Terry Jones is a barbarian part IV The desolation of smug

Episode 4- The End of the World: In this final episode Terry talks about the Huns, the Vandals and the fall of the Roman Empire, principally through the tale’s of Attila and Gaiseric the most famous leaders of the Huns and Vandals respectively before summing up. We begin with a very brief pre-title introduction illustrating just this ending: “with Rome gone Europe would enter a thousand years of ignorance and chaos: the dark ages…..well at least that’s what I was told.” First up both the term dark ages and the view of the time encompassed by it implied by the name are no longer fashionable in scholarship and have not been for decade’s  but (perhaps in part because popular understanding lags behind academic trends) such was probably not the case when Terry was in school, so that part of what he’s saying is fine (leaving aside that I suspect the show’s target audience is significantly younger than our presenter) it’s the thousand year claim that’s the problem. That would bring the dark ages well into the 1400’s, not even the most generous definitions of the term had it last that long, I have difficulty believing Terry was taught that either. Again I would like to remind you that Terry claims some medieval expertise.

“If I’ve learn’t one thing making these programs about barbarians it’s that nothing is ever as simple as it seems” “the Greatest achievement of the Romans…..was propaganda” “2000 years after Rome’s collapse I was still being peddled their version of the past at school” I didn’t know you were from the future Terry! this explains everything! No wonder you know so much about history, you have a time machine! Stop the press everyone! Turns out Life of Brian is the most historically accurate recreation of the time of Jesus, so the History Channel was right aliens did visit Roman Jerusalem http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h2sI8vIJQY8 ! besides it’s the only way this makes any sense: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Uvt83YWWWY

What follows is a summary of what Jones wants us to take from the preceding three episodes if you’ve read my previous posts in this series than you can guess what he says and my rebuttle (even brings up the Rome stopped an industrial revolution thing again…..still a heck of a claim to just toss around) he then sets the scene “by this time [by which he seems to mean roughly the fourth and fifth century’s] the empire was too unweildly and spawling to be managed solely from Rome, so at the end of the fourth century the Roman empire was split into two, now thier would be two empire’s East and West.”  While Terry is saying this sadly often repeated fallacy a map appears showing the division into two empires and the locations of Rome and Constantinople (Now Istanbul, just ask the Turks) in the Western and Eastern Empire respectively. Now the empire was divided administratively with multiple emperors and multiple courts a number of times even discounting periods of civil war and a binary roughly East West form of division had also occured repeatedly but here Jones is almost certainly refferring to the division upon the death of emperor Theodosius I in 395 CE which split the empire between East and West for the final time before the Wests fall, but it would hardly matter if he were not. The map clearly implies that each is the capital of it’s respective part of the empire and if it is the Theodosian division we are dealing with this holds true for Constantinople and the East but not for Rome and the West, since the very founding of Constantinople Rome (and indeed earlier Constantine’s breif residence there notwithstanding) had not been what could be called a capital of empire, not in the same way as post-Theodosian Constantinple the emperor and his court resided at the Norther Italian city of Ravenna making that the political capital of the West, Rome still mattered, it was still a large city and as among other things the residence of the senate and the Western Empire’s only patriarch of the Church it was of considerable symbolic importance but it was not Constantinople’s Western Equivalent (though as Constantinople with Senate emperor and patriarch was beggining to take on similar symbolic importance to Rome you could argue that Ravenna was not it’s equivalent either…..). But as often I have wasted too much time on in many ways the least important but also least excusable error.

It is often claimed that the empire was eventually divided into two and in the case specifically of the administrative arrangements of the emperor Diocletian (late 3rd very early fourth centuries) 4 parts because the empire was simply too big to be managed by one emperor and/or one capital, it is less frequently explained however how the empire managed just fine (and for the last 60 or so years before Diocletian well…..managed……) with one of either for around 3 centuries. The empire’s territories were not substantially smaller under Augustus Diocletian and the succesors of Theodosius under Trajan and over a century of his succesors they were bigger still yet the empire endured and functioned well for a long time. Most states do not last three century’s at all, not even close. There are other far more plausible explanations for the division of empire that have nothing to do with administrative necesity or even efficiency due to an excess of territory but this is a complex and contentious issue and it is best to leave it here for now. Suffice to say Terry is wrong here but he has a lot of company including in scholarship so I must grudgingly accord him some leeway.

We then move on after some emotively  charged  but vague stuff about the empire being Christian now and the resulting new framing of the us vs them narrative to the first of this weeks barbarians: The Huns, Terry claims they migrated from Mongolia, many scholars think so, many don’t, I don’t have a strong opinion myeself and don’t know the details but I thought you should know thats contentious as is the degree to which the Hunnic invasians sparked a wave of Germanic migrations westward into the empire, the extent of Hun caused migrations is played up by many scholars such as Terry favoured consultant Peter Heather whereas others such as Paul Halsall contend convincingly that the Hun caused migrations have been exaggerated though in Terry’s defense he could not have read the book of Halsall’s from which I gathered that information and the Huns certainly played a key role in the Germanic migrations that resulted in the famed battle of Adrianople (see my second Terry post).

For the next while Terry adds a good dose of padding and investigates the nature of the Huns, putting foreward thier warlord style socio-political structure as something distinctive (only perhaps in that they took it to extremes) then we get to Attilla and his short lived empire aside from the usual hyperbole and some of the visual subtext (equating Attilla with Soviet style personality cut leadership etc. Uncle Attilla indeed….) it’s all very conventional and decently accurate in terms of the actual information conveyed. The Huns as Walter Pohl Terry’s onscreen historian for this segment explains to Terry and as Heather (as previusly mentioned a clear source for Terry dealing with late Antique barbarians who shows up later in the episode) claims in his writing were a society of parasites, Attilla being merely the biggest parasite of all (though Pohl does not put it quite so explicitly or nearly so negatively) Terry interestingly enough essentially runs with thier conclusion (even making a mafia reference in regards to the way Attilla operated), one with which I am also esentially in agreement, I know,I know this is scary not only am I agreeing with Heather but Jones himself! Fear not for something is still very wrong here (aside from me agreeing with Terry) that being Terry’s tone, how he chooses to emotively portray this data, he clearly admires (if perhaps ruefully) Attilla despite the fact that he seems to think (not as I have said without good cause) he’s the godfather, I quote: “It seems that Attilla really did think he was destined to rule the world, well he certainly made everyone around him believe it. But he didn’t want to rule the world the way the Romans did- you know actually having to run things, making laws and organizing administrations thats, thats a mug’s game. No all he needed was one secretary and a big army to get everyone to bow down before him, humbly submit and hand over the money, in the evenings he would come home to singing maidens holding white cloths over his head and watch everyone grovel. Now thats ruling the world!”  Now you may be thinking this makes perfect sense he’s having some lighthearted fun, loads of people think Vikings or pirates and yes the Mafia are cool it doesn’t mean they approve of them morally no need to be a prude loads of documentaries have a bit of fun some badass warlords.

Yes all of this is true and in many circumstances perfectly fine (historical comedy and selective admiration of historical figures is a complicated social issue, why is it ok to make jokes about Viking sacks and not Soviet Gulags or genuinly admire the military genius of Genghis Khan but not the charisma of Adolf Hitler seperate from thier policies and broader persons etc.) I wrote for an ancient history revue for years (and will probably do so again) and wrote skits involving comedy about crucifiction, persectution, murder, oppression etc, and on the selective admiration side of the coin have long admired many of the qualities of historical figures of shall we say suspect characters Genghis Khans determination and energy, Stalin’s cunning etc. and there can be no denying the awesome badassery of the likes of Sulla, Tamerlane, Baibars, Robert Guiscard, (Tywin Lannister;)) etc. Which brings me to the first of my two objections: Terry? Attilla, really!? HE”S your badboy historical crush (well one of, the great thing about this is you can have as many as you want)? oh Terry……….you can do SO much better, I know his name’s kinda cool and you add in the nickname “the Scourge of God” and it starts sounding really cool and he’s got this sword called the sword of Mars (supposedly) and that story from Priscus you related about him is just awesome isn’t it practically dreamy. But Honey they’ve like ALL got swords it don’t matter what you call it it’s what you do with it that counts, like how many people has he killed in single combat? Oh none……Heraclius emperor of Byzantium killed like loads, total f*cking badass, like seriusly but maybe he’s too much of a goodie goodie for you and as for strength well Theodoric the Ostrogoth like cut a guy in two at dinner before he could blink then joked that the poor bastard wouldn’t have had time to sh*t. In terms of badass nicknames there was this guy called Nicephorus Phocas who’s nickname was “pale death of the saracens” no idea what the pale part refers to but thats pretty damn cool, you want badass barbarians did Attilla make a drinking cup out of the skull of a Roman emperor he’d killed? Did Attilla even kill a Roman emperor? wow talk about overrated, he at least sacked Rome right?…………why is this guy famous again? ok so Attilla probably outmaneurverd and killed his brother Bleda to attain sole rulership but thats like ruthless backstabbing 101 a million monarchs did that. You want your ruthless intriguers, your machiavellian masterminds? you got your Wu Zetian empress of China your Tokugawa Ieyasu Shogun of Japan, Your Joseph Stalin your Basil I or every fourth Byzantine emperor and have you even met Augustus?! Play the field girl. And then there’s the Khan, face it Terry Attilla the (very) poor mans Genghis, Genghis rose from an outcast child eating roots in the wilderness to stay alive to found and rule an empire severel times larger than Attilla’s. He was more loved by his men and more widely feared by everybody else, and his empre survived his death. Attilla wasn’t just an ephemeral parasite he was also despite his fearsome reputation a mediocre general. dump his ass. Skank.

Now to my more serious objection namely the manipulative inconsistency you see while an analysis of the information provided by Terry and co on the huns may lead one upon reflection to disaprove of Attilla and his society to judge them a net detriment to civilisation Terry crucially does not do the job for you, this would be fine perhaps even commendable (depending on the documentary’s point) if he extended the same courtesy to the Romans. If you recall way back in episode one in regards to Caesar and the gaul’s, Caesar’s actions are not described with roguish admiration but with moral outrage and self-righteous indignation, the Roman desire to “rule the world” (if they had any such) is condemned in episode 3, their supposed leeching role in regards to the societies they conquered, thier avarice condemned. Caesar is judged, Rome is condemned even for that that she should not be while Attilla is forgiven even praised. By this point the series has well established itself as a work of revisionist moral instruction and its treatment of Attilla undermines Terry’s little witch-burning.

Terry then relates Attilla’s final campaigns first his invasian of Gaul in which he claims the battle that stopped Attilla’s invasian killed more people than any other battle in history, the battle of the Cautalonian fields would certainly have seen immense slaughter but here Terry is almost certainly taking ancient sources on the matter at face value. If one were to take all Ancient sources on face value I suspect it would have been some Chinese enagagement but even modern historians often ignore Chinese history when proclaiming this or that to the biggest city, the greatest empire, the largest battle up to that point in history but it’s just that a strong suspicion. Regardless one shouldn’t take the numbers provided in ancient sources at face value anyway and I strongly suspect considering it’s previusly superior resources and resource management that the Roman army had fought bigger and bloodier battles whose numbers were less inflated than this struggle couched in apocalyptic terms probably was.

Next he relates Attilla’s final campaign his invasian of Italy, well he doesn’t really relate the campaign just pope Leo the Great’s meeting with Attilla to convince him not to sack Rome, he in my view correctly surmises that the view put foreward by the Catholic Church that Attilla was threatened by saints Peter and Paul and the pagan fled from Italy of his own accord through fear of divine wrath is shall we say very, very, (very) suspect. He then blithely implies that it was probably because the Pope paid him off, while papal bribery may certainly have played a part Terry omits to mention three important details, one, that the Eastern Empire was taking advantage of Attilla’s (and his army’s) abscence to invade his territories, two, that at long last the Western Romans were approaching with an army of thier own and finally that Attilla’s army had come down with plague. All three factors may have convinced Attilla to withdraw his already booty laden army but would undermine Terry’s portrayel here that Attilla was strong and the empire weak (which it was just not near as much as portrayed).

Terry goes on to inflate the importance of Pope Leo’s propaganda coup to the Catholic Church and the Papacy in particular claiming Attilla created the Pope and “All he left behind was his last rival the pope, who would dominate Europe for the next millenium, Rome didn’t fall to the barbarian it fell to the church, Attilla’s only real achievement was inadvertently to establish the pope of Rome as the unquestioned leader of the Roman Catholic Church, his legacy was not the foundation of a magnificent barbarian kingdom but a Catholic one.” Leo and the papacy made great currency on his supposed saving of Rome from Attilla but this massively overstates the case, the papacy most certainly could not claim to have dominated Europe for the next thousand years, as discounting non-Christian Europe (be it Islamic, Polytheist etc) the pope’s were often deposed by or puppets of local Roman nobility and strong men much less Byzantine or Holy Roman emperors or other monarchs, there were often rival pope’s and the papacy very often failed to control Rome much less Europe, it was a powerful and very important institution but not that powerful, indeed before the schism with the East in the 100’s CE the papacy certainly couldn’t claim unquestioned dominance of the church even amongst fellow bishops as the patriarch of Constantinople could attest and Byzantine and Holy Roman emperors had their own claims to spiritual authority. Over the centuries following Leo the papacy would on the whole increase it’s importance at times dramatically but this was a long and complicated process that began before Leo and was not inevitable and anyone claiming that from Leo onward for the next Thousand years the papacy would dominate the Catholic Church and Europe doesn’t have any idea what thier talking about, at all.

As for the Church destroying Rome, if your going to parrot Gibbon Terry then please explain why the Eastern Empire survived or at least try to make a case, it’s possible it contributed but it doesn’t really hold water as some kind of primary cause.

And with that we are done with Attilla and the Huns and on to Gaiseric and the Vandals. Terry relates How the Vandals (though he omits that thier were two seperate Vandal polities at the time) fled across the Rhine as a migrating people fleeing the Huns and looking for somewhere to settle, the devastation that follows throughout France and then Spain in the wake of the wandering people’s (other groups such as the Alans were migrating through the region at the same time though Terry doesn’t mention this) is blamed on the Romans and others attacking them with Terry focusing on the sufferings of the vandals not the inhabitants of France and Spain, blaming them and the Romans for the violence against the poor vandals who were just looking for a place to settle, with thier political structure intact of course, and seemingly indignant and incredulous that the Romans wouldn’t leave them alone. Migrating people’s in the ancient world were dangerous, desperation to survive brings out the thief and murderer in people, food would have been scarce and they would have had little means of purchasing it and even if they had wished to the Vandal leaders would have found it extremely different to control thier people in these circumstances and stop looting, murderering and raping and these all happened. Despite Terry’s claims that the Vandals were a peaceful people they had raided the empire before and this was an invasian, that’s what settling in someone else’s territory through force is called Terry and that should prove sufficient explanation for why the Romans weren’t so keen on the Vandals.

We then move on to Gaiseric and the Vandals Arianisim (though thats not what they would have called it) which Terry claims was more reviled by the Catholics (to the extent we should remember to which our understanding of the term Catholic is applicable to the time period, much of present doctrine for the Catholic Church had not yet been established) than the beliefs they would entitle Pagan, giving as evidence it’s outlawing by Rome at the time as “paganisim” was also outlawed this isn’t a very good argument and broadly speaking was untrue there was a lot of hostility between Arians and Catholics but probably less than between Catholics and “pagans”, case in point contrary to Terry’s portrayel it is the pagan Attilla not the Arian Gaiseric who is painted as more of the sinister other, though both men are treated with hostility.

Terry then goes on to claim that the primary reason for Roman opposition to Arianisim was that as the emperor was associated with Jesus (Terry plays up the association considerably) the Arian doctrine that the son was not the equal of the father diminished the emperor and threatened the concept of Imperial infallibility in which the Romans believed. Considering the early Christian emperors Constantine I (the first “Christian” emperor) and his son Constantius had arian sympathies and were most definitly autocratic personalities it is difficult to justify this explanation but Terry’s case is further weakened by the fact that there was never a widely held belief in the empire that the emperors were infallible nor did they claim to be so, this is a basic error or a lie and suits Terry’s attempts now and later in this episode to liken the emperor to the pope and the papal doctrine of infallibility, the comparison is not even remotely apt and besides the papal doctrine itself would not exist for some centuries. The very few other comments on religion and state mentioned such as the political independence asserted from the emperor and empire by a king being Arian rather than Catholic essentially holds true.

 

What follows is a few minutes of largely ineffectual but not very informative stuff on Gaiseric and his people’s invasian ended by the downplaying of Vandal persecutions of catholics mocking them for complaning that Gaiseric banned thier hymns, one can’t help but think that the banning of key and inoffensive rituals for other faiths would get him up in arms, what follows is a description of the wealth and sophistication of late Roman North Africa and it’s largest city Carthage in particular and it’s strategic importance to Rome through taxation of it’s wealth and the supply of free grain to Italy and Rome in particular, here Heather’s influence shows yet again and he is one of the experts consulted in this section, the picture of ruins are pretty and the picture is essentially accurate (to the extent of my knowledge) and I’m grateful for a few minutes repreive from the stupid and asinine. Though Terry only mentions one of a number of Roman attempts to retake North Africa to emphasize another legacy of Attilla for thematic reasons it is only with the account of the Vandal sack of Rome that we again enter truly dodgy territory Terry strongly implies that the infamous Vandal sack of Rome despite going on for 14 days was practically bloodless and minimal and essentially insignificant in it’s levels of destruction, if you believe that of a three week sack of an ancient city well, I can’t think of anything clever to say so basically: you are a moron. It shoyld be noted that the peaceful civilised Vandals under Gaiseric’s penchant for large scale Meditteranean piracy and conquest of islands (such as Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica) is never so much as mentioned.

Finally we come to how civilsed the Vandals were mentioning thier poets and architects/engineers I don’t know enough to comment on poetry specifically but like the writers of most early barbarian kingdoms most would have been culturally Roman, outside the class of society deemed by both the Vandals themeselves and the Roman empires as Vandals and this is certainly the case with engineers and architects, not much calling for that proffession in the tribe’s of Germania, my only real problem with this is that cultural Greeks who were Roman citizens are usually not counted as Romans by Terry so why should cultural Romans residing in Vandal ruled North Africa? Otherwise this breif section is ok, the Vandals did not utterly destroy the wealth and culture of the society they conquered, well done. Finally it should also be mentioned that this like prior episodes takes favourable accounts or opinions of barbarian people’s or leaders as in previous episodes at face value while questioning more hostile accounts only, shades of Tacitus, the Germans and episode 2……….

Finally we get to the last roughly five minutes and wrapping up the series, in which Terry explains if the Roman empire fell and the barbarians were like super cool guys why is it that the Roman view has prevailed? Because Catholicism. Well thats simple, The Catholic Church was responsible for the preservation of most surviving Ancient literature and was an institution of the Roman empire, it’s language was Latin, the Vandals were Arians, the Huns non-christians as were the earlier barbarians. Of course there was bias in what the church chose to preserve and yet more in what they themeselves wrote but the bias was not absolute, Catholic scribe’s dutifully copied texts that contained anti-Christian material and plenty of material complimentary to non-Romans and Non-Greeks and it should be noted that often no-one was stopping the various groups Terry has mentioned from writing and preserving thier own material, it is natural for any society, political, social or ideological to focus on there own society put simply if the huns didn’t write anything or leave a sufficient cultural legacy then they shouldn’t go blaming the Catholic Church for not making sure they were remembered in appropriately loving detail.

Terry: “If I’ve learn’t one thing making these programs about barbarians it’s that nothing is ever as simple as it seems”

Thus Terry relates is how “we”, by which I assume he means Western Europeans (and to an extent ex-colonies of such), lost our history and forgot the story of our ancestors, while you would be hard pressed to find a European without “barbarian” blood in his veins considering Vandals and Goths, Huns, franks etc. merely composed a small fraction of the population of the regions thier kings came to politically control compared to the local Roman citizenry and basically everybody at some point is related to everybody else, especially in Europe that’s essentially meaningless, this surface elite it should be noted largely culturally assimilated into the local populations, French, Spanish and Italian are easily more influenced by Latin than the Germanic languages of thier conquerors, the literature, religion, architecture and legal systems of Western Europe are also easily more influenced by Rome than any of the barbarian groups mentioned except perhaps the Greeks who should never have really been in this doco series anyway (for reasons explained in the opening paragraphs of my third post on this subject), this is not to say that the history and culture of the Vandals, Huns, Goths, Celts etc. Aren’t important, they are but the implication here in calling this the real history is to claim that they were more important or at least more legitimate, the first implication is simply untrue the second insidious. There are many history’s and there’s nothing inherantly wrong with revisionisim, perhaps this history corrected some of the myths you held to about Antiquity but if so it probably replaced them with even more, jumping on bandwagons and proclaiming old perspectives as revolutionary and new isn’t very clever, demonising one side and idolising another isn’t very clever, lying to your audience isn’t very………respectable, this series isn’t very clever and those proffesional scholars who associated themeselves with it if they had any idea what was going on should be ashamed.

Brian: Look, you’ve got it all wrong! You don’t need to follow me. You don’t need to follow anybody! You’ve got to think for yourselves! You’re all individuals!- Monty Python’s life of Brian.

In conclusion regardless of what you think of his politics Terry Jones demonstrates amply in this politically correct pompous propaganda piece that unlike everyone’s favorite non-messiah he doesn’t want you to think for yourself, He doesn’t wish to try to persuade you fairly, adult to adult, mind to mind and respect you and the evidence, Terry wants you to follow him, because he knows better and he doesn’t have the time to let the truth get in the way of convincing you so, instead he relies on spin and outright lies, after all he has all that smug lazy sarcasm to fit in…..that and the cross-dressing…….your not the messiah Terry your just a Very naughty boy.

heil me

Istanbul not Constantinople

Edit: So yeah it seems the date I published this was the date it happened according to the Julian calender, not the Gregorian which we use, The Gregorian date of the fall is June 7th. I don’t know why modern Byzantinists don’t use the Gregorian calender or why they refuse to even mention that their using the Julian one but they do.

On this day in the year 1453 AD Constantinople capital of the Byzantine empire for roughly a thousand years fell after a brutal seige to the Ottoman Turks under Mehmed II Fatih (the conqueror) and with it fell the Byzantine empire (Though there are some who argue that the state technically endured for a few more years the fall of Constantinople is generally taken as the symbolic end of the empire) and some would argue after roughly two thousand years the Roman state, though Byzantine remnant territories and a state in Trebizond with its own claim to being the Byzantine (and thus the Roman) empire limped on for a few years, they were all swiftly devoured by the Ottomans under the same sultan Mehmed. Byzantinists let us give a moments silence in remembrance of this fascinating phase of the Roman empire’s existence and then let us toast to its august memory to this song!

Istanbul not Constantinople

Long live Byzantium!

Regards, Samuel.