Collections: The Fremen Mirage, Part II: Water Spilled on the Sand

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.

The Romans in their Decadence by Thomas Couture (c. 1847), showing a visual expression of the idea of Roman decadence. I suppose it should go without saying, but basically nothing here is connected to any kind of reality at Rome. We’ll return to this painting – and the thinking it represents – next time.

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:

  1. Roman Expansion in Italy (509-265 B.C.), during which the Roman Republic consolidated control of the Italian Peninsula.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

A Samnite (?) or Campanian warrior on a squat lekythos. The ‘triple-disk’ style pectoral he wears is typical of fifth and fourth century armor in Central/Southern Italy. This piece is dated 350-330 B.C., originally from Campania, and is now in the British Museum (inv. 1986,0403.4)

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.

Detail from the Gundestrup Cauldron, showing Late La Tène period warriors; the Cauldron’s date is itself disputed, but probably c. 150-1 B.C.E. The warriors on the upper register on horseback appear to be mailed horseman with decorated helmets; a helm very much like the bird helm of the right-most rider has been found in Ciumești (the wings had hinges so when worn on horseback, the bird would appear to flap its wings). The lower status infantry below appear to wear only textile defenses.
The high quality of Gallic artwork like this – and the wealth at elite disposal it implies – should be taken to stress that the gap between early Rome and Gaul, while not inconsiderable, is smaller than is usually assumed.

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.

A Gallic warrior, featured on the Braganza Brooch, a golden fibula, third century B.C.E., now in the British Museum (inv. 2001,0501.1). Probably of Greek make, it seems to have been made for a Gallic patron, and the depiction of the Gallic warrior’s equipment is far more accurate than normal in Greek artwork.

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.

Via Wikipedia, a map of the Parthian and Roman Empires, c. 1 A.D. – I know it is in German, but I really like how this map gives a sense of both core territory, and peripheral clients and areas of influence. ‘Hard line’ maps of Roman frontiers in the East can be really deceptive. It also gives a real sense of how the Roman and Parthian Empires are similar in that respect.

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.

Via Wikipedia, a section of the Column of Marcus Aurelius, constructed sometime between 176 and 193, commemorating Marcus’ triumph of the Marcomanni, Quadi and Sarmati in 176. Like the older, more famous, less accessible and better preserved Column of Trajan, the spiral frieze shows the narrative of the campaign. If you’re in Rome, check this out, it is a thing to see, and frequently missed by tourists, because it isn’t on the Forum.

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.)
  • Visigoths
  • Ostrogoths
  • Vandals
  • Franks
  • Angles/Saxons/Jutes
  • 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.

Via Wikipedia, one graph of world lead production as based on the Greenland Ice Cores. For our purposes, this graph is fine, but I do want to note that, as a graph of global lead production, it is insufficient – unsurprisingly, Greenland or arctic ice-cores are more reflective of lead production near them, and so over-sample Europe and under-represent economic activity further away. So rather than world lead production, we might better label this ‘European and Mediterranean Lead Production.’

(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?

59 thoughts on “Collections: The Fremen Mirage, Part II: Water Spilled on the Sand

  1. Really interesting post. Do you have any sense of why so many Romans feared “decadence” and with it military weakness, when all the evidence suggests the opposite?


    1. Possibly they feared it so much they headed it off at the pass — they kept strong exactly because they kept on insisting on the danger of growing weak.


    2. Tentatively, “decadence” might be short-hand for “rule of the merely rich”. One secret to imperial Roman success is the general inability – most of the time – of the rich to gain and hold political power. They had political influence, of course, and dominated at the local level. But imperial power rested not on money but on the support of the army. Your classic successful emperor is a competent general from a middling provincial family.


      1. I think that’s a bit of an oversimplification of where emperors come from. The Julio-Claudians were fantastically rich. The Flavians perhaps less ultra-rich, but not provincial (Vespasian was from Italy). Nerva’s family was old Roman money, long in the Senate. Trajan was a soldier, born in Spain, but of a family of Italian citizen origin; his father was a Senator. Hadrian was also from a senatorial family, he came up through the civilian administration. Antoninus Pius was born in Italy, his family was consular in status, and he came up through the civilian career track. Marcus and Lucius were groomed for rule, both were from Italy, neither had a military background. Commodus was, of course, the son of the emperor, and so fantastically rich, and born in Italy.

        That gets us through the first 200 years of emperors – really only Trajan is a ‘competent general from a middling provincial family’ and even then ‘middling’ here is stretching the definition pretty far. No member of the Senate was middling – the wealth requirement to even sit in the Senate (1 *million* sesterces minimum, which to be clear, is a huge sum of wealth). Pliny, seemingly a typical Senator, had a net-worth apparently 20 times that, according to his letters.

        But it is true – some of the fantastically wealthy Romans were shut out of power because they hadn’t gone through the hoops of politics, displaying their administrative or military skills in lower offices to climb the rungs over generations. So in terms of “this ruling class is very traditional, and not merely nouveau-riche” – yes, absolutely.


      2. The statement about generals seems to hold more true after Commodus, once we get into the Crisis of the Third Century. (For Augustus through Commodus, Bret Devereaux addresses that in his comment.) This isn’t a good thing for Rome, though, as a big part of the Crisis years is local generals seizing power as warlords and marching on Rome to depose the current emperor, time after time after time, until a handful of particularly tough Illyrians climb their way to the top and establish themselves there for long enough to get some real work done.

        Although…I feel like it is weirdly relevant once we go forward another few hundred years, in the years after the big defeat at Adrianople. The Empire is split, the West is struggling, and one of the most capable men holding things together is the talented Stilecho, who is eventually murdered, partly because the primarily-Italian Senate thought him too “barbarian” to hold power over them.

        So, “decadence” to mean “rich, provincial aristocrats who excluded men of talent” seems to have kicked in hard there.

        It’s particularly strange to me because the burst of bigotry seemed to have come out of nowhere. Or maybe it was there for a long time but was only noted at this point because, however it started, wherever it came from, it backfired massively once Stilecho was murdered. Because among the *next* most successful men is Alaric, whose attempted uprisings against Rome had been repeatedly slapped down by Stilecho. Following the death of Stilecho, the Italians seemed to have gone on pogrom against anyone of Gothic descent, like Stilecho was, meaning that Alaric suddenly has a huge army of very angry former Roman citizens whose wives and children had just been murdered by the Romans.

        Meaning that he’s now in a rather stronger position to negotiate his position with the Imperial court at Ravenna than he was when Stilecho was alive. And when the Imperials reject him, he and his army proceeded to sack Rome itself as a negotiating tactic.

        So…”decadence”, arguably?


    3. “Really interesting post. Do you have any sense of why so many Romans feared “decadence” and with it military weakness, when all the evidence suggests the opposite?”

      Hypothesis: because the Romans learned almost everything they knew about philosophy from the Greeks, and for the Greeks anti-decadence was more or less a fetish of their philosophical tradition. From what I’ve heard others I trust say, the ancient Greeks had a very limited concept of what we might call cause and effect in the realm of statecraft. Beyond the most overt things (“outnumbering your enemies helps”), they would routinely attribute almost everything to divine favor or to the personal manly virtues of the men of the ‘polis’ being discussed.

      For example, if a knowledgeable modern person discusses why Athens was a powerful city in ancient Greece, they will probably begin with: (1) Athens being a major commercial port, and (2) Athens having its own silver mine. These are geographic advantages inherent to Athens’ location, which had effectively nothing to do with the Athenians themselves. Regardless of how the Athenians governed themselves, or what their culture was, they would probably have done pretty well for themselves under the circumstances. It might have gone better or worse at the margin, but they’d still probably have been a naval powerhouse with the money to be a big player in Greek city-state politics.

      By contrast, if you asked an ancient Athenian why Athens was powerful, they would probably begin with something like: (1) Athens honors the gods properly, (2) the city’s cultural customs like not letting women have ‘too much’ influence, (3) the city’s democracy makes it better because [reasons], (4) the citizens are more personally virtuous than those cheese-eating ____-ians, and so on. The items “Oh yeah we have a great harbor and we happened to strike silver X years ago” would probably not be high on the list.

      The Greeks were *huge* on congratulatory patting of themselves on the backs for having greater MANLY VIRTUE than their enemies. It’s why the Spartans kept getting grudging or not-so-grudging admiration; everyone just accepted that the reason they kept winning battles was because they were ‘better.’

      Correspondingly, it’s hard to imagine any Greek writing something like Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” and indeed I suspect “The Prince” is best understood as a deliberate antidote to the influence of a bunch of classical Greeks and medieval monks lecturing rulers (in writing) on how the way to be a successful ruler is to be personally virtuous and austere and/or manly. Machiavelli is on some level saying “no, don’t just think about that, think about how your actions will be seen by the public, think about who you are giving power to and what they’ll use it for, and so on.”

      The Romans, of course, inherited all of this philosophical tradition. Moreover, the reasons why Rome, seemingly one city-state among many, kept thriving and becoming more powerful are actually rather complicated and ARE tied up to some extent in Roman culture, fighting styles, and government, as opposed to being something simple like “they were perched on a literal mountain of gold.”

      Thus, it is unsurprising that the Romans became, culturally speaking, obsessed and anxious with preserving their MANLY VIRTUE. Their only real literate philosophical tradition told them that the only way to remain strong was MANLY VIRTUE and that MANLY VIRTUE was constantly under threat from normal human behaviors like sexual promiscuity, drinking too much wine, taking hot baths, or whatever. Literate men being literate men, it is unsurprising that they kept writing treatises on how the current generation was a bunch of enervated beta males compared to the imagined MANLY VIRTUE of the Germans or whoever.


      1. I suspect that it had something to do with the nature of Roman Republic.
        Basically, I suspect that many Roman elites were on some level worried about Rome being a brittle coalition held together by perception of invincibility and expectation of future profitable conquests and loot. They feared they were riding a tiger – and if they showed any weakness, this might result in Roman allies, neutrals and parts of Roman society turning on Rome.
        Does the Roman critizism make sense in view of this kind of fear?
        Also, I posted some comments on a thread at Sufficient Velocity. Do you prefer to discuss here or there?


  2. Most enjoyable and very informative to a historical layman like me.
    However, I spotted what I think are errata, as set out below:
    “… is that this Mirage has too parts …” should be “two parts”?
    “… has mean that it retains this iron grip …” should be “meant”?
    “… – I have chosen, I’d argue …” Superfluous dash?
    “… Rome’s fortunes within non-state peoples …” should be “with”?
    “…non-state or pro-state peoples …” should be “proto-state”?
    “… above the black sea …”. Capitalization?
    “… once graph of world lead production …”???


  3. And yet, the Roman gladius is, quite evidently, not at all dulled by these ‘good times.’

    I’m not so sure, at least when it comes to the late second century. Rome eventually won its late second century wars, but it seems to have struggled to do so, and the Numantine, Cimbrian, and Jugurthine wars all opened with humiliating Roman defeats. (One could potentially add the Social War to this list, although that’s complicated by the fact that the rebellion seems to have taken Rome by surprise, so we’d expect them to initially struggle to win anyway.) It’s certainly possible to argue that the Roman army of this period underperformed relative to the first half of the second century (as, e.g., Goldsworthy does, although he attributes this decline to Roman complacency after their previous successes rather than anything decadence-related).

    Roman arms do seem to have done better in the first century and early principate, although if we’re considering “hard times make hard men…”, the century of civil war between the Gracchi and Augustus would probably count as a “hard time”, so an improvement in military performance is what we would expect, if the meme is accurate.

    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.

    The obvious rejoinder would be that, by the imperial period, Roman armies were no longer being drawn mainly from the “civilised” Italian and Greek core of the Empire, but from more “barbaric” peoples, either from less Romanised provinces like Illyria or (especially in the 5th century) from peoples beyond the Roman frontier. In other words, whilst the Romans did indeed rely on “small, well-equipped, highly trained professional armies”, these armies were generally manned by the more Fremen-ish of the European peoples.


    1. You seem to be conflating the early/high imperial army with the late imperial army, to the detriment of your argument.

      The army of the early and even high empire is still substantially Roman – citizenship was not universal until the Constitutio Antoniniana (212) and citizenship was a requirement for service in the legions (as opposed to the auxilia; on this, note Haynes, Blood of the Provinces (2013)). This neatly coincides with the period of most extreme Roman qualitative advantage. Note that, in terms of the organization and composition of the Roman army from 235-305 we are basically blind.

      By contrast, the ‘Fremenization’ of the Roman army comes in the *late* Empire, and mostly in the Western Empire. The explosion of Foederati is after Adrianople (378). Those foederati-heavy armies are the *least* comparatively effective Roman armies – both compared to their less-Fremen forerunners and compared to the less-Fremen Eastern Roman armies (note: not saying the East didn’t use foederati, just that they used a lot less of them, relying still quite heavily on troops from within the empire). This is, after all, the period where Roman armies fail to hold the frontiers and collapse in the West. So the most Fremen Roman armies are the ones that lose!

      On the first point: I find it hard to square an argument that the Roman army of the late second century BC actually under-performed in any absolute sense, given that it wins functionally all of its wars. Does it lose some battles? Sure, the Romans always lost some battles. Was it relatively less successful than the armies in the miracle-century from 250 to 150? Of course, but that’s hardly a fair benchmark. As you have no doubt noted, I find the question of achieving strategic objectives much more important: the Romans consistently achieve strategic objectives in this period.


      1. The army of the early and even high empire is still substantially Roman – citizenship was not universal until the Constitutio Antoniniana (212) and citizenship was a requirement for service in the legions (as opposed to the auxilia; on this, note Haynes, Blood of the Provinces (2013)). This neatly coincides with the period of most extreme Roman qualitative advantage. Note that, in terms of the organization and composition of the Roman army from 235-305 we are basically blind.

        Roman citizenship was a requirement for service in the legions, but that doesn’t mean that recruits had to come from Italy itself. At least by the high empire, if not before, it seems that by far the majority of legionaries were recruited from provincial citizens rather than people from Italy.

        On the first point: I find it hard to square an argument that the Roman army of the late second century BC actually under-performed in any absolute sense, given that it wins functionally all of its wars. Does it lose some battles? Sure, the Romans always lost some battles. Was it relatively less successful than the armies in the miracle-century from 250 to 150? Of course, but that’s hardly a fair benchmark. As you have no doubt noted, I find the question of achieving strategic objectives much more important: the Romans consistently achieve strategic objectives in this period.

        Rome by the late second century BC had crushed all its peer competitors, and so could afford to keep throwing armies at enemies until it either ground them down or got lucky. That doesn’t mean that the Roman army wasn’t underperforming, only that Rome now had enough wealth and manpower to compensate for its underperformance. And I’m not sure why comparing Roman performance in this period with the previous period is so unfair — if anything, the fact that Rome post-150 struggled so much against much weaker opponents illustrates that its army had declined from its early-mid-republican peak.


      2. I think some of the folks who argue in favor of late-roman decadence point towards the existence of Foederati at all as a sign of the collapse of civic/military virtue. Despite still controlling a vast citizen population, the late Romans don’t seem to have to ability to raise citizen formations at the same rate as their late republican/early principate predecessors. Increased use of conscription, relaxed physical standards, and compulsory recruitment of soldier’s sons seem to point towards a lower willingness to serve among the Roman people. The jump in severity for punishments for desertion also points towards a substantial desertion problem. How do you explain this manpower crisis?


      3. I think that’s a good point- “do you win wars” is more relevant than “did you have some humiliating defeats during the wars.”

        Especially since if we’re talking about the Fremen myth and the idea that the Romans were winning wars because of superior MANLY VIRTUE, then obviously having MANLY VIRTUE does not magically confer the ability to win every battle. Even within the Fremen myth, the MANLY VIRTUOUS guys lose a lot of the battles and this is just shrugged off as ‘eh, the other guys were lucky or sneaky or had us outnumbered.’

        If greater MANLY VIRTUE confers the ability to defeat ‘dissolute decadent effeminate’ enemies, and conversely if Roman decadence at a given moment in time was making them vulnerable, you would gauge this not by whether they occasionally won or lost a battle, but by who won the war.

        Even within the framework of the Fremen myth, if we accept it uncritically… being more MANLY VIRTUOUS is far more likely to ensure victory in war (by giving you more soldiers, by giving you soldiers who are more inured to the hardships of campaign, by giving you leaders who will remain resolute in defeat), than to ensure victory in a single battle (where you might be defeated by bad luck or an enemy strategem).


  4. “its presence in 19th and early 20th century scholarship – notably Edward Gibbon – has meant that it retains this iron grip on the popular conception of Rome”

    The broader point is sound but, uh… Edward Gibbon (8 May 1737 – 16 January 1794).


    1. So, 1) you seem to be misreading the conclusions of this paper? Quoth the conclusion “The real wage evidence supports a guardedly optimistic view of Roman living standards” – which is hardly the same as bare minimum subsistence, again, “the Roman workers in Diocletian’s time was doing about as well as most workers in 18th century Europe or Asia.” That’s quite a lot better than bare minimum subsistence.

      What Allen does not note is that the Roman economy under Diocletian is *not* healthy and happy, but in fact undergoing a sharp inflationary crisis caused by Diocletian’s mismanagement of the currency – a crisis this edict was supposed to, but did not, resolve (but which did largely level out in a few decades, particularly with the growing prevalence of the solidus). We might then conclude (see silver-weight notes below) that life during the best times of the Roman Empire was quite a bit better, perhaps comparable to the period directly after the Black Death, except without, you know, losing 25%o of the population.


      2) Oh my there are a lot of methodological problems with this paper.

      Using the Price Edict this way is risky (as Allen himself acknowledges, briefly, in his conclusion) – it’s not clear the edict was ever effectively enforced (price controls rarely are) or how attached it was to any kind of reality. Diocletian is trying – and failing – to control wild inflation created by his own bungling of the currency (this effort doesn’t work). The attempt to convert into silver-weight isn’t sound – again, the inflationary crisis and the recent (three-ish months prior) devaluation of the nummus throws everything into chaos, but should also convey the striking degree to which this analysis is fixed at a moment of economic dislocation – the daily-wage at 1.16g of silver is about a third of the same silver-weight daily wage in the first century AD (where the daily wage of a laborer is routinely given as 1 denarius per day; c. 3.5g of silver at that time).

      The method here of taking a wage which is money+food (a common formula in the ancient world), converting it to a pure money measure and then trying to back-compare it to a basket of goods from the Price Edict is also a problem – huge chunks of these goods would be provided as part of the maintenance, not paid out of the wage, and the back-conversion from the grain-value is basically a ‘worst case’ scenario.

      The heavy reliance on Duncan-Jones is striking. Duncan-Jones is one of the last of the hard-primitivists, so his vision of the Roman economy tends towards the sharply pessimistic – here he is not tempered with matching sets of modernists, outside of the introduction (which dismisses their methods). Duncan-Jones is a solid scholar, but one with a particular view which really hasn’t been the view of the field since the 90s.

      The respectability basket for the Romans is keyed to the Northern European basket, rather than generated from anything like ancient evidence. I think the heating-fuel assumptions are unrealistic for an empire whose population was concentrated on the warmer Mediterranean (the figures he uses are calculated for Northern Europe). Likewise assumptions about lamp-oil and candles are out of place for this kind of society (and the lamp oil is a huge part of his basket). Famously, as David Potter notes, one of the problems with the Edict is that it was constructed without any allowance for different regions.

      As an interesting thought experiment, the paper has some value, but as a solid data-point in discussing the economic well-being of a society…substantially less so. As someone whose research works directly in ancient price data and costs – the data we get are hard to work with and there are a lot of hazards, some of which trip up this otherwise interesting effort. But I would not treat Allen’s findings as a fixed data-point.


      1. Ad 1, Allen’s other work argues for low living standards in most of Europe and Asia in the 18c, e.g. here re Europe. In non-Britain, non-Low Countries Europe, wages were above subsistence – the standard he’s using in this paper is more generous than the one in his later papers about Asia or the one I linked about the Price Edict, though still on the austere side – but steadily declining. And at least elsewhere in his comparative work, Allen does take into account different heating needs in Northern vs. Southern Europe.

        The inflationary crisis obviously means Rome would not have been as prosperous as in the 1st century, but still, we have decent data about what happens to real wages in more recent inflationary crises, and they don’t collapse from 15c Europe to bare subsistence. In the 16c and early 17c, inflation caused by the imports of silver did not lead to a collapse in Spanish living standards, merely a slow decline that continued into the subsequent period of deflation. And modern hyperinflation can destroy a lot of value, but again, not to the extent of cutting real living standards by a factor of 2-3.


  5. I find it interesting that to you “it is the horse which provides the core of the way of life” for “our true Fremen.” To me the most archetypical Fremen in the real world are the Bedouin, who notably do not fit that description. But then, almost all of my (ahem) “knowledge” of the real Bedouin comes from popular depictions rather than from reliable sources. Maybe they do not fit the Fremen mirage at all.


    1. Horses have long been extremely important for Bedouins (where do you think “Arabian horses” came from?). Admittedly, the fact that they also make extensive use of (exotic! unusual!) camels probably contributes to popular depictions.


  6. Thanks for this! Great article dismantling the myths about the Fall of Rome, will be good to point to it next time someone starts talking nonsense.

    Regarding Frank Herbert’s Fremen in particular, I think it’s complicated by the way that Dune is essentially Lawrence Of Arabia In Space. Harkonnens are Germans, Oil is Spice, Atreides are British and Fremen are Arabs. So the Fremen are a mixture of general twentieth century stereotypes, T.E. Lawrence’s romanticisations, and Frank Herbert’s own imagination.

    I always read it as a kind of uneasily quasi-eugenecist thing. Not so much that the Fremen and Sardaukar are societies that have been toughened by hardship, but naturally selected to be quicker, stronger, faster and tougher in a way that matters when shields have made swordfighting the main form of combat.

    After your other posts I’m now wondering what the most effective tactics would really be in a world of shields against fast-moving objects. Rather than dramatic melees, you’d think some kind of shield wall would be more effective. Or tanks just crushing them, though maybe they’re too big to be shielded.


    1. About tanks crushing shield walls: if tanks can’t engage infantry from a respectable distance, they are usually in trouble. I think the battles would be a mixture of hand-to-hand combat and motorized transportation at the tactical and operational levels. Herbert also suggests that there are weapons designed to counter shields (stunners) but that they are unreliable and that, rather than kill, they deliver chemicals meant to incapacitate the enemy, thus increasing the odds of winning the ensuing melee.

      Concerning the actual Fremen in Dune, they are very much “type 2” Fremen. Interestingly, they aren’t a problem for the rest of the Universe until “The Chosen One” turns their the scattered tribes into a unified force. Then, they “unleash the Jihad”. So, essentially, Dune is less Lawrence of Arabia, more Genghis Khan – The Early Years.


      1. Good point about tanks, a grenade or limpet mine could disable them at close range. Which might also explain the lack of shield-walls. If the heat or pressure wave of a grenade can penetrate a force-shield, you wouldn’t want to bunch up. The good old Breaking Into A Confused Melee might actually be the best way to fight!


      2. “If the heat or pressure wave of a grenade can penetrate a force-shield”

        This isn’t required for infantry to be effective against tanks. The *grenade* can penetrate the field. The shock wave travels at the speed of sound, so it should qualify as “fast mover” and be repelled.

        I strongly disagree that “Breaking Into A Confused Melee” might be optimal. It’s a terrible way to fight in any case. You might use a looser or tighter formation, but allowing enemies behind you is never a good idea in close combat.


  7. I have nothing particular to add to this post, but just wanted to leave a brief comment on how much I’m enjoying reading through the archives of the blog. Looking forward to future installments of this series.


  8. I don’t have much to say, but I’m perplexed why popular Roman history is so much about Julius Gaius Caesar and emperors. Popular images and animations are invariably of emperors, and mentions of republic are often just single isolated sentences. It’s something you barely hear about in the West, much like Chinese history.


      1. I’m not sure it’s the Catholic Church, or even the Orthodox Church, that’s responsible for the Roman Empire being better known than the Republic — if it was, then the late Empire would surely loom larger in the popular imagination, because that’s the period when the Church became important, all the famous Ecumenical Councils took place, and so on.

        Rather, I think it’s because the late Republic/early Empire is both better documented, and also produced most of the famous Roman writers. Cicero, Caesar, Lucretius, Catullus, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Propertius, Livy, Sallust — all of them were active in the last decades of the Republic or the first years of the Principate. Hence when most people think of Rome, it’s the Rome these authors lived in and wrote about that comes to mind. This also means that Western nations seeking to emulate the trappings of ancient Rome have often emulated the trappings of this period specifically, and even the republics tended to emulate the late Republic, in aesthetics if not (hopefully) in political stability.


        1. Well, there are plenty of writers from later eras, but they tend to be referred to as Christian, not Roman. (Augustine, for instance.) At least some of the writers pushing that lot of the important Roman writers were motivated by anti-Christian bigotry.


      2. At least some of the writers pushing that lot of the important Roman writers were motivated by anti-Christian bigotry.

        Erm… pretty much all of those writers were extremely popular in Medieval Europe, and even more so during the Renaissance. Basically none of the Medieval and Renaissance scholars and writers can plausibly be called “anti-Christian bigots”, not least because being anti-Christian would have been extremely hazardous to their health.


        1. Medieval times were also big on later Roman authors — I recommend C.S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image — so they lacked the focus cited as the reason for the focus on that era.


    1. I agree. Everyone loves to discuss the Fall of Rome, hardly anyone talks about the Rise of Rome. How did they systematically defeat all their rivals? Why didn’t the other advanced militaries of the Hellenistic world just copy their tactics?


      1. Much of what we know about the Rise of Rome is simply a pack of lies made up after a sack of the city burned a lot of records. Makes it hard to trust.


    2. I’m perplexed why popular Roman history is so much about Julius Gaius Caesar and emperors.

      As theoriginalmrx pointed out, a great deal of classic (so to speak) Roman literature and historical writing is from the late Republic/early Empire. In addition, it was the Empire which fell, not the Republic, so when people in later centuries looked backward to what was thought of as the lost golden age of Rome, it was the Empire they naturally thought of. Similarly, political projects aimed at “restoring” the Empire, since that was what had been most clearly lost — hence things like the Holy Roman Empire. (You do find some later writers, like Machiavelli, who express nostalgia for the Republic and thought things had gone downhill starting with Julius Caesar.)


      1. I should note that the level of interest in the Late Republic vs. the Early Empire has waxed and waned over time. In the Middle Ages, quite a lot of energy was directed at the Empire, because the question of ideal Lordship or Kingship was so important. By contrast, as we get to the Enlightenment, the writings of Republican authors (as well as Greek writers) comes to the fore, because thinkers are interested in what makes a good Republic.


    3. Just my hypothesis: The early roman empire was also the period of time when Jesus and Paul were active in the Biblical New Testament, and so, are especially interesting for Christian scholars


      1. Speaking as someone who knows a lot of these scholars – interesting hypothesis, but, alas, no, not really.

        The bulk of the material we have is from the late republic and the early empire; scholars study the period because that’s where the most evidence – by *far* – is located. The material there is thick not because it was associated with Christianity, but because of the opinion of subsequent generations that this was the ‘best’ era of literature, and thus the most worth preserving primarily for Greek and Latin instruction.

        That reputation – the canon of authors whose quality made them worthy textbooks of proper Latin and Greek – was largely set by the second century AD, largely by pagan Roman and Greek writers (fellows like Fronto) who cared quite little for Christianity one way or the other.


  9. Isn’t it somewhat loading the argument to use Rome, by any line of reasoning one of the most successful empire in antiquity? By definition, it didn’t fall to “barbarians” early on!

    Meanwhile, if we look at Mesopotamia, getting taken down by rougher outsiders (who move in to rule, rinse and repeat) seems to be the order of the day. A lot of that in China too.


    1. I’d actually say that Mesopotamia is more the exception. China is fully ruled from the outside only twice (Yuan and Qing) in the 2200 years from the founding of the Han. India has the Mughals (and, to a lesser extent, the Timurids), of course, but the Mughals aren’t, by that point, very ‘Fremen,’ and most of India’s other threats were states (Alexander, the British, etc.). In terms of the frequency of non-state in-migration in the historical period, the Mediterranean experience is, I’d say, broadly typical. Such in-migration happens, but with centuries in between where state-on-state threats predominate.

      It is Mesopotamia that is unusual, and no surprise – it is sandwiched between arid zones and highlands, the areas where, as noted in the first post, states cannot go. And it is completely denuded of any kind of natural border against movements by the peoples who live in those places (the desert will stop states, but not desert nomads). And, of course, for large-scale East-to-West migration, it is one of the only transit options, and by far the more attractive one. You can see those factors clearly in the arid-zone/oikumene map from Chase (2003). And yet, of course, Mesopotamia spends a lot of time being ruled by distinctly un-Fremen states – from Persia (Achaemenids, Parthians, Sassanids, Safavids) or from Anatolia (Ottomans, who while they started as Steppe nomads, didn’t stay that way).

      So I’d argue it is Mesopotamia that is the special case: a uniquely vulnerable patch of land.


  10. Comparisons of China and Europe tend to neglect the fact that China is about as large as Europe. So “fully ruled” is doing a bit of work here. Outsiders have taken over large parts of north China (eg the Tuoba 396-496) and heavily influenced Chinese culture (Chinese tend to downplay this). Not quite Fremen – these groups were organised and, although they drew on nomads often had other contingents as well. India is also a very large area – no-one brings it all under one rule until the British. North and Central India are ruled by various Iranian, Afghan, Turkic and other groups at least from Mahmud of Ghazni (11th century). Of course in both cases the rulers were absorbed over time into Sinitic or Indian cultures – but then Mesopotamia was also quite good at educating the barbarians.


  11. I’m not sure why sedentary farmers would necessarily be “softer” than nomads.
    Their day-to-day survival depends on working a grueling amount of hours with a poor diet.


  12. “tremendous violence, death and suffering” is actually the requirement for survival. And that is where state shines: it is an *organized system* of delivering said violence, death and suffering. Not nice, maybe, but that is reality. When you abandon violence, you soon lose existence.


  13. What do you think of the idea that when the Senones sack Rome after the Battle of the Allia in 390 BCE, the Romans are still almost “Fremen” themselves. It’s not “Fremen” vs decadent Romans, but rather “Fremen” Gauls vs “Fremen” Romans. As with the Parthians, the Senones appear to be almost peer competitors.


    1. Honestly, I think our source-base is insufficient to make those kinds of determinations. Livy is pretty honest: he’s mostly in the dark before 390. There’s the rare foedus or such that survives, but otherwise, Livy is prone to anachronism and he just has basically nothing to go on but unreliable legends before the Samnite Wars.


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