November 13, 2008

Enter the Barbarians

Livy had to explain why the Gauls had arrived in the middle of Italy. Livy's explanation takes the form of an account handed down to him by Roman tradition- but of course its an account viewed through the lens of Livy's historical intelligence and interpretation. Rather than seeing this account as anything to do with historical truth, it is best to see it as a mixture of tradition and conjecture- with the former supplying incidental data and the latter the pattern of events. It is to that pattern that I want to turn- it tells us something about the way that Livy understood the movement of barbarian tribes around the ancient world- a movement that endured as a feature of ancient politics right down unto the dying days of Rome in the 400s. Livy's explanations tell us a lot- both about the way that he thought about pastoral peoples- and about the way that he conceived of their political culture.

Livy's argument is primarily about economics- and particularly about over population. His argument goes thus. A King of the Gauls, Ambitgatus, had conquered the majority of that people and through peace their population had increased and wished to 'relieve his kingdom of the burden of surplus population'. Consequently he sent two of his nephews off to conquer new lands- one to southern Germany and the other into Italy. Bellovesus who was sent to Italy collected 'the surplus population' and marched southwards- attracted by reputation of the vineyards and luxuries of Italy they pushed on eventually over the Alps and into the territories of Etruscan city states. That story is an economic one- it is about an over populated area of the world spilling its surplus population, in the form of military migration, into Italy. (V 34)

That account though is undercut by a second account which Livy seems to offer- and which haunts the background of this economic story. He introduces Ambigatus's problem by commenting not merely on the relief to the kingdom of removing these people, but also upon the fact that 'effective control of such large numbers was a matter of serious difficulty'. The fact that the two leaders are the two nephews of the King is also suggestive of another type of story told here- lurking here- behind the economic one. One in which what we are actually seeing is a political migration- the old story that finding 'new homes' is an alternative to finding new kings. (V 34)

Livy errs towards the first- that is the emphasis in his narrative. The political story is a matter of a throw away comment- and Livy did not base this on any particular deep research into barbaric history or customs. His culture was turned inward on Rome- and his very project- a history of the city and its transformation into an empire (with the empire very much as the backdrop to the story of Roman triumph) was a project of urban and insular history, not pastoral and global history.

However implausible his stories about the Gallic rise and march on Rome are as history- they are interesting as conjecture and they add another layer to the sociological points that Livy made about the Aequi and Volscii in Book III. The point is that Livy is charting here or attempting to chart not merely the condemnation of these barbaric forces but a map of the reasons behind their rise and fall, the ebb and flow of their raids. Those ebbs and flows for Livy are ultimately determined by economic forces- by overpopulation in particular. Overpopulation leads to economic and political pressures upon the barbaric state- and Livy implies that that is the reason why those states overflow their boundaries (set by the civilised world) and embark on disturbing the urban polities that they surround.


James Higham said...

Overpopulation - goes to show it never changes. Who would be the modern day Livy?

goodbanker said...

Overpopulation as a means of explaining the barbarian movements of antiquity seems unlikely to me - and, although it has been an argument used in other, similar contexts (e.g. to explain the migration of the Northern peoples 400-1000 AD), I think that modern historians have seriously questioned it as a plausible argument. As a metric of plausibility, how about this: the Earth currently has a population of around 6 billion, and one can argue that there is overpopulation in a number of places (if "overpopulation" is defined an insufficiency of [local] resources with which to sustain the [local] population - parts of Africa are an obvious example, taking this definition). But what was the population of the world in antiquity? Presumably much, much smaller than today. And was there a persistent mismatch (of resources to population) that can explain repeated waves of barbarian movements? It just seems unlikely (although I suppose harvest failures could be more frequent, and more devastating in their impact). Personally, I'm much more persuaded by the argument that peoples migrated because they were in a world of "conquer or be conquered". Isn't that how some of the Nordic sagas explain Viking moves into modern-day Iceland (and Newfoundland) in the C10th onwards? Similarly, I think there are late Coptic sources that indicate this as the reason for a splinter group of Arabs being forced from Spain in the early C9th AD. It certainly seems to explain the waves of steppe-land peoples, such as Huns (C4th) and Avars (C6th), who wreaked such havoc in Europe when they migrated westwards. I'm sure there are other examples.

Gracchi said...

James it obviously does change- we support many more people than Rome did through all the developments of the last couple of centuries.

Goodbanker- yes I agree the political explanation is much more plausible to me that its plunder which drives these conquests. I perhaps didn't make clear enough that this was Livy's view not mine- and what that told us about Livy's world. I haven't the time right now but will come back to this subect hopefully in later articles because I think that Livy's work on the barbarians or his concept of the barbarians is the other that defines his Rome in some ways.