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Echoes of distant rhymes

“The Romans were blinded to what was happening to them by the very perfection of the material culture which they had created. All around them was solidity and comfort, a material existence which was the very antithesis of barbarism. How could they foresee the day when the Norman chronicler would marvel over the broken hypocausts of Caerleon? How could they imagine that anything so solid might conceivably disappear? Their roads grew better as their statesmanship grew worse and central heating triumphed as civilization fell.” (Eileen Power essay on the fall of the Roman Empire, written in the winter of 1938-9.)

“History does not repeat itself, but it sometimes rhymes.” (attributed to Mark Twain)

It happened in Thessalonika near the end of the Roman Empire.

The empire had been in trouble for some time. It was not reproducing itself – “The human harvest was bad” (Seeley). ‘Agri Deserti’ – once-cultivated lands now abandoned for lack of people to till them – could be found in every province.

Internally, the empire tried its usual solution: more government, more laws, more force. Legislation to reward large families and tax bachelors was kept on the statute books for centuries although “successful it was not” (Power). As the empire waned, laws to deal with the consequence of this failure were added: binding cultivators to the soil (the origin of serfdom) was merely the most common example of assigning a hereditary obligation to more and more of the professions the state relied on as soon as a shortfall appeared in them, legally punishing any son who did not follow in his father’s footsteps. To draft and regulate these laws, the numbers and privileges of bureaucrats ballooned from Rome’s former proportion (small in numbers by our standards, but when human productivity was less, each unproductive mouth cost more).

Successful all these laws were not – so, externally, the empire addressed its chronic shortage of manpower by immigration,

to dose it with barbarian vigour. Just a small injection to begin with and then more and more

Goths arrived, first as recruits to Roman army units, then as foederate units under their own leaders, growing like a cancer within the armed forces until an Egyptian mother quite naturally wrote the emperor to return her citizen son who “has gone off with the barbarians” – by which she meant he had joined the ‘Roman’ army.

Emperor Theodosius made the Goths obey him, but his was an insecure authority over them. He used Gothic troops in battles where pyrrhic victories may have been welcome. As one summary of the costly victory of Frigidius (394 AD) puts it,

The loss of 10,000 Goths cannot have distressed Theodosius unduly.

Theodosius also had little choice but to use some of their leaders as governors. Mostly, the empire’s soldiers were also its police – so the leaders of those who were now increasingly providing those soldiers had to be both rewarded by, and used in, such posts. Thus did Butheric the Goth became governor (magister militum) over Illyricum, which included Thessalonika.

The urban elite of Thessalonika were university-educated Greeks.

It would be hard to imagine an education less suited to help them understand the dangers they faced. The study of rhetoric, its links with reality long severed, …

So Eileen Power described the ‘learned’ of the dying Roman world. (Today, 8 decades after she wrote those sentences, it is easier to imagine an education even less suited to helping elite intellectuals understand the dangers facing them, one whose links with reality are even more completely severed.) In the empire’s second century, Hadrian had dispersed those Jews he did not kill around the empire, confident they’d soon lose their primitive prejudices and assimilate to being broad-minded Graeco-Roman intellectuals like himself. Fourth/fifth century Graeco-Roman intellectuals thought the same of the immigrants. Sidonius Appolinaris wrote a ‘good-natured’ description of the “embarrassing friendliness” of the new barbarian neighbours he encountered on a fifth-century visit to Lyons:

“How can he be expected to compose six-foot metres”, [Sidonius] asks, “with so many seven-foot patrons all around him, all singing and all expecting him to admire their uncouth stream of non-Latin words.”

The shrug of the shoulders, the genial contempt of one conscious of an infinite superiority – how familiar it all seems.

Perhaps the Thessalonikan city leaders greeted their new governor in this spirit, as sure as Hadrian was about the Jews that this uncouth Goth would soon lose his barbaric prejudices.

There was in Thessalonika a popular charioteer. As Ganymede was charioteer to the god Zeus and also his catamite, so the Thessalonikan charioteer had strong wrists on the race track and Ganymede’s tastes in the bedroom. On the one hand, knowing Graeco-Roman culture of the time, there is nothing remotely surprising in the idea that the charioteer abused slaves, minors or other victims worse than some Hollywood celebrity of our day (Butheric accused him of assaulting a cupbearer). On the other hand, knowing the culture of the Goths in such matters, same-sex liaisons that were as consenting-adults-only as the sternest MeToo advocate could demand might still have disgusted a Goth.

The sophisticated Thessalonikans were at least as disgusted with their governor. If this uncultured Goth had not yet cured himself of his vile homophobia, had not yet been assimilated to their superior way of thinking, he could at least avoid displaying it in public.

The governor refused to back down. It might be he was very opinionated in such matters even for a fourth-century Goth. It might be he indeed knew there was a real abused victim in this particular case. Or maybe he was like many a governor then and now – challenging his authority only made him the more determined to assert it.

The Thessalonikans refused to back down. Maybe they were genuine advocates for sexual liberty (or for the taking of sexual liberties). Maybe they were full of Gothophobic prejudice (despite – or perhaps because of – the imperial government’s formal endorsement of these rapidly multiplying Gothic immigrants, there was plenty of it about). Or maybe they were infuriated at the way their Gothic governor treated the elaborate expensively-learned rhetorical style of their addresses to him as artificial, boring and silly. Whatever the reason, they cancel-cultured Butheric all right – they killed him.

(Gibbon notes, as the empire died,

“the cruel absurdity of the Roman princes, unable to protect their subjects against the public enemy, unwilling to trust them with arms for their own defence”

but it would seem Thessalonika’s civilians were not forbidden to carry knives.)

Perhaps precisely because of the tensions in his relationship with the Goths, Theodosius had a tetchy first reaction to news of this. By the time the less stern commands of his cooler second thoughts reached Thessalonika, some 7,000 Thessalonikan aficionados of chariot racing were as dead as their late governor.

We know about this – just barely enough to part-reconstruct, part-guess the rest as I have described above (in anachronistic terms) – because of what happened next. Saint Ambrose banned the emperor from receiving Christian communion until he repented his violence to the Thessalonikans. Theodosius yielded and did public penance. He also proclaimed a law: imperial orders for mass slaughter were not to be carried out until after 30 days had elapsed – just in case the emperor calmed down again. (Whether Butheric’s Gothic soldiers-cum-police would have paid attention to it is another matter.)

Theodosius was the very last emperor to rule from the British midlands to the Nile cataracts. In the fifth century, as the empire disintegrated, the educated Graeco-Roman elite acquired the familiar figure of Orosius, explaining that the Roman Empire was founded in blood and conquest, so could ill-afford to throw stones at the barbarians. Instead he advised:

“If the unhappy people they have despoiled will content themselves with the little that is left them, their conquerors will cherish them like friends and brothers.”

In the end, the rudely-awakened Sidonius did not find it so, though he did survive and even got freed from captivity – by composing a panegyric for his particular barbarian conqueror. However the confident so-superior intellectual of earlier years doesn’t seem to have felt too pleased about it:

“O necessitas abjecta nascendi, vivendi misera, dura moriendi!” [O humiliating necessity of birth, sad necessity of living, hard necessity of dying!]

So much for ancient history. I cannot exactly tell you that “Those who do not remember history are condemned to relive it” after telling you that history does not repeat itself, it only sometimes rhymes or merely echoes. What was done in Rotherham is eclipsed by what Goths did between the battle of Adrianople and Theodosius regaining tenuous control over them, just as the total of British dead from jihadi terror is eclipsed by the dead of that battle alone. But there could be rhymes. Imagine an inner-city Labour-appointed London magistrate who thinks Sharia-law has insight in such matters confronting a bunch of university-credentialled (but hardy, in any flattering sense, educated) intellectuals without intellects (also Labour-voting). Avoiding islamophobia can trump acting or preaching against QUERTYphobia, but at other PC intersections echoes of Thessalonikan confrontations can be dimly heard.

The best way to avoid rhymes is to hear distant echoes while they are still distant (my less emphatic version of “Those who do not remember history are condemned to relive it”). If only political correctness did not deafen us. 🙁

10 comments to Echoes of distant rhymes

  • Julie near Chicago

    Wow! Fascinating history, and excellent writing to boot. Thank you, Mr. Kilmartin!

    This is certainly worthy of the Samizdata gold medal, tied with Paul’s Blogopotamus of some years back.

    ETA: Although I should in honesty admit that I too pine for thee and balsam, Anglosphere. 😥
    So, yes, as you show, the human race has seen it all before, and worse; yet it survives. And reprobate as we modern 21st-Century-ites may be, it would appear that our species goes through these strikingly similar spells from time to time.

    We do it in our individual private lives too, tearing down the remodelling of our homes done over the last ten years because now that it’s all done, life demands some new project to keep boredom at bay, no?

    As David Horowitz (FPM’s D.H.) keeps saying, the problem with us is Us. And perhaps our grandmothers’ pithy old saying, “Idle hands are the Devil’s playground,” is exemplified today as much as it was two millenia ago.


    Excuse me now, I have some links to follow. 😀

  • Julie near Chicago

    Oh well, blast. The Confession that ends with the 😥 smilie *g* was supposed to go at the very end. Please try not to fall when your shoelaces come undone.

  • Lloyd Martin Hendaye

    Roughly contemporary with Theodosius (AD 347 – 395), Augustine of Hippo (AD 354 – 420) abandoned the academy for long walks spent meditating an alternative “City of God” amidst “Confessions” of a misspent youth.

    A generation later, Benedict of Nursia (480 – 543), as an educated –meaning literate– adolescent abandoned Late Roman decadence altogether, rusticating an ascetic monkish order famed for “ora and labora” (prayer and work).

    Conventionally c. AD 450, a semi-millennial Dark Age descended over Western Europe and environs, followed by dynastic-feudal Middle Ages of a like duration, coincident with the end of Earth’s 12,250-year Holocene Interglacial Epoch in AD 1350, preceding a 500-year Little Ice Age through AD 1850/1890.

    Following a 140-year “amplitude compression” climate-rebound to c. AD 2030, Earth’s current 3.8 billion hominids face Augustine’s and Benedict’s dilemma: As twilight falls on the threshold of a cyclical 102-kiloyear Pleistocene Ice Age, neither licking nor joining contemporary Goths, Visigoths, and Vandals is an option. “Kleiner man, was nun?”– from c. AD 2050 on, the civilized alternative will be “per aspera ad astra”– embark en masse off Planet Earth, drifting ever-outward to the stars.

  • staghounds

    The hurricane will NEVER hit MY beach house.

  • Rudolph Hucker

    (Gibbon notes, as the empire died,
    “the cruel absurdity of the Roman princes, unable to protect their subjects against the public enemy, unwilling to trust them with arms for their own defence”



  • bobby b

    In re-reading this and attempting to figure out who is the target audience for such teachings – meaning, which side ought to be paying attention to this lesson as it all appears to be ready to rear up and bite them – it strikes me that it applies equally to all of us, to all sides and parties and philosophies.

    The question isn’t “who will be most affected.” The question is “who will be most surprised.”

  • polidorisghost

    Eileen Power’s book Medival People is a fine study. I read it many years ago. It struck me as horribly instructive even then. I must read it again. Her book Medieval Women is also fascinating and well worth your time.

  • Paul Marks

    By this time the Gothic Governor was enforcing Roman law.

    Such laws had even existed in Pagan times – see the morality laws of Augustus and others. But the Christian Emperors, starting with Constantine, had brought stricter laws and more enforcement.

    Eventually the Christian Emperor Justinian was to order that all men who engaged in homosexual activity (including with consent) were to have their sexual organs cut off – many died of these operations (which were not done is a careful manner – it was very much just public butchery), and homosexual acts became unfashionable (rather understandably – as few people want their sexual organs ripped off by the public executioner).

    But the decline of population can not honestly be placed on homosexual practices – the true causes were the increasing weight of taxes and regulations crushing the economy.

    This could be seen as early as the Emperor Septimius Serverus – whose spending (in military pay rises and so on) could not be honestly financed.

    Things got worse and worse – especially with the Emperor Diocletian, whose spending, taxes, and regulations (tying people to the soil – or to their jobs) and state control, reached levels that were only seen again in the modern world. The late Roman Empire, after Diocletian, really did have modern levels of taxation, government spending, and regulations.

    The disarmed citizens goes all the way back to the Emperor Augustus – who thought he would prevent Civil War by having only his army have weapons. He did NOT stop Civil Wars (as factions of the army fought each other over the centuries) and he signed the long term death warrant of Classical Civilisation.

    The basic idea of a “free citizen” being someone who was allowed to have military weapons – and the end of free citizens meaning that, eventually, small numbers of “barbarians” could lord it over vast numbers of Roman citizens (due to a culture of centuries of disarmed and crawling to anyone who waved a sword).

    Tribes such as the various sorts of Goth were primitive – as Ludwig Von Mises was fond of pointing out, the Roman Empire in its prime wold have no trouble in defeating their invasions.

    But by this period the Roman world was falling apart.

    Dealing with such things as government spending, taxes, and regulations is HARD – blaming everything on sexual perverts (as they were considered) is easy.

    By the way – the Emperor Anastasius (before Justinian) did tackle the fiscal mess. Getting taxes and spending under control.

    The Byzantine (East Roman) Empire could not have survived without the wiser Emperors such as Marcian and Anastuasius.

    But, of course, they are forgotten.

    Finally – whatever one thinks of Islam it at least brought back the Classical doctrine of “everyone fights” (not just a small elite).

    Even in the early 700s the Islamic invaders (small in number) were astonished by what they found in Visigothic Spain.

    The Visigoths (like the Romans before them) kept weapons and training in the hands of a small elite – which meant that the great majority of the Christian population of Hispania were helpless in the early 700s.

    The invading Islamic forces can not really be blamed for despising a population that greatly outnumbered them – but seemed utterly servile and unwilling (or unable) to fight back.

  • But the decline of population can not honestly be placed on homosexual practices (Paul Marks, March 1, 2020 at 2:10 pm)

    Indeed not. Although the decline in birth rate per family is most noticeable in the upper classes (Power notes the empire could have used Swift’s quote: “I shall die like a tree, from the top downwards”), neither the ‘morals’ nor the ‘immorals’ of late Roman society – neither the unfruitful celibacy of monks nor the unfruitful amusements of sophisticated Greek intellectuals – can be seen as central to that chronic shortage of manpower at its base that law after law and action after action attests of the late empire. Paul spells out one effect of the point I make near the start of my post about the empire’s internal response to this shortage:

    the increasing weight of taxes and regulations crushing the economy.

    The fact that, at times of famine in the later empire, the peasants flocked to the towns and were often fed there (for a time) from urban public grain stores, shows how thoroughly the high taxes in kind were enforced at the expense of the rural workforce. The existence in many places of markets for buying children as slaves from peasants who could not afford to keep them also tells a tale. The Roman slave population did not reproduce its numbers (like almost all slave populations in history; the unusually-well treated – for slaves – slaves of the ante-bellum US south and, to a slightly lesser degree, the pre-emancipation British Caribbean colonies, were rare exceptions). As the weakening empire ceased to maintain slave numbers through conquests, its high taxes seem to have increased its tendency to convert the lowest level of its non-slave population to this less-reproductive state. Some Agri Deserti seem to have gone out of production not merely because it was hard to find labourers to till it – the chronic problem in the late empire – but because the return from marginal land could not yield any profit after taxes even when hands could be found for it.

    It has been persuasively argued that one cause of the steady increase in population during the high mediaeval period (till the arrival of the black death) is that slavery was almost wholly replaced with serfdom in the early mediaeval period that followed the death of the western empire. Freedom (even the relative freedom of a serf) is productive.

    (All this is only secondarily connected with my post, but, like Paul, my interest in history is ravenous and my post does specifically say that if you don’t study history then echoes, rhymes, repeats or whatever may more often befall you, so I welcome Paul’s comment.)

  • The Visigoths (like the Romans before them) kept weapons and training in the hands of a small elite – which meant that the great majority of the Christian population of Hispania were helpless in the early 700s. (Paul Marks, March 1, 2020 at 2:10 pm)

    Whereas the Romans lacked raw manpower, the Visigoths’ problem was their failure to unite with the population they conquered and their suffering feudal degeneration – one effect of which was that by the late period the free middle class seems eliminated (all who would otherwise have belonged to it having been driven to commend themselves to the local magnates).

    It is certain that by the end of the seventh century, the Visigothic kings are at their wits end to keep up the numbers of the army (quoted from Oman)

    though not from absence of raw manpower in Spain as such. Formally, far from restricting the right to fight, the late Visigoth king Wamba ordered that everyone summoned to the host “bring a tenth part of his serfs, armed with weapons of war”.

    Nothing but the utter want of a middle class of warlike proprietors could account for this desperate expedient being tried.

    But it can be argued this does not fundamentally contradict Paul. The internal logic of Visigothic society, exclusive towards their conquered Roman population and feudal-particularist towards their usurping kings (who increasingly each tended to be the first and last of his line), very much conflicted with the idea of arming and training serfs to fight for it.

    So far this comment, like Paul’s comment and my comment above, has been tangential to the post. More relevant to the OP is how the muslims entered Spain. They were invited in by a would-be usurper to help him seize the crown. Once established, they found it more in accord with the demands of their religion to help themselves. This historical example of the dangers of breaking laws and breaching defences to invite an alien population into your country, in the belief that they will help you gain political power rather than the reverse, raises another of those distant echoes that my OP considers.