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Our Last 50 Referrers

« Retro People | Main | DVD Journal: "MPD Psycho" »

November 24, 2006


Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I've been enjoying the Terry Jones TV series "Barbarian Lives," currently in rotation on the History International cable network. It's a multipart look at the people whom the Romans regarded as uncivilized barbarians: the Goths, the Germans, the Celts ...

Jones, a former Monty Python team-member, wrote the shows and hosts them, and he's a terrific presenter of intellectual entertainment. He travels to spots that were important to the barbarians, and he prowls around Rome. He yaks with historians and archaeologists, and he makes superb use of maps and graphics. And he goofs and mugs in ways that I find both respectful of the material and entertainingly endearing. Highly recommended.

The gist of the series is that we've been the victims of very effective Roman (and pro-Roman) propaganda. Jones wants us to see that the barbarians were much more civilized than we've been led to believe and that the Romans were much more barbaric.

Being anything but a scholar of ancient history, I have nothing to add to what Jones says, and no way to judge how valid his argument is. Is the case he's making a worthwhile corrective to the usual? Or is he trying to put one over on the unsuspecting among us? In any case, I'm certainly looking forward to the episodes I haven't yet gotten around to.

What the series has mainly left me musing about, though, is the question: How much is the U.S. like the Roman Empire? Or, more usefully asked, I hope: In what ways does the U.S. resemble the Roman Empire? In what ways are we different? In what ways is the comparison enlightening and helpful, and in what ways does it mislead? How legit is the comparison at all?

I'm obviously the zillionth person to be struck by similarities between Rome and the U.S., and it's quite possible that Jones is doing what he can to plant the question in the viewer's mind. Maybe he has an agenda, and maybe I'm a rube to fall for it.

Still: our preference for engineering over aesthetics ... Our unstoppable, too-often-unquestioned commercial drive ... Our love of bread and circuses ... The way we debate noble and stirring ideals while our leaders actually attend to raw power grabs ... Our bully-baby touchiness ... Our assumption that everyone really ought to be, or at least wants to be, an American ... Our conviction that we're the center of the world ... It isn't as though it's strange for the question to arise in a person's mind, is it?

So: America equals Rome? Yes? No? An enlightening comparison to think about? A question not really worth asking?

Friedrich von Blowhard volunteered some substantial thinking about Rome here. I'm looking forward to getting around to this lecture series about Rome and the barbarians from the Teaching Company's excellent Kenneth Harl. (Wait for the package to go on sale before clicking the buy button. On sale, its price will be about 1/3 the list price. And sales at the Teaching Company come around on a regular basis.)



UPDATE: Thanks to Brian, who recommended a book about the fall of Rome by Bryan Ward-Perkins, I've been making my way through a couple of informative conversations between Ward-Perkins and Peter Heather: part one, part two.

UPDATE 2: Mark passes along a review of the Ward-Perkins book, as well as some scholar-blogger discussions of the Terry Jones series, here and here.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Thanks to Lex for linking to these excellent pieces by James McCormick: Ward-Perkins, Heather.

posted by Michael at November 24, 2006


This question has been addressed in Paul Kennedy's "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers". The gist of his ideas is, as I remember it, that the excessive use of violence - eg waging war for dubious reasons - always was the beginning of the end.

Posted by: ijsbrand on November 24, 2006 1:33 PM

I remember reading two histories in quick succession. The one about Roman Britain remarked that roads meant trade and so villages and towns sprang up by the roadside. The one about Anglo-Saxon Britain remarked that roads meant armies or bands of thieves, so villages were founded far from roads. What would be the American equivalent, I wonder?

Posted by: dearieme on November 24, 2006 1:35 PM

dearieme: If you mean economics influencing settlement, how about this... The New England economy was based on trade, so villages formed at the cross roads. The Virginia economy was based on cotton, so plantations were built along rivers. And the Appalachian way of life was built on self-sufficiency, so the houses were built near natural springs. (I got that from Albion's Seed, but it's prolly not original with that book.)

If it's changes in population patterns you're after, then White Flight is a fine example. Cities used to mean trade and wealth, then they came to mean crime, and people redistributed themselves accordingly.


Michael: The idea that the Romans were the bad guys is the usual pomo jive. "Who can really say what quote unquote civilization means anyway, man?"

And it's the unsual pomo motive of anti-Americanism, which they never get tired of it seems.

America is - or at least was - quite conscious of its Roman patrimony. Well into the 20th century Cicero was widely quoted on public affairs, and the Founders used pen names like Publius and Cato. If Rome can be undermined then America goes down with it, and since that's really the one thing pomo cares about, that's what they're eager to do.

The book to read is The Fall Of Rome And The End Of Civilization by Bryan Ward-Perkins, a level-headed English archeologist. He goes through the archeological record and finds oodles of evidence for a catastrophic decline at all levels following Rome's collapse. (Best of all, it's a short book!)

Here's a chunk of an Amazon review:

He uses three instances: pottery, roof tiles, and coinage, to demonstrate the material changes which took place.

The use of pottery was widespread throughout the Empire, it was not solely the preserve of the elite, its manufacture was industrial, and its quality was excellent.

In provinces like Britain the availability of sophisticated, mass produced, quality pottery simply disappeared. The skills and technology were lost. (Well the German invaders never had them!)

Tiled roofs do not catch fire, they do not attract insects, and they do not need replacing every thirty years. In Britain, " ... the quarrying of building stone, preparation of mortar, manufacture and use of bricks and tiles ... " all ceased.

Coins are the hallmark of economic sophistication: in Roman times they were "a standard feature of everyday life ... " Their disappearance meant the disappearance of economic complexity, and in the West this was "almost total".

These three instances highlight the loss of specialisation, and as the author points out, specialisation depends on "a sophisticated network of transport and commerce ... in order to distribute ... goods efficiently and widely."

But the frontiers were no longer secure, the countryside was more dangerous, and walls started to re-appear round cities. Traders who would have journeyed safely along the empire's highways find them no longer secure. The world's first intricate interlocking economy was unravelling.

And then there's the old common remark that until the 16th century, the best roads in Europe were still the ones built by the Romans.

He also refutes the idea that the barbarians were merely "integrated" into the Empire. For instance, it's often said that Rome signed a treaty with the Visigoths aloowign them to settle in Spain, so what's the big deal? This is true, but it's not the whole truth. The treaty, which only gave the Visigoths a tiny corner of Spain, was wrested out of the Romans by constant attacks. And once the Visigoths got a hold of that tiny corner, they promptly expanded beyond it to conquer the whole Iberian peninsula. Rome was too poor and decadent by this time to do anything about stopping them.

Pomo types like to plump for the bad guys and then pat themselves on the back for dangerous thinking; folk who dislike the establishment are all too eager to believe them. But their evidence is hardly ever sufficient, and they rely almost entirely on the biases which go unchallenged in the academic monoculture they've built for themselves. Pomo never withstands scrutiny. It's all simply propaganda designed to tempt the anti-establishment mind.

(Jonesy is a flaming lefty, by the way. See here, for instance. But that's all right; I still like him in Flying Lessons.)

Posted by: Brian on November 24, 2006 2:30 PM

Ijsbrand -- Thanks. We've been waging wars for dubious reasons for a long time, though, no?

Dearieme -- The history of roads, road-building, and attitudes towards roads has go to be a revealing one!

Brian -- Thanks for the info and recommendation. Short is good! I wonder why so many history books are so damn long. Academic po-mo-ism, sheesh. God knows that academics will take anything and make it worthless and over-theoreticial. But do you find that the ideas of lefties are always worthless? I often get a lot of out of wrestling with them. (You just gotta know how to take 'em and ignore their conclusions, or such is my rule of thumb.) I enjoyed Howard Zinn, for instance -- he seemed to be raising some worthwhile points my high school history teachers overlooked. In the case of this Terry Jones series: Well, surely the Romans could be touchy and brutal, and surely there was more to the cultures of the Huns, Goths, and Celts than we're generally told about, no? A point worth making? No?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 24, 2006 3:07 PM

America is always labeled a young nation, or a young civilization, but politically America is quite old. After the colonial period a republic was established and a republic we still are. We have been a republic (a democracy with indirect representation) for over two hundred years. During this long period a political culture, all things considered quite successful in peacefully solving (or at least ameliorating) national stresses and strains, has become deeply ingrained in us.

I say the above because Rome evolved, or devolved, from a republican form to a monarchical/tyrannical form of governance. You could say that Rome's arteries hardened, politically.

For all our problems that is not the case with us. As long as we remain a republic and the political nation responds, be it ever so imperfectly, to the expressed will of the majority of the people of the nation, we will retain the resiliency necessary to insure survival.

Posted by: ricpic on November 24, 2006 4:02 PM

Having read both Heather and Ward-Perkins this summer, I would say I was happier at haivng spent my money on Heather, although Ward-Perkins was worthwhile & informative too.

Another interesting read for me as a Brit, anyway, is Stephen Oppneheimer's *The Origins of the British*. Oppenheimer thinks most of what we think we know about the Anglo-Saxon invasions of post-Roman Britain is wrong. Based on genetic evidence, he believes that everywhere in Britain a good 60% of the population appears to derive from the very early waves of post Ice Age settlers. A substantial minority - 30% or so - then appears to have arrived later from areas predominantly around southern Scandinavia / northern Germany but - get this - not that much later. Neolithic, he thinks, and not post-Roman.

On the post-Roman period, Oppenheimer belives - and here he gets controversial, apparently - that south east England was Saxon before the Romans; apparently there's not much convincing evidence of Celtic languages ever having been spoken there. He sees more evidence of an invasion by Angles in north and east England, but in the form of small groups of warriors setting themselves up as the local aristocracy, not mass migrations.

Oppenheimer's absence of genetic evidence of genocide is not necessarily incompatible with Ward-Perkins' absolutely convincing picture of the near complete collapse of civilization in post-Roman Britain. I'm sure relatively small numbers of marauding thugs could cause quite a lot of disruption.

OTOH, if you want an utterly compelling fictional version of the "traditional" Anglo-Saxon invasions, Bernard Cornwell's King Arthur trilogy - The Winter King, Enemy of God and Excalibur - is definitely, and surprisingly, the best fiction I've read this year. Completely in a different league from Cornwell's fun-but-slight Napoleonic action adventures, for anybody who's familiar with Richard Sharpe.

Posted by: Alan Little on November 24, 2006 4:17 PM

And yet there were Kentish Laws, and Wessex Laws, that carefully distinguished the Anglo-Saxons from the Britons. For me, the stunning thing about the Decline and Fall is that post-Roman Britain was more backward than pre-Roman Britain. Once you have been an advanced commercial civilisation, in adversity you can't immediately restore the way of life of your ancestors - you may retreat much further.

Posted by: dearieme on November 24, 2006 4:45 PM

I second Brian's endorsement of Bryan Ward-Perkins fine book, "The Fall of Rome."

Of course the Roman's could be "touchy and brutal" and the Celts,Goths, and Huns have some admirable qualities, and vice versa. It seems to me that any one sided depiction misleads more than it illuminates. Terry Jones seems to having nothing good to say about the Romans and nothing but good to say about the Barbarians.I found his Rome very bad/Barbarians wonderful schtik a little tiring.

I loved Kenneth Harl's course on Rome and the Barbarians.He points out that The Romans and Barbarians learned from and influenced each other quite a bit. One point he made that I found fascinating: If you encounter a hilltop town in territory which was under Roman rule, it either predates or postdates the Romans. The reason being that the security which a hilltop fortification provides was unnecessary under Roman rule. Do you suppose that might have some salutary effects on trade and culture? I doubt Mr. Jones would care to mention it.

Below is a link to a post on Albion's Seedlings containing a review of Bryan Ward-Perkins book. Also two views of Terry Jones efforts from some scholar/bloggers.I apologize for the inelegant way I present these links.

Here, here, here.

Posted by: mark on November 24, 2006 5:23 PM

Ricpic -- Brainy thoughts, tks. One question: do you think America's political class *is* responsive to its populace these days? Seems to me that it's been growing ever more self-interested and unresponsive over the last few decades.

Alan -- I had no idea Bernard Cornwell was a writer worth paying attention to, tks. It'll be fun to watch how historians adjust their ideas and narratives as more and more genetic evidence emerges, won't it?

Dearieme -- As long as I can take my Imac with me, I'll be OK with returning to the dark ages ...

Mark -- Thanks for the links and rec. I wonder sometimes if I'm not a real history person. I don't mind Terry Jones being one-sided, for instance. I got an awful lot of pro-Roman versions of history and culture laid on me over the years, so my interest is piqued when someone makes the reverse case. I don't take it as an attempt to have the final word, just as a saucy contribution to an ongoing conversation. So it wouldn't occur to me to criticize Terry Jones' series on Ultimate Fairness grounds. But maybe that means I'm just not a serious person.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 24, 2006 6:03 PM

Michael: "But do you find that the ideas of lefties are always worthless?"

Pretty much, yeah!

"I often get a lot of out of wrestling with them."

If it's a good wrasslin' I'm after, it's paleo-cons for me. (I'm an individualist minarchist myself, so there's lots of contention.) As a minority, the paleos are more conscious of their basic assumptions and more willing to discuss them, rather than assuming everyone simply must agree. They also write better prose.

The lefty habit of banishing dissent has left them utterly vapid.

Posted by: Brian on November 24, 2006 6:54 PM

Michael - Well, when a portion of the political class (for an example, the Republicans in the last two years) are unresponsive to the public mood, they get a good ass kickin' at election time. That's what a republic is all about and that's why I'm optimistic about the prospects for future accountability.

Posted by: ricpic on November 24, 2006 8:06 PM

Be sure to check out the excellent reviews of Ward-Perkins and Heather by my fellow ChicagoBoy James McCormick.

Posted by: Lexington Green on November 24, 2006 11:06 PM


I'm not familiar with Anlgo-Saxon law, but from my reading of Oppenheimer's argument, but from my reading of Oppenheimer's argument there could well have been a pre-Roman, now subject, population being ruled over by recently arrived Saxon warlords, without the former necessarily having been Celtic speakers. Although there seems to be more evidence for this sort of scenario in Anglian than in Saxon areas.

The much steeper collapse of civilization in post-Roman Britain than in the rest of the western empire, as convincingly descirbed by Ward-Perkins, is nevertheless puzzling if Britain wasn't overrun by invading hordes.

But, as Michael says, the genes are another set of facts that historians are going to have to start getting used to. For post-Roman Britain we now have, basically: Gildas, a Celtic propagandist in the immediate post-Roman period, writing about ravening Saxon hordes. Bede, an Anglian historian writing several centuries later about Anglian (not Saxon) invasions. No obvious evidence of a big genetic discontinuity that would be compatible with mass invasion and genocide. But archaeological evidence of a complete collapse of social and economic order. Now what?

Posted by: Alan Little on November 25, 2006 7:08 AM

From Myers,p 79 "there is evidence for the official settlement of less directly military groups of similar folk [Germans] from the later second century onwards."

p 142 ".. in West Saxon society, although legal arrangements are made for folk of specifically British descent remaining in the lands occupied by the conquering Saxons".

Anyway, this amateur is fascinated by the new genetic methods, but insists that they don't, of themselves, tell us anything about our ancestors' languages or religions/cultures.

Posted by: dearieme on November 25, 2006 5:06 PM

Of course genes don't tell us anything *directly* about people's languages, and genetic populations and speakers of languages have no necessary direct correlation.

But if gene flows show populations coming from areas where there is no historical evidence whatsoever that particular languages were ever spoken - and living in areas where historical evidence for those languages is also weak - then Occam's razor does at least hint at them not having spoken those languages.

Wessex was Celtic-Saxon borderland by any interpretation (still is). You mentioned Kentish law too?

Posted by: Alan Little on November 26, 2006 4:16 AM

Yes, Alan, I mentioned Kent but now I wonder whether I should have done. Myers doesn't say what I'd remembered him as saying; he says that the Kentish laws refer to "laets", the descendants of Germans planted there in Roman times. I've had a quick look at Salway's "Roman Britain" too: he's very firm that Britain was, for lack of a better word, "Celtic" when the Romans came. "Certainly in Caeser's time the south and east were therefore speaking Celtic and by the second half of the first century AD this seems to be true of the whole island...". [I think that's an allusion to the old supposition that perhaps the Picts spoke something pre-Celtic.] Of course, that's the conventional wisdom that's now under attack. Since it was an illiterate society, it won't be easy to establish what they spoke, but you'd have thought the Roman army was capable of distinguishing Celtic-speakers from German-speakers and that some note of that might have survived. But then little did survive. For all I know, the real distiction between Celtic-speaking N W Europeans and German-speaking ones might have been cultural rather than genetic anyway. As the cliche has it, Black Jamaicans speak a teutonic language.

Posted by: dearieme on November 26, 2006 3:33 PM

As long as you're checking out books on the Roman Empire, Gibbon's _The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire_ is actually a really good read for a classic nonfiction book.

I recently read Goldsworthy's _Caesar: Life of a Colossus_, which is also excellent.

Posted by: Zach on November 27, 2006 12:09 AM

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