Sunday, October 9, 2011

Romans, Galatians, and Collapse

Normally when doing a word association with the words Romans and Galatians the Epistles (letters) of Saint Paul come to mind. 

However, there is another connections between the two place names beyond Paul’s letters.
The Galatians were part of the cultural group known at the Celts.  Although we tend to associates the Celts with the British Islands and if we have seen the little cartoon guy Gaul (pre-Germanic  France), they were actually much more wide spread then that.  The Celts came bursting on the European scene around 400 BCE.  They destroyed the cccc culture that had been in Central Europe for many years, and moved down the Italian peninsula to sack the then much smaller City of Rome.  Other groups attacked the Greek Peninsula, and were barely fought off in a desperate winter battle.  One of these groups, known to the Greeks as Galatians crossed over to Asia Minor (Turkey before the Turks showed up) and settled on that Peninsula.
The Romans recovered from the sacking of their city.  They continued on to create what was arguably the first super power empire.  Fairly early on they expanded to incorporate the area of Asia Minor that had come to be known as Galatia.   So when Paul is writing to various places in the Roman Empire,  he is writing , along with other places,  Rome and Galatia.
So where, other than a place and time, is the commonality?
Although we tend to think of collapse, as large empires falling to pieces.  Societal collapse has also spawned the creation of empires.   Both the Celts (Galations) and the Romans used the declining fortunes of their neighbors to their advantage.  Both groups large surge in strength was initiated by a relatively short term decline in the European Weather conditions to push out of their initial bounds and conquer large territories.  In the case of the Celts, whose invasions (as reported by witnesses) took the form of large migratory groups, the poor weather conditions are likely what forced them to go on the march in the first place.  And when they began to march, they were victorious.
The group that the Celts first ran over before advancing along the coast of the Mediteranian is today known as the West Hallstatt culture.   

They stretched from the Rhone bally to moder Czech Republic.  In the mid-Fifth century BCE there was  a dramatic collapse in teh main centers of tehis chiefdoms.  Some, like the great princely resicend at the Heuneburg were violently destroyedl at thsoe settlements which survived, there is a sharp decline in royal burials and imported prestige goods from the Wediterranean world.  An entire way of live had vanished in a sinble geration.

The West Halstatt elite had stood at the head of a wealthy agricultural society, grouped around royal centers and manufacturing towns, mostly lying on the trade routes to the south (Price and Thonemann, The Birth of Clasical Europe, p. 163).

Ulf Büntgen, et al
Climate variations influenced the agricultural productivity, health risk, and conflict level of preindustrial societies. Discrimination between environmental and anthropogenic impacts on past civilizations, however, remains difficult because of the paucity of high-resolution paleoclimatic evidence. We present tree ring–based reconstructions of central European summer precipitation and temperature variability over the past 2500 years.

April-may-June (AMJ) precipitation was generally above average and fluctuated within fairly narrow margins from the Late Iron Age through most of the Roman Period until ~250 C.E., whereas two depressions in June-July-August (JJA) temperature coincided with the Celtic Expansion (~350 B.C.E.) and the Roman Conquest (~50 B.C.E.).

Precipitation Totals over Time

Precipitation Totals during rise of Celts and Romans: the black cloud on right is period of Roman collapse.


PioneerPreppy said...

Warming and cooling trends which influenced European culture through out the eras from pre-Roman to the age of discovery became very popular among historians during the 90's. They are of course all very important but the political aspects of Rome when dealing with these mass migrations are just as important.

When the political and military will was evident in society to control and properly deal with the various tribal migrations by keeping them scattered or moving them along to less threatening areas or (gasp) breaking them apart when they crossed the frontier. Rome continued. When that will waned problems ensued.

Of course migration (and warfare) require a surplus to begin so the warmer boom periods helped these incidents escalate.

russell1200 said...

To some degree they became popular because there was better data. That something anomalous happened with the Sea People in 1200BC and latter the Celts is somewhat obvious without the data. In both cases you have large groups of people acting en masse who previously had no coherence. In addition, many of their attacks failed, so it is not clear that there was an inherent weakness they were trying to exploit.

The Roman case is less clear cut. There is some evidence (continued importation of slaves to Italy) that Rome was, much like today's Western Cultures and Japan, depopulating itself. This would be one reason why they invited the Germans across the border in the first place. They gave them relatively low value empty lands.

However, at some point the Germans were clearly pushed by something at some point, and why the Huns (who eventually failed) went on their rampage needs explaining.

But if Rome had not had all of its civil wars, it is very possible that they would have stopped the invading forces. Considering how chaotic their internal politics were, as you note, they held on for a fairly long time. It wasn't until the Vandals took the North African granaries that all was truly lost.

If I had to take a stab at a single cause, I would say that the Roman Empire was a conquering empire: it needed the spoils of conquest to work its government and social system. When they were left with either people with not enough worth conquering, or too tough to conquer (the Parthians) the system began its slow collapse. The civic society needed an expanding economy and the Romans were no longer able to supply it. It is interesting to speculate if the earlier Greek Civic Societies would have run into the same problem: if they had not been conquered by the Romans first.