Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Withered Summer Grass

Fascinating find in central Germany for a history buff like me: the remains of an 1800-year-old engagement between what was probably a Roman vexilia and German tribesmen.German versus Roman isn't exactly front-page news. But this find stretches our understanding of the disarranged time during the Third Century AD when the Roman Empire struggled through external pressure and internal chaos. Conventional historical wisdom long concluded that by the 3rd Century the Roman imperial frontier had coalesced along the Rhine and the Danube, largely abandoning the German interior to the local tribes as well as repeated invaders from the East.But just as we struggle with political senesence and financial desuetude at home and geopolitical incompetence abroad and yet manage to sortie the imperial legions into the barbaricum, the post-Severian Roman Empire was still making punitive forays into the heathen parts.The lonely cluster of scorpio bolts and standard bits are a tactile reminder that while military power is a strong foundation, it cannot prevent the collapse of a society too complacent, too wealthy, too corrupt and too divided to stand. Sometimes withered summer grass is all that truly remains of the dreams of the warriors.


sheerahkahn said...

I dunno Chief...I can say is that those weapons on proud display look to be in pretty dam good shape...as in...never having a bloody chance to be used.
As for that mangled bit...not sure if that is metal, leather, or a jaw!(?)
The bolts have a fine point, the spear has a fine point, and the axe head has no knicks.
Still looking at that other bit...for the life of me...what is it?
As for forays into the chilly north the texts have lots to say about that...in fact I believe there were entire Roman forts that were still being used...er...up to...uh boy...huh...memory isn't what it used to be...I think fourth, fifth century???
However, I would like to remind you, and perhaps you'll see something similar to us today...not sure, it's possible there is a connection...that the Germans, the Goths, the Huns, and the Vandals all shared something...they really, really dug the Roman way.
They just didn't like being treated like "barbarios" or "outsiders" which the Romans consider all non-Romans, and took pains to remind everyone just exactly where they fell on the pecking order.
The Goths especially didn't want to crush Rome...they just wanted Rome to be more accomadating to them and their needs to be like them.
So to the Germans.
This play on "please like me" while smashing in the skulls is a pretty common theme throughout the Imperial drive to be...er...well..hmm...Roman.

FDChief said...

Sheerah: And how much different is all that from the kid in the slums of Lahore or Capetown of Guangzhou playing basketball and dreaming of Shaq while wearing an Osama T-shirt and humming Palestinian gangsta rap?

The imperials have always been loved, hated, fought and emulated for...well, as long as there have been imperial powers. The Goths and Vandals and Huns wanted to share in the imperial goodies as much as they wanted to smash the imperial state...

Leon said...

I'd have to back Sheerahkahn there Chief. Most of the barbarians in the late Roman period wanted to become Roman themselves. When they invaded they often kept existing institutions just inserting themselves as the new 'Roman' lords. That's why there's so much of Roman laws, architecture, style, etc... survives to this day in the western world.

Leon said...

I'd also add that this shouldn't be that surprising. The Romans would have constantly sent scouts over to see what the barbarians were doing and send over a detachment to punish/terrorize any tribes that were stirring up trouble. If they didn't I'd expect the border would have crumbled far earlier. That we don't read about it in writings from that period is not surprising, for the Romans this would be normal SOP.

One thing also to remember is that while there were undoubtedly raids across the border (both ways) there probably was a large amount of trade as well. Tribes bordering Rome would acquire Roman possessions and habits. This ensures that when they did kick down the door, they intended to inhabit the rickety mansion that was Rome not burn it to the ground.

The Minstrel Boy said...

like carl sandberg, i have a deep and abiding respect for the healing power of the grass.

"i am the grass, let me work."

grass, a plain, green field of grass may be the only fitting monument for us grunts.

FDChief said...

Leon: Good points, all well argued. I think the salient thing about this is not that it's so surprising that this expedition occurred - there must have been quite a bit of this sort of thing going on along the frontiers of the Empire, even towards the end.

It's that we tend to think of history - or policy, or statecraft - in terms of "narratives". We organize our thinking about places, people and things in ways that help us understand them from our perspective.

So, because there was no physical evidence east and north of the riverine frontiers and the documentary evidence is so sparse, the "narrative" of Third Century Rome constructed by many historians of the period was of a harried Empire in a defensive crouch behind its frontier forts.

Turns out that, at least in one case, it wasn't so. And that makes sense, militarily. No fighting force survives for long in a purely passive defense. And here, finally, is tangible proof that the Romans, cunning soldiers that they were, did no such thing.

No wonder the tribes coming from over the eastern borders wanted to share in the traditions that had made Rome so strong over such a long time...

MB: When I saw the pictures of the wands monumenting that misty German forest hillside the words that came to me were Lincoln's:

"But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract."

I can't but agree: Nature gifts us and our dead with monuments far greater than the most vaunting ediface we could ever raise.

Anonymous said...

That part about the bolt-heads being clustered leads me to believe that they were not used, but left in their bundles, with the shafts rotting away. Perhaps a fort was overrun; perhaps the battle was too swift to unload the scorpions.


Leon said...

I wonder about the bolt heads, if you're running a punitive expedition you normally wouldn't need to bring along a ballista. If the mission was to take out a hill fort then that would explain the bolts. And if it's a hill fort the close grouping would be explainable. The scorpion would be shooting to surpress any defenders at the section of the rampart where the legionaires were assaulting.

FDChief said...

Barry: The only thing I can by was the article, which implied that the scorpio bolt pattern implied combat action. You could be right.

Leon: My understanding is that these things were VERY light artillery, more like the equivalent of a heavy machine gun than a cannon. And the legionaries of the 3rd Century weren't the men they had been - like the later First Empire French infantry, they needed their battalion guns to "shoot them" onto the objective.

But I'd like to have seen the actual object location map to get a feel for the inherant military probability of the courses of ction were...