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The Collapse of Empire - The Ex-Communicator

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May 15th, 2011


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08:14 am - The Collapse of Empire
I am reading Empires and Barbarians by Peter Heather. It is a long overview of the written and archaeological evidence relating to the collapse of the Roman Empire, particularly paying attention to the issue of population migration and ethnic identity in Europe. mraltariel if you are reading this, I think you will like the book, I'll lend it to you.

When I was a child, and for a hundred years previously, the model of change in prehistoric Europe was one of ethnic replacement. For example, that the change from stone to copper and then bronze technology or the change from Romano-British to Saxon, was about a new ethnic group coming into England and driving out the old inhabitants en masse. This tribal migration narrative fed into colonialism, and was also used in central Europe as a way of differentiating the new nation states.

More sophisticated methods, including DNA analysis, have proved this model of prehistory largely false, and the consensus has move away from it. Nowadays people feel that change is more to do with the drift of technology and language and beliefs through relatively static populations (with some immigration, and sometimes replacement of rulers). However Heather's argument in this book is that in certain cases mass population migration can be significant, and he thinks the intrusion of the Huns into Europe set off destabilising population shifts which hastened the end of the Empire - without in any way endorsing the old ethnic model.

I am interested in the collapse of societies and what it feels like to live through that. I guess a lot of people are nowadays, for obvious reasons. Heather argues that Europe was initially strongly differentiated between barbarian and civilised zones, and this set up a tension which could not be maintained. Analogously to thermodynamics, the hot areas got cooler, and the cold areas warmed up, until Europe was undifferentiated. So it was less of a collapse than a move to equilibrium.

On the final page he says:
'Even without the Huns these processes of development would eventually have undermined the Roman Empire... what emerges from the evidence is that living next door to a militarily more powerful and economically more developed imperial neighbour promotes a series of changes in the societies of the periphery, whose cumulative effect is precisely to generate new structures better able to fend off ... imperial aggression.'

This is exactly what I think. Further down the page.
'The way that empires tend to behave, the mixture of economic opportunity and intrusive power... prompt responses from those affected which in the long run undermine their capacity to maintain the power advantage... whether you find that comforting or frightening will depend on whether you live in an imperial or peripheral society.'

People don't set up a rival empire, they fray away at the edges. And nowadays in my opinion those edges are not geographical, and the excluded are not far away: they are inside our culture, creating a new one which will be able to resist it (for good or bad).

(15 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


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From:mraltariel
Date:May 15th, 2011 08:09 am (UTC)
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I look forward to that, thanks! And what you describe is exactly how I think it works. Communication of ideas is the key - whether immigration, pop music and the world service or twitter (to think of three periods of cultural change from ancient to current); and sometimes it is evolutionary and sometimes revolutionary. And I think you're bang on about the excluded not being far away - in fact, I think that's very often the case.
The revolutions in Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s, for example, could be seen as a clash of Empires, and the crumbling did seem to come at the edges first, but the cultural change (and fall of one Empire, for good and bad) came from internal pressures - the dispossessed and excluded within.
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From:communicator
Date:May 15th, 2011 08:28 am (UTC)
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Do you feel that Tolkein and other 'old school' fantasy writers are heavily influenced by the ethnic identity model of historical change?
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From:mraltariel
Date:May 15th, 2011 08:44 am (UTC)
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Possibly, although I think the 'Big Knobs' school of history is more in play. (Which is an orthogonal argument, perhaps, although the ethnic identity of whoever occupies the Big House clearly has impact on culture.)

That said, I think Tolkien is instinctively more subtle than that, with Ghan-Buri-Ghan's people (as so often!) making the counter-case.
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From:communicator
Date:May 15th, 2011 08:57 am (UTC)
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I think one aspect of the ethnic model is the identification of the people with the rulers. For example (leaving Tolkein far behind) the Babylonian exile was probably just the displacement of a small elite, but it is represented as a mass migration.
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From:mraltariel
Date:May 15th, 2011 09:05 am (UTC)
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Yes - I think that misunderstanding is why the ethnic model existed/exists but isn't the point that they believed that it -was- a mass migration, because they identified the kings with the people? Undeniably, Tolkien is a Big Knobber, but I have a feeling that he contains his own criticism - I'm just not sure why!
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From:mraltariel
Date:May 15th, 2011 08:49 am (UTC)
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(oh, and I haven't really read any other fantasy; I've been given lots which has kind of washed over me, without making any notable impact, so I'm only really speaking about Tolkien. And Fighting Fantasy. And Earthsea.)
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From:happytune
Date:May 15th, 2011 08:44 am (UTC)
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This has been thought-provoking. Particularly given the extreme positions I've encountered from otherwise rational people on the place of Islam in contemporary British society. Reminded me of two things:

1. 'Rome and Jerusalem' by Martin Goodman. I'll lend it on. :-)
2. A Leverhulme project based at Leicester Uni that I /really/ like, that brings together geneticists, historians, linguists and archaeologists to explore the impact of diaspora on Britain. http://www2.le.ac.uk/projects/impact-of-diasporas/ I hope that this sort of work (I can't think of another project like it) helps us to break down barriers and find new ways of thinking about empire.
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From:mraltariel
Date:May 15th, 2011 08:53 am (UTC)
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Yes - I'm really excited about this project as a model for integrating multidisciplinary data. There are several good genetic or linguistic projects, and lots of scattered data, but very little seems to be bringing it all together.
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From:happytune
Date:May 15th, 2011 09:27 am (UTC)
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Yes. At the most basic level it looks like they have additional funding for a Big Database. I very much hope they won't rely on that to be the only 'bringing it all together' mechanism - it needs to be much more...
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From:mraltariel
Date:May 15th, 2011 10:18 am (UTC)
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Having data in one place is a start, but developing some means of thinking about it would be nice, too :-)
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From:communicator
Date:May 15th, 2011 08:58 am (UTC)
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That looks just so fascinating, thanks, is anyone you know involved in that.
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From:happytune
Date:May 15th, 2011 09:25 am (UTC)
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I think SC knows the geneticists. I think it is a phenomenally exciting project - really hope they do some good public engagement stuff, but I'll be keeping an eye on the publications in the meantime. This is the kind of project that could really do with a p/t comms person to make the most of it!
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From:zornhau
Date:May 15th, 2011 12:31 pm (UTC)

Very useful book!

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On my wishlist.

Genetics aside, the mass migration and ethnic cleansing model breaks down because there's a major absence of massacre sites and massacre narratives.

(I'm working on an adventure story set in the 450s, so this is very useful for me)
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From:communicator
Date:May 15th, 2011 03:13 pm (UTC)

Re: Very useful book!

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Really? That's a fascinating period. I hope to read it.

You used to read bradhicks' journal. I was very interested in what he used to write about the collapse of bronze age empires, about 1,000 BC which I think he attributed to widespread slave revolt, or revolt of downtrodden populations, empowered by the relative cheapness and effectiveness of iron weapons. It's a period which is not well understood I think,
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From:zornhau
Date:May 15th, 2011 04:00 pm (UTC)

Re: Very useful book!

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Yes. Stopped reading it, I think. Can't remember why...

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