Saturday, July 16, 2011

Guy Halsall asks...

Why do we need the barbarians?

My contribution to these sessions is essentially to sum up by asking you one big question: why do we need the barbarians?  For it seems that we really do need the barbarians.  The answer was found, or at least suggested, in 1904 by C.P. Cavafy in his famous, much quoted, poem “Waiting for the Barbarians” (even quoted, inexplicably, in the names of chic jewellery boutiques in the 7me arrondissement in Paris, as left):

“Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come
And some of our men just in from the border say
There are no barbarians any longer.

“Now what’s going to happen to us without the barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.”

He was right; the bigger question, a hundred years on from Cavafy, is probably ‘a solution to what?’  As far as I can see, the problem which they solve cannot be ‘why did the Roman Empire fall?’  The barbarians’ role in any analysis of the Empire’s collapse must surely be sought under ‘consequences’ or ‘effects’ or – perhaps better – ‘components’, rather than under ‘causes’.  If one looks at the matter in simple descriptive terms, the number of provinces or amount of territory actually conquered by barbarians during the fifth century is minimal.  Note that the general move, in the colour scheme adopted in these maps [a reference to the PowerPoint Slides, I'm afraid, but they were simply the maps in Barbarian Migrations], is rarely from white to black, from Roman rule to barbarian rule, but from white to some shade of grey, either as a federate kingdom or as an area simply where the write of the Ravennate court did not run.>

Lots more, from what was a contentious paper at the Leeds conference this past week.

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