Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Kenneth Harl – ROME AND THE BARBARIANS (Lecture Series)

I am a guitar instructor and spend a great deal of time in my car driving from one student's house to another, and a lot of time getting from my home near Stanford to the homes scattered around the South Bay, all the way down to South San Jose. It's more time in a car than just about anyone, except of course delivery drivers. The teaching itself is all fun but the car time can be tiring. It has at least one benefit, though, which is that I have tons of time to listen to lectures from The Teaching Company, a truly wonderful company that records lecture courses by university professors around the country and sells them in convenient packages of 24 to 48 half-hour lectures (some course are up to 72 lectures, and some have 45 minute lectures). I can't say enough about how great these things are. The quality of the lectures is uniformly top-notch, and they are a cut above most audiobooks in intellectual level as well as ease of listening. They are intended for listening, and so unlike an audiobook professors will repeat important points and usually organize their lectures to be understood on first listen. For me, trapped in my car for hours a day, they've been something like life-savers for me. I think I've been through something like thirty, which I suspect may be as much as anyone else in the country, unless someone can refute that claim). So, thinking that this gives me some good perspective on them, I thought I might start writing about them as I go through them, starting with my favorite, Kenneth Harl's Rome and the Barbarians.

While these are my favorite lectures, I admit that I had to listen to the whole series twice, and some lectures more than twice, to really get what Harl was talking about. He is not obviously a charismatic lecturer, or at least he is not charismatic in the usual sense. The appeal of Harl as a lecturer is in the wide knowledge he brings, the degree of specificity of that knowledge, and the excitement he has for the subject. These three aspects of his style taken together lead to sometimes confusing presentation. Harl just about always uses proper names of whoever he is talking about and he uses very specific location names. Rather than saying something like “The Romans were camped in the East” he'll say “Flavius and the Army of the Danube encamped 30 miles from Cappadocia, west of the Zagros mountains” (I made that up, so that location probably makes no sense). It is confusing, but once you start to to get the gist of where he is going—for me this sometimes took an extra listen or two—the specificity of his presentation is actually quite riveting. Harl's excitement also pulls him into some digressions, since once he mentions someone's name he can't help telling a juicy tidbit about him, even in mid-sentence. Again, this is confusing at first, but in the end it is a lot of fun. A telling moment comes when Harl, giving the exact date of Septimus Severus coronation as Emperor and telling us that he remembers it because the same as his sister's birthday, admits that the reverse is probably closer to the truth—that he remembers his sister's birthday because it is the same day as the important Roman event.

The course itself is basically an entire history of Rome, though beginning not in the early days of Romulus and the ancient kings. But unlike traditional courses on Rome, this one focuses on the Roman provinces, zones that were first taken over by the military and gradually turned into loyal Roman territory. Harl's expertise is in the study of Roman coins, and so he is a particularly good guide to the archeology and economics of the Roman provinces. He also focuses a lot on military history, not just on the details of battles, but on how the military way of life transformed Rome and transformed its provinces, and also on how changes in the military reflect changes in the larger society. The course begins with the Punic Wars, when Rome took over the control of Spain from Carthage and thus began its conquest of foreign land and peoples—ie, the barbarians. Harl shows that Rome's excursion into Spain mark the true beginning of Rome imperial behavior, well before the Roman Revolution ushered in the age of Roman emperors.  In taking over Carthage's colonies, Rome was forced to re-examine how its officials were elected and how the military would operate. It also led to the behavior Harl refers to half-jestingly as "triumph-hunting," in which Roman magistrates would try to kill and conquer barbarians just for the sake of glory back home in Rome, where they could be awarded a triumph for killing a certain number. Some officials were even brought to trial for needlessly killing, which was eventually seen to be counterproductive for effective provincial management. The motives behind Rome's efforts in the provinces continued to hover ambiguously between self-aggrandizement and real efforts to preserve Roman security.

Harl gives a compelling presentation of the Roman Revolution as a logical outcome of these military conquests. Individuals such as Sulla, who was, a couple generations before Augustus a sort of emperor for a time, learned that they could gain massive wealth and masses of loyal followers through conquest, to such an extent that they became more powerful than the Senate. That fact alone meant the Republic was only an illusion. The Revolution itself, that famous transition from Roman Republic to Roman Empire, was simply a battle between several individuals who knew it and had the wherewithal to achieve this level of power. One could put a dagger through Caesar but not through the increasing helplessness of the Senate over such individuals. Octavian would eventually defeat Marc Anthony and pretend to restore the Republic, but by then the game had in fact been over for almost a century.

Harl makes a similar case for the decline of the empire. The imperial order of Augustine was a way of keeping the army loyal to Rome. But as the provinces grew in importance as sources of wealth and eventually as sources of soldiers, provincial commanders and their armies could eventually get the upper hand. Civil war broke out whenever one army refused to recognize another army's leader as the Roman emperor. By the third century Rome's weakening military struggled to keep up with barbarian threats to its provinces, and provincial leaders, not receiving any help from Rome, sometimes set up shop on their own. The empire seems on the verge of breaking down for several centuries and there are, of course, hundreds of theories as to why it finally came undone. Harl makes a convincing case for the importance of increasing recruitment from barbarian peoples to fill the armies. The military itself came to be dominated more and more by barbarian peoples rather than Romans, and one day there was no more Roman empire to speak of.

Along with this history of Rome, Harl also tries to illuminate the cultures of the barbarian peoples as much as possible, given the limited source material. He shows how interactions with these peoples affected Rome. For instance, the Roman presence in in the northern climes of what they called “Gormania”, led to the rise of trouser-wearing around the entire empire, replacing the toga that was more appropriate to Italian weather. (This fact, interestingly, can be gleaned from archaeological excavations that reveal the hard metals of belts, a sure giveaway of trouser-wearing.)  He shows also how barbarian peoples were affected by Rome, gaining the benefits of commerce and peace that came from affiliation with the great empire. Some barbarians learned military tactics serving in the Roman army and then became rebel leaders. Alaric, who led the sack on Rome in 410, is only the most famous of such men.

The course will change how one looks at Roman history. Rather than seeing a march of progress towards greatness and then a decline, one sees a succession of fascinating interactions with different peoples and the development of models of administration and governance and diplomacy that held sway over Europe for many centuries after the last of the Roman emperors. I can't praise it too much.

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