The multiculturalist Empire

Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones’ Persians: The Age of the Great Kings is a narrative history of the Achaemenid Empire and ancient Iran which is brisk but detailed. Some of the writing is a little too informal for me, but overall it’s a fine scholarly accomplishment. The author integrates many Persian sources rather than just the usual Greek-centric perspective.

Overall, it’s a favorable treatment of the dynasty that nevertheless doesn’t shy away from unpalatable facts. For example, Llewellyn-Jones explores the role that chattel slavery seems to have played in the monumental construction projects of the Achaemenids and disabuses you of the notion that Cyrus the Great was the world’s first humanitarian ruler. But weirdly, the last chapter goes a bit off the rails on moralizing.

The author contends that the Persians, as a multicultural empire, offer a better example than the Romans, who assimilated and acculturated local people. This is something of a caricature of Roman practice; the spread of Latin in the east was minimal, and local languages persisted after the fall of the Empire. But the flip side of Persian multiculturalism is that rulers had to be ethnic Persians, at least paternally. The Achaemenid Empire was more ethnically exclusivist and closed than the Roman Empire at the elite levels because it was multicultural, preventing non-Persians from scaling the heights of power. In contrast, after the 2nd century, the Roman Empire routinely promoted Latinized outsiders, and the imperial resurrection of the second half of the 3rd century was almost entirely due to the emergence of Latinized Balkan military elite.

How Christian Militarism slowed the spread of Christianity

In 1250 AD Mindauguas, the Grand Duke of Lithuania, accepted Christianity. This was to be a “Clovis moment” for the Lithuanian tribes, but history took a different path. Mindaugas’ nobles rebelled, he apostatized, and he was eventually killed. Only in 1386 did the Lithuanian elite accept Christianity; more specifically, in its Western Latin Rite form. If you read S. C. Rowell’s Lithuania Ascending: A Pagan Empire within East-Central Europe, 1295–1345, you will know that the author believes the Lithuanian elite prevaricated on the conversion in part because it allowed them to balance at an equipoise between the Latin West, represented by Poland and the Germans who were colonizing the Baltic, and Orthodox Christian east, representing the people who had once been ruled by Kievan Rus (the Lithuanian elite intermarried extensively with their Orthodox subjects).

But, to me, and others, there seems another reason that the Lithuanian tribes balked at Christianization: the fact that it was the religion of their sometimes genocidal enemies, the German-speaking Christian military orders that dominated the Baltic coast. The Baltic Crusades, which enabled knights from the German-speaking lands to sally forth into the pagan eastern Baltic region starting around 1200 AD, created a level of ethnoreligious animus that was extremely strong for Europe during this period. Rowell notes that though the Lithuanians began converting to Christianity in large numbers in 1386 (though those nobles and warriors settled to the west and east often assimilated to local Christian cultures), there were pagan Letts on the lands of German military elites in Livonia on into the early 1400’s. The reason that this delay occurred is that pagan peasants were economically far more exploitable than Christian peasants, who could appeal to the Church. These nobles, who were themselves the descendants of Christian Crusaders, excluded the Church’s missionaries from their lands for decades while Lithuania to the south was being baptized. This phenomenon prefigures some dynamics we know from chattel slavery in the American South, where some planters discouraged evangelization among their slaves for the purposes of more efficient economic control.

One model that people routinely have is that pagan resistance to Christianization was inevitable. On a microlevel this seems correct, but on a macrolevel for Northern Europe, Christianity was the only metaethnic high culture transnational religious identity that was on offer. At some point, the Northern European proto-states were going to become Christian. It was a matter of when. We see this in Ireland, where the Christianization process was entirely endogenous and occurred gradually and piecemeal. This resembles Alan Cameron’s model of the decline of Roman paganism in The Last Pagans of Rome. The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity, you see a different model, where the Northern European kings convert to integrate themselves into the international system of Christian states, and also consolidate their rule over their polity. Unlike the Irish example, where conversion was gradual and organic, these top-down conversions tend to be more of a cultural rupture and instantiate resistance from entrenched interests that are disfavored by the new Christian regime that erupted overnight. That being said, these top-down conversions seem to result in faster (nominal) baptism of the population than the more gradual conversion of the Romans after Constantine or the Irish between 400 and 600 AD.

But there is a downside the Lithuanian example illustrates: the fusion of Christianity with incipient militaristic states with an ethnonational basis resulted in  Christianity becoming associated with an enemy state and people from the pagan perspective. This is illustrated in Chris Tyrmen’s God’s War: A New History of the Crusades, where citizens of a besieged West Slavic city march outside of the gates and explain to the German soldiers that they had already converted to the “German religion.” If Christianity had not become associated with German identity would the Wends have resisted the new religion for so long? If the Germans had not synthesized their ethnic identity with their religion, would they have been so brutal to the Slavic heathens to their east? I doubt both of these. There is a more powerful recent historical illustration of this phenomenon. By the late 1500’s Latin Rite Christianity was becoming a popular religion in southern Japan, and Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi both favored it tacitly above Buddhism. But there were cases where Iberian Christians proudly identified the new religion as a fifth column in the spread of their political regime, and this prompted Tokugawa Ieyasu to suppress the new faith, not on theological, but political grounds.

Christianity was the strength of the state and nation. The religion gave a metaethnic and creedal vigor to the Portuguese and Castilian monarchies and drove the Sword Brothers and the Teutonic Knights to acts of both valor and viciousness. But the other edge of this sword is that the Christian religion became associated with the enemy, dispossession and oppression. If Europe had remained small tribes after the fall of Rome, and Christianity had spread as in Ireland, gradually from tribe to tribe over the centuries, I wonder if the pagan holdouts in Scandinavia and the Baltic may have fallen to the faith of Christ earlier because it would not have been seen as alien and imperial.

(the late sociologist and historian of religion Rodney Stark explicitly argued that the shifted from the Roman model, where individual conversion was critical, to the Northern European one, where trickle down was operative, produced a slower and thinner Christianization)


In case you haven’t seen, in October I posted three essays and one podcast on Anatolia’s history and genetics:

1. Ararat’s long shadow: Asia Minor’s major impact on humanity
2. Hittite Words, Byzantine Walls: what the West as we know it owes Anatolia’s empires
3. The Turkification of Anatolia: tales of Rome’s last conquerors

And the podcast, Anatolia over 10,000 years – From first farmers to the Turks.

Also, if you didn’t notice, I put all my podcasts (2-week delayed) on YouTube. Subscribe to the channel if you get your content that way.

Finally, if you wouldn’t mind rating my podcast on Apple (or wherever you subscribe) highly, I would appreciate that.

Septimius Severus was not black, who cares?

Septimius Severus is important because he brought the Roman Empire back from the chaos ushered in by the assassination of Commodus. He was born in 145 AD and so grew into adulthood during the later Antonine period. He remembered the tail end of the time of peace and prosperity that characterized the reigns of the rulers up until Marcus Aurelius, who had to deal with German invasions and plague.

Though Severus and his heirs did not usher in the despotic “Dominate” phase of the Roman Empire, I think it is correct that his military regime ended some of the illusions of the late Principate. During Severus’ reign, the rubber-stamp role of the Senate faded more as he nakedly asserted that his will and word were the law.

But Severus is important for another reason. He was the first “African” Emperor. More precisely, he was born in the Libyan city of Leptis Magna, near modern Tripoli.  His father was of Punic background, as Leptis Magna was once a Phoenician colony. His mother was of colonial Italian stock.

In the current era, he has become newly relevant. Challenging the whiteness of classics – remembering the Black Romans:

There is a gap here between the likely racial make-up of the Roman population and how that has been understood. This gap, I suggest, derives from a systematic erasure of Black Romans from Roman history. This erasure is similar to the “whitening” of histories and cultures, in which the presence and contribution of Black people is ignored.

Greeks and Romans didn’t think in these ways. They were aware of differences. But for Romans, White or Black were not meaningful social categories. As a result, our sources hardly ever mention skin pigmentation, since it wasn’t important to them. It is normally impossible for us to associate particular ancients with those modern racial categories. But this absence of evidence has allowed the assumption that most prominent Romans were, in our terms, White.

However, there is every reason to think that many leading Romans were, in our terms, Black.

Septimius Severus was a Roman general who became emperor in 193 CE. He was born in Leptis Magna in modern Libya. Almost all depictions of Severus are statues or on coins. They show him as having curly short hair and a beard, which is sometimes forked. Such depictions do not represent his skin pigmentation.

After centuries of interaction, it is almost impossible to imagine that there were visible differences between the citizens of Leptis and the surrounding African inhabitants. We cannot prove Severus’ skin colour, but it is wrong to assume that he was light-skinned.

Roman Africa was an economic and cultural powerhouse in the later Roman Empire. Goods from Africa circulated throughout the Roman world. One of the first Roman dramatists, Terence, came from Carthage in Tunisia and his appearance is described by the historian Suetonius as fuscus, “dark”.

The second-century CE rhetorician, philosopher and novelist Apuleius was from Madouros, modern M’Daourouch, Algeria. Saint Augustine of Hippo studied in the same town. He and Cyprian of Carthage were major figures in Christian theology. Egypt was a major centre of literary and theological innovation in the late imperial period. Why would we imagine any of these individuals as White?

The classical world is a part of our cultural traditions. Colonialism has whitened classics. Such Whitening marginalises Black people. Making Black Romans visible resists colonial mentalities. It embeds Black people in that cultural tradition.

We have a fair amount of ancient DNA from Rome. Combined with analysis of ancestry tracts in modern populations it is pretty clear that most of the Sub-Saharan African ancestry, that is, black ancestry, on the southern shores of the Mediterranean date to the Islamic period or later. Not imperial Rome.

This plot below shows consistent but usually low levels of Sub-Saharan African ancestry in southern shore Mediterranean populations today:

From the paper that that plot comes from, “We estimate that a migration of western African origin into Morocco began about 40 generations ago (approximately 1,200 ya); a migration of individuals with Nilotic ancestry into Egypt occurred about 25 generations ago (approximately 750 ya).” They look at ancestry segment lengths and fit it to a model of decay over time due to recombination. It’s not rocket science.

The upshot is that only a very small minority of the population of the Roman Empire were of black African appearance. Though as noted by the scholar above, these people were salient and notable and crop up in the literature as objects of curiosity. Septimius Severus may have had dark skin, but that does not mean he was of black African background or identity (I have dark skin, and people routinely accuse me of being a white-adjacent Asian, so it’s not like they can’t reason when given proper incentives).

I do believe it was likely Septimius Severus was culturally Punic but of mixed heritage, as colonial settlements often exhibited a level of intermarriage with the local populations (I suspect his “Italian” mother also had indigenous ancestry due to the generations elapsed). In the case of Leptis Magna, that would be the indigenous Berber Libyans. We know what these people looked like from the Greeks and the Egyptians. Below is some reconstructed wall art:

Four Libyan kings on the left

I would caution against taking the skin colors too literally, but the Egyptians describe and depict the Libyans as light-skinned like their West Asian neighbors, while the Nubians are shown to be darker in complexion. The Nubians are Sub-Saharan African, or black, while the Libyans are not.

What’s the point of this? Most of you know this? Well, a Ph.D. geneticist who isn’t even particularly woke pointed me to the article about Septimius Severus being black as if it wasn’t a farce. The lie has become true, even if you laugh it off.

What’s going on? Since 2020 and the “racial reckoning” white scholars have been engaging in political activism. The classicist above understands the “need” for racial representation, so is making the best case in a lawyerly manner.

Though the Greco-Romans didn’t have our racial classifications and understandings, they were not ignorant and even distinguished between the physical appearance of North and South Indians, correctly observing that South Indians resemble “Aethiopians” in color but differ in having straighter hair. The ancients were also aware that Mediterranean people differed in complexion, with Egyptians being darker in complexion than Thracians, and individuals had color terms in their names such as Albinus and Niger.

The Roman-era Egyptian portraits probably correctly depict the range in complexion in northern Africa, from relatively fair to medium-brown, with most people being brunette white or light brown. Without a deeper investigation, it is reasonable that Septimius Severus had darker skin than the average Italian, but it is also reasonable that his subjects did not perceive him to be black, or more accurately for the time “Ethiopian.” Instead, he was a provincial from Libya. Part of the problem with classicists trying to concoct a black identity and appearance for Septimius of Severus, Augustine of Hippo and Terence is that they are engaging in what is now fashionably called “erasure.” The history, achievements, and identity of the Afro-Asiatic people of North Africa, from the Maghreb to Egypt, are co-opted to make the case for black representation in antiquity because during this period the Sahara was far less penetrable than it became under Islamic states deploying camel caravans. It is one thing when Afrocentrist ideologues engage in this, but when intellectuals and scholars do so, it is very alarming.

The job of scholars in the modern West is, to tell the truth and represent facts as they are. They may miss the mark often, but they should aim as best as they can. The problem with classicists over the last few years is they temporize, equivocate, and intentionally mislead their audiences when they very well know that the North African people that suggest “may have been black” were likely no more black than the typical West Asian. This is not to say they were “white” (though many people from the MENA do identify as such today and did in the past), but scholars should have the courage to admit that the past was not black and white, and it does not always easily fit in our narratives, whether we are 19th-century Victorian white supremacists or 21st-century anti-racists.

I write this in 2022 with the clear understanding that the lie will likely become the truth. But some of you will remember the truth, and the more I write and talk about this, the more the truth shall not die. The will come when the darkness will end, and we or our descendants should be prepared to remember the world as it was rather than only have the understanding of priests who preach how it should have been.

The weak shall abide, persist and inherit

To the Melians the Athenians declared “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” This observation from Thucydides 2,400 years ago echoes down to the present because it reflects much of the world we see around us. The ancient Athenian wisdom clearly come naturally to the government of the People’s Republic of China:

At this point, I’ll reiterate the wisdom of Thucydides. It’s not like on a deep level Muslims don’t know how the People’s Republic of China treats its co-religionists. So why the quiet? Because they know that their bleating and remonstrations against China will fall on deaf ears. A nation like Pakistan needs China far more than China needs it, and China and the oil kingdoms need each other mutually and are aligned on other salient geopolitical issues. In contrast, remonstrating against India or the West will obtain results.

Notice with China there are two issues. First, its raw power insulates it from external moral pressures. China’s concessions to morality are a matter of its own choice, its own agency. Second, there is the axis of self-interest. Self-righteous social justice warriors like NBA coach Steve Kerr balk at criticizing China’s atrocious human rights record because the economic carrot and stick dynamics loom large. Rather than a matter of practicality, where protestation would have no effect on China, the calculus of decision-making is on self-interest for much of the American corporate elite. They wish to become richer, so they turn a blind eye. Obviously, these two are often comingled, especially in the case of small Muslim nations who may empathize with the Uyghurs, but know their protests will have only negative impacts geopolitically and economically on themselves.

From this one might conclude that I’m a cold rationalist, espousing Nietzschean amorality. But 2,400 years on, despite all its flaws, the legend of Athens shines brighter than the militaristic ethos of Sparta. The victors lost in the halls of memory.  2,200 years ago the First Emperor of China crushed the power of the classicists and literati, only to have his image and name tarred by their depictions of him in future ages. The Christians were a pacific and marginal group for the first two centuries of their existence, but within a few generations, they captured Rome and became synonymous with Western civilization. The martial ethos of the Vedic Kshatriyas is not what undergirds Hindu civilization, rather, it is the pacific ritualists and the philosophers, the Brahmins, who turned away from animal sacrifice in the first millenium AD.

Blood wins the battles, but ideas win the war.

R1b-L21 and Goidelic Celtic

The new paper, Large-scale migration into Britain during the Middle to Late Bronze Age, did not resolve the origin of the Celts. But one thing I was curious about:

Evidence for a substantial contribution from the C/EBA population to later populations also comes from Y chromosome haplogroup R1b-P312/L21/M529 (R1b1a1a2a1a2c1), which is present at 89±5% in sampled individuals from C/EBA Britain and is nearly absent in available ancient DNA data from C/EBA Europe (Supplementary Table 9). The haplogroup remained more common in Britain than in continental Europe in every later period, and continues to be a distinctive feature of the British isles as its frequency in Britain and Ireland today (14-71% depending on region19) is far higher than anywhere else in continental Europe (Extended Data Fig. 5).

If you go online you can see the frequency of R1b-L21 varies a lot in England, with rather low frequencies in East Anglia, and higher fractions in western Britain. In Ireland, the frequencies may exceed 80% in the western counties. Lara Cassidy noticed early on that the Rathlin sample from Bronze Age Ireland, an a Bell Beaker individual, carries this mutation. On the continent, the mutation is found in Brittany, subject to migration from Britons, while in Spain it seems to be found in lower frequencies, mostly in the western provinces.

One of the insights of the new paper above is that there seems to have been an Urnfield-related migration that arrived in England around ~1200 BC. Did they bring Celtic speech? I think they were  Brythonic and P-Celtic speakers. I believe that R1b-L21 and the Bell Beakers brought Goidelic Q-Celtic languages, and there are some who argue that Celtiberian was a Q-Celtic language.

There is no mystery to persistence of some languages despite gene flow

Some of the reaction to the finding that Etruscans were not genetically from Romans (Latins) despite being culturally quite different perplexes me. To review, Etruscans clearly spoke a non-Indo-European language and probably were the late-stage development of indigenous Mediterranean farming societies that date back to the early Neolithic. I said this in my Substack piece from March. Yes, I was going off a few samples, but the last ten years have taught us that usually (though not always) a few samples are sufficient.

We have precedence for Indo-European (“steppe”) gene flow does not always lead to cultural transformation. The Basques have mostly Indo-European Y chromosomes, and a lot of steppe ancestry, but retain their non-Indo-European language. Why? Well, one hypothesis is that the Basques were matrilineal (reported by some ancient sources), so Indo-European men assimilated to the clans into which they married.

But we don’t need a detailed or specific explanation. We just need to consider that genes and “memes” flow and transmit differently. Imagine a stylized model where large numbers of Indo-Europeans from Central Europe, with ultimate steppe ancestry, move into the Italian peninsula after 2000 BC. In most cases, they triggered language-shift as they overwhelmed native Neolithic societies. But in Etruria, or what became Etruria, they did not. Even if these Indo-Europeans didn’t invade Etruria, one can imagine a situation where continuous gene flow over the generations would reduce the differences between the two groups. It is quite possible, looking at the assimilation of Roman patrician clans with non-Latin origins (the Claudii were Sabines), that Indo-European speaking clans were assimilated into the proto-Etruscan confederacy and vice versa. You need extremely strong cultural barriers to prevent gene flow between groups.

Culture is not like this. Language and religion do not necessarily even pass down from parents, and it can definitely pass down asymmetrically. The Etruscan language could maintain its continuity in the face of gene flow every generation. There’s no mystery here.

The echoes of greater Scythia

I’m reading The Great Indo-European Horse Sacrifice: 4000 Years of Cosmological Continuity from Sintashta and the Steppe to Scandinavian Skeid, since we now know that modern horses come from the Sintashta.

The Indo-European horse sacrifice is a pretty widespread thing. Please note the table above and its shared characteristics. Notice the references to the chariots. Chariots were clearly invented by the Sintashta. And, it seems the horses that could pull them were a special breed, the ancestors of modern domestic horses. But putatively Indo-European people expanded in Europe long before the emergence of the Sintashta in 2200-2100 BC. For example, the Bell Beakers show up in Ireland ~2500 BC. Steppe ancestry shows up ~2300 BC in Greece. Therefore, the spread of chariot-culture, and the modern horse lineages, post-date Europe’s original Indo-Europeanization.

I think this indicates that the influence of the Iranian Scythians was felt all over the Indo-European zone…

The heavenly horses of the Sintashta

Matt pointed me to the fact that the paper that’s going to come out:

Horse domestication fundamentally transformed long-range mobility and warfare. However, modern domesticates do not descend from the earliest domestic horse lineage associated with archaeological evidence of bridling, milking and corralling at Botai, Central Asia ~3,500 BCE (Before Common Era). Other long-standing candidate regions for horse domestication, such as Iberia and Anatolia, were also recently challenged. Therefore, the genetic, geographic and temporal origins of modern domestic horses remained unknown. Here, we pinpoint the Western Eurasian steppes, especially the lower Volga-Don region, as the homeland of modern domestic horses. Furthermore, we map the population changes accompanying domestication from 273 ancient horse genomes. This reveals that modern domestic horses ultimately replaced almost all other local populations as they rapidly expanded across Eurasia from ~2,000 BCE, synchronously with equestrian material culture, including Sintashta spoke-wheeled chariots. We find that equestrianism involved strong selection for critical locomotor and behavioral adaptations at the GSDMC and ZFPM1 genes. Our results reject the commonly held association between horseback riding and the massive expansion of Yamnaya steppe pastoralists into Europe ~3,000 BCE driving the spread of Indo-European languages. This contrasts with the situation in Asia where Indo-Iranian languages, chariots and horses spread together, following the early second millennium BCE Sintashta culture.

If you have an interest in the domestic horse (I have) you are aware it’s the product of massive demographic radiation from a small founder population. With ancient DNA we now know where it started: with the Sintashta people of the Volga to the Ural steppe 4,000 years ago.

This is not totally surprising, because we know that the Sintashta were highly warlike and they invented the light war-chariot. This technology spread across the whole Old World, from Egypt to China to Ireland. In some cases, I believe that this was mediated directly by the Sintashta, the early Indo-Iranians. Not only were the Mitanni elite of Syria 3,500 years ago speaking an Indo-Aryan/Iranian language, and worshipping Indo-Aryan/Iranian gods but genetically some of them retained their steppe character. The Sintashta also had domestic dogs, but the lineage of these dogs persists only in China today. Not coincidentally, light war-chariots that are clearly copied from the Iranian-style vehicles show up in Shang China in 1200 BC.

The genetic/demographic impact won’t be visible in many areas. Perhaps Indo-Iranian mercenaries arrived in a city-state, and eventually taught the natives how to build, maintain, and utilize war chariots? This seems plausible. To this day we aren’t quite sure where the wagon was invented because it spread almost immediately over much of Western Eurasia 5,500 years ago.

We also have to remember that the “Iranian” zone of domination was far wider in antiquity than in the present. Around 500 BC Scythians were present as far east as Mongolia, as far west as Hungary, and as far south as northern Iran itself. This means that they could easily have spread the chariot within their own cultural-zone and then it was rapidly adopted by adjacent groups to the east, west, and south.

Related: check out my steppe series.

Standing athwart history and pushing it back

Recently The New Yorker had a long feature on the German social experiment from the 1970’s to early 2000’s which placed homeless boys in foster care with pedophiles. The whole thing seems totally incomprehensible today. But, I always explain to adults who don’t remember the sexual environment of the 1970’s that pedophilia was a much more open question on the radical fringes then than today. I point out that Allen Ginsberg and Harry Hay were both pro-NAMBLA. Ginsberg is still a cultural figure, but Hay was a huge mover and shaker in the gay liberation movement of the 20th century. The basic radical theory is that children had sexual rights and feelings which were being repressed.

But this is an intellectual matter. What was happening “on the ground”? I decided to look back into the archives of The New York Times, and I stumbled upon the fact that in the late 1970’s New Jersey had reduced the age of consent to 13, before moving it back to 16 in 1979. The reasons for this are complicated and have to do with the implicit criminalization of sex between teens and Romeo and Juliet laws, but the way the legislation was written it seems it was legal for adults to have sex with 13-year-old teens in New Jersey for a time in the late 1970s.

Here is the article, Age of Consent in Jersey Expected to Revert to 16:

Leaders of the New Jersey Assembly, responding to widespread fears about a new criminal code that lowers the age of sexual consent to 13 years, said today they expected the Assembly to pass a stopgap measure tomorrow to restore 16 as the age of consent. The legislators hope to allay fears that the state is endorsing sexual activity by teen‐agers.

The reduced age of consent had been included in the criminal code, which takes effect Sept. 1, at the urging of the National Organization for Women. An official of the organization, Roberta Kaufman, said it had lobbied for making the age of consent 13 not to encourage sex among young teen‐agers, but to keep teen‐agers under 16 from becoming entangled in the law if they did engage in sex.

Reading the archives from that period a lot of things were on the table. Apparently, New Jersey was looking to legalize incest between adults over the age of 16 and necrophilia.

Perhaps the current radical cultural moment will pass too, and we’ll forget all about it?