May 11, 2006

What Have the Pythons Ever Done For Us?

[cross-posted on Chicagoboyz]

From comedy troupe Monty Python's Life of Brian:
REG: All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?
XERXES: Brought peace.
REG: Oh. Peace? Shut up!

As described by the Times recently, Monty Python member Terry Jones has written a book which attempts to correct the good press that the Romans have been getting for the last two thousand years by outlining recent discoveries of the technical accomplishments of the pre-Roman Celts in Britain. They weren't such "barbarians" after all ... they built their own roads, and created their own metallurgical masterpieces, innovated with the chariot in war, and were probably nice to their kids, as well.

Now I'm wondering how a comedian and amateur historian gets placed in the role of righting what apparently is a Great Moral Wrong of ancient history -- the tired straw man of Celtic backwardness. Apparently times are tough in the history departments of British universities. No tweedy scholar with a promotional bent is up to the task. But in the spirit of Terry Jones, let me also do a bit of armchair amateur philosophizing ... about the recent popularity of downgrading Roman accomplishment, whether say in Robert Wright's Non-Zero (2001), or Mr. Jones' new book.

It's no accident that we're seeing a flurry of historical revisionism in the last five years, a time filled with loose talk about the American Colossus, imperial over-reach, and "not since the Romans." Every American mote is fondly embraced, while the rest of the world's beams are conveniently ignored. Darfur can be up to its knees in blood and the only sound to be heard is the bleating media ... "What have the Americans ever done for Us?"

So our public historical discourse has devolved into comparisons of apples and oranges, and apple seeds and apples. Cultural relativism is now about reasserting cultural self-esteem and designating the historical Victim. We can see a similar disingenuousness when economic historians of the Left attempt to explain why the Industrial Revolution occurred in Europe. Try Mokyr's "The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy" for a useful corrective.

Mixed into all this resurgent Celtic love is a religious and cultural identity crisis. God forbid (er, Great Mother forfend) that the Wiccans shouldn't get equal billing with the Christian Church in British history. It's tough for the British to find their treasured Victim-hood in the overwhelming affluence and freedom of the modern Anglosphere. It's all too, how shall we say it, "Roman."

Based on my visits to several dozen Roman sites in Britain and Scotland, my reading about Roman material culture and late Medieval Europe, the Anglo-Saxon period in England, (and Lex's coaching on legal topics) over the last two years, let me take my amateur stab at comparing the Celts and the Romans.

Roman military expansion in northwest Europe had an impact very much like our own few centuries of European economic globalization. By establishing continental economic networks, the peripheral parts of the Empire (like Britain) experienced a substantial distortion of local economies (e.g. growing corn & barley to feed distant Romans rather than grains and livestock for the locals). There was also the importation of substantial technological/artistic/administrative/military skills (think intellectual property) from Mediterranean Roman culture. Those peripheral cultures could not afford to implement huge capital developments (aka foreign direct investment). Anyone who can look at the 70 miles of Hadrian's Wall, complete with elaborate ditches, stone walls, mile-forts, sectional fortresses, river bridges composed of solid multi-ton stone blocks, military roads, and shipping depots (in Newcastle) ... and claim that the Celts were somehow on par ... is flogging an agenda not a technological argument. The Brits spent 1500 years just poaching the cut stone, brick and tile from Roman construction -- literally "free money" to them. British roads weren't built to Roman standards til after 1750 (when British military engineers responded to the Rebellion of the 1740's by excavating Roman roads for technical details and then proceeded with a road-building frenzy ... often simply on top of the old Roman roadbeds in Scotland!).

The distinction with our own time of economic globalization, as noted in an e-mail exchange with Lex, was that Roman society was slave-based for much of its labour input. As a result, by definition, much of Roman construction, economic activity, and "high" culture was predicated on many, many people living in servitude. The rural villas of the Roman British era were meant for Roman landowners ... Roman slaveowners ... but people of our own era would far prefer to live in such country homes than in the buildings of any subsequent era (til the 20th century). For one thing, the Romans were clean freaks. The Celts obviously preferred more British freedom and fewer Roman concrete walls/roads/sewers/baths, etc. etc.. Whatever their accomplishments, they weren't able to unify in the face of an economically and technologically dominant culture. Squalor or servitude. Not much of a choice. As Tacitus notes, putting words in the Celt's mouth, "they [the Romans] make a desert and call it peace." One can only imagine that most of the modern world, watching its kids fawn over Hollywood actors and wearing gangsta clothing, would say the same thing.

Nonetheless, comparing Celtic material/technological innovation with Roman material/technological achievement is like comparing Third world space programs with the NASA/EU/Russian space programs. Yeah, stuff goes up in space in both cases ... just not as often, as successfully, as significantly, or as far.

The dated straw man of "ignorant Celtic barbarians" should not be replaced by "just like each other" nor (apart from the sad old IQ debate) "just as good as each other" ... a wood road across the Severn mud-flats doesn't equate to tens of thousands of miles of roads across mountains, forests, and deserts maintained for centuries ... sorry. And the odd bit of excellent metal-work can hardly compare to a continental network of manufacture and supply that put glass windows, basilicas, massive stone sculptures, and catapults almost as far north as Inverness in the Scottish Highlands.

The parallels with modern times are striking ... because no small impoverished country in the world now makes its own watches, sneakers/trainers, televisions, business suit styles, musical notation or a replacement for the International Phonetic Alphabet. In the sorrier parts of the world, they sell copra or beachfront access for such things. In the sorriest parts of the world, they grow dope and sell humans. In the very worst parts of the world, they simply trans-ship stuff from elsewhere and provide a law-free zone. They could do all kinds of wonderful things, but in the current global economic environment none of those things have immediate economic value, nor any global cultural interest. As Strabo noted at the approach of the Current Era, Britain "produces corn, cattle, gold, silver and iron. These things are exported, along with hides, slaves and dogs suitable for hunting." Roman arrogance aside, it doesn't sound like the ancient world was in awe of Celtic creativity.

Should modern global trade collapse, for whatever reason, many nations would seek to create local replacements and would come up with some great new ideas (through unique innovation, drawing on inheritances or relict skills from the globalized period, etc.) ... just as "Dark Age" Europe, we now know, innovated widely but was still in constant contact with the ideas, money, and skills of the Byzantine Empire from 400 - 1000AD, at which point the Northern Italian republics started to reassert their technological and economic dominance of the Mediterranean. In turn, the northern Italians were instrumental thereafter in spreading a wave of new (and old Roman) skills to the Lowlands and England.

I suspect this Celts were Good Too initiative is just an amateur iteration of Bad Romans=Bad Americans ... suppressing our natural capacities at innovation and achievement, reminiscent of European claims for job-creation ... "our jobs would be much better than American jobs, er ... if we could create jobs."

The fact that it's an ex-Monty Python member flogging historical revisionism is deliciously ironic in so many ways. While Spamalot puts comfortable bums in expensive Broadway seats, Mr. Jones mutters about underappreciated Celts who lived and died two millennia ago. Nothing quite so satisfying as a life filled with both Gold and Virtue. I wonder if the shade of Togidubnus -- reputed sellout king of the Regni Celts during the Roman invasion of Britain -- recalls his glamourous Roman palace at Fishbourne in southern England (the remains are impressive to this day) and laughs uproariously at the new Celt wannabees bemoaning their new Roman overlords. "It's good to be King," one imagines him saying to himself. And for the comfortable multitude in the modern global economy, even for those much less than comfortable, the Anglosphere, and its American giant, are a target for equal parts envy and greed. How to be a Celt in a Roman World?

So "what have the Pythons ever done for us?" When we get our history from comedians, perhaps only our historians are left to record the farce of Utopianism and post-modern victimology.

Posted by jmccormick at May 11, 2006 07:15 PM

And decorated the mantelpiece with severed heads?

Posted by: dearieme at May 12, 2006 08:29 AM

Ah, but average living standards among the northern 'barbarians' were, in some ways, definitely superior to those of the romans, as is shown by the greater height & robusticity of the former. Nutrition is a pretty irrefragable criterion of _real_ standard of living, no? The engineering achievements & monuments of the Romans may be very impressive, but most of the people walking among them 2000 years ago were malnourished & stunted.

Posted by: Sam at May 12, 2006 09:16 PM

Sam - not necessarily. Here's another model: Nutrition in that era indicates the proportion of meat in the diet, which was typically inversely proportional to the population density. As the standard of living rose, population density went up, and it was necessary to turn to grains/beer for food, causing average nutritional quality to go down.

At least, there wasn't a clear relation between economic success and nutritional quality before the Industrial Revolution. This issue is related to the Malthusian population story.

Posted by: pj at May 13, 2006 08:44 AM

More seriously, they had drains at Skara Brae, a couple of millenia before the Romans came.

Posted by: dearieme at May 16, 2006 08:42 AM

A downside to Roman rule, at least in my opinion:

From wikipedia:

[Emperor] Hadrian attempted to root out Judaism, which he saw as the cause of continuous rebellions. He prohibited the Torah law, the Jewish calendar and executed Judaic scholars. The sacred scroll was ceremoniously burned on the Temple Mount. At the former Temple sanctuary, he installed two statues, one of Jupiter, another of himself. In an attempt to erase any memory of Judea, he wiped the name off the map and replaced it with Syria Palaestina, as an insulting reminder of the Jews' ancient enemies the Philistines, long-extinct by then. He reestablished Jerusalem as the Roman pagan polis of Aelia Capitolina, and Jews were forbidden from entering it.

Posted by: Bill White at May 16, 2006 09:04 AM

Wow, if the Roman Celts were growing corn to feed distant Romans they must have been more advanced than I thought, since corn is native to the Americas.

Posted by: Scott at May 16, 2006 10:40 AM

Corn was grown in Mycenean Greece about 1500 BC.

Posted by: Ed Colletta at May 16, 2006 10:54 AM

"Corn" can mean (1) maize, or (2) food grains more generally.

Posted by: Lexington Green at May 16, 2006 11:35 AM

Maize as a meaning for "corn" is very recent and very secondary. In Swedish the cogante word refers specifically to barley, and they have been growing barley since the Neolithic probably.

Re the Romans. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes the Rome is just Rome. Rome may be an archtype of empire, and thus that connection with America may be valid, but it could just as easily be the EU, which is considerably more Roman than America will ever be. Maybe someday we will see a movie come out with Boudica bashing soldiers speaking Italian and Spanish, and turncoat Guals speaking French.

I remember when all this enthusiasm for Celtica came in, in the 70's. (I am leaving aside all the Gaeligeoir enthusiam of the 1900's that Miles na Gopaleen skewers so delightfully.) It was a lot more about repudiating English cultural and linguistic dominance than about an American dominance that didn't really exist yet. It it certainly didn't have any reference to the EU, at least in America.

Posted by: Jim at May 16, 2006 12:02 PM

In pre-Columbian Europe, Corn was a form of wheat or oat, depending on region, and was probably similar to what we call einkorn. When Maize was discovered being used in the Americas by the native tribes, it got renamed Corn, possibly (my guess-Rich) to attach a Bibical reference so it would sell better.

Posted by: Rich at May 16, 2006 02:30 PM

I would recommend to you the books by Peter Berresford Ellis on the Celts. Were they as good as the Romans at building roads and walls? No. Are road building and stone dressing the best measures of a civilization? rhetorical question.

Posted by: joemurphy at May 18, 2006 02:10 PM

The idea that most physical labour in the Roman empire was done by slaves is ludicrous. The walls in Northern England and Scotland, Hadrians and the Antonine wall, were built by soldiers, who proudly affixed their unit markers to the stretch they built. Most activity in the Roman empire was paid for, as the huge amount of currency littered around it shows. There were huge slave estates dotted around as well, but they belonged to the super-rich, who were as numerous then as they are now. Please try to read some history books soon.

Posted by: Andrew Lale at May 19, 2006 05:10 PM

"innovated with the chariot in war"

Which had been obsolete since the Assyrian invented horseback riding in the 8th century BCE.

Posted by: John "Akatsukami" Braue at May 21, 2006 10:26 AM

I'm sorry, but are you referring to Terry Jones the Oxford Historian with a number of published works on medieval history under his belt?

Oh yes, he's also a comedian.

Could we perhaps have your history qualifications and publications to compare with Mr Jones?

Posted by: Daveon at May 22, 2006 06:09 AM

I wouldnt dismiss ideas without really looking into it, its never the way forward.

Posted by: stevcub at May 29, 2006 06:02 AM
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