Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Fall of Rome, VI: Under the Green Cover


Cold buckwheat noodle soup is the number one summertime dish in Korea, per I'm sure it's better than it looks, and that Koreans have fond childhood memories.

But. . .

How to make sausages eggplant and buckwheat "sandwiches."
Words fail me. 

One of the ways that we write about technology in an "I never thought of that" vein is to conjure up existential crises out of our dinner plates. Supposedly, in an era where in much of the world the total cultivated acreage is in decline, we are on the verge of a subsistence crisis by virtue of running out of inputs such as water or artificially fixed nitrogen, as though in two hundred thousand years of experimentation with landscape curation the human race has not developed a pretty extensive set of solutions to those problems, that the real problem is the very limited amount of buckwheat (and peas, vetch, millet, etc) that people can be persuaded to eat. 

As I have blogged before, Fagopyrum esculentum, is one of three species collectively known as "buckwheat" in genus Fagopyrum of family Polygonaceae which also contains sorrel, rhubarb and sea grape, as well as some of the nastiest and most persistent field weeds, such as the various knotweeds. With a short growing season, the heat-tolerant buckwheat fits into a larger family of plants that the poet tells us that we should sow on the wheat fields in June, "when all hope is gone."

 In other words, it is a food crop that you can plant after it is clear that your wheat or barley has failed. By the end of August, the field will be covered by purple flowers overshadowing black seed clusters. While harvesting a crop of buckwheat risks establishing it in the soil as a weed, buckwheat is tolerant of high nitrogen content, while using little of it or of residual soil moisture. It draws up other ions into the soil. In the tradition, it grows on "the moors," or is grown by "Moors," which in this context I take to be dirty poor folk on the fringes of civilised life in a parish-ordered Early Modern Europe. Buckwheat may not pay the tax bills of highly-capitalised farmers, but having food, however awful it looks, is better than not.

The complication here is that buckwheat's attributes also make it a good "green cover" crop. "Green cover," like "green manure," is one of those complications of agriculture-as-it-is-actually done that make our simple stories about it so unhelpful. Basically, if you sow buckwheat on a ruined field in June, you might be intending to take a food crop off it. If you are the landlord of tenants who do this, you might reasonably be concerned about that because of the whole establishing-a-field-weed-that-makes-bad-hay thing. However, you might also intend to plough the buckwheat right back into the soil. The point of planting the buckwheat in the first place was to conserve the soil moisture, vegetable fibre and nitrogenous material that would be lost otherwise. A vain crop of buckwheat this year means far more market grain next. 

Again, I am focussing on buckwheat because it is Heidenkorn, and I am playing to the whole "Moor" angle where it is (very arguably) the crop of the marginalised and the illegible. There are plenty of plantings that will do what buckwheat does, and it is quite possible that if I actually were an off-the-grid peasant in late medieval Europe trying to eat without drawing attention to myself, I would plant one of them. Buckwheat is not a good "green manure." You want vetch for that. If the soil is already nitrogen rich, you might want a better haying crop. Pearl millet is recommended by the Australian Northern Territory Government website. Interestingly,  I learned this by following up on the traditional recipe for couscous. This signature North African staple used to be made of pearl millet before semolina took its place. This at least suggests that if the original Moors needed a crop that was illegible to the state, they looked to pearl millet rather than buckwheat. The angle that I am aiming for, obviously, is the metaphor. How better to concretise this analogy than with the image of someone pulling a green cover over the landscape, and what better crop than Heidenkorn? And with that I am going to leave off making fun of earnest foodies. In the post-Apocalyptic future, we may all be eating buckwheat groats.

So. On to the green cover I have detected this week. 376, the Emperor Valens was defeated at Adrianople by an army of Goths. After a brief interregnum, the Spanish general Theodosius supplanted the dynasty of Valentinian and Valens, marrying into the family to heal wounds, fought a civil war, had the first recorded Canossa moment with Augustine's patron, Ambrose of Milan, and died, leaving two boys, Honorius and Arcadius, to be imperial colleagues. Arcadius died young in 408 in Istanbul, while Honorius made it to 423, pepetuating his dynasty. In a moment of turmoil during the reign of Honorius, there was a mass barbarian invasion, famously crossing the frozen Rhine at Main on New Year's Even, 405. From this eruption we trace the ultimate establishment of the "successor" kingdoms: Vandals in Africa, Visigoths in Spain; Burgundians in . . . Burgundy, Franks in France, Ostrogoths in Italy, Isaurians in Anatolia.

I throw that last one in as a bit of a joke. Attentive readers will already know that the Goths, Burgundians and Franks did not cross the frozen Rhine in 405, and once we reach the point of discussing an alleged barbarian invasion that originates in the Hittite heartland, we see that, in the famous words of every academic historian everywhere and in every time, "something more complicated is going on."

One attempt to solve this mystery has focussed, amazingly enough, on what the Romans said about it, which was that the barbarian armies were, in general, welcomed as, or subjected to, the status of foederati and settled on abandoned land. This has been formulated as everything from barbarians seizing land to farm to a version of "quartering" troops to, most controversially in the writings of Walter Goffart, to the pure allocation of tax farms to the support of units of the Roman army. 

Obviously, I intend my prolonged discussion of green cover and green manure crops to problematise the idea of "abandoned land." You may suspect by  now that I am likely to bring back horses. And, of course, I am going to make a big deal of The Amazing Thing I Learned On Wikipedia This Week. After the break, of course.

So we can start with the idea of "abandoned land." To some, this makes no (Malthusian!) sense. Pre-modern humans live on the edge of a subsistence crisis. The Society for the Propagation of Useful Knowledge used to suppose that the entailed estates of great aristocrats contributed to the privation of the nation by letting vast tracts of land be used only for grouse hunting. The point was not that the land was not being used, but that it was being inefficiently used, thanks to bad real estate law. So, in this sense, the issue was that the Roman state or the barbarians were going to seize land that was being put to inefficient use and put to efficient uses. Or the reverse. More likely the reverse, actually. This is how you get to the "horses eating people" model. 

Move forward a generation to the point where the climacteric of the Napoloenic Wars and the Corn Laws had ensured that much of this land was being used to grow grain, and you get a new argument, in which rational economists finally noticed that maybe the old feudal landlords were not complete idiots for not growing grain on land ill-suited for it. Although to avoid looking like they'd made complete asses of themselves, they talked about the difference between rent and profits and blah economics talk blah. 

The right crops for the right land, in short. This is where "legibility" comes in. Maybe the local peasantry, with their local, empirical knowledge, were right to plant buckwheat all along! If only someone called pearl millet "Moorish Corn," I would be off to the races. (And did food porn with it. And, no, this does not cut the mustard.) 

Here is what you want to think about when you think about horses, courtesy of indefatigable American Civil War blogger Craig Swan. Here are the links to the relevant posts. (1, 2.) The bullet point summary is one that I am familiar with from Prince Eugene's campaigns in Italy. War eats horses. (Especially war in Italy, although the Prince does not see fit to explain why.) By the end of the campaign, cavalry regiments will be 90% "dismounted." Fighting an early modern war at the cusp of modern book-keeping gives us better numbers. Swan shows that the Army of the Potomac stepped off on the campaign of Gettysburg on 1 June 1863 with 30,000 horses, 14,400 with the cavalry. Compare this number with Gavin Robinson's "Why Horse Supply Matters," which suggests that a difference in supply of something like 2000 horses is the difference between Essex's effeminate ineffectuality and the vigour of the New Model Army, and, pointing, in the end, to the absolute necessity of Parliament finding the money and forging a relationship with 10 London horsebrokers. The difference between a civil war on a small, albeit rich, Early Modern island and a large and also rich early Modern continent is far less than an order of magnitude of horses at the pointy end.

But behind it....

In a report on means of transportation in the Army of the Potomac, Brigadier-General Rufus Ingrams tells us that the army has, 8,000 officers, 134, 000 men, 9000 horses as "means of transportation," 21,600 mules and 5,800 wagons and ambulances; cavalry, 13,300 horses; artillery, 7,000 horses.

It will be immediately apparent that the American Civil War was fought with a severe shortage of sabres. Napoleon stepped off into Russia, per Richard Riehn,with 612,000 men and 184,000 horses. Four times the men, (more than) ten times the horses. No wonder people in the Ohio valley are abandoning their identities as Indian hunters to embrace new ones as American farmers. Anything that'll get a keelboat of grain to New Orleans! 

Nor should we sell the live animal side of American agriculture short. There may only be 14,000 horses with the army, but there are 17,000 in depots in the rear. The army has suffered 18,000 animal losses to death, capture or condemnation and sale in the last six months. That is, Craig Swan points out, 250% losses, directly implicating an attrition equivalent to 7% of the nation's supply of 6.2 million horses. One of the main causes of losses, of course, was lack of forage, while the main limit on the number of horses was the size of the supplying stud. Europe's ability to sustain the Grand Army, especially recalling that Napoleon had set himself against the inner Eurasian horse markets is just, simply, amazing.

There is a limit to how far we can go in arguing by analogy. I can gesture at these numbers and suggest that mounting, say, Julian the Apostate's exercitum Gallium must have been a huge effort. I can plead with our scarce sources for an accounting of the fate of the horses. But it is too late. The reports of the last Constantinian emperor's master of horses are lost forever.  All that we can really say is that, for a surprisingly small number of horses, the endless Persian and civil wars can be construed as absorbing a very large share of Europe's horses on an ongoing basis. At another time and another place, I would talk about finances. 

Today, I want to slip under the green cover and embrace the nubile Earth. From 268 to 270, one Claudius was emperor. Something happened in front of Milan when Aureolus rose in revolt against Emperor Gallienus. I like to think that Gallienus, a dead man walking, knew it, and greeted his death with something close to gratitude after a decade on the razor's edge. It makes his fate a little easier to take. Claudius, at fault or no, went on to win a mighty victory over invading Goths, and took the appellation "Claudius Gothicus." Ralph W. Mathisen*tellingly quotes the Augustan History: after Claudius defeated the Goths, the countryside was filled with Gothic farmers. The Goth became a colonus. Mathisen adds that "colonus" means tenant farmer, and up-ends our instinctive reaction about sharecroppers by pointing out that this was "no mean status" in the Roman world. Because I have an agenda, I am just going to wave at the yeomanry of old England here

Oh, hell, no, I'll just explain. A "yeoman" is, ideally, the kind of tenant farmer who is himself fairly wealthy. He probably has some land, but, more importantly, the means to make a return on a much larger acreage. "Means" includes capital, but also horses and social connections, which means that he  has what it takes to be a horse breeder, a horse soldier, or perhaps even lead a troop of horse.

To follow up on the people introduced in the last paragraph, Claudius Gothicus died in 270, after a short reign. The Augustan History was probably written about 395, but its author is sly and devious and, in matters of fact, untrustworthy. He probably had an agenda, but it is hard to recover. At least in the 270 period, though, there are intriguing hints. He says nice things about Probus, and there were prominent senators of Verona in the 380s who bore that name and probably traced their descent from Probus. Another emperor, Tacitus, is described as a descendant of the famous historian, and prone to quoting him. Meanwhile, the Theodosian era was inclined to antiquarianism, and presumably would have been pleased with this image.

As for Claudius Gothicus, our historian avers, he is the grandfather of Constantius, the stem and origin of the Constantinian dynasty. Modern historians like to dismiss this as myth. This veers a little too far in the direction of by-your-own-bootstrap mythology. It is far more likely that a man who was Roman emperor for a year was the grandson of someone important than of a peasant. Occam's razor and all that.

But what can serve as our truth here is simply this. Genealogy very often works by making you the descendant of the people you want to be descended from. The ancestors you own in your public ideology are the ancestors who serve your public ideology. The DNA test is pointless to this logic. What do we know about Claudius? That he may or may not have been involved in assassinating his predecessor. And that he defeated "the Goths," and settled them here and there as yeomanry.

I began this discussion with a reference to Walter Goffart, A combative man, Goffart cannot conceal his disdain for a school of historians who take some things said about "the Goths" in ancient times very seriously as real history. In particular, Peter Heather thinks that he can write some kind of ethnohistory that takes the Goths at least as far back as the turn-of-the-Eras Poland, and as far forward as the 500s, when, as one more boulder budged loose by the Hunnic avalanche, their ever rebounding momentum helps destroy the Roman Empire from within. Goffart is so perplexed by this that he almost does not know how to approach it.

And, honestly, I agree. It can be very useful in some sense to say that "the Black Watch fought at Waterloo and in Kandahar," but the formal content of the comment does not rule out the possibility that it was commandos with trick bumbershoots at Waterloo and Martians with heat rays at Kandahar. Or the reverse. Black Watch is a label that can mean anything that the-authority-in-charge-of-naming-things-the-Black-Watch wants it to mean. Consider this alternative version: "the Royal Newfoundland Regiment fought at Prairie du Chien and at Beaumont-Hamel." Because the Wikipedia article has been updated, you will have to take my word for it that this phrase was not used in, say, 2000.   The RNR only got its well-deserved War of 1812 battle honours in 2012. For much of the two centuries between, the achievements of the Newfoundland Fencibles was down the memory hole. If I had to say why, I would put forward the very strong suspicion that their achievements were the result of their being Algonquin-speakers at home in small boats, and their place of recruitment being suggestive of their being ancestors of the current, White inhabitants of the island of Newfoundland. My point is only that the tradition that links the Fencibles and the RNR is a creation of the last decade, but, because this is how historical tradition works, it now has always existed. The question is not the actual descent of actual Goths, but why that particular name is being kept at the forefront of our attention.

Here is my explanation: Julian the Apostate was the last Constantinian emperor, but he was not the last Constantinian. He died on campaign, and the army selected Marshal Jovian to succeed him. Jovian negotiated a peace treaty with "the Persians," did a few emperor-like legal-type things, and then died on the march back towards the centre of the empire. Jovian was succeeded by Valentinian, who had had differences with the Constantinians. Valentinian wanted to go beat up Germans, so he raised his brother, Valens to the imperial office and put him in charge in the east. Valens promptly had to deal with a revolt by a Constantinian claimant, Procopius, which he did. Then he fought a war with the Goths; then, he got into trouble with the Persians; then, more Goths invaded the empire (pressed by the Huns, we are told). Trying to recruit these Goths as foederati for a war with the Persians, Valens so mishandled things as to be killed in battle by these Goths at Adrianople. Valentinian had died the year before, of a stroke, so enraged was he at the line taken by Quadi barbarians in negotiations about rendering yet more foederati troops. The succession fell to Gratian, who embraced an Alan identity. This enraged the troops and helped to lead to a mutiny/civil war in which the Spaniard, Theodosius became emperor.

We are back where we started, with the crossing of the Rhine and Honorius and Arcadius almost back in sight. I just need to take one more digression, through Theodosius's second wife, Galla, the strategically chosen daughter of Valentinian by Justina, and mother of Aelia Galla Placidia. As I have blogged before, on the basis of prosopographic reconstruction alone, Justina is believed to have been a Constantinian, not surprisingly implying that Valentinian, like Theodosius after him, married into the dynasty that he had overthrown. Valens,on the other hand, did not, and Gratian was not Justina's son. Serves them right, a random Constantinian partisan would say. 

Oddly, the historians we have (at least, given one reading of the Augustinian History) are Constantinian partisans.

So the fact that the Constantinians perpetuated their family lineage after themselves is not a surprise around here. That Galla Placidia was a major figure in the politics of the first half of the fifth century is also not news, nor that, through her, the Theodosian dynasty was restored, with the presumptive admixture of Constantinian blood in the form of Theodosius II.  Kenneth Holum's point has been made here before.

 I just had no idea how far it went. When, in 455, Valentinian III died after first destroying Aetius, the Vandal king Genseric responded by storming Rome, where, for some reason, a half century after the court had moved to Ravenna, he was able to take Galla Placidia's granddaughters, Eudocia and Placidia. Eudocia was married, as previously planned by her father, to Genseric's son, Huneric. Placidia was detached from her husband, a vastly wealthy senator and part-time emperor of the Anicii. Eventually, she arrived in Istanbul with a retinue of 1000 Gothic cavalry, where her daughter, Anicia Juliana, is known for the church erected on her family estates within the walls of the city, and by the praise poem that describes it. Anicia Juliana is there explicitly described as the living representative of a royal dynasty, and the builder of a church dedicated to Saint Polyeuctus. Given the Anicii's involvement in the Nika Riots, it is not hard to see Hagia Sophia itself as a response to the erection of Saint Polyeuctus. 

In other words, the prestige of a rival dynasty is a threat to Justinian: fair enough. But why is the response to build a church, as opposed to, say, beheading everyone? Indeed, it is harder to imagine a more, uhm, what's the opposite to hard, determined, violent, decisive action? Anyone? Gender studies folks? Well, whatever word we choose to use, more opposite to that than what Justinian did do, which was arrange a marriage between  his family stem and the Anicii, followed by the promotion of a scion of that line as his successor. Germanus, who gets some puffery in the late pages of Procopius that no-one reads because there's no Belisarius, so who cares. So just as a bullet point summary of what is already in Wikipedia via Procopius, Germanus (505-550) carries the blood of the Justinian dynasty, Theodosians, and Constantinians, is married off to Matasuntha, a scion of the royal line of the Goths, as this is constructed around the figure of Theodoric. although Germanus promptly dies under the weight of all of that accumulated genealogical importance, it is not before having a son with Matasuntha, who, in turn, has a daughter who marries the eldest son of the Emperor Maurice. Claudius>Constantius>Valentinian>Theodosius>Justinian>Theodosius son of Maurice; 213AD--602.

At which point, General Phocas, sharing the general frustation at the sheer amount of family tree that one has by this point to memorise across going on four centuries, stages a coup, kills everybody, provokes a Persian War which provokes a Heraclitan reaction which leads to the collapse of the Sassanian state and the rise of Islam and all that. --and let us not even get into the idea that that might be deliberate obfuscation. Antiquity is over. 

And yet. . . There is, over in the fever swamps of genealogical studies, a controversy over something called "descent from antiquity." There are many claims of direct lines of descent from living figures of antiquity. But we can't make them work. If you want to make an Orsini or a Colonni he descendant of a Claudii, you have to invent whole stages. Hell, if you want to link Gregory the Great to one of the known senatorial families of the 400s, you are going to have to invent stuff. Just to put that out there, a pope born in 540 who has left us a near contemprary biography and thousands of pages of letters, whose noble senatorial great-grandfather is known to us, cannot be traced back through all the ingenuity of genealogical inquiry to the senatorial families of the 400s whom we can rhyme off from a whole range of surviving histories.

This is not, to put it gently, a plausible result. Gregory the Great is famous. So is, say, Augustine. And so is Confucius. Which is why you can trace Confucius's familly tree not just back to the man himself, but through him to the beginning of time. Oh, sure,, a lot of these links are fabricated. Axial age-bullshit aside, there's a lot we don't know about Confucius's time, but take a descendant of, say, Julius Caesar's time, and I think that snooty western heraldic scholars' comments aside, you can do up a family tree that's as good as any, in much the same way that that same heraldist will link you to Charlemagne unless your ancestry is completely obscure. Then, through Charlemagne, the researcher will push back to Clovis, and from Clovis to 

. . . The genus of the Maze? WTF, genealogical science! Charlemagne is at the end of four centuries of royalty! His ancestry comfortably overlaps the descent of the Theodosians. And yet nothing. 

I am going to throw it out there that this would not be the case if people were not trying to hide things, if the green cover did not conceal the fructifying Earth. (I'm putting sex in my analogy here because I am about to go to succession in the female line of descent. This is probably a gender essentialist tell.) 

So. It is pretty clearly on display in the way that this descent has had to be reckoned through the female line again and again. The "descent from antiquity" thing suggests its general applicability. People are deliberately concealing their tracks.

What we also know is that the Constantinians can work their powerbase. That powerbase constantlly invokes "the Goth." (I'll drop the italics. I think they have done their coy work.) Amidst the mystery and dissimulation, one military-technological-agricultural insight to hold onto; getting the horses needed to wage war is hard. They have to be assembled one-by-one. They have to be kept and cared for. When they go out, exhausted, crippled, or with glanders, they have to be condemned and sold, or conducted to a depot and rehabilitated. The work is constant and continuous, and, in the end, it goes back to one dam and one foal on one field. It is horse dealers who assemble the skeins of all of this, with their social networks of buyers and handlers, and make horses available, in the numbers and in the places where they can be used to make war. 

Claudius Gothicus, I am just going to hypothesise here, is, as far as the Augustan History is concerned, the ancestral patron of a network of Gothic yeoman. Was is actually Claudius who set it up? It is perfectly plausible that the original yeomen Gothic warriors who surrendered to the emperor on the field of Naissus in 270 were settled right around those parts on the green pastures of the Servian Voijvodina. We do not know. Even the most anally-retentively complete version of this account would not care if a hypothetical Constantinian horse dealership network originated with Claudius Gothicus at Nis or Constantius in Yorkshire. What matters is that such a network must have existed in 395. This part, I think is hypothesis congealing into fact. That there were large numbers of horses available when required at nodal points such as Istanbul is necessary. That the Constantinian family commanded this resource explains their persistence at the apex of politics. The weird part is that the nodes are so hard to track through history, that the connections are so mysterious. 

Why? why should people lie to us systematically? Why should things be so hard to understand? A conspiratorial thinker going in circles? No. Walter Goffart points us to tax data. Conspiracies are hard to believe in. But a body of information where people lie to us systematically about their business/family connections? That's called a tax registry.

The story of feudalism, the story we all know, is one of horses being substituted for money. So it is not like I am launching a new hypothesis here. I am just suggesting what a symptom of that change would be: a green cover, softly drawn over the land, concealing its changing use, property and influence passing in the female line, skipping from one patronymic to the next; names changing, identities illusive, states eroding with their taxing power; tax grain itself disappearing, its place on the land taken by other crops, better for horses, better for mounted military power. 

*Ralph W. Mathisen, “’Becoming Roman, Becoming Barbarian’: Roman Citizenship and the Assimsilation of Barbarians into the Late Roman World,”191--220 in Migration and Membership Regimes in Global and Historical Perspective: An Introduction eds. Ulbe Bosma, Gijs Gessler and Leo Lucassen, Studies in Global Social History: Studies in Global Migration History (Leiden: Brill, 2013). I suggest that the title indicates a certain slipperiness of identity. This book does not want to be pinned down.

1 comment:

  1. In a previous thrilling episode, we learned about the archaeological and actuarial evidence that the Roman majority lived at or close to the edge of subsistence, and that nutrition for the majority may have actually improved in late antiquity/the "fall", which therefore richly deserves its scarequotes.

    How are you going to integrate that with the notion of the grain lands being returned to pasture to produce horses for protofeudal predators? Horses, as you say, eat people. If the acreage under grain is falling, with the balance of land going under green manures and then grass to support a remount industry, how are the people growing taller?

    Perhaps they, as you suggested before about immediately post-Roman Britain, are migrating away from the (grainfed) city to somewhere easier to raise stock, but I find this a bit unsatisfying as an explanation. If it was possible to raise enough cattle to get more beef into your diet without running out of basic calories, you'd do it:-) And, by argument, we're assuming a big increase in the horse population, competing for grazing with hypothetical livestock.

    So I think either something here is wrong - and the archaeological/actuarial stuff is based on some of the hardest evidence available to history - or it's more complicated than that. The missing factor, if both the archaeology and your gloss on Roman politics are right, would have to be an overall increase in agricultural productivity. It's the only way you can have taller, long-lived people, and also lots more horses, without fiddling with the demography, which as you also say is quite well constrained.

    There are two ways of increasing ag production - extensive (kill them and take their land) or intensive (where there's muck there's brass, to use a very appropriate Yorkshireism). We can argue which one land reclamation through engineering comes under.

    So perhaps you've got a Marxist explanation here: the social relations of production, i.e. the Roman political economy, are holding back the material relations of production, i.e. the productive potential of the Roman periphery, by forcing it to produce grain inefficiently to serve the interests of the elite, when it could be doing something more like classic British mixed farming or just a shit load of livestock. As a dialectical materialist, the Marxist would say that the material forces of technology always prevail in the end. And then a revolution happens. This is basically a Latin American dependencia historian's view.

    A different kind of Marxist view would be that the material relations - the technology - *changed*, and productive forces appeared that did not exist before. The social relations therefore had to change. A new class emerges, the feudal aristocracy. That's a more classical Marxist view.

    I quite like the idea of the fall being a crisis of growth, like the Russian Revolution if you agree with Norman Stone. Falling upwards, if you like. I think we already had this idea with regard to Tunisian pottery, but perhaps if your big narrative is when the horses ate Rome you should be looking in horse country. (Although, Araby is horse country, right? Just not much for quantity. And quantity has a quality all of its own.)