This is Part IIIa of our four-part series (I, II) looking at what I’ve termed the ‘Fremen Mirage.’ We defined the core tenets of this pop-historical notion in more detail in the first post, that hard times and hard lands lead to moral purity and combat effectiveness, while good times, wealth and luxury lead to moral decay and military ineffectiveness (and the consequent assumption that history is an alternating cycle of the two). In our first post, we looked at the interaction of our ‘hard time’ Fremen – our less settled, less wealthy, less complex or specialized societies – and the rise of farmers and the state (the wealthier, more settled, more complex societies), but found that, as far as we could see in the mists of pre-history, it was actually the farmers and their states who tended to triumph militarily, and reap the rewards of controlling the resource-rich zones.
Last week, we expanded that focus by taking a pre-modern case study in the form of Rome’s experience with a variety of non-state ‘Fremen,’ including both true nomads and settled but less complex non-state agrarian societies. We found that there was no clear connection between rising wealth and Roman decline and that, perhaps more to the point, far from being militarily superior, the ‘Fremen’ – of all types – typically lost, with only a handful of famous exceptions. While we will turn to some very notable exceptions the week after next, it seems that the Fremen Mirage’s idea of history does a pretty poor job of actually describing the historical processes we see in the evidence.
Now, I want to be clear, this isn’t saying that the Fremen never win. Clearly, they sometimes do! But the normal form of the Fremen Mirage is much stronger than simply saying that ‘Fremen’ societies sometimes win – instead it argues that Fremen societies are inherently superior, and thus more likely to win overall, or at least that the greatest threat to settled societies are these non-state peoples, rather than peer-competitors. And, what I hope I’ve begun to show is that when you actually dig into the security situation of a region, we find that while the Fremen sometimes win, they usually lose (although their success rate varies by time and region and in some cases is quite high; we’ll talk about some of the most successful Fremen – Steppe nomads – next time), relying on the inaccessibility of their homelands to fight another day. Moreover, when there are states to be worried about – peer competitors for our ‘decadent’ settled non-Fremen – those are almost always larger and more immediate threats than the Fremen (this is, perhaps, most obvious during periods of disunity in China – e.g. Spring and Autumn, Warring States, Three Kingdoms, Five Dynasty periods).
But of course, that begs the question: if this idea is a poor guide to history, then where does it come from? Why is it such a fixture in the popular imagination – especially in the West – despite apparently being mostly inaccurate?
For the Dune fans, the title has already given away the answer. The history of the Fremen in the Dune universe was never written by the Fremen, it was written by Irulan, one of the decadent aristocrats (I know that doesn’t quite do justice to Irulan’s character, particularly in Children of Dune, but I want to place her upbringing and mentality quite clearly). Indeed, the Dune universe’s Fremen’s own recollection of their own past is not one of military excellence and triumph, but of failure and exile – not a great surprise given the poor track record of our real-world Fremen. And of course, the real writer of the history of the Fremen, Frank Herbert, was one of the least Fremen folks – a professional writer, deeply interested in decidedly un-Fremen (one might say, decadent) pursuits like philosophy and ecology.
And so it goes for the real world. The most influential accounts of Fremen (read: ‘barbarian’) moral virtue and military skill were written not by them, but by their settled neighbors. More to the point, on a fundamental level, those writings were never about the Fremen, but – if you’ll permit me to extend the metaphor – they were always by Irulan, writing about the Houses Corrino and Atreides (or Herbert, writing to and about Americans – that is, about the ‘decadent’ society), using the Fremen as a tool to make a point, with, as we will see, often little regard for how accurate that depiction of the Fremen was.
So we’re going to take a look through some of the most influential of those representations, starting at the very beginning of the discipline of history.
Now, this post (much like the last one) has run a little long, so I’ve opted to split it in two, sub-parts a and b. This week, we’ll be looking at the Greek and Latin tradition and the way it sets the essential mold for the Fremen Mirage. Next week, we’ll briefly consider alternate traditions (the comments will finally get their Ibn Khaldun), before looking at the modern reception of the idea and the conditions that led to its rise in popularity. I want to note that why I’m looking at these specific authors is something we’ll address next week – but I promise there is a reason I am featuring the authors I am with the prominence that I am.
Herodotus and his Mirror
I want to begin by explaining a matter of focus. I am mostly going to focus this brief run-through of the intellectual history of the Mirage on the Western intellectual tradition (with a brief foray into Ibn Khaldun next week because he’s neat and also rather exceptional). That’s not because the Western tradition has a monopoly on this reductive view of history (it doesn’t), or because it is somehow better, but because our starting point for this investigation – an internet-fueled pop-historical vision of history summed up in our meme at the beginning of the first post – is spelled out in English and rooted in that Western tradition and so often owes more of its folly to Herodotus, Sallust and Tacitus than it does Ibn Khaldun or Ibn al-Athir (both of which, to be clear, are fascinating and on the ‘to do’ list for the ‘A Walk Through’ series).
And so our starting point is Herodotus, a fellow we have met in passing before. Herodotus’ work, The Histories is broadly split into two parts, a series of ethnographic detailed the peoples of the known world, and a narrative of the events of the Greco-Persian wars (as we’ll see, the two parts are not separate at all, but fundamentally linked). Herodotus is also – arguably – the first historian, so this idea goes back all the way to the beginning of the field. Herodotus, in his ethnographic section, sets up a contrast that will seem very familiar, between the wealthy, cosmopolitan Persian empire, under Darius I (r. 522-486) and a nomadic steppe people, the Scythians, who lived North of the Black Sea. Darius I, riding high on a tide of decades of Persian victories and conquests over Near Eastern empires, invades the lands of the Scythians in 513.
As Herodotus tells it, the invasion fails (although modern historical treatments tend to regard it as a bit more of a messy draw, with both sides achieving some, but not all, of their objectives). The mobility of the Scythians – as primarily steppe nomads (although they did seem to have some cultivated land) allows them to evade Persian armies, engage in scorched earth tactics, and slowly exhaust the hitherto (in Herodotus’ narrative) unstoppable Persian military juggernaut. Herodotus presents this surprising victory as a consequence of many of the factors we’ve identified with the Fremen: the Scythians have few fixed settlements to attack (so their lack of settlement makes them difficult to defeat), but also that they have a tough morality and a high value for fighting skill which makes them fiercer warriors than the Persians. But it is also a consequence of what Herodotus presents as the deleterious influence of the prizes of victory – luxury, pomp, alcohol and women all combined to weaken the originally hard and sharp Persians.
And so we appear to have our first appearance of the Fremen Mirage, at least in the Western canon.
But, of course, Herodotus isn’t a Scythian, and he isn’t primarily writing about the Scythians, he’s writing about the Greeks. This is the remarkable contribution of François Hartog’s landmark work Le Miroir d’Hérodote. Essai sur la représentation de l’autre (1980; conveniently available in translation as The Mirror of Herodotus, trans. J. Lloyd). Hartog spotted that the invasion of Scythia is made to parallel the Persian’s later invasion of Greece; the Scythian willingness to leave their homes and become nomadic sits as a parallel to the Athenian willingness to abandon Athens for their fleet in order to carry on the war; the Scythian focus on military glory is a precursor to Herodotus’ own fascination – discussed here – with Greek military virtue. Individual episodes are paralleled between the two accounts (which naturally raises questions about the degree to which Herodotus has bent the unfamiliar Scythian story to match the familiar Greek events his audience would know). Indeed, Herodotus’ own description of the Scythians isn’t even consistent, with them being partly agrarian one moment, and yet fully nomadic the next. Herodotus, of course, had never been to Scythia, and his knowledge of their customs and society is somewhat limited (note: it isn’t zero, he’s not making it up, but Herodotus never lets the truth get in the way of a good story) – for instance his suggestion that only Scythian royalty are buried is quite clearly wrong, although interestingly the manner of burial appears to be correct.
Because one of the main thrusts of Herodotus’ work is the construction of a Greek identity. By and large, prior to the Persian wars – and prior to Herodotus’ own writings – the Greeks do not seem to have broadly considered themselves one people. One was an Athenian, or a Theban, or what have you, far more than one was a Greek. By building a contrast with the strange customs of other lands, Herodotus emphasizes the sameness of Greek customs – the unity which will, in the climax of the tale, focused on the Persian Wars, prove decisive. So he is creating a Greek identity through contrasts – contrasts with the Persians (who, at least by the time of Darius I and Xerxes, fit the role of the ‘decadent’ society) and with the Scythians (the Fremen so impossibly barbaric they don’t even have cities at all!), with the Greeks presented, so it seems, as the ideal balance between the extremes – both ‘civilized’ (cities, writing, etc) and at the same time, tough and warlike.
Herodotus’ account of the Scythians and the Persians was thus never about them, it was about the Greeks, that’s Herodotus’ mirror in The Mirror of Herodotus. The point was never about describing the Scythians – accurately or otherwise – but describing the Greeks, and commenting on their society.
I also want to flag here a gendered component of the Greek image – imagination really – of the Persians, and thus of the idea of the ‘decadent’ society. Now, ‘gendered component’ sounds like scary academic jargon, but all it means is “this thing, which is not directly related to masculinity and femininity, is nevertheless expressed through those ideas.” While Herodotus represents the initial Persian society – the society of Cyrus II which started the empire – as hard and appropriately manly, he doesn’t extend this to the Achaemenid Empire of his own day. How else could the remarkable Persian successes of the 500s be explained in light of the military failures of the early fifth century (it seems necessary to note here: failures from the Greek perspective – the Achaemenid Empire was still, even after the Greco-Persians wars, vast and powerful, and its influence would be greater, not lesser, by 370 than it had been in 500!)? In Herodotus’ view, success in fighting was “the chief proof of manliness” (Hdt. 1.136).
But – again, according to Herodotus (and note how this fits his own agenda in writing) – the wealth of Persian court life leads to polygamy (Hdt. 3.2; 1.135), the presence and prominence of ‘too many’ women (Hdt. 7.187; note also Atossa, Hdt. 3.133ff), the embrace of foreign luxuries (Hdt 1.135), and consequent defeat at the hands of the Greeks, which Herodotus has no less a figure than Xerxes himself express in gendered form: “my men have become women and my women, men” (Hdt. 8.88). Indeed, the trope of effeminate Persian men, sometimes contrasted with ‘manly’ elite or royal Persian women, is a fairly common topos of subsequent Greek literature, contrasted with supposedly manly Greek men (I can’t help but note that humor that the Romans will employ this very trope against the Greeks – cf. for instance Cic. de Oratore 1.102, “the trifling inquiry of some little Greek [graeculus], pleasured, chattering and only maybe knowledgeable and learned”).
Now, I want to be clear, so no one walks away with the wrong impression: Herodotus’ characterizations are not accurate, nor is Herodotus trying to necessarily accurately describe the Persians or the Scythians. Instead, he is setting up foils for the Greeks, and the truth of the matter is quite besides the point. Herodotus is notably the most reliable in places where he has been, and – his claims not withstanding – he has not been to either the Persian or Scythian homelands, we may be quite sure (for the curious, we often look to his knowledge of the geography of a region to get a sense of if he actually went there).
But the key takeaway here is that this depiction of both the Fremen and their decadent opponents (in the form of the Persians) has nothing to do with the Fremen or their decadent opponents and everything to do with the author thinking about and characterizing his own culture.
It is a trend we’ll see continue with…
Caesar and Warlike Gaul
Caesar and Sallust are handy to take together because they each illustrate neatly one half of the Mirage – Caesar presents the Fremen of Gaul, and Sallust bemoans Roman decadence and decline. And – all the better – they are contemporaries of each other (although Sallust seems to have done his writing in the decade or so after Caesar’s death). Let’s start with Caesar.
Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars (Commentarii de bello gallico) are essentially campaign logs, written by Caesar (and Aulus Hirtius for the last book) to the folks back home in order to keep up his political support during his nine years in Gaul. While Gaul (modern France) doesn’t seem exotic to us, you want to keep in mind that this was a region of the world the average Roman knew little about, so Caesar feels he has to do a fair bit of ethnography: who are the people who live here, what are they like, and why is Caesar so intent on killing basically all of them (seriously, Caesar’s conquest of Gaul was extremely violent, even by Roman standards).
Caesar opens with an overview of Gaul and its peoples (one of the most read passages in all of Latin literature, because its straight-forward style makes it good for beginners), and then dips back into short ethnographic passages as he narrates campaigns and encounters new peoples of one sort or another. And throughout, he is seemingly forever describing this or that group of people as excelling in military virtue – and he often attributes that military virtue to some very Fremen reasons.
Of the Gauls (a sub-group of three ethnic groups in the region, Gauls, Aquitani and Belgae), he notes that the tribe of the Helvetii excel the rest in virtus (‘masculine military virtue’ – derives from vir, ‘man,’ so literally ‘manliness;’ B.G. 1.1) because they are always fighting the Germans. Of those Germans, we are told that “Of the Germans, the Suebi are the largest and most warlike of all” (B.G. 4.1), because they war continually, don’t settle in one place for long, and train themselves nude in the freezing cold; consequently he regards them as undisciplined, but huge in stature and fierce in fighting.
Like Herodotus, Caesar’s claims about Gallic and German war-making skill are expressed in gendered terms. Part of why the Suebi are so powerful, Caesar says, “They allow no import of wine at all, because they think that men are made soft to labor and womannish (effiminare) by it” (B.G. 4.2). Likewise, Caesar contends that the Belgae “of all of these people [meaning the Gauls, Aquitani and Belgae], the Belgae are the mightiest/bravest/manliest [the Latin fortissimi, has all three senses; we might say ‘stoutest’] because they are the furthest from the culture and civilization [cultu et humanitate; humanitas is the term in Latin for learning, sophistication, good education, elegance, refinement, etc] and least often visited by merchants, things which tend to effeminate [effeminare] the spirit” (B.G. 1.1). Civilization, Caesar is saying, makes men into bad fighters, because it makes them like women.
Which is more than a touch ridiculous because of course Caesar’s excessively civilized Italians are about to absolutely mop the floor with these Gallic and German supermen. In a twist of irony, it is none of these fellows who are supposedly the most warlike who will give Caesar the most grief and come closest to defeating him – it is Vercingetorix’s Arverni, who lived in what is today Auvergne, right up against the areas of Roman control and Greek settlement down on the coast, and directly on the trade routes bringing Mediterranean goods (like that wine that supposedly effeminates men) into Gaul!
Caesar knows this. So what is he doing? Well, Caesar is a politician – and he’s deploying a well-worn literary trope that his audience knows. Caesar is, after all, writing four centuries after Herodotus. The topos of the mighty barbarian and the decadent civilized people was, by this point, a well-established (but, as we’ve discussed ad nauseam last week, inaccurate) and popularly considered idea that Caesar could tap into, because he needs to build up his enemies. After all, Caesar is going to beat all of these guys – the more powerful and ferocious and exotic he can make them out to be, the more impressive his victories will be. The political impact of Caesar’s work is far more important than its accuracy (though Caesar will have had to be accurate in matters where his veracity could be easily checked, which would have included battles and campaign movements whose details would have been reported back to Rome in regular epistulae).
(As an aside: you might wonder then why Caesar doesn’t spend the first six books building up the Arverni as a threat for the big show-down in the seventh book. Well, we know relatively little about the circumstances of the publication of the Commentaries, but one common assumption is that the books were published in batches – we know, at least, that book 8 was produced separately from the other seven. If the books were published sequentially, as the campaign progressed, it seems no accident that Book 1 singles out the Helvetii and the Belgae as particular threats, as these are some of Caesar’s earliest challenges. Book 4 then introduces the Suebi as surpassing even these in danger, because they are who Caesar will fight next, while Book 7 then presents Vercingetorix personally as a supreme sort of threat, a fierce and noble foe to test Caesar’s mettle. It wouldn’t do for the Arverni to be the threat, since it would both raise the question as to why Caesar didn’t deal with them earlier, but also the Arverni had fought and been defeated by Rome in 121 – to claim unique glory for himself, Caesar needs to suggest something essential has changed about the Arverni to make them even more dangerous than they were back then.)
So, to sum this up: Caesar is using this trope – deployed by Herodotus and by this point, common in Greek and Roman literature – to build up the apparent threat of his foes, and by so doing to enhance his own political standing, with the truth being quite besides the point.
Sallust and Decline
On the flip side is Caesar’s contemporary, Sallust, whose writings contain a sharp focus on Roman moral decline, drawing on the same sets of literary ideas as Herodotus does to typify the Persians. Sallust had written a larger history of Rome, but this only survives in fragments, whereas two shorter works, on the conspiracy of Catiline (in 63BC) and the Jugurthine War (112-105BC), both probably written after Caesar’s assassination in 44, survive complete.
Both works are, in their own way, ruminations on Roman moral decline, and it is easy to understand why: Sallust was a devoted popularis and a committed partisan of Julius Caesar. Caesar’s assassination had been the catastrophic cherry on top of a nasty period of civil war; the Caesarian faction’s apparent triumphant, if bittersweet, march towards its political goals had turned to dry ash. Sallust probably didn’t live to see Caesar’s nephew and heir, Octavian, put the shattered humpty-dumpty of the Roman state back together again. Instead, Sallust writes at the tail end of a very dark period of Roman history, just a few feet away from seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
In Sallust’s view – most clearly articulated in a famous passage in the Catiline (Sallust, Cat. 6-13) – the original Roman state had been virtuous (7.1-7; 9.1), but this had changed with Roman victory. The defeat – particularly of Carthage – but also of ‘fierce races and mighty peoples’ (nationes ferae et populi ingentes; Sallust, you will note, is indulging in the same trope as Caesar above), then the twin evils of avarice (avaritia) and ambition (ambitio) decayed Roman morals and led the state into a decline which Sallust connects to the career of L. Cornelius Sulla (naturally, Sallust the popularis sees the arch-conservative Sulla as the start of decline; Cicero, by contrast, tends to blame Marius’ popularis confederates, Saturninus, Cinna and Sulpicius).
As an aside, the geographic component also tracks with Herodotus: the assumption that wealth, indolence and moral decay come from the East. Sallust maintains (10.6) that for a time the spread of vice was contained, but the true breakout is when Sulla allows his army to indulge in the luxury and license of the East “against the customs of our ancestors” (11.5). He is clear that is directly a product of the soft lands of the East, a function of place (the loca amoena, the ‘charming land’ of the East, full of luxury and indolence), and, “there it was first that the army of the Roman people indulged in love [amare, by which he means something closer to ‘chasing women’] and drink; to admire statues, paintings, and engraved vases” (11.6). Consequently, the virtue of the Roman people was ruined (12-13), which is in turn offered as an explanation for the moral failings of Catiline and his compatriots (14).
Note how closely Sallust’s model mirrors Caesar’s – the Belgae and Suebi are powerful, strong and upright because they are far removed from the sorts of vices (luxury, drink, and the East) that Sallust claims corrupted the Romans.
Tacitus and the Germania
And then we come to Tacitus. The Germania is a relatively short work by Tacitus produced in 98 AD reporting on the customs of the Germanic peoples beyond the Rhine; it is quite a bit shorter than his two more substantial works, the Histories and the Annals, both of which survive in part. Tacitus was a Roman senator, writing at the very outset of the long period of the Roman Empire’s height under the Nervan-Antonine emperors (96-192), but Tacitus’ tone is one of frustrated discontent at the moral standing of emperors past (he avoids commenting much on emperors present, of course). While not quite so one-note as Sallust can be, he nevertheless fits into that tradition, and that’s how we ought to read the Germania, although (as we’ll see next week) that has often not been how the Germania has been read.
The Germania is, in part, a critique of Roman values; in this sense it is the inverse of Herodotus’ approach. Where Herodotus constructs the Persian and Scythian ‘others’ to exemplify Greek virtue, Tacitus constructs the Germans to bring into relief Roman failings.
In brief, Tacitus describes the Germans as indigenous to their lands and not having intermarried with other peoples (Ger. 2.1; we should note that, as a matter of archaeology and anthropology, both of these statements are untrue); Tacitus himself notes that they tend to move around. They don’t care for silver or gold (5.3-4) and generally care little for the beauty of their cattle, horses or armor (5-6), but hold military courage as the highest virtue and cowardice as the worst crime (6.6). They are appropriately religious (9-10). What luxuries they do have were introduced by the Romans (15.3), including money. Their marriages are monogamous and chaste (18-19), and they are generally morally pure (19.3). Above all, military virtue is the greatest value in their society (7.4; 13.1-4; 14). It’s not all positive, mind you – Tacitus disapproves of Germanic beer drinking (23) and the lack of a laboriousness.
For a reader who is already familiar with the Histories and Annals, it is almost impossible not to read a critique of the Romans into this description. At the same time, as a source of actual information, Tacitus is weak at best: he never traveled to Germany, or even to the Rhine frontier, and he did not speak any Germanic languages. All of his information was thus second-hand and we are in a position to be able to check very little of it. We simply lack other sources to check Tacitus’ assertions about the social structure of Germanic peoples. Certainly his claim that Germanic peoples didn’t care for gold or other valuables is belied by significant evidence for trade in valuable metals, amber, glassware and coins, along with metalwork and craftsmanship of exceptional quality, which also show up in burials and other deposits. Which is to say that what we can check suggests that Tacitus is, at the very least, taking pretty significant liberties with his subjects in order to heighten the contrast with the Romans, who he is quietly critiquing. As a guide to actual Germanic-speaking culture in this period, Tacitus is perhaps not completely worthless, but a difficult and easily misused source.
Instead, Tacitus has – hopefully by this point, unsurprisingly – jammed his Germanic-speakers into the same mold we’ve now see in Sallust and Caesar and Herodotus. Mobile, morally pure, prizing military virtue and holding wealth in contempt, they are just one more example of the same trope that was fit on the Belgae and the Scythians.
And that’s where we’ll pause for this week, to pick up these threads next week as they weave their way into the modern world. But we should recap:
We can see here that the basic elements of the Fremen Mirage are not actually about the Fremen at all – rather, the core idea is decadence. The fundamental assumption is the corrupting influence of wealth and luxury (note that what is luxury varies case to case), which supposedly morally weakens and crucially effeminates men – that is, it makes men less manly. Since these societies – the Romans and the Greeks both – understand masculine virtue primarily as military virtue (indeed, Greek ἀνήρ (man) gives us ἀνδρεία (bravery in battle; manliness) just as Latin vir (man) gives us virtus (martial valor; manliness) – the word for ‘manliness’ in both cultures literally equates with battlefield ability), that ‘decadence’ expresses itself as military weakness. Conversely, societies that lack such luxuries are assumed to be both morally pure and also individually better at combat, giving us our Fremen.
Except of course – and I hope I’ve been clear on this – none of this seems quite matches with the history. And I want to note the inconsistencies – while the worry about masculinity stays constant, what is masculine – besides battle prowess – does not. The Spartans are, for Herodotus, the most Fremen of all of the Greeks, the most divorced from corrupting luxury – but they’re also deeply concerned with personal appearance, carefully combing out their long, luscious hair. That’s a masculine display, in the Greek context! But Tacitus, as above, can point to exactly the opposite behavior – a lack of care for beauty in general – as an example of the masculine Fremeness of Germanic peoples, because for the Romans, such personal attention as the Spartans did was considered unmanly (and the Romans are quick to mock the Greeks for it)! And likewise, the correlation between access to wealth and fighting prowess, as we’ve shown excessively, is less than nothing.
What produces the Fremen Mirage – which we’ve now traced through four different ancient authors – is not any actual facts about the non-state peoples that they encounter. Instead, these accounts are written by Greeks and Romans, for Greeks and Romans, and are fundamentally about Greeks and Romans. The concern that these authors have for accuracy in their description of the ‘Fremen’ on their borders is minimal, and many of the details in these accounts fall apart when exposed to close-reading (like Herodotus’ Scythians, who are agrarian until they’re not, or Tacitus’ Germans who are both indigenous to their lands, but also migratory) or archaeological study.
Now, to be clear, that’s not to say there is nothing accurate in these accounts of these cultures – but you can see, at this point, how these works would be very tricky to use in that way and you would need to already know a great deal about the archaeology of these societies and the agendas of these authors to be able to sift out anything of value without accidentally importing a whole lot of hogwash. A casual, modern reader who opens the Germania expecting to learn something about first century Germanic language speakers is very likely to be deeply mislead. I want to stress that, because next week, we’re going to see people import a whole lot of hogwash, by doing exactly that.
At the same time, looking at these sources also illustrates quite clearly how ‘Fremeness’ and ‘decadence’ are a linked pair of opposites, built on the assumption that Fremeness is produced by a lack of luxury (and then military valor and moral purity is produced by Fremeness), while the presence of luxury produces decadence, moral decay and military decline. That moral decline is couched strongly in terms of masculine anxiety – men worried about a lack of manliness in other men, and pointing to the excessive manliness of the Fremen. Which is why, to refer back to the meme that we started with, hard times supposedly create strong men and good times supposedly create weak men (although I should hope, by this point, I do not have to keep repeating that, as we have demonstrated, this is not in fact true), which in turn feeds this simplistic cyclical vision of history embodied in that meme.
But let’s be very clear about something we pointed out last week: Tacitus and Sallust are not living in decaying, declining, decadent civilizations. They are living at the dawn of golden ages of prosperity, military power, cultural production and administrative effectiveness in the Roman world (and indeed, I should note, these are, by far not the only Romans to have been whining about decadence and decline during times when it was pretty manifestly not happening, cf. Juvenal and Martial). And while every so often poor, non-state peoples produce stunning conquests of resource-rich civilizations, those results are stunning because they are so rare.
Tacitus’ Germania spent most of the Middle Ages as a lost work, until its manuscript was rediscovered in 1425. Next week, we’ll look at the afterlife of these Greek and Roman authors – how they were used and misused in the modern era (and yes, a brief discussion of Ibn Khaldun, who is very much not a part of this tradition, which is what makes him so interesting).