Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Niall Ferguson, the Fall of Rome and the Paris Attack

Before I begin, I wish to make two comments. Firstly, I had not intended to write anything. Professor Digeser and Professor Humphries had done an excellent job answering Ferguson’s destructive opinions. An article in the Australian journal The Business Insider, entitled “This is exactly how civilisations fall,” calls Dr. Ferguson an eminent historian. Which he might be for his field, but not for mine. I attempt will attempt here to show how misguided his version is based on his admitted “cursory” research.

Secondly, since I wrote this article, there has been more senseless violence around the globe. Just fifteen hours ago, a explosion at the Yola Market killed 32 people. This is a stark reminder that the violence is experienced on a global scale.
A scene from what looks to be some video game.
In a recent opinion’s piece written for the Boston Globe, Niall Ferguson compares the Paris attacks of Friday to the fall of the Roman Empire. Opening up one’s doors to migrants caused Rome’s mighty empire to collapse. Scholars of the Fall of Rome—unlike Professor Ferguson—have taken to Facebook to write notes. Two in particular, one written by Mark Humphries, the other by my undergraduate mentor Elizabeth Digeser, deserve attention. 

Ferguson cites Edward Gibbon, who wrote a magisterial study called the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (the last volume was published in 1788), as a main source of information. Gibbon had argued that Rome fell due to external pressures and Christianity. Humphries displays his erudition on the work of Gibbon. A series of notes (meant to be turned into a book), written by Gibbon after the French revolution, shows that he had underestimated the importance of internal forces and civil war. This last volume, Humphries states, was never published.

Digeser’s criticism falls on two points. First, Ferguson did not understand Gibbon. The equation “Rome is the West” (much less Rome is the European Union) is not in Gibbon, who took his study to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Second, Ferguson believes that the Western Empire was ethnically pure. Not so, the cultural mosaic that is Rome means that there was no unified Roman culture. The one element of culture that unified the empire (paideia) was an elite phenomenon. The diversity of cults and cultures precludes any sort of “roman culture” writ large. A couple monumental examples: the tomb of Augustus can be differenced from the Palmyrene tombs.

The Mausoleum of Augustus
The Palmyrene Tower Tombs
Outside of Gibbon, Ferguson uses two monographs, Peter Heather’s The Fall of the Roman Empire and Ward-Perkins’ The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization. Both monographs, and especially the latter, attempt to demonstrate that the Roman Empire fell quickly under the pressures of the barbarians. Both works are important historiographical comments—that is, they are addressing intellectual trends—in that they respond to Late Antiquity.

Late Antiquity is an answer to a largely modern, intellectual problem. Until Peter Brown published The World of Late Antiquity in 1971, the period between Diocletian’s accession in 283 and the conquest of the Levant by Islam in the early seventh century was dominated by two dates, 410 and 476. In 410, the barbarian Visigoths sacked Rome, and in 476, the barbarian king Odoacer proclaimed himself king (a title that had not been used in Rome since the expulsion of Tarquin in 509 BC, and had been famously used to frame Julius Caesar). The world of Antiquity ended with a single word “rex”: gone were the days of Cicero, of the peace during the great emperors Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius. The Dark Ages announced itself with the sound of ringing church bells!

Stupid barbarians.

Late Antiquity, as a historical period, fell into two discreet areas of study. The Early Middle Ages, characterized by decay, and Byzantine history, centered of Byzantium. Either of these two histories were dominated not by narratives of grandeur, but putrescence. The west was dead. To quote (my translation) Ernst Stein’s introduction, one of the characteristic of the Later Roman Empire was “the definitive loss of the quasi-totality of the western world” (Stein, Histoire du Bas-Empire, 1). The east endured, but with great difficulty. As J.B. Bury states, “the diminished Roman Empire, now centering entirely in Constantinople, lasted for a thousand years, surrounded by enemies and frequently engaged in a struggle for life or death” (Bury, The Later Roman Empire, 3).

While both of these studies are, in fact, important precursors to Late Antiquity, they show that the unity of the Roman Empire was compromised by the territorial separation of the west. Late Antiquity addresses this. Peter Brown focuses mostly on the issue of decline of culture by pointing out the vivacious developments of Christianity around ancient tropes. Others, following Henri Pirenne (most notably Michael McCormick) have shown that the unity of the Mediterranean did not end in the fifth century. Perhaps most importantly, the biggest shift between ancient and medieval occurred at some point in the seventh century (as Wickham, Halsall).

The studies of Heather and Ward-Perkins respond to this trend. All of the studies mentioned above minimize the role of barbarians. Heather himself acknowledges in the first chapter of The Fall of the Roman Empire. The battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD, or the Marcommani wars made famous in the movie Gladiator (they were famous for other reasons… also), provide examples of earlier problems faced by great emperors (Augustus, Marcus Aurelius) in which the Romans did prevail, but at great costs. Heather focuses on the newcomer, the Huns. These barbarians migrated slowly into the Austro-Hungarian plains, creating a large, powerful confederation of barbarians, and pushing the other barbarians west into the Roman Empire.

Ward-Perkins focuses on violence (he calls Brown’s Late Antiquity “a much more comfortable vision of the end of empire). Vandals raped nuns, and burned cities, ransacked the countryside. Agricultural yield was smaller and cows were not as fat. Hunger led to riots. The world of Late Antiquity was a world tottering on the edge of systemic disasters.

Ward-Perkins is the son John Bryan Ward-Perkins, the former director of the British school at Rome. Bryan Ward-Perkins says himself in the introduction to his work that the world presented in Late Antiquity was different than the one he grew up in. The magnificence of the buildings of the emperors stood in sharp contrast with the world of the early middle ages. And certainly we are discussing different worlds whether we are considering Gaul in AD 100 and Gaul in AD 800.

All that to say two things about Niall Ferguson’s comments. Firstly he uses two polemical works that have engineered great criticism from the academic community. Neither Heather’s nor Ward-Perkins’ works are canon. In fact, Ward-Perkins’ Fall of Rome is clearly an invective, not just a scholarly work. He aims to recover the violent past at the expense of the more peaceful experiences. The historiography that bred these two works must be understood, something Dr. Ferguson clearly has not done.

Secondly, as a corollary, Niall Ferguson is absolutely and unequivocally wrong when he characterizes the fall of the Roman Empire using three works that represent only part of the story. Gibbon wrote in the eighteenth century, and the Decline and Fall is the product of the enlightenment. Heather’s the Fall of Rome focuses on the barbarians. Ward-Perkins’ The Fall of the Roman Empire shows how violent is was. Each serves a purpose in Ferguson’s methodology. The first states the problem of the barbarians, the second describes it, and the third displays glimpses of a dark future for Europe.

The problem for my field is that amateur and experts alike are asked to discuss the issue of the Syrian refugees (for make no mistakes, Ferguson is really making a point about refugees). An article in Le Point (in French) uses Gibbon like Ferguson does. The great historian of Antiquity Alexander Demandt in Die Welt (in German) also expresses strong reservations about the influx of Syrians, even if he is unwilling to explicitly draw the comparison. Niall Ferguson is just another individual.

But the trend is pernicious. Historians and amateurs (the author of the Le Point article is at best called a dilettante) alike are attempting to predict a gloomy future to promote an agenda. It is pernicious because these opinions divorce history from the work historians do. Historians are not meant to make predictions precisely because, as Paul Veyne has eloquently demonstrated, historical inquiry focuses on the specificity of events. The Fall of Rome is interesting because it is specific. The writing of historical laws, he continues, is impossible: history could become “nomographic (the writing of laws- like theoretical physics) if the diversity of the events should not render impossible this mutation” (Paul Veyne, Comment on écrit l’histoire, 89).

This trend is pernicious also because historians cannot or should not make predictions. The processes we study often times stretch over hundreds of years. My own dissertation on the vicarii allegedly covers the period 283-395, but incorporates elements that date back to the first century BCE and forward to Justinian (d.565). In this chronological space, thousands of micro-elements influenced the historical narrative: it would be wrong to assume that the processes undertaken under Cicero found themselves realized under Justinian. In other words, even in 283, it was not evident a) that Rome would fall, b) that Rome would fall in the way that it did. In fact, when Diocletian took power, the east was recovering from Persian invasions that disabled commerce with the eastern world, had undergone a series of usurpations (Eliagabalus, Decius, Philip the Arab), at engineered least one major side-empire (Palmyra) and saw the disappearance of Egypt twice, once under Palmyrene rule, and once following the usurpation of Domitius Domitianus. If you had asked where the Roman Empire would fall, the east was a prime candidate. Yet it is in the east that it the Empire will endure. So when the prominent Niall Ferguson is proven wrong in the next ten years (which doesn’t mean he will be proven wrong in the long run, and this is also problematic), what will the backlash against historians be?

A much more Accurate Rendition
Jean Julien's Eiffel Tower
That is not to say that we cannot notice parallels between historical times, or that these parallels are inherently misleading (though I think they are, but that’s hardly the pint). But Alexander Demandt described 210 reasons for the fall of Rome only seven of which touch on the barbarians. Before we jump to conclusions, perhaps we can consider the other 203.

Lastly, and this is more personal. Niall Ferguson stated that Paris was killed by complacency. Should we forget about London in 2005, or Madrid in 2004, or New York in 2001? Or the myriad of attacks in the Middle East, the latest iteration of which was Beirut just last week? Or Kenya—again, last week? Is Paris the new Rome that an attack on Paris is an attack on the western world? Is Paris a symbol of something it has stopped representing a long time ago (if it ever did)? And here I thought France didn’t have an empire.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Social Media, Historical Memory, Political Change and Oysters

The Walrus and the Carpenter
A few weeks ago, I was eating oysters (that was a first for me), trying to explain to my interlocutor what it is that I do. Figuring that a detailed exposé of diocesan administration in Late Antiquity would…well, be boring, I chose to focus on a different topic, historical memory. As an example, I asked why, out of the millions of micro-events that happen to “you” on a daily basis, do “you” choose to construct your personal narratives along certain nodal points. For instance, my father came to every soccer game of mine until college, why do I remember the one he missed? That game did not matter at all. 

Moving on, today I got a notification from Facebook: on this day this happened to you in the past (well since 2006). A flurry of inconsequential events: I wrote a review of the Second Law by Muse (I forgot I did that, I love that album), I had a message from a dear friend about her life in Paris (she lives in Qatar now) and how well that was going, and I apparently felt the need to share that I came back from visiting an ex-girlfriend in Rochester with a cold… and so on. Nothing that will fundamentally alter my life, or my personal narrative, and yet.

Facebook, with its “today in your life” feature, can probably remind us of some important aspects of our individual lives. A friend, for instance, reposted a picture of a goat cheese from 2005. I have no idea what that means, but it obviously struck a chord. I will not suggest that Facebook has the power to drastically alter our own personal narrative, but it might create nodes around which memory can coalesce. Perhaps that goat cheese was so good that he eventually became the cheese aficionado I know he is today: a memory of cheese-loving life coalesces around that picture. He may not have remembered this until today. Or it’s just something ridiculous

This is all good for people, but what about societies and nations? Nations are constructed around historical narratives. This is not new. We used to say, “history is written by winners.” Now in historical lingo, we speak of historical memory, which is essentially the same, except that crafting history occurs at the social level. To say, “history is written by winners,” is to occlude the myriads of regional, local and familial histories that exist and are an integral part of History. The record books of Aurelius Isidorus (I know right?) are now an important source for the historical narrative of late-antique Egypt. Consider the trove of documents found in the Cairo Geniza that shed light on medieval Jewish life (including a poet whose existence had been posited but not proven until the
Solomon Schechter Studying the Fragments of the Cairo Geniza
1970s). In other words, the narratives of the fall of Rome, the Middle Ages, etc… are not only written by the state apparatus, but also by some Roman city official in the south-east corner of the Empire (Ok, that’s not fair, Egypt was tremendously important, but still). So winners write the history of nations, but there is a multitude of microhistories that provide a fundamentally different history: different focus, different scope, different sources, different time-frame (not to mention different reckoning of time).

Perhaps it is time for a bit of definition. I am not interested in memory in the psychological sense. Rather, I would like to focus on social memory—its parallels with psychological memory are perhaps obvious, but this is not the focus on this post. Pierre Nora speaks of lieux de mémoire (sites of memory) as the places “where memory crystallizes and secretes itself.” Nora sees these sites of memory as an inherently modern problem; a set of artificial loci meant to deliberately preserve what history seeks to destroy. These loci are, for instance, archives, commemorations, celebrations etc… (and trust me historians do attack these lieux de mémoire). These loci are static and derive their significance from systematic repetition of specific acts through generations. Les lieux de mémoires, therefore, stand in sharp distinction from the processes by which social memory is sometimes, but mostly often, created in “so-called archaic or primitive societies.” Let us not criticize Nora’s adherence to the “myth of the good savage,” since he is mostly correct despite the problematic verbiage.

The fireworks to commemorate Bastille Day or Independence Day are part of a unitary remembrance that crosses many social and ethnic boundaries. Both days mark an arbitrary starting point for the nation, and both days are equally artificial. France underwent numerous constitutional changes between 1789 and 1804, not to mention between 1789 and 1958. July 4, 1776 makes some more sense, although the state envisioned in the Articles of Confederation is vastly different from the one we have now. Remembrance has become institutionalized at the level of the nation.

So why Facebook, and what role does social media play in the shaping of historical memory. To answer this is moot presently. I have literally no idea how much of an influence Facebook will have on the perception of the turn of the millennium by future generations. It will take many more years before we can begin to have an idea. But what role COULD social media have?
Do I Really Need to Caption This?

Let’s take my Muse review as an example. I could (admittedly with great difficulty) deny that I ever loved Muse. Facebook could provide a counter-example. OR, I could argue that I was always a Muse fan, and we can have an example. At the level of the individual, we can use Facebook to confirm or deny personal narratives, by bringing up obscure moments in time. What can we do at the level of collective memories?

Facebook is a network, a series of mini-interacting social groups. In my case, my grad student “society” which spans over many states, and many generations (some were grad students), and merges with family, friends of various eras of life etc… It is a place where the memories of one social group are shared with another, while the other groups can only glimpse at the meaning ascribed by the memory. When we repost a memory, we partake in the process of memory making for a specific group. The memory more historical, more static and more permanent than the one we remember at the kitchen table through speech. And we share it with all these other networks: the group, therefore, loses the ownership of the memory.

In the context of esoteric memories—that is memories, the meanings of which are available only to the group—the weight of Facebook can be minimal. But social memories, or rather, traumas covered in the press, can provide a different story. The posting and reposting of national or global events reaches new audiences. The destruction of Palmyra, the Syrian refugee crisis, election problems and especially the mass shootings have been posted and reposted to the point that the issue of gun control was at the forefront of the democratic debate on October 13, 2015. Anderson Cooper stated that gun control had been one of the most trending topics on social media. Could these become new events become lieux de mémoire?

I will not speculate as to what Facebook can do. But if Facebook can become the repository of the sites of memory of simple groups like college alumni, it’d be fun to imagine around what sort of events, as a society, we could choose to build our identity. What if next year, on October 1, 2015, we all reposted a memory about Roseburg?

I discussed here the problems of building memory, and that memory becomes less dynamic. The issue of Facebook, and more broadly Big Data for historians and the historical method will be discussed later.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Looting and Destruction in Syria and Iraq (and ASOR)

On September 29, Trevor Noah had a segment on the Daily Show about the theft and resale of important cultural artifacts stolen in Syria and Iraq. The sale of these artifacts brings in roughly $100M/yr to ISIL to run its operations. This corroborates a figure given by Michael D. Danti in a talk at PennSt on September 16, 2015.

The cultural destruction of Syria and Iraq is not limited to the pre-Islamic past, although that is all CNN et al. are willing to report. Professor Danti mentioned that the destruction of pre-Islamic buildings or statues is strategic: it is a message addressed to the west. This destruction represents only a small portion of the actual destruction inflicted by ISIL on world heritage sites. Mosques or any Islamic site too closely associated with forms of Islam deemed sacrilegious are systematically leveled. For instance, on August 10, ISIL reported the destruction of Sufi shrines and graves in Fallujah.

Two points.
1) The destruction of sites in Iraq and Syria is not limited to western heritage sites. In fact it does not represent much in comparison to other sites.
2) The sale of antiquities on the Black Market is a very real source of income for this terror group.

You can find reports at:

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Fall of Rome


Rome’s fall was a cataclysm. How great? Well, it is still used in modern political discourse to justify political positions. Most recently, by Ben Carson attributed the fall of Rome to matters like homosexuality, sports and political correctness. Dr. Carson (the other kind of doctor) is using Rome to make points about his political stance and gain votes. To demonstrate how wrong he is would be … well… obvious and pointless. But it shows the enduring power of Rome as a world empire. So let’s talk about what happened.

People didn’t wake up one day and Rome was gone. That is not to say that individuals did not understand that their way of life was crumbling. In 382, the emperor Gratian removed the altar of victory from the senate house. This event prompted the senate, in 384, to send one of its most prominent member Q. Aurelius Symmachus to the court at Milan to plead with the emperor to restore the altar. In his plea, Symmachus conjures up the spirit of Rome, the goddess Roma, to request the return of the old order. Roma wishes to “use the ancestral ceremonies,” to “live after [her] own fashion,” because “this worship subdued the world to my laws.” While speaking of the sack of Rome by Alaric, Augustine spoke of “this universal catastrophe” (City of God I.9). And later in the fifth century, Sidonius Apollinaris, the erstwhile Urban Prefect of Rome, saw, as Bishop of Clermont-Ferrand, the Visigoths besiege his city.

Roman Dacia

So what happened and why? First, a bit of chronology. The political structures of imperial Rome did not disappear all at once, at the same time, or for the same reasons. The trans-Danubian province of Dacia disappeared between 270 and 275. Britannia was abandoned in 407. There is no administrator for the diocese of Spain (the vicarius) after 401, and, for the diocese of Africa, after 413. Northern Gaul perhaps saw the disappearance of its civil adminitration after Constantius II defeated Magnentius. Certain areas of Gaul developed some form of “self-rule” (the Bagaudae) in the wake of imperial absence, especially in the Loire and certain areas of Brittany. Asterix, it seems, was back by the middle of the fourth century. In the eastern empire, the state of affair endured unimpeded until the reforms of Justinian in the sixth century.

If we start the premise that the fall of Rome was a rather checkered process, it becomes increasingly difficult to find a single cause for its decline. I mean surely sports were prevalent in the east and in the west, so why did the east endure another century or two of imperial rule?

There is no simple answer to this question. Historians have agreed and disagreed. The examples given above are epiphenomena: A.H.M Jones, in his magisterial study The Later Roman Empire, does not mention that Gratian removed the altar of victory. Recently, advances in paleoclimates have shown periods of flooding in certain parts of the western empire in the fourth century. Papyri also indicate that the production of Egyptian grain decreased in the later third century. The correlation is obvious, but the causation less so. Rome had an extensive system of supply of food for its armies and functionaries. The failure would have had to be systemic, and of this, we have no evidence. Barbarians and Christians? Gibbons’ thesis is attractive but has been widely disproved (see here for a survey of the evidence and two books that are worth reading). Any serious study must include a variety of factors.

The fall of Rome was not a linear process of decline either. It was dotted with rebirth and periods of prosperity. Ammianus Marcellinus saw the reign of Julian as ushering in a new era of prosperity, as did the rhetor Libanius. At a more local level, the monopoly over the gold currency enjoyed by the imperial administration meant that a new class of landowners acquired estates in Egypt. During the fourth century, Africa did enjoy a period of prosperity.

In other words, what historians saw and what contemporaries describe is rarely the same thing. It can be difficult, as Picketty describes in Capital, to distinguish between short-term growth and lasting prosperity. The same is true of political and cultural events. Julian was emperor between 360 and 363, and his passing led to a resurgence of Christianizing efforts by the imperial court, not a rebirth of traditional cults. New wealth accumulated was not necessarily distributed. A few extremely wealthy families in Rome controlled the land in Africa. Care for the poor was more than just pastoral rhetoric.

Which brings us back to the US of A. It is difficult not to see some parallels. Both are world empires. The moral rhetoric prevalent in today’s politics, whether to implement “new” policies of social welfare or to “return” to a more traditional age—which does not exist, but that’d be a topic for another time—echoes strangely the debate between Symmachus and the bishop Ambrose. Prosperity is being consolidated into the hands of a few, and individuals are in increasingly precarious positions (student debt for instance). Barbarians in California are revolutionizing social interactions (Facebook anyone?). At the same time, I am not entirely sure anyone can objectively speak of decline.
This means that the Roman Empire, that collapsed some 1500 years ago, needs to be studied and taught. It is a powerful rhetorical example, one that is easily recognizable. A yet, the sort of abuse exemplified by Ben Carson’s article means that it is also easily distorted to pursue nefarious social goals. Empires do not fail because of morality: that was the lesson of Sodom and Gomorrah. Rome’s fall has undoubtedly yielded some important conclusions, for instance, about the behavior of individuals in times of crisis, or about the mechanisms of recovery. And Rome’s fall will undoubtedly unveil more historical and social processes as new research in that field continues to advance.

As usual a couple of books:

Peter Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome and the Making of Christianity, Princeton University Press, 2012.

Ian Wood, The Modern Origins of the Early Middle Ages, Oxford University Press, 2013.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Interesting Perspectives

Find below is the link to a very good article by Philip Rousseau. Late Antiquity has existed in various forms (spätantike, le Bas-Empire, the Later Empire), but only since Peter Brown's The World of Late Antiquity, published in 1971, has Late Antiquity been an actual historical period.  Is it time for scholars to redefine our analytical lens?

At stakes, however, is the wider issue of periodization. Do periods still have epistemological value?

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Palmyra and ISIS

Thanks to Tim Whitmarsh who wrote this beautiful article

Loss of life should not be overshadowed by loss of monuments. There is, however, great sadness in the destruction of beauty.

The monuments are glorious: the great colonnade, the triumphal arches, the temple of Bel and the numerous tombs erected for the glory of the families. 
Sunset over Palmyra- From wikimedia.

But it is the culture that was developed in Palmyra that deserves attention. Palmyra was a merchant city, with warehouses situated along the Euphrates. It facilitated trade between the far-east and the Roman world. In many ways, it was the gateway to the west, and the gateway to the east.

Palmyra welcomed merchants from the Persian world, where they mingled with merchants from the Roman world. It was in this cosmopolitan environment, filled with Greek and Roman architecture that the family of Odaenathus rose to prominence. The destruction of the trade lines by Shapur (destruction of the warehouse at Charax and Doura-Europos) put Odaenathus firmly in the Roman camp. With the Palmyrene archers mounted on camels (it is not entirely true, but the ala camelorum is well attested), he besieged Ctesiphon, the Persian capital.

His wife Zenobia, after his death, would build an Empire in the Near-East. For a few years between 267 and 272, she controlled the entire fertile crescent from Armenia to Egypt (Egypt was conquered in 270). This is an impressive feat the Persians were never able to achieve. It took the legions of Aurelian to destroy the Palmyrenische Sonderreich.

A Palmyrene noble woman- from online instagram.
As a young graduate student, I was absorbed in this world: its merchants, its structures, its leaders. The deeds of Odaenathus and Zenobia are recorded on the columns of the great Colonnade, placed aside the many caravans who posted messages of thanks to the caravan-leaders for carrying them safely across the desert. I imagined in glorious Palmyra, walking along alleys full of palm trees in a bustling city where spices and fine silks were traded. It was my imaginary orient.

Palmyra provided for me so many things. I imagined the spaces but I discovered the world through an academic lens. My research was fueled by my fascination for this desert city so full of people. It is through Palmyra that my professional life began.

I pray that this is not an obituary, that Palmyra will continue to overtake professional and amateurs alike. Because Palmyra can do that.

The Fall of Palmyra- Herbert Schmalz
Arabia's fierce and desolating horde
Rome's conquering eagle, Babylonia's sword
All we behold, but chief one form appears,
Rising radiant from the gulf of years:
Proud is her step, her dark eye varying oft,
Now flashing fire-now languishingly soft;
The jeweled crown well suits that brow serene
'Tis great Zenobia, Tadmor's glorious Queen.

Nicholas Mitchell- On the ruins of many lands (1850).

I regret now that I discovered her through books.

Some books:

Stoneman, Richard- Palmyra and its Empire (with some problems)
Winsbury, Rex- Zenobia of Palmyra (great pictures)
Smith, Andrew M- Roman Palmyra
Dirven, Lucinda- The Palmyrenes of Dura-Europos

in general

Millar, Fergus- The Roman Near East.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Irrational Fears Taken from a Constructed Past: Rome and its Barbarians

I was made aware of this article “Dequoi meurent les civilisations,” by Jean-Paul Brighelli, le Point 08/08/2015. For the sake of argument let’s translate a summary.

“While the theme of immigration is increasingly being required, Brighelli (the author) has read ‘The Last Days [of the Roman Empire],’ which discusses the fall of the Roman Empire in the West.”

I am not quite sure as to whether Brighelli’s review of Les Derniers Jours- La Fin de l’Empire romain d’Occident (Michel de Jaeghere, Belles Lettres, 26.90 euros) indicates Mr. de Jaeghere’s point or selectively choses to focus on the issue of the barbarians. Having not read Les Derniers Jours- but being relatively well-informed on the issue of the Fall of Rome- I will address Brighelli’s article, not de Jaeghere’s book.

The argument Brighelli puts forth is this: Caracalla’s edict gave roman citizenship to all inhabitants, therefore recruitment in the army was decreased, therefore barbarians, who, while Romanized “to the extreme” would nevertheless cause the frontier to crack. As Brighelli discusses, Romans stopped having children, unlike the barbarians; the wealthy retreated in their latifundias, leaving towns deserted and in need of foreign labor; schools were no longer open to everyone but the privilege of the wealthy. Let’s just end the argument here.

The Rhetor And Teacher Libanius
I cannot address ALL of the points. There is little to no evidence of the retreat of the elites in their latifundias in the fourth century. The elites were active culturally, economically and politically (Jones, The Later Roman Empire from 1954 provides a good overview. Recently, Peter Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle 2014 Alan Cameron, The Last Pagans of Rome 2013, in French, Carrié and Rousselle, L’Empire Romain en Mutations 1999). Schools were NEVER part of a program of the education of the masses. Literacy was low, yet it seems that there is evidence of a more widespread “functional literacy,” namely that individuals could decipher inscriptions without being able to read Homer (Harris, Ancient Literacy 1989; in French, Mireille Corbier, Donner à voir, donner à lire 2008). Hence, from the golden age of Rome to its fall, nothing really changed in terms of the inclusiveness of education (on late antique education, Edward Watts, City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria 2006, see also Cribiore, The School of Libanius in Late Antique Antioch 2007).

What’s more interesting is the causal link between the edict of Caracalla and the collapse of Rome. According to Cassius Dio, “he made all the people in his empire Roman citizens; nominally he was honoring them, but his real purpose was to increase his revenues by this means” (Cassius Dio, History 78.9). According to Brighelli, the expansion of citizenship rights led to the barbarization of the army. The inhabitants of the empire, now citizens, decided to stop serving the state.

The process that began with the death of Marcus Aurelius, and outlined at length in modern scholarship, describes quite the opposite phenomenon. The local elites increasingly participated in government. These men were “equestrians,” or wealthy locals. Through a career in the army or in the bureaucracy, they could acquire a senatorial status through imperial favor. The Roman Empire became governed, not by the senators in Rome (and it really hadn’t since the end of the Civil Wars in B.C. 27), but by men from the provinces. Secondly, the expansion of the bureaucracy under Diocletian (284-303) increased the number of positions available for personal advancement. Imperial service, rather than local service, became the preferred choice of the local elites (if one is to trust the bitter rhetor and councilman of Antioch Libanius). That is to say, the history of the aftermath of the edict of Carcalla is not one of decay, but one of incorporation in all segments of society.

Trajan's Column:
A more important point, which thankfully did not escape Brighelli completely (but mostly), is that barbarian is an inherently perspectival term. The Roman Senate in the Republic was limited to Romans, and expanded slowly to include the provincials. When Caesar reformed senatorial membership in B.C. 46, “urban humor blossomed into scurrilous verses about Gauls newly emancipated from the national trouser”(Ronald Syme, Roman Revolution 1939). In other words, the Gauls were once barbarians. And Rome endured to have an emperor from Spain, another from Africa, one from Arabia and quite a few from the Balkans.

Which leaves us with a definitional problem: what is a barbarian?  Guy Halsall summarizes the problem quite well: “Much discussion of barbarian settlement is heavily technical, making considerable and precise use of Roman vocabulary and assigning constitutional significance to such terms. However, close inspection of the sources reveals that the situation was much less clearly defined.” Dediticii- barbarians who surrendered-, laeti- captured barbarians-, and foederati- barbarians who made a treaty for settlement- are various forms of barbarians. In many ways “the usurpers Magnentius (350-353) and Silvanus (355) were […] sons of barbarians. Had they not rebelled or found themselves on the wrong side of the imperial authorities- whereupon their barbarian antecedents were emphasized-, there would be no reason to see them as other than Roman” (Guy Halsall, Barbarian Migrations 2007). Thus a barbarian is a situational construction, which mostly involves a comedic aspect (the Roman emperor of Gaul Tetricus was made to wear the traditional Gallic pants when he was paraded in Rome as a defeated enemy by the emperor Aurelian).

And as a follow up question: how can we tell that an individual is a barbarian? In 1984, Yves-Albert Dauge demonstrated that barbarian is also a term for criticism used sometimes to  describe emperors (Yves-Albert Dauges, Le Barbare 1981). The barbarians, indeed, is the enemy of Rome, but that enemy can be anybody. Archaeologically, it is even harder to define what a barbarian is. Issues of language, religion, custom or law are difficult to unearth archaeologically, especially since, according to Brighelli, these barbarians are Romanized (thus spoke Latin, were Christians, and pretty-much behaved like Romans). Thus, the proposition that Roman population decreased while barbarian population increased is a completely untestable hypothesis.

What’s at stake is the problem that  “[de Jaeghere’s work] gives us a terrifying mirror.” What exactly is that mirror? That inclusion leads to ruin? That European culture, by opening its doors to immigrants, is going to die? What is, in fact, European culture? Who gets to define it? The danger in reducing the fall of Rome to a problem of immigration misleads the reader into making false assumptions about this society’s future (and about border control in the Roman world). Roman history does not indicate that incorporation was a problem, quite the opposite. If failure there is (and I don’t think there is) it was different. To ossify a system in such a way that prevents assimilation or denies integration can only be doomed. The increase of “knights” into the Roman state in the third century, the integration of local elites from all corners of the empire, allowed for greater participation in the Roman world of localities in the Roman World. In the fourth century, the Roman aristocrat(s) who wrote the Historia Augusta called the Syrian prince Septimius Odaenathus (who lived in the third century) restitutor orbis (the savior of the world) for his battles against Persia.

I am critical of Brighelli’s article, not just for the poor caricature he presents of the empire (which has nothing to do with his status as a journalist), but also for his lack of wherewithal regarding appurtenance to a “European culture.” In a Democracy, the relationship of one being to another being cannot be enshrined by the privilege of an individual or a body of individuals to decide appurtenance to a culture; and its logical afterthought, to deny opportunities and participation in a system on account of ever-changing definitions of identity that seek to exclude more than they seek to include.

To me, Brighelli demonstrated, once again, Professor Drake’s sentiment that “we always learn the wrong lessons from History.”

For Further ACTUAL Reading:

Halsall, Guy. Barbarian Migrations. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 2007

Kulikowski, Michael. Rome’s Gothic Wars. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 2008