This is part II of our four-part series (I, IIIa, IIIb, interlude, IV) looking at what I’ve termed ‘the Fremen mirage,’ after the fiction people from the science fiction novel Dune. If you are just tuning in, we defined the core tenants of the Fremen Mirage back in more detail in the first post: The Fremen Mirage we are investigating is the assumption that these poorer, less settled, less specialized peoples – the Fremen – tend to be far more militarily effective, or ‘morally pure’ than the more wealthy, settled, complex or ‘decadent’ societies they compete with. We also tracked the balance of military power between early states – the most specialized, complex and wealthy societies of their day – and our ‘Fremen,’ the less settled, less specialized, less complex or less wealthy societies.
What we found is that in every phase of the early stages of the advances of these two innovations, it was the more complex societies – the least Fremen of the Fremen – who were able to use these new forms of subsistence and organization to militarily out-compete their more Fremen neighbors. Rather than making a people decadent and weak, social complexity was the killer-app which allowed first farmers, and then states made up of farmers, to dominate the most resource rich territory available, subjugating or pushing out less complex societies as they went (or forcing those societies to adopt matching levels of complexity). Far from being conquering supermen, our Fremen spend the first 10,000 years after the development of farming being consistently beaten by their more settled neighbors.
One thing I want to pull out and spotlight here, because it didn’t come out as clearly last week, is that this Mirage has two parts – there is Fremeness (we’ll look next week at all the different historical conceptions of it), but there is also decadence. Decadence is the opposite of Fremeness in the idea’s structure. One reason – as will become clearer next week – that Fremeness is so hard to pin down is that the trope isn’t about Fremeness at all, it’s about decadence. I spotlight that today because this week’s bit – focusing in on the Roman experience – is going to be as much, if not more, about the bankruptcy of ‘decadence’ as a concept, as it is about the flaws of Fremeness.
Because this view of history is supposed to be about processes, which naturally take time – society slowly becomes decadent and weaker – I am going to note, as I move through, when certain authors are writing about Roman decadence. All too often, we compress Roman history – which, it turns out, is very long – and so miss the often huge chronological gaps between figures and events. In this case, between writers complaining about ‘decadence’ and attendant weakness, and any sort of actual military failure.
So for today, we’re going to take a single case study – Rome. I picked this as a study in part because, it being my specialty, I can actually do a high-speed survey of eight hundred years (oh yes, we are doing this) of state vs. non-state warfare. But it’s also a good example because the idea of Roman ‘decadence’ being overthrown by the more powerful – and more morally pure – ‘barbarians’ is just so damn pervasive. While functionally no modern scholar holds to that vision, its presence in scholarship from the very late 18th to the early 20th century – notably through Edward Gibbon – has meant that it retains this iron grip on the popular conception of Rome, showing up everywhere from Vox think-pieces (side-note: something tells me that a numbered list of ‘decadent’ emperors was not the message Clifford Ando was trying to convey in that interview) to TV representations like HBO’s Rome, the new TV series Spartacus and in film (e.g. Gladiator). It underlines much of the ‘Roman’ humor in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. And speaking as an educator, it shows up in my student’s assumptions all the time (often joined with an at-best fuzzy notion of when Rome actually fell – I’ve seen students truly puzzled that Julius Caesar is not even remotely chronologically close to the Fall of Rome) – a brief look at the AskHistorians and r/history reddits tells me that my students are not the only ones who were fed this line (note: if the connection between ‘moral decay’ and our Fremen mirage isn’t entirely clear to you – don’t worry, we’ll be focusing on that next week).
So we’re going to look at Rome’s performance against ‘Fremen’ non-state foes, over eight hundred years, from 390 B.C. to 476 A.D.. I have chosen, I’d argue, the most favorable possible date-brackets for the Fremen, as we’re running, in essence from one sack of Rome (390) to another (410 and 455). We’re going to focus mostly on the Western Empire after the split, because – again – this is the most favorable case for the non-state peoples; in the East, the Romans and Sassanids both spent a couple of centuries using their non-state Arab auxiliaries as proxies in their state-on-state forever war, which hardly speaks to Fremen power.
What we want to track through this are a couple of different parts of the Mirage as detailed last time. One problem with popular imaginings of history is that we tend to remember winners and forget losers, so we need to actually force ourselves to dial in a bit closer to get a sense of our first question: what is the actual win-rate for our Fremen? Do they seem to have a general military advantage, or even just a man-for-man quality advantage (as implies by the hard times creating strong men part of the Mirage)? And then second, on the question of ‘decadence,’ does the decline in Roman military capabilities follow any sort of pattern, relating to wealth or decadence or some sort of predictable, progressive loss of virtue (as implied by the good times creating soft men part of the Mirage)?
But let’s start by digging a little deeper into the sort of Fremen that we have to deal with.
Meet the Fremen
Now, you will note that in the process of rolling out the advance of agriculture and the state, we’ve actually developed two different groups that might be described as Fremen in our model:
First: We have one group of non-state agricultural societies (in truth, these societies often mix pastoralism with agriculture) – for instance, the inhabitants of pre-Roman Gaul or Britain. These folks live in towns and villages mostly (though again, their society includes some pastoralists, just as Roman Italy did), but the level of social complexity, hierarchy and specialization in their societies isn’t quite as high as what you find in contemporary Rome or the Near East (or India or China, etc, etc). The population density is also typically quite a bit lower, along with lower rates of urbanism. While a Roman might look at these folks and declare them ‘uncivilized’ and ‘barbaric,’ in many ways, these non-state farmers have more in common with the Romans than either of them have with true nomads or hunter-gatherers. In fact, in most cases, when looking at these non-state farming societies, you can actually see the beginnings of state structures and the cultural artifacts that come with them emerging – things like an interest in literacy, the emergence of greater degrees of central control and hierarchy, petty kings, nascent urban centers (e.g. Gallic oppida, hill-fort-towns) and so on. While both our sources and modern imaginations frequently paint these fellows as very Fremen (indeed, in terms of ‘settled, non-state people’ this is the category the actual Fremen occupy, since a Sietch is essentially a small town much like a Gallic oppidum), the contours of life in these places is often not that different from their wealthier neighbors, at least for the common folk. Nevertheless, as we’ll see next week, it is often these folks who are the ‘trope-codifiers’ for the Fremen Mirage, so we’re including them.
Second: We have our fully pastoral non-state societies. In most cases, these folks live in the large tracts of the arid region – vast expanses of steppe, savanna or desert – and their societies are often effectively completely pastoral. By the time of the Roman Republic, these folks in Eurasia have developed a way of life centered around the horse and have been practicing it for centuries. Of course they continue to herd sheep, goats and so on, but it is the horse which provides the core of the way of life, enabling their mobility and also becoming central to their way of war. These folks are, in a very real sense our true Fremen. Because they tend to be mobile and unspecialized, their societies tend to lack the things which require specialization and sedentism: writing, metalworking, architecture, etc. Now, these folks aren’t stupid (history pro-tip: people who lived in the past were different, but not stupid, except for the Spartans, who were both) – they’ll look to acquire some of those things from the settled zone by trade or raiding. But those are things they do not usually produce themselves. Instead, these are societies where – some exceptions, naturally – every adult male is a herder and a warrior both. That can produce large mobilizations and – as we’ll talk about in a couple of weeks – when combined with a horse-nomadic way of life, can produce a particularly powerful kind of warrior.
Now, obviously those are two very different groups of people to lump under a single label: and that’s the point! One of the deep flaws in this popular vision of history, as we’ll see, is that who counts as Fremen (or the ‘barbarians’) shifts very freely between these two categories (and indeed often include supposedly less sophisticated state societies at some points!), to the point that the argument becomes non-falsifiable: Fremen-ness is defined as winning fights, therefore the Fremen are the best at fighting. But that is obviously poor historical reasoning and it is important to actually pin down what makes the Fremen, well… Fremen – which is part of the reason that I decided to come up with a term (a bit less prejudicial than ‘barbarian’ or ‘uncivilized,’ and less morally loaded than eunomia and asabiyyah, which we’ll get to next time) to refer to these folks collectively, because no actual classification based on solid social-structure or technology or subsistence characteristics will actually capture them all. Which ought to suggest some of the intellectual bankruptcy of treating these categories as analytically useful, but there it is.
But breaking down our Fremen into these two categories is handy, because we’re going to put both of them to the test, against a vast, agricultural, sedentary empire sitting on some of the best real-estate in all of Afro-Eurasia – an empire whose very name has come to be synonymous with decadence:
Meet the Romans
I’m going to have to start with some perhaps-less-exciting groundwork here: periodization. The Roman state lasts a really long time. Even just the period of Roman overseas empire runs at minimum from 264 B.C. to 476 A.D., nearly 750 years – not counting the Eastern Roman Empire, which survives for another thousand beyond that. In that 750ish years, Rome moves through at least four distinct military systems (Manipular, Late-Republican-Cohortal, Fully-Professional-Imperial-Cohortal and Late-Imperial) and at minimum four forms of government (cf. Mid. Republic vs. Civil-War-Dictators vs. Early Empire vs. post-Diocletian and that doesn’t even touch the argument in Harriet Flower’s excellent Roman Republics).
Pop history has a nasty tendency to compress all of that into one idea of ‘Rome,’ which rises once and falls once, as opposed to the reality of a Rome which rose, fell into civil war, then rose some more, then had a crisis, then stabilized, then fragmented, then fell in some places while remaining stable in others. And so, for example, Sallust’s complaints about Roman decadence – which date to the first century B.C. nearly five centuries before its ‘fall‘ – are often quoted as somehow explaining Rome’s eventual demise, but Rome wasn’t even done expanding at that point. This isn’t the place to get into a complete periodization of the Roman state, but we’ll break it down into four broad periods based on Rome’s military expansion, and then address each one in turn:
- Roman Expansion in Italy (509-265 B.C.), during which the Roman Republic consolidated control of the Italian Peninsula.
- Rapid Roman Overseas Expansion (265 B.C. – 14 A.D.), during which the Roman Republic (along with Augustus, the first emperor) defeated the other major powers of the Mediterranean and also rapidly subjugated large numbers of minor states and pre-state peoples. This period also sees political stresses within the Roman Republic eventually tear it apart, leading to a new monarchy under Augustus.
- Consolidation, Stabilization and Frontier Defense (15 – 378 A.D.), during which expansion does not stop, but it does slow, and the greater military focus is on protecting what Rome has (which is, to be fair, nearly all of the territory worth having). This period is disrupted by a period of fragmentation and civil war called the Third Century Crisis (235-284), but Rome stabilizes and regains control of its older borders afterwards and holds them successfully for another century.
- The Long, Slow Collapse of the West (378-476), during which the Western Roman Empire slowly collapses, while the Eastern Roman Empire remains prosperous, militarily successful and almost entirely intact.
That is, you will forgive me on language for a moment, a long ass time. it is all too easy and tempting to look over those vast stretches of time and not appreciate that, for instance, someone who was born under Augustus (say, c. 25 B.C.), their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren, great-great-granchildren would have all lived in a period where Rome’s borders were stable and Roman might was largely uncontested. If that original person’s great-great-great-grandchild lived to be a hundred years old (uncommon today, much less then), they’d still not live to see the beginning of the Third Century Crisis (assuming age of child-bearing here averages around 25 or so). That is a really long period of military success.
(Note that the periodization I have set out up there is not the standard periodization of the Roman state, but one designed for our investigation. For the curious, the normal periodization runs thusly: Royal (???-510); Early Republic (509-281(ish)); Middle Republic (280-101(ish); Late Republic (100-27); [begin Empire] Principate (27BC-235AD); Crisis of the Third Century (235-284); Dominate (284-476/565). Alternately, the Empire (27BC-476AD) is sometimes broken up as the Early Empire (27BC-96AD); High Empire (96-235); Crisis (235-284); Late Empire (284-476). Normally, in the East, the Late Empire is extended to the end of the reign of Justinian in 565.)
Obviously, a single post is not going to be able to cover the raw sweep of Rome’s interaction with non-state peoples completely – we’re going to have to leave a lot out. But because, as we saw last time, a big part of the Fremen Mirage is the tendency to only remember successful efforts by non-state peoples and to simply forget about the unsuccessful groups entirely, we ought to attempt some kind of systematic accounting of Rome’s fortunes with non-state peoples (along the way, we’ll also include some very early states – peoples who had developed a state only very recently, since these groups, as noted above, are often credited with ‘Fremeness’).
Now I’m going to do a cursory sweep of Rome’s encounters with non-state peoples – anyone who might qualify as the ‘tougher’ and ‘harder’ Fremen – through around eight centuries of history. What I’m saying is, it’s going to get really ‘listy‘ – if you don’t want the list and just trust me to count accurately, you can skip the next several sections on ‘Water Spilled’ (because I can’t resist Dune references – in this case, for those who haven’t read Dune, ‘to spill water’ in Fremen culture is the equivalent of ‘to spill blood’ in English) and jump to the end, where I count it all up.
Water Spilled on the Sand in Italy
Starting in our first period – Roman expansion within Italy – we really ought to begin with a fairly notable Fremen victory: the c. 390 sack of Rome by a Gallic army under the command of a figure named ‘Brennus.’ The Romans – Livy especially – cover up the scale of the disaster with all sorts of patriotic myth-making, but it seems pretty clear that event (both the defeat of the Roman army at Allia and the subsequent sack of the city) left some lasting scars. Roman thinking afterwards is marked by the metus Gallicus (literally: the Gallic Fear) which lasts a long time in Roman culture, and is eventually transferred to Germanic peoples once functionally all of Europe’s Gauls are subdued by Rome. That in turn seems to explain Roman behavior to Gallic enemies in war: Rome was generally more ruthless and more violent against Gallic foes than functionally any other group, save perhaps the Carthaginians.
But I want to start with this to make clear: I am by no means saying that the ‘Fremen’ never win. Of course they win! The question here is how often. From the way the Mirage presents things, you would think that Fremen-societies win most of the time, or at least that they were the greatest source of threats to settled peoples (as opposed to other settled, state societies).
With that out of the way, what does pre-Roman Italy look like? Who are the Romans facing? I am going to simplify a lot here – the human geography of pre-Roman Italy is quite complex – and break down the peninsula into five zones. At the north east end, in the Po River Valley, we have Gallia Cisalpina (lit: ‘Gaul on this side of the Alps’), which was not considered part of Italia proper by the Romans and was, as you might imagine from the name, full of Gauls – namely the Insubres, Boii, Senones, Cenomani, etc.
South of Cisalpine Gaul (but still north of Rome) on the west coast was Etruria, a collection of loosely confederated Etruscan city-states, themselves older than Rome. South of that is Latium (Rome sits essentially at the meeting point of Latium and Etruria), Rome’s own region. South of Latium, in the center of Italy, we have some hill folks dwelling up in the highlands of central Italy, the Samnites, who become Romes perennial problem. Finally, the southern end of the peninsula was dominated by Greek colonies. Again: I am simplifying greatly.
Of these fellows, the two groups who might fit into our ‘Fremen’ category are the Gauls and the Samnites – indeed, the Gallic sack of Rome in 390 is often presented as a Fremen triumph over the Romans, although this almost certainly overstates the degree of difference in sophistication between the two at that time – the Rome of 390 was not the world-spanning power of later centuries.
The Samnites are a pretty classic example of a Fremen-archtype: tough hill fighters. Less urbanized and more pastoral than the Romans, the Samnites had something of a proto-state, a confederation of four tribes, with which they fought the Romans, and were quite good at using the rough country of central Italy to their advantage against heavier, ponderous Roman forces. The Romans fought three wars with the Samnites (343-341; 326-304 and 298-290), all of which were tough and in many cases the Romans lost battles and struggled, but Rome ended up winning each war, coming by 290 to have dominated Samnium. The Samnites would revolt at pretty much every opportunity, joining Pyrrhus against the Romans (280-275) and getting crushed; joining Hannibal against the Romans (218-202) and getting crushed, and finally revolting from the Romans in the Social War (91-88), after which Lucius Corenelius Sulla seems to have done what he does best – war crimes and genocide (some day, we’ll talk more about this fellow, but for now, let’s stipulate that he wasn’t a nice guy) – and the Samnites vanish, either murdered or assimilated.
As for Cisalpine Gaul, the Romans tangle with these fellows from an early point; the first big dust-up is at Sentinum (295), which is actually part of the closing phase of the Samnite wars – the Senones back the Samnites and lose badly. Rome ends up busy in Southern Italy for the decades following (Pyrrhic Wars, 280-275; First Punic War 264-241), but refocuses on Cisalpine Gaul in the 230s and 220s, winning big at Telamon (225), smashing flat an allied army of the Boii and Insubres (along with the Gaesatae, a Transalpine Gallic people). By 218, Rome had established a measure of control in the region, which is in turn disrupted by Hannibal – most of the Cisalpine Gauls side with him, and so are (like the Samnites) in deep trouble when he loses. After 202, the Romans systematically smashed the Gallic communities of Cisalpine Gaul, one by one, with the last falling in 198. The second conquest is quite violent, as the Romans, after Hannibal, were in little mood for mercy.
But by that point, Rome had already been pulled overseas in fighting Carthage, and had unlocked a whole new universe of non-state peoples in Spain, Gaul, Africa and beyond. Which brings us to:
Water Spilled on the Sand Abroad
Rome was drawn into Spain by the Second Punic War (218-202), fighting not just Carthaginian forces there, but also native non-state peoples who lived there, who are often broadly split into two groups: Celtiberians (a fusion-culture of both Gallic and Iberian elements; the term Celtiberi is used – confusingly – both for one specific group of these fellows who actually seem to have called themselves that, and for a much broader set of non-state peoples with similar, Gallic-influenced material culture) and Iberians, but those umbrella terms disguise a lot of variety on the ground. You can get some sense of the wide range of non-state peoples from the map below:
Very briefly, Roman military activity here moved in a few key phases: from 218 to 206, Rome moved through the area fighting the Carthaginians, but also fought many of Carthage’s local allies, while at the same time, co-opting or paying off other groups, with Rome eventually securing much of the Mediterranean coastline, which in turn led to pretty continual fighting on the edges of Roman control (at this point, still a fairly narrow strip of land); while older historians often saw this fighting as mostly low-intensity guerrilla fighting, I think Fernando Quesada Sanz is right in some of his recent work (e.g. “Guerrileros in Hispania” (2011)) to stress that some of this was really quite high intensity fighting. Rome found the Celtiberians particularly difficult, fighting three wars with them, (181-179, 154-151 and 143-133; the last is often called the ‘Numantine war’ as it focused on the capture of the fortified town of Numantia) before subduing them. The Lusitani fought Rome from 155 to 139 before being defeated.
I want to briefly note, because I’ll come back to it, that it is around the 130s that Polybius seems to imply that the Romans, having become too wealthy and successful, were losing their good moral character and possibly military effectiveness. It’s hard to say, as we’re missing quite a lot of Polybius, how exactly he’d have built this argument, but what we do have does seem to be trending in this direction.
Cato the Elder (Plut. Cat. 3; cos. 195) complained about luxury in Rome, while Livy definitely places the decline in Roman morals in this period (Liv. 39.6). Sallust, writing later (see below) does much the same.
There was further sporadic fighting, with revolts by the Lusitani and the Celtiberi at various points in the early first century, before the Cantabrian Wars (29-19), where Rome reduced the Cantabrians and the Astures, bringing the last of the peninsular under Roman control under Augustus.
Looking North, the Romans encountered an invasion of Germanic peoples in the Cimbric War (113-101), actually involving three groups of Germanic peoples, the Cimbri, the Teutones and the Ambrones; while they achieve some early victories, all three groups are eventually effectively annihilated – they seem to have been moving not as a warband, but as a complete host, with women, children etc. in tow, effectively all of which were killed or enslaved. Caesar does mention a tribe in Gaul, the Atautuci, supposedly made out of the handful of survivors (Caes. BG 2.29) who escaped the genocide of the entire rest of their society; Caesar completes the effort, killing or enslaving the remaining Atautaci in 57.
Transalpine Gaul, like Spain, was a web of diverse peoples, split into tribal confederations of varying sizes, and divided, Caesar famously suggests, into three larger units: the Gauls, the Belgae and the Aquitani. A closer read of Caesar’s Gallic Wars (De Bello Gallico) reveals a stunning array of peoples, including in-migrating Germans. Caesar begins with a near-total genocide of the Helvetii in 58, before crushing a Suebian (Germanic) army later that year at Vosges, then subjugating the Belgae and Nervii in 57, forcing the Veneti into submission in 56, conducting a punitive expedition against the Suebi again in 55 (making a brief stop-over in Britain), exterminating the Eburones in 53, before putting down Vercingetorix’ last-gasp effort to throw the Romans out in 51.
I want to briefly note, because we’ll come back to it, that it is around this point, in the 30s B.C., that Sallust is writing (concerning events of the last decade of the 100s and the 60s) that the Romans, having succumbed to luxury and greed (luxuria and avaritia) and in the absence of a real enemy like Carthage to keep them sharp, and were thus losing what had made them effective and becoming decadent.
I should also note that a form of the Fremen Mirage shows up in Caesar’s commentaries, where he notes that the Belgae are supposedly the bravest of the peoples in Gaul, explicitly because they are the furthest from Roman controlled territory and are thus removed from things which “tend to effeminate the mind” (BG 1.1). This hardly matches his own experience – the closest he gets to being defeated is by Vercingetorix and his Arverni, some of the closest to Roman territory.
But oh my, the Romans were not done! Under Augustus, Roman power in Gaul is reasserted, with a revolt by the Treveri being crushed in Northern Gaul in 29. Beginning in 12, Augustus launches a huge campaign to subdue Germany, with mixed results – the goal of extending Roman control to the Elbe is not achieved after the destruction of three legions under Varus (in 9AD). But the Romans did largely subdue the Frisi (in what today would be the Netherlands), secured the Rhine frontier, and eventually gained control of the agri decumates, the land between the Rhine and the Danube in the 70s and 80s.
The Romans also defeated the Illyrians (in what is today the Balkins) in fairly tough country in 168 and then put down a massive revolt there from 6-9AD, with the revolts drawing from a number of tribal groups such as the Daesitiatae, Breuci, Pannones, Dalmatae, among others – the Romans inflicted a lot of death in the area, but also effectively ethnically cleansed it by re-dividing the people there to break up the old tribal groupings.
I’m leaving a fair bit out in this summary, but I want to give a real sense of just how many different groups of ‘Fremen’ people the Romans are smashing through – often inflicting tremendous suffering and violence, sometimes amounting to genocide – as they build their empire. All of these are, I should note, Fremen of the first sort – settled, agricultural non-state peoples. In the next section, we’ll get some Fremen of the second sort – true nomads.
But I also want to draw your attention to how, by the end of this period, Roman hand-wringing about decadence and about wealth, peace and prosperity dulling the Roman combat-edge is already nearly a century old. For many Romans, the late second century, or the late first century (before or after the civil wars) are some of the best times – Rome experiences huge inflows of wealth, a brilliant flowering of culture (most of the famous Roman writers you know – Varro, Cicero, Caesar, Nepos, Sallust, Catullus, Vergil, Horace, Tibullus, Ovid, Lucretius – come from this period (while a few, Cato, Plautus, Terence, come a bit earlier during this phase of expansion). And yet, the Roman gladius is, quite evidently, not at all dulled by these ‘good times.’
Water Spilled on the Frontier
Roman expansion does not stop with Augustus, but it does slow down quite a bit, and we enter a period where Rome is focused as much, if not more so, on keeping the borders of the empire stable than in expanding them. But that doesn’t mean Rome stops fighting.
I want to start with one group of people who should not be counted as Fremen, but sometimes are: the Parthians (or their successors, the Sassanids). While the Parthians fought on horseback, they were not nomads, but claimed to be – not without justification – the heirs of the Achaemenid Empire (read: Persia). They had big, fancy capital cities, urbanized centers from where they drew power, and sophisticated systems of governance. The Parthians – who cause the Romans so much trouble (and the Sassanids, who cause a lot more trouble) – were not Fremen, but peer competitors: another empire, much like Rome’s (albeit not quite as big, but still very big).
Rome will, consistently prioritize the Eastern threat – particularly the Sassanids – over the threats of non-state or proto-state peoples on the Rhine/Danube frontier, especially into the Late Empire. And by and large, the verdict of historians who cover this period is that those priorities were wise: the Sassanids were substantially more dangerous than any individual threat hammering the Rhine/Danube frontier, because they had a much greater ability to take and hold territory if not vigorously opposed. Ironically, because the Romans largely recognized this, that threat was never fully realized (although Khosrow II (r. 590-628) got very close). Nevertheless, the biggest drain on Roman military resources, especially in the Late Empire was not all of these Fremen, but peer-competition from another old and wealthy settled people.
Expansion didn’t quite stop. The biggest example for our purposes is the Roman expansion into Britain, accomplished under the emperor Claudius (although probably prepared under his predecessor, Gaius – more commonly known as Caligula). The invasion proper began in 43. After the Battle of the Medway (43) the core of resistance was (at least initially) broken, the Catuvellauni, who had led the resistance, were crushed; Claudius reported receiving the surrenders of eleven kings in Britain. Later in the 40s, the Romans pushed into Wales, subjugating the Silures and Ordovices there. The Iceni revolted in 60 under their queen Boudica,and were crushed after some initial success. That left the Brigantes in Northern England as perennial Roman foes, with attempted risings being defeated in 71 and under Agricola, and in the 140s under Antoninus Pius; since they never break free (the Romans abandon Britain – centuries later – first), it’s safe to say they didn’t win any of these wars.
But that isn’t the only sort of frontier fighting the Romans are doing. With the frontiers fixed, we see more of two kinds of wars: first, migrating peoples impacting the Roman frontier and being rebuffed, and second, the Romans ranging forward out of the frontier to proactively break up potentially dangerous confederations or kingdoms.
In the first category, we have most notably the Marcomannic Wars, running from 166 to 180. In 162-165, the Chatti and Chauci attempted to break the Rhine frontier and were violently shoved back and in 167, an attempt by the Langobardi (read: Lombards) also failed. The main flare-up, with a confederation of Germanic peoples under the Marcomanni and the Quadi came starting in 169, with the Romans eventually defeating both by 180.
Also of note here are the Iazyges, who attempted to enter the empire and were beaten back in this period as well: these are our first type-two Fremen: true steppe nomads, having migrated off of the Eurasian Steppe. The Iazyges appear to be a subgroup of a larger population of Steppe nomads, the Sarmatians, who lived on the south-western end of the Eurasian steppe, above the Black Sea. The Sarmatians generally appear as often as auxiliaries in Roman armies as fighting against it, but in the event, efforts by the Sarmtians to violently force entry into the Roman Empire fail, with what was left of the Sarmatians seemingly trapped between the rock of Roman borders and the incoming Huns, leading to the end of the Sarmatians as an independent people.
These sorts of large-scale blow-ups are visible to us historically because they are documented by our sources and are the sort of thing that make their way into textbooks, but a lot of the Roman frontier would have also seen fairly continuous low-scale violence, in terms of raiding and counter-raiding. For instance, the Garamantes, a Saharan tribal confederation living south of Roman Tripolitania, fought at least three documented wars against the Romans (3BC-6AD; 17-24AD; 69AD), along with a probably continual raiding threat, to which the Romans responded by attacking out from the frontiers to force the Garamantes to make peace (a task made much more complicated by the lack of water; on this see my colleague G. Moss’ excellent UNC thesis, “Watering the Roman Legion” (2015)).
I want to briefly note, because we’ll come back to it, that it is around this point, in the first two decades of the second century AD that Tacitus is writing a series of works, the most notable for this series being the Germania, which uses the Germanic tribes as a sort of mirror for Tacitus to criticize the ways in which he felt that the Romans had become weak and morally diminished – as we’ll see, this is a very common use of the Fremen Mirage: to critique a supposedly ‘decadent’ civilization, with little regard for if the description of the supposed Fremen is at all accurate.
Subsequent efforts by another Germanic confederation on the Rhine, the Alemanni, to penetrate into the Roman Empire fail repeatedly, although they do cause damage. The Alemanni are repulsed in 259 by Gallienus, again in 271 by Aurelian, in 298 by Constantius, suffer a crushing defeat in 357 against Julian at Strasbourg, again in 368 by Valentinian and 378 by Gratianus and last of all – as the Empire collapses around them – in 457 they are again defeated, this time by Majorian. Safe to say, the Alemanni struggled to catch a break (they secured a chunk of the Rhine as the empire fell apart, only to be promptly rolled over by the Franks), but their repeated clashes with Roman forces give a real sense of how living in a relatively inaccessible place – in this case, the German forests beyond the logistics-reach of Roman forces – could allow for a lot of ‘at bats’ even if the success rate was very low. I also want to note what that would have meant for someone living among the Alemanni – generations of low-scale raiding which, when it escalates into major warfare, results in crushing defeats involving heavy casualties. The grief and misery of the first half-dozen failed invasions don’t instantly vanish because the next invasion didn’t fail.
But the danger the Alemanni posed is different in one way, which is that they are no longer a single tribe, but in fact a confederation of tribes under a king – that is, a nascent state – which is part of what makes them so dangerous. While the Romans often indulged in the Fremen Mirage as a rhetorical device, they seem to have well-recognized the threat that letting the non-state peoples on their borders coalesce into a state might pose, and made it a policy to stop it, most famously by crushing the nascent Dacian kingdom. A first war with the Dacians under Domitian (86-88) seems to have been fought to a draw (the sources suggest it as a Roman defeat, but they are very hostile to Domitian, and I think the evidence as it stands is better read as an inconclusive affair), followed up by crushing Roman victories under Trajan in 101-2 and 105-6.
Rome, with its vast frontier to protect, could not afford a second peer competitor (the first being Parthia, then replaced by the Sassanids) on the Rhine or the Danube, making it essential to break up any large tribal confederation or petty-kingdom early, before it could become a much larger early-state.
Kicking, Gouging and Screaming
At long last, we get to the part where the barbarians get to win some: the empire falls (in the West). I should note the section title here is borrowed from G. Halsall’s Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West (2008), where he describes the Western Empire going down, “kicking, gouging and screaming,” which has always struck me as an apt description. The western empire would manage to take a few of its tormentors down with it. The most notable of these of course, was the Hunnic Empire – while what was left of the empire in the West struggled to defeat it on the field (the Catalaunian Plains (451) probably should be read as a nasty draw), they did outlast Attila, and eastern Roman forces eventually mopped up the last Hunnic armies under Attila’s son Dengizich in 469, even as the Western Empire expired.
(As an aside, the fate of the post-Attila Huns is a great example of how the popular conception can be shaped by what we do not teach. I have had more than one student confidently tell me that “the Romans never beat the Huns” – which is nonsense. It’s arguable if the Romans beat Attila himself, but they crushed his heirs as his confederation broke up. Dengizich’s head was exhibited on a spear in Constantinople (ew, I know). The Romans definitely beat some Huns!)
But we’ve at least reached the part of the story most people are familiar with: with successful incursions of the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals and Franks leading to the disintegration of the empire in the West (less mentioned but also notable, the Suebi – still around! – set up in Spain and the Alemanni, after resolutely failing to catch a break in two centuries of warfare, occupy the agri decumates) Britain was abandoned and eventually invaded by the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. It is, I should note, hardly the case that all of these groups were successful all the time. Majorian’s four-years (457-461) are particularly notable for delivering a series of stinging defeats to Gothic and Burgundian armies, though this come-back was cut short by a coup and Majorian’s death. There was still fight left in the Western Roman Empire, even at that late date.
Of course, it also seems necessary to note that the Roman state – in its Eastern half – would survive all of these fellows. The Eastern Roman Empire outlasts the Goths, Huns and Vandals, but also the Rashidun Caliphate, the Umayyads, the Abbasids, the Fatamids, the Seljuks, and the Mongols. There’s certainly another series here sometime about how our distorted view of historical time creates a mirage of continuous Byzantine ‘decline,’ when the reality was periods of decline alternating with periods of resurgence and power. But for this post, we’ll stay with the Western Empire, which very much does collapse under pressure from in-migrating peoples in the fifth century.
But, as with Sparta, the ‘badass’ mystique falters a bit when we do some accounting. Our successful ‘Fremen’ invaders make a relatively short list and all in the (long) fifth century (the Gothic invasions begin in the fourth century with the Battle of Adrianople (378)). Even our very cursory look at Roman expansion and frontier maintenance has produced a fearsome graveyard of deposed petty-kings, massacred peoples and failed invasions (note that, to be able to fit it all, I had to make it an image, so you will need to have images enabled to see it):
Names in italics represent our truest of Fremen – horse nomads, either of the desert (the Garamates) or the steppe (everyone else). Names in Bold Red indicate peoples who were not only defeated and subjugated but, as far as we can tell, wiped out, either as an absolute genocide or by ending up being absorbed into other culture groups. Some of these – the Iazyges and the Sarmati – are arguable, but as tribal groups, I include them here because they do seem to have ceased being going concerns, trapped between the Romans and the Huns. I have also left out a lot of smaller groups who were clearly subjugated by the Romans, but didn’t have major wars associated with that process – if a really full accounting was made, this list would be a couple times longer (and this post would never come out).
We may count against that list our Fremen ‘winners:’
- Brennus’ Senones (390 B.C.)
- Alamanni (at long last catching a break, before being rolled by the Franks)
Now, I want to be very clear, this list isn’t some panegyric to the Romans. If anything, it should be deeply sobering about the tremendous violence, death and suffering the Roman Empire was built on. But it should also be suggestive of the real success rate – or more correctly, failure rate – experienced by non-state peoples, both settled and nomadic, when encountering supposedly ‘decadent,’ often professionalized state armies.
Some of my readers have suggested that the Fremen ideal may not be strength in numbers, but by being better individually (though they might still lose if outnumbered) – if so, the Roman experience dismantles that idea neatly. These victories were not a matter of Roman size or numbers – Roman armies, especially after Augusts – are almost always outnumbered by non-state adversaries, who can typically draw on a much larger percentage of their male population to fight. The Romans won, and won decisively, for so long through the normal expedient of long-successful empires: small, well-equipped, highly trained professional armies. Battles like Strasbourg (357) demonstrated that, even after the crisis, the Roman was – man for man – by far still the deadliest opponent on the battlefield.
But obviously the success-rate of our Fremen did change over time. Why? One conclusion which is now quite dominant in the scholarship – indeed, it practically screams from the pages of Ammianus Marcellinus, one of our key sources for the breakdown of order on the Rhine/Danube frontier – is that it was not that the Germanic peoples there had become ‘harder’ or ‘tougher,’ but rather that they had become more like the Romans (on this, note for instance J. O’Donnell’s Ruin of the Roman Empire (2009)). They had taken advantage of the Third Century Crisis to coalescence into much larger proto-states, under the rules of kings who often modeled their rule after Roman emperors and adopted or mimicked Roman administration and laws; they’d later co-opt the local Roman elite to run their new domains (see: Mathisen, Roman Aristocrats in Barbarian Gaul (1993)). They had adopted Roman equipment, and benefited from close proximity to Roman armies. In short, they had learned to beat the Romans, not from the hard ways of the deep forest, but from the Romans themselves, slowly closing the gap in both fighting quality and in state capacity.
The Fremen got better by being less Fremen.
Conclusion – Roman Decadence?
All of which brings us back to our second question: is there any pattern to Roman ‘decadence’ and military decline?
One thing I hope is made clear by the short italicized textboxes I’ve scattered throughout, is that the Romans complaining about ‘decadence’ clearly has no temporal connection to Roman decline. As soon as we have a Roman literary tradition (not counting fragments, we have almost no Latin literature before the mid-second century, where the tradition opens with, among other authors, M. Porcius Cato, a noted complainer about Roman decadence!), Roman elites are complaining about decadence – too much urbanism, too much eastern philosophy, too much wealth and luxury (ideas which, for the Romans, are linked by their opposition to the ideal of the morally pure, frugal, untutored Roman small-farmer).
Charting Roman wealth is difficult, but archaeology is helpful. We lack easy economic statistics for the ancient world, so we’re forced to rely on proxy data – often incomplete proxy data. One such approach, originally set out by A.J. Parker in Ancient Shipwrecks of the Mediterranean and the Roman Provinces (1992) and since updated quite heavily, is to use shipwrecks as a proxy for trade and thus economic activity and wealth. The reasoning being that more shipwrecks means more ships in the sea, which in turn shows more trade and economic activity, which in turn ought to mean greater wealth. That approach suggests rising wealth in the Roman world, reaching a stable peak from c. 100 B.C. to c. 100 A.D., and a lower, but still historically very high, equilibrium from c. 100 to c. 400 A.D. Greenland ice-core data, which can show atmospheric lead (a product of silver-smelting) suggests something very similar. Rates of urbanism and population growth also seem to broadly follow this trend.
(I should note that both of these methods have methodological complications. Shipwreck data is western-Mediterranean shifted, because there are more recreational divers off the coast of France than off the coast of Lebanon; it is also very sensitive to the shift from amphora to barrels, which may mean the sharp c. 100 A.D. drop-off is not so severe as the data suggests; it probably comes later too, perhaps c. 180 or 200. The atmospheric lead has a similar problem, since it shows a reduction in new minting, but does not reflect existing coin-stock being re-minted (a process which would not produce more atmospheric lead).)
Despite these problems, the great preponderance of our evidence – epigraphic, literary, archaeological – points to the same basic outline: a period of rising affluence in Italy in the Middle and Late Republic, followed by a long period of prosperity in the early empire, disrupted by the Crisis of the Third Century, with another period of economic stability – but at a lower level of prosperity – in the fourth century, followed by a collapse of living standards as the empire fell apart (on that last point, note Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (2005), a valuable corrective to some of the more positive views of the collapse of the empire in the West).
(I am here glossing over a number of major debates within the discussion of the ancient economy in terms of technological change and the distribution of this new affluence and its decline, because getting into those things would take a long time – probably another post-series – just to lay out the general character of the Roman economy. One of these days, I promise.)
To put it quite bluntly, no part of Roman military ‘decline’ follows this pattern. Rome’s military power was greatest when its wealth and urbanism was growing, and begins to decline in a period where the empire seems to have become somewhat more rural and poorer (though still quite wealthy and very urban by pre-modern standards). Likewise, the literary reports of declining Roman morals and military ability (as we’ll see next week, these are frequently equated by Roman writers) show no connection to either the patterns of Roman wealth accumulation or later military weakness. Sallust is writing two centuries before the height of Roman wealth and power under the Nerva-Antonines (the six emperors from 96 to 192, the first five of which are known as the ‘Five Good Emperors’ for the outstanding quality of their statesmanship). Tacitus and Suetonius, bemoaning the loss of Roman virtue, live at the beginning, not the end, of that long Roman summer of wealth, success and power.
The evidence thus simply doesn’t support that simplistic, popular vision of Roman history where in the Romans rise to power, become wealthy and prosperous, that wealth leads to moral decay, which leads to collapse – a simplistic vision which then becomes the essential second half of the Fremen Mirage as it lives in popular culture. The Fremen work – as we’ll see clearly next week – always as a counterpoint to the decadent, morally corrupt Corrinos and Harkonnens.
But the Roman experience also punches another hole in what we might call ‘decadence’ theory, which is the idea that once ‘decline’ sets it, it is irreversible. There is this common view of nations and empires aging like people do – at the beginning young and vigorous, then aging into maturity, and finally becoming old and weak, before passing away. And the assumption of the metaphor, often made explicit, is that – just as we cannot (yet) reverse aging in humans, the aging of states is unstoppable.
Rome’s bumpy history should caution us against such simplicity. Sallust is writing in the context of a real crisis – a decades long outbreak of civil war that nearly destroyed the Roman state. But it didn’t, and while Rome’s form of government changed (a lamentable change in my view), for most Romans, the best decades were ahead of them, not behind them. The century after the Third Century Crisis wasn’t a new golden age (for one thing, the Roman economy never seems to have been quite the same again), but it was a period of stability and – compared to most of the ancient or medieval world – wealth and prosperity.
Rome is, I should note, not the only state to seemingly reinvigorate and restore itself in this way: consider the contemporary Han Dynasty in China. That dynasty had controlled much of China for roughly two centuries when a combination of civil war, natural disasters (flooding), external pressure and wide-spread peasant rebellion nearly overcame it – but the empire bounced back, spent the first half of the first century putting things (mostly) back together and continued to be successful until the late second century (again, we should remind ourselves, centuries are long – this was no ephemeral recovery).
Decline is not inevitable, nor irreversible, and it does not appear to be the product of ‘good times.’ And the victory of the Fremen appears far from inevitable either, except, perhaps on time-scales so uselessly vast that they communicate nothing more incisive than that all things can collapse and that nothing lasts forever. That’s a true lesson, but not a new one, and when discussing the rise and fall of empires, it is about as probative as saying that, if you roll dice enough times, you will eventually roll snake eyes. Which – yes, you will, but that observation tells you nothing about why or when or what you might do about it, only that the laws of probability in the extreme long run have not yet been repealed.
Next week, we’ll take a deeper look into some of the narratives of both decadence and decline, as well as ‘Fremen’ virtue and valor. So far, it sure doesn’t seem like these visions of the past do a good job of explaining the history we see – perhaps they are an effort to say something else?