Friday, March 12, 2010

The Aurelian Column by Frank McLynn

German society in the first century BC was primitive and clan- based, with an emphasis on communal ownership; the gap between the rich and poor was not large. Primarily pastoralists, the Germans enjoyed a climate and corresponding vegetation that made it unnecessary for them to be nomads. Highly dependent on cattle, they ate little grain and made little use of iron; they tended to live in open-plan villages, particularly detesting the kind of overcrowding that was routine in Rome. Clans would occasionally combine into larger units that the Romans identified as tribes (pagi), but the only real federations were in wartime.

Relying on serfdom rather than slavery, the Germans tended to use female captives only as slaves; males were either killed or traded to the Roman empire as slaves. Feuds were widespread, but were usually settled by reparations in the form of sheep or cattle. Routinely cruel, the Germans practiced various refinements of capital punishment, quite apart from the human sacrifice of those captured in war. Traitors and deserters merited hanging from trees, but cowards and criminals were plunged into marshes with weighed hurdles on their heads to endure slow drowning.

Largely an illiterate society, Germania was nonetheless distinguished by respect for women (whose intuitive and prophetic powers they prized) and strict sexual morality. Husbands provided dowries for wives and practiced monogamy, with adultery being regarded as a great crime and punished accordingly. As Tacitus put it, there was 'no arena with its seductions, no dinner table with their provocations to corrupt them.' Yet German society was no utopia and suffered from several drawbacks. One was the warrior ethos itself.

Although Tacitus claimed that the landscape had produced a physically huge and savage people, which made the German particularly dangerous- 'neither Samnite nor Carthaginian, neither Spain nor Gaul, nor even the Parthians have taught us more lessons'- outside warfare there was no focus for their energies and ambitions. In peacetime there was no proper civil or political society, no cities, proper houses, cultural pursuits or even very much agriculture. The men were notoriously lazy, doing nothing but eat, drink, pick fights and take offense. They had no awareness of chronology or notions of time-keeping, which merely compounded the general idleness. Consequently much of the ferocity in war went into their two great weaknesses: drunkenness and gambling.

All this began to change as the Roman impact on Germania became more pronounced after 50 BC. The influx of wealth from trade with Rome and money subsidies paid by the Romans to keep the tribes quiet made certain individuals wealthy and gradually displaced communalism with private property. The demand for Roman goods grew, imports increased, the economy became monetised by trade and wages paid to those Germans who served with the legions and by subsidies paid to the chiefs. Trade in cattle and slaves with the Romans was important, but the dynamic new element was commerce in amber. Since the only source of high-grade amber was the southern shores of the Baltic, and it was in high demand at Rome, areas engaged in this long-distance trade especially benefited. Salt, fur, and hides were also exported from Germany, while imports include Roman ceramics, especially the finest red tableware or terra sigillata and the best Roman vintages, which were greedily devoured by wine-crazy Germans.

As the demand for Roman goods increased throughout the first century AD, more and more Roman traders and money-lenders were found on German territory. Meanwhile German society itself became markedly more stratified, with something of a crevasse opening up between the wealthy nobles and the masses. By the end of the century the old clan system had virtually disappeared, displaced by a quasi-feudal grouping of rich aristocrats with the personal retainers.

The new class-bound society was the entering wedge the Romans used to control Germany. Their policy was to tie the new aristocrats to them with money and trading favors, while dealing harshly with the have-nots. They liked to take hostages from the sons of the tribal leaders and then educate them in Rome, teaching them to despise their roots, then sending them back to subvert any anti-Roman policies that might arise if decisions were made in a full assembly of all the people, as used to be the case. These kings were given money to buy off the opposition and to spend on conspicuous consumption that denoted their new 'royal' status; thus they became creatures of Rome, in some cases more sympathetic to the interests of the Roman state than to those of their own people.

To cow the opposition expected from the masses, the Romans would threaten at the limit to invade and lay waste tribal lands, though they rarely had to intervene; their client kings usually performed effectively. The final weapon the Romans had was to refuse to ratify any new ruler they did not approve of, which meant the end of trading privileges and money subsidies and the threat of invasion. The Romans perfected 'divide and rule' in Germany, both by setting the different tribes at each other's throats and by generating strife and class conflict within the tribes, setting up feudal retinues and private property against the masses, who were dedicated to clans and communalism. The trick was to keep powerful tribes in a state of permanent chaos and near civil war, while at the same time ensuring that the Roman proteges never became powerful enough to bite than hand that fed them. It is no exaggeration to say that the combination of increased wealth, private property and the aristocratic-plebeian split engineered by Rome bade fair to tear Germania apart.

The paradox was that to get a fixed system of clients, the kings or chiefs had to exercise tighter control and thus become more powerful, but this increased power in turn alarmed the Romans. The most powerful tribes were also those furthest advanced along the transition from the old clan system to the new quasi-feudal dispensation of great wealth and extreme socio-economic inequality. This can be very clearly correlated with the proximity to the Roman frontier on the Danube. Whereas the northern Germans lived in primitive conditions like Yahoos or Morlocks, the Marcomanni by the time of Marcus Aurelius lived in stone houses. By contrast the Teutonic tribes of the Baltic shores still practiced agriculture rather than commerce, had no houses but slept on the ground, and in some cases employed 'primitive' social systems like matriarchy. The correct model for the Marcomannic wars is not 'civilization' against 'barbarism', but a clash of wealth systems, with the Quadi and Marcominni seeking to put themselves on a level with the Romans and increase the distance in wealth between themselves and their benighted Baltic kinsmen. To put it in sociological terms, the model for the 'revolution' on the Danube under Marcus Aurelius was Tocquevillean rather than Marxian. To put it in Gibbon's terms, proximity to the Romans on the Danube had corrupted the 'noble savages'.

Much of the fighting in the emperor's campaigns (@ 170-180 AD) consisted of hard-fought skirmishes in the dark forests and dank marshes, a brutal slugging affair, with no quarter given or asked. Marcus's famous Aurelian column, later erected in Rome to depict his successes in the German wars, convey the reality only too vividly. It's iconography has been well described as conveying 'visible tenseness, anguish in the muscles and facial expressions as Marcus inspects the captured or when a barbarian chief pleads for admission'. Among the horrors depicted on the column are barbarians begging for their lives; Romans clearing villages and massacring all the adult males; the gutting and torching of entire settlements; Germans praying to the gods for divine intervention and rescue; long lines of unarmed men being decapitated as they step up to the executioner's sword; the mass murder of prisoners thrown into open pits, which they had been forced to dig for themselves; head-hunting by Roman troops who display trophy heads to an admiring emperor; the abuse and murder of prisoners; the death marches; the rape of women; the seizure of cattle and the killing of infants.

Contemporary sensibility would have it that these horrors were painful for Marcus and were sadly portrayed on the column, but this is a strictly modern view. The horrors of war are outside the ambit of meaning to be found on a Roman triumphal monument, and Romans would have seen the atrocities as just punishment exacted by a dutiful emperor. The correct analogy is not something like Picasso's Guernica, but the matter-of-fact report of executions and mutilations of Gauls and Germans during Caesar's Gallic Wars. Evidence of a sort for Marcus's attitudes can be found in Books Two and Three of the Meditations, written 'among the Quadi' on the Danube in 170-3, where death was omnipresent. He himself later refers almost casually to the severed heads, decapitated torsos and truncated limbs of the dead in war. Roman iconography dealing with war is concerned with far different things from alleged war crimes. We realize that Marcus's victories have given Rome confidence, that the Germans are no longer feared, as in the past; Marcus is often portrayed as a heroic figure, a giant, with the barbarians as dwarfs.

"Marcus Aurelius: A Life" by Frank Mclynn; Da Capo Press, 2009

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