Roman and Mediaeval History, Illlustrated Travel Journals, Mediaeval Literature, Geology

  Civilised Barbarians

In the blog connected to The Cimmerian, a journal dedicated to R.E. Howard, there's an article about The Ragnar Lodbrog chapter of The Star Rover, by Steve Tompkins. It deals with Howard's reception of Jack London's novel, and the subject of barbarians versus civilisation, a topic that reccurs in the introductions to Howard's works in the excellent Del Rey editions. In short - and somewhat simplified - for Howard, barbarism is the natural state of mankind and civilisations doomed to fail and revert to barbarism. Tompkins compares London's Ragnar, the Viking turned Roman officer, and the unnamed Scandinavian legionary in Men of the Shadows.

If barbarism is the natural state of mankind, then it is damn sure the natural, the only permissible state of barbarians, and Ragnar should be ashamed of himself. [...] Howard’s unnamed Scandinavian legionary reverts to his true self as the “real” Romans are Pict-picked off one by one: “By Thor and Wotan, I would teach them how a Norseman passed! With each passing moment I became less of the cultured Roman.”

Reading the essays made me think about my own take on Barbarians versus Rome that plays a role in all my Roman novels.

Howard wrote in the 1920ies and 30ies and was influenced by the theories about history, races and sociology prevalent at his time, but it's interesting to note that his contemporary Jack London, whose work Howard admired, took a different stance on the civilized Barbarian in the character of Ragnar.

Ragnar is the predecessor of men like Fullofaudes, Dux Britanniarum, and Flavius Stilicho, magister militum per occidentem; Roman generals of 'barbarian' origins who adapted so well than Stilicho even became member of the Imperial family (he was married to Emperor Theodosius' niece). We can add Alaric King of the Visigoths to that list who fought for Rome and would have continued to do so if he had been treated better.

Talorcan mac Ferac, the barbarian leader of the Selgovae from Song of the North Wind is a different case. To him, the Romans are enemies and he has no reason to admire a civilisation that killed his parents. He'll learn some tolerance during the novel because he has to work together with the Roman Lucius Valerius to stop some a plot against his people as well as the Emperor Septimius Severus, but he never sees himself as inferior or wants to embrace civilisation.

Valerius comes to appreciate the 'barbarian' qualities of Talorcan, his fierce courage and dedication to his people, his natural intelligence that sometimes sees right through the crooked Roman intrigues, his straightforward way to deal with problems and enemies, but Valerius continues to feel entirely Roman and a tad superior to the Selgovian chief. Allies, but not friends.

The wall Hadrian's Wall between the Romans and the northern Britain tribes stands for the separation of barbarians and civilisation.

M. Horatius Veranius Aquila (aka Aicilmuir) from Eagle of the Sea is a complicated case again. His father is Roman but his mother from a British tribe whom the father met during a campaign, and though he tries to hide that fact from his son, Aquila finds out when the Caledonians capture him and recognise him as born to them. So the civilised Roman finds himself in the position of a barbarian tribal leader. He feels out of place albeit he cannot deny the 'barbarian' side of his heritage and tries to adapt. A number of people in the Roman army treat Aquila as outsider once they come to know, as if the barbarian blood overwrites his exclusively civilised upbringing and the Roman side of his parents.

The last character for today brings us back to London's Ragnar / Howard's Scandinavian legionary dichotomy: the historical Arminius from A Land Unconquered. Here is another barbarian in touch with civilisation; Arminius was a Roman auxiliary officer, most probably literate, who spoke good Latin, Roman citizen (not unusual for members of barbarian nobility who had a treaty with Rome) and member of the equestrian order (very unusual - I think he's the only case that early). A civilised barbarian.

We don't know the exact reason why Arminius led several German tribes against the Romans. Maybe he had hoped for a career in Rome that was denied the barbarian, aspired high kingship instead and needed a war to strengthen his position, maybe he had indeed feelings along the way what we today call patriotism and wanted the Romans out of Germania. Most probably it was a mix of motives that will forever remain in the dark. As writer, I can make some up.

Fact is, he defeated the Romans in the battle of the Teutoburg Forest, and in the years to follow managed to hold his own against Germanicus' army until the latter was recalled to Rome, and the Rhine defined as border between the Roman provinces of Gaul and 'free' or 'barbarian' Germania.

The question is whether "years of Roman culture [will slip] away like sea-fog before the sun" upon Arminius' return to his people, or whether he will retain some layers of civilisation. Here's how I see him. Of course, he has to act differently among his people than he did as Roman officer, so during the period when he spends time with Varus and in secret organises the rebellion, he'll have to play two roles, and they're that to some extent, roles.

After Varus' defeat, the German role will take over and Arminius will indeed shed some layers of civilisation though he can recall them in the scenes with Antonius Merenda, with Chaerea, with Germanicus. But Arminius can never fully abandon civilisation, and therein lies his tragic, he has made the step past barbarism and that step cannot be fully retraced. In leading his people away from Rome, he leads them away from his own past and uproots himself, without being able to take roots in the German culture again. Though, contrary to Aquila, he can reconcile civilisation and barbarism to the extent that he can live among the 'barbarians' well enough.

Not Howard's legionary, then, but not Ragnar, either. Arminius' brother who remains a Roman officer and never returns to Germania, is more a Ragnar. Contrary to Howard I don't think one can abandon civilisation except if is nothing but a superficial polish, and I don't think it was superficial for Arminius during the years he spent in Rome and in the army.

The question Tiberius asks himself in ALU, "How Roman was Arminius behind his elegant Latin and his love for books?" can be answered by, enough to still read them in secret as tribal leader. Which doesn't prevent him from killing Romans.
I walk past this every day.

We basically agree completely on the civilized barbarian idea...

AFAIK, in late Roman times, there were many barbarians that were, from a cultural viewpoint, as Romans as any other...

Flavius Stilicho is probably the best example, not just for what he accomplished within the cursus honorum, but because his attitude towards the Romans, barbarians, Visigoths and the Whole Damned Thing(R) was probably as Roman as it can be, comparable to any Good Emperor point of view...

As for Alaric, I agree, he was a Roman general fighting for his army, which happened so many times in History one's tempted to think it was part of the job description... He didn't intend to dress the purple, though, or so it seemed, but he, despite being Visigoth (which, as you point, it's a pretty shady concept even nowadays, I guess they didn't have any identity of their own those days, beyond Tervingi, Greuthungi, etc... Maybe 'Goth' as a catch-all term) was a Roman general, fighting for Rome against her enemies, from both sides of the limites...

Shame it was hard to tell enemies from allies apart those days, uh? ;-)

Nice blog entry... Gotta try to understand that Friday Snippets of yours, but anyway....

Take care!
there are worse sights than some nice ruins. :) I don't have Romans directly in Göttingen, but the market place has the same old, often half timebered, houses as Trier.

the Friday Snippet is a bit like blog memes. You post a snippet and get a Linky (it's a code you have to insert into your blog template and another into the post) so that others who participate can read your snippet, and they will add theirs to the list. It was initiated by Fantasy and Suspense writer Holly Lisle who also founded Forward Motion, and most of the participants are members of FM so far.

I think the difference between Stilicho and Alaric was degrees, not something fundamental. And look where it got Stilicho to stick with Rome. ;)

I wonder how great the differnce between Arminius and Stilicho was. Would Arminius have become a Stilicho if the Augustean Rome had allowed it (which, of course, wasn't going to happen)? Since Tacitus called him 'liberator of Germania', he has been seen mostly - or even exclusively esp. in the 19th century - as a fighter for freedom, and few tried to find other, or additional motives for his actions.

I see him as a Stilicho 400 years too early, and since he could not make the Roman cursus honorum, Arminius decided to turn his ambitions to becoming High King of Germania, and that meant he had to fight Rome, or he would be nothing but a petty king of Rome's grace.

By making Arminius member of the equestrian order, Augustus might have woken ambitions in the young Cheruscian which Rome would not allow him to have. Thus the time in my novel where Arminius tries to get the education of his Roman rank and comes away literate, fluent in Latin, with some Greek and rhetoric, and a love for books.

And Roman military tactics. *grin*
One interesting metric of barbarians' attitude toward Rome: No barbarian king ever adopted the purple, unless you count Charlemagne, which gives "stretching it" a bad name. (And anyway, the Pope sprang it on him.)

As I recall, what really happened in that pseudo-momentous year of AD 476 is that Odoacer decided that it was silly to have a nominal emperor in the West, and simply transferred his theoretical allegiance to the real emperor in the East, Zeno.

But however theoretical his allegiance, he did not take the purple for himself, though there was hardly anyone in a position to stop him. At some psychological level he remained a loyal federate, still exercising authority in Rome's name, though to his own benefit.

There's a flip side, though - plenty of Romans assumed the purple without asking anyone's permission. So even the most Romanized barbarians still didn't see themselves as Roman, or else they'd have done as the Romans did, and assumed the purple without a moment's hesitation, if they thought they were in a position to pull it off.

So they still sensed a divide, though not necessarily an antagonistic one. I get the impression that the divide only vanished, at least in Gaul, in the course of the later 5th and 6th century, as the Gallo-Roman honestiores moved from the towns to live on their estates and became proto-medieval nobles.

For sheer speculation, suppose there were an Emperor Arthur; what would it have said that he did assume the purple?
Well, king Leovigild of the Toledan Visigoths did wear the purple in the late 6th century, not as Roman Emperor but as King of the Visigoths in his own right and by the grace of God - and pretty much independant from Rome.

I could imagine Arthur to have done the same in Britain.

Charlemagne is the first to connect his purple with Rome again, but the East Roman realm continued in Byzantium where the emperors wore the purple. And they weren't too happy about the competition in the west. :)

I think you have an interesting point about the Romanized barbarians feeling a different identity from the born Romans. Should think about that a bit.
Didn't know about Leovigild. But that is fairly late along, and actual Roman rule in the west was pretty much beyond living memory.

I know that some Anglo-Saxon kings used the title Basileus, which might also hint at a gradual shift of attitudes.
I'm not absolutely certain, but the way I read the equestrian order is that a citizen would be enrolled into it by the censors provided they met the wealth criterion. Since members of provincial elites, who would be the first in their areas to get the citizenship, would meet such a criterion, then membership of the equestrian order would, I think, go hand-in-hand with the award of citizenship, rather than being a separate honour.
Post a Comment

<< Home

The Lost Fort is a blog based on my travels in Germany, the UK and other places, with essays on Roman and Mediaeval history illustrated with lots of photos of old castles, cathedrals, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes. You may also find the odd essay about geology or Mediaeval literature.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.

My Photo
Location: Germany

I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History which doesn't pay my bills, so I use it to research blogposts instead. I'm interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who hasn't yet gotten an Instagram account. :-)