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March 24, 2020

To beat the dragon be the dragon

Filed under: History,Roman History,rome,Sulla — Razib Khan @ 1:52 am

In The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire Kyle Harper argues that the Plague of Cyprian, between 249 to 262 A.D., served as a massive exogenous shock to the Roman Empire that changed history. Harper observes that the structures of Roman society were reordered in the face of near collapse and exhaustion due to the onslaught of disease. The Plague of Cyprian, at least in Harper’s telling, plays a major role in the rise of Christianity and the fading away of the traditional religion (more through the inability of the old pagan institutions to persist in the face of social instability as opposed to a crisis of faith).

But the change was more than cultural. It is well known that Augustus, the first of what we call Roman Emperors, styled himself Princeps, and maintained the external fiction that he restored the republic. The term Imperator was not applied regularly to Roman Emperors until the reign of Vespasian, in the last quarter of the 1st century A.D., nearly a century after Augustus came to power. But even then the rulers of the Roman world maintained a conceit and fiction that they were scions of the old republican world, the first among the aristocrats. This was certainly true of Marcus Aurelius, who famously styled himself something of a philosopher-king as well.

After the disastrous reign of Marcus Aurelius’ son, Commodus, the dynasty founded by Septimius Severus moved in a more nakedly autocratic direction. Severus notably presented laws to the Senate as expressions of his fiat will. But Severus was from the old aristocracy of Rome. He underwent the cursus honorum under the Antonines.

The true shift came during the late 3rd-century and the rise of the Tetrarchs. These military rulers, who came out of the barracks of the Illyrian legions, ushered in the Dominate. This is the despotic later phase of the Roman Empire and derives from the fact that Diocletian added dominus, lord or master, to one of his titles. Diocletian and his successors did not see the need for the pretense that their world was that of the Republic. It was fundamentally different. They accrued to themselves the powers and styles of despotic eastern rulers.

Why? The shock of the Plague of Cyprian induced instability in the Roman world, which a powerful ruler stabilized. But according to Peter Heather in The Fall of the Roman Empire the Romans were reacting to the emergence of the Sassanians, who had reconfigured Persia to be a more formidable rival to Rome.* The irony here is that just the Persians became the great enemy of Rome, the Emperors of Rome began to resemble their eastern rivals in their external form and internal self-identity.

* Adrian Goldsworthy disagrees that Sassanian Persia was so formidable, ascribing the military parity more to Roman decay than the rise of Iran.

May 24, 2018

The souls of peoples gone

Filed under: Demographics,Pots not Peoples,Roman History,rome — Razib Khan @ 11:14 pm



Stonehenge was first erected around 3100 BC, though the timber was only replaced with stone in 2600 BC. The great monument was a product of the Late Neolithic in Britain. Ancient DNA today tells us that these people were distantly related to the modern Sardinians, and derive from a wave of farmers that radiated out of Anatolia across much of Europe.

About a century after the stone form of Stonehenge was erected, prehistoric Britain was culturally and genetically transformed. In the space of a few centuries after 2500 BC there was nearly a ~90% genetic turnover, and a new people more closely related to Northern Europeans in Germany and further east became ascendant. The majority of the ancestry in Britain today probably derives from this migration period.

And yet the new people continued to utilize Stonehenge for over 1,000 years. Clearly, they co-opted a monument erected by their predecessors and maintained its significance across an enormous cultural disruption.

This is on my mind because on the episode of The Insight recorded with Patrick Wyman (it will probably drop in June) we talked extensively about Roman demography. And one of the peculiarities of 2013’s The Geography of Recent Genetic Ancestry across Europe is that Italy has a lot of deep population structure. From the paper:

There is relatively little common ancestry shared between the Italian peninsula and other locations, and what there is seems to derive mostly from longer ago than 2,500 ya. An exception is that Italy and the neighboring Balkan populations share small but significant numbers of common ancestors in the last 1,500 years, as seen in Figures S16 and S17. The rate of genetic common ancestry between pairs of Italian individuals seems to have been fairly constant for the past 2,500 years, which combined with significant structure within Italy suggests a constant exchange of migrants between coherent subpopulations.

The implication here is that there’s population structure deeper than the Roman period. When I first saw these results I was surprised. Looking at genome-wide data I was pretty sure that most of the modern Italian population dated to the Roman Republican period, but I was not expecting provincial level substructure. It was like telling me that the Samnites and Umbrians were still with us!

But what about the great cosmopolitan cities of Neopolis, Rome, and Ravenna? Some commenters on this blog routinely get frustrated when I dismiss the textual and epigraphic evidence of massive migration into the Italian peninsula during the height of the Roman Empire. Actually, I believe that this migration occurred. I just do not believe it was particularly impactful genetically today. Though my general outlook on this issue goes back over ten years (in part thanks to the suggestion of Greg Cochran), I believe the issue here is that cities are such incredible demographic sinks.

Roman urban cosmopolitanism was parasitic on migration. Demographically it was never self-sustaining. In fact, as Patrick points out urban areas probably did not see sustained above replacement reproduction anywhere in the world before about 1900, with the emergence of germ theory and massive public sanitation works, especially in the United States. This is evident in books as diverse as Kyle Harper’s The Fate of Rome and The Rise and Fall of American Growth.

So did Roman urban civilization leave nothing to posterity? On the contrary. Like much of Rodney Stark’s work in the last twenty years Cities of God is needlessly polemical and oftentimes unscholarly*, it gets at the reality that Christianity was fundamentally an urban cult. It was brought to Italy by people from the Eastern Mediterranean, Jews and Greeks. In its early period it was dominated by urban cosmopolitans. Some of the sermons in urban churches even castigated rural peasants  as pagan beasts of the field.

Christianity was an international religion with foreign origins, and like many elite cultural constructions of the pre-modern oikoumene its existed operationally as a social network across the various cities around which elites congregated. In some ways the vast sea of villages which filled in the landscape were untouched by many of the cultural innovations occurring in the cities. A Neolithic person might be confused by some aspects of Roman village life (in particular, access to standardized manufactured goods), but they would be totally flabbergasted by the city of Rome.

Over the 200 years between 400 AD and 600 AD the population of Rome probably went from ~500,000 to ~50,000. The decline of the Western Empire and the period of the Gothic Wars choked off the economic subsidies which could maintain the city’s population by drawing newcomers. And yet the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, remained in the city. If Patrick and I are correct then medieval Rome was repopulated by the descendants of peasants from Lazio, the hinterlands around the city.

Some scholars, albeit often from a partisan Protestant viewpoint, have suggested that the Western Christian Church of the early Middle Ages did not truly Christianize the peasantry. Whether this is true or not, it does seem to correct to say that deeply rooted popular Christianity took many centuries to become pervasive in rural areas. Despite their relative decline in the medieval period, both substantively and in terms of cultural prestige, cities remained remained the stalwart redoubts of Roman Christianity. They were the braintrust of European civilization, even if they were not demographically self-sustaining.

To a great extent the last ten years has seen a refutation of “pots not peoples.” It turns out that many of the archaeological transitions seen in the physical record correlate with demographic changes inferred from genetic changes. And yet we know from history that some peoples and social groups which were highly influential left far less of a demographic footprint. I suspect that the rise of cities and complex polities transformed the “pots not peoples” calculus significantly.

* Google the fact that about ten years ago Stark was dismissing reports that Americans were getting more secular as wishful thinking by biased liberal scholars. Who do you really think had a bias with hindsight?

March 29, 2017

10 Things About Roman History You Should Know

Filed under: Culture,History,rome — Razib Khan @ 9:42 pm

10 Things About Roman History You Should KnowSince Since the earlier “10 Things” was quite popular, I thought I’d try my hand at another one on a topic I know rather well. This involves Roman history. Unfortunately, history is a less clear and distinct topic than evolutionary biology, so there may be some disagreement with the assertions below.

But here we go….

1) Constantine did not make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire did not have an established religion, at that point, in any way we could understand today. Rather, there were customary subsidies given to traditional cults, and favor shown to particular religions by particular emperors. The subsidies from the state coffers to pagan cults were cut off more than two generations after Constantine.

2) By the late Republic most of the “noble” families of Roman society were originally plebeian, rather than patrician, in origin. They were defined by their wealth, power, and achievements, as opposed to their blood. There were still powerful patrician lineages, such as the Julii and Claudii, by they no longer held a monopoly on the public square (Julius Caesar may have been from an old patrician line, but his mother was a Cotta, who were plebeians).

10 Things About Roman History You Should Know3) Most of the emperors who were “not Roman,” were thoroughly Roman. Septimius Severus, the “African emperor,” born in Libya, did come from a paternal lineage of Punic (so Phoenician) origin. But his mother descended from Italian colonists in North Africa. He was culturally a man of the Latin West.

4) At the elite level Roman culture was to some extent dual-culture, with many Latin elites cultivating aspects of Greek culture and learning. But Western (Latin) and Eastern (which usually been Greek or Hellenized non-Greek) societies remained sharply differentiated in many ways. The first emperor who may have spoken Greek as his first language, Anastasius, reigned at the end of the 5th century. Greeks dominated philosophy, while Latins dominated rhetoric.

5) Though Latin political control collapsed in Italy in 476, the cultural and economic destruction of the Italian peninsula occurred during the East Roman reconquista of the 6th century.

6) The forms of Republican Rome persisted for centuries during the imperial period. The transformation of Roman Emperors into purely naked autocrats did not occur until after the chaos of the middle 3rd century.

7) Speaking of which, the Roman system almost collapsed during the “Crisis of the Third Century”.

8) The early “bad emperors,” such as Nero or Caligula, often caused problems for the Roman elites. But the overall institutional system persisted and was minimally impacted. In contrast, Julius Caesar would almost certainly be judged to have committed genocide in Gaul were he judged by modern standards.

9) Most of the expenditure of the Roman state went to the military.

10) Romans arguably invented Western bureaucracy. Though the Roman state in was incredibly understaffed by modern standards, one consequence of the Western Empire’s fall was the collapse of tax collection in specie as opposed to kind or service.

May 10, 2010

Cross-societal comparisons then & now

Filed under: anthropology,Empires and Barbarians,History,peter heather,rome — Razib Khan @ 3:22 pm

At Discover I have a long review up of Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe. I would recommend the book, especially if you enjoyed The Horse, the Wheel, and Language or Empires of the Silk Road. In any case, I want to highlight two points in the author’s argument which I think bear more emphasis.

First, the author argues that there was a mass migration of German (and others, such as the Iranian Alans) across the limes as the Western Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th century. This is in contrast with the model that the barbarian war bands were of trivial size, and most cultural and social evolution occurred through a process of bottom-up emulation. In this model the Ostrogothic elite of Theodoric’s time was a motley ad hoc construction of recent generations whose origins were diverse, German and non-German, without much time depth. Against this model is that of total replacement, which was common in the early 20th century. Empires and Barbarians takes a reasonable middle road; in very few regions was there total replacement, even in what became England where cultural obliteration of the Romano-British heritage was nearly total. But, the author also argues that the core of groups such as the Goths and Vandals were German tribes which had relocated from Central Europe, and whose identities were deep and to a great extent ethnically demarcated. Additionally, not only was this movement of some size, it also included women and children, and so was a classic Völkerwanderung.

But just as there was no total replacement of Romans in northern Gaul, despite the non-trivial influx of Franks into that region, so the migration out of Central Europe did not leave the old Gothic or Vandal heartlands empty. In fact, the majority of those German tribes and clans which identified as Goth or Vandal may have remained in the heartlands. But critically the elites, and in particular the ruling houses and the free warriors and their families decamped. Roughly the top 10-20% of the population.

This is not so surprising. If you read Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America you observe the importance of “forward elements” in British migration to the United States. In Puritan New England there was a proactive attempt to discourage the emigration of the lower classes (as well as the blooded nobility), and a strong bias toward the “upper middle class” (the professions, the gentry, etc.). In the lowland South nobility of England often brought their own hierarchical social system along with them, including their customary retainers. It took some wherewithal to move en masse in an organized fashion. But the author also points out that in the ancient world there was little motive for peasants to move, as there was little difference in quality of life from locale to locale. In a world where productivity gains were marginal and zero-sum economic psychology dominated the motive existed for the rent-seeking elites to move onto greener pastures, not the productive peasantry who were the green pastures no matter where they were resident.

A class dimension to the Völkerwanderung is something that I think might be important, because I recall reading archaeologists noting how robust and tall the Lombards who entered Italy in the 6th and 7th centuries were on average. In the work I had read this was interpreted naturally as an ethnic difference, as the Germans were a larger folk than the local proto-Italians. But if there was this class bias in migration then the size difference has a more natural explanation: the malnourished majority of the German population never emigrated, rather, it was the hale and robust warrior elite who show up in post-Roman states. But there’s a bigger issue here, and that’s the point that pre-modern elites viewed wealth through their own lenses as rentier thugs. In The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization Bryan Ward-Perkins emphasizes that the collapse of the Roman Empire did result in a social and economic regress. The data from Britain for example shows that air pollution because of industrial economic activity (broadly construed) did not reach the levels of the Roman period until the 18th century! In Empires and Barbarians the author also agrees that the Roman Empire was wealthier than the barbarian lands to their north and east, and in particular that the German dominated Jastrow and post-Jastrow societies practiced an extensive form of low productivity (per unit of land) agriculture which made their conquest economically a losing proposition for the Roman Empire. And naturally the relatively low per unit economic productivity of the German heartland resulted in fewer rents for its local elite.

And yet set against this we have the arguments in works such as A Farewell to Alms which assume as a default model that the median human in all societies from the emergence of humanity until 1800 was poor. Caught in the “Malthusian trap,” whereby gains in productivity were always swallowed up by population increase. This perspective gains some support from Contours of the World Economy 1-2030 AD. Before 1800 the differences in median wealth across regions is marginal, with the largest gaps being 50%, and 10-20% more typical. From our modern perspective everyone was caught in the Malthusian trap, on average, though some were marginally more well off than others.

But it isn’t the average difference which matters, it is the aggregate whereby you calculate total wealth in a political order. By that measure, even if the Roman peasant was no more well off (or even less well off!) than the average peasant on the Baltic, the high population density of the Roman political order was extremely beneficial to any rentier elite seeking to capture or extract surplus productivity from these teeming masses. In a pre-modern political order poverty may have been a permanent feature of the lives of most, but the configuration and implementation of subsistence and the distribution and flow of goods above subsistence were of the essence. It is much easier for men with swords to steal from densely settled agriculturalists than nomads or slash & burn cultivators. The Roman peasant may not have been wealthier than the German peasant, but the Roman aristocrat of the 4th century lived a life of glamorous opulence in relation to the German warlord. Similarly, the Chinese peasant may not have been wealthier than the cultivators who lived beyond the frontier in 16th century Manchuria, but the Manchu dynasty fell into orders of magnitude more wealth after they toppled the Ming because they captured the much richer flow of rents.

The narrative of Empires and Barbarians is much denser than the above, and the analytical framework more sophisticated. But I think it is critical to emphasize why ancient barbarian elites were so keen on conquering civilized states, and why there seems to have been less mass migration of the peasantry. In the modern world when we think of differences between societies in regards to wealth, complexity or glory, we consider the median man on the street. This would tell us little for most of human history, rather, we would have to focus on the top 10% to truly get a sense of the difference, and in particular the top 1%. To a great extent civilization has been a racket which operates to the benefit of the tiny elite by making rent-seeking much more efficient.

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