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Tuesday, 6 March 2012

A Picture Says (Several) Thousand Words

Have a look at this picture.  It is entitled 'Genseric's Invasion of Rome' (Нашествие Гензериха на Рим), painted in 1835-36 by Karl Briullov (1799-1852) and is the property of the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.  It is a new one to me and I came across it today as a result of its reproduction in a very interesting article in the American Historical Review: 'Barbarians Ancient and Modern', by Norman Etherington (AHR 116.1, Feb. 2011, pp.31-57: if you have access to JSTOR you can read it here), for which reference I am very grateful to Alex Woolf (although I ought to have known about it before...).

Notice that, although Genseric (or Gaiseric as he appears in my own book) is depicted as fairly 'white' he is nevertheless shown in very Turkish guise (this, after all, is a painting from Tsarist Russia, old, old enemies of the Ottomans): n.b the helmet.  But look, too, at how Gaiseric's warriors are overwhelmingly 'black'.  Not merely 'black', but veiled and black.  Now, it is documented that Gaiseric had Mauri (Moors) in his army when he sacked Rome in 455 but, leaving aside the difficult issue of whether the Moors were 'black' or not, and indeed of whether labels like 'black' and 'white' are applicable to late antique history, these veiled north African Moors are depicted as Muslims (which - obviously - was impossible in 455!).  The veiled North African Moor is an image that dates from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries when the Almoravid Moorish caliphate invaded Spain (fighting Andalusian Muslims and north Spanish Christians alike).  The Almoravids belonged to a particular Muslim sect which prescribed the veil for men as well as women, as a mark of distinction and superior religious purity.  It's more than likely, of course, that Briullov knew nothing of this and just depicted the Moors as he knew them from more recent history, rather than deliberately 'islamicizing' them.  The overall point, though, remains the same.

When one looks at the general 'swarthiness' of even the 'white' Vandals (all darker-skinned than the Romans, especially the fair maidens of the latter), one of whom is wearing a turban, the story told by this picture is clear enough to decipher.  Here, the barbarian 'other', that 'blot' or veil hung to obscure the fatal flaws in the political status quo - pretty necessary in earlier nineteenth-century Russia, ten years after the Decembrist revolt - has been clearly filled in, or inscribed with, 'the Turk'.  Turks with their North African auxiliaries to be precise.  The Vandals attacked Rome from the south and the Turks lay to the south of Moscow, 'the third Rome'.

Obviously, this is just another example of how the barbarian figure has been used to personify the contemporary bogey-man, although quite an interesting one at that.  But, especially when one considers the long history of abuse of the barbarian figure (and how that is very much alive, well and currently, as it happens, inscribed with Turks, Muslims and indeed the veil) it behoves us to think very hard about how we write about the Barbarian Migrations to avoid that inscription.  It does not take a great deal of thought to realise this, which is why I have been so shocked by just how thoughtless - to put it mildly - the products of supposedly elite universities and holders of handsomely-remunerated chairs have been in their writing on the subject: people you'd like, however mistakenly, to think were at least capable of serious thought.  How can one study the Barbarian Migrations and not be aware of the baggage that that accompanies it?  I have also been disappointed - not surprised, but disappointed - to see myself labelled, by the apologists of these people, as the person who made the discussion of the uses of this bit of the past 'tasteless', 'bitter' and, most recently, 'nasty'.*  That depends on the scale of values of the observer.  It is pretty revelatory, nevertheless, and more than slightly disappointing, that the paideia of politically-conservative, supine middle-class academe comes out as more worthy of defence than the modern treatment of immigrants. (A lame defence of politically-supine history can be found here, as indeed can my continuing vilification as The Nasty One).  More on all this anon.


* In this regard, you might want to compare the tone and nature of any 'engagement' (if it can be so called) with my own ideas in this book with how I treat the author of that book, to whom we refer as 'Gussie Finknottle' here at HotE, in my book: n.b. pp.xv, 18-19 (esp. n.46), 177 n.48, (most critically) 180-85, 332 n.46, 334-5, 472-3, 474, 477 n.82.  See what YOU think...  I'd be interested to know.


  1. An interesting detail is the 7 branched candlestick [presumably a reference to the Arc of the Covenant] being liberated in the background; I suspect that the the viewer would be expected to overlook the fact that this object had been acquired as a result of one of the two genocidal wars that the Roman had launched against the Jews.

    I have spent five disappointing years in HE, and met only one academic who seemed to realize it was teaching people to think that was important. Most of the people I met were too busy reading to think, as it is through reading and reciting that advancement is gained. As a result my own subject [archaeology] is dominated conceits so thin that it would shame the average New Age Sect.

  2. Go ahead, Tommaso. I hope things are going well with you.

  3. Guy, I'm sorry if you've taken offence at my reference in that Cliopatria post to your misfortunes in the wake of this kind of argument, but it doesn't call you nasty or mean to do so; it calls the argument nasty, and by that I meant not least in terms of the consequences for you, hence the link to your post to demonstrate them. I also link to the other side of the argument in the form of that Standpoint article, after all; I would have linked to the same party's 2000 EHR article if it wasn't paywalled, as I think it furnishes characterisation even better. The reference is not meant to be an attack on you and I think it's hard to read as one. If you thought that I think that linking to your own writing demonstrates that you're the `nasty one', well that isn't what I thought and presumably you don't think your post would support such an interpretation anyway.

    You're quite right about the post in general, though, it's feeble and powered not least by my own guilt about not being more political.

  4. Thanks very much for the reference to Etherington's paper: it's one of those pieces that feels like it ought to have been written decades ago.

    Having just read your account of one arresting image of a barbaric horde being barbaric, it was interesting to come across quite a different visualisation of a parallel 'event' in the AHR piece: Joseph-Noel Sylvestre’s 'Le sac de Rome par les barbares en 410' (1890).

    The contrasts with Briullov's painting -- not only in the ethnic references -- are quite striking. My first thought was that Sylvestre's picture has now turned into a strange and unexpected antecedent of this more recent image of triumph. But his homo-eroticism also offers a reminder that, packed in alongside all the other stuff, there's often a kind of atavistic admiration in the ongoing scholarly preoccupation with the barbaric.

  5. Jonathan: fair enough. Apology accepted, but the phrase 'the nasty argument' in your article is linked directly to your piece about my paper at Leeds. That could give the wrong impression.


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