Collections: The Fremen Mirage, Part I: War at the Dawn of Civilization

This week’s post is the first in a four part series (II, IIIa, IIIb, interlude, IV) looking at what I’m going to term the Fremen Mirage (a play on Le Mirage Spartiate, which we’ve already discussed in some detail), a term I’m creating to encompass a set of related pop-history theories which are flourish, evergreen despite not, perhaps, holding up so well under close examination.

Yeah, so we’re not actually going to be talking about these guys. But I’m going to keep throwing in pictures of them.
Also, Dune pictures will be from Frank Herbert’s Dune (2000) and Children of Dune (2003), because they are the best Dune. David Lynch fans, fight me.
As a much later edit, I feel the need to note that this post came out before Dune (2021). I liked Denis Villeneuve’s Dune quite a lot and think it now holds the title of Best Dune, while the Sci-fi miniseries is now ‘replacement level’ Dune and David Lynch’s film is now ‘Worst Dune.’ David Lynch fans, continue to fight me.

Now, I know this will disappoint, but this is not a four-part look at Fremen culture (although, now that I say that, a deep dive into the real world analogues of the Fremen would be interesting…), though by the end of this series, you will have a good sense of how probable I find it that a low-density de-industrialized population of knife-wielding warriors would overrun a vast, dense industrialized interstellar civilization. Instead, I’m choosing the Fremen – and really the Dune series more generally – to stand in for a particular set of oft-repeated historical ideas and assumptions. It is not one idea, so much as a package set of ideas – often expressed so vaguely as to be beyond historical interrogation. So let’s begin by outlining it: what do I mean by the Fremen Mirage? I think the core tenants run thusly:

  • First: That people from less settled or ‘civilized’ societies – what we would have once called ‘barbarians,’ but will, for the sake of simplicity and clarity generally call here the Fremen after the example of the trope found in Dune – are made inherently ‘tougher’ (or more morally ‘pure’ – we’ll come back to this in the third post) by those hard conditions.
  • Second: Consequently, people from these less settled societies are better fighters and more militarily capable than their settled or wealthier neighboring societies.
  • Third: That, consequently the poorer, harder people will inevitably overrun and subjugate the richer, more prosperous communities around them.
  • Fourth: That the consequence of the previous three things is that history supposedly could be understood as an inevitable cycle, where peoples in harder, poorer places conquer their richer neighbors, become rich and ‘decadent’ themselves, lose their fighting capacity and are conquered in their turn. Or, as the common meme puts it:
    • “Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. And weak men create hard times” (The quote is originally from G. Michael Hopf, a novelist and, perhaps conspicuously, not a historian; one also wonders what the women are doing during all of this, but I have to admit, were I they, I would be glad to be left out too).
The typical form of the meme. I cannot identify the first painting, it looks very modern. The third is Thomas Couture, Romans during the Decadence (1847). As we’ll see, figuring out when, exactly, Roman decadence is supposed to be is hard, but it certainly isn’t anywhere within at least two centuries of Roman decline.
The second and fourth are from a series of five paintings by Thomas Cole called The Course of Empire, which is itself essentially this meme, just in the 1830s. That timing, we will find, is no accident – the modern version of this idea has deep roots in Romanticism (c. 1800-1850), a reaction against the reason of the Enlightenment – which makes it more than a touch ironic that this brain-dead meme is so frequently presented as clear logic.

This complex of ideas is what I phrase as the Fremen Mirage, and as you might imagine from that word ‘mirage,’ there are real, gaping problems in this vision of history. I’ve picked the Fremen to stand in for this idea in part because – being a fictional people – they are unconstrained by the real world messiness of actual societies. Instead, Frank Herbert quite clearly intends the Fremen to be a sort of purified form of this trope, the hardest people from the hardest conditions; they’re even presented as being more extreme than another example of this same trope, the imperial Sardaukar, who also indulge in the same ‘hard men from a hard place’ idea. Moreover, Herbert plays out this cyclical vision of history in the books, with the going-soft (slowly) Sardaukar being no match for the hard-ways Fremen and the latter – despite a near total lack of modern military or industrial infrastructure and what should be a crippling manpower disadvantage – spreading out and defeating all of the ‘civilized’ armies they encounter (with attendant worries that they will will become ‘soft’ and thus weak, should their planet, Arrakis, be made more habitable).

Now, the way this trope, and its contrast between ‘civilized’, ‘soft’ people and the ‘uncivilized’ ‘hard’ Fremen is deployed is often (as we’ll see) pretty crude. A people – say the Greeks – may be the hard Fremen one moment (fighting Persia) and the ‘soft’ people the next (against Rome or Macedon). But we may outline some of the ‘virtues’ of the ‘hard men’ sort of Fremen are supposed to have generally. They are supposed to be self-sufficient and unspecialized (often meaning that all men in the society are warriors) whereas other societies are specialized and overly complex (often to mean large parts of it are demilitarized). Fremen are supposed to be unlearned compared to their literate and intellectually decadent foes. Fremen society is supposed to be poor in both resources and infrastructure, compared to their rich and prosperous opponents.

The opposite of Fremenism is almost invariably termed ‘decadence.’ This is the reserve side of this reductive view of history: not only do hard conditions make for superior people, but that ‘soft’ conditions, associated with complex societies, wealth and book-reading weenies (read: literacy) make for morally inferior people who are consequently worse at fighting. Because we all know that moral purity makes you better at fighting, right? (My non-existent editor would like me to make clear that I am being sarcastic here, and it is extraordinarily obvious that moral virtue does not always lead to battlefield success.)

Pictured: Some decadence. Also, I know I am in the minority, but I just love Frank Herbert’s Dune (2000) and its love of silly hats. I’ve seen more than one review or retrospective declare them ridiculous, which just tells me none of those people has looked into court dress in any era (or seen the crazy hats some elite troops have worn, e.g. Janissaries).

That necessarily means that what makes a Fremen is relative – they are less complex, less specialized, less wealthy, less built up, less densely populated, less literate than their contemporary neighbors. After all, modern insurgent mountain fighters are frequently given the Fremen Mirage treatment, but compared to, say, the Romans (who are clearly un-Fremen, except – as we’ll see – when they’re not…) they possess a level of technology and exist in a degree of social complexity the Romans could hardly imagine.

The relativity of ‘Fremeness’ is actually one reason why I’m using the term Fremen in place of tradition or more common terms you’ll see: ‘uncivilized people’ ‘barbarians’ or ‘savages.’ Of course, it lets me neatly dash around the offensive components of those terms, but more to the point, it creates a term to describe the myth without creating a term that might purport to describe the reality. Which is to say I can say that a society is perceived as being Fremen, without actually tagging them with ‘barbarian’ or ‘savage,’ because those terms have all of the intellectual usefulness of a raincoat in the desert. It is rapidly going to become apparent that the popular idea of who does and do not count as Fremen – or its inverse, ‘decadent’ – is such an absurdly moving target as to be practically meaningless (there are a few constants, but only a few), with some societies whip-lashing between the two so fast that it makes me dizzy seeing it.

What I hope we can understand here is that when I start grouping certain societies under the term ‘Fremen,’ I am more talking about the modern perception of them, then anything to do with the reality. As will become clear, some of the classic ‘Fremen’ societies are, in fact, not only agrarian and settled, but in some cases even urbanized – which is to say, ‘civilized’ in the narrowest sense (from the Latin root) of ‘living in cities.’

Let me repeat that one more time, so that everyone hears it, by labeling a culture here as ‘Fremen’ I am not saying they are barbaric or uncivilized, but merely noting a fact about the modern perception of that culture and how it fits into this view of history.

Stilgar doing his best Eiffel 65 Impression.
He’s Blue, da-bo-de-da-bo-di…

Anyway, over the next four weeks, we’re going to take a critical eye to this theory of history and look at its problems and origins. This week (for the rest of this post) we’re going to take a long view and look at how the dynamic between richer agrarian societies and poorer, non-agrarian societies played out in pre-history and very early history. Next week, we’re going to take a single, pre-modern case study and examine it in detail. Naturally, because this is me, the case study will be (trumpets blaring) Rome, which fought a lot of poorer, less settled peoples and is frequently used as the example of wealthy, ‘civilized’ and ‘decadent’ military failure. I’ve opted to pick these two sets of examples to start out because these periods – classical antiquity and pre-history – ought to be the periods where our Fremen perform the best, as the technological and industrial gap between them and their richer ‘civilized’ opponents is the smallest – in some cases, practically non-existent.

In week three, we’ll look at the origins and intellectual history of this idea: where did it come from? Was it ever really about the ‘barbarians’ at all? And why did this set of ideas suddenly spring back into common usage? And then finally, in week four, we’re going to look at some of the apparent exceptions: horse-nomads, along with modern insurgents and guerrillas – these are some of the most effective historical non-state actors, so if anyone should live up to the Fremen’s billing, it has to be these guys. That also means we can dip our toes into the state of affairs post-gunpowder and even after the industrial revolution, to see if those massive changes to warfare change the balance at all.

Now, I feel the need to note at the outset that structuring the discussion this way means accepting, for the sake of argument, some of the underlying assumptions built into the Fremen Mirage: namely that the chief value of a society is found in how effectively it produces and externalizes violence…which is to say that it assumes a society’s chief purpose and thus the primary metric of judgment is how effective that society is at war. The Fremen Mirage leaves no place for assessing eloquent literature, beautiful artwork, cunning architecture, clever scientific advances, higher quality of life, or any of a host of other contributions to the richness of the human experience. For the sake of argument, I am accepting, from the get go, that this violence-oriented vision of what is to be valued in a society is valid; it will be quite obvious for those who have read my series on Sparta that I do not, in fact, think this is so, and that quite clearly a society which does nothing but fight well is not a goo society. But, so that we don’t get endlessly hung up on these priors, I am going to grant that, for the purpose of this series, we are only assessing these societies by their military capacity.

Let us fight the Fremen on ground of their own choosing. I am, for reasons that will soon become quite obvious, still fairly confident that our sophistication will prevail.

War at the Dawn of Agriculture (c. 9,000 – 5,000 B.C.)

We start our examination of the question very literally at the beginning, by asking what advantages or disadvantages were posed by the creation or adoption of ‘civilization’ – by which we mean, at this very early point, agriculture and its attendant developments of writing, urbanism, and greater social complexity and stratification. I am going to talk in generalities, but if you want specifics (and a sense of where my information comes from), and a sense of the sort of evidence (there is a lot of it, but much of it remains quite contested), I might suggest A. Gat, War in Human Civilization (2006) 146-189 and L. Keeley, War Before Civilization (1996) as starting points. The second chapter of J. Guilaine and J. Zammit, The Origins of War (2001), also discusses these questions and presents quite a bit of the core evidence. For a reasonably brisk overall summary of the question, check out Lee, Waging War (2016), 30-35.

We should begin by noting that this innovation seems to have developed not in just one place, but actually in several places at different times: in Mesopotamia, India, China, Mesoamerica, the Andes of South America, in the Sahel region of Africa, among a few others. In each case, farming – and the social structures that supported it – spread out from the initial zone of innovation to a much larger area. This process takes place well before recorded history in all cases, which means that we’re forced to use archaeology and anthropology to observe the broad outlines of it, rather than being able to interrogate it directly and historically. Nevertheless, the creation of agriculture marks the beginning of this sort of divide between what we might term our ‘Fremen’ (peoples that continued to live as hunter-gatherers) and the new agriculturalists. After all, the emergence of more complex societies necessarily meant that the people who were not in those societies were, by comparison, less complex.

Now I want to be clear that this distinction is not as sharp as it is sometimes presented. First, many hunter gatherers were not fully nomadic – most were either semi-nomadic (moving somewhat predictably within an established ‘territory’) or had even become sedentary in order to exploit a particularly resource rich zone (it is this latter group who are likely to be your earliest farmers). Moreover – and this will be a trend that will continue throughout this series – while agriculture and sedentism enabled the first real accumulations of significant wealth in human societies, it does not follow that the average agriculturalist was immediately better off than the average hunter-gatherer; indeed, there is some evidence to indicate the reverse, that the diet of the average peasant was somewhat worse than that of the average hunter-gatherer (something we’ll return to).

Nevertheless, this gives us our first case to study: the expansion of farming. Our main question is how farming spread. Under the assumptions of our Fremen Mirage, we ought to expect farming societies to be frequently overtaken and subjugated by their non-farming neighbors, who still possess all of the skills and supposed ‘toughness’ that comes from the life of a hunter-gatherer. If farming does expand under such conditions, it ought to expand by adoption – neighboring hunter-gatherers ‘going soft’ by adopting farming (since the Fremen ought to be able to outfight the early farming societies, with the latter’s greater degree of wealth and social stratification making them weaker and more ‘decadent’).

Of course, this is not what we see. First, we see that farming begins not in the most impoverished zones, but in areas that were already resource rich and thus supporting a high density of people (and thus, we may assume, higher degrees of social complexity). That is to say, farming is developed by people we might typically as the least Fremen of our pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers. That should clue us in to a problem because – and I present this as a general rule – no one chooses to live in a resource poor zone if other options are available. Which is to say, if these people control the resource rich zones, it is because they have rebuffed all efforts by their neighbors to take those zones from them. And we may be virtually certain such efforts were made (I don’t want to get into the origins-of-war debate here, but suffice to say I am of the opinion that war is a human constant, probably since before the emergence of anatomically modern humans).

Via Wikipedia, a map of the spread of farming, from multiple origin points. Based on the evidence available, this is, in the great majority of a cases, also a map of the spread of farmers, who are displacing the non-farmers by violence and military forces as they move.

Moreover, the evidence points to what we see next: it is not usually that farming spreads, but that farmers spread. In the broad sweep of things, this comes as little surprise: group-size and social complexity had been humankind’s ‘killer app’ long before farming. There is substantial evidence that larger group-size (facilitated by greater intelligence) is the thing which allowed anatomically modern humans to outcompete Neanderthal and push them into areas of progressively more marginal resources. Neanderthal was, ironically, more Fremen than the Fremen – stronger and tougher than anatomically modern humans, but it didn’t help; the numbers advantage outweighed advantages in strength or robustness.

Now, the evidence suggests that, for the most part, early farmers are doing the same thing: using their higher population density – and the attendant military advantages that brings – to displace the lower-density non-farmers. It does seem that some hunter-gatherers held on by adopting agriculture themselves, enabling sufficient population density to resist the invading farmers. But these were not the hunter-gatherers in the toughest, most marginal, ‘hardest’ places, but rather the hunter-gatherers in the softest, easier plaes which could support the higher population densities necessary to hold off the farmers. Thus, for instance, the farmers – coming out of the Near East – appear to have overrun much of Europe, but along the resource-rich European shore-line, in Spain and the Baltics, the more densely population and prosperous Mesolithic societies of complex-hunter-gatherers were able to hold off the farmers long enough to adopt farming themselves.

Elsewhere, the evidence suggests that the hunter-gatherer population was pushed on to more marginal lands (arid areas, hills and mountains, for instance). Again, it seems fairly safe to assume this was violent – I am fairly sure, if you decided to push me off of my good, rich land full of tasty wildlife, I would at least try to stop you and I would probably get quite violent about it.

Now, it is also that this point that we get the emergence of people living another kind of lifestyle: pastoralists. That is, instead of being hunter-gatherers or being farmers, these are people who mostly raise animals, typically on land that is too marginal for proper farming (usually because it is just a touch too arid or mountainous). We’ll talk about them more in Part II and Part IV. For now, I want to follow our farmers just a bit more.

The Beginning of States (4,000 – 1,500 B.C.)

So we’ve seen in the previous section that, for the most part, what we see is that our farmers, with a more prosperous and complex society, spread largely by out-competing (and probably violently expelling) groups of hunter-gatherers. Now we’re going to move forward a few millennia and layer over that another level of social complexity: the state. As before, if the Fremen thesis holds, we ought to expect that state societies – larger, more complex, with greater wealth, specialization and social stratification – should be militarily weaker than non-state peoples and thus ought to struggle to spread.

(Bibliography sidenote: if you want to read more about state formation, I suggest Gat (2006), 231-322. There is an able summary of the basics in Lee (2016), 35-45.)

But before we get into that, we need to talk about what we mean by the state. The state is a system of social organization that is so prevalent in today’s world that all too often we take it for granted that it is the only form of social organization, or the chief one, when in fact it has been around for only a tiny minority of our species’ tenure on this planet. Now the modern, political-science definition of a state today tends to run something like this (this is, for the curious, Max Weber’s definition): a state is a political entity (a polity) which exercises a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within a given territory. Another way of defining the phenomenon – and one more useful in the very early stages of state-formation – is to define a state as (to use Wayne Lee’s formulation of the common definition from Waging War, 36), “a society with marked social stratification, with a centralized and internally specialized government capable of extending bureaucratic control out into a settlement hierarchy” consisting of multiple (at least usually three; center, regional centers and subordinate communities below them) tiers.

The state, as an idea, didn’t emerge in just one place, but – like agriculture – it emerges in a number of different places (there is some debate as to exactly how many) independently at different times. We call these first states (more correctly, the first state-systems) – ones that sprung up without any connection to a preexisting state – pristine states. What is immediately striking is that the places these pristine states emerged – Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Andes, Mesoamerica, northern China, etc – are many of the same resource rich zones where agriculture had emerged. States everywhere form first in the zones of most intensive agricultural exploitation and densest population. Rather than hard, difficult country being the breeding ground for the state, it is in fact the richest, softest areas that were (for those who have been to Mesopotamia and are wondering why it doesn’t seem quite so rich and soft anymore, the word you want to look up is salinization).

Map of the origin points of the Pristine (sometimes called primary) States. These are all fairly well accepted, but I have seen some suggestions of others, though to my knowledge, Hawai’i is the only example not in one of these shaded area.
Note how well these map on to the same areas (see above) that were the resource-rich, high-density zones which first produced agriculture, even though this is happening many thousands of years later in most of these regions (e.g. farming in Mesopotamia c. 9,000 B.C., states c. 4,000; farming in China c. 7,000 B.C. states in c. 2,000), when agriculture had already spread very widely.

Now when we’re talking about the emergence of the state, what we mean is a process by which one of these farming communities (by this point, we are looking at early towns) – or more correctly, the military elite of those communities, for the role-specialization enabled by farming has begun, by this point, to create a military/religious aristocracy – is subjugating neighboring farming communities. Towns subordinate the villages in their orbit, and eventually also smaller towns (these become the ‘regional centers’ in our definition above) who have subordinated the villages in their orbit.

The military competition between these communities provided the impetus, and the resources of subordinated communities provided the fuel, for the establishment of new systems of power, both military and civilian. Even as the most militarily success communities establish hierarchies over their peers, often enforcing tribute or even slavery on defeated communities, so the most successful individual military-specialists (and their followers) are lifted up above the community, creating a military aristocracy, arrayed around the family of that successful leader – the origin of kingship. And so early state formation, essentially everywhere it occurs takes the form of the emergence of not just monarchy, but a specific, recognizable form of monarchy: kingship.

With that went the formalization of certain kinds of government control – gifts to the proto-king are formalized as taxes and tribute (to be funneled into military expenses, primarily) tribal militias are brought more fully under the control of the proto-king to become compulsory levies, led by the king’s retainers (who increasingly were a often-hereditary military/civil-administrative elite). The most successful early states become small empires, drawing tribute from the periphery to supply and fund the military activity of the hegemonic community at the center and its military leader (by this point, a king): a ‘military-tributary complex.’

Pictured: State Formation. Via Wikipedia, this is the Narmer Palette, showing the first king of a united Egypt (traditionally identified as Narmer), subjugating lower Egypt. On one side, the royal figure wears the crown of Upper Egypt, lifting a mace to strike down a prisoner, while standing over the bodies of defeated foes. On the other side, in the upper register, the king appears to attend a review of his army, wearing the crown of Lower Egypt and inspecting the headless bodies of his foes.
So nice of the Egyptians to create such a striking pictorial documentation of the violent unification of Egypt.

In short, the process of state formation is one by which – driven by the demands of intense military competition between agricultural communities – the level of social stratification, specialization and complexity increase towards the development of complex hierarchies of specialists (most of whom are specialist farmers) and the creation of institutional forms of power, as well as enabling the first spectacular accumulations of wealth in the ruling class of these new societies. In short, the state is the least Fremen thing possible, and state formation is a move away from what we might term Fremenism – where the Fremen are egalitarian, the state is stratified; where the Fremen social structure is simple, the state is increasingly complex; where the Fremen are all hard, ‘badass’ generalist warriors, the state is specialized and consists of large numbers of demilitarized specialist-farmers; where the Fremen are poor, the rulers of these new states are the first mega-wealthy. They were the least Fremen people who existed at the time. It is important to keep this in mind; it is easy to lose perspective in terms of what a ‘rich’ or ‘poor’ society look like at any given moment in time, although state formation tends to be when societies start displaying their wealth in very obvious ways, like by assembling masses of prestige goods (gold, jewels, spices, expensive fabrics, etc) and building megalithic structures like massive temples and palaces.

There’s a lot more to this process – one day we’ll talk more about state formation on its own – but I wanted to lay out the basic outlines because I want to show how central military power is to this process. While the state produces all of these very un-Fremen things: social complexity, increased specialization, bureaucracy (which in turn leads to literacy and from there to very un-Fremen literature) and the accumulation of large amounts of wealth, it does so in the pursuit of military power. And it worked: the state was and remains the single best organizational principle for the creation and direction of violence ever derived. With only a handful of exceptions (which we’ll discuss in the final part of this series), the potential violence the state can bring to bear wildly outstrips the capacity of other forms of social organization.

All of which leads into how the state spread: whereas farming spread through the spread of farmers, the state spreads as an idea, jumping across culture and linguistic barriers, eventually reaching the point we are at now, where we can imagine the populated parts of the world as broken entirely into a network of states (although in practice, our maps conceal quite a lot of non-state peoples and areas beneath the clean, pretty lines).

This collection of institutions and social structures, once developed, proved so much more capable of mobilizing the resources of an agrarian society to produce military force than the tribal systems of organization that proceeded it, that tribal societies that found themselves in the path of expanding states tended either to be subjugated (and thus learn state institutions ‘from below’ as it were) or else were compelled to develop state institutions themselves in order to compete (a process we’ll look at in more detail in Gaul and Germany next week, but also note 1 Samuel 8-13, where the Israelites demand a king ‘like the other nations have’ in order to compete militarily).

Pictured: State formation. Via Wikipedia, this is the ‘Libyan Palette’ an Egyptian artwork (c. 3200-3000 B.C.) which has been interpreted as showing the siege and capture of a series of fortified towns (with animals each representing an army ‘cracking into’ the walled cities). This palette dates from the period of dynastic consolidation in Egypt, contemporary with the Narmer Palette above.

In short, the rise of the state as a system of human organization seems to be one in which the richest, most densely populated and socially complex farmers, in direct competition with each other, developed progressively more complex social forms, with greater amounts of specialization and hierarchy, which was so effective in increasing these societies’ ability to project military power that their neighbors were forced to adopt the innovation, one way or another (and then their neighbors, and so on, but see the caveat below).

Where States Fear to Tread

Now, a you might imagine, there are some exceptions to the expansion of both farming and states and these are worth noting.

Farming, of course, is heavily constrained by geography: the land has to be arable (not too rocky, not too acidic, not sand), with sufficient water to support crops and (generally) not mountainous. These are not iron-clad rules, some non-arable land can be loosened and tilled into arability (but at a cost), water may be brought to the land by irrigation and in some cases even the sides of mountains may be farmed through terrace farming. But these are all difficult and labor-intensive ways of farming the unfarmable and suffer rapidly diminishing returns. Significant land areas are simply not very suitable for farming (it is worth noting that the qualities which make for good farmland are also generally what a hunter-gatherer or a pastoralist might want in an area of land, so this land is going to be fiercely competed over).

But, of course, a lot of earth’s available surface is these kinds of relatively unfarmable places, areas of deserts, mountains, grassland with too little water for farming, and so on. These places were not empty. Chronologically quite closely to the advent of farming, another form of subsistence evolved in these unfarmable places: pastoralism, which is to say animal-husbandry. Herds of animals may be subsisted off of grasses in land with greatly insufficient fertility to support farming.

Pictured: An Unfarmable Place. In this case, this is a google-view shot of the Mongolian Steppe. Not all of the Steppe is quite this dry, but effectively all of it is too dry for farming.

I don’t want to get into all of the possible permutations of pastoralism, from mostly stationary ranching to transhumance to true nomadism – that’s for another time. But I do want to note the existence of these unfarmable places, because they are places that the state struggles to go, and in some cases can never truly go into. The state, as an organizational system, is fundamentally based on farming communities: densely populated, sedentary and highly specialized. But pastoralist societies are often thinly populated, transitory and largely unspecialized. Whereas an expanding state could simply convert tribal farmers into new state subjects, relying on the (borrowing the idea from Landers, The Field and the Forge (2005) demographic space created by those farmers (the available agricultural surplus, community centers like towns and villages to serve as administrative centers, transportation infrastructure, and sedentary farmers) to do so, pastoralists are a difficult fit with the state. They often don’t stay neatly in one place for the purpose of taxation or extraction, there is no easy administrative center to organize them, and – knowing that their rough terrain gives them a degree of insulation from state control – they tend to be truculent.

Here we seem to finally have some real Fremen – a low-population density community that is able to resist the encroachment of the highly complex and sophisticated state. And to a degree there is something to this, but we should not that in most cases, it is not the people or their military prowess that keeps the state away, but the land itself. And the level of protection the land provides varies.

In many parts of the world, these pastoralists found themselves effectively ‘enclosed’ by a state – surrounded on all sides – and thus tamed by it. This was the experience, for instance, of the hill peoples of Italy, who often fiercely resisted the expansion of the Roman Republic, but were eventually unable to stop it. In areas of the world where the pastoral zone was small, where it afforded relatively little protection against the larger armies of complex states, this is largely what happened.

But of course there are some areas – the borders of the Sahara, the Arabian Desert and most crucially the Eurasian Steppe, where this unfarmable zone stretches on and on, creating a vast zone that farmers – and consequently the state – could not penetrate. As we’ll see a bit later in this series, this was not always because the people who lived in those zones had superiority in a direct fight (though they sometimes did), but that when they were militarily weaker (which was usually as it turns out), the state could not press its advantage and consolidate control of them because the agrarian armies of the state could not penetrate this area – what K. Chase calls the ‘arid zone’ (in contrast to the vast sweep of agricultural land running east-west from China through India to Mesopotamia into the Mediterranean, which he calls the oikumene after the Greek word meaning ‘the inhabited world.’).

Kenneth Chase’s map of what he terms the “Arid Zone,” (the box in the map) a connected region of steppe, savannah and desert where rainfall was insufficient to allow for agriculture outside of river-valleys (e.g. Tigris, Euphrates, Nile, Indus), which in turn left these regions largely dominated by horse nomads, especially the upper part of the box, the Eurasian Steppe. Map from K. Chase, Firearms: A Global History to 1700 (2008)

We’ll talk more about the most successful residents of the arid zone a bit later in this series. But what I want to note for now is that, as the name ‘arid zone’ implies, this was, by and large, a resource poor part of the world. It was the marginal land: if you could be anywhere else, you would be. And so while, with the rise of pastoralism, we have the emergence of our proto-typical Fremen, they are hardly the world-conquerors we were told to expect. Instead, they appear as the losers of the expansion of farming and the state, peoples shoved out into the worst land, forced to eke a living out there and protected, not by their badass military skills, but by the sheer uninhabitability of where they live. And remember: (almost) no one chooses to live in a resource-poor zone if they have other options.

A more detailed map of the vast expanse of the Eurasian Steppe – which you will note also borders hard desert on much of its southern extent. For the armies of agricultural states, this terrain represented a solid wall because of the logistics problems of operating there.

Now, before we conclude for the week, I want to note some necessary caveats. This march of agriculture and the state I’ve laid out doesn’t mean that farmers and states always win, merely that – in areas where agriculture is possible – they usually won. It certainly is the case – as we’ll see next week – that sometimes settled states are overthrown by, for instance, migrating pastoralists (e.g. the Amorites moving into Mesopotamia c. 2000 B.C.) or steppe nomads. As we’ll see, because these peoples often live in areas where – because they are unsuitable for agriculture – the state cannot generally follow them, they essentially have unlimited ‘at bats,’ able to retreat and regroup in their own homelands to try again later.

Nevertheless, the idea at the core of the Fremen Mirage is that the Fremen are militarily stronger in a general sense. If I may lean on a sports analogy, we would not call a team ‘better’ if they lost 98 games but happened to win the last 2. The question is both the ratio of victories to defeats, and the impact of those results. And that’s why the march of the state and of farming is so instructive: we can see the same process repeat itself, in a wide variety of areas, over very long periods of time, with what must have been many hundreds if not thousands of small wars. And it is quite clear from that evidence, that at the dawn of civilization, it was the least Fremen societies who tended to win the most.

Next time: we’re going to look at how one of the wealthiest, most complex and sophisticated states of its day (Rome, natch) dealt with conflict with a variety of less wealthy, frequently less complex neighbors and ask: do the ‘barbarians’ – our Fremen – always win? Do they generally win? Do they hardly ever win?

135 thoughts on “Collections: The Fremen Mirage, Part I: War at the Dawn of Civilization

  1. I wonder if the Aiel from the Wheel of Time series could be called Fremen.

    On the one hand, they do use agriculture and their society has complexity and specialization. On the other, the books hold that the tough conditions of their land make them tougher than the wetlanders. They also have a lot of warriors and while their society has things like a priestess caste and warrior societies, their state apparatus is non-existent.

    1. They do seem to have some state apparatus – they have pretty detailed clan/sept society and warrior society hierarchies (there’s a whole sept leader/roofmistress hierarchy that we hear about even if we don’t see in detail), and it’s implied that the wise ones have a *much* better and more organized bureaucracy than anything west of the dragonwall (e.g. while Aes Sedai only train women if they run into someone who can learn to channel, Wise Ones find every single woman who can, as well as training quite a few women who can’t).

      It seems ahistorical that a well-organized warrior society was pushed into the nonfarmable area, but it’s somewhat plausible given that they already had a lot of the social organization framework when they started, but were religious pacifists when they were first pushed out and later basically chose to stay there for religious reasons. (The part about the large population and WOT’s permanent early modern tech stasis makes less sense, but can kinda be excused with “the Waste is sparsely populated but really big” and “Ta’veren or something I guess” respectively).

    2. It would seem to me that the Aiel are Fremen in comparison to the other societies in the story. So relatively yes, absolutely no.

  2. Thank you for writing this, I think this new collection is going to be enlightening, like the others.

    Various typos:

    set of related pop-history theories which are flourish_ing_
    (I’m not sure about this one. But I think it reads better that way)

    a society which does nothing but fight well is not a goo_d_ society

    than the tribal systems of organization that _proceeded_ it
    I think it should be preceded (as an ESL I could wrong, though)

    but we should not_e_ that in most cases

    (borrowing the idea from Landers, The Field and the Forge (2005)_)_

  3. Counterpoint: Sea Peoples!

    Sea Peoples are commonly named the main reason, or at least one of main reasons for the Bronze Age Collapse. There is some evidence of big droughts and earthquakes in the Mediterranean area around the period, but Sea Peoples definitely played a role. Hittites, Mittani, Assyrians, Babylonians… most of them were defeated. What do you call that, series of accidents?

    My argument is made weaker by the fact we know so little of them and only some tribes of the confederation have been identified with good certainty. For example Philistines (Palestinians). We also don’t know when and how exactly they ceased to be. But it’s not clear they have actually been defeated. Perhaps, as was often the case with pirates, they settled (few people were full time pirates).

    1. Also, just _how_ many times did China get (fully or partially) conquered from the steppes? While the extreme case outlined at the beginning obviously doesn’t hold, it’s also the case that again and again in history, civilized states get taken down by populations who wouldn’t seem to stand a chance from a purely demographic and economic standpoint. Only with modern technology and productivity did this cycle get broken.

      The Arabs are another obvious example, taking down Persia _and_ much of the Byzantine empire (which was finished off by yet another less civilized pastoralist people in the Turks). This kind of thing happens all the time. Does it generally happen during periods of weakness? Yes, obviously – pretty much by definition.

      The British in India differentiated between martial and non-martial races (their word). The martial ones tended to correspond to pastoralists, hunter and hill agriculture. These less-productive regions also routinely produce mercenaries, most likely from a combination of the poor terrain and martial ethos. Being a mercenary only becomes a reasonable life-choice if your options are poor and you’re comfortable with violence.

      1. It would be ridiculous to say that the barbarians always win in the end or anything like that, but it’s hardly an exaggeration to say that in pre-modern times, steppe and hill peoples often overperformed militarily in relation to what mere demography and economy would indicate?

      2. China gave as well as she got. The Dzungar and Jie were wiped out, the Xiongnu, Alans, Yuezhi and Yancai were driven into Central Asia. Even the Mongols were ultimately neutralized as Chinese military power was able to help Han Chinese farmers settle and farm Inner Mongolia as recently as the 1910s.

      3. Much of this (e.g. the bits about steppe nomads) is of course addressed later in the series- the key point being made here that steppe nomads didn’t overperform in warfare because of “Fremen-ness,” but rather because the very specific combination of skills they used in daily life translated unusually well to warfare.

        There is at least one other historical example- and it’s not a supporter of the Fremen narrative. During World War Two, the US had one significant advantage over all other armies, allied and enemy alike. Not because the US bred “harder men” or because of the frontier legacy of the Wild West or anything like that, but because the US military was *fully motorized.* Whereas many soldiers in a German army had to rely on animal transport, and whereas a British or Soviet army would often be in similarly bad shape unless it was being liberally supplied by Lend-Lease vehicles from America… the US just plain had enough jeeps and trucks to pile everyone in and shift them in an emergency, or to keep them supplied without relying on horse-drawn wagons. And again, this wasn’t because Americans were more rugged; it was because of American *opulence,* so to speak. The abundant supply of civilian cars in their country in the 1920s and ’30s promoted a lifestyle of mass car purchases and support… and also meant there was no shortage of experienced drivers to operate all those vehicles.

        But there’s one thing here that is DEFINITELY worth saving. And that’s the point about martial and non-martial races.

        The British classification of ‘martial races’ almost certainly didn’t correlate with real differences in fighting quality. It almost certainly didn’t correlate with Rajputs or whoever being objectively better soldiers than Bengalis or whoever.

        It almost certainly DID correlate, though, with those races’ willingness to serve the British as mercenaries and enforcers. Those are traits likely to be correlated with poverty, a lack of prospects in the home province (especially for aspiring sons of the local aristocracy), and preferably a history of raiding and antagonizing the neighboring people and provinces.

    2. We really have very little indication about where the sea peoples come from, how important they were to the Bronze Age Collapse, or whether they were even ‘Fremen’ at all! After all, one of the groups most likely to have been involved were the myceneans, which are hardly mongols!

  4. Where do you count fishermen? There’s increasing body of evidence[weasel words] that there was more than just hunters/gatherers, pastoralists, and farmers. The problem with fishermen is the tools they use, including spears, tridents and nets – are quite perishable. That’s why they’re underappreciated. Fishing is a very common source of food today, and it also was thousands of years ago.

    Naturally, grain is good to eat for longer, and herds are easy to move. But consider this quote from Wikipedia:
    “During this period, most people lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and were, of necessity, constantly on the move. However, where there are early examples of permanent settlements (though not necessarily permanently occupied) such as those at Lepenski Vir, they are almost always associated with fishing as a major source of food. ”

    Clearly, fishing was distinct from hunter/gatherer lifestyle, and it was definitely distinct from farming as well, unless you mean in the Ultima Online sense ;-). My point is that hunter/gatherer and farmer is a false dichotomy.

    1. Isn’t fishing just hunting on water rather than land? Similar problems and similar social structures. Fishing tribes have to either follow the fish, or defend a territory against others. Fish farming is pastoralism.

      1. In a pre-industrial environment where the seas aren’t depleted by industrial-scale fishing, fishing is dependable *enough* as a food source. And the sea is large *enough* that you can easily carve out a large fishing territory without too much competition against outsiders. So fishing becomes, in favorable conditions, fairly competitive with agriculture, and a far more reliable means than hunting if your goal is to prevent hunger.

        So technically it’s “hunting on water,” but it’s hunting on water under conditions so favorable that it can support ‘hunter’ populations vastly larger than any other method.

  5. I’m not sure that the popular theory that you call “Fremeness” is that tribal/nomadic/marginal or generally uncivilized SOCIETIES are stronger militarily than civilised ones. Rather it says that uncivilised individuals are better warriors than the average city dweller (the weak form of the theory – usually true) or even better warriors than the civilised soldiers (strong form – less true).

    And the fact that the tribes have multiple “tries” it’s baked into the theory: sooner or later, but not right away, the civilised will get decadent and the Fremen, which have been “kept on their toes” by their unforgiving environment, will overrun them. Of course, this formulation makes the theory almost unfalsifiable and, therefore, rather useless. But this has never been a problem for a popular theory.

    Are you going to talk about Ibn Khaldun ?

    1. I’ll probably mention Ibn Khaldun briefly in post 3, but I must admit my expertise there is limited. My impression is that he has a more nuanced version of this idea – that nomadic warriors lose their edge when they settle. I am going to poke that a bit though – ottomans and qing got stronger, not weaker, by harnessing state systems.

      1. I’m glad Ibn Khaldun will be making an appearance, since his ideas are interesting but not as well-known as they (in my humble opinion) deserve to be. To be fair to him, I’m not sure that “ottomans and qing got stronger, not weaker, by harnessing state systems” is really incompatible with his theory. High asabiyyah is an advantage because it enables a group to make more efficient use of its resources; if harnessing state systems gets you a sufficiently greater quantity of resources (in the form of manpower, tax income, etc.), you could still end up stronger than you were before, even if you’re no longer able to harness these resources as efficiently.

      2. I think if you’re centering the discussion on Fremen, you should approach Ibn Khaldun stronger and faster (I got about 2 paragraphs in before ctrl-F’ing for “Khaldun” out of distraction). The Arabic influence on the Fremen is deliberate and that’s because Herbert and Ibn Khaldun are in large part seeking to explain the same historical event: the early Muslim expansion, esp the Rashidun Caliphate’s success against both the Persian and Roman empires.

      3. I had thought the Caliphate’s early successes against Rome and Persia had more to do with them still punch-drunk from the previous twenty years slugging each other, rather than something special about the Arabs.

        Afterwards, the Caliphate had pretty much all of Persia and the richest provinces of Rome to draw upon (and consequently, the Romans failed to have those riches) and it still took more than five hundred years to seal the deal, by which point it was Turks, not Arabs, running that particular show.

    2. And the fact that the tribes have multiple “tries” it’s baked into the theory: sooner or later, but not right away, the civilised will get decadent and the Fremen, which have been “kept on their toes” by their unforgiving environment, will overrun them. Of course, this formulation makes the theory almost unfalsifiable and, therefore, rather useless. But this has never been a problem for a popular theory.

      I guess you could try studying data regarding the amount of corruption going on, at least where data is available. If Ibn Khaldun is correct, we should expect to successful empires get gradually more corrupt as time goes on and their asabiyyah levels decrease.

      1. Corruption is notoriously difficult to study. Even today it is primarily done through proxies, such as a population’s perception of corruption. Doing a longitudinal study over the sort of time period required for empires to “get gradually more corrupt” would likely be impossible to do by any method holding up scientifically. Simply comparing the data collected the last few decades is tricky due to both methodological changes, as well as changes in the respondents, such as cultural and social changes altering what is perceived as corruption.

        What can be done is compare modern states. And when comparing modern states the trends are very obvious. The more democratic, liberal and wealthy* states get, the less corruption can be observed.

        The data that is available on corruption very strongly point to that the more effective the state becomes, the less corruption there is. In other words, if we used corruption as a proxy for asabiyyah, we would find that western states are extremelly more socially cohesive than most non-western states. We would find that countries such as Norway, Denmark and New Zealand – all with highly complex, bureacratic states – by far outperform anything that could be labelled Fremen today. If going down that route, we could also observe it through other means, such as the populations willingness to pay taxes (“in-group solidarity”), which would also be much higher in more complex, bureacratic states.

        *wealth is a tricky one, since there are natural resource rich, particularly oil-rich states which skew the results. When controlling for the role of natural resources in the economy, however, wealth and level of corruption are strongly negatively correlated.

      2. The data that is available on corruption very strongly point to that the more effective the state becomes, the less corruption there is.

        It seems more intuitive that it’s the other way ’round — the less corruption there is, the more effective the state becomes (because it’s not having crippling amounts of tax revenue siphoned off to line the pockets of its senior politicians, or whatever).

        Accounting for the effects of democracy is made harder by the fact that democracies with weak civic institutions tend to become dictatorships and oligarchies, and hence drop out of the set of democratic countries. So it might be that, far from democracy promoting good civic society, the causation actually runs the other way — only countries which already have good civic society can sustain democratic government.

        In other words, if we used corruption as a proxy for asabiyyah, we would find that western states are extremelly more socially cohesive than most non-western states.

        One of the problems most non-Western states face is that they have low asabiyyah at the level of the state as a whole, certainly. Many Arab countries, for instance, have very high levels of asabiyyah at the level of the clan or tribe, but very low levels at the level of the state as a whole.

        Incidentally, I’ve seen it suggested that bigger countries tend to have less efficient governments, which might be partially caused by asabiyyah: the more distant the rulers, the less likely people are to feel any loyalty or identification towards them.

        1. “It seems more intuitive that it’s the other way ’round — the less corruption there is, the more effective the state becomes (because it’s not having crippling amounts of tax revenue siphoned off to line the pockets of its senior politicians, or whatever).”

          It’s pretty clearly a virtuous cycle. A more effective state will almost immediately turn its resources on fighting corruption for obvious reasons. A state with less corruption becomes more effective.

          “Incidentally, I’ve seen it suggested that bigger countries tend to have less efficient governments, which might be partially caused by asabiyyah: the more distant the rulers, the less likely people are to feel any loyalty or identification towards them.”

          Counterpoint: there are so many confounding variables at work that the analysis falls apart. Nigeria is probably more corrupt than South Korea, and is also more populous, but Guatemala is much less populous than South Korea, and we’d mostly be surprised to learn that it is less corrupt.

          Asabiyyah works among incredibly small populations (small enough that every member of the group is at least vaguely known and familiar to every other, by family lineage if not personally) or populations welded together by incredible charisma. On any scale much larger than “a small army conquers a city-state,” it’s inevitably going to break down sooner or later Past that scale, you won’t see much practical difference.

          1. Counterpoint: there are so many confounding variables at work that the analysis falls apart. Nigeria is probably more corrupt than South Korea, and is also more populous, but Guatemala is much less populous than South Korea, and we’d mostly be surprised to learn that it is less corrupt.
            Asabiyyah works among incredibly small populations (small enough that every member of the group is at least vaguely known and familiar to every other, by family lineage if not personally) or populations welded together by incredible charisma. On any scale much larger than “a small army conquers a city-state,” it’s inevitably going to break down sooner or later Past that scale, you won’t see much practical difference.

            I did say “tend to”. And Ibn Khaldun, at least, was clear that there are things that can cause large groups to have high assabiyyah, such as religion.

  6. This is, as always, a fascinating post!

    I wonder where the Arabs of the 7th century (almost certainly the prototype of Frank Herbert’s Fremen) fit in. Were they not as “Fremeny” as they are commonly portrayed? (Based on my limited knowledge, Hejaz was indeed not quite as resource-poor as the interior of the Arabian peninsula, but still far worse-off than most of the territories of the Byzantine/Roman and Persian/Sasanian empires.) Was their victory (partial over the Byzantines, complete over the Persians) only possible due to the internal weaknesses of the two empires, exacerbated by the wars against each other? Are they simply the “exception that proves the rule”?

    1. A big part of the Arab victory was the fact that they had interacted so frequently with the empires on either side of them and had fought as auxiliaries/in proxy wars for so long that they had developed a good degree of administrative ability already. The wars had also provided training, discipline, experience and equipment to the Arabic tribes.

      If you’re interested I’ve written about some of the reasons for the Arabic success in conquering the Sassanians and parts of the Byzantine Empire here:

      I should note that I didn’t really discuss the consequences of the Sassanian take over of the Lakhmid kingdom or the socio-economic exhausation in North Africa and the Middle East following the Byzantine-Sassanian war and how the Arab conquerors often looked like a better deal than either of the empires. It’s a complex subject, but the main points to take away are that the Arab armies often succeeded because they had adopted the methods of the two empires so successfully, while the empires were still in crisis mode and unable to bring their full might to bear.

      1. Thanks for the answer and your amazing comment on AskHistorians! That makes a lot of sense. (I also appreciate the pointers to the academic literature.)

    2. Keep in mind, the Arab conquests of the 7th century were not the first Arab conquests in history. The Palmyrenes based in the Syrian desert conquered Palestine, sedentary parts of Syria, all of Egypt and large parts of Anatolia over a 10 year period. This is comparable to, if not faster than the 7th century “Muslim” Arab conquests.

      There is also the case of Mavia, a queen of an Arab tribe who around 380s AD, conquered parts of Palestine and reached the frontiers of Egypt and defeated some Roman forces.

      So not counting the innumerable raids, there were at least two large scale conquests by the Arabs in the four centuries prior to the 7th century conquests. Each time, the Romans managed to take these lands back and I bet Heraclius could have done that too if he hadn’t previously fought a hugely destructive war with the Persians.

  7. A minor question that is somewhat peripheral to the main point: when you say “tribal”, is this meant to be a thin definition solely meaning non-state societies i.e. ones that are not stratified, centralized, bureacratized, specialized, etc. or does it have some thicker definition relating to (fictive or actual) kinship, culture, etc.?

    I ask this because I recently went on a binge on early societies and came across the idea of the Frankish peoples being “tribes”, but I found that I didn’t have a good idea of all of what that entailed so I tried to look for scholarly sources on the subject. Then I wandered into the debate and history of the term in anthropology and how few anthropologists feel comfortable using it in their studies owing to what they see as its necessarily troublesome connotations and its inability to explain the they see in their empirical study of actual societies across the globe.

    So, would it make sense to simply substitute in “non-state” for “tribe” as a I read, or is there something more attached to the term in these essays? Also, if there is, what if any relation does it have to other terms such as “band” and do these ideas have any relation to how different non-state societies interacted with each other during the time of states?

  8. Might be jumping the gun into a future episode here, but how much of this trope do we owe to Herodotus? Here’s the closing passage of the histories via Project Gutenberg:
    Now a forefather of this Artaÿctes who was hung up, was that
    Artembares who set forth to the Persians a proposal which they took up
    and brought before Cyrus, being to this effect: “Seeing that Zeus
    grants to the Persians leadership, and of all men to thee, O Cyrus, by
    destroying Astyages, come, since the land we possess is small and also
    rugged, let us change from it and inhabit another which is better: and
    there are many near at hand, and many also at a greater distance, of
    which if we take one, we shall have greater reverence and from more men.
    It is reasonable too that men who are rulers should do such things; for
    when will there ever be a fairer occasion than now, when we are rulers
    of many nations and of the whole of Asia?” Cyrus, hearing this and not
    being surprised at the proposal, 123 bade them do so if they would;
    but he exhorted them and bade them prepare in that case to be no longer
    rulers but subjects; “For,” said he, “from lands which are not rugged
    men who are not rugged are apt to come forth, since it does not belong
    to the same land to bring forth fruits of the earth which are admirable
    and also men who are good in war.” So the Persians acknowledged that he
    was right and departed from his presence, having their opinion defeated
    by that of Cyrus; and they chose rather to dwell on poor land and be
    rulers, than to sow crops in a level plain and be slaves to others.

  9. Couple of (minor caveats):

    State formation in the very first stages seems to have been more about ideological than military power – the first centres are shrines (Eridu, Naqqara), not walled cities, and there is a strong priestly element in the first leaders (cf Shang rituals). The Egyptologist John Romer argues for the Narmer pallete showing not conquest but pharoah dispensing justice (smiting evil-doers) – the pose is the later traditional one of pharoah as judge.

    The same theme is evident in early monumental structures. There is no evidence to show that these were built by coerced labour (quite the opposite in the case of the pyramids). They seem to have been both an expression and a contribution to social solidarity (a symbol of joint effort but the effort itself forging solidarity – there’s an anthropological literature on this).

    Which ties to ibn Khaldun. His key concept is ‘asadiyah’ – social cohesion, solidarity, not ‘toughness’. He argues that cohesion is fostered by pressure and falls away without it. Not quite Fremenism, if close.

    1. Yeah, I’m aware of those arguments, but I tend to disagree with them. While temple structures matter a lot in Mesopotamia, etc, when we can see state formation in the literary sources, it’s driven by military concerns.

      Also, I don’t buy for a moment that the Narmer Palette is a ‘giving Justice’s scene – the army banners, the stacked headless bodies. That ‘smiting’ pose shows up again and again as a war motif.

      Anyway, if you haven’t, check out Gat’s book – he does a fairly thorough demolition of a fair bit of the ‘peaceful past’ as it were.

      1. It’s less about the ‘peaceful past’ than that forming a society with more specialised roles and greater interdependency is not done with brute force. Warriors tend to, well, fight. The archetypical warrior cultures – nomads – have very limited specialisation and also fission very easily. It’s more like, start with priests, who spawn bureaucrats, craftspersons and soldiers, and go on from there.

  10. One thing that slightly concerns me in this post is that it implies that hunter-gatherers and pastoralists no longer exist, except for the one “(almost)”. I don’t think it’s your intent, but I think many readers will get that impression. I do think you’ve done a good job of avoiding the other usual dangers in dealing with complexity (vs superiority).

  11. Reading this post, my first thoughts went to Ibn Khaldun’s conception of ‘asabiyyah’ and his cyclical ideas of how dynasties rise and fall (at first blush, it sounds a lot like Hopf’s formulation, but a little more formalized across generations). It’s something I’m less familiar with, though, since I’d run across it on my own research instead as part of my formal education.

  12. China bears a fair chunk of the blame. The Great Wall of China was not built to protect the tribes from the Chinese.

    I think part of it is that tribal raiders can more easily cause damage to a civilization than vice versa. Specialization means interdependence, and so sacking one city means a lot more harm, or at least pain, to other cities than massacring a tribe does to other tribes.

    1. Plus, of course, all records of what goes on come from the civilization (whether China or elsewhere). Attacks on the literate are horrors. Attacks on the illiterate are glorious conquests if they are not putting down the bandits.

    2. I suspect that the mobility of nomadic resources is the main factor here. If you’re a nomad and a settled army tries invading your territory, you can just drive your herds and flocks out of the way and wait until your enemy runs short of food and is forced to turn back. If you’re an agriculturalist it’s not as if you can just move your rice field out of the way of an invader, so you have to resort to other means, like big walls, to stop people getting to your stuff.

  13. I like most of where you’re going with tis, but I think you’re mis-applying the “hard times/strong men” quote.The concept is related to another proverb: that the first generation of a family business builds it to great heights, while the third pisses it away.

    Basically, the idea is that the tough folks do the hard work necessary to build something — whether it’s a society, a business, or something else — and their descendants, who grow up with the fruit of that effort, don’t understand the work that went into it (or how to maintain it).

    Continuing on, the “hard times” in the quote might be a financial depression, or it might be a previously defeated foe rising up again because the “soft men” don’t think they need to be dealt with. If those hard times produce the strong men in a timely manner, then the hard times are beaten back.

    The concept is narrow in its application, and assumes all other things are equal.

    (I hope I’m explaining this clearly. I’ve seen multiple people refer to this quote, and while I know it’s not about the Fremen trope, I’ve never had to explain the difference before.)

    1. That’s how I’ve always understood the meme, too. The “hard men” in question aren’t necessarily hard in the sense of being physically strong or even superior individual fighters, but in the sense of being determined, ruthless, etc., enough to hold their own against any competitors. Conversely, the “soft men” aren’t necessarily physically weak or effeminate, but they are complacent and unwilling to do the work necessary to maintain their position.

    2. It’s also the case that it’s not even quite about whether or not the hard men are ‘created’, but rather that in a situation where it’s sink or swim, you have to be ‘hard’ (i.e. capable) to rise to the top. Times of crisis tend to shake up the order of things and that usually leads to either someone capable, or a group of capable someones, getting it all together, or continued crisis until that someone capable shows up or an outside group, likely itself on the rise, shows up to take advantage of the crisis.

      1. This reminds me of a comment I read elsewhere, on the subject of people raising up to the challenge of the situation. Though it was more nuanced than that, focusing on the aftermath of anti-colonial and communist revolutions, how the revolutions selected leaders that (when successful) weren’t really a good fit for leading a country and building a stable political order.

  14. the idea of “the noble savage barbarians are superior to pampered members of civilization” is pretty much the core theme of the Hyborian Age novels by Robert E. Howard. Conan of Cimmeria being presented as sort of the platonic form of the concept put into flesh. In the stories civilization is always presented as weak. either physically or often, in terms of morality and ethics. while the ‘barbarian’ cultures like the Cimmereans, Asgard, Vanir, etc often being presented as not only physically strong but more skilled and world wise. though why those groups get that way, while other groups that are even more tribal and less civilized (like the ‘Picts’ in the setting, or the various stone age tribes encountered) are presented as little more than monsters in humanoid form kind of goes against the theme.. until you realize R.E.Howard put expies of dark skinned ethnicities into that role, and it becomes a simple specter of racism.

    i think that the Conan stories and so much of the fictional media that it has influenced has helped continue spread the idea of ‘fremenism’ even after the historical community (mostly) came to its senses.

    1. From my cursory reading of the Conan books, Conan is presented as stronger than most other people in the setting, but I don’t think that Howard extends this to saying that Cimmerians are a superior civilization, just that it produces some strong warriors. And Conan has the story justification of being world wise, since he’s traveled the world a lot and been through a wide variety of experiences, compared to the specialized members of civilized society he encounters.

      1. That’s probably not just confined to the Conan books, either. Complex societies tend to have higher levels of specialisation, so it might be that the average Freman is more rounded and worldly-wise than the average member of a more complex society, even if the more complex society as a whole can do much more than the Freman society.

      2. Howard is quite clear that you’d never want to live among Cimmerians. Even Conan doesn’t want to, even though he despises everyone else. Similarly in Kull, the Atlanteans (in the stories, the civilization we know as Atlantis was really called Valusia by its contemporaries, which is an interesting twist) are deeply unpleasant; Kull is an exile because he interfered in a brutal honor-killing.

      3. As is discussed later, though, the “Fremen” myth isn’t really about the ‘barbarians’ it describes in Fremen-like terms. It’s about the ‘civilized’ peoples.

        Howard’s Conan stories aren’t just embracing the ‘Fremen’ myth by saying “the stern, clean, impoverished lives of the Cimmerians in tough, unpleasant environments makes Cimmerians stronger and sterner and braver and all around superior to other men…” though that IS totally on the menu.

        The stories are embracing the other half even harder: “civilized folk are weak and decadent, accept cruel treatment that strong stern Cimmerians would rebel against, use cowardly and deceitful tricks to get their way, and in general seem contemptible and lowly compared to the beast-like power and cunning of the Cimmerian.

        And seriously, read ANY Conan story, at least by Howard and probably by most of the others who wrote books in his setting. You will ALWAYS find at least one bit along the lines of “Conan flexed and tore the chains apart with his manly biceps, as no civilized man could have done” or a story where the entire plot only goes bad because of an asshole who is almost invariably the stupidest asshole on the radar at the moment.

        1. I don’t think the superiority of Conan as a warrior and adventurer is explained as coming from the supposed moral superiority of Conan, which is quite lacking, considering his propensity for drinking, wenching and thieving, but rather from a whole adulthood spent adventuring all around the world. And considering the civilized folks sent more than once Conan packing, they aren’t always shown as weak.

          1. Conan was always considered superior, even in his extreme youth when he barely left Cimmeria and still killed two giants with a divine parent.

    2. Howard explains his ideas about this in his essay “The Hyborian Age”, in which he lays down practically his whole worldbuilding/history writing. He considers three stages, the wild, barbaric and civilized, that move in an eternal cycle. At first people or tribes or what have you are primitive, like the picts and stereotypical stone age neanderthals. But slowly over generations they “improve”, become smarter, stronger etc and become “barbarians”. Non-intellectual, tough manly-men, who use their strength to conquer other tribes, or civilizations which have become decadent and weak. When they have done so, they become decadent civilizations themselves, with all the typical cliches. Until they finally become weak enough to be conquered by the next “vital barbarian race”, after which they lose their civilization and “degenerate” back to primitives. And then they start to work their way up again…
      The Picts are an interesting example, because they are implied to have built a great cilvilization after the age of Conan and at some point between Howard’s stories. But they appear next after their civilization has fallen and they have reverted/”degenerated” to stage 1 again, as stone-age primitives fighting the Roman Invasion of Britain in his “Bran Mak Morn” stories. Aditionally, Howard considered himself “of pictish stock” or something like that and was apparently fascinated by them, so from that I would already expect him to build in som “actually picts are great too” at some point ^^
      I think Howard’s idea of a cycle is actually an excellent example of the “Fremen Mirage”, and I wanted to post this myself^^
      And yeah, I agree that Conan and Howard were probably very influential in spreading this idea into pop-culture, especially considering his influence on Sword&Sorcery and the Fantasy Genre.

  15. I think this a great opening to a really interesting topic.
    One aspect is how widespread this trope is, across both history and different regions and cultures. So it will be interesting to see how the evidence stacks up. Though no amount of evidence is going to stop people saying that it was better in some past, simpler time.
    Another aspect, in examining the evidence of this trope, is that the less specialised, militaristic society has the ability to mobilise a higher proportion of warriors, given the resources. This can be seen in the use of mercenaries hired from these societies, but also their ability to capitalise on success, using loot or tribute from successful raids to mobilise dramatically larger armies than otherwise available.
    A comparison might also be made with guerrilla movements, which are similarly romanticized in terms of their moral courage, but are usually unable to sustain conflict against a determined government without resources from another, foreign government.
    These comments on guerrillas and mercenaries obviously link back to the Fremen and Sadaukar.

  16. The post-Roman historian Peter Heather makes an argument that the tribal confederations (Alamanni, Goths, Franks) that over-ran the Western Roman Empire could mobilise a higher proportion of their manpower than the Romans by about a third, a result of less social differentiation.

  17. Thank you for this insight.

    Would you make a list of the uncountable times the Romans defeated “Barbarians” off the Limes? Or some rough estimation on casualties for the “Freemen” on the Rhine and Danube frontiers? Were there other major defeats for Rome from Teotoburg 9 to Adrianopolis 378?
    Countless times did the Romans win against the invaders, even with preventive attacks, and in the “lowest” of times.

    Well, as you can see I await eagerly the new installment.

    Thanks again.

  18. Perhaps jumping the gun here, but is some of it that the rulers make sure the common people can’t fight well, because then they might get uppity and question the rightness of the social order?

  19. Excellent introduction, and I am looking forward to the rest of the series. I’m a Dune nerd, so I’m going to pedant for a bit. It seems your distillation of Fremen is based on the Lynch film and the Syfy miniseries. The Fremen Herbert wrote were not averse to literacy, technology, or civilization. The book has explanations for why the entire human civilization eschews computers and warfare has devolved to sword fighting (although the Baron surprises the Atredies by deploying artillery in the assault on Arrakis). The Fremen are constrained in what they can build because they are a clandestine civilization. Sietch communities are underground, but are not mere caves. Upon entering Sietch Tabr Jessica notes the manufacture of plastics and explosives by what she can smell. And watching a Fremen water meter working she notes it has a frictionless surface that would not waste a single drop. And, of course, the Fremen generational project is to collect enough water to change the ecology of the planet surface.

    1. So, I may put an addendum on this series that goes into the Fremen in more detail. I think Herbert is, in his books – I was a book person before I saw the films – quite clear that the fighting prowess of both the Sarduakar and the Fremen derive from the harsh conditions of their homelands.

      As for the logistics of the Fremen – well, quite frankly, it’s magic. The spice does whatever Herbert needs it to do – it makes plastics, and explosives, and all without water. Also, they eat it (with small game), which presumably explains how you maintain a population of millions out :;gestures at nothing::. And no, hydroponics does not fix that problem, but it does create exciting new problems in terms of the massive energy requirements.

  20. When you look at successes and failures of empires through history, especially Byzantine Empire, you notice a pattern: basically, a society where elites are separated from the people tends to fail, because elites end up not recognizing the peril or even actively endangering it. Byzantine Empire did very well during the existence of thematic system, surviving major disasters, because said system allowed large upper middle class to be mobilized and also gave them political voice. Roman Republic likewise survived major disasters because it had massive (lower) middle class.

    Meanwhile, most other empires – including even Roman Empire in some periods, such as initial Arabic invasions – fell apart or (best case) suffered massive territorial losses because they had no way to mobilize the middle class, or else had very limited middle class, being instead divided into small mega-rich class and large impoverished class.

  21. Some of this reminds me of Plagues and Peoples by William H. McNeill. He points out that a big advantage that a lot of settled people had over hunter gatherers was that due to high population densities and livestock they had a whole lot of endemic diseases. When they came in contact with hunter gatherers those plagues often wacked up them upside the head in the form of nasty epidemic which then let the settled people roll right over the survivors. This wouldn’t apply to herders as they’d have their own suites of endemic diseases from their livestock.

    1. I’m reading McNeill’s “The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society since 1000 A.D”. He writes in chapter one on p.16-17 that nomadic raiders would conquer agricultural societies, and rule them until they “lost tribal cohesion and surrendered their warlike habits for the comforts of urban living” then they would in turn be conquered by other warrior cultures. It struck me that he was perfectly describing the Fremen Mirage. He doesn’t have much footnoting in his first chapter so perhaps he was just describing the conventional wisdom before getting to his focus on later history.

  22. Hmm. Haven’t read Dune in a while but my impression was that they were more like the Swiss than savages. Technologically adept, agriculturally competent for an alternative but fecund ecosystem, and socially well-organized for a particular niche that wasn’t convenient to a transportation-constrained, extraction-based economy. I also didn’t get the sense, at all, that the Sardukar were dissolute!

    None of this gainsays your overall points. And it seems to be the case that people misread “Fremen” as “noble savages.” For that matter they misread the Empire as a technologically advanced society relative to the Fremen.

    To be fair I’ve only read the first book and a bit of the second — by the 19th or 20th book all hint of Herbert’s nuanced take may have been washed out.

    1. Read a little bit further into the series. The ‘interlude’ is a detailed discussion of the text of Dune and how it fits the trope. With page numbers.

  23. Late to the party, but have you read James Scott’s “The Art of Not Being Governed”? Basically supports the idea that, at least in southeast Asian highlands, the “Fremen” type peoples were those who simply moved beyond the range of force projection by the state. Scott frames it as a positive choice to avoid state assimilation but I guess that’s a question of interpretation.

  24. First off, great series (it’s been keeping me busy for a while, especially since it got me to read the Sparta series first). I’m getting to love your stuff here. But more to the point – what do you think about the Strauss-Howe generational theory? The meme in this article reminded me of it, and actually maps rather well to the generations in Strauss-Howe (line 1 = crisis, line 2 = high, line 3 = awakening, line 4 = unraveling).

  25. There’s a paper I read recently ( arguing that sedentism and later agriculture were developed to facilitate consumption smoothing and stability of food supply in times and places heavily affected by climactic instability, with people in those places being willing to make the tradeoff of worse average nutrition in favor of lower risk of starvation.

    I’m wondering if this might also have some implications for warfare. Might greater stability of food supply might have afforded sedentary peoples some other advantages in choosing the timing of warfare or some other circumstances as compared to nomadic peoples (focusing on earlier nomadic hunter-gatherers rather than later horse nomadic steppe peoples)?

  26. I hope you’ll forgive me this, but with tongue-in-cheek I offer my own little bit of unmitigated pedantry below.

    Which is to say I can say that a society is perceived as being Fremen, without actually tagging them with ‘barbarian’ or ‘savage,’ because those terms have all of the intellectual usefulness of a raincoat in the desert.

    Not at all! Raincoats in deserts have all sorts of potential uses, albeit not much to do with keeping rain off. They can be used for shade, warmth at night, potentially for condensation water-gathering depending on the make of the coat (and the nature of the desert). They can help filter, or protect from various weather conditions (sandstorms come to mind, or cold winds). I think you’re giving the categories of barbarian or savage too much credit, unless you’re using them to speak of the Greek perspective on other peoples.

    Completely aside, have you read Alfred Willard Jones’ Before Church and State? If so, I would be curious to hear your opinion on his central thesis regarding the misapplication of the idea of Statehood to periods where it does not apply.

    1. The A.W. Jones thesis is, as I understand it, broadly accepted by medievalists, who will get all manner of uncomfortable if you start talking about medieval European ‘states.’

      That said, I work in the ancient world, where I think we would generally say that Rome or Athens or Achaemenid Persia were, in fact, states with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force and everything. So you want to keep in mind that while the trend over time is certainly towards the state-ification of land and peoples, it can ebb and flow over time.

      1. As nothing more than an interested amateur, I think that’s a broadly fair assessment regarding the ancient world, at least as far as the sophistication of administration is concerned. The self-conception of the unified governance of a polity as specifically being maintained and justified by a unique claim to the legitimacy of the use of force is something I’d be less certain about, but I am perfectly willing to bow to your authority in the matter. Thank you.

  27. Just a layman fan of bronze age history here, there’s some stuff I disagree with.

    You contradict yourself with K. Chase’s map which puts Mesopotamia in the ‘resource poor’ area. K. Chase’s map is also completely wrong if you’ve read anything about Mesopotamian society you’d know that it had a irrigation farming area (Sumer and Akkad) and a rain agricultural area (Assyria) as is clear from the different kinds of fields (long strip fields in Sumer, square fields in Assyria) and the prevalance of the Storm god Ishkur/Hadad, who is more of an agricultural diety in the north. Lebanon is also a lush rain agricultural area with fertility rain gods that is bizarely ‘barren’ on that map.

    Just about any knowledge of the importance of fertility storm/rain gods in near eastern mythology tells you that this ‘river valleys’ narrative that scholars who don’t specialise in the area have taken for granted is nonsense. It should be basic knowledge that river agriculture is just rain agriculture once removed and delta agriculture is rain agriculture twice removed. Drawing big boxes around the globe and saying ‘rain vs river’ should be unthinkable idiocy but here we are.

    Mesopotamia is not resource rich, its resource poor and Sumer, where state building was most intense, is the poorest part of it. Egypt is more agriculturally rich than Mesopotamia but also has a severe imbalance problem that made it dependent on imports. Any look at Sumerian literature shows that resources are always associated with adjacent mountain areas. The military system of Sumer isn’t ‘resource rich society bullies everyone’ is ‘society that has only two resources, manpower and monocrop agriculture, has to leverage that manpower to obtain a better balance of resources. Sumer is the Netherlands of the near east, a resource poor society of marsh fishermen who gain dominance by being trade middle men. Domestic grains and farming originate in the rain watered Anatolian highlands, Sumer is marginal land where the soil salinity forces Barley monocropping with the less saline soils to the north allow a wider variety of grains. Soil salination from over irrigation then forces Sumerian monocropping to spread north. Sumer never creates large states on its own, that takes the semitic Akkadians who are kind of in between being Sumerians and the northern proto-Assyrians, but is the nexus of the city state lifestyle that is clearly a way to leverage the limited possilibities of a resource poor area through hard work and thinking, not a resource rich area flexing its resources.

    If you look at near eastern royal iconography its always pastoral or religious, with the agricultural flail being the sole exception where its paired with the shepherd’s crook to symbolise a form of balance between the two. No bronze age society has a ‘Farmer King’, they always have ‘Shepherd Kings’. Every ancient myth about conflict between farmers and shepherds shows the shepherds as more blessed by the gods, even ones like Cain and Abel where the farmer wins the fight. The Courship of Inanna and Dumuzi is about the goddess wanting to marry a farmer while her guardians want her to marry a shepherd and ends with the shepherd succesfully seducing her (laughably James George Frazer tried to claim that said Shepherd was actually a Corn god archetype). Sumerian debate poems? Always favour sheep while also trying to negotiate how the two have to work together, a bit like the way the image of the Pharoah has to balance his crook and flail.

    Mario Liverani’s book Uruk: The First City briefly discusses a archaelogically identifiable change in governing structure where the early Sumerian cities are purely Temple societies. Then at points before 3000 BC Palaces start turning up, usually associated with levels of damage and burning in the adjacent Temples. These palaces are basically clones of the Temples in their administative function and a lot of their architecture. Mature Sumerian society is a multi-focal society between different competing power structures, not a pyramidal system. A look at the royal ideology from later in the bronze age would hint that the arrival of Palaces with their more pastoral, shepherd based conceptions of themselves shows the agricultural city states finding ways to incorporate other forms of social organisation into themselves. This makes a lot of sense with the Sumerian economy being so dependent on trading barley for wool. That the Royal and Warrior group tends to be associated with wool and pastoralism clearly shows in this division of power between agricultural and pastoral elements the successfully violent one is the shepherds not the farmers.

    Warrior farmers that build Empires clearly can exist but its just not the story in the Bronze age near east. Especially not in Sumer which only builds an Empire after being continuously beaten up over a thousands years so the Third Dynasty of Ur can finally work out how to do so.

    In Near Eastern royal ideology (and later Chinese ideology) Kings don’t trade, they only accept tribute. A lot of ‘tribute collection wars’ are ‘trade negotiations in force’. Weak, subjugated Kingdoms collect a lot of tribute in their accounting books but of course its actually closer to what we would call trade. Sometimes its ‘I’ll trade your stuff for your life’ but it would also often be peaceful trade that doesn’t fit into simplistic definitions of tribute. Rulers do not depict themselves honestly, juse because someone portrays themselves as a manly guy whose job is beating people up doesn’t always mean we should believe them.

    1. Coming back to this much later, a minor nitpick:

      “Resource rich” in this article should probably be interpreted (and arguably rephrased) as “rich in food, specifically.” On some very basic level, it is the ability of early agricultural regions to support high-density production of food that makes them ‘rich.’ Because people-power is at the root of most forms of wealth and goods production that emerge subsequently. Thus, regions that can support agriculture and almost nothing else tend to wind up more prosperous than regions with plenty of access to timber, minerals, and wool… but not much reliable food supply.

  28. ” Significant land areas are simply not very suitable for farming (it is worth noting that the qualities which make for good farmland are also generally what a hunter-gatherer or a pastoralist might want in an area of land, so this land is going to be fiercely competed over).”

    Pastoralists don’t want farmland so they can replace the farmers with livestock, they want to trade. Complex societies are dependent on area based resource specialisation. By no means is the fact that farmers are able to claim land for farming evidence that they can fight off people who want that land for other stuff. Grain farming predates Pastoralism by several thousand years, while farmers always protray pastoralists as less sophisticated and wild in some sense the opposite is true and the Pastoral lifestyle is a higher form of technology (in the crude sense where we assume stuff that comes later is ‘more advanced). Pastoral and agricultural societies always exist in trade relationships and are interdepentent on each other, their ways of life are not in conflict, they conflict is one of dominence and who gets the greater share of that synergistic relationship.

    Since the farming societies are already there before the pastoralist societies and the pastoralist society is dependent on the farmers to process their surplus products in exchange for grain surpluses there’s literally no reason why a pastoralist society would ever destroy a farming society to turn their land into pastoral land. Instead whenever a pastoral society defeats a farming society in a war they either take tribute and head home or stay and form a new social caste.

    1. I smell a few complications here.

      First, the entire bit about “more advanced in the crude sense that it came later” seems like even in a crude sense, it doesn’t work. Nobody uses “advanced” just to mean “subsequent;” it also typically means “more complex. And/or “more effective” for some varying definition of ‘effective.’ And/or “using technologies and methods that aren’t available in other, ‘less advanced’ societies.” The earliest pastoralists are subsequent to the earliest farmers, but they don’t really fit those other criteria.

      Second, while the point about a symbiotic relationship is valid, it reminds me of a lot of other arguments of the form “no one would ever wreck a trading partner.” While wrecking trading partners is certainly rare, it’s not unheard of in history. People do things that wouldn’t make a lot of sense in a strategy game, often for complicated reasons.

      Third, “there’s no reason why a pastoralist society would ever destroy a farming society…” Pastoralists compete among themselves for the best-watered, most fertile grazing land all the time. Why wouldn’t they compete with farmers for land that had similar potential? To be sure, no sane pastoralist would want to destroy all farming cultures and convert the entire Earth into grazing land, but that doesn’t mean you won’t see specific groups of pastoralists with an eye to driving out the farmers from “that valley over there” or something… if they think they can get away with it.

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