Carthage (and others) must be read

The first half of Richard Miles’ Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization is useful, but there’s less of a focus on the culmination you know is coming, the Punic Wars. For a history of that, I’d actually recommend Adrian Goldsworthy’s The Fall of Carthage: The Punic Wars 265-146 BC (one of the best descriptions of Cannae).

By utilizing archaeology and generating an inferred cultural history of Carthage, Miles does a great job contrasting the Punic mercantile republic with Rome. Aside from the penchant to name their leading citizens Hanno, Hannibal, and Hamilcar (to the point it’s hard to keep track of who is who), the most notable aspect of ancient Carthage seems to be its tendency to crucify generals who fail in battle. The Carthaginians come off as cartoon villains, even setting aside the child sacrifice. This is probably partly history being written by the winners, but it’s clear that still, Rome, in particular, was unique in its public spiritedness and social cohesion.  This, despite the fact that Rome and Carthage had both converged on a system of an oligarchic republic during the height of their rivalry.

Ancient history, and reading about other cultures, is illuminating about the human condition because different peoples in different exigent circumstances seem to react mostly the same but to wildly different outcomes.

For China, I don’t know of a better treatment in survey form than John King Fairbank’s classic. I also have a very soft spot for Jaques Gernet’s A History of Chinese Civilization. Fairbank’s book is more narrative history with some cultural fat on the bones. Gernet is more a cultural history with an exoskeleton of narrative diplomatic history.

For Rome, there are many recent books. But I still really like Michael Grant’s big thick survey, History of Rome. I don’t know about Greece since I haven’t read Greek history much since I was a child. Though Grant has some books on Greece too.

Finally, Michael Axworthy’s Empire of the Mind should be on a “to read” list. It’s a little off the beaten path because it’s a history of Iran. It’s got only superficial coverage of the recent past and tries to go deep into the psyche of what makes Iran Iran. I think it is fair to say that the book ends of concluding that Iran, as we understand it today, is hard to detach from the Safavid period (when it become Shia).

I think these civilizations of the Eurasian oikoumene are good places to start to understand the human condition because so many people were peasants and those ruled by peasants over the past 10,000 years. I would recommend a book on India, but those are mostly religious books. Islam comes a little late, as does Northern Europe. Much of Eurasia and Africa had no written language. If you understand China, Persia, and Rome, you’ll understand a lot. And probably enough.

Book recommendations welcome.

A shock is a surprise because it’s a shock

Reading Thomas Childer’s The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany reminds me a lot of reading The Red Flag: A History of Communism. These strange and extreme ideological systems seem likely to be eternally marginalized…until they aren’t. The dream of revolution is a fantasy until it isn’t. The rot within these societies, their anomie and disharmony, could be papered over and suppressed for a time. But the revolution took root in rich soil fertilized by the decay and necrosis of the old order.

Human social and cultural systems go through the evolutionary process in a gradual fashion. But quite often they don’t. In fact, compared to biological systems I’d say cultural evolutionary processes are more nonlinear and protean. We may attribute this to exogenous shocks, but with hindsight, we often see that there were endogenous parameters setting the system up to collapse with the first “push” from the outside or an unexpected variable.

And one of the curiosities of humans is our tendency to maintain public fictions all the while knowing that private realities are different. With the chaos of the 1st century B.C., social unrest, the rise of successive strongmen, it was clear to observers of the time that the Roman Republic was sick. The final victory of Augustus and the end of the “republican” chaos is often depicted as a relief for most Romans and their subjects, with the exception of a few aristocrats who were pushed into a purely servile and ceremonial role.

Still, the public fiction continued. Augustus famously was the “first citizen,” princeps. The term imperator became more ubiquitous with the reign of Vespasian a century later, as the Roman Empire recovered from the fall of its first royal dynasty. Nevertheless, the forms of the Republic were maintained despite the reality that Rome had become an autocracy. Only around 300 AD did princeps fall into disuse. Diocletian began to exclusively use the term dominus. Lord.

Other public fictions persisted even then. The office of consuls, which date to Roman prehistory, was maintained down to the 6th century A.D., the reign of the Justinian. The last of the Roman Emperors coincidentally who grew up as a native Latin speaker.

Obviously, the tendency toward public fictions is not an artifact of Rome. To a great extent, Constitutional Monarchies are public fictions. When around 200 A.D. the emperor Septimius Severus did away with the fiction that the laws enacted were derived from the will of the Senate of Rome, he did away with a practice that had maintained a republican facade for centuries. The shocks and violence of the 3rd century, when the Roman system almost collapsed, was the coup de grace. Though Diocletian and the military emperors which came after him were never self-styled kings, due to the taboo around the term in Roman society, their forms and manners were inherited by the monarchs of medieval Europe. The radiant crown that Westerners perceive to be prototypical of the form is a Roman inheritance was popularized by the sun-worshipping emperors of the late 3rd century. Julian the Apostate, a reactionary who abhorred the new, did away with many of the imperial accretions added by his recent predecessors, with all the pomp, ceremony and glamor that that entailed (though his reign was an aberration in more ways than that as a beared pagan convert). The Romans never had kings, but showed kings how to be kings in substance and style.

In the pre-modern world, these fictions were quite resilient. The Zhou dynasty persisted centuries after it no longer had any power to speak of. The Abbassid Caliphs were kept as puppets in Mamluk Egypt for 250 years before the Ottoman conquest. The Merovingian dynasty’s last 100 years was to be as symbolic puppets for the lords of the Franks. The last Mughals lived over a century after the power of the dynasty, if not its glamor, had faded from memory.

The moral of the story is that public fictions can last quite a bit longer than the reality from which they are spun. With hindsight, the chaos and disrepute ushered in by the reign of Commodus clearly signals the end of the old Roman Empire with its republican fictions. But that was not clear then. The frog continued to boil, until from the outside barbarians threw in a dash of scalding water. Only then did the skin peel. But the frog had long been dead.

Most people have always thought human sacrifice was bad

A few days ago a minor controversy about the cultural context of human sacrifice in Mesoamerica cropped up. A writer at Science, wrote a piece, Feeding the gods: Hundreds of skulls reveal massive scale of human sacrifice in Aztec capital. The article was good. But it elicited some emotional responses from readers. As one sees in the earliest writings of the Spanish, the Aztec penchant for human sacrifice often results in a moralistic reaction.

The writer of the piece took to Twitter to disagree with the moralistic tone of many who read her article. It being Twitter, her original series of comments were easy to misinterpret or exaggerate, and she had to post a follow-up clarifying some issues. Below is a response to one of her original assertions.

Basically, I agree that our feelings about sacrifice today are irrelevant to understanding it. To understand human history and something scientific that relates to humans it is important to set aside feelings, at least for the moment. That being said, let me remind the reader that this is not the attitude of many science writers when a story has a “social justice” angle. We all know if a science article has a social hook which appeals to emotional or moralistic impulses in the readership, it will probably be injected into it for purposes of clicks and adding an extra layer of meaning and relevance. For various reasons, Aztec human sacrifice is better presented in a dispassionate manner, as Mesoamerican human sacrifice doesn’t lend itself easily to a standard social justice narrative (i.e., the “villains” are not white).

The Aztec Empire, or the Triple Alliance if you prefer, was built on brutality. From what we can tell it was an analog in the New World to what the Assyrian Empire had been in Eurasian antiquity: a polity bound together through brutal coercion.

Here is one tale from Aztec history that is well known:

In 1323, they asked the new ruler of Culhuacan, Achicometl, for his daughter, in order to make her the goddess Yaocihuatl. Unknown to the king, the Mexica actually planned to sacrifice her. The Mexica believed that by doing this the princess would join the gods as a deity. As the story goes, during a festival dinner, a priest came out wearing her flayed skin as part of the ritual. Upon seeing this, the king and the people of Culhuacan were horrified and expelled the Mexica.

Note that the legend is recounted whereby the other native peoples of Mexico were horrified by the Aztec behavior. This highlights the reality that human sacrifice seems to elicit negative reactions generally. It’s not arbitrary. In Carthage Must Be Destroyed the author spends a great deal of time exploring the reality of child sacrifice in that society. A practice in decline in the Phoenician homeland, for some reason it reemerged in the western Mediterranean much more vigorously. Classical observers found the practice grotesque, and their descriptions of Carthaginian child sacrifice were suspected by many scholars as being scurrilous. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the truth has been established by the discovery of bones of children in urns. The key point to note is that ancient observers were just as judgemental as modern people.

Though human sacrifice persisted in some form in many antique societies, it is clear that what was once a common occurrence in the Bronze Age world became rarer with time, until it was no longer socially or ethically acceptable. Researchers in the field of cultural evolution have explored the emergence and decline of human sacrifice. Though there are no current definitive conclusions, it seems likely that it crops up in societies which have transitioned toward being highly inegalitarian. But, it declines again in societies which scale large enough to the point where more abstract ideological and political systems must bind groups of people together. The Classical Western world, India, and China, all seem to be marked by a recollection of normative human sacrifice (e.g., Iphigenia), and a turn away from it.

The inequality aspect is important. Though some people willingly gave themselves as human sacrifices, there are recurrent themes of low-status individuals within the group (e.g., slaves) or outsiders (prisoners of war) being given to the gods. There is debate as to the nature of the Aztec “flower wars”, but one traditional explanation is that they were driven by the need for victims of human sacrifices.

In other words, Aztec human sacrifice can be contextualized in a generalized framework. But that is not where the writer of the original piece went on the Twitter thread. Rather, she seems to have bracketed the practice by modern social and political considerations, “centuries of colonial oppression and destruction.” To be frank, it is a strongly Eurocentric narrative where everything before European colonialism is viewed as a prologue to the true story. The only story that matters. The context of Aztec human sacrifice that matters to many people steeped in this way of thinking is what the Spaniards did to the native peoples of the New World after the conquest of the Aztec Empire. Like ethical tachyons the present blasts back into the past, and reshapes our whole perception of it in current terms. The Aztec tendencies toward brutality, oppression and grotesque customs such as human sacrifice, are inconvenient to this framework.

The cultural conditioning isn’t that of a Western individual who lives in a consumer society at the tail end of a two-century path of growth, domination, and maturation. Rather, the cultural conditioning is of a whole class of intellectuals steeped in understanding all social and historical relations as but mirrors of the one which defined the 19th and 20th century. This viewpoint also asserts that this period, these people, are sui generis. It is profoundly Eurocentric to the bones.

To me when considering the ethical and historical frame of human sacrifice two facts jump out to me. First, it’s an empirical fact that at certain levels of social complexity human sacrifice seems to emerge, and at later levels of social complexity tends to be dampened and abolished.  The reason that it tends to be dampened and abolished is probably the reason that the Spanish found it easy to obtain native allies against the Aztec Empire: human sacrifice is a costly and brutal way to foster social cohesion. Across societies, there has been a general tendency to abandon the practice and create psychologically satisfying substitutes which don’t have the bloody downsides.

The second aspect is more primal: humans don’t like to die. It is true that humans will sacrifice themselves, or in the case of Carthaginian nobles, their own children, in exigent circumstances. Human nature exists, and many aspects are universal. The abhorrence of human sacrifice doesn’t emerge out of particular and unique elements of Western colonial culture,  it has cropped up in many societies, and I would suggest that the shoe is on the other foot here: those who argue for human sacrifice have to make the argument for it is necessary. And that is why so often humans who are sacrificed are those who can least choose to give their own lives. Slaves, children, prisoners, and criminals.

Unfortunately, the Western colonial narrative looms so large for many moderns that other cultures and other histories are erased in all their complexity. They gain depth and richness only as handmaids to the deconstruction and critique of the Western colonial narrative.

Why the world before 1450 matters

It is no surprise that I am not excited by the proposal to focus AP History in the United States on the period after 1450. Overall I agree with many of the comments made in T. Greer’s tweet thread. Though I have a concurrent opinion with many history teachers who oppose the change, my opposition is for different reasons. To be frank I don’t care about “showing our black and brown and native students that their histories matter—that their histories don’t start at slavery”.

Though my leanings are toward positivism, that is, I think history is an empirical discipline, even with a potential scientific scaffold, I understand that with finite time and resources your choices are conditional on your viewpoint. When I grew up in the American North the Civil War was taught with facts, but the arrangement and emphasis of those facts were not flattering to the Confederacy. I think objectively this isn’t hard from a modern perspective. But, the fact that some Union regiments were raised in the area where I grew up is certainly relevant

But this old-fashioned biased perspective still gave the nod to the importance of objectivity in some deep way. And though I was an immigrant who was routinely asked “where I was really from”, there was also an understanding that I needed to know this particular Union history, because it was the history which I inherited.  It was our history, which set the objective preconditions of the world in which we lived. The sharply critical cast of modern history teaching has its roots in this fundamental understanding. History may often have had propagandistic overtones, in that it inculcated, but the facts still mattered, and sometimes they were at counter-purposes to the narrative (e.g., the Abolitionists were clearly in the minority even in the North; good history teachers didn’t lie about this).

The idea that one’s history, “their” history, is rooted in descent is common sense. But it’s also an idea which brings together frog-Nazis and Critical Race Theorists. Because of the closeness of the past few hundred years, the histories will be contested on the grounds of ideology. All narratives are contested, but emotion and effort vary in the contestation. The way to push through the contestation is to flood the zone with facts, with robust models. But this isn’t feasible for high school students, many of whom simply want to obtain a good AP score so they never have to take a history course again.

Rather, I think history before 1450 is critical not because it is relevant to a diverse student body due to genealogical affinity, but because common human universal themes are easier to perceive in more distant peoples whose actions and choices don’t have as strong a direct connection to the lived present. Consider the Classical Greeks. It is reasonable to assert that the genesis of the West as we understand it has to be traced at least in part to the Ionian flowering of the 5th century, and to Athens in particular. But it is not reasonable to make Classical Greeks a stand-in for modern Europeans, whose Christianity (at a minimum culturally) would be alien, and whose origins are from peoples who the ancient Greeks would term barbarians.

The Classical Greeks are profoundly alien to moderns, rupturing excessive identity, though that didn’t stop 19th century Romantics! Athenian democracy is very different from the modern democracies, with its participatory character and the large class of excluded residents. But Athenian democracy, and Classical Greece more generally, also highlight deep universal aspects of the human condition. It speaks more forcefully to many students because the mental clutter of the past few centuries, and their ideological baggage, are removed from the picture.

Additionally, cross-cultural comparisons of similarities and differences in the ancient and medieval world are useful because they are less overshadowed by the “Great Divergence”, and the post-1800 European breakout. While the world before Classical Greece was one of strange and isolated polities in a vast barbarous world, the world after 1450 points strongly in our mind’s eye to a state where Europe occludes our entire view. The problem is not slavery, because the age of European supremacy saw the abolition of slavery.

Obviously, even the period before 1450 can be fraught. Consider the rise of Islam, and the crystallization of the West as Christian Europe in tension with the rising civilization to the south, and the receding pagan wilderness to the north and east. There are plenty of opportunities for debate, disagreement, and ideological axes to grind. But contrast the same argument around the Arab-Israeli conflict or Sykes-Picot Agreement.  The fact is that pushing the past further back into the past muddles modern preoccupations. And that’s a feature, not a bug.

The monarch as an expression of the people

One of the major conclusions of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation is that Protestantism only captured societies with finality when the most powerful temporal leader pushed for the change from above or maintained the pressure. The “magisterial” Reformation succeeded in those nations where the king or the most powerful aristocrats defended Protestantism and made it their own.

In contrast, in much of Austria, Hungary, and Bohemia, vast territories which had been won over to Protestantism were slowly brought back to Catholicism over the course of the 17th century under imperial direction and force. The process is outlined in Benjamin Kaplan’s Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe. It was a deliberate campaign to retake ground lost by the Habsburg monarchy and the Catholic Church.

The grinding down of Protestant faith in Hungary left such bitter feelings that Hungarian Calvinists marched with the armies of the Ottomans in the late 17th century during the Battle of Vienna. Even today the center of Hungarian Calvinism is in the far east, which was longest under the protection, neglect and toleration of the Ottomans.

French and Polish Protestants were well represented among the elites and parts of the nobility. Both states offered the Protestants a modicum of toleration, more or less, but in neither instance they did they capture the monarchy. In France, the Protestant Henry IV famously converted to Roman Catholicism, because the monarchy of the French state was tied so closely to the old religion. Polish Protestants, always a minority but concentrated among the upper echelons, slowly lost their position in society over the 17th and 18th centuries, to the point where being ethnically Polish and being Roman Catholic were synonymous. In contrast, the French Protestants suffered a major immediate shock when Louis XIV revoked the toleration and independence that they had enjoyed explicitly. They either had to convert, emigrate, or retreat deep into isolated areas such as the Massif Central.

The maxim adopted in 1555 was cuius regio, eius religio. “Whose realm, his religion.”

But did this really hold? Henry VIII certainly dragged an England that wasn’t entirely comfortable with leaving Catholicism, especially in the north, to Protestantism (though not too far, as the Puritans would learn!). The Scandinavian monarchs transitioned their nations rather quickly to Lutheranism. The Dutch Protestant minority, motivated, concentrated among elite elements, rebelled against their Catholic Habsburg monarch, but rallied under the Protestant House of Orange.

And yet there were other cases where cuius regio, eius religio did not hold. Arguably Henry IV’s conversion to Catholicism illustrates that the monarch was not all powerful…but this case is confounded by the reality that his kingship was conditional on his conversion.

In 1613 John Sigismund of the House of Hohenzollern made public his conversion to Calvinist Reformed Christianity. His Lutheran subjects balked, and did not follow him. Prussia remained a predominantly Lutheran domain with Calvinist rulers for hundreds of years.In 1697 the Wettin House of Saxony converted to Catholicism. While a minority of the subjects of the Hohenzollerns were Reformed Christians, almost no Catholics were present in the domains of the Lutheran Electorate. The overthrow of James II of England in part due to his Catholicism shows that by the latter half the 17th century cuius regio, eius religio did not hold.

The people were self-conscious in having a particular religious identity, and top-down pressure would be met and resisted strenuously.

It is sometimes stated that nationalism and self-identity emerged as late the French Revolution. I do not agree with this. Rather, I agree with Azar Gat’s position in Nations, that nationalism has deep historical and cultural roots. But that does not mean that I believe English self-identity in 1300 is and was the same as English self-identity in 1800. The Gordon Riots of 1780 illustrate how a strident Protestantism had become part and parcel of English national self-identity. In contrast, though there were religious conflicts between the early 16th century (with some rural peasants, especially in the north, retaining loyalty to the Catholic religion) and into the period of the English Civil War, the ultimate outcome seems to have been a matter of mobilizing elites, and up until the overthrow of Charles II retaining the favor of the monarch.

At some point the English monarchy personified the nation. The nation was not simply the extension of the monarch. Anti-German sentiment during the First World War resulted in the switch of their dynastic name from Saxe-Coburg & Gotha to Windsor.

Today in the age of social media we talk about the power of the mob. But it seems like something happened between 1500 and 1750 in much of Western Europe. Nations-states shifted from being syndicates of elite interest groups ad powerful individuals, to becoming expressions of popular will and sentiment. This preceded democracy or liberalism by generations, and it was a gradual process. Mass society and identity emerged. Immovable, with its own will.

And this had happened before historically, from Greek democracies to the Roman republic. Polities were reflections of the public. At some point citizens become subjects, and the populace were simply resources from which to extract rents to fund aristocratic positional contests. The information revolution of the printing press, and economic development more generally, changed the calculus. The past came back.

These sorts of dynamics are universal, cyclical, and playing out to differing extents across the world.

Related: On the rectification of names and religion. A post over at Brown Pundits.

The Insight, Episode 23: Patrick Wyman, Barbarian Genetics


This week on The Insight we talk to Patrick Wyman of Tides of History. Patrick is now a professional podcaster for Wondery, but I got to know him originally through comments on this weblog. Patrick is a historian of Late Antiquity. We originally encountered each other in 2010 after I had just finished a period where I was originally interested in the topic of his professional study, and he was interested in paleogenetics.

As Patrick said before we began recording, this podcast was a long time in coming. More precisely, the time is right, and it will get more right. More and more preprints like Amorin et al.’s Understanding 6th-Century Barbarian Social Organization and Migration through Paleogenomics will be coming out in the next few years. Ancient DNA extraction is cheap enough now that it will be used to explore historical lacunae, for example, what happened in sub-Roman Britain?

To get a sense of the period that we talk about in this podcast, I would highly recommend first The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization. This is a materialist treatment whch makes clear how thoroughgoing the collapse of economic production was across much of the Roman world. Then, Peter Heather’s Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe, anticipates some of the work coming out of genetics. Heather at the time was making the case that many of the barbarian groups that entered the Roman Empire were in fact coherent ethno-cultural entities. That the period of the “folk wandering” were literally folk wanderings.

Finally, you can finish up with Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000.

As a complement, one might check out Hugh Kennedy’s two books on the early history of Islam, The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In and When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam’s Greatest Dynasty. Kennedy doesn’t present a revisionist view, but that’s OK. Sometimes you need the null model. Like neutral theory.

Our Edo period future?

The second season of Westworld has some scenes set in Edo period Japan. To spoil things for you there is apparently a scene-by-scene re-creation of a plot arc from the first season of the show set in the American West. Watching this scene, and comparing it to the earlier version, I can’t but help feel that the Edo period setting is more grand and refined. If the first season’s violent attack was brutalist, the scene above is more neoclassical.

Then again, Edo Japan and the American West are perhaps antipodes of second-millennium civilization. Where the 19th century American West was anarchic, chaotic, and creative, the Edo period in Japan was notable for its stability, order, and the perception that it was a culture in chrysalis. Old forms may have been reinvented, but those forms were treasured.

The context for the Edo period is that 16th century Japan was a dynamo. Not always in a good way. The islands were riven by internal warfare. The Japanese were known to be a piratical race by the Ming dynasty, and the 16th century ended with the warlord Hideyoshi’s disastrous invasion of Korea. Prefiguring Japanese ability to imitate the West in industriousness they developed a skill in the making of guns, while Roman Catholic Christianity had great success in the southern island of Kyushu.

Eventually, Tokugawa Ieyasu set the stage for Japan’s nearly three hundred year exile from the congress of nations, turning his back on Hideyoshi’s adventurousness. Of course, it is false to assume that the Japanese were totally insulated from the outside world. Not only did they connect with the West through the Dutch, but the Japanese maintained a more intense relationship with Korea. Even in the 17th and 18th century, a movement of “Western Learning” persisted through the interaction with the Dutch (though arguably late Confucian influences may have been more significant).

The violent suppression of Christianity in the 17th century and the emergence of a static caste system strikes modern sensibilities as brutal, barbaric and regressive. But the Edo period’s reduction in distribution and production of lethal firearms shows the upside of a conservative and controlling social land political elite. Violence continued, but it was relatively controlled and channeled.

We think of the future as endlessly protean and dynamic. But science fiction offers up an alternative possibility far more like Edo period Japan: technologically stagnant, culturally conservative. Frank Herbert’s Dune was set in the context of a universe where there had been a religious jihad against artificial intelligence. Meanwhile, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series was originally based on imperial Rome, but later incarnations admitted that the better model was imperial China. Just as in the Dune series, the Foundation universe had to grapple with humanity’s protean and chaotic violence, which threatened to take down our civilization periodically due to enthusiasms.

The Edo period stretches from the early 17th century down to the middle of the 19th. All in all this is not a bad run. Our own republic’s 250 year anniversary will be on us in 2026.

Why Bronze Age steppe people replaced the farmers they conquered

One of the major revisions in my own mind about the demographic and historical processes of the Holocene in relation to humans has been the reality that large and dense agglomerations of agriculturalists could be marginalized by later peoples, to the point of having a smaller genetic footprint in the future than anyone might have imagined. If you had asked me ten years ago I just wouldn’t have believed that the first farmers of Europe or South Asia wouldn’t account for the vast majority of the ancestry of the contemporary populations of the region. By “first farmers” I don’t even mean migrants. At that point, I had assumed a primarily Pleistocene indigenous hypothesis for the origin of Europeans and South Asians, with farming diffusing through a mixture of a few migrants along a demographic wave of advance.

That’s not what it looks like according to ancient DNA. In Northern Europe, it seems that around half or more of the ancestry is due to the incursions of a pastoralist steppe population during the Bronze Age. In Southern Europe and South Asia, the fraction is closer to 10-25%. But even in the latter case, the fraction of steppe ancestry is far higher than I had expected.

I had assumed that the steppe migrants would contribute 1-5% of the ancestry of Europeans and South Asians and that the spread of Indo-European languages was a matter of elite transmission and emulation. Think the Hungarians, for example, as an example of what had assumed.

So what explains what really happened?

During the Mongol conquest of Northern China Genghis Khan reputedly wanted to turn the land that had been the heart of the Middle Kingdom into pasture, first by exterminating the whole population. Part of the motive was to punish the Chinese for resisting his armies, and part of it was to increase his wealth. One of his advisors, Yelu Chucai, a functionary from the Khitai people, dissuaded him from this path through appealing to his selfishness. Chinese peasants taxed on their surplus would enrich Genghis Khan far more than enlarging his herds. Rather than focus on primary production, Genghis Khan could sit atop a more complex economic system and extract rents.

Most of you at this point can see the general framework then. For thousands of years, pastoralist people of the Inner Asian steppe and forest would extract rents out of the oikoumene by threatening them with force. The reason the East Roman Empire did not face the Hunnic onslaught during the lifetime of Attila is that they paid the horde tribute. Imperial China did the same during some periods. In other instances, civilized states found in the barbarians of the steppe useful confederates. The Tang dynasty did not collapse during the 750s because of the intervention of the Uyghurs, who suppressed the rebellion of An Lushan. In 9th century Baghdad the rise of the Turks was enabled by their usefulness in court politics and distance from any given faction.

The rise of the “gunpowder empires” during the 16th century and the eventual closing of the Inner Asian frontier with the crushing of the last embers of the Oirat confederacy between the Russian and Chinese Empires in the 18th century marked the end of thousands of years of interaction between the farmland and pasture.

But this makes us ask: when did this dynamic begin? I don’t think it was primordial. It was invented and developed over time through trial and error. I believe that the initial instinct of pastoralists was to turn farmland into pasture for his herds. This was Genghis Khan’s instinct. The rude barbarian that he was he had not grown up in the extortive system which more civilized barbarians, such as the Khitai, had been habituated to.

In these situations where pastoralists expropriated the land, there wouldn’t have been an opportunity for the farmer to raise a family. Barbarian warlords throughout history have aspired to be rich by plundering from the civilized the peoples…but would the earliest generations have understood the complexity of the institutions that they would have to extract rents out of if there wasn’t a precedent?

Instead of conventional historical dynamics of predatory elites and static peasantry, a better way to understand what occurred with the incursion of steppe pastoralists during the Bronze Age might be a simple ecological model of intra-specific competition. In a pre-state society defined by clan and tribal ties, steppe elites may have seen the farmers who were earlier residents in the territories which they were expanding into as competitors rather than resources from which a life of leisure might be obtained. In other words, instead of conquest, the dynamic was of animal competition.

Of course, pre-modern societies did not have totalitarian states and deadly technology. Rapid organized genocide in a way that we would understand was unlikely to have happened. Rather, in a world on the Malthusian margin, a few generations of deprivation may have resulted in the rapid demographic extinction of whole cultures. You don’t need to kill them if they starve because they were driven off their land.

In fact, we have some precedent of this historically. The Spaniards were intent on extracting rents out of the native peoples of the New World and living a life of leisure, but in many areas disease and exploitation resulted in demographic collapse. Imagine a conquest elite as vicious as the Spaniards, but without thousands of years of precedent that conquered peoples were more useful alive rather than dead. 

Addendum: The fraction of haplogroup M, which is probably derived from Pleistocene South Asians, is greater than 50% in places like Sindh. This indicates that the steppe migrations were strongly male biased in the initial generations.

Abraham on the shoulders of Zoroaster (and others)

Yesterday on Twitter I made a quip about “linear Western models of time.” A friend pointed out that that was actually “Judeo-Christian.” I was going to agree…but then I realized something: I vaguely recalled that eschatology and millenarianism were things that some have hypothesized came into Judaism from Zoroastrianism.

The historical context is straightforward. The Babylonians took the Jews to Mesopotamia, where they were strongly influenced by the local cultures. Mesopotamia for most of the period before the Islamic conquest was dominated by Iranian polities, the Achaemenids, Parthians, and Sassanids. Though the non-Iranian populace of Mesopotamia never took to Zoroastrianism, which was considered somewhat the ethnic religion of Iranian peoples,* it has hard to imagine they were not influenced by the religion.

Early Islamic chronicles describe a religious culture in Mesopotamia in the early centuries after Muhammad that would be both familiar and alien. The familiar aspect would be the dominance of various forms of Christianity and Judaism among the Semitic speaking population. The form of Judaism which came to be dominant by the medieval period was strongly influenced by Jewish thinkers in late antique Mesopotamia, who operated with a certain freedom that Jews under Christian rule did not have. Though Christians in Mesopotamia tended to be Oriental Orthodox, whether it be what we would today term Jacobite or the Church of the East, they were Christian.

But the exotic aspect is that many other religious groups, inflected with Zoroastrian and pagan beliefs, were also present. The pagans of Harran persisted down to the Islamic period because of the protection that they had received from the Persian emperors during the Byzantine period. Though groups like Mandeans and Yazidis seems exotic to us today, they were probably part of the bubbling matrix of beliefs which produced novel religious movements rather regularly (ghulat Shia sects like the Alawites probably have laundered some of these old beliefs into modern outwardly Muslim groups).

Manicheanism, for example, seems to have emerged at this intersection of religions. The prophet himself was from a heterodox (from our perspective) Christian background, but his new religion integrated aspects of Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism, as well as agnosticism which seems to have channeled Neoplatonic conceptions of the corruption of this world.

The important point here is that this was not a unique confluence of events. Centuries before the Roman Empire, exiled Judaeans were in contact with Zoroastrians in Mesopotamia. The dislocation probably helped force their shift away from belief in a geographically delimited tribal god, local to Palestine, toward a more mature monotheism. But they were also introduced to new ideas which seem to be derived from Zoroastrianism: angels, the prominent role of Satan as God’s foil, an elaborated heaven, and eschatology, seem to be derived from the milieu of Zoroastrian influenced culture.

But were they? One of the major themes, perhaps the most interesting one, in The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, are the common Mesopotamian motifs which seem to pervade the West Eurasian oikoumene, from Europe to South Asia.

Perhaps the Zoroastrian influence on the Abrahamic religions is less about the creative genius of the Iranian peoples as they impinged upon the older civilizations of West Asia, as it is about their absorption and synthesis of far older motifs?

Again, this sort of synthesis, cooption, and appropriation should be unsurprising. The more and more I’ve dug into the early history of Islam, the more I’ve come to the conclusion that subjugated Iran & Turan held captive the uncouth Arab and brought the arts to the rustic desert nomads! Actually, that appropriation of a classicist jibe misleads as to my view of the early Arab conquerors of Persia. I suspect they were primarily civilized peoples on the margins of the Persian and Roman world, not raw Bedouins. But, many of the aspects of Islam that we think of as constitutive to the religion probably only dates to the Abbasid period and later, when Iranians of Zoroastrian, Christian, and Buddhist background dominated the culture (e.g, the emphasis messianism in Shia Islam probably is accentuated by Zoroastrian influences, while Sunni Islam’s focus on learning of the ulema in a formal sense may be modeled on Central Asian Buddhist monastic forms).

Ultimately the reason I’ve brought this up is that many things that we in the modern world find beautiful or good are said to be contingent on the nature of Christianity, and Christianity is contingent on Jewish thought. Quite often this is false. I used to watch Bible documentaries where David Wolpe was a frequent guest. Wolpe was wont to say that the genius of the Jews was the invention of ethical monotheism. If I had to bet I think this is just wrong. My own suspicion is that on the probability the Jewish shift toward ethical monotheism in their conception of their tribal religion was given a strong push sufficiently, if not necessarily, by the widespread currency of proto-Zoroastrian ideas in Persian Babylon (and later Ctesiphon).

The idea of linear time is often connected liberal individualism and the possibility of progress. The caricature is that the “Judeo-Christian tradition invented progress,” ergo, liberalism, science, etc. This sort of reductive causal model has always struck me as implausible, in part because most of the people (thought not all!) who make this assertion know very little outside of our their own tradition, so they are easily impressed by its uniqueness due to its singular hold on their imagination.

I’m not presupposing here that Zoroastrianism was a necessary condition for the emergence of many traits unique to Judaism. It seems likely that something like ethical monotheism was going to be “invented” somewhere (note that millenarianism seems to have developed in China independently before the first “Western” influences, such as Buddhism and Manichaeanism).

This speaks to the thesis of whether history is driven by unique ideas, or structural forces. They aren’t exclusive, nor are they unrelated. Peter Turchin and others have suggested that ethical metaphysical/religious systems were nearly inevitable with the maturing of large multi-ethnic imperial polities. I believe that evolutionary psychology allows us to understand why those ethical systems were broadly similar in the generalities. The human quest for cosmic justice is just an elaboration of our intuitions about fair-play in a Paleolithic tribal band.

* Zoroastrianism was more successful in the Caucasus, probably because Caucasian elites were integrated into the military elite of the Iranian states.

Communities only exist only in the Minds of Europeans

I read Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the origins and spread of Nationalism because other people read it. This is a book that is routinely alluded to in discussions by pundits of various stripes. On the back of the 2006 edition, the publisher notes that over 250,000 copies have been printed of this short academic work. Time put this as 48th out of 100 all-time great nonfiction books. It’s one of the most assigned works to undergraduates at universities.

There are two things about Imagined Communities that drove me crazy. First, there’s a tendency to just assert something that is perhaps profound, perhaps inscrutable. Honestly, I just don’t know. I randomly opened to page 23, and found this:

Figuring the Virgin Mary with “Semitic” feature or “first-century” costumes in the restoring spirit of the modern museum was unimaginable because the medieval [sic] Christian mind had no conception of history as an endless chain of cause and effect or of radical separation between past and present.30

But wait, there’s a note! What does it cite? “For us, the idea of ‘modern dress,’ a metaphorical equivalencing of past with present, is a backhanded recognition of their fatal separation.”

This is pretty typical throughout the book. I’m really skeptical of this strong assertion that medieval Christians didn’t understand cause and effect, and the past or present, considering that they periodically went through millenarian enthusiasms about the End of the World. But perhaps I misunderstand Anderson? It wouldn’t surprise me. He’s just not that clear a lot of the time.

About ten years ago Jonathan Gottschall observed that often in literary scholarship all their “experiments” confirm their theories. Imagined Communities follows this model. I’m very confused why pundits with backgrounds in political science are citing a work which is basically a long analysis of literature, with some historical references thrown in. Though there are numbers in the book, there are no graphs or tables. This is a work of literary scholarship.

Second,  Anderson likes to use a lot of words which are very obscure. For example, “the philological-lexicographic revolution and the rise of intra-European nationalist movements, themselves the products, not only of capitalism, but of the elephantiasis of the dynastic states….”

I understood what the author meant by “elephantiasis.” But that’s a really unnecessary word. If it was the exception, I’d shrug it off. But this reliance on overly obscure terminology is pretty common in this book, and again, it makes me wonder what undergrads are getting out of it. Not to brag, but I have a pretty big vocabulary, and the lexical flourishes were obscuring the point of whole passages. If that’s how I feel, what about someone with a smaller vocabulary?

Probably the most intellectually creative thing about Imagined Communities is that the author begins by examining the emergence of nation-states in Latin America, and the role of white Creole communities in the rebellion against the Spaniards. Anderson contends that this model influenced Europeans. The United States as well showed much of Europe that a large continental republic could actually flourish. From here Imagined Communities digs deeply into the various intricate details of how the Empire of the Romanovs began to assert a more clear Russian identity, or the nationalities trapped into the Habsburg polity.

Much of this material is interesting and has clearly percolated to other areas of scholarship, as I was familiar with it. Again, the author has a tendency toward abstruse phraseology or obscure word choices, but the portion on Europe was relatively coherent and familiar, though there was a strong bias to present nationalism as novel and new, rather than primordial.

But when the story moves to Asia it lost me. This is strange insofar as Anderson has a background in Asian scholarship, with a focus on Indonesia. He devotes a fair amount of time to Southeast Asia for these reason. And perhaps it wasn’t intended, but Imagined Communities depicts the emergence of Southeast Asian nation-states as an outcome of the agency of Europeans. The British created Burma. The French created Vietnam (Anderson makes much of the name changes that “Vietnam” has undergone over the past few centuries). China was a diverse motley of dialects before being dragged into the modern world by European-influenced intellectuals. Japan was given form with the Meiji revolution. Thailand created itself due to its engagement with colonial powers. Indonesia was stitched together by the Dutch.

Non-Europeans have no agency or originality in creating their own national identities. They were blank slates upon which European colonials drew something.

Luckily for me, I don’t come into reading Imagined Communities totally ignorant of other viewpoints. I’ve read Victor Lieberman’s Strange Parallels, which makes the case that mainland Southeast Asia resembled Europe in the coalescence of distinct proto-national identities one to two thousand years ago.

The same is true to the north. China was arguably a nation-empire long before Europeans arrived. Though the Chinese peasantry spoke different dialects, it was united by a ruling class with a sense of coherency. The modern Japanese nation-state state is modeled on Western nation-states, in particular, Prussia. It strikes as bizarre to hold that this unique and isolated nation didn’t exist in the imagination of Japanese when the Europeans first arrived.

Anderson, like many scholars of his ilk, gets carried away with the novelty and power of European rationalism. For example, he focuses on European censuses with the clear implication that they somehow created many ethnicities. Not to sidetrack, but modern genetics shows that this is just false. It’s false in India. It’s false in Southeast Asia. It’s probably false more or less everywhere.

Western science and the bureaucratic machinery of the Western nation-state, were novel and revolutionary. But peoples existed with a self-identity long before Europeans arrived. To be honest I found Anderson’s treatment of the Vietnamese almost insulting. The first edition of Imagined Communities was written in the early 1980s, and the work is pervaded by Cold War concerns. Though Vietnam has been a catspaw in the game of great power, the fact that they began adjuncts to, but did not become absorbed into, the Chinese system highlights that their national identity in some inchoate way is very old.

Overall it is worth reading Imagined Communities because of its purported cultural significance. But much of it is so garbled and unclear I’m not sure what people are taking from it, aside from the proposition that the modern nation-state was invented in the last few centuries due to modernity. In the end the book is kind of a long tautology.