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Here, in order from oldest to most recent are the not-exactly-numerous posts that have appeared on the other site in the past two and a half...

Saturday, 27 November 2010

The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation: New Narratives of the fifth-century crisis (in which I decide to dabble in Art History...)

This is the text of the paper I presented last summer at the International Medieval Congress.  I have been asked before whether I was going to post it here and at the time, when the blog was strictly linked to my 'Year 600' project I said no.  But as I have renamed the blog andcut that strict and direct link, there seems no reason not to post it now.  I will add the accompanying figures as and when I have time.  As it is I am not entirely happy with this, because in discussion afterwards I was convinced that rather than leaving the discussion with the issue of trauma I should have developed the idea of playfulness and visual riddling or humour as a means of coping with the stress of the period.  This is a suggestion I like and I would want to make more use of it.  Anyway, see what you think.  As I'm always having a go at historians and (especially) archaeologists, I didn't see why art historians ought to get off so lightly!


One might say, with a certain irony, that the study of the end of the Roman Empire from a Lacanian perspective is only in its infancy; indeed one could probably say that it has not yet reached the Mirror Stage. Yet this perspective has much to offer, not simply in understanding people’s actions and responses in the fifth century but also in understanding why people cling wilfully to outmoded narratives and explanations. My approach in this paper was initially inspired by a chapter of Alain Badiou’s 2005 book The Century, dealing with the politics of twentieth-century avant-garde art, and then by Slavoj Žižek’s brilliant early work, The Sublime Object of Ideology.

This is a first go at trying out a different way of looking at the major new decorative style around the North Sea, Salin’s Style I, the principal features of which are the dissolution and ambiguity of the image, to argue that its popularity is to be understood in the context of the Roman Empire’s dramatic, traumatic fifth-century political demise – an end of civilisation, one might indeed say. These traumas can quite easily be understood as an encounter with the Real, the un- (or pre-) symbolised, in the sense that Žižek uses Lacan’s concept, and the fragmentation and disintegration of the image, especially the figure, in decorative art can be understood as a product of the collapse of a long-established symbolic order.

There has been continual, thorough and splendid structural and formal analysis of Style I. Günther Haseloff’s monumental study of Germanic Animal Art appeared in 1981 and my colleague, Tania Dickinson – to list but one authority – has produced exemplary, rigorous stylistic analyses, particularly of its use on Anglo-Saxon Saucer brooches. I am in no position to add anything to any of this and am not going to try. Quite the opposite: everything I am going to say is entirely based upon it.

Less satisfactory than the descriptive analyses, to my mind, are the explanations of Style I’s popularity across north-western Europe: explanations of how, in one of Tania’s own phrases, ‘animal art gained its place in early medieval affections’. Analyses are in my view, constricted within an unsatisfactory and problematic conceptual matrix, one principal axis of which is the cultural description of this art as ‘Germanic’. The idea that all barbarian speakers of a Germanic language can be treated as culturally interchangeable can no longer sustain any analytical weight whatsoever. Even former Germanists like Jörg Jarnut have argued forcefully that the term should be abandoned, except when discussing language groups. Even were ‘Germanic’ a meaningful analytical term, its explanatory weaknesses become very evident when phrases are encountered which state that Style I’s appearance:

‘is marked by the sudden disappearance of all sea creatures, which up till then dominated Scandinavian ornament and represents the beginning of the Germanic interpretation of the animal world’ (Haseloff 1974: 12)

This begs two crucial questions: ‘why then?’; ‘why like that’? Why does ‘Germanic’ only begin to have analytical value then, when Germanic-speakers had dominated the region for centuries? And why does this art, after centuries within which the metalworkers of Germania Magna proved more than capable of reproducing Roman models or otherwise producing coherent naturalistic figures, take this particular form? Appeal to pan-Germanic cultural ethos gets us absolutely nowhere in response to either question.

The other analytical axis is religious: Style I iconography is read in line with a view of pagan, Nordic religion, based principally on twelfth- and thirteenth-century written sources, and upon anthropologically-derived ideas of shamanism and tribal ritual of uncertain application. The perils of an approach that understands iconography, in any detail at all, in the light of sources written nearly a thousand years later are insurmountable and should hardly require setting out. In any case, even if we ignore them, the religious axis takes us nowhere – in answer to the questions of why then and why like that – just as fast as the Germanic axis. These axes of analysis are sustained by ideas of ethnicity, migration and of a rigid divide between Christianity and paganism which are inadequate to the task.

There is no time to detail the other theoretical problems with current approaches. The main point is that, to anyone about to dismiss an approach drawing on Lacanian psychoanalysis in the usual way, i.e. for being ‘anachronistic’, I say this: while it may be based upon a possibly problematic claim to being diachronic, it is actually – demonstrably – less anachronistic than the approaches currently employed. More to the point, perhaps, I am going to analyse the Style for what it did to established artistic traditions, whose symbolic content can be suggested less problematically. In this sense it is rigidly contextualised. Further, I am not going to analyse it in terms of iconography or function – religious, social, ethnic or whatever – but in terms of its aesthetic: why did late fifth and sixth-century people like this style, as they clearly did. What drew them to it? What appealed to them about it?


The key point in explaining Style I and its popularity is the date of its appearance, around 475, in other words at the precise time of the western Empire’s disintegration. This is an issue that I have touched upon before. I cannot see this chronological conjunction as being a mere coincidence. In the past I have dwelt on the non-Roman import of Style I – its breaks with Roman decorative tradition, its southern Scandinavian origins. That a style with such symbolic content should appear at the time of the Empire’s political demise must be significant, although the point is hardly ever raised. Nevertheless, this does not go the whole way towards explaining Style I’s precise nature or its popularity: its profound symbolic significance.

There are two or three important points that must be set out as background to this change. One is the inextricable inter-linkage of the Empire and barbaricum. One cannot see a simple opposition or binary line between the two. Changes in the Empire had deep effects on barbarian society and politics.

In particular, the North Sea was a cultural province, with movement around and across it throughout the late Roman period, and the overwhelming balance of cultural influences was from the Empire to barbaricum: pottery, metalwork, cultural forms (inhumation), maybe even what have long been thought to have been ‘Germanic’ architectural forms (the Grubenhäuser), and artistic style. The last has a long history. Throughout the Roman Iron Age, Roman brooches were imported into Germania Magna and copied. Roman style had such a profound influence on northern barbarian art up to and throughout the fifth century that, in explaining it, it is quite unnecessary to invoke, as Haseloff did, the kidnapping to northern Germany of entire workshops of Roman artisans.

My final background point is the catastrophic crisis that the withdrawal of effective imperial governmental presence caused in the north-western provinces and in North Sea barbaricum in the fifth century: manifest in diverse areas by pretty much analogous responses and material cultural forms.

Any attempt to comprehend fifth-century animal art must be set against this backdrop. To understand it further we need to back-track into the art and mentalité of the Late Empire. The centre-point of the Roman thought-world was the idea of the civic Roman male, which embodied a set of ideas: freedom, the law, reason, moderation. The civic Roman male was, in Lacanian terms, the point-de-capiton, the quilting point, of the whole signifying system: the master signifier which provided all the others with their precise meaning. Concepts such as womanhood, barbarism, the animal, freedom and so on, all acquired their meaning by reference to this. The point de capiton fixes other potentially shifting signifiers and oppositions. Even the martial model of Roman masculinity is essentially defined by this, illustrating how the Lacanian model provides several conceptual advantages over my previous thinking about this problem.

The civic masculine ideal lay at the heart of all Roman imperial politics, whether at the local or the Empire-wide scale. Its performance was required for participation. The signifier was also – and this is key – shaped by the Emperor and those who held power at court, at the imperial core. They defined who was, and who was not, really a Roman male.

So the depiction of the human figure in late imperial art is not – it cannot be – a simple representation of a bipedal hominid. It carries enormous signifying weight, the burden of which might be visible in the changes to figurative art in the late imperial period.

We can see some of this in the decoration of official imperial metalwork, the lineal ancestor of Style I as has long been known. This followed very strict rules. The centre of the design is always made up of geometric or otherwise plant-based designs, very regularly set out. Around the edges – always – are the animals, depicted naturalistically in spite of the fact that they are pretty much always mythical hybrids. All is as it should be. One does not have to think very hard to see this opposition between centre and periphery as equating, not least in its layout, with other oppositions: the regular and the disordered; the natural and the unnatural; the civilised and the uncivilised; the human and the mythical or divine; the cultivated and the wild; and so on: in short, perhaps, the Empire and barbaricum. The crucial dimensions of this decorative art, visible on artefacts of many types in the imperial north-west, are, in my view, its regularity, its unambiguity and its timelessness. By the last term, I mean that the overall picture can be seen and understood at a glance and, regardless of when it is viewed, it is always the same; it requires no contingent, active participation on the part of the viewer. It has no active present; what I mean by this will really become clearer in considering its opposites, later on.


Artistic style is one of many areas in which the actual fifth-century evidence tells a rather different story from that adopted in modern migrationist, Germanist, narratives. What is clear for most of the century is not the gradual spread of influences from Germania Magna into the provinces, but the continuing, grip in which the rules of imperial style held decorative expression. If we restrict ourselves to the north-west of Europe, within and without the dissolving political frontiers, fifth-century decoration continued, on the whole, to play within the imperial ornamental guidelines. Chip-carved styles generally perpetuate the rules of composition. Quoit Brooch Style has long been known to do this. What is known as ‘Saxon Relief Style’, similarly, is pretty much entirely bound by these rules. Peter Inker has argued that this shows a vigorous Germanic reworking of Roman models. I find difficulty knowing exactly what this means, analytically, and in any case I can’t see any vigorous reworking myself. But he’s doubtless correct that one doesn’t need Roman craftsmen to produce Roman-inspired art. To my mind it is rather the compliant nature of this style which goes a long way towards explaining why it was widely adopted around the North Sea in this period, possibly as a conscious political expression in opposition to other clearly Romanised decorative styles, like Quoit Brooch Style: a point which must bear importantly on discussions of art and identity in fifth-century Britain. There’s nothing about Saxon Relief Style that would be shocking to a provincial Roman concerned about claims to legitimacy, which might have made it entirely appropriate in the context of Romano-Saxon polities emerging in a fifth-century British context. This, I should stress, is a slight but significant modification of my previous views on this topic.

Whatever its stylistic genealogy, though, none of that could be said about Style I. Style I can be positively shocking compared with its parents, particularly in the forms it takes around the North Sea. First, the animals take over the centre of the field. This isn’t general though; especially outside the North Sea region there are Style I objects that stick within the old rules of composition. Second, the animals’ nature changes; the shift from aquatic or semi-aquatic beasts, to quadrupeds, has long been appreciated but what interests me is the equally well-known incoherence of the Style I beast, fragmented into different components, ultimately to appear in what Haseloff memorably called Tiersalat: animal salad. The animals’ bodies lose their edges, being reduced to a series of parallel contour lines, sometimes to a single line. All of this is compounded by the ambiguity of Style I animals, which can terminate in a beast’s head looked at one way, or a human head viewed another way, sometimes with knock-on effects for how you read the body of the animal in question. But, obviously, as with all such things, they can only be one thing at a time. The figure, in its coherence or in its interpretative clarity, has gone.

This and the disentangling of the bodies, which all too often simply disappear, or can be interpreted more than one way, but never simultaneously, make this very much – in contradistinction to imperial art – an art of the present. Its reading is active, and possibly different each time. It is quite the opposite of imperial metalwork, the symbolic background against which it must be read. It lacks resolution; it is an ‘art of beginnings’ and indeed shares many of what Badiou identified as features of the avant-garde.

So, for the last quarter of my paper, I want to suggest why this style should have proved so aesthetically pleasing and popular at the end of the fifth century and the start of the sixth. For one thing it has significant metaphorical value. Most British archaeologists these days, when they talk about metaphor, actually mean synecdoche.  Peter Inker, for example, says that, when Saxon Relief style was based upon Roman badges and shield designs, it was a metaphor for Roman-based status.  That’s synecdoche, not metaphor. The take-over of the centre of the field by the periphery can be read as metaphor. If my analysis of the symbolic associations of imperial metalwork is not pure fancy, one might see it as metaphor for the control of the political centre by the peoples once regarded as peripheral animals. Or, as I would prefer, it is more a metaphorical representation of the absence of the old imperial centre.

A useful way of understanding the process at work is provided by two quotes from Judith Butler:

‘One might speculate: the act of symbolization breaks apart when it finds that it cannot maintain the unity that it produces when the social forces it seeks to quell and unify break through the domesticating veneer of the name.’ (Butler, Laclau and Žižek, Contingency, Hegemony and Universality, p.27)

‘When people see the schema used to justify domination the dialectic collapses’ (ibid., p.28).

The master narrative of the fifth century is that of the collapse of an age-old signifying system, as the political centre that served to maintain and regulate it lost its hegemony – both in the usual and in the Gramscian sense of the term. The point de capiton – the old master-signifier – the Roman civic masculine ideal, which had symbolised the social structure and concealed internal divisions within a set of binary polarities based around it, became unfixed. This is a fine historical example of what Butler is talking about. Once that happened all the other signifiers and oppositions began to float free again.

In the north-west of the Empire and in some parts of the North Sea Barbaricum beyond, that did indeed spell a traumatic collapse of social and economic structures: an end of civilisation. In this context it is, it seems to me, hardly surprising that the human figure ceases to be depicted in anything other than (at best) stylised and (usually) ambiguous form or that even the animals show these characteristics.

As the fifth century wore on, but especially from its last third or quarter, the West – the North-West in particular – was entering a new world, one without any of the old symbolic fixed points. Everything was up for grabs. Social structure was unstable, authority at local levels as well as those of the new kingdoms could be created, lost and won bewilderingly easily, quickly and unexpectedly. Social relations were renegotiated, often dramatically, in ways that could not have been envisaged a hundred years previously. Even areas like Denmark, which remained fairly stable through the fifth century, nevertheless felt keenly the demise of the great imperial power at the centre of the European political world, which had served to keep everything in its place.

This was a world of permanent beginnings. Great kingdoms rose, and fell, within a couple of generations. Local power seems to have changed hands equally swiftly as a result. It was a world in permanent encounter with the Real: that which could not be symbolised, indeed it was something pre-symbolic. How to symbolise, even retrospectively, events with no precedent? Maybe it is actually no surprise that it took fifty years for people to start creating a new narrative, of the End of the Roman Empire.

The first time I showed students how to identify Style I animals, one of them actually did ask me if I had been smoking anything before class. It is an entirely valid response to Style I; this, if ever there was, is an art of the ‘what the hell is going on?’ It would take more than 3000 words to really develop this argument but what I hope to have suggested this morning is that, set against the narrative of the fifth century, placed in this context, Style I reveals a true contemporary resonance and aesthetic; in short, as the avant-garde of the late fifth and early sixth century, Style I is unambiguous: it makes perfect sense.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

The Children's Crusade

Please read this. It will make you think:


It might even, I hope, make you angry.

Here's another eye-witness comment:
"Police planted an old police van in Whitehall in the middle of 4000 demonstrators, we asked the police to remove it, they refused. Police only 20 yards from the van refused to protect it. They wanted it to be attacked. The 'attack' on the van was an excuse to kettle 40...00 people for 8 hours, some 11 years old. We had no water or toilets for 5 hours. The news media worked with the police to fabricate the story."

See also:

When time permits, I will post some reflections on all this.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010


This has been much shared on other fora, but if you haven't read it yet, please do.  It is a marvellously humane and intelligent (and creatively angry) piece:


Monday, 15 November 2010

Oh dear... (or Historian on the Edge: NOT a Nazi)

(with apologies to Father Ted)

I have just been informed that the whole text of Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West is available on a Nazi website (I won't give the address as I don't want to give them publicity).  Not only is this quite illegal (and I will be attempting to get Routledge to carry out some sort of legal action) but I wanted to make it clear to anyone who can't figure this out from other posts and comments on this Blog, that this was most certainly not done with my permission.

This is an odd one, to be sure.  Anyone with a brain who read that book (OK, OK I know that brains and literacy rules out most neo-Nazis) ought to realise that it is written from a fairly left-wing perspective.  Then again, ought I let them read it for some subtle brain-washing?  Too subtle, I fear.  More to the point, it is (pace Bachrach's characteristically brain-dead, near-libellous review in the American Historical Review) hardly the sort of thing they'd want to read, as it is pretty explicitly anti-Germanist (and very anti-heroic).  No triumphant Nordic/Germanic warriors sweeping aside the decadent Mediterranean civilisation here.  Though I'm sure their authors would be as disgusted as me to find themselves in this company, if these people want the Germanist 'warrior culture' view, then Michael Speidel's bizarre Ancient Germanic Warriors would be of more interest, and if it was simply right-wing militarist lunacy they were after, then Bachrach's own Early Carolingian Warfare would serve them amply.  That or the (slightly more historically plausible) Conan the Barbarian novels...

It's a funny old world.  Bachrach calls me a Marxist (I'm not but I don't think his understanding of the issue is very secure); a hard-of-thinking Amazon reviewer says my barbarians book is liberal, PC history, and the Nazis are pushing my work to their followers.  Truly, Roland Barthes was right: the author is dead....

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Goths and Romans

This is the text, more or less as given, of my paper at the '410 AD, The Sack of Rome' conference in Rome (described in the post below).  The 'and' in the title, should be italicised... :


It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…
Alaric’s sack of Rome was always going to cause shock waves across the Empire, and thus in our evidence. The first sack of the city by people claiming – or called by – a non-Roman ethnic name for almost exactly 800 years would have been reason enough, but this attack took place against a backdrop of heated controversy and debate.
It was the epoch of belief; it was the epoch of incredulity…
In 410, the emperors had been Christian for less than a century; fewer than twenty years previously, the current Emperor’s father had outlawed non-Christian religious practice; this was the height of the very generation in which the senatorial nobility forsook its ancestral gods for the new religion and, during Alaric’s sieges, leading officials had partaken of – now illegal – pagan rites in an attempt to stave off the city’s capture.
We had everything before us; we had nothing before us; we were all going direct to heaven; we were all going direct the other way
That the first sack for eight centuries should occur against this background was always going to heighten and refract the polemic and apologetic that was bound to have happened anyway.

Not only that, but the sack took place amidst controversy about the place of barbarians inside the Roman Empire. Alaric and his men were no invading horde from barbaricum, like Radagaisus’ Goths defeated four years earlier. That would have been bad enough. These barbarians were very much within the Roman Empire and its structures. As Orosius said, Alaric was a ‘king of the Goths and a count of the Romans’. Since the end of the Gothic crisis in 382 the Roman army had recruited large numbers of Goths, so that whole units, armies even, could be referred to as ‘the Goths’. In some ways this was not new practice, but it had novel and distinctive features and its scale was, as far as we can tell, unprecedented. Around 400, Synesius of Cyrene had delivered an impassioned rant about the perils of placing these ‘wolves’ among the sheep dogs and a massacre of Goths in Constantinople occurred not long afterwards. More recently still, Stilicho’s downfall had brought forth all the usual anti-barbarian rhetoric and led to the massacre of the wives and children of those of Radagaisus’ force who had been enrolled into the army. The soldiers themselves, unsurprisingly, took themselves off to join Alaric, present in Italy precisely on the instructions of the executed barbarian public enemy.

The sack of 410 might have been less violent than many other episodes in the city’s history, such as Maxentius’ unleashing of the garrison on the rioting citizens about a century earlier; one can propose that if the impression we gain from the sources is correct – a hazardous assumption given their apologetic nature – Alaric’s capture of the city resembles a heavy-handed occupation more than a full-blooded sack, such as Rome endured in 455 or 1527 (the last being the only one of the three meaningfully attributable to 'Germans'). Nevertheless it is important to remember that in August 410 the Romans endured three days of brutality that none of us would want to experience. That said, one can be forgiven for supposing that, in the context just outlined, the sack would have generated this sort of impassioned literary outpouring even if the violence had amounted merely to a couple of bloody noses and a black eye.

I will position the sack of Rome within a different narrative from those usually given: especially the teleological, triumphant story of the Goths’ heroic march from the Balkans to their eventual kingdom in Aquitaine, sometimes seen as the realisation of a long-standing desire. I see the tale in more ironic terms, as one whose eventual outcome was very much not the one intended, either by the Goths or by the Romans. Alaric’s Goths are indeed ‘Goths and Romans’, not striving to create something entirely new, but to ensure their acquisition of something more traditional, within established political structures. Their precise nature, however, the political and geographical situation within which they found themselves and the demands of centuries-old Roman political ideology and vocabulary constantly worked upon them (although it need not have done) to produce a situation always in flux, and results that were quite unexpected and indeed un-looked-for. This story, at some levels, is a simple twist on the old narrative but in its details is quite different; the 410 sack of Rome continues to represent the closing of a chapter, but in a rather different way.

It behoves us then to look more closely at these Goths. Michael Kulikowski asked whether the contrast between Nation and Army is a necessary one; it is difficult to explain very much, very convincingly, by taking one or other option in the form usually presented. The evidence is unsatisfactory, but so is the 'nation or army' question. I find the idea of the nation – the people on the move – unconvincing on methodological and evidential grounds, and the extreme version of the argument, that this was a coherent people with a single set of aims, to found a kingdom, finds its principal attraction in the fact that it is impossible even to parody (believe me; I’ve tried). By contrast the notion of the Goths as army, and more so the notion as the Goths as simple Roman army, has great difficulty in explaining anything.

The mistake, as in the debate over whether the people are Goths or Romans, is to see a question of essence where there is only one of existence. The fate of conglomerations of historical actors is not determined by their essence but by ‘contingency, singularity [and] risk’, to take a phrase from Roland Barthes, occurring in chaotic constellation and kaleidoscopic sequence. ‘Every thought launches a throw of the dice’, as Stéphane Mallarmé wrote. The same is true for every speech and gesture. By neglecting this, the usual emplotments of Gothic history err by making historical actors into a bizarre form of the Lacanian ‘figure presumed to…’, refracting and veiling any encounter with the historical Real. I will try and steer a perilous course between these alternatives.

The cookhouse of the 8th Hussars in the Crimea (1854/55),
by Roger Fenton: not a migration of people, in spite of the
presence of (A) a wagon, and (B) a woman.
 Over the past twenty years, the ‘People on the Move’ interpretation has sometimes been thought proven by references to Gothic wagon trains and to Gothic women and children, references evidently considered to render the case closed. They do not. Indeed, on any close inspection, this is a silly argument. No matter that the references to Alaric’s wagon trains and those to Gothic women and children rarely coincide. The important points are that all armies have wagon trains and, more importantly, that up to the later nineteenth century at least the presence – not the absence – of women and children with armies is actually the norm; you don’t even need to leave the late Roman period to see that. The presence of Gothic women and children means nothing in deciding whether the Goths were a people or an army and we should draw a veil of charity over this whole sorry argument.

The notion that Alaric’s followers were a ‘people on the move’ is further questioned by the sheer proliferation of groups of Goths within the Empire after the solution of the Gothic crisis in 381-2, which belies any claim to see Alaric’s group as the Goths. Traditionally Alaric’s force was a direct descendant of the Gothic or Tervingian ‘people’ settled as a quasi-autonomous group with – allegedly – its own laws and leaders. Hardly any aspect of this construct finds clear support in the data. I am not even convinced that the so-called Treaty of 382 even took place – certainly not in the form we have been expected to believe, since Theodor Mommsen’s day. The counter-argument cannot be proven either but I would maintain that is a simpler, more economical explanation of the evidence we have, requiring fewer presuppositions and less (indeed no) teleology.

Nonetheless, at no point can we deny that Alaric’s troops were Goths. Indeed it seems to me to be impossible to understand the course of development of Alaric’s forces without appreciating that this really was the factor that impinged most upon them, even if possibly more from the outside than the inside.

It is unlikely that the number of men killed in the disaster at Adrianople topped 5% of the total Roman army so it is no real surprise that the Empire was able to grind the Goths down. Adrianople’s significance lay in who died: the best units of the eastern field army. That the Romans were unable to win via a dramatic victory in the field, that it took so long to make a new, effective field army, says volumes about the quality of the late imperial military. That it needed many years to rebuild an effective army and that such time was never found in the West after 394 is key to understanding fifth-century western political history. It is no surprise that in Adrianople’s aftermath the East turned to hiring experienced barbarian troops to forge a new cutting edge for its armed forces. Given the enduring situation beyond the Danube, the fact that the bulk of such troops should have been Goths is no more astonishing. The form that such Gothic formations took was novel if not, in itself, unprecedented, but none of this implies a necessary, direct continuity between the Goths settled – in whatever form – after 382 and Alaric’s followers. Undoubtedly some of his men were warriors who had fought in the Balkans between 376 and 382, though by 410, thirty years on, I doubt there were many. Most, I suspect, were like (I assume) Alaric, only adolescents or teenagers when they crossed the Danube but some, I imagine, were born inside the Empire. Growing up there, their social formation would have been moulded by the society and culture of the imperial Balkans rather than the forests and plains of Gothia. How many had provincial Roman mothers? We don’t know, but it has a bearing on exactly what it meant to be a ‘Goth’. Incidentally, in seeing Alaric as ‘a Goth and a Roman’ It is interesting that the story Claudian had heard about Alaric was that he had been born on an island in the Danube: born, as it were, in the Romano-Gothic frontier. Maybe he was, of course, but even if not it seems to me to be interesting and apt propaganda for him to have put out, for Roman audiences and for Gothic.

All the more in that what the historiographical concentration on direct socio-political continuity between Fritigern’s Tervingi and Alaric’s Goths – at best an unproven continuity – obscures is the possibility (the probability I would say) that large numbers of the Goths in Alaric’s and the other Gothic units proliferating in the Empire were recruited not from Goths settled after the crisis of 376-82 but directly in trans-Danubian Gothia. Alaric’s reinforcement by the former Goths of Radagaisus only underlines this. Constant infusions of trans-Danubian Goths might have gone some way to counteract the gradual ‘Romanisation’ of Goths from within the imperial borders but the circumstances of their recruitment modify traditional ideas. Such infusions also seem a more plausible mechanism than internal reproduction for the maintenance of the numbers of Gothic troops. This line supports the argument, on which most commentators seem agreed to some extent, that - like Gaïnas’, like Fravitta’s, like Sarus’, like Tribigild’s - Alaric’s Goths were formed on Roman soil. The old names Tervingi and Greuthungi disappear. Goths are, now, just Goths. Even the term Vesi, presumably the root of the Byzantine compound ‘Visigoth’, is first attested in the Notitia Dignitatum.

Consideration of the Gothic forces requires us to discuss the term foederati. In the early fifth century, federates were not merely regular soldiers; Zosimus consistently distinguishes barbaroi from stratoitai. Yet, in the Strategikon of c.600 the foederati are simply an élite cavalry unit. A half-century or so earlier, Procopius said that in the old days foederati had been people serving the Empire on equal terms but now they were just members of the foederati units. When this change took place is unclear, but a passage in Olympiodorus of Thebes is interesting. Talking of bucellarii and foederati during Honorius’ reign he says that these were now formed of men of all nations, evidently including Romans. So, even by the second decade of the fifth century the foederati, whatever they had been, were a mix. Sources agree in using technical regular army terms for Gothic units and their commanders. The development of the foederati between c.400 and c.600, in my reading, resembles that of some of the auxilia palatina: regiments originally composed of barbarians but whose élite status soon made them attractive to recruits of all sorts.

Nonetheless, if the foederati were on the road to becoming an élite corps of regular horse, no one knew that in 410; that road had a long way to run. More significantly, their ethnicity, however defined and created, was shared with their commander, adding a new, strong bond to the already, famously, close links between Roman generals and their troops. Fifth-century generals – federate generals especially – increasingly behave as condottieri, their troops their stock-in-trade. In first decade of the fifth century there were further reasons why these bonds were so close. With the political debate mentioned earlier, with the backlash against barbarian mercenaries, for a commander like Alaric to give up his command was to invite his own demise. One only had to think back as far as Stilicho to see that, or further back only to the fates of Fravitta and Mascazel. The troops themselves needed only remind themselves of what happened to the families of Stilicho’s Gothic recruits, let alone the massacre of Gaïnas’ troops in Constantinople in 400. The Roman army had barbarised, it had adopted a self-consciously barbarian identity in the fourth century, but the foederati, at this stage at least, were something slightly – but importantly – different. There were good reasons why Alaric, Gaïnas and the rest – Stilicho even – could not be just ordinary Roman officers.

However loyal they might have been, the problem with foederati was that centuries of anti-Barbarian rhetoric could be deployed against them whenever they found themselves on the wrong side of whichever faction controlled the court. Those who opposed a reliance on Gothic troops (normally civilians it has to be said) made full use of such vocabulary and this rhetoric was capable, as it always had been, of being turned to very un-rhetorical, bloody ends. In the period’s factional politics, such troops were only too likely to find themselves in the political cold as indeed Alaric and his men did, frequently. Fravitta found to his cost that you didn’t even need to be on the wrong or even the losing side…

That Alaric and his army were firmly ensconced within the established frameworks of Roman politics is made clear by the events of 409, when the Roman senate, no less, joined Alaric in raising the usurper Priscus Attalus. It is impossible to know who the driving force was in this agreement but we should not automatically assume that it was Alaric. Eastern Roman historians tended to blame the senate, as something of a Leitmotif of their account of what went wrong in the fifth-century West, though they too might be arguing back from later events. Whatever the case, the senatorial-Gothic alliance is difficult to accommodate within the old narratives of kingdom foundation. So is Alaric’s unceremonious dumping of Attalus and attempt to come to terms with Honorius in 410.

Alaric never demanded a kingdom or recognition as a king. Indeed our sources rarely call Alaric a king. The titles he demands are Roman. Thomas Burns’ argument that Alaric only styled himself king when in rebellion, when without formal Roman office, has much going for it even if, inevitably, it cannot be proven. It might have been more plausible still had Burns not wanted to accommodate Alaric’s Goths simply within the regular Roman military framework. I suggest that the title rex fits the command of foederati particularly well. 'King' may not often have been used as a formal Roman title, but the Romans were accustomed to federate kings. Alaric was not often referred to as a king but Athanaric always was (sometimes to his displeasure) and he signed more than one foedus with the Empire. Alaric’s foederati were a somewhat different, new sort of foederati but the vocabulary used to describe them paired well with his employment of the term rex. And he was not alone in this. Sarus too (we assume it is Sarus) is described as having at some point been a rex and, like Alaric, Sarus and his smaller Gothic group had a tendency to slip into and out of legitimacy. When looking for a term that conferred legitimacy within and yet simultaneously without Roman politics, the title king was apt.

Alaric did not want a kingdom: he wanted a formal command and a fixed base, wherein his troops could draw pay and supplies within the imperial system. The new elements within the system made the linkage of army and general closer and a wise commander could not separate his own objectives from those of his troops. The desire to keep them together also seems to spring quite naturally from this situation. But it was not new, as Constantius II and Julian could have told Alaric fifty years earlier. From this sort of situation and its dynamics it is not difficult to see how the territorial kingdom could evolve, without evoking any of the usual teleologies, unfounded assumptions about long-term ethnic traditions, binary ethnic polarities, unchanging ethnic identities and so on.

But kingdoms are for losers. Counter-factual arguments are fruitless but I suspect that had Alaric got what he wanted and lived longer, there might very well have been no Gothic kingdom. His kingship is born out of opposition. Indeed, throughout the fifth century, the lesson repeated over and over is that a kingdom is the default option, faute de mieux; the preferred outcome is always power at the centre, controlling court and Empire (or what remains of it), without regnal title. If that cannot be achieved, one falls back on the kingdom. The importance of Alaric is that he had become, and died as, king of the Goths. His career and the options he took may well have set the precedent which others followed (and even this was developing precedents set by Bauto and Stilicho). Not only that, the emerging patterns of military command, that his career exemplifies, were followed by Roman as well as non-Roman, federate generals, with forces regarded very much as personal fiefdoms.  (It might be that the reason why Roman commanders do not take the title king is that they do not command foederati; the one who did - Aegidius - apparently did style himself king when he was in rebellion.)

So much for Alaric. What of Honorius: usually condemned as a fainéant? Modern historians have even described him as a child-emperor at points when he was in fact in his early adulthood; such is his reputation. And yet, the reason Alaric died as king of the Goths, rather than fading away as an old soldier within court politics, like Bauto, the reason why Athaulf succeeded to the Gothic command as king – in opposition - and took the title 'king' for longer, so that it had by 420 become a fairly standard element of the political furniture, even if a formal kingdom hadn’t, the reason why Athaulf’s army gelled further as ‘the Goths’ even as its actual Gothic component must have weakened, is that Honorius refused to accept him. He steadfastly rejected anything to do with the rebel Goth. This stubbornness should be given the importance it deserves. In important ways it gave birth to much of the political landscape of the fifth century, and not just to the sack of Rome.

410 AD The Sack of Rome, Conference 4-6 Nov. 2010 (in which I visit the Eternal City and find that some elements of the historiographical landscape are equally, well, eternal)

The absence of distinctive Gothic costume
and material culture graphically explained
Last week I went to Rome for the conference '410 AD The Sack of Rome', organised by the Deutsches Archaeologisches Institut, Rome, and by Philipp von Rummel and Carlos Machado in particular.  Nothing so fries your brain as a quadrilingual conference, especially when your grasp of one of the languages involved (Italian in my case) is pretty slender.  That said, it was a very successful conference and the published proceedings should make a very valuable volume for scholars interested in the subject.  Sadly I fear it won't reach far outside that audience, but such is always the way of these things. 

Here is a brief account of what went on, insofar as I understood it...

The Papers
Thursday 4 November: After the usual preliminaries by the Great and Good, Philipp von Rummel got things under way with a brief but perceptive overview of the problems involved in studying the sack of Rome as an archaeological problem.  Difficulties of precise dating loom large of course but so too does knowing how a sack would manifest itself in the archaeological record, and indeed of knowing what exactly the 'sack' itself comprised of.  After this, Christoph Riedwig described the conference held at the Swiss Institute on 'The Sack of Rome, 410, and the revival of the eternal city', which had a rather more textual and 'history of ideas' focus than the present conference, meaning that the two complemented each other quite well.

After these preliminaries, Arnaldo Marcone gave a lengthy run-down of the symbolic importance of Rome in imperial sources from the Battle of Adrianople onwards and then, more interestingly, Carlos Machado spoke on 'The Roman Aristocracy Before and after the Sack'.  What Machado showed quite graphically was a dramatic shrinking of horizons in the interests and indeed the geographical make-up of the Roman senatorial aristocracy after 410.  He also, very interestingly, pointed up the factional divides within the senate and highlighted their absolutely central involvement in the events of 408-410, making clear the complicity of some of the most powerful noble families in events such as the raising up of the usurper Attalus.  What I thought was interesting, from a personal point of view, was just how little connection there was between the Roman aristocracy (in its composition and in the areas it served in) and Gaul (especially) and Spain.  Links with North Africa were extensive, perhaps unsurprisingly, but so too were links with the East.

After coffee it was the turn of the revisionist 'terrible twins', which is to say Michael Kulikowski and me.  I spoke on the subject of 'Goths and Romans'.  I'll post the whole text anon.  For now, suffice it to say that most of it was a distillation of the relevant bits of Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West but with some revisions and developments.  These can be summarised thus:
1: The Gothicness of Alaric's forces may have stemmed largely from continued widespread recruitment north of the Danube, rather than from Goths settled in the Empire after 376
2: The nature of the foederati was new but not unprecedented but in the precise circumstances of the period 395-410 (the heated - and sometimes bloody - debate on the presence of barbarian troops inside the Empire) meant a closer bond between commander and soldiers
3: The title rex has a more specific resonance and particular appropriateness to a commander of foederati in rebellion
4: Kingdoms, far from being an objective, are the default option if nothing better can be obtained.  'Kingdoms are for losers'
5: Honorius' role is much more decisive than people give it credit for being

Michael's paper likewise drew on his body of work to critique the notions of barbarian migration, especially in its recent manifestations, and to show (in similar but far from identical ways to my paper) how the specific circumstances of the period led to a tense and dangerous focus on the commanders of armies of barbarian recruits and their relationships with the court.  Michael built on this a discussion of the traditional Roman means of defending Italy and how these were quite irrelevant to the situation in 408-10.  He then used post-colonial theory to reconstruct Alaric's career in terms of a subaltern mimicking of the dominant culture but one where sudden changes in the situation and the lack of precedent for his position meant that in some points of crisis, unable to obtain what he wanted from the inside, he had to fall back on 'playing the part' assigned to him within the ideological order - that of rampaging barbarian - and to attacking the system from the outside, with dramatic results.  I hope this is not too crude a synopsis.  It was very interesting and I agreed with most of it, even if I had some problems with some elements (I think that Michael would probably say the same about my paper).

Claire Sotinel finished the session with a paper which was in its way every bit as revisionist as the other two, perhaps more so, but rather more subtly.  The paper - Quelles fortifications pour defendre la ville? De l'inefficacite des murailles de Rome devant la menace militaire - began with a detailed consideration of the epigraphic evidence for the heightening and strengthening of the Aurelianic Walls in the first decade of the 5th century and found it wanting - quite convincingly.  She then moved on, in a way that fit quite well with Michael Kulikowski's paper, to argue that in most regards the Romans had very little idea of quite what to do about defending Rome, as discussions of the subject focused almost exclusively on ideological issues (that is the Emperor as the bulwark of Rome) or religious ones (that Rome was to be defended by prayer). 

The session after lunch began with a lengthy discussion - a catalogue - of the descriptions of the sack of Rome to be found in contemporary and near-contemporary sources, by Ralph Mathisen.  This pointed up some interesting contradictions and correspondences.  Overall one could get the impression that most writers did not rate the sack as a matter of great destruction, and that references to fire and sword were comparatively rare.  As Orosius said seven years later, to go to Rome and talk to Romans 'nowadays' you could be forgiven for thinking that it had never happened, were it not for a few charred ruins here and there.  I think it is easy to make too much of this statement in playing down the violence of 410 but what Ralph's survey made very clear was  that it was not easy to get a very coherent picture of Alaric's sack from the contemporary sources.  Mischa Meier followed this up with a very long paper on Orosius' observations on Alaric and the sack of Rome, but I am afraid that he spoke quickly and quietly and the room was very hot so that I have to admit that I didn't get a very clear idea of his argument.

The day's final session was on the monumental centre of the city and began with a very interesting (if evidently controversial) paper by Johannes Lipps on the forum Romanum, which argued that the oft-cited evidence of the sack of 410 was nothing of the sort and that the destruction and rebuilding that took place on the site was to be seen in a much broader context and over a longer time-span.  The paper in the forum of Caesar by Roberto Meneghini et al. tended to back this up by showing that there were changes on the fora but ones related to changes in use.  Interestingly these seemed to focus on the use of the space for manufacturing or inductrial processes - a development that can be paralleled on Roman public buildings from the later fourth century onwards right across the western Empire, from as far away as Britain.  Similarly, data from Trastevere and the Campus Martius while showing evidence of change, provided little by way of any sort of confirmation or illustration of the events of 410.

Friday 5 November: Friday's morning session very much continued the theme of Thursday afternoon, with papers on the Caelian Hill and on the Aventine which tended further to underline the absence of clear evidence for the sack itself.  Nonetheless what could not be avoided was the fact that Rome itself was very much in the process of transformation, with areas of former habitation being deserted or turned over to new purposes.  Inevitably, though, the archaeological data could not pin this down to being the result of specific events (whether of 410 or 455 [the Vandal sack] or whatever) or more simply the manifestation of a longer process with quite separate causes.  Simon Malmberg, rounded the session off with a very interesting paper on the Esquiline which, rather than looking at issues of physical destruction and violence saw rather the development of a monumental centre, again as a long process from the middle of the 4th century up to the end of the 6th, and dwelt on issues of psychological violence - in this case the building, renaming, dedication and re-dedication of churches in the course of theological controversy (controversy that, it has to be said, had more than its fair share of physical violence in its wake).

After coffee we heard about the excavation of a building in Trastevere, near Sta Maria, which underlined further the theme of change, abandonment, desertion but little by way of deliberate Gothic destruction.  (By this stage more than one person had posed the question of what one would expect.)  Clementina Panella, one of the big names of Roman archaeology, delivered a very long paper on 410 in the context of material culture.  It was long, delivered very quietly, off microphone (quite apart from being in Italian), and with PowerPoint slides whose labels were way to small to read, so I haven't got a clue what she was talking about.  From a personal point of view, the one thing I did pick up was (again) the lack of contacts between Rome and Gaul (this time as reflected in pottery finds) or even Spain, compared with those with Africa (unsurprisingly) or the Eastern Mediterranean.  Finally, Alessia Rovelli discussed the coin evidence to show that the inhabitants of Rome were making up for the inability of the imperial mints to provide the city with enough coin by minting their own copies. [If you compare this response with that in Britain at precisely the same time, you will gain a very clear index of the difference in the nature of the crisis.]

Lunch was followed by a paper on the Esquiline Treasure by Francois Baratte, which cast pretty convincing doubt on whether the treasure was indeed a treasure or whether it was buried in 410 and - for me -  a more interesting piece by Roberto Meneghini on the effects of the events of 408-10 on the city population which made very interesting (if inevitably unprovable) points about the demographic consequences of cutting off the grain supply, in terms of starvation and disease.  Using largely nineteenth-century comparative data he painted a pretty bleak picture of what the events might have meant for the population of Rome.  I found this very valuable as a counterpoint to the facts that the written sources are very vague and equivocal about the severity of the sack, and that the excavated data, left to themselves, would not show that a sack of any sort had happened.  What Meneghini was talking about would leave little by way of archaeological evidence but would still amount to a grim period.  For issues of the ethics of history, I thought this was well worth considering.  The final paper, by Riccardo Santangeli Valenziani, on the events of 410 in the archaeological record could, by popular consent (among historians), have replaced all the preceding archaeological discussions, as it summed up very clearly the overall state of play.  (That said, I suspect that the archaeologists would say that all the historical papers could have been replaced by Ralph's.  But then the archaeologists didn't really attend anything that wasn't archaeological, or by Italian archaeologists.  The way the room emptied by 1/4 to 1/3 whenever a paper on history and/or not in Italian was scheduled was pretty depressing, although it it did at least cheer me to think that other people were as bad as the British in this regard.)

The second half of the afternoon was a long one.  It kicked off with Franz Alto Bauer on buildings and donations, which made a very fascinating comparison of wealth expressed in terms of buildings and wealth in terms of the furnishings of buildings to conclude that wealth in terms of property was expressed far more in terms of the latter than the former.  This left us to reflect interestingly once again on what sorts of material cultural evidence we might expect from 410 and what the implications might be of the different reflections that we might see.  Paolo Liverano spoke about Alaric on the Lateran and the Esquiline, which went pretty well with the overall theme.  Straight on from there (and by this time we were over-running...) into a session on the impact which began with Michele Renee Salzman speaking on the church's use of the events of 410, or rather their memory, within internal Roman politics, ecclesiastical and otherwise.  This was largely on the basis of the sermons of Leo I 'the Great'.  Christine Delaplace spoke on Gothic strategy, stressing the importance of ever-changing contexts and present demands rather than long-term grand strategy.  She felt that Constantius III wanted to bring the limes back to the Loire.  I'm not sure about this, as a plan, although it might work well enough as a temporary strategy.  I think it works better for the 440s and Aetius, although even then I would see it in terms of a short-term strategy than a long-term plan.  I don't think the Romans ever decided definitively to abandon any part of the Empire.  Finally Elio Lo Cascio went through various means of attempting to calculate the population of Rome in antiquity.  I'm not sure what conclusion he came to, though he has apparently published this in many places.  By this time the horrible, hot, over-crowded room had taken its toll and I was practically poking myself in the face to stay awake.

Saturday 6 November: Sadly my insomnia kicked in big time on the night of Friday/Saturday so that I had barely had two or three hours of sleep by the time the conference was scheduled to resume on Saturday morning.  As a result I missed the first session and a bit.  This included papers on Ostia by Axel Gering, on Jerome and Orosius by Neil McLynn, on the epigraphic evidence by Sylvia Orlandi and on statues by Bryan Ward-Perkins.  I was especially disappointed to miss McLynn's paper as I had wanted to hear it and it was, apparently, very good indeed, really playing up the extent to which the sack is used by Jerome for his own purposes and how little it seems to have mattered to Orosius.

The conference's last session was I think set up to be something of a play-off between Peter Heather and Walter Pohl, representing the schools of 'Fall of Rome' and of 'Transformation of the Roman World' respectively.  I didn't hear most of Peter Heather's presentation but from what I did hear and from what emerged in questions, it was exactly the same line that he has been arguing since 1991, without modification or any real reflexion.  The Roman Empire was brought down by the exogenous pressure of barbarian incursions produced by the Huns (an idea first expressed by St Ambrose of Milan in the 380s, incidentally).  From what heard it was clear that Heather hasn't had anything new to say on the subject of Goths and Romans for twenty years.  In questions he declared that the world was irreparably changed by 420; if he meant that and it wasn't a slip of the tongue, then I think that that is just empirically wrong.  In 420 I would say that the West was on the verge of complete restoration under Constantius III and that had the emperor not dropped dead of pleurisy the next year things would probably have been very different indeed (see, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, p.234).  What brought down the Roman Empire?  Pleurisy.  ... As I always, not entirely jokingly, tell my first-years. 

Walter refused to play the part scripted for him and instead presented a useful summing up, and a view that pointed out how Heather and Ward-Perkins had essentially misconstrued the position of those who don't believe that barbarians conquered the Roman Empire, by claiming that they don't believe there was any violence. ('Transformation' is not the same as 'continuity', said Andrea Giardina in discussion afterwards.)  The process - and the debate - was more subtle and more complex than that.  That apart he did a very fine job of conciliation, and so the whole event drew to a close.

Some Reflections
As far as the historians' contributions went, there was not very much that was new.  For the most part it was the same old same old, with a few twists and tweaks here and there (or with none at all).  But it was a useful overview of the different ways of reading - or telling - the 'story' of 410, as Walter Pohl said in his paper at the end.  Machado's paper on the aristocracy was for me a bit of a highlight in that it dealt with material I didn't have very much of a handle on, and Salzman's also had some interesting material, although in that case I was not sure that the event referred to by Leo ('the days of our tribulation and salvation') needed to refer to the Gothic sack; it seemed to me that they could refer to November 312 as plausibly as to August 410. 

The archaeological papers presented masses of new and interesting data but overall it appeared to me that the story being told, or the questions being asked, were still very much (with the possible exception of Malmberg's paper) framed by the historical account.  Was the sack archaeologically visible?  Did it produce change or was there more general continuity (or slower processes of change)?  There were valuable insights (e.g. Meneghini) and more than one person pointed out that the sack could have been a quite orderly affair: the systematic stripping of movable wealth rather than the rampagings of a wild mob of savages.

But what I wondered was whether it wasn't time for the archaeologists to stop thinking in these terms and to open themselves to some different stories, not predetermined by the old narrative of the barbarian invasions.  What, for example, of the narrative of Christianisation?  This is an old story but it is nevertheless grounded, as has long been known, in some indisputable facts, such as the increasing foundation of churches within the centre of the city.  What if, say, the dereliction of old sites or their reuse for new purposes (almost all of those we know about, inevitably, being close to churches) is more about the donation of land and buildings to the Church than about simple tales of growth or decline, or of sack or continuity?  A story of the christianisation of the Roman landscape would be a narrative that would fit very well with the story that different forms of evidence tell us right across the West.  I have run an MA course entitled 'Renegotiating Rome' in which we look in turn at different corpora of evidence and see whether the story it tells us is the same as the stories modern history books tell - it almost never is.  Indeed what seems to be the real master-narrative of the fifth century is not the conquest of the Empire by Barbarians (as I had already realised when I wrote Barbarian Migrations) but the replacement of a classical world view which defined legitimacy or otherwise according to the performance of civic Roman values, by a Christian one which defined legitimacy and its alternatives according to doctrinal orthodoxy.  This is a story that the archaeology and history of Rome still have much to tell us about, far more meaningfully than they do about Alaric and the sack of Rome.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

The Revolution begins (in which I become involved with ‘rampaging’ student ‘protesters’ ‘fighting running battles with the police’ throughout central London … apparently)

I went to the demonstration against the government’s education cuts in London yesterday. It was very well attended. The organisers had expected 24,000 people but in the end claimed that 45,000 came, with other estimates topping 50,000. From where I was it was impossible to judge (fill in a comment here about the difficulties of estimating the size of early medieval armies…) though I would hazard a guess that it was closer to the latter figure than the former. Who knows? Anyway, after a trio of lacklustre speeches from representatives of the organising bodies (believe me, I could have done better myself) we were off, slowly moving down Whitehall past the Houses of Parliament (timed to coincide with Prime Minister’s Questions) and to Millbank. I think it took our bit of the march about an hour and a half to complete the route, which ought to give an idea of the numbers present, and we were very far from being at the back; people were still coming in large numbers all the way along the route as we walked back to central London to get something to eat. So it was good to see such a huge turn-out but, being the disillusioned type, I felt there were nevertheless grounds for concern. One (obviously) was that it is disheartening if not unexpected that students only get politicised and active when it is a matter of their own pockets (if our students are anything to go by, I imagine that a fair number of them voted for this government; indeed I quipped that the 'Poppleton' student contingent was probably there to protest that the proposed fees were far too low…). Disappointing, but I suspect it was ever thus, to some degree at least.

Amplifying this point and underlining my general unease, was the fact that – overwhelmingly – the student placards were concerned only with the fees issue. One at least made a demand for ‘value for money’ (I wager groans from 90% of any HE teachers reading this)! But the fees issue is only a symptom, not the cause. Successive governments (Labour as well as Conservative) have cut back on the funding of higher education and focused what government money there is on satisfying the perceived demands of ‘business’, something that utterly misunderstands the nature of ‘education’ as opposed to ‘training’. This, incidentally, is not a complaint limited to arts and humanities students; the ‘hard sciences’ were amongst the most vocal in protesting against the imposition of Mandelson’s ‘Impact’ agenda (indeed the official response from my own professional body, the Royal Historical Society, was so pathetic and lily-livered that I nearly resigned my fellowship in protest). So much the worse in a profoundly anti-intellectual culture, but the cuts threatened by Cameron and co. will so slash university funding that the universities will have no option but to raise fees, or else cut jobs and departments (they had already started this after the last Labour government’s cuts, and it’ll hardly get any better now). The focus on the placards suggested to me, though, that as long as fees are not raised (or are cut) the student body will be happy enough. The response will inevitably be more ‘mass-delivery’ teaching (i.e. lots of lectures) from fewer staff, but then my suspicion (alluded to in a previous post) is that, provided they get their increased ‘contact hours’ (students have a *very* poor understanding of this issue) telling them what to write for their exam, they’ll be happy enough. Maybe I’m wrong. I very much hope that I am. The chants didn’t always suggest a particularly tight focus on important matters but anyway, in the jargon of British journalism, ‘a carnival atmosphere prevailed’. I’d have liked a bit more anger, to be honest. No middle class revolution, this. Shame.

But, no. Apparently I was mistaken. On the Tube on the way home, having spent the rest of the afternoon in the middle of London, in an area encompassed by Victoria, Oxford Street and Charing Cross Road, I read The Evening Standard (latterly given away free, and so now changing hands at a price only marginally exceeding its value) and was struck by the coverage of the event. ‘STUDENT SIEGE’ shrieked the front page, which described how thousands of student ‘protesters’ (nothing so becomes a demonstrator as being called a protester) had ‘brought central London to a halt’ by ‘fighting running battles with the police’. Having spent all afternoon in central London this came as a bit of a surprise, I have to admit, as the only time I had been brought to a halt was by the usual slow-moving crowds of shoppers on Oxford Street. I certainly hadn’t seen or heard any sign of the alleged ‘running battles’, although clearly there were angry confrontations – the Standard had pictures after all – and clearly some students had broken into a building containing conservative offices on Millbank.

A look at various editions of the Standard was interesting. The earliest version simply had a picture of three young female students with placards (the sort of thing that Private Eye would satirise along the lines of ‘Journalists fear education cuts will reduce the number of fruity* female students they can photograph’ [* the word the Eye always uses]), a later version went along the lines of peaceful protest hi-hacked at the end, before the ‘all hell breaks loose’ version I saw.

Because I know (vaguely) one of its co-authors (a former York student, as it happens), today I read this piece in the Telegraph:
(Read the comments if you want to peer into the void, and see just how dim the British public [or Telegraph-readers at any rate*] is; note in particular the visceral islamophobia of the second comment.
* How did the old joke go?  The Times is read by the people who run the country; the Telegraph is read by the people who think they run the country; the Guardian is read by the people who ought to run the country; the Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country; and the Sun is read by people who don't know who runs the country and don't care either, just as long as she's got big tits.)

Now, all this puzzles me further, because I reached the end of the march at 2.00, and then walked most of the way back down Millbank and didn’t see any of this mayhem, though I did see Police vans heading off somewhere with sirens going. Yet apparently, to read this piece, one could be forgiven for getting the impression (as the commenters clearly have) that the capital had been in the grip of anarchist outrage for half an hour by this point. Indeed I have spent most of today in baffled consideration of the print media’s coverage. What one notices very quickly is the repetition of the same pictures, none of which seems to show a huge crowd of ‘anars’ storming the bastions of English democracy. Look closely, and you will see the same few people, often doing the same thing but photographed from different angles. Look closely and you’ll see a lot of people standing about in anything but aggressive posture. Look closely and you’ll see a lot of police looking on, not doing very much, clearly not needing to. There are some shots of physical confrontations between some policemen and some ‘hard-core’ demonstrators. No one familiar with the media coverage of the Miners’ Strike can look at a photograph of a protestor and a policeman shouting at each other and blithely assume that it was the protestor who started the shouting (which isn’t to say it was necessarily the policeman either, of course).

Baroness Warsi: Not defenestrated
by an angry mob
One estimate places the trouble makers at 2,000. Maybe that’s right. I don’t know. I have not thus far seen any great reason to trust the coverage by the Great British press. Whatever, it was clearly too many for the police in attendance, who had been a pretty light-touch presence for the most part, and who didn’t feel a heavy-handed response was appropriate. Interesting in itself. The total ‘butcher’s bill’ seems to have been 40 arrests, which hardly suggests a repetition of Paris ’68 or the storming of the Bastille. Yet this element of the day's events has dominated the coverage.  Assuming the press figures are correct, 1/26 of the demonstrators (that’s fewer than 4%) stormed the building containing Tory offices, and a small percentage of this number (look at the photos) smashed the place up (not Tory offices apparently, and nor, fortunately as I’m sure we all agree, was Baroness Warsi, who was on the premises, defenestrated by an angry mob, which naturally is a tremendous relief).

This was not A Good Thing. I’m not going to condone it; the only elements I will condemn are those which caused or threatened harm to actual people  (e.g. the fire extinguisher incident). Tactically, it played – as you can see – straight into the hands of the right-wing press who were thus able to conceal the real point completely. Tactically it was a disaster. Morally, some elements were stupid at least and did as much (if not more) physical damage to the fellow protesters than it did to the police (not that the Police had any business being targeted either). Some may have been the usual suspects, the ‘professional troublemakers’. (Where do you get a job as a professional troublemaker? Where are the positions vacant advertised? And what do you earn?) But who knows? If there were some students angry enough to do this – mistaken, misdirected and to be condemned though it was – then someone really ought to listen. The coverage, though, says little or nothing about the 96% of the march that passed off peacefully and is able to take reasonable points and demands and make them into the ravings of extremists. The protest began peacefully; 96% of it ended peacefully too.

You can probably guess where I am going with this. Yes, it is – yet again – the value of a historical education. The press coverage has taken an unpleasant and reprehensible incident and blown it quite out of proportion. You only need to look at the comments on the Telegraph article to see how people have uncritically leapt straight on the bandwagon, accepting it as all the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth and stirred in their own personal bigotry. The historian’s training makes her question everything she is told, look closer at the evidence, find other sources, and weigh things up without being too carried away with the rhetoric of autopsy (‘I know; I was there’). I was there, and saw and heard nothing other than the vans leaving the scene; my Facebook-friend Heidi was there and saw people getting glass thrown in their faces and concrete being slung willy-nilly into the crowd; I have no reason to suppose that she’s making it up.  Neither of us has the whole picture. I would say that my experience (I was on Millbank at exactly this time) shows that the extent or scale of the trouble has been overplayed; Heidi’s shows very clearly how unpleasant the business could be at the eye of the storm, and that one can’t just say that nothing happened. The question you have to ask is whether a few dozen idiots behaving dangerously in a courtyard outweighs 50,000 people of all sorts of origins (I saw a Wadham College banner and I saw banners from the post-’92 institutions; there were mature students from Birkbeck too, as well as students of conventional age; artists and scientists) taking to the streets to say that what the government is doing is mistaken and wrong, or (better) balancing the two sides to the event. Which is the headline event? I’d say it was the second element not the first. Why has the press chosen the other option? You decide… Either way, this is the sort of question the historian always has to ask. Not just is this bastard lying to me but ‘why is this lying bastard lying to me’ (the latter element of this at least is attributed to Louis Philip Heren [1909–1995]).

What worries me is essentially what I have said before, that far too many history students don’t want to be taught the value of critical scrutiny of evidence; like the commenters on the Telegraph piece, they just want to be told what is what and what to think. How are they to respond to this sort of issue?  With this attitude among a largely complacent de-politicised electorate, who needs repression!

So, if I go back to Schama in Tuesday’s Guardian, what does it matter what bits of History you study at school, as long as they teach you the arts of critical thinking and reflexion, which I would say are what history is about. In evaluating the information, misinformation or imbalanced information about yesterday’s events, does it do you any more good to have studied Henry VIII or Hitler, or Alfred the Great or the Hittites, as long as you know how to assess information critically, and try and see that there might be more than one point of view?

Anyway, enough of this bourgeois chatter. Pass the Molotov Cocktails, Tarquin; it’s fuckin’ kickin’ off.

A New Title for the Blog

It had to happen...  As I've recently wandered way off the topic of my current research and as I am not very sure that the sponsors of said project would necessarily want to be associated with my rants, I've decided to switch the title of this blog.  The current title is provisional; it's boring but at least it has the 'does what it says on the tin' factor.  Any suggestions for an improvement welcome!

Straight in at number 42...

Readers of this blog might be interested in this list of blogs on similar topics.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Vision? Nightmare more like...


As you might expect from this media ex-historian, this is absolute tripe which completely misses the point of an historical education.  I will comment more at length in future, but for now see what you think.  For me, the fundamental mistakes and inevitable self-contradictions stem from the myth of 'relevance', and the idea that history should be used to create some sort of national identity/consciousness.  Rather than British history, I'd say that in the current context European history ought to be the basic building block, building out to world history.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Off-topic once again... On Militarist Francophobia (or still banging on about 1940)

(I promise I'll return to posting stuff about the seventh century again soon...)

This catches my eye today:

Now there are a range of important issues about this, which don't concern what I am going to write. For myself, as a card-carrying European and francophile, I'm quite in favour but I do see the force of serious arguments about joint European armies etc, even if I don't agree with them. As long as they are serious arguments, that is. What made me (unsurprisingly) angry was the range and density of xenophobic responses to this on an avowedly left-wing Facebook group. Out came all the tired old jokes about the French running away, being cowards etc. One person claimed her grandfather had spent 6 years in a PoW camp to stop this happening. I wasn't very sure how this worked, I admit. To have spent 6 years in a PoW camp, Granddad would by my reckoning (British involvement in WWII: 3 Sept '39- 15 August 45) have had to have valiantly surrendered before the war had even started... And I wasn't aware that high on the list of reasons to fight was to stop the creation of joint Anglo-French battalions. I further suspected that most of the people objecting would have had no problem with Eisenhower's command of Allied Forces in NW Europe, or have no problem US led ops in the Middle East. Be that as it may (or should I say 'quoi qu'il en soit'?)...

Apart from this there were appeals to history. One (step forward one Mark Waller, whom I would reward with the inaugural 'Undereducated Dumb-Ass of the Week' award, were it not that this was Faceboook and for all I know he could just be a school-kid, so I should cut him some slack; also it's been a hotly competitive week for general dumb-assery) even said that Cameron must know no history to have allowed this to go ahead (before delivering a tirade of the usual guff). This is an issue close to my heart, partly because we saw all this before when the French refused to go into Iraq with the US: all this got wheeled out. 'Cheese-eating surrender monkeys.' Wasn't that the phrase? The Google 'joke' that appeared if you typed French Military Victories into the search engine, said 'we could find no results; did you mean French military defeats?' Ho ho. I expect the side-stitching doctor got a lot of work out of that one. Hugo Rifkind, Times columnist son of Malcolm, even pens the following remark at the end of a piece on Sarkozy not being very French:

"Hell, he’ll be using soap and winning wars next. Quelle horreur!"
Witty, intelligent, mature?  You decide.  But then if you're from Rifkind's background you don't need to be very good to get on (that would be meritocracy or, as his ilk are fond of calling it, 'social engineering').

A brainless, overprivileged tyke, crying out
for a slap (again, in the eyes of people
other than me, needless to say)

Anyway, all this annoys me because it shows absolutely no knowledge of history, in spite of the claims made, and even less basic humanity. Here, in case you ever find yourself either, a: confronted by someone like Messrs Waller or Rifkind, or b: tempted to wheel out these sorts of imbecilities, is a range of points you might like to consider:

First of all,
On 1940:
1. The French inflicted more casualties per day on the German army than the Soviet army did during the first 6 months of Barbarossa
2. If the French army had given ground at the rate of the Soviet army in '41, it would have been defending Cadiz by the time the armistice was signed
3. The perimeter at Dunkirk was held by French troops. How do you think the BEF would have got away otherwise? The British story is that the Germans 'miraculously' stopped their panzers and gave everything over to the Luftwaffe, who, thanks to the Little Ships and the RAF, were unable to do the job. This is a myth. The Panzers were withdrawn to refit and ready themselves for Fall Rot, the offensive against the main French forces, a strategically more important task, and because the terrain around Dunkirk, criss-crossed by canals, is hardly good tank territory anyway. The RAF performed very badly over Dunkirk. One sortie by Hurricanes against Stukas indeed resulted in 2 Hurricanes being shot down by the Stukas for no loss to the Germans. Fortunately the RAF learnt from its mistakes in time for the Battle of Britain. In any case, Luftwaffe or no, German heavy artillery had the entire defensive perimeter and the beaches and port facilities in range from quite early on and it was in fact the Wehrmacht guns that put an end to daylight evacuations. Whilst all this was going on, very far from being held back, the German army was launching repeated attacks to try and get onto the beaches, which the French fought hard to stop and even drive back. On a daily basis, the French commander launched effective spoiling attacks to break up the German assaults before they got started. On the last day of the British evacuation (2 June), one such French attack by the 21st Centre d'Instruction Divisionnaire (I assume a unit of instructors) launched an attack through thigh deep water and drove back the Germans for three hours, and lost nearly 90% casualties. And indeed many of the French units were not first-line forces: Bergues was held for 2 days of intense attack by 2 French labour battalions. Nearly 1/5 of those who were evacuated were brought off by the French Navy. Etc. Enough.
4. The problem of French morale after the slaughter of WWI. Ever been to France and looked at a French war memorial? Unless you have, you will not understand 1940.

Which leads me to...

French Military Victories
1. Of which there apparently aren't any... Assuming, of course, that you forget the period of absolute military domination of Europe by Louis XIV's armies from c.1640 to c.1700 (under Turenne, Conde and Luxembourg) and then from 1714 through to 1750 (under De Saxe). Even during the War of the Spanish Succession there were plenty of French victories that the British are accustomed to ignore by concentrating on the four battles won by the Duke of Marlborough. Indeed thanks to the abandonment of Eugene by the Duke of Ormonde (on government orders), the last battle on the Flanders front was a French victory (Denain), undoing much of what Marlborough had achieved.
2. Ever heard of Napoleon I?
3. Which army won the Crimean War by storming the Malakoff and thus compelling the Russians to abandon Sevastopol? (Clue: it wasn't the British army.)
4: Which army, for God's sake, do people like Hugo f*cking Rifkind think won the First World War (at a cost of 1,397,000 dead: as a percentage of population, that is twice the loss of the UK)? 'Thank God for the French Army' said Churchill, doubtless the guru of the likes of Rifkind.
5: Who, one wonders, do such people think won the Hundred Years' War? Or do they imagine that Gascony is still a territory of the English crown?
6: (For Americans, this one.) Do you imagine that the Revolution would have been won without French intervention? It's unlikely, as US governments from 1781 onwards (up to, at a wild guess, 2003) repeatedly acknowledged.

and finally...
The Other Side of the Coin (or famous 'British' victories)
This is important in the context of this frothing hostility to combined European forces, because most of the vaunted 'British' victories, especially over the French, are not very British at all.
1. Marlborough's victories were won with armies that were overwhelmingly (80%+) composed of Germans, Dutch and Danish.
2. Wellington's army in the Peninsula had a higher percentage of British troops but nevertheless contained large contingents of Spanish and Portuguese, the latter of which were very effective, not to mention (again) large numbers of Germans: the King's German Legion for example (about 20% of the 'British' army at Talavera, which itself only made up about 40% of the whole allied force).
3. Wellington's army at Waterloo was, like Marlborough's, mostly comprised of Dutch, Belgians and Germans, and in any case, as military historians increasingly accept, as the dominance of Wellington's own version of the battle (the Iron Duke was a skilled news manager) has gradually been reassessed, Waterloo was a Prussian victory. By the evening of 18 June, Napoleon had, effectively, beaten Wellington, whose battered line was barely clinging on by its fingertips. If he had had Lobau'scorps and the Guard, tied down by the Prussians from early on in the day (one of the things Wellington air-brushed out, claiming that the Prussians had only arrived in the afternoon/evening), to hand, he would almost certainly have crushed him.

Anyway, enough military historical fact-crunching.  There are implications for all of the above about the value of history - or rather (I should say) why history doesn't matter, but I have run out of steam and will leave that for another time.  In the mean-time, let's stop with all the cowardly French surrender-monkeys stuff, shall we?  Thank you.