it will wear out gulleys that become rivers that find their way to the sea. If the land is flat enough, the river will run above the land, and create a vast marshland. If it is not, it will cut a deep canyon. The vast ranges of the pastoralists of Inner Eurasia are not always located on the rivers, because there are also mountains to go up in the summer, but our easy images of a "grass sea" ignores the vital importance of the great rivers. Grass is limited by the amount of water that it can get far more than by the land available for it to grow in. 

There are places where grass grows in vast sheets all year round, but they are places where it rains a lot in the summer. Or where great rivers flood. What I am saying here is that the Roman conquest of "Gaul" was a sideshow in a vicious battle for political primacy in Rome. Everything that the Romans did has to be seen in this context. Augustus was living, literally, in a state of apprehended insurrection for his entire life, and the gradual transition from pinceps to emperor hardly made things more stable. True, the senatorial historians liked to characterise "bad" emperors, but the new trend is to see "tyrants" as men who are at the head of politics but lack the power to be true kings. Tyranny is a study of negotiating the lack of true executive power. (At least, so I read this fascinating book, which badly needs to be extended, especialy through the Severans.)

So the question is, how does the loot from the frontier translate itself to Rome? Oh, for sure, there was bullion and there were slaves. Here's an article, forwarded to me by Lameen Souag, discussing the evidence for a Roman slave trade in the Sahara, for example, showing just how strong the evidence is that the Roman demand for African slaves and wild beasts for the arena organised the oases of the north. I'm just going to add a question about livestock. Surely the Romans had cattle drives. (I do recall ancient anecdotes about goose drives from Gaul, but one would think that sheep and cattle droves would be much more everyday experiences.) Surely, and let's call a shithouse a shithouse, the million-strong population of Rome indicated by the size of the annona implies vast corruption rather than an Antique victory over the messy realities of public health for which we have no evidence at all.** The grain that was brought into Rome was not (all) being fed to people. It is hard to imagine that the Roman state would have been strong enough to prevent its diversion to fattening cattle even if there was a real need for every pound of it. 

So what I am proposing here is a feedback model for the legions' steady close on the Rhine. They went to where the resources were. If the ritual calendar unearthed at Duro-Europas is good for the whole army, and there is no reason to think that it is not, animal sacrifice was such a regular activity that a legion would take some 1200 head of cattle a year. And in terms of the draw on riparine resources, that  must be an underestimate, because it entirely omits cheese, eggs, poultry and pork. This is not uncontroversial: there is some evidence for a purely vegetarian diet (which I suspect will eventually be discounted. Seriously. These are the guys with swords you're feeding, here. 

There is also evidence that the land around the camps that was legally under their control and whose produce belonged to them, varied greatly from camp to camp. This has led to historians doubting their reconstructions. I suggest the opposite, that Roman camps, like early modern fortresses, had "herbage rights" to the floodplains in their foregrounds. The camps were sited as much to control the floodplains as anything else, so that legionaries could be kept happy with lots of meat in their diets, and so that great flocks of animals could be sent back to Rome (and, of course, places like Carthage) and consumed there. 

*Robert van de Noort, "Where are Yorkshire's Terps?" van de Noort points out that it is very hard to find evidence for the exploitation of Yorkshire's estuarine environments in the early medieval period.

**As A. Trevor Hodge has shown, the average Roman relied on backyard latrines and wells, not aqueducts and sewers, for the necessities. The great water supply and sanitation works for which Rome were famous were acts of liberality, not utilitarian practicality, and were utterly inadequate to the needs of a million-strong population. Which there was not in Imperial Rome.


  1. Lundspeak, Mattingley listen: http://www.aarome.org/news/features/jerome-lecturer-david-mattingly-rewrites-roman-north-africa

  2. All I know about Roman archaeology in North Africa comes out of Mattingly. And the nice articles that Lameen sends me!