Fireside this week! I am still working on “Decline and Fall?” Part III and should have that ready for you all next week. Part III is going to deal with economics and demographics (and also briefly, the question of non-elite literacy), which will hopefully make a lot of you happy since questions about those issues have kept coming up in the comments. Never fear, we will discuss them!
For this week’s musing, I hope you will all permit me to indulge in something I generally avoid: opining on something outside of the narrow realm of the historical or that touches on current security policy. In this case, I have been reading and watching quite a bit lately about the various applications of blockchain technology (cryptocurrency, NFTs, etc) and the related push towards developing a ‘metaverse.’ I’m not qualified to offer much of an opinion as to the technical aspects of these technologies, but fortunately that’s precisely what most of the writing about them has been: discussions of their technical aspects (with Dan Olsen’s recent feature length documentary being an unusual exception to this rule). That makes sense, as it is a technical subject, but to me that often seems to blinker the discussion, putting the focus on the technical issues or, at the broadest, the issues that would fit within the functioning of a tech company. Instead, I want to look at the question with a historian’s eye, thinking about how these technologies might fit into a broader social framework.
Really, this is less about the technologies themselves and more about the nature of states.
Because while I can offer no real opinion as to if any of these new technologies will succeed in their technical objectives (though it seems many people with that expertise have been expressing some serious doubts and the negative externalities of this technology when implemented at scale are considerable), proponents of these technologies typically envisage them eventually producing large social effects, in particular they imagine that blockchain technology will create an economic and social space outside of the control of the state, traditional banking institutions or society at large. And here is a space where a historian’s expertise is valuable and also almost completely lacking among blockchain enthusiasts.
So can they do it? To be blunt, no. On this, I am fairly confident, even as I do not claim to be an expert on the technology – because even if the technology does everything its proponents say it will do, I still would expect it to largely fail to circumvent the state. Doubtless that it an answer that upsets at least some of my readers, so let me explain.
This is hardly the first time that individuals or a group has aimed to withdraw from society like this. In non-state contexts, groups fission all of the time – large hunter-gatherer tribes that grow too large split into smaller ones. Large communities of farmers send farmers into the next valley over to push out whoever is there and set up their own farms. The new societies, under the same pressures as the old ones and with the same social norms, typically end up with similar if not identical institutions. People have likewise been trying to flee the state for a long time; the United States is, in part, a product of the efforts of many, many people to flee the stifling control of the state. They fled from England all the way to the East Coast and then all the way to the West Coast and yet the state (albeit a different state) chased them and their descendants all the way to the Pacific Ocean (and in some cases, beyond it).
This is because that societies in general and especially the states they create are fiercely jealous creatures by nature. I think we forget this sometimes because the modern liberal model of the state is in essence ‘chained’ – intentionally limited in what it can do to create free space for the individual. But as a rule human societies have historically had few qualms telling individuals how to run basically every part of their life, not only by placing some individuals under the total control of others but also by wrapping even the leaders and elites in narrow and confining social norms, all of which are an expression of the community’s perceived claims on the individual. The United States is, arguably, the most individualistic society ever to have existed and yet still functions this way, though it is perhaps not a surprise that it is in the context of American society in particular that the dreams of a techno-individualist future seem most promising (and perhaps least morally concerning). It seems fair to say that human societies have always recognized a fairly vast claim by the society over the individual and are thus unlikely to stop anytime soon.
In short, the state (and its society) will not willingly cede their power to legislate and regulate. This is something we touched on with megacorporations as well.
To which proponents respond that the power of the blockchain is that it puts you and your assets beyond the reach of ‘the man.’ It does no such thing. Your NFTs, ethereum and metaverse avatar may all well exist in cyberspace, but you exist in meatspace, as does the food you eat, the utility bills you need to pay and crucially the servers that all of your digital ‘assets’ exist on.1 If the state is unable to exert its claims over you in cyberspace, it will simply do so in meatspace and as far as I can tell, very little if any of this technology connected to the blockchain does anything to harden these systems against meatspace attack. Indeed, to the contrary, the massive server complexes required to maintain the blockchain and their proof-of-work system make for fairly obvious meatspace targets, as do the companies that manage crypto-wallets. For instance, MetaMask is run by ConsenSys, which is headquartered in New York; it would be fairly trivial for the United States government to thus acquire a quite complete inventory of all of the blockchain assets of anyone using MetaMask by pointing metaphorical legal guns or, failing that, very literal actual guns at ConsenSys.
To take an ancient historical analogy, starting in the last decade of the second century BC, Mediterranean piracy became a big problem for the Romans (mostly because the Romans had spent the previous century systematically removing every other naval power on the sea). The sea was then exactly as some proponents of crypto suggest cyberspace is now: a vast common where anyone could hide or disguise themselves, impossible to really search with the technology of the day. Roman efforts to suppress piracy – begun in 102 – failed again and again: the sea was too vast to find the pirates in when they were sailing and any time Rome targeted a given region for hosting pirates in their ports, the pirates would just move to some other region.
At last, in 67, the Romans had enough; a tribune, Aulus Gabinius proposed a law giving Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey the Great) a command to exterminate the pirates, extending his command over the whole Mediterranean (and up to 50 miles inland) and the ability to name a number of lieutenants (legati) who could operate independently to do it. Pompey was given three years to fix the difficult problem. He crushed the pirates in three months (Plut. Pomp. 28.2). Pompey’s method was simple: he targeted the home ports of the pirates instead of their ships and his vast command left them nowhere to hide. He also offered comfortable terms to those who switched sides, taking advantage of Rome’s power to co-opt some leaders against others and forcibly resettling them inland, away from the coast so they couldn’t take to the sea. It was, if you will pardon the analogy, a ‘meatspace strategy.’
In my experience, blockchain proponents will respond that the legal structures of modern western states prevent this sort of thing, but that sort of code-is-law thinking is deeply flawed when transplanted to the realm of actual social institutions. Laws change and if blockchain-related technologies ever become as widespread as they hope, the rules will change. Again, the state is a jealous creature, and it already has a good sense of what the rules of property are supposed to be. Indeed, in the above example, the Lex Gabinia was itself a shocking breach of Roman law and tradition – the scale and duration of Pompey’s command was effectively unprecedented and arguably ‘unconstitutional’ in as much as the Roman Republic had an (unwritten) constitution – but the pirates were a crisis and so it got done anyway.
In the context of the United States, at least, such extreme action probably wouldn’t be necessary, given the broad Commerce Clause authority to regulate interstate and international commerce – individuals in Texas or Tanzania transferring money through a server in New York or the Netherlands certainly would seem to count.
Offshoring the servers also seems unlikely to work in the long-run. For one, you haven’t offshored yourself, so the same meatspace-strategy still applies, particularly for tax assessment: they can’t arrest your OpenSea wallet, but they can arrest you. At the same time, offshoring catches the companies running the platforms (OpenSea, Metamask, etc.) and the server farms running mining on the horns of a dilemma: a small country might impose few restrictions, but ask the Dey of Algiers what can go wrong if a small state disrupts the economics of major powers. On the flip-side, the sort of state strong enough to protect the servers is also likely to be the sort of state looking to impose its own conditions on them and use the technology and its community to their own strategic ends. Escaping US or EU regulation only to end up as a geostrategic tool of China or Russia or whatever other great power might be in play is not likely to be much of a victory in the long run (and just as likely to get them legally shut out of the economies of the countries they’ve just departed).
In this sense, any cryptocurrency faces the same problem all non-governmental actors face: the larger you become and the more you appear to threaten the state, the more the state becomes hostile – and the state’s resources are massively, overwhelmingly greater. If crypto as a whole ever does ‘go to the moon’ it is likely to find the tax-man there, already waiting with the bill.
On to recommendations:
Over at Archaeology (which, by the by, is a fantastic publication for those of you interested in the study of the ancient world via archaeology), we have some new analysis of a 13,400-year old burial site at Jebel Sahaba. I actually talk about this site early on in the Global History of Warfare survey I teach. As the article notes, quoting Christopher Knüsel, “There was a long period when archaeologists said warfare didn’t happen in prehistory” and indeed there are still some archaeologists and anthropologists who insist that early hunter-gatherers didn’t do war. Jebel Sahaba is one of the key data-points that refute this view: 61 human remains with clear signs of violence. New analysis shows that many of these remains had wounds that healed, leading to the conclusion that this wasn’t the first conflict for many of these people. That the remains are disproportionately shifted to the very old and very young suggests that most of the lethality was focused in ambushes rather than battles, a pattern of warfare – what we’ve termed the ‘first system’ of war – seen in many non-state societies.
Over at ISAW (hat tip to Tom Elliott who is on twitter as @paregorios), there is a fascinating online exhibit focused on the elite houses of Pompeii, including a ‘fly through’ video through a digital reconstruction of the ‘House of the Tragic Poet’ along with a discussion of the banquet fresco (which you may recall from its appearance in “The Queen’s Latin”) and some good diagrams showing the shape of the elite Roman domus. It’s a great online exhibit, though I’d love to see it paired with a similarly careful look at a non-elite Roman insula, the cramped apartment blocks where most non-elite Romans who lived in cities lived.
Via this week’s Pasts Imperfect, Sebastian Heath has updated his map of Roman amphitheaters. It is a particularly interesting map in light of some of what we’ve discussed in terms of the spread of Roman identity in the Roman Empire – in particular a good reminder that ‘Roman culture’ didn’t look the same everywhere. As you can see on the map, there were relatively few amphitheaters (which unlike regular theaters, were pretty distinctly ‘Roman’ as compared to Greek) in the East, even in relatively late periods where the people living in those Eastern provinces might have self-identified as Romaioi – Romans. Their version of Romanness2 wasn’t the same as the version on offer in Gaul, but I’d argue neither region has a superior ‘claim’ to the ‘true’ Romanness. Rather Roman identity largely came to encompass all of it.
Meanwhile, Spencer McDaniel over at Tales of Time Forgotten has a thorough and well-put-together piece pushing back on the notion that Sparta was particularly special to Ares or vice versa. I frequently use Ares and Mars as examples of how Greek and Roman gods were not equivalents, noting that Mars receives a lot of extensive state cult in Rome and is revered as an ancestor of the Roman people. He can have positive associations, such as when he is Mars Ultor, Mars the Avenger (where, presumably, he hangs out with Thor). Meanwhile Ares, understood by the Greeks to represent almost exclusively the negative aspects of war (as opposed to Athena or even Apollo who might stand for victory, strategy, and aristocratic virtue) was a god one only worshiped to keep him at bay. As a result, Ares recieves relatively little cult in the Greek work, though he did have a shrine at Sparta (albeit, like everything in Sparta, an unusual one). But, as McDaniel notes, even this shrine was not a big cult center the way that, say, the Parthenon in Athens or the Temple of Apollo at Delphi was. To my knowledge, in the Greek world, Ares had no such major center. McDaniel’s essay is a great overview of Ares’ place in Greek religion and mythology, with lots of primary source quotations at some length, and well worth a read!
For this week’s book recommendation, I want to recommend M. Gabriele and D.M. Perry, The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe (2021), a book that came up briefly towards the beginning of “Decline and Fall?” The Bright Ages is a brilliant – you will have to pardon the pun – effort to bring a great deal of the progress of the study of medieval Europe to a broad readership in an engaging way and to reposition the way that the European Middle Ages are understood.
As the authors note, the popular imagination of the Middle Ages is generally trapped in two versions of the ‘Dark Ages’ – the first, a dark, poor, unpleasant past that modernity has allowed us to climb out of and the second a dark, savage past pointed to by 18th and 19th century nationalists (and the modern continuations of their ideologies) which supposedly provided the roots of the ‘races’ of Europe. Those two visions of the Middle Ages and the flaws in them should not be new to long time readers – we’ve discussed both here already. These twin notions of the Dark Ages serve as the target of the book. It is difficult to summarize it any other way, but let me now try.
Rather than directly debunk these notions (though the book does a fair bit of that too), the authors instead present in a series of historical vignettes, a different vision of the Middle Ages. Each chapter (there are 17) is largely self-contained, built around literal visual brightness: a brilliant painted ceiling, a glowing vision, the gleam of an elephant’s tusk (in Aachen!), even the burning of a city. The brightness here is at times quite literal, a contrast between the drab, grey-brown vision of the medieval past and the actual, brightly colored medieval world.
But the book isn’t just a discussion of the visual aspect of the Middle Ages and the brightness here isn’t just visual but a cultural vibrancy as well. Each of these visual moments is a jumping off point for a historical narrative and discussion, framed around an individual or an event. What binds each of these vignettes together is their emphasis on the vibrancy of the Middle Ages they portray – this is a medieval Europe where people from distant places mix, where learning and writing are happening, where brilliant art is produced, and religious devotion practiced. That is not to say this is a white-wash; this Middle Ages is also messy and violent, with war, plague and the Inquisition all making appearances. It is vibrant, for better and for worse, in a way that the popular imagination of this period – all cold stone (despite the fact that actual medieval people liked to paint a lot of that stone nice bright colors) – is not.
I particularly like the degree to which the authors take the religious devotion of the period seriously, in both its positive and negative aspects. Medieval Christianity, in particular, tends to be portrayed in popular culture as uniformly xenophobic, blinkered, unlearned and frankly stupid – it is a vision of the medieval Church adopted uncritically from Renaissance writers and one which most (functionally all?) modern medievalists reject. The Church was an object of intense, serious and meaningful devotion in the Middle Ages, for both good and ill; that devotion produced exceptional works of learning and art and created a vibrant, rich religious culture, while also, of course, leading its adherents to some of their worst acts. By way of example, Gabriele and Perry’s closing vignette is the famous debate in 1550 between Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda – a humanist and a man of the Renaissance – and Bartolomé de las Casas, a Dominican friar, over what rights and legal status the peoples of the New World – finding themselves newly subjugated by the Spanish crown – might have. As the authors note, it was Sepúlveda, arguing from Aristotle, who contended that the Native Americans had no rights and should be converted by force, while the most traditional, ecclesiastical de las Casas argued from Christian religious tradition (and simple humanity) that this was wrong and unjust. It was Sepúlveda, the monster, who was the man of the modern age and de las Casas, speaking from a deep and fundamentally medieval religious conviction who was the man out of time.
In a sense this sort of treatment – attempting (and largely succeeding) to breath the humanity and vibrancy back into medieval Christianity – is the book’s approach to the whole of the European Middle Ages. I have my quibbles to be sure, mostly in its treatment of Late Antiquity and my sense that it speaks from the ‘Change and Continuity’ school with too great a degree of doctrinal certainty, when the issue is in fact correct. But in its broader aims the book holds together very well; its vision of Bright Ages will be a shock to many readers but is not so much a bolt from the blue as it is a compilation of how our understanding of this period has been changing over the past several decades. That it will be surprising to many readers is more a comment of how sorely out of date the public perception – and frankly, quite a lot of teaching outside of universities – still is.
The book itself is very engaging written and extremely accessible: one can read this with no prior knowledge at all and not feel lost. There are no footnotes (this is a popular-oriented book) but each chapter has a good ‘further reading’ paragraph at the book’s conclusion, packed with recent (often very recent) treatments of the topic for readers that want more and more scholarly treatments. A set of glossy color plates provide images to go with the vivid descriptions and there is a map at the front placing the major locations of each chapter. An engaging read and a remarkable achievement, this is a book that I really do hope redefines how we imagine the Middle Ages.
- This has always been something in broader cyberpunk fiction I found amusing: it tends to treat cyberspace as a physical space that things can live in. Most recently, Cyberpunk 2077 indulges in this, with the internet including a ‘no man’s land’ of rogue AIs. But the internet doesn’t exist in some alternate universe, it is exists on real world servers. If you took a hatchet to those servers in the real world, the AIs hiding on them would cease to exist. Sure, one could distribute functions widely and use consensus algorithms to decentralize those sorts of processes, but then the state also controls the physical infrastructure that connects those decentralized nodes.
- I avoid the word romanitas in these contexts because it isn’t an ancient coining as far as I can tell.