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. My 2¢: in general, we see the “Fremen” overrun civilizations when two things occur in tandem. First, when internal problems such as civil war and a collapsing economy weaken the state; while among the barbarians a leader emerges who is militarily and _politically_ successful enough to band squabbling tribes into an alliance. One capable of escalating the raids that periodically take place on a state’s periphery into an actual invasion. The unification of the Arabs by early Islamic leaders or the overlordship of Genghis Khan for examples. This process has been compared to when isolated desert locusts suddenly mutate into the swarming form.

    1. Yeah, this article takes the common meme of “hard times create strong men, etc” too literally. In general terms, the concept is that an old ruling class fancies itself by buying into old myths, believing its own propaganda, and engages in decisions wholly disconnected from reality and truths that a poorer and weaker nation would not be afforded to make. These decisions that weaken a nation concern primarily non-military and internal affairs. As vilfredo pareto once said, “History is a graveyard of aristocracies”. On a civilizational level such as with a child, there’s no guarantee that inherented wealth will not be squandered.

      1. I’ve been reading Procopius’ History of the Wars recently, and it struck me that the Byzantine army of this period was a good example of how a state could be weakened by decadence without its soldiers all becoming a bunch of effete wusses. The Byzantine army of the sixth century wasn’t a bad army by any stretch of the imagination — indeed, under Belisarius and Narses it routinely kicked the western barbarians to the curb, and although it seems to have been somewhat weaker than the Persian army to the east, it still managed to more or less maintain the Empire’s territorial integrity. But because there was such a history of coups and military rebellions, Justinian often entrusted his armies to multiple co-equal generals, with the predictable result that, at key points in various campaigns, the highly skilled and well-trained Byzantine army was too riven by infighting to actually do anything. This didn’t (yet) threaten the Empire’s existence, but it did mean that (e.g.) Justinian’s Italian War dragged out way longer than it needed to, needlessly draining the Empire’s treasury and manpower and meaning that the victorious Byzantines ended up conquering a depopulated wasteland instead of a profitable and wealthy province (and then, partly as a result, they ended up losing most of the country to the Lombards a few years later).

        1. Coming back to this later, I have to question whether “decadence” is even the right word for this kind of problem. We don’t call it “decadence” when a coalition of tribal warriors falls out among themselves due to infighting. Why is it “decadence” when an emperor’s generals do the same?

          “Decadence” is normally only used as a concept to refer to the idea of a nation entering decline due to excessive indulgence or luxury. The Byzantine Empire of Justinian’s time wasn’t somehow all that much more indulgent or luxurious than the Empire of 50-100 years earlier or later, as far as I know.

          1. The “decadence” isn’t the generals falling out amongst themselves, it’s the pattern of infighting at court which made it impossible to trust a single general with command of an army. Maybe you have a better word for it, but “State becomes riven by infighting as bigwigs become more focused on climbing the greasy pole than running the country properly” is, I think, one of the common decadence tropes.

      2. Coming back to this a lot later, but… part of the problem here is that the common meme is itself taken too literally by a lot of people. If it were just a question of “a lack of challenges often creates ineffectual leadership,” then you wouldn’t see the concept of Fremen-ness getting used at the foundation of “racial” origin stories by many nations. You wouldn’t see it applied to entire peoples.

        What is being engaged with here is the more extreme version of the meme, which is itself far too common

      3. While a nice idea, this is historically fraught – as I mentioned in another comment, Western Rome failed not because it had become soft, but because it had become rigid. Earlier in its history it showed a willingness to bend and accommodate different cultures and groups of people, allowing it to absorb everyone from the Latins to the Etruscans to the Greeks and Egyptians and to the Celts. When they refused to accommodate the later tribes, that’s when things went off. They didn’t respect the newcomers, broke promises, and didn’t adapt like before, which led to violent resistance.

        We see, then, that it’s more often the case that when a state restricts its choices that it suffers rather than the other way around. Success can drive not softness but paranoia.

  2. I believe a major factor encouraging the “Fremen Mirage” trope in pop culture (in addition to the historical nationalistic motives you mention in your series) s our appetite for underdog stories. We don’t like narratives about technologically advantaged armies wiping the floor with disadvantaged ones, especially if the former represent the colonizing force. Buffing up the underdog with something like a hardened warrior culture is an appealing way to balance that.

  3. My 2c, if the firemen culture is a martial one, it will likely produce more independently capable warriors, though this is contrasted by “civilizations” more numerous and trained soldiers. Similarly, they tend to do better when they go raiding than in open war, as they dont face the larger, more disciplined forces that the victims would otherwise bring to bear, allowing for example, hunters and irregular combatants against farming targets

  4. that first image in the meme is from the video game “Ryse: Son of Rome”, which was a highly stylized 3rd person hack and slash game in a stereotypical alt-history roman empire where the player ends up involved in a bunch of major events. it also pretty much tosses history out the window.. i mean, *boudica* apparently not only wins her little uprising but invades the mainland and tries to sack rome. WTF? (plus apparently gods and magic exist.)

    the art was part of the promotional material, and was done by Tobias Mannewitz, Karl Kopinski, Floris Didden, & Henrik Bolle:

  5. Hi Bret, this was an interesting article. I’ve been deeply enjoying your work on this site over the last few days.

    This piece was especially interesting to me in the use of narratives about the beginnings of societies and social organization. I’ve been captivated by Graeber and Wengrow’s Dawn of Everything over the last few weeks, which directly disputes many of those narratives (sometimes convincingly, other times less so). In short: agriculture arose independently of states, early monarchy took hold largely among pastoralists and communities on the fringe of richer areas, many early monarchies were seriously challenged by the authority of popular assemblies, among other arguments.

    I wonder what you would think of it if you read it — I would love to read the review, or hear your thoughts if you have any. And while the book is more “pop” than not, I think it’s a delightful read and worth a recommendation.

  6. This is an excellent series and I have nothing constructive to add, just that a friend of mine suggested it could have been called “The Fremenine Mystique” and I can’t stop thinking about that.

  7. How did the military elite arise out of pre-state, early farming communities? What were their lives like, how were they chosen, etc. Do we know anything about this?

    1. For example, I can imagine how specializations like “tailor”, “blacksmith”, etc can arise out of early farming communities where individuals decided that they enjoy/are better at doing their specialization rather than farming and then eventually barter their products for food and whatever else they need. But I cannot imagine how the first “warrior specialist” would come about, and was wondering if historians had any idea how that happened.

      1. Not a historian, but I can at least speculate.

        1) The best kinds of armor and weapons, especially after the invention of bronze, are too expensive for every person in these societies to afford. Whoever has access to more resources is thus best equipped for battle, and most able to profit from participating in it. They are likely also able to feed and support other combatants, at least for a time, which in turn makes them a natural leadership figure for small military units.

        2) In a society where all men can earn prestige by being good at war, those who have control of property are in a better position to equip themselves for war, or to use their leisure time to prepare themselves for it. Such a class will tend to accrue prestige and power over time, “snowballing” into a warrior elite precisely because an elite that was not warlike would struggle to maintain their prestige and standing.

        3) One may imagine a stateless community being “captured” by, in effect, a bandit troop. A roving group of people who are unusually gifted at violence and willing to commit it to enforce their will might establish themselves as a local lord and his retainers, at which point they will predictably try to start extracting agricultural surplus to make themselves “warrior specialists.” In the early phase of this process there is a risk of the community turning against the warriors (everybody sleeps some time, et cetera), but in the cases where this does not happen, the pattern of military specialization establishes itself over a few generations and becomes taken for granted.

  8. Hi. Have you read the Muqaddimah by Ibn Khaldun? It is a 14th century treatise that expresses the same thesis as these posts. It is considered by many to be the first example of modern social science. Thought you might like to check it out.

  9. Thank you for a really interesting and thoughtful post!

    Anecdotally, I think my own default point of reference here is being Finnish. WW2 still plays a huge part in our culture and I’d argue that the Fremenness is still a rhetorical instrument at least occasionally. The gist of it is that the hard-working men of old, more in touch with the harsh conditions of the arctic nature, were such hardened warriors that they could beat a numerically and technologically superior invader. (The other common argument in layman rhetoric is “the spirit of the winter war”, which is more a social cohesion argument: a country torn apart by a civil war in 1918 was united against a common enemy in 1939.)

    And in subsequent generations, in some circles of them at least, the sacrifice of those hardened men is the ultimate argument. They’re used to shame the younger generations: “you’re a soft city-dweller and wouldn’t stand a chance in the Winter War”, “you disgrace their memory by not going to the army”, and so forth. The social welfare state is argued against because it makes people soft and communist and oblivious to the skills needed in the real world; my uncle once held me an anti-immigrant sermon about how naïve and soft we’ve become, how we don’t realize what sorts of animals people are in some cultures. He claims he’s seen the truth when he served as a Peacekeeper in former Yugoslavia.

    On the other hand, at least ever since the 1960s counterculture (itself cited often as the start of the degeneration), veterans of WW2 have been accused of being fascists (which, for all the inaccuracy of a sweeping generalization) is not entirely unfounded since Finland was allied with Germany. Hence, the argumentative atmosphere and rhetoric is very similar to the hard times meme.

  10. Seems to me that you’ve entirely missed the point. Decadence is not “civilisation”, it’s the civilizational-equivalent of a wealthy man getting fat and lazy. A society becomes decadent when a certain critical mass of its citizens are unwilling to carry out the difficult and self-sacrificial work required to keep civilisation ticking over and the “Fremen” from the door. The point is not that tribal societies are superior to urbanised societies, but that strength and vigor are superior to weakness and sloth.

    1. Yours is a silly conclution that shows that you’re the one who does not understand Hopf’s saying nor the point:
      Strength trumps weakness, what a deduction, Sherlock. That’s not what the saying implies, but that, ultimately, it is harsh conditions ergo lack of civilizations what creates ”strong” societies that trump over the settled ”weaklings”…which, as shown, is ahistorical and inaccurate.

      1. harsh conditions ergo lack of civilizations

        The equation of “harsh conditions” and “lack of civilisation” is one I’ve only come across in people criticising the meme, not people supporting it. Indeed, if you look at the version of the meme which Dr. Devereaux shares above, you’ll see that it illustrates “hard men” by showing Roman soldiers of the 1st century BC or AD (those are clearly meant to be the White Cliffs of Dover in the background, so it’s probably a safe assumption that the soldiers are participating in either Caesar’s or Claudius’ invasion) — not exactly a society of primitive barbarians. So, whilst the meme may still be wrong, it isn’t wrong because complex societies usually beat wilderness-dwelling tribesmen, because it never claimed otherwise.

  11. I love your site, your writing style is both eloquent and approachable, and you are clearly much smarter than me in many ways… however: “the core tenants run thusly” ? Surely you mean tenets?

  12. Interesting article. I do see a rise in the “hard times lead to strong men…” rhetoric, like Helski said. That and the idea that today’s generation are a bunch of lily livered cowards.” I wonder if that’s a common theme of inter generational divides, where the older generation often says anyone younger than them are weak and soft. Is there anything like that from the 19th century or early modern time, or, heck, from the Romans? Did Ceasar make speeches about kids these days?

    1. It’s hard to argue that the younger generation isn’t soft when about 20% of each post on this blog is taken up with warnings that the past has some nasty things in it and pleas for the mob not to burn Bret for having brought these things to its attention.

      1. A lot of those warnings are because I am aware that a number of my readers are parents who read these with their children and I figure they might want some warning before posts with sensitive topics.

        That said some of it is inoculation against bad faith complaints, but the existence of bad faith people on the internet doesn’t make a generation ‘soft’ (and also many of those bad faith complainers and their enablers are not young people).

      2. It’s hard to argue that the older generation isn’t soft when so many of them get violently upset at mentions of American racism or the existence of trans people.

        1. Or it would be, if they were. Calling something “mentions of American racism or the existence of trans people” does not make it so.

  13. “because those terms have all of the intellectual usefulness of a raincoat in the desert.”

    Having just returned from a desert, I would like to point out that as a light raincoat will be windproof (and sand proof!) it is therefore actually quite useful in a desert.

  14. Wonderful piece, congratulations. One of the missing details that bears consideration about the actual Fremen (whom I acknowledge are a fictional people) is that the novel states that their numbers were hidden, they had many many more sietches than realized by the colonizing great houses. And they conducted fairly complex “farming” operations to accumulate an ostentatious amount of secret wealth (the most valuable commodity was hoarded water).

    In fact it may be argued that the *impressions* by readers and uninitiated outsider polities in the Dune universe were of a laconian force of hunter gatherer hard men. But the *reality* was of a vast secret empire made up of an agrarian (water and that which comes with it) and pastoral network (sandworms instead of sheep) that supplied sietches with resources and commodity power, enabling the creation of large city style communities, complex specialized class stratification, and multi- gender power sharing. This was further primed and supported by an externally-supplied religious structure that sounded a lot like Islam, the cosmopolitan, organizing, populous-pacifying religion we know here on earth that brought wealth and state structure to similar conditions.

    I’m not saying your analogy is bad, it’s very useful! I’m saying that readers who think the Fremen were just Spartans in space didn’t notice all the references in the text itself: the Fremen society had a Lot more in common with states as we know them and as you’ve identified them here than with the romantic image of free bands of hard men. The Fremen hid their strength from the rest of the human empire, but it could be argued the things that actually “made it go” (enabled it to overrun everything) were actually those things you outlined here as the strength of states

  15. Let’s be fair, David Lynch would probably agree with you. He hated working on that movie.

    I agree with your point overall. I’ve heard this “theory” of history articulated by foolish people before – they usually try to justify it as we see in several comments.

    Looking at Western Rome, what we see was not a decadent civilized state being overwhelmed by virile and powerful barbarians, it’s of a state that had decided that outsiders were no longer to be treated with the same respect Rome had shown before. They absorbed the Latins, the Etruscans, the Celts, and others by recognizing them, granting them rights, and taking what made them great to make Rome great. When it came to the crises of later centuries, they broke promises, refused to offer them citizenship, and failed to properly recognize them – not because they had become “too soft”, but because they had become *too hard* and refused to bend or change like they had before.

    1. Rome didn’t refuse to accommodate barbarians in its later period — plenty of barbarians were granted high rank in the Roman army, and barbarians were granted land to settle on by treaty. The difference with the Republican period wasn’t that the Romans had become rigid and refused to deal with outsiders, but that the barbarians were able to set up states-within-a-state which only obeyed the Roman government when they felt like it.

  16. Recently, I was trying to find the image in this article again, and tried searching for “Hawaii” which produced some results, but not this page.

    I have now found it, and found that you here used “Hawai’i” – this is *doubly* wrong.

    First of all, an ʻokina (ʻ) is a letter, not punctuation, and is very distinct (grammatically speaking) from a single quote or apostrophe.

    If you use an apostrophe (‘) to proxy for the ʻokina, I don’t mind too much because only extreme pedants and nerds bother to learn the approved Unicode character (U+02BB) for the ʻokina. Then again, pedantry is in this blog’s name.

    Which brings me to the second issue: you didn’t even use the *correct* apostrophe. The character you use is actually the “typographic right single quote” (’) which also serves as the “Punctuation apostrophe.” This is a 9-shape curve, rather than the ʻokina’s 6-shape curve.

    I personally feel that the “Typewriter apostrophe” or “neutral single quote” (‘) is an acceptable proxy in non-academic writing, and the “typographic right single quote” (‘) even more so since it is the right shape (it’s a 6-shape curve and visually indistinguishable from an ʻokina in most fonts, even if it is a different character).

    However, using the “typographic right single quote” is just adding insult to injury.

    If you want to include the ʻokina, please live up to the blog’s name and use the correct character: (ʻ). Otherwise, it’s usually no big deal to leave it out.

    1. Despite my carefully picking the correct characters, WordPress changed all the “neutral single quotes” in my previous comment post into “typographic left single quotes”. Autocorrect at its finest, ruining my attempt to be clear.

      (I also realize I wrote right instead of left in paragraph 6 of the previous post, whoops).

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