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Thursday 30 November 2023

Reflections on the End of Western Antiquity: 4. The supposed ‘Rupture’ of the Ancient Mediterranean , Part 4

Several problems are raised by the economic/political paradigm. As indicated last time, my aim here is not to replace them but to add a new level more concerned with ideas, attitudes or culture. To this end it’s important to note that the broad outlines of economic development sketched in Part 3 match, in general, those of the shifts in culture mapped out in Part 2, of the gradual turning away from each other of west and east (especially of east).

One difficulty is the lack of fit between the political change and the archaeologically-revealed patterns of exchange. The alleged end of the western ‘tax spine’, after the Vandal conquest of Africa, does not seem to me to fit the data very well. One issue is what exactly the Vandal conquest of Byzacena/Proconsularis and the 442 treaty with the imperial court actually meant. This is really for another time, but it seems to me that the treaty is generally reconstructed in terms of a ‘barbarian invaders/conquests’ paradigm that relies on a lot of assumptions that are not necessarily supported by the evidence itself. More importantly for current purposes, though, the patterns of African trade don’t really change after c.440. As we have seen, African traders if anything found new markets after that date and continued to trade with Italy and the south of Gaul as before, even if quantities might have declined. These issues also affect the argument that claims that the end of the western imperial command economy produced a dramatic shift in interregional connections. Logically, this ought to have happened but it does not seem to me to be readily visible in the archaeological data, in which pre-existing patterns continue, even if along (similarly pre-existing) trajectories of reduction in scale. You might not find much ARS or many African amphorae in northern Gaul in the fifth century but then you wouldn’t in the fourth either. Most of the northern Gaulish landscape was harnessed to the provisioning and remuneration of the Rhine army and it seems likely to me that, as James Harland has suggested, Britain might have also played a major role in the supply of the frontier garrisons. Consequently, the breakdown of regular government and the end of the imperial command economy is seen in the well-attested crisis in those areas, not in the patterns of Mediterranean trade.

We might also ask whether the reimposition of imperial rule is in itself sufficient to explain the startling shift in the direction of African trade in the sixth century. This seems superficially attractive as an explanation but closer reflection raises some important problems. One might, first of all, ask why the government would redirect the African annonae to Constantinople, which was amply supplied from Egypt and elsewhere already. Would/should we not see a decline in the market share of Egyptian exports if that were the case? More importantly, why would the imperial government not have reestablished the supposedly-ended (and supposedly crucial) ‘tax-spine’ to the newly reconquered city of Rome, and Byzantine Italian territories? African exports continue to reach Italy, albeit mostly (and increasingly to the detriment of other areas) Rome and in gradually decreasing numbers, until the end of the seventh century.

We might also think more closely about the ways in which wars affect long-distance exchange. Pirenne and others ascribed the breaking of long-distance Mediterranean trade to seaborne piracy, whether Arab or Vandal, but this is an implausible mechanism. Even if one were to assume that no one ever thought to provide merchant vessels with armed escorts, the relationship between piracy and seaborne commerce resembles that – in that early computer programming exercise – between foxes and chickens. If the chicken population [or seaborne merchant traffic] grows, the fox population [or profitable pirate activity] grows with it, because of the increased availability of food [loot]; there comes a point though where the fox population is so great that it is killing chickens faster than the chicken population can reproduce itself; at that point the lack of food leads to a decline, through starvation, in the fox population; eventually, however, the low numbers of predatory foxes allows the chicken population to grow again; and so on. Put more simply, you can’t have pirates without merchant ships for them to prey on. Pirenne’s thesis creates an image of a period during which Arab pirates wearily put to sea in spite of there being no shipping to attack. ‘Well, me hearties, none of us has seen a merchantman for ten years but here we go again; another day another dollar.’ The other strange point about Pirenne’s thesis is that although he thought – correctly – that long-distance trade flowed mostly from east to west, and although he thought this on the basis of texts describing imports from Palestine and Egypt, he still thought that the decisive blow to Mediterranean trade was dealt by the Arab conquests and/or by Arab fleets – creating the image of Arab pirates attacking ships that had sailed from their own ports [‘pirates on the starboard bow, cap’n!’ ‘Don’t worry lad, their ours.’]…

Be all that as it may, we might wonder how warfare affects trade. The key point I want to make is that for it to have seriously detrimental effects it needs to be ongoing for a long time. Even heavy fighting for a year or two, or a few years, is unlikely to bring about any serious shifts in trading patterns. Such events can be factored in to the usual response strategies. Campaigning by even small armies (as were the norm in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages) could produce famine but such could be responded to within the normal patterns of redistribution and relief, where they functioned. They might even produce windfalls for merchants able to sell at famine prices. More serious contenders as causal factors in long-term change are long periods of warfare such as the Gothic wars in Italy, or the wars with the Moors after the reconquest of Africa from the Vandals, or, especially, the long war between the Empire and Persia, and then with the Arabs. Such warfare is important not (or not just, or principally) for disrupting commerce, though it probably did so (though we might also remember that armies need provisioning and can act as markets) but through the disruption of production/supply and demand. Displacement of population or disruption of seasonal agricultural activities through the movement (year in, year out) of armies, associated famine and disease (plague especially from the mid-sixth century) dislocates or prevents the production of the surplus that in some way or other acts as the basis for commerce, as well as (partly in consequence) the ability for craftsmen to make the products that are traded, or the ability for markets to be held regularly with the usual security. It might be that twenty years of insecurity after Belisarius’ conquest had serious effects on some African production, but clearly it didn’t kill it off entirely. Similarly, the Gothic wars didn’t entirely end the market for African products in Italy. The wars in the east from 610 to mid-century do seem to have been fatal for the old eastern Mediterranean complex of commercial networks, production, and distribution, etc. Once again, though, we’re entitled to ask why, when the dust settled, they didn’t reemerge even if the materials being produced took different forms. Certainly, the creation of the Caliphate led to a profound rearrangement of trading networks – greater links between North Africa and the sub-Saharan world being one of the most important developments – but again, one would have to ask whether there was anything economically more logical or natural about those networks than the previously existing ones. Any investigation of that issue will lead you quite quickly to the role of attitudes, ideas, mentalité in shaping networks and connections, commercial and otherwise.

Some of the economic explanations adduced (concerning supply and demand, production costs, etc), while plausible and sophisticated, function mainly as descriptive extrapolations from data. They don’t necessarily emerge from the data themselves. Clearly, too, they are teleological extrapolations backwards from the eventual outcomes. All of this is fair enough, but the issue does need to be flagged up. And again there are some problems that arise, in my opinion anyway. One concerns the demise of the Mediterranean commercial links with the north-west. Some things from the Mediterranean were simply not available locally – olive oil is the obvious commodity here. Given the dominance of African oil production in the late imperial west, this ought to have been an important basis for commerce (and surely was). But what markets were there for this? Western towns generally contracted in size from the third century onwards but Mediterranean wares continue to be found in some north-western regions. The church’s need for oil for lighting and also for anointing, and the growth of Christianity may have provided new markets as, in the fifth century, might the new elite in western Britain wanting to show its prestige and Roman-ness. Alongside the seeming demise of the old Roman elite further to the east, this might explain the shift in the routes via which African exports entered Britain. What seems odd to me, though, is that when the economy in the north-west recovered in the late sixth century (with the revival of towns, greater aristocratic control of surplus, related increase in church foundation, increased monetisation of the economy, growing craft-specialisation, newly established markets, etc) the market share of Mediterranean products, having managed to persist through over 200 years of economic change and (especially) decline, suddenly disappeared. Imports found on sites all around the Irish Sea (east and west, north and south, rather than principally on its southern and western shores, as hitherto) seem to come almost entirely from various parts of Gaul. Descriptively one can say that more local products squeezed out the African imports but one would still need to ask why. Costs, etc, don’t seem to me to present the whole story. The whole point of my discussion thus far is, on the one hand, that normative, supposedly natural, logical, or eternal economic laws of supply and demand are in themselves inadequate to the task of explaining the changes of the fifth to seventh centuries. But so too is the notion that trade can just be ‘turned off’, like a tap, by high-level political events.

It's time, I think, to try to add some elements of ideas and worldviews to the picture to round it out (rather than replace other explanations with them). I have already said that the development of western economic systems runs to some extent parallel to some changes in outlooks and attitudes (though not necessarily to high politics or governmental shifts). This is not in itself news. Long ago it was pointed out (maybe by R.S. Lopez – I will check and correct if necessary when I have my books) that the papacy was quite happy to import Egyptian papyrus until the rulers of Egypt started stamping papyri with (to Christians) unacceptable quotations from the Qur’an. The shifts in trading routes and networks after the creation of the Caliphate are also clearly about something other than laws of economics. The demand for Mediterranean goods in western Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries was surely in large part because of the cultural cachet of commodities produced in, or somehow associated with, the Christian, Imperial, Roman World. As has been mentioned this period represents the high point of Romanitas in the region. Were easterners simply no longer interested in western trade and markets? It’s not as if there were no important commodities to be had there, and – as noted – the market opportunities ought, if anything, to have been improving. Three letters of Gregory the Great (and I am grateful to Helen Foxhall Forbes for drawing my attention to them) are significant here. Gregory is writing to the Patriarch of Alexandria who, he has heard, needs large timbers for Alexandrian vessels. Gregory could, and did, get his hands on just the sort of timber that’s wanted (in Calabria if memory serves), and get it transported up to Rome, but the Egyptians didn’t send ships that were big enough to take them, and cutting them to fit would, obviously, rather defeat the object. Gregory, it seems, is quite keen to help and to provide this timber, which obviously isn’t available in Egypt, but the Patriarch, it appears, can’t even be bothered to write back.

Thus, I would propose that an important reason (not, for clarity the reason, or the most important) for the end of any significant market share for Mediterranean commodities is that final cultural turning away of east and west after the mid-sixth century. This is a conclusion that has some important bearings on the debate upon pre-modern economies, between ‘formalist’ and ‘substantivist’ positions.

Reflections on the End of Western Antiquity: 3. The supposed ‘Rupture’ of the Ancient Mediterranean, Part 3

In the third part of these reflections we finally enter the territory of the Pirenne Thesis, and indeed of my project: the changes of the late sixth and early seventh centuries.

Let’s recap. Around 530, in spite of all the developments discussed last time, in spite of the socio-cultural dislocation that had been going on since the third century, and in spite of the dramatic events of the fifth, western Europe still thought of itself as part of the Roman Empire. Trade and exchange still united the Mediterranean and some areas beyond. Commercial networks reached round the western coasts of the Iberian Peninsula, and Gaul, as far as the eastern shores (mainly) of the Irish Sea. These contacts made the fifth and sixth centuries the period when the Romanitas of the western highlands of Britain was most strongly asserted. An inscribed stone in North Wales shows that those inhabitants of the region who were interested or cared were still aware of who the current consul was.

Obviously, there had been cultural changes. By this date, in most regions of the western Empire, villas had ceased to exist as such. Did this mean an end of Romanitas? Clearly not. The idea that the end of the villas reflected a conscious decision to reject Rome was one of the sillier and most insular ideas (of many) to permeate British archaeology in the ‘90s and ‘00s. Only a few areas still had any significant number of villas (occupied recognisably as villas) by the second quarter of the sixth century (notably the south-west of Gaul, though a revival might have been under way in Italy) but there was heavy investment (including on the site of former villas) in Christianity and in other, new expressions of Roman-ness. As noted, westerners still thought they were living in the Roman Empire. Further, a martial model of masculinity had emerged in the late imperial period which, although ostentatiously setting itself up as rejecting traditional aspects of civic masculinity, was still very much a manifestation of a Roman identity and relied on the existence of traditional ideas for its socio-political cachet. At the start of the sixth century, both Theoderic the Ostrogoth and Clovis the Frank allowed themselves to be addressed as augustus. This turned out to be crucial, as we’ll see.

Let’s pause here, though to look again at the turning away of the east from the west. Jeroen Wijnendaele recently reminded me of the point made by R. Blockley that even in the fifth century, Eastern Roman writers had started to refer to the inhabitants of the Pars Occidentalis as ‘Italians’ or ‘westerners’, while referring to themselves as Romans. Around the middle of the sixth century, Cosmas Indicopleustes wrote his Christian Topography. This, mostly, is concerned with his voyages, early in the century, around the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, with famously valuable accounts of various regions in and around that sea (whether or not he had actually visited them). What I find interesting, though, is that, although resident in Alexandria and writing about the nature of the world, Cosmas shows pretty much no interest in the western Mediterranean. He knows it exists and goes as far as Cádiz (not actually on the Mediterranean…) but that is about it. One might of course argue that Cosmas’ own experience simply hadn’t taken him that way, and that he was writing a Christian topography based, obviously on the holy land, but that wouldn’t entirely negate my point. After all the Holy Apostles (Peter and Paul) had headed westwards. At around the same time, Procopius wrote his history of Justinian’s wars, the bulk of which concerns the western Mediterranean. What strikes me about Procopius’ work is just how remarkably badly informed about and/or interested in the west he is. His ignorance about the geography of Gaul makes this abundantly clear. Even educated easterners who had been in Italy knew or cared very little about regions to the west. One might argue that Procopius, unlike, say, Ammianus, never went further than Italy but my point is hardly altered by that fact. I don’t think Ammianus ever went to Britain but the information he acquired enabled him to write fairly reliable accounts of what happened there. Procopius’ comments about Brittia (History of the Wars 8.20), by contrast, resemble traditional Graeco-Roman ethnography about the outermost regions of the world rather than things that relate to a former imperial province. Even he thought it sounded more like the sort of thing that you might dream and, for this reason, he seems to have decided that they must relate to a different island completely (Brittia, rather than Britannia[[1]]). Procopius’ ignorance or lack of interest is part of a trend that is only amplified in the Byzantine historians that follow him. While western writers (like Fredegar for example) show an interest in news from the east, however garbled it had become, there seems to be no reciprocation in historical works written in the eastern empire.

Unsurprisingly, if you have been following my thoughts on this stuff over the years, the crucial change seems to have been the new ideology that emerged in Constantinople in around the 520s, usually associated with Justinian (even if it appears earliest under his uncle and predecessor Justin I). Possibly building – to a greater extent than I had realised (see Blockley’s point about fifth-century vocabulary, above) – on attitudes that had developed during the fifth-century, Justin or Justinian added the new – and significantly different – point that the west was no longer even a part of the western Empire, and (by the 530s) needed to be ‘reconquered’ by the Roman Empire. As I have repeatedly argued, this cut away the bases of almost every traditional idea about legitimate power or authority and caused people in the west to try to find new bases of authority. As I see it, this put the cap on over a century of shifting attitudes. Especially from Justinian’s reign, the West became lands of barbarism and heresy, or at least of insufficiently rigorous orthodox religious thinking. It’s a common mistake, however, to think that the West somehow looked up to the eastern Empire in imitatio imperii.[2] After Justinian, in the late sixth to eighth centuries at least, this seems fundamentally mistaken. The west certainly reciprocated the east’s view of the other as sullied by heresy. In Spain, Visigothic writers seem, if anything, to have adopted an attitude of translatio [rather than imitatio] imperii (see Jamie Wood’s work on this, in particular): a diametrically different attitude. Chilperic of Neustria seems to have had a similar idea (Gregory, Histories 6.1). Otherwise, and probably most commonly, the touchstones used to justify various aspects of social organisation unsurprisingly moved away from Rome, especially towards the Old Testament, even if some of the general virtues etc remained the same. By the early seventh century the old trading patterns between the Mediterranean and the Irish Sea had died out, to be replaced by new ones connecting the European Mainland, whether the Rhineland or the Bay of Biscay, with lowland Britain as well as the western highlands, now both shores of the Irish Sea, and the Scottish/Pictish north. Major changes were also under way in the Mediterranean itself. We’ll return to this.

What conclusions can we draw about the end of Mediterranean unity by about 600? (Here there will be a little repetition from the last article.) It seems to me to be important to note that, viewed from c.600, it looks like the culmination of a process that, in social, political, and economic terms, had begun as early as the 3rd century, had picked up pace in the 4th, and taken on new cultural aspects in the 5th. Justinian’s ideology and – especially – his wars can be said to have brought this process to an end. As I said last time, however, it’s important to tread carefully here. On the one hand, I think it’s probably a mistake to see this development as ‘natural’ or ‘inevitable’ and to cite the point that, in long-term perspective, the period of Mediterranean unity is rather more unusual than periods when the east and west form generally separate spheres. Similarly, Chris Wickham made the very good point that long-distance trade round the Mediterranean shouldn’t be assumed to be natural, especially given that most regions around the Mediterranean produce the same principal tradable commodities (grain, oil, wine: the ‘Mediterranean trilogy’). While the difficulties posed to communications or travel by physical geography shouldn’t be underestimated, the idea that, somehow inevitably, they would eventually undermine the features that had brought about unity seems to me to be too crude. After all, the aspects of physical geography that facilitated ‘natural’ connectivity and communication (the sea, rivers, etc) remained just as much as the ones that presented ‘natural’ barriers to the same (mountains – or indeed rivers and the sea…).

Second, and again this is a point that will surprise no one who’s followed my thinking over the past 15 years or so, looking back from c.600 gives a misleading sense of unidirectionality and teleology to the series of events and their final outcome. All of the events I have talked about could have been reversed; none was the only possible response to the situation pertaining at the time; some of the political changes – as noted in the last part of these thoughts – had beneficial aspects as well as, at least with hindsight, negative ones in terms of Mediterranean unity; many had effects, negative or positive, that were not deliberately intended. The narrative arc mentioned at the start of the previous paragraph can be deconstructed (in the proper sense) at every turn.[3]

The main point I want to stress, though this will really be discussed in Part 4, is the importance of ideas, attitudes, and political culture. With that in mind, I return to the core of the Pirenne Thesis: economics. He generally rated Mediterranean unity according to the continuity of the trading patterns that existed in the Roman period and so thought that when (as he thought) Arab conquests and seaborne raids and piracy killed off east-to-west trade that ruptured the unity of the Middle Sea.

Decades of sophisticated study of forms of evidence that weren’t available to Pirenne (principally archaeological evidence of various types) and of more refined study of the evidence that was available to him, has modified some important aspects of his ‘thesis’ while leaving others broadly in place. As we saw in Part 1 of these thoughts, the north-west of Europe formed an economic sphere largely separate from the Roman Mediterranean by the fourth century; on the other hand, the final demise of the eastern Mediterranean economic sphere appears to take place at about the time of the Arab conquests.

A brief summary of my understanding of recent/ish thinking on this might be helpful. There are very good discussions of the problems of this evidence in Simon Loseby’s chapter on the Mediterranean economy in The New Cambridge Medieval History Vol.2 (ed. Fouracre) and in the relevant chapter of Chris Wickham’s The Framing of the Early Middle Ages. One point I would emphasise though concerns the implications of distribution maps. We might find an African amphora in Cornwall, or some African tableware in Marseille. The implication of those places in networks is complex, however. Roman law envisaged that a ship might be away from its home port for at least two years (it enacted that it had to come home within two years), plying different routes perhaps in different ways with different forms of cargo. Material might move from A to B via several shorter hops involving different people rather than just via one long-haul voyage from a place close to the material’s production to one near its consumption. Commodities might be being moved in ships that have little connection to the place where those commodities were produced. It’s possible then that our distributions give misleading impressions of connectivity and mask the nature of the networks, and possibly conceal even more change than they reveal. For example, the general distribution of African finewares between modern Tunisia, Italy, and the south of France might look broadly similar between the fifth and seventh centuries, even if declining in absolute numbers. Theoretically, however, it’s possible that the fifth-century African pottery in Provence came more or less directly from Carthage, in ships that stopped off at various points on the way, whereas sixth-century African wares came via various entrepôts, ultimately being delivered, in short-haul hops, in the ships of Italian merchants. Or vice versa.

There had always been a difference between the eastern and western halves of the Mediterranean (going back to the Bronze Age at least). The Aegean is a sea of many islands facilitating a dense web of routes, while Crete and Cyprus make handy staging posts for sailors travelling in several directions. That said, in the late Roman period, the different regions formed fairly distinct economic regions in many regards. A ‘tax-spine’ connected Egypt and Constantinople. In the West, as intimated in Part 2, the west had also fragmented into a number of economic regions, often quite large. This fragmentation was related to the (generally cultural or socio-political) issues that had eroded the unusual unity of the Mediterranean world by the third century. The Carthage-to-Rome ‘tax spine’ mentioned earlier, certainly dominated exchange between Africa and Italy, the far south of Gaul and the west of the Iberian Peninsula, but it seems to have had rather less effect on other – quite large – regions like central Hispania or the north of Gaul. There were nevertheless general similarities between the two halves of the Mediterranean world. The fundamental dominance of regional over interregional networks is similar in both zones. The Egypt-to-Constantinople ‘tax spine’ shows some similarities to the western Carthage-to-Rome spine, though it has been suggested that it was less dominant (I think that this begs a number of questions). Nonetheless, long-distance commerce around the Mediterranean continued. African Red Slip (ARS) was found (in quantities that varied over time) in the east, and Phocaean Red Slip (PRS) in the west. Other, less archaeologically-visible commodities were also traded from east to west.

Differences seem to be more pronounced in the fifth and sixth centuries. The east continued to be prosperous and the various links between the regions remained. The connections between western regions decline further. The extent of African commerce declines, though it continues to be the most important axis of interregional commerce. On the other hand, as has repeatedly been pointed out, African wares continue to reach the west of Britain, possibly by more direct routes than before. These patterns continue into the sixth century, but after the Eastern Roman reconquest there is a revival of connections between Africa and the East. Trade nevertheless continues between Africa and Italy, Provence and the regions further afield. What at least seems to me to be under-appreciated is the preponderance, within the sphere of African exports, of the imperial territories (not just in the east but in Sicily, Rome, and other Italian regions). Stories suggest that in the late sixth century, the west of Britain was still known in the east as a source of tin. Some luxury products from the east continued to reach Gaul, via Marseille (whether via intermediaries in Carthage and elsewhere is unknown).

All this changes in the seventh century. Some of the change happens pretty quickly. The connections between the Mediterranean and the Irish Sea generally fizzled out between the late sixth and early seventh century. Analyses by Patrick Périn and Thomas Calligaro show that the supply of good quality Sri Lankan garnets to the west also ended around 600. The demise of the prosperous eastern Mediterranean regions and their interconnectivity collapsed in a couple of generations in the mid-seventh century. African commerce to the west struggled on to the end of the seventh century but not beyond. It cannot be claimed that east-west commerce ended in absolute terms by 700 but it was certainly only a shadow of its former self after that, reduced beyond recognition in terms of quantity and the range of goods traded.

Explanations for these changes have understandably concentrated upon issues such as production, supply and demand, and on political change (the Vandals allegedly ending the Carthage-Rome ‘tax spine’; the end of the imperial command economy; the Arab conquests). These have been the result of close analysis and I certainly don’t intend to dismiss them. What I want to ask, though, is whether they are the whole story. There are a number of problems that arise in only looking at this issue either in economic terms or in those of ‘high political’ events. I will look more at these in Part 4.

[1] I open EoWA vol.1 (The Fates of the Late Antique State) with a discussion of this.

[2] I was once at a conference where a non-specialist asked a famous Byzantinist about the relationship between Byzantine culture and the west, and the response was that Byzantine culture was ‘a dominant culture’. This view seems widespread even among some specialists on western European history, but it really lacks any substantive empirical support, other than in the sense that that was indeed what Byzantines thought. In this case I think it was one of those instances where, in the same way that people say that people come to resemble their dogs, historians come to resemble their subjects.

[3] In the last part I promised that I would speculate on whether the circumstances that had brought about Mediterranean unity in the later Republican period could have been reproduced. I am going to break that promise. Maybe at some point I will write some ideas about that but not now. It’s not quite, but it verges on, ‘what if’ history, which I think is mostly ahistorical and intellectually no more than an entertaining parlour game.

Monday 16 October 2023

Reflections on the End of Western Antiquity: 2. The supposed ‘Rupture’ of the Ancient Mediterranean, Part 2.

In the previous post I was arguing, ultimately, that explaining ‘the end of Mediterranean unity’ is not a question of finding an ‘event’ that ruptured Mediterranean unity (the Arab conquests, Vandal Piracy, etc) as much as looking at why the features that had held it together earlier – and which had overcome those features that might militate against unity – came to an end. This post muses rather meanderingly on that issue.

Of course, it might be the case that some decisive event killed off the features that had unified the Mediterranean but there are two points that emerge from that possibility. One is that it seriously recasts the question, and the other is that what we might call structural features do not tend to be killed off by single dramatic events unless they’re already dying. As an example, look at towns ravaged by earthquakes, sacks by enemy armies, great fires, or plagues, but which continued to survive as successful urban centres.

How the Roman World came together

Let’s look first, briefly, at the features that held the Mediterranean World (and indeed the empire, loosely defined, as a whole) together in the earlier Roman period, and then at how these features came to an end. Above all, though the early Roman polity was created by conquest, it was held together by the desire of local communities to be part of the Roman world. This, as far as I can tell, not being a specialist in either Republican or early imperial history, worked differently, in detail at least, in the different parts of the empire (I am going to use that term, all in lower case, to cover the Republican as well as the imperial period). A point often forgotten, at least by us non-specialists in earlier Roman history, is that Rome conquered most of the eastern Mediterranean before it conquered the West. Roman military intervention in Greece began in the last decades of the third century (at the height of the second Punic War) and Greece was effectively conquered when the Romans sacked Corinth in 146 BC (the same year as the destruction of Carthage). By then, Rome controlled much of North Africa and the eastern half of Spain. Some of the Mediterranean coast of Gaul had taken place in 121BC but by the time Caesar began the conquest of further Gaul in 58 BC pretty much all of the Eastern Mediterranean – Macedonia, Greece, Asia Minor, the Levant, Tripolitania – had either been annexed or made into tributary states. The conquest of Marseille didn’t take place until 49 BC, the final conquest of Spain took place after the conquest of Egypt, and of course that of Britain even later.  Even the conquest of northern Italy occurred after Roman claims to hegemony over Greece had been laid down.

There are several key points that emerge from this. Possibly the most important is that in east and west (albeit in different ways) close cultural ties preceded military conquest. Though not a Greek colony, Rome was already a part of the Hellenistic world by the third century. Many of its rivals for domination in Italy were Greek colonies and the Republic had to fight and win a tough war against Pyrrhus, the king of Epirus, a cousin of Alexander the Great. Additionally, Rome bought into the Greek discourse about ‘barbarians’ in its political claims for domination (see, e.g., Emma Dench’s From Barbarians to New Men[1]). All this meant – and this, it seems to me, is a very important point – that Rome looked eastwards rather than westwards. In some ways the Republic was drawn into military action in the eastern Mediterranean and that leads to a third point, which is that Rome exploited regional rivalries to play contenders off against each other. It did this everywhere and even in the late Empire it remained a key strategy beyond the frontiers.

That brings us to the issue of military dominance. I don’t want to dwell too long on this but once upon a time, in military historical circles, there was long discussion about the somehow inherent supremacy of the Roman legionary ‘system’ over the Macedonian/Hellenistic phalanx. This sort of discussion rapidly leaves the realm of historical argument (and indeed, in my view, that of history full stop) and enters that of hypotheticals and counter-factuals – ah, but what if the Macedonians had had a general as good as Alexander? What if this or that factor had not applied? Yeah, what if…? The significant point is that for some reason or other, the Romans do seem to have had a long run of military success against the Hellenistic states (although of course it's worth remembering that the evidence we have is hardly even-handed). The simple fact of being an army that fought regularly and usually won very likely (in my view) had an incalculable effect upon the confidence, morale, and fighting spirit of veteran Roman troops, while repeated defeats possibly had an equal and opposite effect on their enemies. This would be the case regardless of the ‘tactical system’ being used. Certainly, above all, it increased the attraction of allying with, or subscribing to the protection of, Rome. This was the case, a fortiori, in the west, where Roman armies must have outnumbered, ‘out-armoured’, and ‘out-equipped’ their ‘barbarian’ enemies, in addition to having better logistics, heavy siege weapons and so on (Roman accounts of Gallic or Germanic armies numbering many tens of thousands are simply incredible); this fact needs to be internalised when thinking about Roman wars, and indeed the quality of the Roman army, in the West (after all, sometimes they lost…). The ‘bottom line’ was that Roman military success made Roman support or protection worth having and that meant that some communities turned to Rome and drew it further into local rivalries.

In the West, communities in Gaul, Britain and Germania were already linked into Roman cultural orbit before they were conquered. Objects from the Roman world were deployed to display status and prestige and drew people into Rome’s sphere of influence (see Greg Wolf’s Becoming Roman[2]). This continued after conquest when people within local communities competed for standing (after being demilitarised and having their more warlike elements hived off into the auxilia: see Ian Haynes’ work on this, especially: e.g. Blood of the Provinces) by displaying their ‘Roman-ness’ in new Roman-style towns, villas and so on, and above all by seeking status through involvement in local government. These features seem to have been far less significant in the East (where after all it was more a case of the Romans being drawn to Hellenistic culture, something topped up, in the late first and early second century especially, with the Roman attraction to the Greek culture of the ‘second sophistic’) but they were not absent. A few towns even built amphitheatres... Competition between  communities, played out by striving for the advantages of particular legal status, within the Roman system, remained an important element of local or regional politics even into the late imperial period, and even beyond.

The features sketched out created an exceptional situation, as mentioned, where the west and north-west were drawn into a Mediterranean world and where that world was itself unified by constant reference, in local and regional politics, to Rome and its rulers. Eventually I will come back to the issue of whether this situation was repeatable. For now, let’s examine what happened when these circumstances no longer pertained.

The fracturing of the early Roman world

By the third century, if not slightly earlier, many of the factors that had led to unity no longer applied. The products that, in the West at least, had been used to signal participation in the Roman world were by then mostly being manufactured regionally rather than being imported from Mediterranean centres. Economically the western half of the empire went back to being a series of largely independent regional economic networks. Possibly more importantly, the political advantages gained by involvement in, and financial expenditure on, local government, monumental works and so on, were generally no longer brought by this sort of activity. Parts of the west had been over-urbanised in the rush to become Roman. A retreat from this high-point followed. When the Antonine Constitution made all free-born inhabitants citizens, Roman citizenship was no longer something to be competed for. In this situation, in some ways the ‘crisis’ of the third century was always going to be on the cards. However one adds nuance to old views of the ‘third-century crisis’ (it wasn’t that bad everywhere, and not at all in some regions; it didn’t last as long, or occur at the same time everywhere, etc), this was a serious moment. The Palmyrene and Gallic Empires showed that the notion that there might be multiple ‘Roman Empires’ was not seen as entirely alien. With a few different conjunctures the Empire could have fragmented in the third century. One feature that helped ensure that this didn’t happen, as I suggested in Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, was the continuing hegemony of the notion of Roman ‘civic masculinity’. There were as yet no real alternatives to that in establishing legitimate power at a regional, local, or even familial level. What this meant was a continued relevance of some of the aspects of ‘being Roman’ that had brought the Roman world together. This was a crucial resource and a glue that still held that world together. Again, note that the crucial issue here is one of mentalité.

Responses and problems

As it happened, of course, the Empire did not fall apart and responded effectively to the changes that had threatened fragmentation. Obviously, much of this response was pragmatic and piecemeal and effected over a long time, rather than being the result of the imperial rulers sitting down with their advisors one day and formulating a coherent set of policies. Nonetheless, the Empire as it emerged at the end of the Tetrarchy was a very different place from that which had existed 100 or 150 years earlier.

Various responses, changes, and developments – administrative reform; the emergence of a new civil bureaucracy; the separation of civil and military branches of service; new forms of aristocracy and rewards for service; new capitals; moving the emperor to the frontier – all produced an Empire that was as strong as it had been in the second century and remained so, in the West, for a century (and longer in the East). All these developments, though, had corresponding weaknesses. The picture that follows is broad-brush and (over-)simplified, as well as almost certainly needing updating, but it and – more importantly – the issues it raises still seem to me to be generally valid, in outline at any rate.

The foundation of Constantinople created a focus for the eastern provinces (pinning the Balkans to and Greece to Asia Minor and the Levant, etc) and thus increased the coherence of the East (and continued to do so in some ways well beyond the Arab conquests and into the middle Byzantine period; I am thinking here of John Haldon’s argument that the seventh-century Empire functioned effectively as one huge city state[3]) it created a separate, alternative, eastern pole of attraction. The fact that it was a new foundation had important advantages but it also meant a crucial reorganization of fiscal resources. The Egyptian grain fleet was now diverted to the Bosphorus. As I see it, this made for a more significant rearrangement of existing economic ties and networks than would perhaps have been the case had the emperors decided upon, say, Antioch as the central point of the East.

Moving the western capital to frontier cities, above all Trier, was pragmatically a very effective move. It bound Gaul, most importantly, but also other frontier regions tightly into the imperial state. Older nobilities had to travel to the north to compete for imperial patronage in order to maintain their traditional aristocratic culture of otium and negotium. At the same time, though, it seems to have created a certain resentment among those traditional elites, not used to being sidelined. By early in the fifth century the Gallic and Italian aristocracies largely formed separate networks and this, as I see it, became a crucial feature to be overcome in fifth-century politics. Gratian’s move of the capital back to Milan in 380 was also, in my view, crucial. Though, as I look at it now – 16 years on from Barbarian Migrations – it seems like a potentially imaginative response to the emerging problems of the fourth century western Empire,[4] as it turned out it precipitated crisis. It removed most of the Gallic and Germanic provinces, and Britain, from the close connection with the Emperor to which they had become accustomed; stress and usurpation soon followed.

With the emperors in the west hardly ever resident in Rome, the Empire now had two very separate political centres or foci for political activity. Indeed, the end of the de facto political (rather than ideological) centrality of Rome itself helped unpick the ties that had bound the eastern and western worlds together. The two halves of the Empire began to face in different directions. The social and cultural contacts between east and west began to reduce (which is, obviously, not to say that they ended or became insignificant). I also have an impression (rightly or wrongly) that, after the early fifth century, the direction of those links that remained very much tended to be west to east.

Similarly, though it was an effective response to the problems of the third century, the separation of civil and military branches of imperial service, led to the emergence of an alternative, martial or military model of Roman masculinity, one that stressed things that were antithetical to civic masculinity. This would turn out to provide a political resource for those outside the ambit of the legitimate imperial government in the fifth century: one that hadn’t existed in the third century. Another alternative was found in Christian models of masculinity, not least those stressing asceticism and renunciation. (I have a feeling that the disputes within Christianity also helped divide east and west.)

A key point is that although the new system worked well for a century in the west (and for longer in the east), it was, at least in the west, fundamentally fragile. It worked very well as long as there was an adult emperor able to command armies and manage the distribution and redistribution of patronage (offices etc) between the various interest groups within the Empire. There were numerous groups, especially regionally-focused ones, whose interests needed to be balanced. In Barbarian Migrations I appeared to think that this was a peculiarly late Roman weakness; clearly it wasn’t but the problem does still seem to me to have a distinctive flavour in the late period. Without an active, adult emperor, the focus of politics would turn inwards on the palace itself and efforts to maintain the governing faction’s position. The legitimate western Emperor was a child (or adolescent) for twenty years after 383 leading to internecine struggles for control of the palace and repeated usurpations.

That leads me to my next point. The West was riven by repeated civil wars between 383 and 425. The importance of this can’t be overstressed. The Romans had massive reserves of manpower, of course, but what was lost in these battles was the cutting edge of the Roman army: troops who could be replaced in quantity but not quality. The wars followed at such regularity, moreover, that there was hardly time for a new army to be built up and recover its effectiveness and esprit de corps before it was fighting other Roman armies again and suffering heavy losses even if it won. It was these wars, not the Great Invasion of 406 – which seems not to have involved any serious defeat of a Roman field army – that fatally weakened the Western Empire’s army, leading to the creation of new types of army, based around the groups of barbarian descent that were now within the imperial frontiers.

On the other hand, all of this wasn’t irreversible. After 425, the lesson learnt after 40 years of failed usurpations seemed to be that dynastic succession trumped everything else. For the next decade the western empire had a minor on the throne but the nature of politics changed away from attempted usurpation to struggles to control the court, which could potentially act as a cohesive force.[5]

Nevertheless, and unsurprisingly, when the Valentinianic/Theodosian dynasty came to an end with the assassination of the (like Honorius) possibly underestimated Valentinian III in 455 (a date later given significance by Marcellinus Comes as that of the end of the western Empire) the lack of such legitimacy proved fatal for all the different emperors and their backers. None could defeat the others decisively or otherwise persuade them to submit to their authority.

And yet … two things:

First, people in the west still thought they were part of the Roman world, indeed of the Roman Empire, beyond 480 and on into the 6th century. After 476, if Candidus the Isaurian is to be believed, embassies from Gaul still reached the emperor in Constantinople asking him to resolve western disputes. Western kings still based the legitimacy of their claims to rule on their Roman titles.

Second, through the period cultural connections remained. Traders still sailed the length and breadth of the Mediterranean after the end of the western imperial command economy, demonstrating that, as more recent work has argued, that the latter was not the only force to determine continued commercial and exchange connections. Indeed, as the increasing connections round into the eastern shores of the Irish Sea show, those who were involved in commerce could still adapt to changing circumstances. A key factor here might be the fact that those links became very important to western British leaders responding to the crisis of the fifth century. Like their predecessors, centuries earlier, it mattered to them to be connected to the Roman Mediterranean.

So – where (if anywhere) have we got to? A few key points:

1.       Cultural networks seem to me to be vitally important. Rome looked eastwards because of the cultural world it had become part of; the western expansion of Rome was very much driven by cultural relationships.

2.       The expansion of Roman power relied as much upon local and regional groups buying into Roman protection and or Roman culture as upon simple conquest.

3.       Ideas and culture remained crucial in maintaining the cohesion of the Roman world throughout the period discussed (from say 200 BC to 500 AD).

4.       Political history, economic history, and the history of culture, ideas and mentalité do not always run on parallel tracks. Events in the first do not always have effects in the others; changes in the other areas do not always have political consequences.

5.       Physical geography – seas, tides, currents, the direction of rivers, the location of mountain ranges, high plâteaux, forests, etc – do tend to bind or separate regions but, while extremely important we should not (pace, maybe, Halsall 2007) regard this as naturally, or automatically, determinant, and certainly not as insurmountable. Mountains can be barriers, but passes are links and thoroughfares; seas and rivers connect and divide. None of this is new. We should not assume that the cultural features that overcome certain aspects of physical geographical constraints cannot themselves come to be seen as just as ‘natural’. After all, why would Rome, a city state on the western coast of Italy, look east, especially given the difficulties of navigation between Rome and the eastern Mediterranean?

6.       We might then, equally, suppose that when physical geography does (as I put it – and I am now wondering whether this wasn’t considerably oversimplistic) ‘rear its ugly head’ and connections between regions weaken or end, this might be just as much a cultural response, a decision rather than the inevitable triumph of nature and geography over mentalité (spoiler alert: this will be crucial to my argument next time).

7.       Key events or developments are contingent upon the circumstances that created them. We ought not to see them as automatic, or that the results they had were those that the actors involved had in mind (the piecemeal imperial response to the failings of local government and their overall result might be a case in point).

8.       Nor do we have to assume that the strategies that were adopted, and which worked, or the features that tended in a particular direction, were (even in the case of strategies or policies followed consciously) automatically the best, or the only ones that could have had that outcome. As Roman history shows quite clearly, there are various ways in which the supposedly determinant features of physical geography could be and were overcome. There were always different paths that could have ended up being followed.

9.       Hand-in-hand with that, just as particular effects might not be the result of deliberate policies or strategies achieving their goals, and that even beneficial long-term results might not have been those actually intended (or conceived), none of the developments I have been considering seems to me to have been irreversible. [I think that none of the last three points will be surprising to anyone who has followed my work over the last 25 years at least.]

Having proposed all this, we are – I hope – now in a position to have another look at what did happen in the later sixth and early seventh century and possibly even to suggest a slightly different take on it.


[1] It occurs to me that several of the works I allude to in this piece are 20-30 years old. This is essentially because I haven’t thought much about the issues they discuss for over a decade. That said, they’re good books and the general points they make, and to which I refer, seem to be good ones. Clearly, if I was doing anything more serious, I would need to get up to date.

[2] See note 1.

[3] See note 1.

[4] I might write a separate post speculating on this.

[5] This after all is the argument usually deployed with regard to later seventh-century Francia.

Wednesday 4 October 2023

Reflections on the ‘End of Western Antiquity’: 1. The supposed ‘Rupture’ of the Ancient Mediterranean, Part 1



Readers of this blog will be all-too-wearily aware that I have been working on the changes that took place in western Europe between 550 and 650 for well over a decade, since I received a Leverhulme fellowship for a project called ‘The Transformations of the Year 600’ in 2009. What I thought the final outcome of that would be has been through many versions but I currently envisage it as a trilogy, whether formally as volumes 1, 2, and 3 or as three ‘companion volumes’ will depend upon the decisions of publishers (if any publisher will take it of course!). The volumes themselves are: The Fates of the Late Antique State (politics and government), The Transformations of the Year 600 (society and economics), and The End of the Roman World (ideas). I have about 90,000 words of The Fates of the Late Antique State written (in draft) and rather less of the other two. What I thought I would do on this near-dead blog is to write up some reflections on the subject matter: things that won’t necessarily make it into the book in any solid form – maybe the odd comment here and there but probably not a block of text and possibly nothing at all – in the hope that it might be of interest and as a spur to me to keep at it, which has not been easy. My never-exactly-robust mental health has taken a profound battering over the past three years (to cut a long story short I lost my mind) with the result that I am leaving the profession in November. In some regards, then, these blog posts are a message to myself that I possibly still have things to say and that it might yet be worth finishing this project. Believe me, many are the days when I don’t agree with either of those propositions. I am not sure that these reflections are going to be particularly profound or original but they seem to me to be of some significance.

The rupture of the Mediterranean’s ‘natural’ unity

One thing that keeps coming back in the course of thinking about this project (and about a possible second edition of Barbarian Migrations) is just how profoundly unusual the period between the late Roman Republic and the third century was. This was a period when:

  • The whole Mediterranean littoral was under the control of the same polity. 
  • A coherent economic system united the western Mediterranean/western European world. 
  • Consequently, the north west of Europe was part of the same economic network as the Mediterranean world

What I find interesting is how at some point historians have come to regard all of these things as a norm. Thus we find people – from Pirenne onwards – discussing the end of Mediterranean unity or the separation of north-western Europe from the western Mediterranean as historical problems. Famously, Pirenne sought an explanation of the ‘rupture’ of the Mediterranean World and the ‘turning in on itself’ of North-Western Europe in the Arab Conquests. The Pirenne Thesis produced perhaps 60 years of debate, during which people questioned the chronology for the end of Mediterranean unity, or proposed new causes for its end. Indeed, another of the great historical works of the last century, Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II discussed the ‘Middle Sea’ and the regions that bounded it as forming a historical unit. This too set in train a long and important historiographical debate or set of debates and a much larger corpus of work on the Mediterranean.

Yet, in any sort of long-term perspective, the fundamental separation of the western and eastern Mediterranean worlds, or that of the north-west from the south, are really the normal state of affairs. Reading Cyprian Broodbank’s The Making of the Middle Sea brings home the point that the eastern and western Mediterranean were fundamentally very different theatres of social, political and economic activity. The Eastern Mediterranean acts as a link and thoroughfare connecting the north-east of Africa, the south-east of Europe and parts of western Asia (Asia Minor, the Levant). All of these links bound these regions to each other, for centuries, in a web of relationships far denser than those that connected the south-east of Europe with the regions to its west. That is important in itself when one thinks about the fluctuating and inchoate – but politically important – notion of ‘Europe’ (let alone The West). Indeed, the way in which Egypt (and the eastern parts of Libya) was a part of this world throws a similar light on this issue.

Before going further with that we should ask which of these issues really concerns the ‘Year 600’? The separation of the east from the west had been on-going since the third century, and the same is true, or even more so, of the separation of the north-west from the western Mediterranean littoral. Nonetheless something significant did happen in the 6th century, especially in its later half. Western Europe simply drops off the radar of writers in the East, and changes in trade and commerce emphasise the separation of the two halves of the Mediterranean (Pirenne was correct to notice that, even with the limited data at his disposal, but the chronology is too early for the Arab Conquests to be the cause).

Looking at these issues in the long term thus sheds a rather different light upon them and that does in some ways compel a rethink of what we might think of as the historian’s agenda. Are we looking at things the wrong way round? You could argue that it’s not the rupture of the Mediterranean that is the great historical problem requiring explanation – explanation frequently in terms of dramatic politico-military events – but the creation of Mediterranean unity, or of connections between the north-west of Europe and the regions to its south, in the first place.

What are the implications of that conclusion, though? Is it an argument in favour of the of ‘longue durée’ approach? People familiar with my work since 1995 will know I have serious reservations about the ‘longue durée’, but nevertheless the way viewing problems in the long term can recast what I just called the historian’s agenda does seem like a powerful argument in its favour. For that reason taking a long view ought to be a part of at least shaping the questions we think are important, and why. It can shed an important light on issues of causation, or causal factors. The problem, for me, is that if we are not careful about what we do with such a perspective it can imply a sort of determinism or inevitability about change through time. That, I remain profoundly opposed to. Things are much more random and unpredictable than that. Further, if such structural features can be overcome at particular points of history, then they can’t be assumed to be naturally determinant. On the other hand, though, if it can be argued that what happened between, say, c.250 and c.650 was just physical geography rearing its ugly head, then do we need to look for decisive politico-military actions to hang causation on?

Structural features are important. It is important to isolate what these were, specifically, and in context, rather than just assuming them to be natural, extrapolating them from long-term description, or just assuming them on ‘first principles’. What were the long-term structural issues with regard to the West’s separation from the East, or in north-west Europe’s separation from the western Mediterranean? I will try to put some thoughts together on this for the next instalment.

Thursday 15 December 2022

Professor Grumpy's tips on how to write a lecture quickly (not counting PowerPoint)


Don’t write a script that will take you 50 minutes to read out: this will be far too much information for the students to take in

1: Decide upon the four things you want your students to know about at the end of the lecture. Add Introduction and Conclusion

2. Make those your four main sections and assign ten minutes to each of them. Put those on the left indent of your page. (make a power-point of the section title)

3: Are there key sub-divisions of those areas? If so, divide up your 10 minute- sections accordingly. If not, no worries. Put sub-sections 1 tab indent in from the left hand margin

4: Divide up your 10 minute section (or small sub-section) into the key things that a (say) term 4 student needs to know about. Think of at most one per minute. Write down each basic point 2 tab indents in from the left margin.

5: Will they need illustrations? If so how many (max) will make the point effectively? Remember students will look at illustrations to take them in, so key that into your timing calculations

6: By now the first bits of your lecture should look something like this (use the Word formats for Heading, Heading 1, Heading 2 etc if this will make your notes easier to read and keep track of):


Main Section 1

               Sub-section of main section 1.1






               Sub-section of main section 1.2





Main Section 2

               Sub-section of main section 2.1


I call this a ‘dendritic’ lecture plan because it branches out like a tree

7. For each point jot down what it is that you want to say. If you have a quotation or a reference that you need to read, put that here (or alternatively on a new line indented by three tabs).

8. Write a conclusion (5 mins) that sums up the issues you wanted to put across, and sets up the next lecture – use the same scheme as above if you like.

9. Write an intro (5 mins) that sets the scene for the lecture, why the topic matters/is important for the course, tells the students what you’re going to talk about. PowerPoint with the 4 main sub-headings. Talk them through it.

10. I find that the intro (esp) and conclusion are sometimes the bits that I do want to write out in full, so that I can get the students’ attention, and be clearer and less ‘ummy-and-ahhy’, and have some memorable phrases that they can take away.

11. Once you have that you have 50-minute lecture.

12. Keep your eye on time when you give the lecture, and compare where you are with where you ought to be

13. If, when you give the lecture, you find you have spent too long on a section, you can make up the time by speeding up a bit in the next sections, this is easier done with these bare-bones notes than with a full text.

14. If on the other hand you find you’re going too quickly, recap. Sum up you sections, sub-sections, points even. Introduce your sub-sections and why they matter. No student ever complained about that. True story: once I had so much on that I had no time at all to prepare a lecture I’d never given before (or not in that form anyway) – do not get yourself into this situation – I only had time (like 5-10 minutes beforehand) to write down some key headers. So I spoke slowly and hammered each point home, re-capping, stringing things out. All the while I was thinking ‘my god, this is a disaster’. At the end the students all said, ‘that was such a good lecture tonight [this was when I was at Birkbeck] Guy – it was really clear and helpful.’ As I said, don’t get yourself into that situation (on the other hand, it did kill off the anxiety dreams about unprepared lectures...) but it makes my point about recapping and underlining points never being a bad thing.

15. You can get a lecture text much more quickly this way, one that allows more flexibility and more engagement and which spells out and gets over the main points that you want the students to get.

16. Now you can structure you PowerPoint around your plan. Time saved on text means you have time to make your PowerPoint better. Have a power-point for each sub-section at least, that maps the content (the points) of what you’re going to talk about. A power-point slide per point can help as an aide-memoire and perhaps put up other supplementary information.

17. Power-point: Remember that students stop and read all of the text on a PowerPoint slide even if you tell them not to, so don’t overload slides with text and if you have a long quotation on one, go through it with them.


Archaeology, History and Bad Science: A critique of the analysis of DNA at Szólád (Hungary) and Collegno (Italy). Part 3 (Conclusions)



The aDNA analyses of Szólád and Collegno were combined with study of stable isotopes in the skeletons and then compared with the distribution of grave-goods. The essential overall conclusions were expressed – less than clearly – as follows:

In both Szólád and Collegno this genetic structure mirrors the variation that emerges from their mortuary practices, i.e., how living members of the community represented the individuals that they buried. This perhaps suggests that in these two cemeteries there may indeed have been a biological basis to the notion that long-term shared common descent can shape social identity and that this is reflected in the material culture. However, whether the association between genetic ancestry and material culture reflects specific peoples mentioned in historical texts (i.e., Longobards) or stemmed from a deeper/long-term descent (of mixed barbarian ancestries[[1]]) is as yet unclear.[2]

The stable isotope analysis is very interesting; the discussion of furnished burial deeply flawed. This, however, is not the place to discuss those or to present an alternative interpretation.

Towards the start of the article we read:

We note that we are not aiming to infer Lombard ethnicity, which is a subjective identity.[3]

This is disingenuous. The experiment was designed to examine the Longobard migration, and chose two sites associated with Longobards, excavated and discussed by archaeologists predisposed to read variations in the data on ethnic lines and to see change in material culture as resulting from Longobard migration and who have previously interpreted the sites in those terms. The background to the problem analysed was exclusively expressed in terms of the history of that migration. To say that the implication is not that the supposed incomers are Longobards, defined and unified by their (supposed) ancestry, and that that was what gave rise to the variability in material culture is entirely unconvincing.

But what, if anything, has been shown? It is, to be sure, interesting that the analyses suggest a linkage between different kindreds and particular funerary rites and diets, and that these include the evident incomers at Collegno, but this does not explain the use of those rites. The association between the furnished inhumation burial rite and ‘Germanic’ ethnicity has absolutely no prima facie evidential support whatsoever in the archaeological record. As a rite, it was clearly developed within the frontier provinces of the Roman Empire. As Irene Barbiera has proven, inhumation with weapons was a rite known in Northern Italy before the ‘barbarian migrations’.[4] That cannot be stressed strongly enough. If repeated aDNA studies reveal that furnished inhumation was generally employed by incoming groups from Germania Magna, that will demonstrate that this old assumption was the luckiest guess in the history of archaeology! It will not, however, explain why these groups, with no prior history of using the rite before their migration, suddenly decided to employ it once on Roman or formerly Roman territory, or retrospectively confer methodological or logical rigour on the initial assumption.

The analyses made no linkage between the incoming group in Collegno and the supposedly immigrant group at Szólád, other than the broad similarity of their genetic make-up when plotted on PCA diagrams.[5] Close consideration shows them not to overlap by very much even on the analyses’ own terms. The modern geographical regions associated with the supposedly incoming, ‘northern’ groups are moreover very broad. But let us in any case accept this conclusion. Does it necessarily say anything about the migration of Longobards? Think of all the other possible explanations. If the Collegno incomers do have, loosely, ‘central European DNA’ could they not (as the authors admit) be descended from Ostrogoths, or from any of the barbarians who made up Odoacer’s army? For that matter, although growing up in the locality, why can the different ‘southern’ kindreds at Collegno not belong to either of those groups? Furthermore, what if they were descended from ‘Romans’ who had moved back from the transalpine provinces?[6] Some of the areas from which the alleged newcomers might have come, according to the genetic evidence, lie inside the Empire. All these possibilities are entirely consistent with the experiment’s results.

The authors claim that the results are ‘consistent with an origin of this [putatively immigrant] group east of the Rhine and north of the Danube and we cannot reject the migration, its route, and settlement of the Longobards described in historical texts.’[7] Indeed they are, but they are at least as consistent with a wide range of alternative interpretations and do nothing to render the authors’ preferred reading more plausible than the others.  In short, the Szólád/Collegno analyses involved an experiment set up with a series of interpretive conclusions in mind; that experiment did nothing to rule those out, so it is implied that they have been confirmed. This is bizarre. Traditionally, scientific method proceeds by deduction, by ruling explanations out, rather than simply picking, out of a wide range of possibilities, the one that accords with the analysts’ preconceptions on the grounds that it had not been excluded by the experiment. There is actually very little that is ruled out by this experiment.

Let us suppose, though, that in spite of all my misgivings the analyses had revealed the arrival of Longobards at Collegno and that they were the people using grave-goods. As noted, it would still not explain their decision to use that rite; it would certainly not authorise us to describe the rite and its analogues as Longobard or Barbarian. What would it tell us? That there was a Longobard migration into Italy and, perhaps, that it contributed to stress and social competition at a local level? We knew this. No one to my knowledge is denying – or has ever denied – that there was a Longobard migration, or that it involved the usually-cited numbers of people: perhaps 100,000. In other words, the most positive reading of the results, and one, let me repeat, that by no means automatically emerges from the data, would tell us absolutely nothing that we did not already know and, with considerable likelihood, not even that. Forcing the data into the support of that maximalist reading potentially obscures what they might be saying about a broader and more interesting range of topics.

The Szólád/Collegno experiment – like many other studies of this sort – offers us, by way of conclusions, a choice between the obvious – something we already knew and no which sane person doubted (people moved into the Roman Empire from Barbaricum) – and the impossible – that no one moved and populations were entirely homogeneous. Hence, they frequently rely on setting up the second alternative as a straw man.

[1] Why ‘barbarian’?

[2] Amorim et al. ‘Understanding’, p.8.

[3] Amorim et al. ‘Understanding’, p.2.

[4] I. Barbiera, ‘Remembering the Warriors: Weapon Burials and Tombstones between Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages in Northern Italy’, in Post-Roman Transitions: Christian and Barbarian Identities in the Early Medieval West, ed. W. Pohl & G. Heydemann (Turnhout, 2013), pp.407-35.

[5] Amorim et al., ‘Understanding’, fig 2a, 2b.

[6] As is famously recorded in Eugippius’ Life of Severinus. Life of Severinus: Eugippius. The Life of St. Severin, trans. Bieler, L., (Washington, 1965).

[7] Amorim et al. ‘Understanding’, p.9.