November 29, 2008

Attila the Hun

Christopher Kelly's new biography of Attila the Hun is a welcome addition to the scholarship surrounding the later Roman empire. It is welcome because Attila is one of those figures who is always off stage in accounts which focus on what is happening in Ravenna, Milan and Constantinople- as the Eastern Empire struggled to survive and the Western Empire failed to. Attila himself as Kelly argues deserves a more constructive place in history- rather than just destroying an empire, the Hunnic King created one- presiding over an area which swept through northern Europe from the southern tip of the Danube to the northern banks of the Rhine. He also was not merely a terrifying warrior- indeed as Kelly comments his success as a warrior has been overrated (Attila did not, unlike the Goths at Adrianople, defeat a major Roman army in battle and his two encounters were bloody draws rather than victories)- but a cunning and skilful diplomat with an excellent appreciation of the realities of Roman power in the later empire.

What were those realities- what did Rome face and who were the Huns? Those questions are vital to considering Kelly's narrative of Attila's life. The first set are easier to answer than the second- so let us start with considering the strategical dilemmas faced by the Roman empire. From the time of Constantinople the empire had been split in two- one half contained all the lands west of Italy, the other half all those to her East. The capital of the West moved from Rome, north to Milan and later to the stronghold of Ravenna. That of the East was at Constantinople- a key fortress dominating the Bosphorous. The Romans faced a quandary by the time of Attila both in the West and in the East. In the West, they faced worries about the Rhine frontier and the barbarians ammassing there and also about the fact that from the early 5th Century the Vandals had conquered North Africa. In the East- the Danube was the frontier where Barbarians might pour through, but Eastern Emperors also were concerned about the long frontier along the Euphrates with Persia and about the Vandal threat across Africa to Egypt. In order to understand Attila's role in this- you have to understand those facts. Attila was neccessary for the Romans- as the Western Prefect Aetius understood- because he maintained a kind of stability on the northern frontier- at least he was predictable. He was also though in a position to extract conditions when Roman forces were engaged either in Africa or in Persia away from the Danube and Rhine frontiers.

But who was Attila. Attila was a Hun. The Huns, Kelly argues, arrived in Europe coming across the Asian steppe from somewhere in modern Kazackhstan. They intimidated and destroyed armies of other tribes- but they also incorporated other tribes. Gothic armies for example fought with the Huns against the Romans under Attila at the battle of the Catalaunian Plains. They also evolved as they moved across into Europe. Kelly argues that in the steppe, the nomadic lifestyle traditional to the Huns was economically possible. Once at the beggining of the fifth century they arrived in the Great Hungarian Plain- the resources of that little steppe in central Europe could not support the Hun horde and so they had to rely upon the farmers and others that inhabited that area. Kelly reccomends that we think of the Huns as a semi-sophisticated warrior aristocracy moving through central Europe, living off the revenues of plunder and of taxation from the empire to the south and the people that surrounded them. Attila was a figure within the Huns who arose in the 430s, having slain his brother Bleda. There is no real record of his early life- and we have only one pen portrait which comes from a Roman diplomat, Priscus, who met him. Priscus's history of the Huns from which this comes though has vanished, we rely on later Byzantine compilers of an encyclopedia of knowledge for our awareness of what he said about Attila.

Kelly tells his story as a narrative- and there doesn't seem much point in repeating all his points here. However it is the analytical thrust of what he says that is particularly interesting. The main point about his narrative is to reinforce the idea that Attila was a brilliant politician- when the Romans and Goths defeated him at the Catalaunian Plains in France, the Hun King switched his attentions to an invasion of Italy. Valentinian the Roman Emperor was then faced with the dilemma of calling in the Goths to Italy or facing the whole Hunnic force on his own. The diplomatic mission that I discussed Priscus being involved in is equally interesting: the Huns found out that the Roman mission contained (unknown to Priscus) assassins sent to murder Attila but the King instead of revealing the fact instantly, allowed the plot to unravel in front of his very eyes and used it as a weapon in his negotiations with the Roman Emperor, Theodosius. Attila exploited divisions in the Imperial households in both East and West. He was able to turn the discontent of Valentinian's sister Honoria into a major casus belli. The Romans may have been able to cope with Attila's armies- but the consequences of fighting him- even to a victory- would be so grave, particularly in terms of stripping the frontier armies and the potential of another Adrianople that they preferred not to fight.

This picture of Attila's strategical nous and his ability to hold together his disparate group of followers through tribute received from Rome- a minor tribute that Kelly reminds us represented the income of a moderately wealthy senator- is a convincing one. It is an interesting one too because it contributes to the picture of what the barbarians were like and the ways that they were affected by the Romans. Still Kelly leaves in the story enough detail about the horrors of the Hun conquest to remind us of why St Jerome styled Attila a wolf from the north and others considered the Huns the whip of God, sent to spur sinners to repentance before the second coming. What Attila was able to do, which other barbarian kings before him were unable to do was succeed a seige warfare- this major advance made his incursions more lucrative and more terrifying for Roman citizens than the invasions of the third century by the Goths.

All in all, Kelly's account suffers from the odd colloquialism- from some imaginative reconstructions- but presents in a broad sweep a story about Attila that fits into conventional notions of how the Roman Empire collapsed. It is unsurprising to note the way that he sees Attila as a leader who thrived on plunder, or that Hun society was influenced by Roman society, or that the Romans were decisively weakened by losing to the Goths in 378 or lastly that they were threatened on several frontiers. What is new is the enthusiasm with which he knits these things together with the life of Attila- so that characters as various as Aetius (Attila's ally who was also a general of the Roman forces in Gaul), Theodosius (Emperor in the East), the eunuch John and the historian Priscus all emerge in their vitality and all have roles to play. The broad contours of the story may be familiar- but the detail was not and the read was enjoyable.

November 28, 2008

The Dumbest Generation?

Ashok always manages to provoke and challenge me- and a recent post on whether we are the dumbest generation ever has managed to do exactly that. You see in one sense when he describes what it is to be truly interested in intellectual subjects he is entirely right- it is the challenge of realising that you are ignorant and attempting to do something about that ignorance that is at the centre of any proper intellectual life. When I look at history and see the amount of subjects that Hobbes, Newton, Aristotle, Plato, Marie Curie and the rest got wrong, that does not put me in a position to exalt myself above them but rather humbles me: they all thought they were right, so do I but have I any more warrent to say I am than they did? The quest for understanding is a never ending one- and it is one that we all follow to the best of our abilities and with reference to our own interests. The key thing though is that that journey is one that we may never succeed in finishing. I remember once being told the story of a historian interviewed for a post at an English university who was asked 'you have always said your life is a pilgrimage where are you going?', to which the wise don replied 'Pilgrimage comes from peregrinatio (Latin: to go about), the point is not to arrive, the point is to travel'. I agree with him.

So where do I disagree with Ashok. Well its this. It is far too easy to go from the realisation that noone in the modern world knows everything- to the discovery that there are some who are not concerned with knowledge- to the idea that things have never been this bad. I'm not sure that is true. Simply empirically, there are more people who are literate today than there ever were in the past. There are more people with degrees than there ever were in the past. Ashok may reply- ah but are they thinking. The problem with that is that it is a highly subjective judgement- I do not know about the comparative rate of deep thought today and in the 17th Century (and if I don't know, I suspect Ashok doesn't either!) What I do know is that as I travel to work on the London tube every morning I see the normal awful tabloids and multicoloured books- but I also see people reading Henry James (Tuesday morning), Umberto Eco (Wednesday) and Jose Saramango (today). I can't tell you how they are reading those texts but I can tell you they are- and I can tell you that more people are reading those kind of things than they did in the comparatively recent past (just go back 200 years and think about what the average person read then!)

So whilst I agree with Ashok's high aspirations about the intellectual life- I do not agree that the world today is less intellectual than it was in the past. Indeed I think it may be as much or more intellectual. There are more people who have access to this stuff- there are more people going to read, to the theatre, to the cinema and those people travel and meet other people more. This is not a utopian vision- obviously there are ways in which our society is not and maybe should not be a society of philosopher citizens- but its far from the dumbest society ever.

November 27, 2008

Babylon, Memphis, Persepolis

Greece, said Horace, had captured her wild conquerer Rome. We in our vocabulary and our habits of thought consciously and unconsciously echo or imagine we echo the Greek philosophers. The interesting question for historians and others to consider though is what happened in Greece- why suddenly in a burst of centuries do we get Homer, Hesiod, Herodotus, Hippocrates and many others- what happened to create that burst? Professor Walter Burkett of Zurich University gave some interesting lectures about this in Venice in 1996, which he later expanded into a book. His argument is essentially that Greece profitted by being close to the traditional sources of civilisation in the ancient world- and that furthermore when those traditional areas were disturbed by productive change, the Greeks were just near enough to reap the reward but too far away to lose much in the wars and civil strife that ensued.

There is a lot of sense in what Burkett argues. Let us start with something that we can understand- writing. Writing letters like those I am typing is a technology that was discovered in the Western Semitic areas sometime around 1200. It took a while to become truly popular- but eventually replaced cuneiform writing in the Assyrian empire and spread up into the Western lands of Greece sometime shortly after 800. The Greeks used the same sequence of letters in their alphabet, the phoenician 'alpu, betu, gamlu, daltu' becoming the familiar 'alpha, beta, gamma, delta'. The Greeks believed that this invention had come from the Phoenicians and there is evidence to support the idea that it spread along trade routes. That idea of a spread of an idea from east to west is obviously not implausible- if the alphabet and other things like forms of statue and the architectural models for temples could so move then it isn't unlikely that ideas did too.

Burkert offers plenty of examples of ideas that might well have moved from east to west. He groups them into four sections: the orientalising features in Homer, borrowings from Eastern wisdom literature in Hesiod and other places, Orphic influence from Egypt and the idea of the Magi from Persia. There is something to be said for all of these particular cases of influence. Burkert notes interesting passages in Homer which are more theological than the normal narrative- some where the Greek bard seems to have quoted directly from Babylonian texts like the Atrahasis, others for example a passage about Aphrodite which seems to contradict the normal Greek myth by saying that the goddess of love was a daughter of Zeus and his wife Dione (the only time Dione is ever mentioned in the poem) which are almost exact copies of an earlier oriental story. The same is true in the wisdom literature of the pre-socratics where Burkert notes common themes with say wisdom literature from the Bible and other Eastern or Babylonian sources. The Orpheus cult he shows has links to Egyptian mysteries about the dead and their protection. The Magi were Persian priests- and Burkert shows that they must have been known about in Ionia from at least the coming of Darius to the throne- furthermore he traces ideas from them into Greek philosophy, particularly the idea of immortality and the conception of dualism.

The problem with all of this is that showing that two groups of people shared the same idea is not showing that they transmitted it, that one received it and the other initiated it. However by establishing a series of links- what Burkert shows is that it is quite likely that these ideas did not exist in isolation. Greeks were trading with the East from very early on. We see that in the alphabetic trail. We also can see a direct connection from the conquest of Ionia onwards- whereby Persians and Greeks frequently traded and fell out. Notable Greeks like Themistocles of Athens even went to work as satraps for the Persian King. Earlier Greek philosophers like Heraclitus may have lived under that King within Ionia. We also know that ancient cultures were receptive to influence- whether that's Rome with Greece or Rome and Greece with Egypt- from the trading connections and the intellectual connections to do with writing, it would surely be sensible to infer that further simularities of ideas come from communication. Sensible furthermore because we are not the first to have had these thoughts: Herodotus, Plato and Aristotle all argued at various points for the origins of Greek concepts from the outside world. There are times when I feel Burkert makes too much of his simularities- but the essential point is still there- that the Greeks were trading and influenced by the East and therefore must have been influenced intellectually.

So what does this say about the Greeks- it does not downgrade them in the history of civilisation. Rather it places it them where they ought to be- as master adapters of skills passed to them from other places. That is in a sense the story of civilisation, no one people owns or has ever owned it- rather ideas are passed around the world or around a locality and then used. Economic and social factors- particularly in Greece the rise of the city state (an event paralleled in Phoenicia and north Africa which we know far less about and which may have produced a efflorescence of its own) allowed a trading class to develop who would use and exploit these ideas. Ultimately the acheivement of Greece was less the origination of these ideas than their combination- what Burkert shows is that the Greek experience was not that of a sole light of civilisation in the darkness of barbarism but that of a people on the edge of a civilisation who absorbed and changed the things that their neighbours showed them. Reflecting those things back to their neighbours in new and innovative ways- ways that for example changed the way that semitic religions- Judaism and later Christianity- were understood in. Greece can take its place within an Eastern Meditereanean filled with trade and chatter about ideas and philosophies.

November 26, 2008

The Baader Meinhof Complex


Reviewing a film about terrorism is always hard- making one is of course harder. A film like the Baader Meinhof complex tells the story of the terrorists- in that sense it invites you to sympathise with them and it disregards the pain of their victims because that is not what it shows mostly on screen. The danger is glamourising terrorists and turning them into heroes- furthering the myth of their own creation, that they are in some sense the only principled ones standing against a society of compromise. I think this new German film about the Baader Meinhof gang- a group of leftwing terrorists in the Federal Republic in the 1970s (with one exception I have to say I rely in this review on the film for my account of them)- partially avoids that danger. We will discuss how partially it does in a minute- but first its worth describing the story of what happens to the Gang in the film.

In the late 1960s, student revolt swept through Europe- against the Vietnam War and various other injustices around the world. In Germany this swept up for various reasons a group of journalists (like Ulrika Meinhof), students (like Gudrun Ensslin), dropouts (like Andreas Baader) and even lawyers (like Horst Mahler- now curiously a neo-Nazi activist). These individuals then decided that unlike the main student leaders- who include many of the current German social democratic and green leadership (Joshka Fischer included)- they would not merely pursue peaceful protest but would violently attack the institutions of the Federal state and in particular those of its allies the United States. They trained with the Palestinian terrorists- came back to Germany committed various acts of arson and assacination and then were captured. After their capture, their noteriety became mythical- and others inspired by their story joined the gang. From within the prison, thanks to messages smuggled out with their lawyers (Gerhard Schroeder was one- though I hasten to add not guilty of the smuggling)- they kept the network going. Other atrocities followed- including the storming of the German embassy in Sweden, the hijacking of planes and further bombings, murders and kidnappings. Eventually the campaign to release Baader, Meinhof and Ensslin failed and the three of them, with some of their fellow prisoners, committed suicide- the group calling itself the Red Army Faction survived but gradually petered out into the 1990s and finally called a ceasefire in 1998.

The film takes this story until the suicides in the late seventies. Partly because after then- though there were further murders, the strength of the group died away. What it shows is the personal lives of these terrorists- their plots and conspiracies and the things that moved them to do what they did. Most of them it portrays in a very unedifying light. Andreas Baader in particular comes across as a pure thug- a sexist, violent bully. Baader on this account found a narrative that would award him the right to take on bourgeois society- and used that narrative to justify his speeding, gun toting lifestyle. The moment in the film which exemplifies his character is when he steals from someone- a minute later someone else steals his car- suddenly property is important and theft is not so funny. There are others too in the group for whom you can tell that the old adage that a political terrorist is a gangster with the sense that they are justified is right. The cast is glamorous- one issue I have with the film makers- but its still possible to see that Baader is not that far removed from Joe Pesci's character in Goodfellas or Al Pacino's in Scarface- save for the fact he lacks their cunning and has a political ideology to make him a 'hero'.

The other main strain in the group is an ideological one- one that believes the myth of Baader. Ulrike Meinhof is our main illustration of this tendency. Meinhof worried that she could not fully commit to revolutionary socialism without committing violent acts to overthrow the capitalist regime. She saw Baader at various points- according to the film- as someone entitled to judge her bourgeois socialism. Something as the savage bully that he was he took full advantage of. Ideology committed her to a cause- and everything else came second to that cause. But it is a curious kind of commitment- for this is commitment to 'the people' and not to any people- to principles of love, charity and equality, rather than to behaving lovingly, charitably and equally. She uses her political beliefs as a crutch, as Baader, to give her life a meaning and to look down on others- her view may be more intellectual but it is no less selfish. It is also worth noting what kind of causes these ideologues espoused- quoting Mao in the late sixties and early seventies is as forgivable as quoting Hitler in the forties with approval. For them one senses that the millions dead in the Cultural Revolution were comparable to the tens they killed in terrorist atrocities: the revolution had decided that these should die and therefore they were no longer part of 'the people' but only dispensible people.

This is particularly evident when the gang go to Palestine. One of the things that they talk about constantly is their concern for the third world. But when they arrive in the third world- they insult its inhabitants. We see this from an earlier scene where Baader calls an Italian a 'wop'. But we also see it, in Palestine. The group refuse to live like the PLO fighters they stay with- refuse to segregate the sexes- and furthermore the women sunbathe naked. I have nothing against that, but the PLO did- and rather than take their objections seriously, the response of the group was thoroughly stupid. They told the PLO guards that they understood anti-imperialism better than the PLO, they even told them that 'shooting and fucking were the same thing' whilst refusing of course to do any training. Its odd but in their attitude to the Palestinians- the fundamental self righteous, self obsessed nastiness of the group comes over.

The film is clearly told and well acted. There are no bad performances here- there are plenty of good ones and throughout the story is conveyed simply. It should not be easy to make the German politics of the 1960s-70s uncomplicated and simple but the director has acheived that. But he has done that at the expense of two things that were central to the Gang. The first was that they saw themselves as battling the 'Auschwitz generation'- many of their victims were former Nazis. In reality though, the terrorists were backed by the Communists- the Stasi gave them aid- and lauded and quoted approvingly Mao (who genocidally murdered millions of Chinese people across the same rough period as the gang formed) and Ho Chi Minh. Clearly telling the story means that you miss this larger context and you do need to know it in order to understand the group and its true nature.

They were convinced totalitarians- in a way the communism seems to me to have been less important to some of them (Mahler, Baader) than the violence it allowed them to commit- many of them could easily have gone the other way to the extreme right and quite a few (Mahler, Ensslinn) had flirted with it. Dispositionally as well as ideologically there may not be as much to choose between the extremes as we sometimes think. In that sense the film gives food for thought. It is entertaining- but it is also something to dwell on and unpick. Perhaps it has no real message about terrorism, but I would suggest it is a film to see if you want to develop an idea of what terrorism is and why people become terrorists.

November 24, 2008

The first fall of Rome


What happened in Rome when the Gauls arrived is something that has been told many times. Livy tells the story of the Roman defeat at Allia and the arrival of the Gauls in Rome with a brilliance that demonstrates the perfection of his writing style and the power of his evocative imagery: he writes with an immediacy that is perfect in committing the idle reader to the Roman side. He is particularly impressive when it comes to describing what happened in Rome when the Gauls burst through- when they seized the city, and the citadel alone remained indomitable in the service of its Gods and its history. What we see here is a version of patriotism that fuses the city and the state, the human and the divine, the story of Rome and that of the cosmos. Let us turn though to the fundementals of the story- what happened according to Livy when the Gauls overwhelmed Rome- what we must understand as we read this passage is that for Livy's story the moment when the Gauls came over the wall was akin to the way that the British regard Dunkirk, it was the defeat that became a moral victory.

What happened? What Livy outlines is a 'cruel separation'. The old and infirm including many of the heroes of the Republic were left in the outer city, whereas the younger men of military age retreated to the citadel. The rest of the Roman people including the priests seem to have fled into the Italian countryside. Let us for a second acknowledge that much of what Livy writes at this point is conjecture- even so what he tells us is something important both about the identity of the city state and its security. To start with the second point, what Livy tells us here is that ultimately the city state is its food supply and its population fo military age- Rome was threatened as the Gauls occupied its lower levels with starvation, hence the disposal of surplus population, and the only way to save itself was through military resistance. In the end military service was tied to suffrage- because ultimately Rome was a state which was an army. Taking this point on, Livy does not demur from its consequences, rather he celebrates them- celebrating the military virtues even of the non-combatants who face their inevitable death with stoicism- seeming to be heroic statues for a while to the Gauls.

This militaristic- state as an army- dynamic in ancient Republics is a consequence of the instability that was natural to them which we talked of in our last post. It is something that made Livy and others resent empire as a civilian enterprise that sapped military vigour because it destroyed uncertainty- a point that echoes through European history even until the 18th and 19th centuries. Livy's point is curiously a democratic one- at its roots- the senate may be the 'fountain head of true government' but it is only such when its members behave on an equal footing with the commons. Conscription we have seen is a democratic point in Roman politics- and in a sense this invasion returned Rome to the world of conscription, from the world of paid armies into which she seemed, on Livy's telling, to be embarking. As a moment though, this brings to bear everything Livy felt nostalgic about in the early Republic- primitive vulnerability and martial vigour breeding a superstitious yet egalitarian republican virtu.

November 23, 2008

Defence in the Ancient World

Modern warfare is a very different beast to ancient warfare. In the 2003 war on Iraq, Saddam Hussein knew that an attack was coming, even if there was not that much he could actually do about it. The danger of a surprise attack is of course always present but thanks to satellite technology, communications especially via the net and the large bureacratic machinery of the modern state- the surprise attack will be discovered instantly even if it cannot be met. The wars of the pre-modern world in this sense are very different- it took people in Egypt sometimes over a hundred days to find out that their emperor in Rome had died. If we think rightly of the modern state of something with a wide and slow turning circle- then the ancient state was even more a logistic nightmare to manage especially when it came to anticipating great changes occuring far off from the centre.

Thinking about empires less and city states more, we can see in a microcosm in the way that Livy describes the arrival of the Gauls in northern Italy. Rome's complacency is something that we have already noticed. But Rome was not alone: 'the plight of Clusium was a most alarming one; strange men in thousands were at the gates, men the like of whom the townsmen had never seen, outlandish warriors armed with strange weapons, who were rumoured to have scattered the Etruscan legions on boht sides of the Po' (V 36). Notice the two phenomenon here: firstly there is the fact that the inhabitants of Clusium had no idea about what they were facing- what kind of army stood outside their gates and what kind of behaviour this army would exhibit both in capturing and after the conquest of their city. Secondly without truth, all they had was the rumour which exaggerated the success of these foreign raiders- and suggested that their defence would be forlorn.

This obviously alters the challenge for the defence of a city. It is what makes religious arguments about the unpredictability of invasion more plausible- afterall there could be no possible way to predict the Gauls were coming so it must be a decision taken by the Gods. Furthermore it advances the attractions of a view of the world which sees the barbarians as other- and the city states as all being interested in the defence of every other city state. Livy stresses that this identity between city communities existed even at this point- and that Rome possibly should have done more to help Clusium. By telling this story, he perpetuates the point- that cities are vulnerable to sudden shocks and must band together against the outsider. In those few lines, Livy does two things- he describes to us the fear of the barbarian and why that fear, in his view, must be maintained politically.

In that sense we have here an instance not merely of the analysis of the perils of the city state- but of the promulgation of the myth of the barbarian.