This is Part IIIb of our four-and-three-quarters part series (I, II, IIIa) on what we’re calling the Fremen Mirage. Last week, we traced the origins of this idea in the Greek and Roman ethnographic tradition. We found that the tropes that make up this concept – the poor, unsophisticated, but morally pure and militarily powerful Fremen and their decadent, civilized adversaries – actually had precious little to do with describing ancient non-state cultures. Instead, the Fremen Mirage emerged in these works mostly through self-definition and criticism: the mirage was never about accurately characterizing the Fremen, but building self-identity or practicing self-criticism among the settled, literate society. Consequently, descriptions of ancient non-state peoples were bent and molded to fit the trope, rather than the other way around, frequently by authors – like Tacitus – who often had little to no direct contact with these cultures.
And then the tradition sleeps. Tacitus’ Germania is effectively lost until 1425 (though at least one monk seems to have used it as a source in the ninth century, Rudolf of Fulda, see Krebs (2012)). Herodotus – and the rest of the Greek language ethnographic tradition (Strabo, Diodorus, Dionysius, etc, etc) – are also less influential for the Middle Ages in Europe (esp. Western Europe) as well; many of these works remained in greater circulation in the Muslim world. But, as we’ll see towards the end of this post, Muslim writers had their own theories about the advantages of non-state peoples and had little need for classical Greek expertise on horse-borne nomads, frequently being descendants of some and opponents of others themselves.
Instead, medieval efforts to mythologize the historical past often focused on placing a people or a ruler within the lens of what Brett Whalen calls ‘sacred’ or ‘providential’ time: understanding them in the context of the broader Christian religious project. The history or myth-making (the line between the two, as we’ll see, can be quite blurry) thus sought to resolve problems like the pre-Christian past of now-Christian kingdoms (which might be resolved, for instance, by the Sainted founder-converter-ruler, or by an assertion of a sort of pre-Christian proto-piety). Alternately, a community might seek to legitimize itself by connecting to Classical antiquity; Snorri Sturluson, for instance, seats the origins of Norse mythology and people in survivors of the Trojan War (why not?). Likewise, Geoffrey of Monmouth (1095-1155) has his Britons descent from a mythical Trojan Brutus, grandson of Ascanius (son of Aeneas). Carrie E. Beneš (Urban Legends: Civic Identity and the Classical Past in Northern Italy, 1250-1350 (2011)) notes Italian communes might trying to remember or invent claims either linked to, or of greater antiquity than, those of Rome itself.
Sallust’s model of decline and Caesar’s writings – both remained popular in the Middle Ages as tools for training rulers. They might also help in those projects, but the idea of the Fremen Mirage is not a key part of that. Instead, if anything, medieval literature is in part focused not on the need for ‘hard’ ‘barbarian’ warriors to solve problems, but on the pressing need to Christianize and thus control and civilize such individuals (e.g. the Normans). If anything, medieval Christian authors, rather than looking for some good men to do some violence, seem focused on the (not unreasonable) idea that their society was overrun with violence that needed to be restrained. I am generalizing of course, there are exceptions (Bertran de Born (c. 1140-1215) would like to do some war, for instance), but still, this is hardly fertile ground to revisit ancient pagan warriors with the Mirage (contrast Beowulf’s treatment of its main character’s paganism as sharply tragic, for instance).
Instead, this particular trope picks up again in the early modern period, lurking among the intellectuals of Europe from the 16th to the 18th century, before exploding into the popular consciousness and popular literature in the worst possible form in the 19th century. Let’s look at how that happens, and how it reshapes the classical tradition into a new form.
(Note: there’s a lot of book name-checking here, because – as I note below – classical reception is not my field (narrowly speaking), nor do I specialize in medieval or modern historiography or linguistics! In addition to the books I note here, I want to extend a thanks to my colleagues Daniel W. Morgan and Kathryn O’Neill, who kindly offered to help me make less of a fool of myself; all errors remain, of course, mine.)
The Europe into which Tacitus’ Germania reemerges was very different from the one it had left, and was undergoing rapid changes besides. I should note that the narrative of the reception of the Germania that follows is not mine (Classical reception is its own field, with its own specialists), but borrows heavily from C.B. Krebs, A Most Dangerous Book (2012). Tacitus’ work was rediscovered in 1425 – although there are some hints that it had been used (plagiarized, really) by Rudolf of Fulda in c. 865 – and took a while to filter into the broader intellectual consciousness.
Meanwhile, as Benedict Anderson has famously noted in Imagined Communities (1983), the mass communication enabled by expanding literacy and especially the printing press would begin, through the 15th and 16th centuries, to create a nascent sense of nationhood and nationalism in parts of Europe. I do not want to get into the weeds of that process (it is complex, regionally varied, quite contested and tremendous in its import) but it is essential to know that is happening in the background as the modern form of the Fremen Mirage is being forged.
But in Germany, the process of creating that imagined community was particularly difficult. For much of the early modern period, the best intellectual currency in Europe was a connection to the Greek and Roman past – rulers could mobilize Greek and Roman imagery to legitimize themselves and Greek and Roman learning remained the foundation for humanistic study of basically everything. But for German-speakers – it is still far too early to speak of ‘Germans’ more broadly – therein lay a problem. Unlike the Spanish or French or Italians (or even the English) the core German-speaking territories of the Holy Roman Empire, the place that might be understood as a ‘Germany’ – had never been part of the Roman Empire. The one connection it had with that edifice was through the Catholic Church – and by 1525, Germany such as it was would be violently split over movements to cut that tie as well.
As Krebs so neatly shows, Tacitus and his image of the Germans – simple, uneducated, but tough, morally pure and unmixed (and thus ethnically ‘pure’) – filled the void, providing (part of) the foundation for a narrative that both defined Germanness (especially against Italians – handy when you are having the Protestant reformation) and set forth a positive story for the origin of a ‘German people’ which contrasted them – favorably! – with the Romans. One of the most important assertions was that Tacitus’ Germans had never been conquered (this would have required at least some mental gymnastics for understanding Charlemagne as essentially German, but see below on the Franci), a note we’ll return to it a moment.
It mattered little, of course, that Tacitus had never been to Germany, did not speak any Germanic language, and mostly constructed his account as a morality tale meant for Romans about Roman society; it also mattered little that the connection between Tacitus’ Germani and the German-speakers of the 16th century was, as a matter of ancestry, strained at best. Likewise, early-modern readers of Tacitus were quite gullible when it came to his claims that the Germans were solidly beyond the Roman world; Roman trade goods had penetrated into Germany even by Tacitus’ day. But none of that mattered. Tacitus filled an emotional and intellectual need.
That meant that Tacitus’ Fremen stereotypes of the ‘other’ were steadily adopted as national mythology for an emerging notion of the ‘German’ people, defining them in certain ways and professing a (again, deeply strained) history of the Germans as a pure, unmixed people, delivered supposedly pristine and untouched from their classical Fremen past. But Tacitus’ Germans weren’t the only ones to receive this treatment…
Celts: Here, There and Everywhere
The Fremen turn in France and the British Isles emerges a bit later, but has many of the same contours, because the Romans applied the same descriptive template to many of their non-state ‘barbarian’ neighbors regardless of local institutions (which why Caesar’s Belgae and Helvetii sound so much like Tacitus’ Germans). What follows will be a fairly brief summary, but for a fuller account of both continental and insular claims to ‘Celtic’ identity (and the insurmountable problems in claims to a single pan-European ‘Celtic’ identity), see Simon James’ The Atlantic Celts: Ancient People or Modern Invention (1999). As a necessary aside, some of this is going to depend on linguistics. I am not a language specialist (though I read a few languages), much less a Celtic-language specialist (of which I read none). I am giving my best understanding of these relationships based on what I have read.
Also, a terminology clarification! Some of you have noticed that I tend to studiously avoid using the word ‘Celtic’ to describe anything that isn’t a language or language-family. You are about to discover why. But to set out how I generally use the terminology: Celtic refers exclusively to language groups (e.g. Celtic languages, Celtic-language speakers); yes, the term goes back to Greek sources who called some of these folks keltoi (κελτοί; it’s unclear if any of them ever called themselves that), but as we’ll see, it becomes hopelessly muddled in the modern period, except as a linguistic term. Gallic refers to a group of apparently culturally related (but not necessarily genetically related!) people, as understood by the Romans, clustered around the Alps. La Tène material culture refers to a set of archaeologically recognizable signifiers (objects, art-styles, settlement patterns), which are in some cases associated with people who are known to have been Gallic or Celtic-language speaking, and in some cases not. There are certain situations where I might say a site has La Tène material culture, and I may suspect it was inhabited by Gauls, who I may suspect were Celtic-language speakers, but as we’ll see below, those things are not certain in many cases. In other cases – Ireland for instance – we have Celtic-language speakers who are very definitely not Gauls, while in Spain we have Celtic-language speakers who might well be related to Gauls, but lack some notable elements of La Tène material culture, while meanwhile in Anatolia we have a Gallic people with La Tène material culture who, while speaking a Celtic language, write in Greek. History is funny that way and it’s always best to be cautious.
The idea of a pan-Celtic identity had been bouncing around since at least George Buchanan’s work in 1582, but it really caught fire with the linguistic work of Edward Lhuyd in 1707. Much like with the German fascination with the Germania (which, for its flaws, was an authentic ancient source, albeit one that needed to be read far more critically), the ‘Atlantic Celts’ begins with a grain of truth. Lhuyd demonstrated that Scottish Gaelic, Irish and Manx were all related to each other (with a common ancestor language sometimes called ‘Q-Celtic’ – this had been long suspected) and related more distantly to Cornish and Welsh, but also Breton, the language of Brittany in France (sometimes thought to collectively descend from a common ancestor, ‘P-Celtic’). These languages then seem to have been in the same general language family as the long-dead languages spoken in Gaul, Noricum, and parts of Spain prior to the Roman conquest (after which they were slowly displaced by Latin).
That linguistic link, so far as I am able to tell, is well demonstrated and now considered soundly proved (with alterations, as you might imagine). But the conclusions that were swiftly drawn from it were anything but sound. Lhuyd tentatively imagined that Britain might have been populated by an invasion-wave of prehistoric migration (the medieval histories of both Ireland and Great Britain had recorded their history as a series of invasions, but the archaeological evidence seems to argue against this being the case); he collectively called these fellows Celts rather than Gauls because the term ‘Gallic’ was associated with France, and British pride in 1707 would hardly stand the suggestion that they were, in fact, transplanted Frenchmen (though it is worth noting that it is practically certain no one anywhere in the British Isles would have called themselves Celtic or Gallic prior to the Roman arrival). Though naturally, the sudden vogue for anything ‘Celtic’ would extend to France, where one of the key debates in the salons of the 1700s was if the French should be understood as fundamentally German (descending from the Germanic Franci) or fundamentally Gallic. Montesquieu, for instance, favored the Germanic origin; nationalism would resolve the issue in the French consciousness – as Germany rose as a threat to France, the Gallic identity became paramount, with figures like Vercingetorix transformed into national heroes (note also in this tradition as a symbol of resistance against the Germans, everyone’s favorite French comic: Astérix le Gaulois).
As James notes, the 18th century saw a hunger in many parts of Britain (newly so unified in that same year, 1707) among the non-English, for an ethnic identity with antiquity that could compete with the claims of other such identities – indeed, Lhuyd himself knew what he was doing. He was part of the conversation with figures like Paul-Yves Pezron (1639-1706), who posited a ‘Celtic’ origin for the Spartans and that the ‘Celtae’ descended from Noah (no, really, through Japhet) and were the original Titans of Greek myth. Demonstrating the unified Celtic-language family served as part of a project of discovering – or manufacturing – a suitably ancient and august origin which could stand proud against the English and their Anglo-Saxon heritage. If that seems crazy, I should note that German-speaking intellectuals were trading in similar theories about the Germanic people’s of Tacitus – that Tuisto, Tacitus’ German founder-deity, was in fact a son of Noah, or could be dated relative to the Trojan war, or even established an unbroken line of German kings down to the (then) present!
Note one of the core assumptions here: that a people or culture or race share a family tree with a common ancestor or point of origin – that assumption is largely wrong, by the by (humans intermix and intermarry, a lot), but it is going to inform some concentrated ugliness in just a few paragraphs.
This vision was then compounded by the emerging discipline of archaeology. In 1857, the lowering water level at the Lake of La Tène (a small town in the Swiss Alp) exposed a wealth of Gallic artifacts (from what Caesar tells us, we might expect the Helvetii to have lived here). Pro-Celtic European scholars were quick to connect the material-culture type (that is, the object and art styles – what I refer to as La Tène material culture) with an expanding zone of ‘Celtic’ peoples, brought about by migration and invasion. Nationalist imaginations flourished over the idea of Celtic warlord conquistadors, spreading out over Europe – a Fremen invasion of hardened ‘barbarian’ warriors.
Note that there are two huge assumptions there: first is that the objects (which we can observe) can be taken to clearly indicate a culture (which we can not observe) and that second, the expansion of the culture was assumed to have been the product of the migration of people. That is, the assumption was that a single, genetically ‘Celtic’ stock of people was expanding across Europe. And let me be clear: both of those assumptions are quite bad.
For instance, while continental La Tène material culture made it to southern Britain (and Caesar is clear that some social institutions followed), it’s now quite clear that there was no invasion of Gallic peoples, but simple cultural exchange over an active trade-zone. Part of how we can tell is burial customs – an invading people will naturally bring their own burial customs with them, but the arrival of La Tène material culture doesn’t disrupt the burial customs in S. England (which were different than those on the continent) at all. Instead, we get British burials with continental goods, strongly indicating that the pre-Roman British elites are importing La Tène goods, and maybe even some ideas and institutions, but not large numbers of continental people.
Likewise, La Tène material culture rushes into sites in Thrace that we know from our ancient sources are Thracian-speaking and culturally Thracian – not ‘Celtic’ in any way! Hell, if we went by material culture alone, we might identify some Roman military sites as ‘Celtic,’ since the Romans adopted the Gallic shield, helmet and body armor! The same problems, as a side note, play out in Spain – check out Fernando Quesada-Sanz’ excellent work on military material culture in pre-Roman Spain (e.g. Weapons, Warriors & Battles of Ancient Iberia (2017) – alas, Quesada-Sanz’s most thorough stuff on this is understandably in Spanish, but even if you only read English, you may rest assured that a whole lot of expertise sits behind his conclusions – his El armamento ibérico (1997) is truly impressive!). There’s some La Tène stuff in Spain, but also local variants we don’t see anywhere else (including, maybe, the ancestor of the Roman gladius) and some cross-pollination with local Iberian (non-La Tène) equipment. It really is quite fascinating stuff! But obvious evidence of some grand ‘Celtic’ invasion of most of Europe, it is not. More likely in many cases, pretty things and effective weapons were adopted by whoever lived there, including the Romans (and, by the by, the Greeks, who picked up the Gallic shield (probably from the Galatians), named it the thureos and made quite a bit of use of it).
(Of course, in some cases, we do know about large-scale migrations – the Galatians, a Gallic, Celtic-language speaking, La Tène material culture people migrated into Anatolia, for instance (and promptly Hellenized their culture significantly, so becoming quite culturally distinct in their own right – they start writing in Greek). Likewise, it seems like there is some in-migration of Celtic-language speakers into Spain, but also lots of cultural fusion and exchange. What I want to note here is that even these migrations do not establish that all, most or even basically any of these La Tène material culture peoples had some kind of common ancestry, which, as we’ll see, is a real sticking point. In fact, Caesar’s own description of Gaul implies the opposite: all of the three groups he notes, the Galli, Belgae and Aquitani, have La Tène material culture – yet even Caesar can clearly see they are distinct cultural/ethnic groupings which have adopted a shared material culture and he only considers one of these groups strictly Gallic, though they are likely all Celtic-language-speakers).
I don’t want to get too in the weeds on La Tène material culture archeology or its implications (at least, not right now). Rather, the key point here is that by the start of the 19th century (and especially after 1857), French, Irish, Scottish, Welsh (and even, oddly English – at times when asserting Anglo-Saxon ‘German’ness was inconvenient, the English often fell back on the Arthurian mythos and a Romano-British ‘Celtic’ nationalism) nationalism had been caught up with the idea of the supposedly ‘Celtic’ proto-nation: expanding bands of genetically linked conquering warriors, bringing their culture and objects with them. This view, I want to stress, is not supported by the current evidence.
Consequently, several of the key ‘national myths’ – and here I do mean myths, remember: most of this is rubbish – hinged on an idealized past of heroic, ‘barbaric’ warriors whose lack of sophistication bred moral purity and ruthless military success (remember that the bad assumptions being made by assuming both the ‘Germans’ and and ‘Celts’ are invading and displacing all sorts of people, while maintaining genetic ‘purity,’ meaning lots of very successful genocidal warfare). The Fremen Mirage – which had been a way for ancient authors to analyses or critique their own, typically non-Fremen societies – had reemerged as a tool for national self-identification. In the case of the ‘insular Celts,’ that mostly meant Irish, Welsh, Scottish, Cornish and Manx rallying around an identity that excluded their English overlords (but see below).
But if – as I keep noting – these theories about expanding warrior peoples displacing their neighbors have been pretty well demolished…why does this idea survive so strongly in the popular culture?
So far, our revived Fremen Mirage has primarily lived among the intelligentsia of Europe, an idea with currency among the sort of people whose nascent nationalism also followed with an interest in classical ethnography, or linguistics. It was a creature of the elite salons and for much of the 18th century played second fiddle to Enlightenment thought, which was more interested in a universal science of government than peculiar local institutions, and saw its roots in classical antiquity rather than the pre-Roman past.
As the 1700s closed, however, the Enlightenment largely gave way to a new intellectual movement: Romanticism. Romanticism focused on individual emotion, rather than the impersonal reason of the Enlightenment, and had a love of the medieval and pre-Roman pasts, which were conceived of as heroic, emotional and anti-rational in contrast to the rationalism of the Classics. The roots of Romanticism seem to lie in Germany, with the Sturm und Drang movement of the late 1700s, but the French Revolution and the perceived failure of its Enlightenment values (with the universalist creeds of the Declaration of the Rights of Man giving way to the emotive nationalism of Napoleon and the Levée en masse) seems to have impelled Romanticism to the fore, while resistance against Napoleon provided the fuel for nationalism in the states that opposed him. And it seems to have re-popularized the Fremen Mirage.
The Mirage fit beautifully with the zeitgeist of Romanticism (incidentally, zeitgeist itself was a term coined in this period). It imagined raw, larger than life heroic ancestors – Arminius, Boudica, Vercingetorix – and a morally pure, independent past, free from either outside influence, or the corrupting role of modernity (fitting with the philosophy of Rousseau that modern society was essentially corrupting of the originally pure man). It fit with a rush to rediscover, record (or in some cases, fabricate) folklore and traditional stories, as a way of recapturing an authentic past. It was an age for national epics – the rediscovery and translation of Beowulf (first printed edition, 1815; English Romantic nationalism would remain, for most of the 19th century, focused on ‘Germanic’ Anglo-Saxon ancestry, until the World Wars turned the brother-German into the Hun, with a consequent renewed focus by the English in sharing with Britain’s Celtic past – ironically, as Simon James notes, a past that had previously been used to marginalize and belittle Britain’s own Celtic-language-speakers), or Wagner’s famous adaption of the German Nibelungenlied as Der Ring des Nibelungen – these were Romantic, nationalist projects.
Krebs associates this in Germany with the work of Friedrich Kohlrausch (no, not that Friedrich Kohlrausch, this Friedrich Kohlrausch (1780-1867)), whose Die deutsche Geschichte für Schule und Haus (The German History for School and Home, 1816) went through more than a dozen editions and set the mold for education in the 19th century in many of the German states, though he far from the only one. An unabashed nationalist, Kohlrausch saw a single German volk, originating with the germani of Tacitus and extending down to his present, with a constant set of virtues as laid out by Tacitus (virtues, it must be stressed, Tacitus is making up, as he never went anywhere near German-speaking lands); indeed he termed Tacitus (Krebs’ translation), “a mirror of honor and pride as well as imitation” and “a temple of honor to the German nation.” That there was no German nation in Tacitus’ day, but many non-state and proto-state polities of German-speakers mattered little. I offer Kohlrausch not as the grand origin point of the movement – he was not – but as representative of its scope and aims.
If that was the whole of the weave of our 19th century version of the Mirage, it would not be uncommonly bad as such national myths go; silly, outdated and uncritical, but little different than Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Trojan Britons. Court historians had been telling myths disguised as history to consolidate state power for as long as there had been court historians. But a weave has two parts: Romantic nationalism is the weft; 19th century ‘scientific’ racism (there are not enough sneer-quotes in the whole of the English language for the word ‘scientific’ there) is the warp. And as both Simon James (speaking of both Anglo-Saxon and Celtic myth-making) and Krebs (speaking of Germanic myth-making) make abundantly clear, the weave here was tight – functionally inseparable.
Racism was not new to the 19th century, but the idea that it ought to be approached scientifically, as the product of immutable characteristics was. I will not rehearse the whole nasty history of this world-historically awful idea, but except to note that, at the time it was commonly assumed that there were identifiable ‘races,’ that these shared common, immutable genetic characteristics, and that the mixing of these races must necessarily diminish them (that last bit, in particular, the contribution of Arthur de Gobineau, will be relevant in a moment). Scientific racists imagined a perverse hierarchy of peoples – we (in America) tend to imagine this sort of racism as a white/non-white thing, but there were also assumed gradations between various European groups, with Mediterranean and Eastern Europeans shoved down (and the many non-European peoples in their colonies pushed yet lower still). And just so we’re clear: all of this was 110% non-scientific industrial-grade garbage-thinking.
However, it was the dominant thinking of the time, and fit neatly with the Romantic nationalist vision of the past. If national greatness was found in the genes, it ought to appear not only in the present, but also in the past; thus idea that the Germans had ‘never been conquered’ became an article of proof of German genetic superiority for ‘scientific’ racists. Tacitus’ description (which again, was never really very accurate) became a list of immutable characteristics of the German volk.
Take Kohlrausch. He also fixed on what is a quite minor detail in Tacitus’ telling – that the Germani were “not at all mixed with other peoples through immigration or hospitality” (Tac. Ger. 2.1). This – the people that ‘resembles only itself’ – was, by Tacitus’ day, a well-worn trope of ethnographic writing, a commonplace which might be assigned to any number of ‘exotic’ peoples, but Kohlrausch and his contemporaries took it as uniquely true of the Germans, that they were racially unmixed (again, to be clear, that is nonsense – an exoticizing trope the Greeks and Romans applied to any number of foreigners, with limited accuracy at best). The Fremen Mirage became a trope deployed in the service of demonstrating racial purity and superiority.
(As Simon James notes, the Celtic versions of this idea – both the insular (that is, of the British Isles) and the continental (read: France) versions – emerged in competition to German and Anglo-Saxon claims of racial superiority. Claims to unique Celtic identity in France and the British Isles also turned on questions of racial purity. The debate about the genetic legacy of the British Isles is ongoing and deeply tied into English/Welsh/Irish/Scottish/etc identity; see for instance B. Sykes, Blood of the Isles (2006) where modern genetic testing is employed in an effort to demonstrate the ‘Celtic’ (but not Gallic) ancestry of all of the inhabitants of the isles, including the English. I render no verdict on this debate or research (I’m not qualified to), except that, as an American, I think ‘common ancestry’ ain’t worth squat.)
Of course, as we’ve detailed before, the mirror image of the Fremen Mirage is decadence. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the emphasis on emotion over reason inherent in Romanticism, decadence and moral decline were key points of interest. It is the theme which gives Shelley’s Ozymandias (1818) its great poignancy – the contrast between Ozymandias’ hubris and the complete decline of his works. It is not an accident that the meme with which we began the series pulls most of its background images from Romantic paintings. For instance, Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire (1836) is a sequence of five paintings, from raw, beautiful undistributed wildlife, to an idealized state, to The Consummation of Empire showing decadence, and then Destruction and finally Desolation. One can feel the influence of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1789), with its thesis that Roman collapse was caused by moral decline (and the rise of Christianity):
Likewise, of course, Thomas Couture’s famous Romans During the Decadence (1847):
As Krebs notes, the connection between German Fremeness (and supposed genetic superiority) and Roman decadence is made explicit by Kohlrausch’s friend Ernst Moritz Arndt, who wrote a series of popular pamphlets on the ‘purity’ of the German ‘race’ (gleaned from Tacitus), contrasted with the degeneracy of Rome, which he attributes to intermarriage and racial mixing. Italy, Arndt says (trans. Krebs) – channeling the gendered aspect of decline (which is thought to effeminate its subjects, as we saw with Caesar) “had once been the mistress of the world, a bastardized canaille, cursed and outcast.” Rome, Arndt argued, fell because it intermarried and interbed – an argument, I am quite sad to say, I still see today, often thinly veiled at best (it is raw, unfiltered nonsense, but that’s a series for another day).
But much of the decadence narrative was instead placed on the Near East and the Muslim world, as detailed perhaps most notably by Edward Said in Orientalism (1978; my views on Said’s work, particularly his treatment of the classical past, are complex and I won’t get into them here; on the present point I think he is quite correct). Romantic artwork explodes with depictions of a sexualized, feminized (remember how decadence in Herodotus and Caesar makes the decadent men womanly? Yup, that’s back), exoticized ‘orient’ to contrast with the hard, productive, simply, manly West. Much of this mobilized the tropes of the Fremen Mirage, now filtered through an ideology of racial superiority, to justify colonial exploitation.
Almost all of this sort of artwork, which begins during the Romantic period and continues beyond it for much of the 19th century, it should be noted, was produced by artists who had never been to the East, and most certainly never inside of the palaces and particularly harems they depicted. Anyone even remotely familiar with period dress in the Muslim world recognizes these paintings for the absurdities they are (actually, Lindsay Ellis touches on this quite effectively in a recent video about an orientalisizing character in The Phantom of the Opera which sums it up nicely). Nevertheless, these sorts of paintings became the image of a ‘decadent’ East against which to understand the Fremen ‘West.’
Exporting the Mirage
Now I should be clear – this intellectual tradition of historical cycles of rises, declines and falls is not the only one. The Chinese concept of the Mandate of Heaven has a similar cyclical implication to it, as a dynasty rises, then loses the backing of divine forces and collapses, leading to the next. Medieval Europe actually had a similar concept, the translatio imperii (“transfer of rule/empire”), which was a way of viewing history as a series of successions from one group or dynasty to the next, typically with divine agency motivating the transfer of rule from less pious rulers to more pious ones. And I’m going to talk about Ibn Khaldun’s ideas around asabiyah and decline in just 94 words.
So why focus on this intellectual tradition? Well, the answer is simply that while adherents to the Fremen Mirage often either think they’re holding those other ideas (especially Ibn Khaldun) or actively hide behind them in bad faith, frequently (but not always) you scratch the surface, what you actually have is that swirl of cyclical history and Romantic nationalism (and the poison of the ‘scientific racism’ it hides). Let me take Ibn Khaldun as an example and discuss his vision in more depth – because it is actually really quite interesting!
Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) was an Arab writer, born in Tunis, most often known now as the father of sociology. Ibn Khaldun wrote a grand universal history, the Kitab al-Ibar of the world he knew up to his own time. The core concept that creates his cyclical view of history is asabiyah (as with any transliterated Arabic word, you will find multiple similar spellings), which means something like solidarity, cohesion or even clannishness. I like ‘clan cohesion’ as a way to capture the concept as I understand it, though ‘clan’ here is not meant in a genetic/familial sense, but in a social one. Asabiyah is the force that holds a group together, particularly under stress, fear or battle. It is, for Ibn Khaldun, what leads one man to die for another. The reason I don’t simply use cohesion – a concept we’ve met on this blog before – is that Ibn Khaldun only really knows this one kind of cohesion; there are others, which my sense is – from my admittedly limited exposure to him – he does not know about or find relevant.
(Note: for a lot more depth on this topic, there’s actually a really good summary here. I have some serious disagreements with the historical application – for instance, I think the author misunderstands the psychological impact of synchronized discipline on Roman or Han Chinese armies, understanding it as merely force when it is something more (Greer, the author, is a modern strategic writer, and I suspect his training is in political science, which sometimes fails to appreciate the sophistication of ancient social systems) – but as a summary of the ideas, it is quite sound)
Asabiyah has its origins in the clan unit and the kin ties that cause you to defend brother or cousin, but it need not end there. The clan can enlarge itself and, as Ibn Khaldun notes, a group with very strong asabiyah which overtakes another group can often, almost as if by gravity, attract the members of the defeated group into their own number. Note how this necessarily seperates asabiyah from our Romantic Fremen Mirage – asabiyah need not be tied to ancestry or race. Large, very populous, very diverse societies are unlikely to produce those sorts of strong bonds; instead, Ibn Khaldun connects asabiyah with the clan and the tribe – generally smaller, generally more nomadic societies.
This produces a cycle in Ibn Khaldun’s view: a society with very strong asabiyah will be militarily powerful, absorbing less cohesive groups (often larger, state-based societies, which he perceives – correctly in many cases – as relying on violence and force, instead of the soft-power of clan-cohesion). But that expansion inevitably erodes asabiyah in a number of ways. It takes members of the clan out of close contact with each other, so their cohesion withers. It also introduces conquered peoples who must be ruled by force instead of through voluntary cohesion (non-voluntary asabiyah isn’t asabiyah at all). And the acquisition of large amounts of wealth decouples the interests of individuals with the interests of the group. The new empire fragments as its asabiyah weakens, leaving it to be overtaken by the next.
Now, as a theory of history, I think this has some explanatory power for a specific subset of states – that sounds like faint praise, but I think Ibn Khaldun’s achievement here really is remarkable. It appears to Ibn Khaldun as a general theory because, for six centuries prior to his life, those sorts of states – nomadic peoples who built weakly consolidated empires – was the sort of government that most dominated his region of the world, from the Rashidun Caliphate, the Umayyads, the Abbasids, and so on.
But it is also very much a product of its moment. Ibn Khaldun offers no way out of the cycle of rising and falling asabiyah; he cannot imagine a nomadic people successfully managing the transition from a stable group based on asabiyah to a stable state based on royal and institutional legitimacy – that is, from one form of power to another form of power, rather than from power to violence, to use Hannah Arendt’s dichotomy again. For Ibn Khaldun, the state always devolves down to the violence of a king. Ibn Khaldun is entirely correct to note the fragility of violence as a tool of rulership; Arendt will make the same point in 1972 and y’all know how much I love referencing it. What he cannot know is that within fifty years of his death, the Ottomans are going to successfully manage that transition in his own backyard, institutionalizing their control in a durable form (yes, durable, the Ottoman Empire lasts from 1300 to 1922! It gets tarred as ‘decadent’ and ‘declining’ because it was so during the Romantic period discussed above and so became the symbol of that, but it is Rome’s only real peer in the European or Mediterranean in terms of imperial success) which does not rely on clan cohesion, but rather transitions to other forms of manufactured cohesion. The Ottomans in squaring Ibn Khaldun’s circle, point to gaps in his theory – but we may hardly hold him accountable for that, given that he wasn’t around to see it happen.
The Ottomans aren’t a lone case either. I’d argue that the Manchu/Qing (1644-1911) certainly pull off this transition, as do the Mughals (1526-1857) in the modern era, and in antiquity, I’d say that the Achaemenids (550-330) despite the sudden impact of Alexander’s superior tactical system, accomplished the same: converting a voluntary tribal asabiyah system into a successful and stable system based on state legitimacy. Of course that leaves out all of the major empires which were never asabiyah clan systems in the first place – Ibn Khaldun doesn’t seem to have a sense that an un-clannish state might succeed militarily (because by his day, it hasn’t happened in his neighborhood in a long time), but of course that’s exactly what we see with Rome (which Khaldun does discuss, I should note), in most Chinese dynasties, or the colonial empires of the modern period, to name just a few.
But why does this feel like a long aside? Unfortunately, because it is. Because, as we’ve sketched the outlines of the Fremen Mirage, you can see it is actually quite different from Ibn Khaldun’s vision. Romantic European thinkers aren’t praising the ancient German-speakers or Celts for their tight bonds of clan identity, but for their strength, heroic simplicity, and moral (and awkwardly, racial) purity. Take a modern example of the trope – say, Conan the Barbarian – and it becomes obvious; he doesn’t possess asabiyah at all (though he does work with others). His effectiveness comes from ruthless cunning, strength and skill (sidenote: the Fremen are unsophisticated in the Mirage, but not stupid – a ruthless trickster’s cunning is often part of the package). And the meme doesn’t read “close-knit men in a tight clan bond make good times, which make loose-knit tribal bonds that lead to decline” – it reads hard times make hard men. And the Fremen of Dune (as I think, looking at the comments, we’re going to need to discuss) don’t owe their fierce prowess to asabiyah, but to the brutal conditions on Arrakis – asabiyah according to Ibn Khaldun is more a product of proximity, association and friendship. It’s social, whereas what the Fremen have is environmental, when it isn’t genetic.
Ibn Khaldun has his own theory of history, with its own strengths and shortcomings, but it is not the Fremen Mirage. I should also note that Ibn Khaldun was hardly the only Muslim writer who was thinking and writing about the problems of settled peoples encountering nomads and the clash of different systems of war and society; also notable are Ata Malik al-Juwayni (1226-1283) and Ali ibn al-Athir (1160-1233).
What I found striking when brushing up again on Ibn Khaldun, is that when his writing does get translated over to the West – in fragments first in 1808, with (as I understand it) the first complete Western translation by William de Slane finished in 1856 – it is translated and contextualized in French through the lens of the self-same assumptions that inform the Romantic iteration of the Mirage: Orientalism, scientific racism, etc (on this, see A. Hannoum, “Translation and the Colonial Imaginary: Ibn Khaldun Orientalist” in History and Theory 42 (2003):61-81). As Hannoum relates, de Slane presents a narrative summary of Ibn Khaldun which primes the reader to understand Ibn Khaldun’s work not on its own terms, but as a contest of domination between two ‘races’ with fixed innate natures (rather than fluctuating asabiyah), which degenerate when intermixed – a set of concepts quite foreign to Ibn Khaldun’s actual writing. In short – Ibn Khaldun wasn’t blinded by the Fremen Mirage, but his 19th century European translator opted to blind his European readers on his behalf.
And that was hardly the only place that these ideas were imported to. As has been mentioned in the comments, the British, particularly after the Indian Mutiny (1857) were essentially guided by the same kind of thinking to divide India into ‘races’ some of which were ‘martial races‘ seen as being genetically ‘fit’ to serve in the British army, while others were not. The categories drew from ‘scientific’ racism, imputing that soldierly qualities were essentially genetic (and yet somehow the roster of supposedly ‘martial races’ did, in fact, change over time, because, of course, the idea of ‘martial races’ of this theory is garbage nonsense). And lest you thought that we were done talking about gender, as Heather Streets shows (in Martial Races: The Military, Race and Masculinity in British Imperial Culture: 1857-1914 (2004)), the British imported the same gender framing between ‘effeminate’ Indians unsuited for military service and the ‘manly’ martial races.
We’ve been a bit all over the place, so now is a good time to take stock.
Last time, we looked at the Classical foundation for the Fremen Mirage – a trope of modern pop-historical thought. We knew from our first two essays in this series that, apart from a few key possible exceptions (which I promise we will get to), this theory of history didn’t really seem to hold up very well. Hard times, it turns out, were a poor substitute for large group sizes, high population density, large resource pools, superior technology and effective professional training.
When we investigated, we found the root of our Mirage, in a partial form, in the Greek and Roman ethnographic tradition, where it functioned as much, if not more so, as a tool for self-definition or self-critique as it did to describe non-state peoples. Since accuracy was never the top concern, this literature needed to be read very critically in order to get anything like actual information on ancient non-state peoples (side note: is there interest in me talking about what we do know about Gallic social organization?).
When that tradition was revived in the early modern period, it was being used in exactly the opposite way the authors originally intended – not as a self-critique of Rome or Greece for Romans or Greeks, but as the basis for forming a national identity out of the legendary past of the non-state people. It was also being read in about the least critical manner concievable, with the outlandish claims of what was, in essence, Roman propaganda being accepted as complete, unvarnished truth. The ambiguity ancient authors expressed about Gauls and Germans (unsophisticated! uneducated! lazy!) were misunderstood or ignored, to create an idealized past of heroic ancestors which would justify the nationalist project.
In the immediate aftermath of the French revolution, this project went popular, suffusing literature, education, and the arts, at exactly the time it fused with a specific strain of European racism informed by half-understood theories of genetics and evolution. Consequently, the ‘hard times’ that produced the ‘hard men’ of these ancient societies – and that sense of deprivation and challenge remained crucial to the myth – was offered as proof of genetic racial superiority, to justify national aggression in Europe and imperial domination abroad. You can see how the natural selection argument would run – that the difficult environments of cold Northern Europe somehow ‘culled the weak’ and produced the superior stock. With the Fremen Mirage coming on the cusp of the New Imperialism, Europeans took their different racially-charged versions of it abroad, using them as a lens through which they would view other cultures.
The German form of this ideology ends up exactly where you think it does, as a core component of Nazi racial ideology, sufficiently dear to the Nazis, as Krebs notes, that in 1943, Heinrich Himmler, Hitler’s SS chief, was sending crack SS units into Italy (by this point, a war-zone where Allied troops were advancing) in a last ditch effort to try to retrieve what was essentially a ‘holy’ (or unholy) text: a manuscript of Tacitus’ Germania. Now, I didn’t lead with that because I wanted to attack this idea dispassionately, from a historical angle first – to present that case without first staining the idea by invoking Godwin’s Law. I wanted to show that this theory of history wasn’t sustainable, even on its own terms.
But this answers our question: if this theory of history isn’t terribly accurate or useful (it is, you will note, far less helpful than Ibn Khaldun’s concept of asabiyah, which is at least really handy when talking about certain sorts of societies), why does it still maintain such currency? The answer is that, on top of being in the cultural zeitgeist for a very formative century in world history, this was the sort of historical myth that channeled the vast energies and resources of the new nationalism – and often the even vaster resources of the states which sought to harness it. Academics might be funded to push for the inclusion of old national epics into a new canon of great literature, sometimes genuine (Beowulf, the Song of Roland), sometimes not (the poems of Ossian), into creating huge operas (Der Ring des Nibelungen is fifteen hours long; it was funded by the King of Bavaria, Ludwig II) or all-pervasive textbooks, or the mountain of artwork and architecture to support new nationalist ideologies (seriously, stroll almost any European capital and you will see almost endless examples of Romantic nationalist art and architecture). Part of the challenge of writing this post in the series was keeping it short – there is so much artwork (both of heroic Fremen ancestors and ‘decadent’ Near Easterners), whole fields of scholarship exist because of this intellectual movement (to be clear, that’s not a slight against those fields, many of which are quite aware of that baggage and confront it openly). As the myth at the root of so much modern state-building, the resources plowed into its propagation were tremendous.
Because it is so pervasive, elements of this historical theory (these days, usually with the racist elements at least subdued) lurk in so many unquestioned assumptions and unasked questions. So why go through all this effort? Well…because knowing where the trap is – that’s the first step to evading it.
Now, I’ve seen in the comments some questioning of how much currency the Mirage really maintains, particularly in relation to my metaphor, the Fremen and Dune. Now, I could adduce any number of other examples – Conan the Barbarian (especially his movie form), functionally every depiction of Steppe nomads in American cinema, the Dothraki, the Rohirrim, and on and on. But I think next week, we’re going to divert from our plan slightly, and take a closer look at Dune and how it fits within the framework of this Romantic version of the Fremen Mirage. You’ve marched with me through two weeks of intellectual history, y’all deserve a treat. We’re gonna head to Dune, but brace yourself – God created Arrakis to train the faithful. It may get rough.
In the meantime, well…”The Fremen were supreme in that quality the ancients called “spannungsbogen” – which is the self-imposed delay between desire for a thing and the act of reaching out to grasp that thing.” – Dune (1965), 288.