Empires & Barbarians

Empires_Barbarians.jpgPeter Heather’s Empires And Barbarians is a book worth reading. Unfortunately it is also a book that is difficult to recommend. It is written for an academic audience. Which is another way of saying it can make for incredibly dry reading. This is a shame in that the scholarship, the ambition and the quality of Heather’s arguments are all impressive.

The central idea is this: in the beginning there is agriculture. Primitive agriculture is hard. It consumes a great deal of time and energy and leaves very little time for anything else. Life is nasty, brutish and very short.

What societies need to develop beyond a relatively miserable subsistence level agriculture is specialization.

This can happen in a couple of different ways. One way (the slow way) is that agricultural societies gradually develop technology that makes farming more efficient and less time intensive. This allows certain members of the community to focus on other activities — perhaps the manufacture of consumer goods, or the development of systems of writing (if this process interests you I highly recommend Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies). As specialization increases people’s lives tend to get a little less nasty, a little less brutish and a little bit longer.

Another, faster way that development happens is via trade and migration. For example, of early Germanic societies, Heather writes:

In the case of the Germani, Rome may have acted as a source not only of extra economic demand, but also possibly for some of the ideas and technology that made agricultural intensification possible […]

[…] Where and how, exactly, these ideas spread remains to be studied, but both the more efficient ploughs and the better integrated farming regimes were well known in Roman and La Tene Europe, much of which the Empire swallowed up in the first century BC, long before they spread into Germania, and and these areas may have inspired the Germanic agricultural revolution.

Other goods produced in Germania were also in demand in the Roman world. The occasional loan word and literary reference identify some specific products. Goose feathers for stuffing pillows and particular kinds of red hair dye were two such items. Much more important than any of these, though, was the demand certainly for two, and probably three, other raw materials.

Empires And Barbarians is more or less a case study of migration and development in the context of Europe in the first century AD. What I take away from the book is not so much the details, but the timeless nature of the process.

For example, in the fourth and fifth centuries the arrival of the Hunnic Empire in Europe caused enormous political and social dislocations. In essence, displaced barbarians showed up on the Roman Empire’s doorstep. For a whole series of complex reasons, not least of which was the need to bolster Roman Legions with barbarian manpower, the Romans were sometimes forced to grant concessions.

In a general sense, this is not so much different from what we see in Europe today with the mass influx of refugees from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. Or in the United States with refugees and migrants from Central and South America.

Again, Heather:

[I]t is important to factor in the general patterns of economic development operating in and around the Roman world. The Goths and other Germanic migrants of the third century had moved into the Black Sea region because it was part of a more developed inner periphery around the Roman Empire, with many economic attractions. And while these migrants were benefiting from that greater wealth, the Roman Empire was operating at a still higher level of development, with still greater economic surpluses. This wealth was immediately visible to outsiders in the Empires frontier zones in the form of towns, fortifications, armies, even villas, all of which, as we have seen, regularly attracted cross-border raiders. Ammianus’ account of Gothic motives, — that Roman wealth had entered their calculations — makes perfect sense, therefore, and also recalls modern case studies, where it is rare for economic motivations to be absent from immigrants’ calculations, even when their thinking has a strong element of the political and involuntary about it.

What I think is often missed in the debate surrounding immigration and refugee policy is this “zoomed-out” perspective of trade, migration and development. This is not some series of isolated incidents that can simply be prevented or outlasted. It is a cyclical process underpinning the evolution of human civilization. You don’t “beat” these kinds of cycles any more than you “beat” waves in the ocean.

So why does this get missed?

The news cycle plays out in hours. Election cycles play out in months and years. Economic cycles play out over decades. These cycles of migration and development play out over multi-decade, multi-generational time horizons. They create winners and losers.

People do not like to spend even half a lifetime losing. They will do seemingly crazy things to stop losing — to have a shot at winning. They will vote dictators into power. They will support ill-advised wars of aggression. They will wander thousands of miles on foot and pay thousands of dollars to criminals to ferry them across oceans in what are more or less bathtubs.

The value of a history like Empires And Barbarians, dry as it may read at times, is that it can afford to take the very, very long view. A luxury we cannot often afford.

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