Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Lotus Eaters: Flights and Fragments of the Year 251

Rubens, Consacration of Decius Mus
As the story goes, Publius Decius Mus, consul for 340 BC, was so eager for victory over the Sabines in battle that he consacrated ("dedicated/devoted himself") to the Dii Manes and the Earth.  His life was then duly exacted on the battlefield by the chthonic gods of earth, which seems like a bit of a cheat in terms of assessing the sincerity of his commitment, but at least meant that the gods didn't have to worry about organising a re-battle. This was deemed to be a sufficiently edifying example of old Roman patriotism that it passed Livy's not very high critical standards for choosing old family stories for the History of Rome. Or, he made it up at the behest of his boss, Augustus, as part of the first emperor's programmed of religious reforms disguised as restorations. This seems less likely, but, either way, those old Romans were weird.

The relevance here is that Trajan Decius was Emperor from 249 to 251, and died in battle with an army of Goths invading Rome's Balkan provinces in the last year. This was the first time that a Roman emperor died in a losing battle with a 'barbarian' enemy. It's hard to emphasise just what a cataclysmic event this was. Back in the day chief executives fought battles, they rarely lost, and even more rarely died. Skillful handlers knew how to choose battles, and when to bundle the boss off the field.

On the other hand, what do you do with a chief executive you can't handle? You might notice a big caveat to my generalisation, above. In old English and more recent Moghul civil wars, the losing king pretty much always died. I'm going to suggest that that is because there was a different political dynamic at work in which death-in-battle was part of the succession process, and those handlers stood ready at hand to facilitate the unfolding of political life.
Game of Thrones hasn't yet given us a scene of summary murder on the battlefield, probably because it's anticlimactic, and wild dogs devouring infants has a higher Q rating. 

Exactly that has been inferred about Decius' death.

Thanks to the recent publication of additional restored fragments of a history of the period, we are now positioned for another dive into the moment. A couple of additional pages of the history of an entire empire over a generation are transformative!

It's a little eye-raising that it's still hard to establish who was emperor when in the middle of the Third Century, when we also know the ownership and use of long lists of farms in the districts of the Mendesian theme of the Province of Egypt at the turn of the Fourth Century, about fifty years later. It is true that this has a great deal to do with accidents of survival; but here's the thing. Historians use what they have, not what they wish they had, or what they make up. In a ground-breaking recent study, Katherine Blouin has used papyrus documents from a fiscal archive in that theme to reconstruct a significant juncture of rebellion and social collapse in the northeastern corner of the "triangular landscape" of the Nile delta in a way that might shed some light on the crisis of 250.

Marinated lotus root. From CDKitchen.
"Lotus eaters" is a trope. Odysseus encounters an island where the people live on lotus-root, and they're, like, lackadaisical or something. Probably end up watching the Lego Batman Movie until 3 in the afternoon instead of getting out and making use of a day off, I'm guessing. Facetious autobiography aside, this is going to resonate in a moment. 

First, Decius: A while back, I did a reconstruction of imperial reigns during the "Crisis of the Third Century." It's a pretty extended list, and at the end, I pretty much threw my hands up at trying to generalise in the long run. Most of the common trends discerned by ancient historians don't seem to be common, or at least period-specific, trends at all. Even if I want to make the crisis "about" the calamity of 251, the fuse seems to be long, since the explosion only happens after 258, and follows an even more relevant, and, apparently, sufficiently explanatory episode, the capture of an entire Roman army under its emperor, Valerian, probably in 258. The fact that a similar episode follows Julian's campaign of the next century, indicates that this latter wasn't a unique episode, even if raises pretty serious questions about the basic competence of the Roman general staff. But that's a digression, and my point is that this seven year fuse makes direct causality hard to argue. 

What do we know? That he was born in Pannonia and commanded an army. That doesn't make him a "Danubian barracks-room emperor." As useful as that label is for Maximinus in 238 and a line of emperors leading from Aurelian to Diocletian after 268, there's no reason to doubt that Decius was a member of the Decii, a member of the old Roman senatorial aristocracy; and the received narrative specifically takes him from Philip's Senate to the Danube at the head of an army. The fact that his army revolted, just like the last one, suggests endemic problems at the frontier. 

So, what's going on? You will have noticed that I have privileged the long-distance movement of livestock for sale. It's the only obvious explanation for one of the key, ongoing mysteries of Roman economic history: the question of how Rome balanced its trade with the rest of the Empire.

Well,  Philip the Arab felt that he needed to throw a bang-up Secular Games, and that would have required the movement of many head of livestock to Rome. As soon as he did that, Pannonia, historically one of the key sources of livestock for Italy, collapsed, and, with it, his regime. The new Emperor took an even more dramatic step, issuing an edict requiring all Roman citizens to perform "A sacrifice to the Roman gods and to the health of the Emperor." This led to the Decian Persecution, which seems to have been the first state-sanctioned, centrally-directed anti-Christian persecution of a seventy year period, at the end of which the Empire gave up the fight and adopted Christianity as its official religion. 

This is extraordinary. Roman emperors functioned as "big men" in a very strange political system of double sovereignity, in which the actual governing structure of the Empire was a mosaic of "cities" and "tribes," each with their own ruling institutions, gods and other traditions, upon which Roman governors were imposed, and, on top of that, the Emperor. Ever-present but largely passive, the Emperor's role was to be the protector against local injustice. People petitioned him when it seemed that local rules were perverting their own intent, and the Emperor stepped in to fix the problem. For example, teachers of rhetoric were immune from performing "liturgies," that is, duties in local government, at their own expense. "Philosophers" were not. 

Each of these are rulings of an Emperor, in response to a petition; but they were generalised by advocates from letters in response to petitions, and then incorporated into digests of an emergent Roman public law that would eventually become a universal legal code.

Everyone puts this mosaic portrait in at this point. Is it me, or does he look like he's got a five o'clock shadow a la Trickie Dickie?
 In 250, Justinian is three centuries away! It's not that Roman emperors haven't issued universal edicts before: The big brains of ancient Roman history link Decius' decree to Caracalla's Constitutio Antoniniana, granting Roman citizenship to all Roman subjects, in 212. At least, they have since the discovery of documents certifying individual citizen's participation in the Decian decree began surfacing in Egypt in the early 20th Century. Before that, the whole "Decian persecution" thing was taken as overwrought Christian self-dramatisation. The Constitutio is itself so hard to explain that it gets no easier when yoked to an even more perplexing break with the practice of Imperial (legal) passivity of 38 years later.

My vulgar explanation for this is, as it would be, that the Decian decree isn't unprecedented, but rather an attempt to answer a flood of petitions to the effect that "No-one sacrifices any more." As long as we haven't the text, I'm free to speculate, anyway. It's not as though we lack evidence of a anti-sacrifice groundswell in the everyday culture of the Roman Empire. Christians won't sacrifice, yes. But the great Neo-platonist, Plotinus (205--270), had experienced an evolution of his views on animal sacrifice that culminated in its rejection by his student, Porphyry. Often cited as an example of how Christianity reflected the spirit of the age, the rival teaching of Manus had similar objections to animal sacrifice, and suffered similar persecution. I'm inferring a flood of petitions, but how could such a thing not be? Let's leave aside the religious aspects of the crisis, which would have struck home for anyone who took old-time "send up a sweet savour to the LORD" religion. If people aren't buying animals for sacrifice, other people are hurting. Economically.

Bringing me to Blouin and the lotus-eaters. Triangular Landscapes and the State in the Nile Delta under Roman Rule (OUP, 2014) is a contribution to a series on the economic history of the Roman Empire that links the many-times mentioned archives gradually revealed over the last century-and-a-bit to a cutting edge ecological and comparative-anthropological treatment of the everyday economics of the Roman delta. And, conscious that 300pp of reconstruction of who owned what, and what they planted, Blouin ends with a discussion of a well-known popular revolt into which she thinks that she can now provide microhistorical insight. 

Note that this is a bit speculative, because Dr. Blouin has to take a position on what the outlets of the Nile looked like in 168.  I think the existence and course of the Butic canal is in question, too? However, it's not very speculative, since Blouin owns the subject. 

It's unfortunate that the rising of the Boukoloi, or "Herdsmen," happened in 168, and not 251,but we'll take what we can get. The rising is documented by Cassius Dio in the typically laconic fashion of a court historian, and fictionalised by Achilles Tatius in his The Story of Leucippe and Cleitophon with the equally typical lavish but unreliable detail of an old Roman erotic novelist. So we know that it happened, and we know a great deal about it; the problem is more or less one of how much we trust Achilles Tatius. (The same, frustrating question that arises when we try to do history with The Golden Ass. Fortunately, while the everyday rural life revealed to us by Lucius Apuleius survives only in what comes from his pen, for the Boukoloi, we have archives!

The story of the Boukoloi, as we have it from Cassius Dio and other historians, is that a group of semi-nomadic, pastoralists living in the Nile Delta, revolted during Lucius Verus' Persian war, and had to be put down with difficulty. Achilles Tatius gives us a more vital picture, of a people living outside the settled life of the Roman province in the midst of a swamp, surrounded by shallow marshes and mudflats, living in a town-like fastness/settlement, called Nikochis, surrounded by semi-permanently inundated land. 

Semi-permantently inundated land in the Nile delta
Achilles Tatius' Nile delta bandits are unlikely to be Boukoloi, because he wrote before the rebellion. What they are, however, Blouin concludes, is "Nikochites," the local troublemakers who appear on the scene in the archives in the decade of crisis leading up to the revolt of 168.

The crisis is well-documented in the form of endless tax audits of uncultivated land in the Mendesian nome. It's obviously futile to audit land that is not being cultivated. The problem is that local authorities cannot find the owner of the land, or even the population of the local village. Where have they gone, central authorities ask? How can they be enticed back, to cultivate the land and pay their taxes in kind on grain, and in cash on vegetables, wine and other perishables? We don't know, the locals reply, as they beg for one more tax amnesty. In the midst of this ongoing collapse, the "Nikochites" begin their local outrages --Highly targeted attacks on the beneficial owners of certain plots around the nome, as well as fish farmers. 

Blouin, having already carefully constructed the context of abandoned land, fleeing peasants, marginal land, and taxes, cuts to the quick in this chapter. Far from being semi-nomadic, semi-barbaric, and alienated from the surrounding society, the "Nikochites" participate in the economy. They are the group who "cultivate" the lacustrine marshes, producing papyrus above all, but also salt fish and other bounties of the marsh; and, of course, they eat lotus roots, like Odysseus' lotus-eaters who sleep, uninterested in toil and commerce and the outside world.

As for what they're upset about, I'm not sure that that has been satisfactorily established. What is clear is that the farmers of the traditionally arable land of the nome are not terribly happy about their current detail. Whether they have gone off to live in the marshes, or whether the marsh dwellers are just more prominent and troublesome because the fields have been abandoned by peasants who have gone off to the cities, is not clear, and perhaps moot. Here are the outlines of a model for rural unrest, which can be applied to the Danubian basin of 251. The Nikochites are not barbarians, are not outside civilisation. They do live on marginal land, but it is only marginal in the sense that it doesn't pay the grain-tax-in-kind (but commuted to cash money) that defines the paradigmatic ordered, rural life. Instead, they pay an assortment of excise taxes on their product, presumably levied at the borders of the nome or at city gates. So certainly in that sense they live outside civilisation --because their interaction with civilisation comes when their product passes through the gates or borders that define it. 

The fragments of Dexippus: As reconstructed by Gunther Martin and Jana Gruskov√° [pdf] from an inadequately erased manuscript in the holdings of the National Library of Austria, we have two additional pages of one of the very rare known, contemporary histories of the period, Dexippus' Scythian Wars.  The last, and most serious historical work of the prominent Athenian aristocrat, teacher of rhetoric, and holder of many of the most important offices of the Athenian state, we know the Scythica from its use by Fourth Century (and later) Roman historians and from extracts in Byzantine anthologies. Unfortunately, thanks to some high medieval asshole's dab hand with vinegar and pumice stone, what we haven't is the actual text beyond the extracts. 

In 2014, we got two pages:

Decius was concerned about the wrongdoing of the auxiliary troops and the capture of Philippopolis. And when the army was gathered, about 80,000 men, he wanted to renew the war if he could—as he thought that the situation was favorable to him, even though he had lost the auxiliary force—but also to liberate the Thracian captives and to prevent them from crossing to the other side. And for the moment, having built a trench at Hamisos [?], a place of Beroina [?], he stayed inside the encampment together with his army, watching for when the enemy were to cross. When the advance of Ostrogotha’s force was reported to him, he thought that he should encourage his soldiers, as a good opportunity arose. And he made an assembly, and when they had gathered, he spoke as follows: “Men, I wish the military force and all the provincial territory were in a good condition and not humiliated by the enemy. But since the incidents of human life bring manifold sufferings (for such is the fate of mortals), it is the duty of prudent men to accept what happens and not to lose their spirit, nor become weak, distressed by the mishap in that plain or by the capture of the Thracians—in case any of you has been disheartened by these things. For each ofhese two misfortunes offers arguments against your discouragement: the former was brought about by the treachery of the scouts rather than by any deficiency of ours, and the Thracian town they [sc. the Scythians] took by ambushes rather than through prowess, having failed in their attacks. And weak …{and not}24 brave … ||[…” In the left (outer) margin: [De]cius’ address (demegoria) Folio 195r (lower text) lines 1–30: …]|| (they) formed the rear-guard, claiming to be particularly valiant and having a reputation of being the fiercest. They pretended to withdraw but stayed in the area. Not shrinking from abiding there, they built a camp as secretly as they could and lodged not far from the enemies, so that the attack could be prepared within a short time. They did, however, refrain from lighting fires at night, fearing that they might be seen. When they believed that the Thracians had become firmly convinced of their withdrawal—so much so that a rebellion against those in power had arisen (as tends to happen where there is a mass of people) and caused carelessness with the guard duty, and some had given themselves to merriment, as if the war had ended and they had achieved a splendid victory—at that point they decided to attack the town. For an advantage gained by betrayal had also encouraged them: a man had stolen away from the town and provided Cniva with information about the city (as was said, either out of hatred against one of those in power or in the hope of a big reward). And he convinced the Scythians to hold on even more firmly to their plan of attacking by promising them to give those who would be dispatched the signal in accordance with what had been agreed in the place where the fortifications could be climbed most easily. Five men, who had volunteered out of zeal and in hope of money, were sent out by Cniva by night as scouts to check what had been reported and to test the arranged betrayal. Prizes were set by the king: 500 darics for the first to climb the walls, for the sec||[ond …

It seems churlish to argue with the heroic technical, paleographic, and translation work done here, but it seems that I must. The idea that the barbarians breaking into the Roman Empire are "Goths" belongs to Jordanes. Yes, Dexippus is archaising when he calls them "Scythians." But Jordanes (and especially Peter Heather) is using equally loaded phrases, especially if he is not going to cite any authority other than Dexippus. I imagine that if I were to describe myself as "Kwakiutl" in public (on the grounds that I grew up in the Kwakwaka'wakw traditional territory, the world would explode even more than when other Canadians deemed to be insufficiently First Nations have dared to assert their Indian identity. It is particularly important that "Ostrogotha," hitherto seen as probably a mythical figure on the grounds that he carries the same name as the later tribe of the Ostrogoths, here appears unequivocally as a Scythian "king." (As, of course, does Cniva, who bears an authentically Germanic and allowably Gothic name.)

This is the linguistic bit --How far can we go in upending the story of Gothic cultural an linguistic expansion into the broad plains of Ukraine (a story that one would certainly like to see dispensed with, and which represents a very troubling relaxation of normal archaeological standards of epistemic rigour)? What would be the new mechanic spreading Germanic languages? The auxiliaries?

The Scythians are attacking. Decius, militarily weakened by the defection of his Germanic auxiliaries, is waiting for them to try to cross back over the Danube with their Thracian captives. They may seem formidable, Decius says in his pre-battle oration, but, in fact, have only succeeded so far by virtue of "Rebellion against those in power . . . (As tends to happen when there is a mass of people)." So, a rebellion is a natural consequence of crowding the population together in response to a siege, and the rebels have no difficulty handing their city over to the Scythians --And passing into captivity?

Last year, Christopher Mallan of Oxford, and Caillan Davenport, of the University of Queensland, added additional passages:

"Making an assault upon the city of the Thessalonians, they tried to capture it as a close-packed band . . . Those on the walls defended themselves valiantly, warding off the battle columns with the assistance of many hands."Unable to capture Thessalonica, the Goth force turned south toward Athens, "envisioning the gold and silver votive offerings and the many processional goods in the Greek sanctuaries, for they learned that the region was exceedingly wealthy in this respect. . . A Greek force assembled at the narrow pass of Thermopylae in an attempt to stop the Gothic advance. "Some [of the Greeks] carried small spears, others axes, others wooden pikes overlaid with bronze and with iron tips, or whatever each man could arm himself with . . . When they came together, they completely fortified the perimeter wall and devoted themselves to its protection with haste. . . . 'O Greeks, the occasion of our preservation for which you are assembled and the land in which you have been deployed are both truly fitting to evoke the memory of virtuous deeds," [Marianus' speech to his troops reads, as translated from the fragment.] 'For your ancestors, fighting in this place in former times, did not let Greece down and deprive it of its free state. . . In previous attacks, you seemed terrifying to the enemies . . . 'On account of these things, future events do not appear to me not without hope …'"
This is not only a translation, but a paraphrase of the version of the translation given on the LiveScience website, so it might be a bit cut-and-paste. I wish that I could say that armies marching on temples meaning to liberate their treasuries are a novelty of a crisis period; unfortunately, they are not. What is interesting here is the self-help of the Greek cities and provincial leagues, which prove perfectly capable of raising militia armies to fight barbarian intrusions, a welcome real world confirmation of something known from the romances. The outcome of the battle, and even its date within the period of the Scythica, which extends from 251 to perhaps 270, is unknown. What we're left with is a demonstration of the "might" of the Greeks.

The quotation marks refer to a portion of the Scythica which was not lost, the "Letter of Decius," supposedly written to the besieged Thracian inhabitants of Philippopolis with the intention of discouraging them from forming a milita and taking the field against the Scythians on their own, because
". . .Decius, the Roman emperor . . . regarded the Thracian might with apprehension, fearing that some change concerning the stability of the empire might result from it. So he prepared to check their [impulse to] rush out into battle by means of a letter," 

Here I quote Caillan Davenport and Christopher Mallan,.[Museum Helveticum 70 (2013): 151--63; Maybe stable, maybe not] Davenport and Mallan remind us that Dexippus' readers would have known that, in the wake of the siege, T. Iulius Priscus, governor of Thrace, would rebel against Decius, and ally himself with Cniva. (He is another of the ephemeral emperors not listed in the sources I used last time.) Their interpretation of the letter, which, remember, represents Dexippus' views, is that Dexippus is calling for loyalty to the Imperial institution, and emphasising that the emperor must be on the scene of local barbarian crises, or be pre-empted by a local revolt, figure-headed by an imperial usurper. 

The emphasis on social rebellion in the new fragments suggests that the problem is much more general, and our insight from Egypt suggests that the "barbarian" isn't always to be externalised. He is a figure of marginal land, but the category of marginal land is created, in some ways, by the limits of Roman taxation. The received way of bringing marginal land into the Empire is by taxing the increase of the pastures; that is, by taking a set proportion of head at conveniently placed roadblocks. Omitted hitherto in this discussion is the details of the field campaign leading to Decius' death at Abritus, for the very good reason that I can hardly make head or tail of it, but what I do note is that the opposing armies each make crossings of the Haemus range of the Balkan Ranges.

The modern Haemus motorway is the Bulgarian A2. By Gogo303 - Own work, based on Bulgarian motorway network en.svg and Bulgarian road network.svg by Cassini83, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24527635
Picturesque view of the pass as mastered by modern engineering. By No machine-readable author provided. Bggoldie~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims). - No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., GPL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=803989
It sure looks as though these mountains were filled with shepherds with connections with trans-Danubia. The distance is just too short for someone not to be exploiting summer pasturage up here. Such connections would make the willingness of the Thracians to be driven north across the river a great deal more explicable. The only question is how far this episode is comparable to the rebellion of the Boukoroi --an internal Roman event. 

Hopefully, we will soon have more of Dexippus, and, in particular, more about the Herulian attack on Athens in 268, where we already have new archaeological evidence significantly complicating the traditional story. (It would also be nice to have statistical evidence from the area and the period that would allow me to argue from facts rather than analogy, that events are being framed by some kind of state-fiscal crisis. But I think that that is wishing for far too much.)


  1. You know, I'd never imagined the lotus as in lotus-eaters as a crop. So it's actually more like a really early instance of the "lazy native" thing?

  2. Pretty much -and although "mapping the Odyssey onto the real world" is an old, old cottage industry (with a jujube varietal on the island of Djerba off Tunisia cited by the Ancients), I do wonder if we're talking about islands in the Delta here. After all, the "Island of the Lotus-Eaters" is much more likely to be a common trope of the day than a precise identifier.

  3. Those lazy bastards just will not understand that we're bringing them government, development, and civilisation. And most of all, you just can't get them to get a proper job!

    I say we tax their damn huts and then they will have no choice or we burn them down.