Among the gripes to be had about changes in intellectual fashion since the second world war (or particularly since the 60s) is how boring it can be to repeatedly rebut it. That’s particularly the case with Peter Heather’s “Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe”. What Heather calls the “invasion hypothesis” was once the dominant explanation for how parts of Europe shifted from Roman to Germanic or Slavic domination. That particular case is also known as “Volkwanderung”. I was introduced to the book through Razib at Gene Expression, where the term for a maximalist version of that hypothesis would be “population replacement”. The opposite scenario would be mere cultural emulation (perhaps entirely peaceful) or a small elite transfer. The point of Heather’s book is to argue that there were in fact large movements of people (mixed groups including women, rather than just small male raiding parties), but there is such a stigma against the old theory that he repeatedly bends over backward to claim his version is different. Unfortunately he’s far less keen to cite specific examples of the old theory, in contrast to newer ones he argues against, that it comes off as a strawman for the point of triangulation. For example, he repeatedly insists that these were not atomic units like billiard balls, but who said they were? He also emphasizes that these migrating groups interacted with indigenous populations, but wouldn’t even killing off the old population and seizing what was once theirs count as a kind of interaction?

Heather is a fine writer who occasionally livens up his material with a bit of humor, but I found the book boring in part due to my lack of pre-existing knowledge of the subject. Keeping track of the names of all the barbarians (and what language families did the Avars vs Alans belong to again? which Germans were Goths or not and what does that indicate?) and particular bits of European geography were located (there are some helpful maps in the back of the book, but the plate illustrations referenced in the text were nowhere to be found in the edition I checked out) seemed more trouble than it was worth, so I wound up just passing through text while letting information fly over my head. It’s a fairly comprehensive book (it covers roughly the first millennium) with lots of detail for those would appreciate it. Since I had read hardly anything about the history of the Slavs before (Rise of the Russian Empire‘s photocopied pages load too slowly for me to read far into it), there was significant marginal value for me there. Unfortunately, it took so long for the Slavs to begin writing their own history (and they had been distant enough from neighboring civilizations) that there isn’t much documentation to go on. Instead there’s a dispute over whether “Korchak” culture identified by archaeologists represented a distinct ethnicity from the “Cernachov”, “Volyntseveo” etc cultures, and whether it spread because its primitive hippie lifestyle just caught on with locals. It’s so hard to resolve such questions with what little evidence we have that it doesn’t seem like a good use of my time to put much thought into it. On the other hand, the expansion of the Slavs was quite wide and recent (the different languages are remarkably intelligible and sometimes considered dialects), but lacking in the same stories of barbarian armies finally overturning a declining civilization in epic battles that we have for western europe. Something I hadn’t really realized before was that the expansion of Slavic territory meant a large decline in Germanic territory (though Germans would later Drang Nach Osten and reclaim much of that territory, if only as a military elite). Heather suggests that in many places the German population had already collapsed before the Slavs arrived, perhaps because so many people left with the armies heading west to seize old Roman territory, and the remaining peasants without a significant military elite couldn’t keep out the Slavs. I was also surprised by how minor a role he assigns the Byzantine empire in trade with the early Russian settlements, particularly in contrast with the new Frankish series of empires in distant northwest europe. Russian Orthodox civilization has long thought of itself as the “Third Rome” following Byzantium, after all.

I’m not a post WW2 academic and don’t have any complaints about someone rehabilitating the invasion hypothesis, but I do think some of his arguments are poor. He argues that mothers pass on language to their children, so if the language of an area shifted that must be because the invaders brought their wives along with them rather than seizing the conquered for themselves. Unfortunately (as Razib pointed out) his own example of Iceland (and to a lesser extent the Faroe Islands) contradicts that. It was too far away from Scandinavia for the norse to bring many superfluous people, and a genetic analysis reveals that about two third of the female ancestry of icelanders comes from the Irish and others kidnapped from the British Isles. Icelandic is hardly a melange of Celtic, Anglo-Saxon and Norse either, it’s the most inbred, isolated and incomprehensible of the existing Nordic languages. Latin America had very distinctly male-biased immigration, but gets its name due to the dominance of Spanish. I agree with Razib that David Reich’s “Ancient North Indians” are probably a much older intrusive population than the Aryans, and that the genetic contribution of the Aryans is probably quite small (and disproportionately on the Y chromosome) despite the prevalence of their descendant languages in most Indian states outside the four Dravidian ones in the south. The counter-example of the Normans (who clearly were a small elite transfer) is interesting precisely because there was an endurance of French among the new elite which persists in many English loan-words (most well known are the different terms for live vs cooked animals, although that duality already existed in French). It was simply that the masses continued speaking Old English. And why is it that modern English owes more to the Anglo-Saxons than Langue d’oil does to the Franks (a question I hadn’t even considered before reading Heather)? I don’t know. The evidence that many barbarian hordes did bring along plenty of women comes from the contemporary accounts written by Romans, who were fully capable of distinguishing between small male warbands (which are explicitly discussed) and large groups containing women.

I’ll end with a couple of other notes that don’t fit well into other paragraphs. Late period Rome was known for its latifundia, large plantations of land held by a small elite (often senatorial) class. This structure also existed in Roman Britain. This agricultural production system was broken up in Anglo-Saxon England and Frankish northern Gaul, and the narrative of relatively egalitarian smallholdings of simple German folk has endured in the myths of Anglo-American political culture to this day. But Heather doesn’t depict it as an unambiguously good thing (he frequently reiterates that the changes he documents are not necessarily for the best or worst), and in fact argues that the breakup of these estates led to lower productivity. There were simply too many of the freeman warrior elite to give them all an undivided estate, so the lands had to be divided up into smaller parcels with the invaders packed in alongside the indigenous peasants they would rule. The parallel to this is Zimbabwe, where land has been parseled out to “veterans of the Third Chimurenga”. However, the large estates there held by Mugabe’s cronies are less efficient than the new smallholdings (which as mentioned are less efficient than former estates of the Rhodies). Lastly, I’m going to mock a couple of statements I found on page 590. Heather writes that “It is only the higher warrior class that fell into the ‘free’ category, and the fact that they were by definition an elite class suggests that this group was some kind of minority”. Arguments “by definition” tend to be lame, because you’re the one who has defined this freeman class as an elite for the reader, earlier establishing an estimated percent of the male population they comprised, making this statement rather circular. As for “What kind of idiot would have chosen to be of lesser-warrior or slave status if group identity was entirely a matter of individual choice?” Good thing I earlier wrote about the attractions of joining inegalitarian societies (even if you start on a low rung). And there have been cases of individuals selling themselves into slavery (although often on a temporary basis with the ability to repurchase their freedom) in times when slavery was not tied so closely to inherited racial caste. Nevertheless, the point that lots of people were forced into subservient positions of a new invading culture is almost certainly correct.

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