May 08, 2008

Septimius Severus


"The contemporaries of Severus, in the enjoyment of the peace and glory of his reign, forgave the cruelties by which it had been introduced. Posterity, who experienced the fatal results of his maxims and example, justly considered him as the principle author of the decline of the Roman Empire"
Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Gibbon's perception of Septimius Severus was based on his own view of Roman history- he wrote a great longitudinal study of Rome's fall, from the age of the Antonines to the age of the Florentines and in his survey he noted the chronological passing of power. For Gibbon and for many before and after him, Rome's history took an upward turn in the second century AD. The hereditary Julio-Claudian and Flavian dynasties with their dynastic freaks (Tiberius, Nero, Domitian) gave way to the meritocratic series of adopted emperors- Nerva (96-8), Trajan (98-117), Hadrian (117-38), Antoninus Pius (138-61) and Marcus Aurelius (161-80). After Aurelius though the Empire slipped back- Aurelius's son Commodus was awful and he was succeeded by a period of civil war (193-97), only brought to an end when Septimius Severus seized control and reigned for a period of years until 211. After Septimius there was chaos as well- as challengers for the empire rose and fell and in the end internal chaos led to external danger- with emperors dying on foreign frontiers and various parts of the empire splitting off. The only Emperor who seemed to survive for a great period of time amidst the chaos was Severus, and hence Gibbon blamed him for the later decline.

Severus's biographer Anthony Birley takes a more lateral approach than Gibbon and stresses the ways in which Severus was a creature of his times. Severus was born in Lepcis Magna to a family with strong links to Rome- as part of the Empire's evolution more and more provincial citizens were using power within Rome itself- the great Senatorial aristocracy had been wiped out in the 1st Century AD and was replaced by a new aristocracy from the provinces, particularly Africa. Severus's ancestors- his grandfather in particular- was part of this and probably knew great literary figures such as Tacitus and Pliny. Severus's reign though marked a new turning point: he was the first Emperor not to have been brought up in Rome. He felt no great affection for the city- spending only three years of his reign in Italy (possibly less) and spending most of his time out on campaign. In that sense he marked the beggining of an evolution from an Italian Roman principate- to one which resided at key points on the frontier- as with Diocletian at Nicomedia and Milan, or with Constantine's successors at Constantinople and Ravenna.

Severus himself was part of a rich civilisation. He was a contemporary of Galen, the great doctor, and Tertullian, the Christian saint. Aurelius of course was not merely an Emperor but a philosopher. Severus was lucky in his historian, Cassius Dio, who compiled a pretty extensive history of his reign upon which much of Birley's work is based. But within that civilisation there were debates about strategy- some beleived as with Hadrian in an empire which withdrew to and solidified its boundaries, some like Trajan and Aurelius believed in extending the imperial sway to conquer new territories. Severus stood in the second camp- he looked in particular to Marcus Aurelius as a model for his reign- attempting to extend the Roman empire's sway in the East, where he sought to add Mesopotamian territory to reinforce the exposed province of Syria, in the south he forced the Roman border in Africa further south towards the Garamantes and in Britain, he attempted the conquest of Scotland but died before he could accomplish it. Such advances needed reorganisation. Severus was one of the leaders of a military reorganisation- that again was going to be paralleled later. The early Roman emperors relied upon provincial armies and a small Praetorian Guard in the Capital- Severus called up three legions to become a mobile reserve and attempted to introduce more fluidity into the army. Using it as a fluid weapon of offence and response instead of a passive defensive force- that meant that he spent far more upon the military than his predecessors. The instability of 193-7 also forced him to raise the soldiers' pay at a rate which the sterner predecessors would never have done.

Returning to Gibbon's question then- because it is worth answering, why did these trends lead to a temporary collapse and did they contribute to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire? Lets instead of answering Gibbon, answer a different question- did Severan reforms lead in part to the problems of the third century? To that question I think we can answer an unambiguous yes- the Severan reforms led to massive inflation throughout the empire, they led to military instability with soldiers desiring increased pay and receiving it from every new contender, Severus and his predecessors contributed to smashing up the old Roman system and the replacement was painful. But equally whilst Severan reforms contributed to the mid third century collapse, they also contributed to the recovery in the late third century. It is no accident that Diocletian and his successors used Severan ideas to reanimate the Empire: the Roman Empire in these years could in part be seen as a society going through the shock of reorganisation- and going through it spectacularly because the symptoms of that shock were civil war and invasion. Severan reforms though- introducing the itinerant, provincial, non-Roman Emperor with a mobile force behind him- shaped the later Roman Empire. Those reforms went back into the reigns of Aurelius and beyond- but they formed the template of what the Empire looked like under Constantine.

Perhaps what this demonstrates is that whereas there was definitely a fall of the Roman Empire in the West- decline isn't always the best way of conveying what happened to Rome. Rome evolved from a Republic to a Principate, from a Principate to an Empire- the changes meant that the form of the state changed- at times those changes could be painful but often they were attempts to respond to actual situations. Of course there were important failures- as you would expect with any system that relied on one individual, selected at times by the random chance of their genes, and Rome seemed to specialise in competent fathers with useless sons (Severus's son Caracalla didn't survive that long after murdering his brother) but there were strategical changes as well- some of which we see in Severus's reign. Severus's change of strategic focus is interesting because it demonstrates the increasing foreignness of Rome from what it had been- and it demonstrates the way that the Empire evolved to meet new challenges- tougher enemies on the frontiers (especially in the East with the rise of Sassanid Persia) and the need to rule by consent in the provinces, and coopt local elites. Severus afterall probably spoke with a Carthaginian accent- (he might well have pronounced his own name Sheptimus Sheverus) Carthage three hundred years before his birth, had been Rome's great rival.

Severus's reign therefore is fascinating- Gibbon was right, though other reigns built towards it, it was a watershed. But 'decline' is the wrong image, rather we should think of a Severan transition- whereby under Marcus and Severus the Empire's nature changed and the old Rome slowly ebbed away to be replaced (after the shock of the mid-third century) with something very different, the empire of Diocletian and Constantine.

May 07, 2008

The Robbery of Thomas Barnard

In the next place was Try'd a Butcher , against whom it was alledged that he and his Companions rob'd one Thomas Barnard of about five or six pound in money, and afterwards desperately wounded him, with an intention, as was thought, to have kill'd him, to prevent Discovery , being, it seems, known to the said Barnard; But he by providence escaping with his life, declaring the manner of the fact, and naming one of the principal persons concern'd in it, upon a diligent serch it was not longe'r he was apprehended.This Fellony and Robbery was committed a little beyond Islington , between which place and Barnet divers others were robbed that Evening, and as was supposed, by the same gang, but no more of them were taken, neither did any of the persons so robed give Evidence against the Prisoner, but onely the said Thomas Barnard , who knowing him so well, and giving in so plain an Evidence against him, the Jury could do no less then find him Guilty , according to which evidence he now stands Condemned.

I have highlighted this from the Old Bailey records website - because I think it is intrinsically interesting. But before that the website itself is pretty extraordinary and is going straight on my blogroll- as it contains all the published records for the Central Criminal Court at the Old Bailey from the 17th Century to the early 20th Century when records ceased to be published. I am adding this to my blogroll because its a really wonderful resource for anyone interested in social and criminal history.


I bring up this entry though, about the robbery and attempted murder of Thomas Barnard, for a variety of reasons. One is two important signs of the way that life has changed: the first is that Islington in the 17th Century was a village not part of London as it is now, Barnet too is part of London. Highwaymen do not frequent the roads around Barnet and Islington now: that's partly because there are no highwaymen in the UK (we will move onto the reasons for that later) but those roads on which Thomas Barnard was robbed are today roads through suburban houses, filled with the bustle of city life and the area where he was robbed is now passed through by trains and tubes. That's one major change- another is the amount of money for which he was robbed- five or six pounds isn't that much money today, it will buy you some fruit, a sandwich and a coffee at some places today- in the seventeenth century five or six pounds was a hell of a lot of money. A lease in 1688 for a house with "courtledge [curtilage] orchard, garden, Hempland Meadow and close on West Cheseldon, one and a half acres" was worth roughly 2 pounds a year. So Thomas Barnard, fifteen years before that lease was brought out, was robbed of the equivalent of a two rents for a house with land- that's a hell of a lot of money in anyone's terms.

What else is interesting in this record? Well there is plenty more obviously but lets start with something I consider very interesting. There are no Highwaymen in England anymore. Why? It might seem like an odd question- afterall the levels of violence have fallen across the centuries- but think again whilst levels of violence have fallen, the types of violence have not disappeared. Violent assault by men on their wives, I would guess is less than it was in 1673, but it has not disappeared. So why did Highwaymen disappear? There is a reason that highwaymen disappeared and it has to do with the fact that their habitat disappeared. So let us look for the moment at what happened to their habitat- the rural roads around Islington and Barnet which once were prayed on and dominated by gangs like those referred to above: well one thing is that they aren't rural any more, but there are rural roads so what has changed about those rural roads?

One word comes to mind, one word that really explains the way that the English countryside has changed: that word is "Enclosure". From 1500 onwards English agriculture changed its ways completely- in your stereotypical medieval village the fields were divided into strips. Each peasant would have a strip and the field of several acres would be managed by the whole group collectively rather than individually. Property rights were subject to what E.P. Thompson called the 'moral economy'- they were not absolute. Common fields existed within people's property and were tilled by all- often for instance people would have rights to take turf for fires from a field whilst the ownership went with someone else. Significantly of course, there were common ways stretching across fields and boundaries between fields were crooked and fields were unfenced and unhedged and only locals might know where a right of passage had evolved across centuries. In this system of local byways and chaotic field organisation, highwaymen could easily evaporate into the landscape, knowing routes unavailable to less local law enforcement officials. Notice what happened within Barnard's case- he only managed to gain a conviction because he recognised his assailant.

That brings me to my last interesting point about what we can tell from this one transcript: Barnard recognised his assailant. Presumably the assailant was someone Barnard knew in his other trade as a butcher- again remember this is a local society. More often than not, people would know their assailant if they were local. Unlike most of us, whose worlds at home scarcely stretch outside our streets- these were people whose main social network were those who lived closely to them. In the Barnard case, this Butcher was unlucky enough to come across someone from the community who used his local knowledge to escape and who could identify the assailant. Of course by the end of the seventeenth century that was changing- by 1700 a tenth of the population of England lived in London- but still as a general truth it holds, this was a much less numerous and much more local society than any any of the readers of this blog lives in.

One thing though doesn't appear to have changed- if we look at the record and assess it on face value (ie assume it tells the truth about whatever happened that night in Islington) then it confirms something all of us are familiar with from the news: that robbers when frightened by the prospect of discovery will often murder rather than pursue their other crime. History is full of these moments of strangeness- when the past seems so far away that we can barely understand it (for a Londoner imagining Islington as a village!) and moments of familiarity where you can understand immediately what is happening. The task of a historian is not to forget when feeling one emotion that the other exists- history is the human past: it happened to people, but not people like us.

May 05, 2008

Medieval Lesbians

Why do you want your only one to die, who as you know, loves you with soul and body, who sighs for you every hour at every moment, like a hungry little bird... as the turtle-dove, having lost its mate, perches forever on its little dried up branch, so I lament endlessly... you are the only woman I have chosen according to my heart.

That text is from a 12th Century letter from a woman to another lamenting their separation. What it bears testimony to is the reality of lesbian relationships going back into the medieval period. It is hard to read that text with its references to exclusivity or indeed to the mate of the turtle dove without thinking that it is, in some sense, a love letter. But it is not alone- Lesbian literature in some form was around during the entire Middle Ages- of course as Lesbianism was prohibited and women were the silent sex during the period, there isn't that much of it but individual examples are there which illustrate what may be a greater silent trend.

The canon lawyers definitely thought that that was true. As Christianity became the dominant religion of Europe, and as its believers became more literate they developed penitentials and other legalistic codes to describe sin and administer penitence. The Penitential of Theodore reccomended that a woman who indulged in vice with another women did penance for three years- more if she were married. The Penitential of Bede stated that a woman who used an instrument in sex with another woman should do an extra four years penitence. Hildegard of Bingen argued that Lesbians usurped the male role, both in sex and in general, Etiene de Fougeres suggested that Lesbians sometimes play the cock, sometimes the hen. The fear of Lesbians was the fear of mannish women.

On the other hand, Lesbianism did not get the attention that either male homosexuality or heterosexual adultery got. Perhaps it was less common. Perhaps as well it threatened the family unit less: adultery could end in a confusion about the legitimacy of children, crucial in a society like that of medieval Europe based around lines of descent. Furthermore contemporaries couldn't quite believe in sex without penetration- women were the passive receivers of sexual attention and aggression, not the instigators of it. Indeed one medieval text argued that a mannish woman turned in either of two ways- if filled with lust she became an active seductress, if totally bereft of human feeling, she became a Lesbian.

Women though were punished for being Lesbians- and practical steps were taken to dissuade Lesbianism. In 1568, a woman was drowned in Geneva for a 'detestable and unnatural' relationship that she had with another woman. In 1405 a French woman called Laurence appealed against a conviction for Lesbianism, insisting that her partner, Jehanne, had been the instigator of the crime. A lawyer in Seville in the 16th Century witnessed the flogging of several female prisoners convicted for making artificial sexual instruments to indulge with each other. In general the courts tended to leave Lesbianism alone though- for the reasons I gave above. Yet in other parts of medieval society we find that practical measures were taken against Lesbianism- with nunneries having strict rules about communal sleeping arrangements, prohibiting nuns (particularly old and young nuns) sharing beds and maintaining a light on at all times in the dormitory.

Such a description shouldn't lead us to think that medieval Lesbianism was in any way similar to modern Lesbianism- the letter I quoted from at the beggining is phrased within the conventions of courtly love poetry. To go further, medieval individuals often thought of themselves in wildly different ways to modern individuals. Take the case of Bernadetta Carlini, an Italian nun, who claimed to have visions and to be possessed by an angelic spirit. Carlini's spirit used her body to have sexual relations with another nun in her convent- she was sentenced to imprisonment. Historians like to quarrell over whether Carlini was what we would think of as a Lesbian- she said at her trial that she had no memory of her sexual escapades- in truth its a false question. The real answer is that she like many medieval men and women thought differently about their lives than we do- instead of as historians like to do, forcing them into modern straight jackets, its worth considering what they experienced.

The difficulty in this field though is that that isn't always that easy. Carlini's case is only there because she was tried and we have the transcript, we don't have much evidence to go on here. Much of what I have written comes from an article by Jacqueline Murray (within this collection), Murray attempts to make up with theory what she lacks with evidence, a parlous proposition for history which is an empirical approach to the world. Having said that, there definitely seem to have been medieval Lesbians- and looking at the way that both the Church and courts approached them reveals the deeply sexist orientation of medieval society. Women just couldn't be evil because they were recipients, not aggressors, in the world.

What it also reveals I think is that something about the subject of human nature- lesbianism is natural to human beings- but the forms, particularly the emotional forms it takes, change with societal change. That movement is a movement between artificial constructs to express a natural reality- Carlini's experience of Lesbianism was a different expression of an underlying emotion that she shares with Jodie Foster. They might say different things and feel different things- but the underlying thing they share is an attraction to women.

May 04, 2008

Brits abroad

Roy Hodgson and Gary Johnson are not the names that fly off the tip of the tongue whenever we consider managerial jobs at the top level of English football, but they should be. Hodgson is now manager of Fulham, but has managed in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Italy and Finland- he was also considered to be manager of Germany in the late 90s. Johnson's career is less illustrious: he has managed in England mostly and very successfully at the lower levels (Yeovil and now possibly Premiership bound Bristol City) but also had a great stint as manager of Latvia. The reason I bring these two up though doesn't lie in their exceptional careers- great though they are- but in the fact that they are so often ignored- when the lament comes up that there are no English managers, what does it say that we ignore these two and how does that structure the incentives for managers.

There are very few English managers of class in the Premiership- personally Steve Coppell, Sam Allardyce, Harry Redknapp and maybe one or two others might qualify. But overall most English managers have been left behind over the last ten years by those continental managers interested in diet and uninterested in pure motivation- the failing careers of Kevin Keegan and Peter Reid demonstrate how old methods of up and at em don't work so well any more. The English Premiership has been staffed by foreigners. You might wonder then why English managers don't go abroad?

I think there are two reasons why more don't follow in the footsteps of Hodgson and Johnson- two reasons that demonstrate an unhealthy conservatism in the attitudes of both the managers and the football bosses themselves. The first is that most English managers tend to be happy with where they are- they want to be football managers and learn the group of players that come to England and how they work. They are rigorously logical in their approach to football management- that's why they all use the same limited vocabulary, because that is the vocabulary of management. The interesting thing is that going abroad will not neccessarily teach you things that you didn't know about football but it will teach you things that you didn't know about life. And as soon as you are exposed to more, try more in life, you yourself learn more about yourself and consequently become better able to help other people. This comes in all sorts of ways- it would be interesting to think about the way someone who has never lived in a foreign country helps a 19 year old settle in a new place, it is even more interesting to consider whether knowing more in general actually enables you to think laterally- to go beyond convention and therefore to do better than convention.

The second thing is that management of football clubs is also very very conservative. If I want to employ a manager- I have a selection list normally of those who have managed Premiership clubs and perhaps of those who have managed a little abroad. That culture is so conservative because the environment around football is so conservative- the constant attacks on every foreign manager as though he might be Christian Gross, forgetting that Gross was not actually that bad. The best way to treat a new idea is to mock, the best way to treat intelligence is to imply homosexuality. Whatever your thoughts about football in general and management in particular (whether you agree with me, James and Chris Dillow that management is overrated or not) the idea that a culture could grow up which eschews thinking about problems and concentrates on mocking novelty and discouraging change is a deeply damning one. The environment means that Johnson and Hodgson are ignored, despite their acheivements, because they didn't do them in England- the Welsh manager John Toshack (successful in Spain) similarly has not been acknowledged sufficiently- whilst serial failures like Graeme Souness get reappointed constantly.

As this is an issue which is shaped out of a wider culture, I think it says something about Britain as a whole and the way that the country is still a small c conservative place and a profoundly unintellectual place. The difficulties with management that Dillow highlights so often on his blog are made worse by the fact that Britain doesn't seem to value what Denis Healey called a hinterland- a background which goes beyond the task at hand. Not something that managers think they need, or club chairmen look for...

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Spy movies have always been associated with James Bond. Bond movies are of course perfectly good- they do what they proclaim they will do and some particularly the Sean Connery ones are even very good films- but they don't epitomise the best work that a spy movie can do. That is becuase a Bond movie is about action- its about glamorous sexy women and big explosions, its about corny jokes and martial arts. Bond films are films to relax to, but they don't repay much analysis. Spies though do repay analysis and from Hitchcock thrillers and cheap noirs to the great adaptations made by the BBC in the 80s of John Le Carre's novels, they have produced some great films and television. When I think of a great spy on screen, I think of Richard Widmark fingering Jean Peters's bag in Pickup on South Street, or even more so of Alec Guinness shuffling into the London circus in order to plot the downfall of Moscow Central, with weary and sad resignation.

The Manchurian Candidate is a film that fits neatly within that genre- this is a film that explores the internal world of the spy. From the moment it begins, we are told that the problem with a normal spy is that he will collapse, he will feel guilt, remorse and pain. That when he murders, like Lady Macbeth, he will spot the blood on his hands- or like Macbeth be haunted by ghosts of Banquos that he has disposed of. The premise of the Manchurian candidate is that the most sophisticated spying operation in the world is one which dispenses with the spy, but finds a human that it can divest of his individuality- of his fear- of his memory of committing acts. The most successful spy is hypnotised, turned into a mere instrument in the hands of those who would use him and thus rendered completely without the intelligence to operate in a contrary fashion to their intentions. Of course nobody has achieved this outside of Hollywood films, though George Smilley might at this point knowingly nod his head and argue that all spies to an extent compromise their own personalities- learn to live with dark memories- the key here though is that the Manchurian agent had no volition, did not choose but lived the life his handlers chose for him.

But he symbolises something rather important- a point that Thomas Hobbes (about whom more soon) would have empathised with. The Manchurian Candidate is the most unlikely Communist agent- he is the adopted son of a Republican Senator whose wife is a senior red baiter. He is a war hero and a journalist. He is the soul of the Washington Establishment- a man who has met the President and whom generals salute. Yet he is unknowingly the spy, the assassin, sent to kill the targets of the communist plotters. The only men who see through him are those from his own platoon, who shared in the brainwashing and whose memories return as vile nightmares to stalk their dreams. The centre of this film though is an unsettling notion- that noone can know accurately who other people are- that endless fear is justifiable but ultimately corrosive and picks the wrong targets (McCarthyism is an obvious target in the film) and that the construction of trust is the basis of society. At one point in the film, a central character trusts another central character- indeed the film is built entirely on moments of trust: a girl meets a guy on a train, she trusts him enough to see that he is sick and needs help and she provides him with the stability to turn his life around. Janet Leigh's character is the female version of that stock character in film- the man who sees an attractive woman in trouble and helps her out in order to win her hand- only now the situations are reversed. But the central point is there: trust is what makes the world turn round.

Of course trust opens the way for the Manchurian candidate. But that trust is tempered by understanding, by an effort to sympathetically reach inside someone's brain and understand the logic of what they do and why they do it. The movie rests upon an act of empathy- of logical connection that sees the future in terms of unwinding the logical process that led to the creation of the spy. Essentially the film rests upon a liberal conceit- that reason can persuade anyone to back democracy and the American way and that reason is universal: that there is no such thing as the ultimately anti-rational- there is just the irrational. In that sense, the movie sits at two intersections- describing adequately the response of liberal thinkers to the problmes of the world but also describing the response of modern psychology to the problems of the psyche. Understand and confront are the watchwords here- and the rhetoric of conflict is ridiculed as both ineffective and conniving. Like Shakespeare (and significantly Edward Murrow) the film reminds us that

the fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars but in ourselves

Its an important idea. And requires us to investigate ourselves- requires that solipsistic tendency which is the ultimate key legacy of Christian thought to liberal thinking: a concentration on understanding and addressing the inner motivations of the brain so as to understand and deal with their consequences. The point of the Manchurian candidate is about the ways that psychology enable us to analyse and also act upon the world- and there is no surprise that in this film it is in our minds, not on the ground, that the war between America and Russia is conducted. Science not scandal mongering will allow us to capture the high ground.

Its an interesting thesis- and not one that all liberals would agree with (Sir Isaiah Berlin would for example give such a position a sophisticated argumentative drubbing) but it is central to the kind of American liberalism that has prospered in Ivy League campuses and Eastern cities since the war. Within that liberal tradition, the Republicans have are represented as fake spokesmen of hatredn, as pharisees whose attention is misfocussed. Instead of looking inward on themselves, and seeking to empathise with those that oppose them, they look outward to condemn and consequently miss the biggest facts, and fail to deal with what they see. That is the position that this film endorses- I make no comment as to its accuracy. In that sense this is a fascinating historical document of the way that psychologically and politically liberalism links together.

It works because of its performances- there is plenty here to chew on because the actors themselves have got within their characters. In some senses the attitudes of the film are not easy to cope with: there are as I argued above some recognisably ungendered characters here. The men are mostly dependant, the women are mostly strong and resolute. Evil in this film is female, but so interestingly is the ultimate pole of good. Military life is shown in all its decadence: the men on bases whore and drink to cope with a fearful war. Furthermore this is a film about shell shock: its a film about the nightmares that wake you after war. A film about all the men destroyed by war who returned to Europe and America in the forties, fifties and sixties to lean on their wives. Its a film as well about the concept of patriotism, about the idea of service- which sometimes neccessitates great sacrafice. It is a great patriotic movie- its significant in my view that JFK was an important force in getting it made- he persuaded Arthur Krim (then President of United Artists) that the film should go out and contained no threat to the Presidency- for this is a film about Kennedyesque liberalism- America as a rational city on the hill. It is hard to remember now a time before the great conservative upswell of the sixties, seventies and eighties but this film comes from a moment where liberalism seemed triumphant- where reason seemed to have victored.

Its an important film- and remains an important film which embodies an outlook on the world. This is an enlightenment film- it is a film in praise of reason. Lastly it is significant that the key signal in the film comes from a pack of cards- the cards are random, but the signal is not- it is assigned by a man in Russia to be followed by a man in America and once understood, it enables one to perceive all the actions of the film to be logical and follow rationally. Language in the film means something, cards mean something, actions mean something- all that you need to do is read yourself and others accurately and the truth will be revealed. A truth that then allows you to take political actions- rhetoric and ambition cloud the issue, but reason is the key to unlock the universe.

Or at least that's how the world looked in 1962...