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Friday, 23 September 2016

Worlds of Arthur: The Sequel

[I have started work on my next 'cross-over' book, which is provisionally at least called Myths of the Migrations: Facts and Fictions of the Barbarians. As a teaster and to illustrate what it's about, here is the first draft of the introduction.]

After the rise and crimes of the Nazis, the Fall of the Roman Empire has a good claim to being the historical problem most alluded to in modern political discourse.  By this is meant the fall of the western half of the Roman Empire, in a series of events beginning in 376 with the crossing of the Danube by the Goths and ending – neatly enough – one hundred years later with the deposition of the boy-emperor Romulus ‘Augustulus’ (‘Little Emperor’) by one of his generals.  That general, Odovacar, sent the imperial regalia to the eastern Emperor Zeno in Constantinople with a message saying there was no longer any need for an emperor in the west; Zeno could rule the whole empire.  Thus, in traditional histories, the western Roman Empire came to an end, after ruling western Europe for almost exactly half a millennium (503 years, by normal reckoning, counting from the senate’s award to Octavian of the titles Augustus and princeps).

Of course, in the historical significance stakes the Fall of the Roman Empire has a 1450-year head-start on the Nazis, so if one looks at European political discourse over the long term the relative importance of the western Empire’s demise dwarfs that of the Third Reich.  The image of the Roman Empire dominated European history right up to Mussolini’s employment of Roman symbols and his ideological claims that his regime and expansionist policies in Africa and the Mediterranean represented a rebirth the Roman Empire.  In this, Mussolini was in considerably better company than he deserved.  Rebirths of Rome pepper the history of the West, from Charlemagne’s coronation as emperor in 800, through that of Otto I, the claims of the Tsars to have founded a third Rome in Moscow, to Napoleon.  The final overthrow of the Bonapartes and their eagle-tipped standards was at the hands of the Hohenzollern kings of Prussia whose own imagery featured a thunderbolt-wielding eagle of Roman inspiration.  The summation of Wilhelm III’s victory, as is well known, was his proclamation as Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Kaiser (like Tsar in Russian) simply means Caesar.

How and why the First Rome had fallen was, then, an issue of more than passing interest.  It was important too because many of the ruling dynasties or aristocracies of western Europe claimed a descent from barbarian people who were supposed to have overthrown the Empire.  This produced the somewhat schizophrenic attitude towards the barbarians and the end of the Roman Empire that existed in western Europe up to and including the Nazis (whose own imagery borrowed from the Roman symbolic library).  The summit of legitimacy was to found a new Rome and yet at the same time pride was taken in descent from the people who had conquered that Empire.  The Romans could be, at one and the same time, miserable degenerate descendants of a once-great race and the very touch-stone of political legitimacy.  The way to square this circle was to claim that the mantle of Rome was passed, via the process of translatio imperii (the transfer of domination), from one people to another; as one people, such as the Romans themselves, grew unworthy of the power and dignity they had accrued, another arose to take it from them and the baton of empire was passed on. Ironically perhaps, this idea had its own roots in Roman thinking, as the Romans had theorised how world power had come to be passed to them from the Greeks and the heirs of Alexander.  Unsurprisingly, given the Nazis’ fairly omnivorous attitude when it came to finding ideological inspiration, the Third Reich bore witness to these trends.  Their Roman-inspired eagles coexisted with ideas of the triumphant destiny of the Germanic Volk, descended from the barbarians who brought down the Roman Empire.

The two-sided attitude to the Empire and its demise continues in contemporary politics.  The European far right simultaneously embraces the northern barbarians and the idea of the civilised empire of Europe, faced with barbarous aggressors.  Far Right groups in England, for example, love to identify with the ‘Englisc’ (the Old English spelling of English) people or Folk, adopting Old English (Anglo-Saxon) personal names in their discussion groups.  Popular demagogues have become fond of likening the influx of immigrants and refugees into the European Community to the invasion of Rome by the barbarians.  Alongside the claim that Muslim immigrants threaten Europe’s ‘Judaeo-Christian roots’ (made by people whose ideological forerunners were herding the Jews into gas chambers seventy-five years ago[1])  conservative leaders and journalists have repeatedly drawn upon the Fall of Rome as a ‘warning’ from history.  In this they have been helped by academics who have written what might, most generously, be termed irresponsible volumes on the subject or who have given public lectures, in the context of discussions of the ‘refugee crisis’, about how migration destroyed the Roman Empire.  Internet commentators, meanwhile, denigrate modern books that look more critically at the traditional narrative as driven by ‘liberal’ ‘political correctness’ or even as perpetrators of some sort of conspiracy theory.

The end of the Roman Empire has featured in political dialogue not only in conjunction with the supposed causes and effects of the barbarian migrations.  The causes for the collapse of this great political structure, the only one in history to govern most of western Europe and northern Africa (and, in the eastern Empire, the Balkans, Asia Minor and the Levant too) for any length of time, have at various times been sought in many other areas, such as a collapse of morality or the Romans’ interbreeding with other ‘races’.  This sort of view is still occasionally propounded, so I have tried to deal with some of its aspects as well, although at much lesser length than the issues concerning barbarian migrations or conquest.

The need for a discussion of the role of the barbarians in the collapse of the western Roman Empire therefore remains as important as ever.  This book takes a different approach from others on the subject in that it is primarily a book about questions rather than answers.  Rather than pursuing a particular line of argument in explaining the end of Rome or the Barbarian Migrations – you can find my interpretation elsewhere – it seeks to provide more of a tool-kit for people confronted with ideas and arguments about the period 376-476, or with claims to seek ‘warnings’ or ‘lessons’ in the events of that dramatic century.  To this end it principally discusses what I have called the myths of the migrations.  By myths I have striven to avoid the temptation found in other areas of historical debate (such as that on the British high command’s conduct of the First World War) simply to label dissenting or currently unfashionable interpretations as myths.  I have restricted myself to issues where contemporary evidence for a particular interpretation or argument is either entirely absent or has been read in a fashion that is illogical or goes beyond the possibilities of that form of data.  In other words, these are things which people have chosen to believe in spite of the lack of an empirically verifiable basis for such a belief, perhaps because it shores up a particular idea about the way the world is or ought to be.  This seems like a fair definition of a myth. 

The nature of archaeological research and the occasional discovery of new texts (or more usually fragments thereof) means that it may be that new evidence is unearthed in future that provides empirical bases for some of the ideas described here as myths.  That is a risk that must be run and in such instances I will accept the egg on my face.  Nonetheless, it must be accepted that in the current state of our knowledge these ideas only count as myth and, should future discoveries turn out to confirm them, that will not retrospectively confer methodological rigour on their proponents up to this point; such confirmation can only have the logical status of happy coincidence.

The tool-kit aspect of this book comprises not simply a list of ‘things to watch out for’ – things presented as facts or solid bases for argument that are no such thing – but attempts to go beyond that to draw out some key aspects of how we employ evidence from this period.  Late antique historical and archaeological evidence is not easy to use.  There are numerous reasons why the archaeology needs special care in its handling when pressed into the service of grand narrative history like that involved in broad sweep discussions of large-scale processes like the movement of people or the collapse of a complex political organisation; material culture does not (and cannot) always address the same issues as the contemporary written sources (and vice versa).  At the same time, the documentary evidence is much more complex than might at first seem to be the case.  The first chapter of this book therefore provides a brief account of the types of evidence available for the study of the fourth and fifth centuries and the key points one must bear in mind when examining it.  Setting out some of the reasons why this is so and the questions one needs to ask before accepting an interpretation is intended to enhance the reader’s ability to adopt a critical or sceptical stance when faced with interpretations of this important period of history and, still more so, its employment in contemporary political debate. 

Those interpretations, naturally, ought to include my own.  By the very nature of things, the myths set out in this book are ones that I have spotted, either in my research or thanks to the studies of other scholars.  Equally naturally, I have been unable to identify the blind spots that currently remain in my own work, in terms of arguments or interpretations too readily accepted without sufficient scrutiny.  This is why I have tried to discuss general principles as well as actual instances of what I have called ‘myth’.  Restricting myself to the latter would obviously render my own work critically untouched; adding the tools for critical reading should allow a reader to be properly sceptical before accepting (if she does) my version of events and to identify my own myths if and where they occur.  Should such things be revealed, I have to hold my hands up and accept the judgement.

I have gone beyond the cataloguing of myths and into the provision of a critical ‘tool-kit’ because I firmly believe that the principal reasons for studying history are not to be sought in the simple acquisition of knowledge of things that did or did not happen in the past.  In my view, they are, first, to learn to be critically aware and, second, to expose oneself to other experiences and ways of seeing the world, to embrace a common humanity.  There is a slight tension involved in bringing these two maxims together.  On the one hand, according to the second reason just stated, we are enjoined to listen to our sources as far as possible on their own terms and to give them a fair hearing.  On the other, though, according to the first of my reasons to study history, we are instructed to subject those sources to close and critical attention before believing their account.  This tension is perhaps more apparent than real.  Historians have been fond of thinking about historical enquiry in terms of forensic investigation, whether through the medium of the metaphor of the historian as detective or in that of the courtroom of history.  There are problems with these metaphors but, for present purposes, viewing through this sort of prism the ideas of giving an account a fair hearing and subjecting it to thorough scrutiny allows them seem less contradictory.  Paying fair attention to other views of the world does not automatically confer upon them an equal validity; it permits us to see that our way of seeing and organising the world is not necessarily the only, let alone the natural, way.  In terms of seeing a purpose for historical study that latter advantage is extremely important. 

It is also my view that that attitude and those principles should be extended from the analysis of source materials, written or excavated, to the discussion of historical interpretation.  The debate over interpretations of processes like the barbarian migrations could have been far more productive over recent decades had it been conducted more as a discussion than as a contest.  An unwillingness to listen to, or deal with, arguments in a sufficiently sophisticated way, a refusal to modify one’s opinion (let alone change one’s mind), a belief that one’s own theory must be entirely correct in all cases and an overwhelming desire to ‘win’ the argument have been too prevalent on all sides.  I confess to some self-interest here.  I have been labelled an ‘anti-migrationist’, an interpretation of my work on the subject that can only be held by not properly bothering to read what I have actually written.  One thing historians ought to be aware of by now – they trumpet the view often enough even if taking it little into account in their writings – is that it is simply not possible to know the past ‘as it really was’.  This makes historical debate, inevitably, an exercise in different shades of approximation and error.  We need to stop hammering the sources into a pre-ordained interpretive straightjacket, explaining away the bits that don’t fit or euphemistically labelling the data that agree with our view ‘the better evidence’ (and therefore those that don’t as somehow qualitatively worse).  Instead, we need models that can cope with the fuzziness and discordance of the contemporary voices (written and material) and have sufficient complexity and elasticity to evolve in accordance with discussion and further data.  In line with that, I have attempted as far as possible to limit my polemic here to ideas which are simply not supported by evidence, as a means of stripping away some deadwood to allow new discussions to bear more fruit.

Provisional Contents List:


Chapter 1: The evidence

Chapter 2: The Debates

Chapter 3: The Barbarians at Home

Chapter 4: The Frontier: A clash of civilisations

Chapter 5: The Horrible Huns

Chapter 6: The Barbarian Invasion of the Roman Empire

Chapter 7: The End of Civilisation

Chapter 8: Different Questions: Another vision

[1] I predict that if, in a future world, the baton of ‘hateful outsider’ is passed on from Muslims to Sikhs or Hindus, these right-wingers or their heirs will instead be bleating about the preservation of Europe’s roots in the Abrahamic religions.