Collections: The Fremen Mirage Part IIIa: …by the Princess Irulan

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.

Irulan, pictured here – and this scene is just perfect – explaining the Fremen to her father and his advisor.

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).

Horse archer, depicted on an Achaemenid cylinder seal, 5th century, now in the British Museum. The archer is performing the famous ‘Parthian shot’ (a shot fired over the back of the horse at a gallop), which is an exceptionally difficult thing to do and – as we’ll see when we get to the Mongols, an extremely powerful fighting technique. The Persians may have had no good answer to Greek or Macedonian phalanxes, but it seems deeply unfair to deem them, as Herodotus seems to, as bad at fighting.

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.

Irulan, explaining the plot to her father.
For all Irulan’s later work (fictional, of course, existing as exerpts before each chapter) notes the fierceness of the Fremen and the cunning of Paul, one wonders how much of this was helpful Atreides propaganda, designed to persuade the resisting Great Houses that the Fremen could not be defeated. If so, it wouldn’t be so different from Caesar, building up the reputations of the foes he has defeated to enlarge his own reputation.

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).

Via Wikipedia, the modern Piazza Sallustio, originally the site of the Horti Sallustiani, the Gardens of Sallust, a set of lavish ornamental gardens inside the city of Rome. Built by Caesar, and inherited and expanded by Sallust, they were maintained well into the empire. To imagine the kind of wealth that implies, consider the kind of money it would take to take up a city block in downtown Manhattan, for your own private garden.
And then imagine yourself, relaxing in that garden, writing Sallust’s complaint against luxury and avarice!

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.

Via Wikipedia, a map of Roman period Germany produced from Tacitus’ Germania in 1645.

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.

Princess Irulan. I have to admit, in Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, Irulan was my favorite character. Perhaps it is her role as the historian of the setting. Either way, I was quite happy to see her role expanded in Frank Herbert’s Dune (2000) and Children of Dune (2003).

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).

58 thoughts on “Collections: The Fremen Mirage Part IIIa: …by the Princess Irulan

  1. Dear Dr. Devereaux,

    thank you for another great post. I truly enjoy reading you blog and it is one of my Friday highlights.

    Reading your article I was really reminded of some of the brexit-talks by some brexiteers.
    It looks like some things truly never change.

    Best Regards


    P.S. Sorry for my englisch. I am no native speaker.

  2. “For all Irulan’s later work (fictional, of course, existing as exerpts before each chapter) notes the fierceness of the Fremen and the cunning of Paul, one wonders how much of this was helpful Atreides propaganda, designed to persuade the resisting Great Houses that the Fremen could not be defeated. ”

    First, Atreides were absolutely capable of propaganda:
    “My propaganda corps is one of the finest,” the Duke said. (…)


    “Yes, I am tired,” the Duke said. “Did you know we’re using spice residue as raw material and already have our own factory to manufacture filmbase?”


    “We mustn’t run short of filmbase,” the Duke said. “Else, how could we flood village and city with our information? The people must learn how well I govern them. How would they know if we didn’t tell them?”
    (chapter 7)

    Second, while this interpretation causes the book to make more sense and makes Irulan save face, I think the book’s plot is the answer. Unless you think Dune is a lie and has an unreliable narrator, it’s evident that the Fremen did in fact beat Sardaukar, and later the known universe. The David Lynch movie gives Atreides a secret super weapon, the voice boosting modules, but this is non-canon. Why would Irulan make stuff up if events of the book prove Fremen combat effectiveness? How else can you explain that Fremen do win in the book?


    Finally, Frank Herbert was a journalist and a political activist before he became a writer.

    1. Self-plagiarizing my take on Dune:

      I’ve also thought that the Sardaukar and Fremen aren’t so much super-mega-ultra-warriors, it is just that the usual troops of the Great Houses are rather poor quality because of all the usual reasons a military can rot if it doesn’t have recent combat experience. Sardaukar and Fremen aren’t superhuman but they are very well trained, organized, and disciplined. Yeah traditional Fremen may not count as organized, but that was one of the things that Paul and others were teaching them during the interlude in Dune.

      Ordinary Great House troops are really more glorified police forces or parade performers. They almost never see serious combat against enemies of similar size, skill, and equipment. Because Guild troop transport rates are so high that you really only get raids rather than invasions.

      Maybe Muad’dib’s real advantage was that he blackmailed the Guild into giving him troop transport without the usual hazard surcharge.

      1. Sardukar and Fremen are both populations where the physically weak (and probably the mentally feeble) are killed by their environment. So from that pool you train soldiers. And the Sardukar are soldiers, where the Fremen are tribal warriors. You get multiple levels of kung fu in Dune. There’s the two I’ve mentioned, the Ginaz masters like Halleck and Idaho, and the Bene Gesserit. The BGs seem to have the strongest fu, with Ginaz right behind them. And Paul gets both schools. Which he then gives to the Fremen. The fucking Wierding Modules in the Lynch film (blasphemy) I can attribute to failure of imagination. They had to show (which Herbert was not burdened with) audiences an amazing new martial arts system, and they choked and bunted. Hell, almost nobody in America had seen Muy Thai in 1984. They could have used that. But they had that training robot that was like a wing chun dummy from a Bruce Lee acid trip. Bad choices, but ones I understand.
        You are right to observe that having the Guild’s balls in a vice was everything for Paul. But I’m not cottoning to the idea that ordinary House troop levies were schlubs.

        1. >Sardukar and Fremen are both
          >populations where the physically
          >weak (and probably the mentally
          >feeble) are killed by their environ-
          >ment. So from that pool you train

          Coming back to this much later, it occurred to me that any military force recruits from the physically and mentally fit part of its own population. Even armies that practice conscription don’t take people literally at random regardless of whether they are physically or mentally capable of combat.

          Why would it make a significant difference to overall military quality whether or not you live on a planet where people with disabilities “are killed by their environment?”

          And this argument could be taken to some really perverse and counterfactual conclusions. For instance, child malnutrition doesn’t result in “only the tough surviving to adulthood.” It results in physically smaller, weaker adults with more risk of deformities and chronic health problems. Adults who are intrinsically less suitable as military material.

          Honestly, if you want an environment that produces good soldiers, you want one where there aren’t a host of sandstorms to fuck up your vision or parasites to infest your body and where calories are plentiful so that kids can grow up tall and strong and robust.

      2. @Lawrence Schuman:

        Your idea is supported by the fact both Harkonnen and Atreides’ armed forces had their entire *battle languages*. This screams either strong tradition, or hardcore war sophistication. Harkonnen forces were never called any good. The Baron sought to strengthen them with disguised Sardaukar. Their success was attributed to three factors: allied Sardaukars in disguise, treachery, and Baron’s out of the box thinking (he brought outdated weapon systems – artillery – because he realized warfare has progressed so much people forgot how to even defend against these).

      3. @Lawrence Schuman: (2)

        Your post was thought-provoking. Maybe Bret Devereaux is… setting a strawman here?? He’s saying Fremen were so awesome they beat Sardaukar, so best troops available. He counter-points that this couldn’t be true because less developed people rarely won against more developed. Is Frank Herbert really saying that? You brought up how much elite training Paul Atreides received, and was able to *pass on* to the Fremen. This is the key point. Fremen *by themselves* weren’t terribly effective warriors. The first book mentions Fremen hated Harkonnen troops because Harkonnen troops *hunted and persecuted them*. If pretty poor troops were able to hunt and persecute Fremen, maybe Fremen weren’t really that good at first? Then Paul and Jessica come and *teach them* to fight extremely well. Another missing piece is no doubt that Paul & Jessica had was “insider knowledge”, they knew how a modern Dune House operated and how a modern House army operated.

        The bottom line: Fremen weren’t awesome warriors. Rather, their hardiness, their way of life, knowledge of the planet, lack of respect for human life, ruthlesness made them awesome soldier material. But they needed guidance and world-class leadership.

        I think we need to talk about the Zulu and how they fought the British.

        1. “Fremen *by themselves* weren’t terribly effective warriors. The first book mentions Fremen hated Harkonnen troops because Harkonnen troops *hunted and persecuted them*. If pretty poor troops were able to hunt and persecute Fremen, maybe Fremen weren’t really that good at first?”

          In retrospect, Bret addresses this in a later part of the article series, providing examples of the Fremen fighting quite well *before* Paul and Jessica have had any time to teach them any new combat techniques. However, the insider knowledge you point out is relevant- the Fremen lack of advanced technology is pretty clearly what enables Harkonnen troops to hunt and persecute them.

          For example, you don’t have to be anywhere NEAR as deadly as a wolf in person, or even in something resembling a fair fight on the ground, if you can instead hunt the wolf from a helicopter with a machine gun.

          And the Harkonnen troops can very easily hunt Fremen from the air (in ‘thopters) with laser guns (that would normally be useless because you can’t use them against shielded enemies, it’s suicide). The Fremen lack of personal shields makes them vulnerable to modern armies in-setting, *despite* being great warriors who become practically invincible as soon as they are supplied with even the faintest clues about modern weapons.

          For purposes of the myth, *that* is the point. The point that the Fremen, in the myth, are made to be *better men* by their environment, a higher caliber of human material. Regardless of whether they then win or lose, the core point of the myth is that “the hard-living poor-but-honest folk in the wasteland are stern and tough and would beat you in a fair fight because they are better, more manly men.”

          “I think we need to talk about the Zulu and how they fought the British.”

          Now see, one of the mythic descriptions of low-tech low-organization cultures that exists alongside of the the Fremen myth is the “dumb savage” myth. The idea that because they have inferior equipment, or because they lose battles, they’re a *lesser* breed of human material- stupid, reckless, blindly aggressive.

          [Weirdly this can produce multiple simultaneous contradictory beliefs, a kind of doublethink: the tribes lost because they’re dumb savages, but are simultaneously a better breed of men because of their clean living and lack of emasculating civilized fluff.]

      4. Last point in this thread of thought:
        It wouldn’t be the first time a writer’s idea was misunderstood on a massive scale. Arnold Shwarzenegger’s role as Conan the Barbarian spawned entire RPG systems and games, notably Dungeons&Dragons, which depicted Barbarian as a dumb brute, a muscular giant, wearing no armor and wielding two-handed weapons. So tough he can just take many hits and keep going. But this is clearly not the book vision, not the vision of Robert E. Howard. The book coward is pretty smart, he frequently runs away when facing bad odds, he seeks allies, uses tactics, often – stealth, he even backstabs a wizard “boss” early on. One of things he said was “I don’t touch things I don’t understand.” He knows his limits. He uses shields and various weapons like bows. He does his best to avoid getting hit, in one scene he grabbed a corpse to shield him from archers and jumped out of castle window. He’s not brilliant, but he’s cunning and cautious.

      5. One more thing. Recall the first duel Paul has on Arrakis. Against Jamis.

        Paul is said to be slow in offense, fast in defense. This is explained as due to his training in the use of personal shields, which repel fast attacks and need a bit of trickery to bypass. Fremen misunderstand that as a cat&mouse game, as Paul’s toying with a weaker opponent. Clearly, Fremen don’t know the ins and outs of modern armaments and tactics at that point.

    2. Self-plagiarizing my take on Dune:

      I’ve also thought that the Sardaukar and Fremen aren’t so much super-mega-ultra-warriors, it is just that the usual troops of the Great Houses are rather poor quality because of all the usual reasons a military can rot if it doesn’t have recent combat experience. Sardaukar and Fremen aren’t superhuman but they are very well trained, organized, and disciplined. Yeah traditional Fremen may not count as organized, but that was one of the things that Paul and others were teaching them during the interlude in Dune.

      Ordinary Great House troops are really more glorified police forces or parade performers. They almost never see serious combat against enemies of similar size, skill, and equipment. Because Guild troop transport rates are so high that you really only get raids rather than invasions.

      Maybe Muad’dib’s real advantage was that he blackmailed the Guild into giving him troop transport without the usual hazard surcharge.

    3. Paul had far more than the Fremen going for him when the crusade got going full swing.

      Prior to that, here was _merely_ a prescient mentat, a human supercomputer who could see the future, and inherited a military force that had been stealing weapons and equipment from the “civilized” Harkonen for decades.

      After that, things only improved the more non-Fremen assets he acquired.

      By making a credible threat to destroy the Spice he was able to extort the Spacing Guild, the only source of interstellar travel to back him, and thus violate in his favor the limitations on transporting military forces.

      By securing the imperial throne itself as a concession from Shaddam IV he inherited all the assets of House Corrino, which were significant as the Emperor and his close allies control 59% of CHOAM, effectively the sole interstellar corporation.

      Emperor Paul’s assets thus consist of the ability to see the future, the largest cash flow in the universe, carte blanche to violate all arms limitations treaties, two rich and industrialized planets, and two blasted wastelands with extremely loyal fremen.

      Most of his armies and all of their logistics would be provided by the non-fremen portions of his forces.

      1. And lets not forget why the Emperor moved against Leto Atreides in the first place, because his popularity in the Landsraad was becoming a threat to the Emperor. There is a good chance that Leto’s friends and allies, shocked and appalled by the annihilation of his house by trickery would have been swift to ally themselves with his heir, especially when that heir turns up with legions of Fremen, a guild monopoly on troop movements and the legitimate ownership of the Imperial throne. Paul never had to fight the whole human empire. Good chunks would have accepted his rule as legitimate and big chunks would have been delighted allies.

    4. Coming back to this much later… It occurs to me that while Julius Caesar very much did hype up the Gauls as tough, hypermasculine ‘Fremen’ warriors to make himself look even greater for having defeated them… The fact is, the Gauls did put up a hard fight and didn’t make it easy for Caesar, even though in in the form of the Roman legions he had one of the most refined and experienced military ‘machines’ of antiquity at his disposal.

      It is entirely reasonable that the Fremen (as of the time of Paul’s jihad/crusade) are better soldiers than the Sardaukar, who are in turn genuinely capable soldiers themselves, And yet, this may be true at the same time that it is also true that Princess Irulan (and perhaps others) are writing in-setting historical narratives designed to exaggerate the Fremen reputation for invincibility and supremacy, and to make Paul seem irresistible.

      After all, Paul only has so many Fremen warriors. Spread out across a vast region of interstellar space, they would start to seem like less of a threat. And even the mightiest warriors can be killed by ambushes or by treachery. We never get a good handle on how big the Great Houses’ resource pools are, or how many of them there are, but the balance of numbers may make it very much advisable for the Atreides to cultivate a reputation for Fremen invincibility, even one that extends far beyond their (considerable) real powers and abilities.

  3. Caesar’s description of the Gauls sound sort of like Arthur Conan Doyle’s description of the Boers in The Great Boer War. Like Caesar, he starts with some ethnography on the Boers, which makes them out to be super good fighters (excerpt here: Of course, Conan Doyle’s purpose is to make the British Army look good by making their opponents look good. And while the Boers weren’t nomads, they looked pretty Fremen-ish compared to Britain. Another parallel: the British won, largely because of their better logistics and ability to keep their army supplied. That said, the early parts of the Second Boer War did make the British Army look very bad tactically.

    1. The Boers had the same advantage the South had in the US Civil War: they were country people who had a lot of hunters, i.e. riflemen who could shoot their better-organized, better-equipped opponent to ribbons. To my knowledge, that advantage on its own has only won one war, though, the Winter War (and that almost certainly only happened because Stalin was too busy dealing with Hitler, first as an ally and then as an enemy, to worry about Finland—see the “state actors are the real threat” angle our host has mentioned).

      1. Finland lost the Winter War. They won a lot of battles and inflicted an enormous number of casualties, but the final peace agreement saw Finland ceding more territory than Russia had demanded pre-war. And Finland lost the Continuation War too, though they seem to have gotten off more lightly than other German allies on the Eastern Front.

      2. That’s certainly not how either Russia or Finland see it, though. When someone inflicts hundred-to-one casualties on you, with small arms, you aren’t in any hurry to fight them again even if they do end up ceding you more than you originally demanded from them.

        The Winter War is universally regarded as a disaster for the Soviets.

        1. I think it’s fair to say that the Finns lost the Winter War in the “won the battles, lost the war” sense, and that the Soviets won the war in the “Pyrrhic Victory” sense where continuing to ‘win’ on such terms would eventually have been disastrous for them.

          The Soviets got what they wanted, but at a price that made the whole war an obviously bad idea; the Finns lost something very valuable, but got to spend the rest of their lives patting themselves on the back for how expensive they’d made it.

        2. Nobody won the Winter War. The Finns lost a ton of territory, the Soviets lost a ton of dignity, and that’s on top of the typical losses inflicted by any war from attrition and waste.

    2. Coming back to this much later, I feel like pointing out that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was assuredly very familiar with the surviving tradition of Greco-Roman authors writing this kind of story about their people’s enemies (e.g. Herodotus, Caesar, Tacitus). It is overwhelmingly likely that as an educated Englishman of the late 19th century, he had read all the Greek and Roman texts listed in this article, probably in the original Latin and Ancient Greek.

      And, as outlined in Part IIIb of this series, 19th century Europeans collectively were heavily influenced by this particular Greco-Roman literary tradition, and took it rather uncritically to heart. It heavily shaped how they understood the world around them, both its history and its current events.

      So in a way, Doyle’s work can reasonably be interpreted as a straightforward continuation of the trends discussed in this article, albeit after a two thousand year hiatus.

  4. I don’t think it’s true to say that Herodotus is primarily about setting up a Greeks-vs.-barbarians dichotomy in his works. He’s quite happy to say, for example, that the Lydians’ customs are almost identical to the Greeks’ (1.94), that some Greek customs have found favour amongst the Persians (1.135), and even that the Greeks copied most of their religion off the Egyptians (2.49, 50, 52). He also writes ethnographically about unusual Greek practices, most notably those of the Spartans (6.52-60) — in which passage, nota bene, he explicitly likens certain Spartan practices to those of the barbarian Persians (6.58 f.) and the Egyptians (6.60). Nor is there a dichotomy between brave, warlike Greeks and cowardly, effeminate barbarians. There are plenty of Greeks on the Persian side (9.31 etc.), the rebellion of Greek Ionians against the Persians is a complete failure due to the Greeks’ laziness and indiscipline (6.12), the Greek army sent to sack Sardis runs away as soon as the Persians fight back and subsequently ends up being defeated (5.101 f.) and the Greek navy almost flees in panic before the battle at Artemisium (7.183, 8. 4, 9). Meanwhile the Persians at Plataea show themselves no less valiant than the Spartans, though they are worse-equipped and less well-disciplined (9.62).

    So, whilst Herodotus himself probably believed in the Fremen mirage, judging by the speech he reports at the end of Book 9, it’s not really an overwhelming preoccupation in his writings. If anything, he’s more likely to lay the blame for defeat in war on hubris rather than decadence. Croesus considers himself the most fortunate man in the world (1.30-33) and ends up losing his kingdom; Cyrus perishes when he crosses the Araxes to try and conquer the Massagetae — in Herodotus’ geography, the steppes are part of Europe (4.42), so this represents an attempt on Cyrus’ part to transgress the bounds of Asia and establish rule over a European people –; Darius tries something similar with the Scythians, and has to scurry back to Asia with his tail between his legs; and Xerxes tries the same thing as Darius on a bigger scale, and suffers a proportionately more humiliating defeat as a result. If I had to pick out one message from Herodotus, it probably wouldn’t be “Hard times make hard men…” so much as “Pride cometh before a fall”.

    In Herodotus’ view, success in fighting was “the chief proof of manliness” (Hdt. 1.136).

    He very possibly did think that, although that passage probably isn’t the best illustration, given that he’s reporting the Persian view here. Unless you think he’s actually putting his own opinion into the Persians’ mouths — which is possible, but nevertheless an odd choice for a writer seeking to set up the Persians as a model of un-Greek decadence and effeminacy.

    1. Herodotus is about many, many things. It’s a huge and complicated work. I am pulling out one strand of it, because that strand makes an obvious literary topos in later writers, who crib its essential elements. Is Herodotus also interested in arrogance and divine retribution? Of course. Is he also just generally interested in ethnographic novelties? Absolutely.

      But, as Hartog spends the better part of 350 pages spelling out, Herodotus is also reshaping his narrative in this specific way. You are welcome to write your own critique of Hartog, of course, but then your argument is not with me.

      Part of the reason I find this bent in Herodotus so much more obvious is because of how clearly it shows up in later ancient ethnographic writers, who seem in little doubt as to the overall impression Herodotus wished to give, quite apart from any particular incongruous details.

      Along with Hartog, you may find the following worth your time, if you have not read them yet:
      Fehling (1980) Herodotus and His Sources
      Pritchett (1993) The Liar School of Herodotus
      Thomas (2000) Herodotus in Context

      1. Thanks for the book recommendations, but since I already have two degrees in ancient history and have read Herodotus several times, I think I’m quite well qualified to form a judgement about his works as it is.

        Part of the reason I find this bent in Herodotus so much more obvious is because of how clearly it shows up in later ancient ethnographic writers, who seem in little doubt as to the overall impression Herodotus wished to give, quite apart from any particular incongruous details.

        That subsequent writers used ethnography as a means of commenting on their own societies doesn’t imply that they thought Herodotus himself was doing the same, much less that this is actually what Herodotus was doing.

  5. And here the title made me think of the Chinese habit of appeasing the nomad raiders on the border by sending off Chinese princesses to marry their chiefs.

  6. Another fascinating collection as always! I do so enjoy your takedowns of pop cultural ideas of cultures past. Tacitus’ complaint at Germans’ lack of laboriousness made me grin at the start difference to modern clichés about Germans. Although I suppose we did have “Roman” empire here in between-!

    As an aside, did you deliberately choose your blog title as a pun? You know, since your specialty is military history, one could also call this blog ‘A (military) COUP’. 😀

      1. As in later centuries, Chinese were described as lazy workers, an English men being more useful by a factor of ten,

  7. Again, engaging and enlightening. Many thanks.
    One typo:

    “… because the war …” should be “… because they war …”?

  8. Thanks! A great read, as always.

    It now seems obvious what Caesar’s agenda in De Bello Gallico was, and I feel both kind of stupid for not noticing back then, and a bit mad at my Latin teacher that he didn’t mention any of this even in passing.

    What I’m trying to say is, I guess, that I’m learning a lot more from your posts than “only” about the Fremen Mirage. So thanks again! 🙂

  9. I love Princess Irulan too. She has a difficult life but being the daughter of one emperor and the wife of his successor sure put her in a wonderful position to write the history of her times!

  10. I am curious, when you do get around to Ibn Khaldun, if you will mention Peter Turchin. He seems to be quite a fan of Ibn Khaldun, and also a Dune fan by the way, and his work in “War and Peace and War” is not exactly the Fremen mirage but it is related to decadence of a society. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Dr. Turchin’s work but it would be interesting to hear your comment on it if you are.

  11. I am curious, when you do get around to Ibn Khaldun, if you will mention Peter Turchin. He seems to be quite a fan of Ibn Khaldun, and also a Dune fan by the way, and his work in “War and Peace and War” is not exactly the Fremen mirage but it is related to decadence of a society. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Dr. Turchin’s work but it would be interesting to hear your comment on it if you are.

  12. Umm… You do know that the Germans were in fact much larger and stronger than Romans. I’m sure facing them down would have been very scary and Caesar isn’t just exaggerating their strength and ferocity. Being individually strong doesn’t win battles and it certainly doesn’t win wars, but you are being very uncharitable, as you usually are, to prop up your own modern political and social ideals. You are just the same as these historians you criticize and I’m sure future historians will have plenty to say about what your writings ‘really’ mean

    1. I have to admit, the most fun thing about this series has been some of y’all trying to guess and getting offended by what you think my politics are. So far, no one is even in the right ballpark.

      As for the Germanic peoples being big and strong – sure. They have a protein-heavier diet. But I don’t see why it matters. The Mongols seem to have been, by most accounts, fairly small fellows. Hell, the average modern Mongolian is only around 5.5 (ft). But of all of the non-state pre-modern adversaries, Steppe nomads were by far the scariest, and Mongols were the scariest of those.

      But here’s the thing: I judge effectiveness the same way for everyone – achieving strategic objectives. If being a big fellow doesn’t help you get there, then it doesn’t help you get there. Caesar, for his part, is explicit in his language that he thinks these guys are better at fighting than most. And that’s just evidently not true from his own account.

  13. “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.”

    I think this points to another factor underlying the popularity of the Fremen myth: inflated expectations for the performance of imperial armies.

    I’ve noticed in modern discourse that Americans often assume that America “should” be able to win any war it chooses to, because it is so much larger, wealthier, and more militarily advanced than its enemies, and has a tradition of victory (c.f. Nixon’s “the first President to lose a war). This attitude means that whenever America does lose a conflict, that loss becomes a problem, a wrongness to be explained—rather than simply an ordinary feature of a world where no nation, no matter how powerful, can win every conflict it ever engages in.

    This sense of a wrongness drives an appetite for explanations centering around virtue, decadence, etc.

    It seems to me that a lot of the Fremen Mirage might be fueled by exactly this sort of grading on a curve. A Roman aristocrat could easily come to assume that the legions “should” win every battle they face and “should” always conquer local “barbarians” with little to no difficulty. A Fremen batting record of 0.33 looks pretty good when the sportswriters are expecting the legions to pitch every game a shutout.

    A similar civilizational arrogance probably blinds authors in the metropole to the actual levels of statecraft practiced in “barbarian” peoples, let alone changes in the levels of nomadic statecraft. From the perspective of modernity it’s easy for me to say that both of the most recent nomad Chinese dynasties were preceded by major nomadic statecraft innovations (Chingis’s revolutionary adoptions of conquered armies; Nurhachi’s ethnogenesis of the Manchus), specifically addressing key nomad state weaknesses. But for a Song or Ming aristocrat, those kinds of changes would be easy to dismiss as “barbarian nonsense”, and so the role of nomad statecraft in the successful conquest of urban cores is easy to miss.

  14. It’s interesting that you often refer to American Military and attitudes – and of course, if your speciality is Roman/ Classic history, you draw your comparisions from there – but what about the destruction of Native Americans, living as Fremens, by the state-like European settlers?

    There seem to be little comparisions on how decadent the Yanks were, or how the purity, hard living of Native Americans enabled them to beat the Yanks.
    Was it because of the “Manifest Destiny” apology to justify the genocide that was at that historical point no longer normal in Europe, only in colonies against non-whites?

    It also reminds me of what you wrote in the first part about fall-backs of the nomads in the Steppe: Native Americans ran out of fall-backs; and the Yank invaders had not only technological advantage, but also superior numbers.

    1. Coming back to this much later…

      There is considerable literature from the 1700s and 1800s that taps into this material to portray the Native Americans as being particularly “violent” or “fierce” or “savage,” which are the things you say in modern English about a bunch of Fremen if you want to call them objectively bad while also attributing to them the condition of Fremen-ness. In particular, the Native American tribes with the most warlike reputations tend to get a lot more attention than the ones without such reputations, and Native American military feats get a lot more attention than Native American culture or political achievements.

      But yes, the ‘Yanks,’ as it were, did not fully apply the Fremen mythology to their native enemies. This may be because the ‘Yanks’ themselves painted themselves as a more ‘Fremen’ people (more egalitarian, less wealthy, more frontier-oriented, more able and willing to migrate and to cope with rough conditions) than their European cousins. When part of your own cultural identity is “white people, but Fremen-ized,” then you aren’t going to dwell on the Fremen-ness of your enemies quite as much.

      The ‘Yanks’ of the 19th century CE didn’t have quite as thick a vein of collective anxiety about “declining manhood” in their literary culture as the Romans of the 1st century BCE, I suppose. So they engaged with the tropes of the Fremen mirage differently.

      With that said, yes, the native Americans ran out of fallbacks. The normal condition of steppe and desert terrain being impenetrable to the armies of city-dwelling state peoples breaks down very quickly after the invention of the railroad, and it is not a coincidence that after the United States started building railroads out into the Great Plains, the Plains Indians were all conquered within a generation.

  15. This idea of a cycle of rising civilizations then falling when their decadence faces a new energetic “barbarian” challenge, only for the “barbarians” to rise and then fall themselves in turn, plays a central role in the pseudo-history of Robert E. Howard’s works.

  16. Wait a second.

    Julius Caesar wrote the early volumes of his Commentaries to make the Helvetii and Belgae look like big, scary threats. But when he ran out of those, he needed to find a new group of Gauls and make them out to be even bigger and scarier threats, before finally playing up the Avenii and Vercingetorix in specific as the biggest and baddest Gauls of them all.

    Thus, his narrative is of a heroic general going around, finding and defeating ever-stronger opponents every volume until he no longer has a reason to keep writing. This is exactly the structure of shonen battle manga, except with more military formations and fewer speed lines.

  17. 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.

    This got me thinking about how the Fremen trope has become so deeply rooted in our own culture, and specifically in the context of Rome, which looms very large for us. I’m aware that I’m mostly constructing a just-so story here, but at least I’m in good company to do so.

    Post-Enlightenment Europe and especially the United States have a pre-occupation with a simplistic picture of Rome that goes something like “Republic good, Empire bad,” or to recast it in terms more closely linked to the Fremen trope, “Republic ascent and crescendo, Empire descent and collapse.” I imbibed this myself in public schooling.

    This of course has very little to do with actual history and a lot more to do with building legitimacy for Republican governance by hearkening back to ancient ‘tradition’, but I do suspect that such a lens makes writers like Sallust (and Tacitus, and everyone writing about how times were better in Rome before) much more attractive than they would otherwise be.

    In other words, the central take-away is yet again, be careful about assuming this is always someone else’s problem and that your own eyes are clear.

    1. Every time I remember the Star Wars trilogy was clearly derived from Rome, I remember that actually, life improved for the average Roman citizen when the empire came in.

  18. On one hand, the way that Devereaux keeps reiterating the things that he’s not saying, the things he’s already said, etc, can get a bit exhausting.

    On the other hand, it shows that he understands how Internet discourse tends to work—he’s making his work harder to quote-mine. You would have to actively edit context out of the middle of these sentences!

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