Our Friends The Barbarians (A Brief History of Humankind)

We have to remember that the annals of this warfare between "civilization" and "barbarism" have been written almost exclusively by the scribes of the "civilized" camp.

—Arnold Toynbee

In A.D. 410, the Visigoths sacked Rome. Saint Jerome, who had studied in Rome and had translated the Bible into its language, was in Bethlehem when he heard the news. He wrote to a friend, "What is safe if Rome perishes?" He answered his own question: "The whole world perished in one city. . . ."

This was a somewhat insular view. As Romans watched the Goths wreak havoc, the Maya, for example, went about their business as usual. Still, there is a sense in which the stakes of the barbarian assault were indeed larger than the city of Rome, and larger than the whole empire. The belt of civilization that had spanned the Eurasian continent by the first century A.D. thereafter began to unravel in various places, thanks largely to "barbarian tribes"—Huns, Goths, Vandals, and others. China battled marauding nomads often, and sometimes lost. The Gupta empire of northern India fell under assault from Huns and finally crumbled. Sassanid Persia barely kept the Huns at bay, sometimes becoming, in effect, their vassal state. In the New World, budding civilizations faced the same problem; citadels of urbanity were besieged by rapacious bumpkins, and some fell.

All told, barbarians had enough success to raise the question: What if they had prevailed? What if their devastation had been more thorough and widespread? Can we really be so sre that the basic thrust of cultural evolution would have resumed any time soon, or indeed ever? Did barbarians stand a real chance of ending the world’s basic movement toward vaster and deeper social complexity?

No. Indeed, the existence of barbarians, far from impeding cultural advance, may have, on balance, promoted it. This fact is illustrated even by the most famously devastating barbarian triumph: the fall of the Roman Empire.


What is a barbarian? To the cultural evolutionists of the nineteenth century, as we’ve sen, "barbarian" denoted a stage between "savage" (a simple hunter-gatherer band) and "civilized" (a state). This is indeed the level that most barbarian tribes of ancient times had reached; today we would call them "chiefdoms," though some were unusually mobile chiefdoms.

Historians use "barbarian" more loosely: Barbarians are peoples with a culture less advanced than their neighbors’, and perhaps with a tendency to violently exploit their neighbors’ advancement. Sometimes the exploitation—the pillaging—was done by swooping down on horseback, though this luxury was not available to New World barbarians.

To the Romans, "barbarian" was a less technical term. Its origins sound innocent—it came from the Greek word for "foreigner"—but its connotations were decidedly disparaging. Some Romans referred to the land within the empire’s bounds as oikoumene—"inhabited land." The Roman view of barbarians—as uncouth, perhaps depraved, even subhuman—lingers on, making barbarians one of the most misunderstood and unjustly maligned of groups. Several misconceptions, in particular, need dispelling.

Misconception #1: Barbarians are less "civilized" than their neighbors in a moral sense—less decent, less humane. Behaving less humanely than the Romans would be hard. It was Roman cavalrymen who informed their nemesis Hannibal of the outcome of a recent battle by tossing his brother’s head into his camp. It was Romans who avenged an early defeat at the hands of the Goths by taking Goth children—seized as hostages year earlier—and marching them into public squares in various towns, then slaughtering them. The emperor Nero bound Christians, smeared pitch on them, and ignited them, purportedly to light his gardens at night. One of his successors, Titus, celebrated his brother’s birthday by publicly killing 2,500 Jews—pitting some against each other in combat, pitting others against wild animals, and burning the rest. On a smaller scale, of course, this sort of spectacle was a regular form of Roman entertainment.

Sacking cities was standard Roman procedure, and, indeed, common in ancient wars generally. Saint Augustine, reflecting on the Goths’ looting of Rome, wrote, "All the destruction, slaughter, plundering, burning, and distress visited upon Rome in its latest calamity were but the normal aftermath of war." What was unusual, he observed, was that "fierce barbarians, by an unprecedented turn of events, showed such clemency that vast basilicas were designated as places where refugees might assemble with assurance of humanity." The Goths had burned only a few buildings, over a few days, before moving on.

Misconception #2: Barbarians lack culture. If by culture you mean fine sculpture, Greek tragedies, or eating salad with your salad fork, this charge has merit. But if by culture you mean what a cultural evolutionist means—all products of the human mind, especially practical ones—then barbarians needn’t hang their heads in shame. Given their dearth of formal education, they’ve contributed a fair amount to humankind’s great, upward-flowing stream of memes.

It was a barbarian plow that opened the heavy soil of northern and western Europe to farming during the Middle Ages. It was Asian barbarians who gave the stirrup to the Chinese and ultimately to the West. And back during the Chou era, barbarians assaulting the state of Ch’in had displayed a new style of warfare, based on the horse archer. The Ch’in used the technique not only to fend off later barbarian waves, but to conquer rival states and unify China.

Romans used to complain about the smell of barbarians, but that just goes to show there’s no accounting for taste. It was the Romans who didn’t use soap, and the barbarians who invented the stuff by boiling fat in alkali.

Misconception #3: Barbarians are beyond true edification. Granted that they’ve thought up a few neat ideas (often related to riding horses and killing people), when it comes to imparting culture to barbarians, you might as well be talking to a stone. Actually, barbarians, being human, are receptive to the same kinds of memes that people in general are receptive to. They like functional things, novel things, glittery things. Roman emperors used to dissuade Attila from pillaging by ending him gold. He would then do what any normal human would do after getting a big paycheck: go shopping. So the Huns wound up with silk, pearls, gold platters, silver goblets, gem-studded bridles, comfy sofas, linen bedsheets, and of course sturdy iron words, with which to extract more gold from Romans.

Even bookishness was not beyond the barbarian mind. By the end of the fourth century A.D. a bishop had converted some of the Goths to Christianity and translated the Bible into their language. This was the beginning of Germanic literacy.

The dispelling of misconceptions 2 and 3 suggests a larger truth. If barbarians are reasonably good at generating memes, and at absorbing memes generated by others, and are prone to travel, then you would expect them to be valuable meme spreaders and synthesizers. Indeed, they are veritable Mixmasters of culture.

Consider the Celts, the chiefdom-level people who touched various part of Europe in the centuries before and after Christ. According to one archaeologist, the Celts were "nomadic, boastful, quarrelsome, sumptuous, wild, and warlike, and they were headhunters." But whatever you do, don’t call them uncultured. They sold salt and metals to the Greeks and used the proceeds to buy wine, pottery, and metal-works. They transmitted Greek artistic motifs northward and conveyed ironworking technologies across broad waths of Europe. Eventually Celts would popularize horseshoes, iron locks, and barrels. The Romans learned the virtues of the "short word" the hard way—while the Celts were sacking Rome in 390 B.C. By Caesar’s day Celts were coining money in the fashion of Romans. Some Celts mastered the Greek alphabet.

Thus above and beyond the Celts’ erratic bursts of marauding and trading was a larger role: data processing and transmission. Amid the hubbub, memes—conglomerations of cultural information—got selectively preserved and replicated. They included one of the most important material technologies ever—ironworking—and two of the most important information technologies ever—writing and money. Thank you, head-hunting Celts.

The moral of the story is simple: When thinking about cultural evolution, don’t get wrapped up in the particular people and peoples. Instead, keep your eye on the memes. People and peoples come and go, live and die. But their memes, like their genes, persist. When all the trading and plundering and warring is done, bodies may be lying everywhere, and social structure may seem in disarray. Yet in the process, culture, the aggregate menu of memes on which society can draw, may well have evolved. Eventually, social structure will follow, coalescing around the newly available technological base. It may take awhile for the social structure to catch up with the technology.But given enough time, it will.

Misconception #4: Barbarians are by nature transient and chaotic. It is true that the barbarians of Europe and Asia were sometimes seized by wanderlust. And understandably so. If parasitizing painstakingly constructed civilizations is your line of work, you have to travel. But parasitism was in fact not the vocation of most "barbarians" most of the time. When they found nice fertile land, or a nice nexus among trading peoples, they often settled down to earn a living—an honest living, even.

You wouldn’t know this to read the dramatic Roman accounts of barbarians, but then they were based on dramatic encounters between Romans and barbarians, not on a random sampling of barbarian life. Archaeologists have since found that the Germanic barbarians north of the empire lived in "stable and enduring communities," their economy "probably essentially similar to peasant agriculture within the Western Roman provinces."

What’s more, barbarian societies, whether nomadic or sedentary, tend to evolve, just like other societies, toward higher levels of organization. One reason the Romans felt growing torment during the fourth century was that their tormentors possessed increasingly deft administration (some of it copied from the Romans); the barbarians were growing "more civilized," in the words of one historian, and thus more terrifying. Another historian writes of the barbarians menacing north China: "They became really dangerous to the extent that they became civilized, and versed in the arts of organization, production and war." One such barbarian memorized Confucian scriptures and was fond of saying, "To be ignorant of even one thing is a cause of shame to the gentleman." His well-schooled son sacked the capital of the Chin in 311, an event roughly comparable to the sacking of Rome.

The Huns in particular, though nomadic, were organized on a vast scale, sometimes described as an "empire." Like ancient empires generally, the Huns violently subjugated peoples and exacted tribute from them. (Who were the Romans to complain about that?) Meanwhile, over in east Asia, a barbarian confederacy called the Toba was assembling its own empire during the fourth and fifth centuries. The Toba eventually found themselves ruling most of north China—and having to defend their turf against fresh waves of irksome barbarians.

That barbarians can be just as happy upholding a civilization as tearing one down is nowhere better illustrated than in the Roman Empire. For centuries, Romans had used Germanic tribes as mercenaries, and by the time Rome was sacked, some of the empire’s finest generals were of barbarian extraction. By and large, the Romans discovered, you could do business with these people. With the successful invasions of the fifth century, the barbarian tribes made this clearer. Before them lay vast expanses of Roman farmland, tilled by peasants who paid stiff taxes to a government that was increasingly unable to defend them. How to exploit the situation?

One approach might have been to weep across the agrarian countryside, battling Roman soldiers, slaughtering peasants, then taking their land. Another approach was to leave the peasants more or less alone and simply cut a deal with Roman officials under which you begin to replace them as tax collectors. The barbarians of legend would have taken the first path. The real-life barbarians took the second, thus realizing every person’s dream: a high ratio of income to work. Over the fifth and sixth centuries, the Roman tax apparatus came to be, in the words of one historian, "under new management."

There is a famous putdown applied to public servants who begin their careers with high ideals and wind up corrupted: they "came to do good and stayed to do well." Of the barbarians who fought Rome we might say, "They came to do bad, and stayed to do well." They may have begun their invasions in a mood to pillage, but they eventually found a more sedate livelihood. This flexibility is one reason that by A.D. 500 western Europe had evolved fairly smoothly from a single empire to several large barbarian kingdoms, such as the Visigothic in Spain and the Ostrogothic in Italy.

And how did Greco-Roman culture fare at the hands of barbarians? The Goths weren’t the sort to ponder Plato’s dialogues, but they praised the texts of Euclid; eschewing squishy subjects, they stressed nuts-and-bolts disciplines: architecture (they restored some of the empire’s monumental buildings); surveying (helpful in tax collection); mathematics (especially as applied to coinage and measurement); medicine (among the booty the Visigoths carried south after sacking Rome was the physician Dionysius). The Goths disdained the study of "rhetoric," which had loomed large in Roman law schools, but law itself was another matter. Employing Roman jurists, they adapted Roman law to the governance of their Roman subjects, and also formalized their own legal traditions, which had previously been oral. One barbarian-published tome was called "Roman Law of the Visigoths."

None of this is to suggest an easy continuity between the final century of Roman rule in western Europe and the centuries to come. The Goths and Franks and other "barbarians," however eager to be Rome’s heirs, were ill-equipped to assimilate a whole body of advanced culture. Besides, counterattacks from the still-formidable eastern sector of the Roman Empire, based in Constantinople, were disruptive. (The emperor Justinian’s "reclamation" of Rome did more damage than the original sacking by the Visigoths.) In the end, the great barbarian "kingdoms" did not endure intact. Still, the barbarians didn’t send Roman culture through a paper shredder, either.

Misconception #5: Barbarians were a peculiar affliction that for some reason materialized in the age of Rome (and then recurred occasionally, as with the Mongol maraudings of the late Middle Ages). The very fact that cultural evolution proceeds unevenly from place to place means that, for millennia before Rome, civilizations had been surrounded by less advanced cultures. These have-nots, being human, had the capacity for predation, and sometimes exercised it. Middle Eastern civilizations seem to have been beset by at least two waves of "barbarian" devastation, near the beginning and end of the second millennium B.C. So why do we hear relatively little about these earlier barbarians? Several reasons.

First, the further back in time you go, the less recording of history there is. Archaeologists find the ruins of former civilizations, and signs of violent clash, but they seldom find clear testament to what presumably was the perspective of the afflicted civilization: that hostile, uncouth, inferior aliens were on a mindless rampage. Indeed, when the barbarian assault is successful, its history, if ever recorded at all, will probably be written by descendants of the barbarians. And you can’t expect them to trumpet their ancestors’ barbarism.

Consider the Aztecs. They started out as semi-nomadic brutes lingering on the periphery of more advanced cultures, raiding them here, serving as their mercenaries there. (Sound familiar?) When they had finally learned enough to found their own great city and conquer literate peoples, they destroyed texts that described their own past as primitive. They wrote new histories, depicting themselves as the sole legitimate heir to the late, great Toltec civilization. For that matter, the Toltec themselves had started out as semi-nomadic barbarians, soaking up the culture of the peoples they would then push off the local pedestal.

Indeed, if you explore the murky recesses of just about any famously civilized people, you’ll find this dark secret: they started out as barbarians. The Romans weren’t exactly hailed by the Greeks as cultural equals when they happened on the scene. In fact, even after generations of Hellenic edification, the boringly practical Romans didn’t exude quite the cerebral air of classical Greece. Yet they were massively infiltrated by classical Greek memes, which they then spread across the wider world. In Horace’s phrase, "The Greeks, captive, took the victors captive."

And, anyway, who were the Greeks to look down on intrusive barbarians? They had their own checkered past. Their lowly ancestors took a big step in the long trek toward snobbery by invading Europe’s first bureaucratic monarchy, Minoan civilization on Crete, in the fifteenth century B.C. The early Greeks had a title of honor, ptoliporthos, that meant "sacker of cities." And Dorian Greeks may have been among the troublemakers who wreaked havoc near the end of the second millennium B.C.

You can play this game all day, going back and showing the ignoble social origins of what would later become dominant civilizations. But whether these "barbarians" sack cities, or hover on the periphery and trade with them, or ally with them in war or ally against them, one outcome is nearly certain: win, lose, or draw, the "barbarians" become vehicles for advanced memes. As William McNeill wrote in The Rise of the West, "The history of civilization is a history of the expansion of particularly attractive cultural and social patterns through conversion of barbarians to modes of life they found superior to their own." This century, "English" has been virtually synonymous with civilization and refinement, yet the word "England" means land of the Angles—a tribe that, back in the days of Rome, was just another bothersome bunch of barbarians.

Misconception #6: Barbarian eruptions, in their chaos and destruction, are ironic punctuation to the supposedly progressive flow of cultural evolution. We’ve seen that barbarians, in the long run, fall in line, assisting the upward flow of memes. But there’s a second sense as well in which barbarians, however defiantly they may seem to wim against the stream of cultural progress, are in fact going with the flow: The reason they’re so well equipped for the brief display of defiance in the first place is because the flow of memes is so inexorable.

When a civilization such as Rome dominates its neighbors, it typically possesses some sort of cultural edge: better weapons, say, or, better economic organization. Yet this dominance is hard to maintain precisely because these valuable memes tend naturally to spread beyond its borders, empowering its rivals. In the case of Rome, the barbarian-empowering memes included military strategy. But the exact memes will differ from case to case. As the historian Mark Elvin has observed, the diffusion of Chinese iron making technology to the Mongols during the thirteenth century would come back to haunt China. Elvin was among the first to clearly see that this is a general dynamic in history: the very advancement of advanced societies can bring the seeds of their destruction. As Elman Service put the matter: "The precocious developing society broadcasts its seeds, so to speak, outside its own area, and some of them root and grow vigorously in new soil, sometimes becoming stronger than the parent stock, finally to dominate both their environments."

The point can carcely be overemphasized: the turbulence that characterizes world history is not only consistent with a "progressivist" view of history; it is integral to it. The turbulence itself—including the sometimes devastating empowerment of barbarians—is a result of the fact that technology evolves, with the fittest technologies spreading rapidly. Hegemony can bring stasis, such as the Pax Romana, but in the long run such imbalances of power naturally undermine themselves, and stasis ends. The ensuing turbulence may look for all the world like regression, but it is ultimately progressive; it reflects—and, as we’ve seen, often furthers—the globalization of new and improved memes, on which the next stasis will rest.

Misconception #7: Barbarians prey on innocent victims. The phrase "barbarians at the gate" conjurs up a Manichaean image. Inside Rome’s walls, librarians are shelving painstakingly translated editions of Euripides when smoke starts seeping through the stacks. What had the Romans done to deserve this?

Plenty. For starters, the economy of imperial Rome, to an extent notable even by ancient standards, had been built on slaves. This may sound like a moral critique—and it is—but it is also something more. It is an evaluation of Rome by the basic gauge of cultural evolution: How thoroughly did Rome realize potential synergy among its people?

Not very. When a society keeps people in chains, and confiscates the fruits of their labor, it is trying to play a non-zero-sum game in utterly parasitic fashion—a strategy that, I’ve argued, has its pitfalls. First, oppression takes time and energy; Rome more than once had to put down slave revolts, and vigilance was constant. "No one can feel safe, even if he is a lenient and kind master," lamented Pliny the Younger (who inferred from this fact that "slaves are ruined by their own evil natures"). Second, slavery rather weakens a worker’s incentive to work, thus making close oversight a prerequisite for efficient labor—and oversight is costly, so efficiency suffer in any event. Third, slavery keeps worker from becoming robust consumers. Fourth, by keeping labor artificially cheap, slavery dampens the society’s incentive to develop more productive technologies. Rome’s ruling class was famously indifferent to labor-saving innovation, and technological progress was unspectacular.

There is evidence that slavery waned toward the end of the empire. But at the same time, workaday peasants were becoming less free, more like medieval serfs—tied to land they didn’t own. And the government started trying to stop craftsmen and shopkeepers from changing vocations; it even insisted that their children follow in their footsteps. One classical historian believes that "the Mediterranean world came closer to a caste system than at any other time in its history." Again, leaving aside the moral critique, this is just bad social engineering; it stifles the gains that can arise spontaneously from freedom of choice in a market economy.

Even Rome’s great contribution to commerce—the large, low-friction zone created by the Pax Romana—was hardly an unmixed blessing. It had its element of simple exploitation, especially visible to those who had to be subdued for the sake of the Pax. "To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire," opined one Briton. "They make a desert and call it peace." After subjugation was complete, there were often unwarranted taxes and greedy administrators on the take.

By most accounts, this sort of parasitism grew as the political culture became more corrupt, oppressive, and dictatorial. In the late imperial period, emperors were claiming divinity and acting like pharaohs. They stayed secluded, cultivating a mystique, and Romans who were granted an audience had to start by kissing the hem of the emperor’s robe. The Senate was by now impotent, with emperors chosen by the military, sometimes through a kind of civil war bake-off.

None of this is to deny Rome’s celebrated legacy. Roman principles of law and administration were lasting paragons, even if in practice they were progressively adulterated. Still, once these principles were on paper, and Roman engineering had left its mark, the Romans had little else to give posterity. Whether you are a champion of moral improvement or just of cultural evolution, you might defensibly conclude that, by the time the barbarians descended on the western Roman Empire en masse, it deserved to die.

Obviously, any conclusion this neatly gratifying should arouse suspicion. What actually caused the demise of the western Roman Empire is still debated, and some conjectured causes—disease, depleted soil, chance geographic exposure to unusually large barbarian hordes—don’t reflect on the quality of Rome’s government. Whether the empire’s decline really is the morality play that many historians make of it—an interpretation I’ve happily adopted—is an open question. Whole civilizations can rise and fall on the basis of chance events; it is only in the long run, and in the broad weep of events, that basic dynamics of cultural evolution sustain history’s direction.

Still, it is notable how many of the commonly posited causes of Rome’s decline are blights on non-zero-sumness. An artificially frozen labor market; an increasingly unfair legal system; corruption in the delivery of public goods by officials; excessive taxes and tariffs, dictated by the costs of supporting an empire that is parasitic on its provinces—all of these weaken the fabric of mutual benefit that holds well-run societies together.


So thank heavens for barbarians! If dominant civilizations are stagnant and decaying, contributing little if anything to the march of non-zero-sumness, it is just as well (from cultural evolution’s standpoint) to have troublemakers nearby. Better to tear the system down and start over. And because barbarians turn out to be so partial to civilized memes, you don’t have to start from scratch!

The barbarian role of cultural demolition crew is especially important when you consider how often cultural reconstruction is needed. Many of Rome’s glaring defects— exploitation, authoritarianism, corrupt self-aggrandizement—flow from deeply human tendencies. Time and again they’ve transformed promising civilizations into decaying, oppressive monstrosities. Time and again, history seems to cry out: Bring on the demolition crew! And time and again barbarians cheerfully respond to the call. Their previous massive wreaking of destruction, near the end of the econd millennium B.C., had come after civilization went through centuries of apparent ossification.

In a way, barbarians are just a special case of that general and potent zero-sum dynamic in cultural evolution: brutal competition among neighboring societies. This rivalry renders ossified cultures vulnerable to a makeover, minor or major. They may be taken over by a vast neighboring civilization, which will revamp them in its image. Or they may be infiltrated and perhaps even disassembled by barbarians, paving the way for future reassembly. Or they may revive and prevail—an example of the "challenge and response" dynamic stressed by Arnold Toynbee. In any event, the point remains the same: however deeply human the tendencies of exploitation, authoritarianism, and self-aggrandizement, cultures that surrender to them may not be long for this world.

But wait. When did exploitation and authoritarianism suddenly become political liabilities? Didn’t most of the early states, as well as their precursors, the chiefdoms, employ terror when useful, take slaves when possible, and claim the mantle of divinity, or at least of divine blessing, to nudge the masses into compliance with central dictate? However morally reprehensible these tactics, why should they have become ineffective by Rome’s day?

Part of the answer, as we’ve seen, may be that technology changes the rules of governance. With the coming of standard, universally accepted coins and a fully phonetic alphabet, complete with vowels, the potential existed for a more decentralized economy than ever before. So, for example, slavery—the ultimate in exploitation—now carried a higher cost in forgone productivity; the better lubricated the market, the more it can benefit from untrammeled participation. A mind, as they say, is a terrible thing to waste—even if, in an ancient economy, it is focused mainly on toiling the fields for the highest wage offered and then turning around and spending the money.

Though Rome had a largely market economy, there was from the beginning a certain obliviousness to its potential. When the Romans started minting coins in the fourth century B.C., the stated purpose was not to smooth commerce, but just to create a medium by which the government could buy things. (Of course, coins did flood the private sector, willy-nilly.)

The eastern half of the empire, which survived the collapse of the west, was less guilty of ome of these sins. The east seems all along to have had fewer slaves than the west. In the east the economy was less afflicted by such stultifying policies as the virtual ban on changing vocations. And, for historical reasons, the east had a more integrated economy, which ably moved goods from one region to another. There were large old market towns, whereas many western towns were more like shells—administrative centers lacking an organic core.

Of course, in the battle for survival, the east had one other big asset: a shorter barbarian frontier. And certainly, in any event, the east, which shared many of the west’s ossifying tendencies, was no paragon for a high-tech future. The entire empire was vulnerable, some parts just more so than others.

The historian Chester Starr once wrote, "Every so often civilization seems to work itself into a corner from which further progress is virtually impossible along the lines then apparent; yet if new ideas are to have a chance the old systems must be so severely shaken that they lose their dominance." This may strike some as teleological, even mystical—as if the god of progress looks down and weeds out civilizations that aren’t prepared for coming ideas. But Starr’s point sounds more reasonable once you view technological evolution as an active force in history. It is metaphorically true that cutting-edge technologies—economic technologies no less than military technologies—punish societies that don’t embrace them and use them well, leaving those societies at risk of being "severely shaken." It is also metaphorically true that those technologies reward societies that employ them more profitably.

Of course, technology isn’t some extraneous force, visited on the planet from outer space. It is selected by human minds through cultural evolution; people are the arbiters of technology. But technologies—in a broad sense, at least—are in turn the arbiters of social structure. The question for western Europe as of the fifth century A.D. was: to what kind of social structures would technology next give its blessing?

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