One theory is that a change of climate that raised the sea level on the coastal areas of what is now the Netherlands and north Germany, making these lands uninhabitable. A more traditional view is that they were under the pressure of other tribes migrating from the East.
In all probability, it was a combination of these factors and others. In general the causes of such mass migration can be placed under the heading of historical accident. What is important is the results they produced in history. And this is just what is under dispute. The initial contacts between the Romans and barbarians were not necessarily of a violent character. There was considerable trade along the eastern frontier for centuries, which led to a progressive Romanisation of those tribes living in proximity to the Empire. Many became mercenaries and served in the Roman legions. Alaric, the Gothic leader who was the first to enter Rome, was not only a former soldier of Rome but a Christian albeit of the Arian kind.
It is also fairly certain that the first Saxons to enter Britain were peaceful traders, mercenaries and settlers. This is indicated by the tradition that they were invited into Britain by the Romanised British "king" Vortigern, after the departure of the Roman legions. But at this point, Rudgley's analysis begins to break down. He has entirely missed the point about trade between civilized nations and barbarians, which was invariably connected with piracy, spying and war.
The barbarian traders would take careful note of the strengths and weaknesses of the nations with which they were in contact. If there were signs of weakness, the "peaceful" commercial relations would be followed up by armed bands in search of plunder and conquest. It is sufficient to read the Old Testament to see that this was precisely the relation between the pastoral-nomadic Israeli tribes and the ancient Canaanites, who, as civilised urban peoples, stood on a higher level of development.
The assertion that the Romans stood on a higher cultural level than the barbarians can easily be demonstrated by the following fact. Although the barbarians succeeded in conquering the Romans, they themselves were fairly quickly absorbed, and even lost their own language and ended up speaking a dialect of Latin. Thus, the Franks, who gave their name to modern France, were a Germanic tribe speaking a language related to modern German. The same thing happened to the Germanic tribes that invaded Spain and Italy.
The one glaring exception to this rule appears to be the fact that the Angles and Saxons who invaded Britain were not absorbed by the more advanced Celtic Romano-Britons. The English language is basically a Germanic language with a later admixture of Norman French from the 11th century on. In fact, the number of words of Celtic origin in the English language is insignificant, whereas there is a very large number of Arabic words in the Spanish language. The reason for this is that the Arabs in Spain stood on a far higher cultural level than the Spanish speaking Christians who conquered them.
The only conceivable explanation is that the Anglo-Saxon barbarians whom Mr Rudgley regards as very nice peaceful people must have pursued a policy of genocide against the Celtic people whose lands they seized in bloody wars of conquest. We can therefore lay down a firm rule: an invading people whose culture stands at a lower level than the people conquered by it will be eventually absorbed by the culture of the conquered, and not vice-versa.
It may be objected that this occurred because the numbers of the invaders were relatively small. But this does not stand up to examination. In the first place, as Rudgley himself argues, very large numbers were involved in these vast migrations - whole peoples in fact. Secondly, there are many other historical examples that prove the opposite. The Mongols who invaded India and established the Mogul dynasty that lasted until the British conquered India were completely absorbed into the more advanced Indian way of life.
Exactly the same thing happened in China. However, when the British conquered India, they were not absorbed by the native culture but on the contrary, as Marx explains, completely shattered the old Indian society that had endured for thousands of years. How was this possible? Only because Britain, where the capitalist system was developing rapidly, stood on a higher level of development than India. Of course, it is possible to say that before the coming of the British, the Indians had a very high level of cultural development. Although the European conquerors looked down on the Indians as at least semi-barbarians, nothing could be further from the truth.
On the basis of the very ancient Asiatic mode of production, Indian culture reached prodigious levels. Their achievements in the fields of art, sculptures, architecture, music and poetry were so brilliant that they even aroused the admiration of the more cultured representatives of the British Empire.
It is equally possible to deplore the supposedly civilized British for the extremely brutal way in which they crushed the Indians through a combination of trickery, lies, murders and massacres. That is all true, but it entirely misses the point. The real question that must be asked is this: why were the British not absorbed by the Indian culture as the Mongols had been?
After all, in this case, it is true that the numbers of British who settled in India were insignificant when compared to the multi-millioned masses of this vast subcontinent. Yet after two hundred years, it was the Indians who learned English, and not vice-versa. Today, half a century after the departure of the British, English is still the official language of India and remains the lingua franca of all educated Indians and Pakistanis. How is this to be explained? Only by the fact that capitalism represents a higher level of development than either feudalism or the Asiatic mode of production.
That is the decisive fact. To complain about this, protest against "cultural imperialism" and so on may have a certain value in the field of agitation there is absolutely no doubt about the truly barbarous conduct of the imperialists in general. But from a scientific point of view, such comments do not get us very far.
To approach human history from a sentimental point of view is worse than useless. History knows no morality and operates according to different laws altogether. The task of any person who wishes to understand history is first of all to leave aside all moralistic elements, since there can be no supra-historical morality - no "morality in general" - but only particular moralities that pertain to particular historical periods and definite socio-economic formations and have no relevance outside them.
From a scientific point of view, therefore, it makes no sense to compare the moral standards of the conduct, say, of the Romans and barbarians, the British and the Indians, the Mongols and the Chinese. Barbarous and inhuman practices have existed in every period of history, so if we take that as a yardstick to judge the human race, one would have to draw the most pessimistic conclusions many have done so.
As a matter of fact, one could argue that the greater the degree of development, the greater the capacity to inflict terrible suffering on a large number of people. The state of the world in the first decade of the 21st century would seem to confirm this gloomy assessment of human history. Some people have drawn the conclusion that perhaps the problem is that there has been too much development, too much progress, too much civilisation.
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Would we not be happier living in a simple agricultural environment - run, of course, on strictly ecological lines - tilling our own fields without tractors , making our own clothes, baking our own bread, and so on? That is to say, would we not be better if we returned to - barbarism? Given the terrible state of society and the world under capitalism, we can readily understand that there are people who want to somehow escape from an unpleasant reality and put the clock back to a golden age.
The trouble is that such an age never existed. Those usually middle-class people who talk grandly about the wonders of life in the good old days of agricultural communes have no idea of how tough life was in those times. Let us quote from the manuscript of a medieval monk who, unlike our modern New Age fanatics, knew what life under feudalism was really like. This is an extract from a medieval author, a monk called Aelfric, who wrote a book to teach Latin conversation at Winchester:. Pupil: Sir, I work very hard.
I go out at dawn to drive the oxen to the field, and yoke them to the plough. However hard the winter, I dare not stay at home for fear of my lord; and having yoked the oxen and made the ploughshare and coulter fast to the plough, every day I have to plough an acre or more.
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P: A great deal more. I have to fill the oxen's bin with hay, and give them water, and carry the dung outside. A couple of weeks of backbreaking and soul-destroying toil of this sort would surely provide a guaranteed cure for the illusions of the most die-hard romantic! What a pity we cannot order a brief trip on a time-machine for this purpose. The word "barbarism" is used in different contexts for different things. It can even have the force of a simple insult, when we refer to the barbaric behaviour of certain over-enthusiastic football fans.
To the ancient Greeks who first coined the word it meant simply "one who does not speak the language" i. But to Marxists, it usually signifies the stage between primitive communism and early class society, when classes begin to form and with them the state. Barbarism is a transitional phase, in which the old commune is already in a state of decay and in which classes and the state are in the process of formation. Like all other human societies including savagery, the phase of hunter-gathering societies based on primitive communism, which produced the marvellous cave art of France and northern Spain , the barbarians certainly had a culture, and were capable of producing very fine and sophisticated objects of art.
Their techniques of warfare show that they were also capable of extraordinary feats of organisation, and this was shown when they defeated the Roman legions. The Romans even began to copy some of the barbarians' military tactics, and introduced the short bow, perfected by the Huns and other tribes for shooting from horseback.
The period of barbarism represents a very large slice of human history, and is divided into several more or less distinct periods. In general, it is characterised by the transition from the hunter-gathering mode of production to pastoralism and agriculture, that is, from Palaeolithic savagery, passing through Neolithic barbarism to the higher barbarism of the Bronze Age, which stands at the threshold of civilization. The decisive turning-point was what Gordon Childe called the Neolithic revolution, which represented a great leap forward in the development of human productive capacity, and therefore of culture.
This is what Childe has to say:. Every single cultivated food plant of any importance has been discovered by some nameless barbarian society. Childe, What Happened in History , p. Here is the embryo out of which grew the towns and cities, writing, industry and everything else that laid the basis for which we call civilization. The roots of civilization are to be found precisely in barbarism, and still more so, in slavery. The development of barbarism ends up in slavery or else in what Marx called the Asiatic mode of production.
It would be incorrect to deny the contribution of barbarian peoples to human development. They played a role, and a vital one, at a certain stage.
Barbarism and Civilization
They possessed a culture, and an advanced one for the time in which they lived. But history does not stand still.
The further development of the productive forces led to new socio-economic forms that stood on a qualitatively higher level. Our modern civilization such as it is derives from the colossal conquests of Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley, and even more, from Greece and Rome. While not denying the existence of barbarian culture, Marxists have no hesitation in affirming that the latter was historically superseded by the cultures of Egypt, Greece and Rome that grew out of barbarism, overtook and replaced it.
To deny this fact would be to fly in the face of the facts. If we look at the entire process of human history and prehistory, the first thing that strikes us is the extraordinary slowness with which our species developed. The gradual evolution of human or humanoid creatures away from the condition of animals and towards a genuinely human condition took place over millions of years. For the first period that we call savagery, characterised by an extremely low development of the means of production, the production of stone tools, and a hunter-gatherer mode of existence, the line of development remains virtually flat for a very long period.
It begins to accelerate precisely in the period known as barbarism particularly with the Neolithic revolution when the first stable communities became towns such as Jericho, which dates from about 7, BC. In other words, the development of class society coincides with a massive upturn in the productive forces, and as a result, of human culture, which reached unprecedented heights. This is not the place to mention all the discoveries made by, say the Greeks and Romans.
There is a celebrated scene in the Monty Python film The Life of Brian , where a rather over-enthusiastic "freedom fighter" asks the rhetorical question: "What have the Romans ever done for us? We should not make the same mistake as this fictional character! But, it may be objected, Greece and Rome stood on the basis of slavery, which is an abhorrent and inhuman institution.
The marvellous achievements of ancient Athens were all predicated on slavery. Its democracy - probably the most advanced in the world to date - was the democracy of a minority of free citizens. The majority - the slaves - had no rights at all. I recently received a letter, which compares slave society unfavourably to barbarism. I reproduce an extract:. The barbarism of nazism and the Balkan wars is a typical feature of capitalism, just like feudalism or slave society had their typical barbaric features.
The most barbarous facts in history are all in one way or another consequences of class society. The above lines pose the question of war not in a materialist but in a moralistic sense.
Barbarism and Civilization: A History of Europe in our Time
War has always been barbaric. It is about killing people in the most efficient manner. One can readily agree that the wars of primitive societies killed a lot fewer people than modern wars. That is to a great extent because the development of science and technique have led to a perfection of human productivity, not only in industry and agriculture, but also on the battlefield.
The Romans were a lot more efficient at killing people than the barbarians at least in the period of ascent of Roman power , and we are incomparably more efficient than the Romans in this sphere, and many others besides. Marxists cannot look at history from the point of view of morality. Apart from anything else, there is no such thing as a supra-historical morality. Every society has its own morality, religion, culture, etc, which correspond to a given level of development, and, at least in the period we call civilization, also to the interests of a particular class.
Whether a particular war was good, bad or indifferent cannot be ascertained from the point of view of the number of victims, and much less from an abstract moral standpoint. We may strongly disapprove of wars in general, but one thing cannot be denied: throughout the whole course of human history, all serious questions have ultimately been settled in this way. That goes both for the conflicts between nations wars and also the conflicts between classes revolutions.
Nor can our attitude towards a particular type of society and its culture be determined by moralistic considerations. From the standpoint of historical materialism it is a matter of complete indifference that some barbarians including, it seems, my own ancestors, the ancient Celts were head-hunters who burned people alive inside large wicker statues to celebrate midsummer's day.
That is no more reason to condemn them than the fact that they also produced fine jewellery and declaimed poetry can be used to praise them. What determines whether a given socio-economic formation is historically progressive or not is first and foremost its ability to develop the productive forces - the real material basis upon which all human culture arises and develops.
The reason why human development was so painfully slow for such a long period of time was precisely the very low level of development of the productive forces. The real development begins already in the phase of barbarism, as explained above. This was a progressive development in its day, but was overtaken, negated and superseded by a higher form that was slavery.
Old Hegel, that wonderfully profound thinker, writes: "It was not so much from slavery as through slavery that humanity was emancipated. The Romans utilised brute force to subjugate other peoples, sold entire cities into slavery, slaughtered thousands of prisoners of war for amusement in the public circus, and introduced such refined methods of execution as crucifixion. Yes, all that is perfectly true. And yet, when we come to consider where all our modern civilization, our culture, our literature, our architecture, our medicine, our science, our philosophy, even in many cases our language, comes from, the answer is - from Greece and Rome.
It is not a difficult task to read out a long list of the crimes of the Romans or the feudal lords or the modern day capitalists. It is even possible to compare them unfavourably, at least in some respects, to the barbarian tribes against which they were more or less constantly at war. This is not new. In fact, you can read numerous passages in the writings of the Roman historian Tacitus who does precisely that. But it does not carry us a single step forward in our understanding of history.
Only by consistently applying the method of historical materialism is this possible. Although the labour of the individual slave was not very productive slaves must be compelled to work , the aggregate of large numbers of slaves, as in the mines and latifundia large scale agricultural units in Rome in the last period of the Republic and the Empire, produced a considerable surplus. At the height of the Empire, slaves were plentiful and cheap and the wars of Rome were basically slave hunts on a massive scale. But at a certain stage this system reached its limits and then entered into a lengthy period of decline.
The beginnings of a crisis in Rome can already be observed in the latter period of the Republic, a period characterised by acute social and political upheavals and class war. From the earliest beginnings there was a violent struggle between rich and poor in Rome. There are detailed accounts in the writings of Livy and others of the struggles between Plebeians and Patricians, which ended in an uneasy compromise. At a later period, when Rome had already made herself mistress of the Mediterranean by the defeat of her most powerful rival Carthage, we saw what was in effect a struggle for the division of the spoils.
Tiberius Gracchus demanded that the wealth of Rome be divided up among its free citizens. His aim was to make Italy a republic of small farmers and not slaves, but he was defeated by the nobles and slave-holders. This was a disaster for Rome in the long run. The ruined peasantry - the backbone of the Republic and its army - drifted to Rome where they constituted a lumpen-proletariat , a non-productive class, living off dole from the state.
Although resentful of the rich, they nevertheless shared a common interest in the exploitation of the slaves - the only really productive class in the period of the Republic and the Empire. The great slave rising under Spartacus was a glorious episode in the history of antiquity.
The echoes of this titanic uprising reverberates down the centuries and is still a source of inspiration. The spectacle of these most downtrodden people rising up with arms in hand and inflicting defeat after defeat on the armies of the world's greatest power is one of the most incredible events in history. Had they succeeded in overthrowing the Roman state, the course of history would have been significantly altered.
Of course, it is not possible to say exactly what the outcome would have been. Undoubtedly the slaves would have been freed. Given the level of development of the productive forces, the general tendency could only have been in the direction of some kind of feudalism. But at least humanity would have been spared the horrors of the Dark Ages, and it is likely that economic and cultural development would have proceeded more quickly. The basic reason why Spartacus failed in the end was the fact that the slaves did not link up with the proletariat in the towns.
So long as the latter continued to support the state, the victory of the slaves was impossible.
Barbarism and Civilization: A History of Europe in Our Time by Bernard Wasserstein
But the Roman proletariat, unlike the modern proletariat, was not a productive but a purely parasitical class, living off the labour of the slaves and dependent on their masters. The failure of the Roman revolution is rooted in this fact. Marx and Engels point out that the class struggle eventually ends either in the total victory of one of the classes, or else in the common ruin of the contending classes. The fate of Roman society is the clearest example of the latter case. The defeat of the slaves led straight to the ruin of the Roman state.
In the absence of a free peasantry, the state was obliged to rely on a mercenary army to fight its wars. The deadlock in the class struggle produced a situation similar to the more modern phenomenon of Bonapartism. The Roman equivalent is what we call Caesarism. The Roman legionnaire was no longer loyal to the Republic but to his commander - the man who guaranteed his pay, his loot and a plot of land when he retired.
The last period of the Republic is characterised by an intensification of the struggle between the classes, in which neither side is able to win a decisive victory. As a result, the state which Lenin described as "armed bodies of men" began to acquire increasing independence, to raise itself above society and to appear as the final arbiter in the continuing power struggles in Rome. A whole series of military adventurers appears: Marius, Crassus, Pompey, and lastly Julius Caesar, a general of brilliance, a clever politician and a shrewd businessman, who in effect put an end to the Republic whilst paying lip-service to it.
His prestige boosted by his military triumphs in Gaul, Spain and Britain, he began to concentrate all power in his hands. Although he was assassinated by a conservative faction which wished to preserve the Republic, the old regime was doomed. But they were hopeless utopians.
The republic that they tried to defend had been a rotten corpse for a long time. After Brutus and the others were defeated by the triumvirate, the Republic was formally recognised, and this pretence was kept up by the first Emperor, Augustus. The very title "Emperor" imperator in Latin is a military title, invented to avoid the title of king that was so offensive to republican ears. But a king he was, in all but name. The forms of the old Republic survived for a long time after that.
But they were just that - hollow forms with no real content, an empty husk that in the end could be blown away by the wind. The Senate was devoid of all real power and authority. Julius Caesar had shocked respectable public opinion by making a Gaul a member of the senate. Caligula considerably improved upon this by making his horse a senator.
Nobody saw anything wrong with this, or if they did they kept their mouths firmly shut. The emperors continued to "consult" the senate, and even contrived not to laugh out loud when so doing. In the last period of the Empire, when, as a result of the decline of production, corruption and looting, the finances were in a lamentable state, wealthy Romans were regularly "promoted" to the rank of senator in order to extract extra taxes from them.
One such reluctant legislator was said by some Roman humorist to have been "banished into the senate". It often happens in history that outworn institutions can survive long after their reason to exist has disappeared. They drag out a miserable existence like a decrepit old man who clings onto life, until they are swept away by a revolution. The decline of the Roman empire lasted for nearly four centuries.
This was not an uninterrupted process. There were periods of recovery and even brilliance, but the general line was downwards. In periods like this, there is a general sense of malaise. The predominant mood is one of scepticism, lack of faith and pessimism in the future. The old traditions, morality and religion - things that act as a powerful cement holding society together - lose their credibility. In place of the old religion, people seek out new gods. In its period of decline, Rome was inundated with a plague of religious sects from the east.
Christianity was only one of these, and although ultimately successful, had to contend with numerous rivals, such as the cult of Mithras. When people feel that the world in which they live is tottering, that they have lost all control over their existence, that their lives and destinies are determined by unseen forces, then mystical and irrational tendencies get the upper hand.
People believe that the end of the world is nigh. The early Christians believed this fervently, but many others suspected it. In point of fact what was coming to an end was not the world but only a particular form of society - slave society. The success of Christianity was rooted in the fact that it connected with this general mood. The world was evil and sinful. It was necessary to turn one's back on the world and all its works and look forward to another life after death.
In fact, these ideas were already foreshadowed by philosophical tendencies in Rome. When men and women lose all hope in existing society, they have two options: either to try to arrive at a rational understanding of what is happening in order to fight to change society, or else to turn their back on society altogether.
In the period of decline, Roman philosophy was dominated by subjectivism - stoicism and scepticism. Proceeding from a different angle, Epicurus taught people to seek happiness and learn to live without fear. It is a sublime philosophy, but in the given context, could only appeal to the more intelligent sections of the privileged classes. Finally, the Neo-Platonist philosophy of Plotinus verges on overt mysticism and superstition, eventually providing a philosophical justification for Christianity.
By the time the barbarians invaded, the whole structure was on the verge of collapse, not only economically, but morally and spiritually. No wonder the barbarians were welcomed as liberators by the slaves and poorer sections of society. They merely completed a job that had been well prepared in advance. The barbarian attacks were an historical accident that served to express an historical necessity.
How was it possible for a highly developed culture to be so easily overcome by a more backward and primitive one? The seeds of Rome's destruction were sown long before the barbarian invasions. The basic contradiction of the slave economy is that it was, paradoxically, based on a low productivity of labour. Slave labour is only productive when it is employed on massive scale. The prior condition for this is an ample supply of slaves at a low cost.
Since slaves breed very slowly in captivity, the only way a sufficient supply of slaves can be guaranteed is through continuous warfare. Once the Empire had reached the limits of its expansion under Hadrian, this became increasingly difficult. Once the Empire reached its limits and the contradictions inherent in slavery began to assert themselves, Rome entered into a long period of decline that lasted more than four hundred years, until it was eventually overrun by the barbarians. The mass migrations that brought about the collapse of the Empire were a common phenomenon among nomadic pastoral peoples in antiquity and occurred for a variety of reasons - pressure on pasture land as a result of population growth, climate changes, etc.
In this case, the more settled peoples of the western steppes and eastern Europe were driven from their lands by pressure from more backward nomadic tribes living to the east, the Hsiung-nu, better known to us as the Huns. Did these barbarians possess a culture? Yes, they possessed a kind of culture, as every people from the dawn of history had a culture. The Huns had no knowledge of agriculture, but their horde was a formidable fighting machine. Their cavalry had no equal in the world at that time.
It was said of them that their country was the back of a horse. However, unfortunately for Europe, the Huns in the fourth century came up against a more advanced culture, a civilization that knew the art of building, lived in towns and cities, and possessed a disciplined army - China. The fighting prowess of these dreaded warriors from the Mongolian steppes was no match for the civilized Chinese, who built the Great Wall - a formidable engineering feat - to keep them out.
Defeated by the Chinese, the Huns turned westwards, leaving behind them a trail of appalling destruction and devastation. Although the Gothic tribes stood on a higher level of development than the Huns, they were cut to pieces and forced to flee westwards. The survivors - some 80, desperate men, women and children on primitive wagons - came up against the frontiers of the Roman Empire at a time when the decline of slave society had reached a point where its capacity to defend itself was severely weakened. The Visigoths western Goths , who stood on a lower level of development than the Romans, nevertheless defeated them.
The Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus described this clash of two alien worlds as "the most disastrous Roman defeat since Cannae. With remarkable swiftness most of the towns were laid waste and abandoned. It is true that this process did not start with the barbarians. The decay of the slave economy, the monstrously oppressive nature of the Empire with its bloated bureaucracy and predatory tax farmers, was already undermining the whole system.
There was a steady drift to the countryside where the basis was already being laid for the development of a different mode of production - feudalism. The whole edifice was tottering, and they merely gave it a last and violent push. The seemingly impregnable Roman line along the Danube and Rhine buckled and collapsed. At a certain stage different barbarian tribes, including the Huns, converged in a united onslaught against Rome.
The Gothic chieftain Alaric who, incidentally was an Arian Christian and a former Roman mercenary led 40, Goths, Huns and freed slaves across the Julian Alps and eight years later sacked Rome itself. Although Alaric, who seems to have been a relatively enlightened person, tried to spare the citizens of Rome, he could not control the Huns and freed slaves, who gave themselves up to murder, plunder and rape. Priceless pieces of sculpture were destroyed and works of art were melted down for their precious metals. This was only the beginning. The all-powerful and eternal Empire was reduced to ashes.
Is it correct to say that the overthrow of the Roman Empire by the barbarians threw human civilization back? Despite the recent noisy campaign by the "Friends of Barbarism Society", there can be no doubt about this, and it can easily be demonstrated with facts and figures. The immediate effect of the barbarian onslaught was to wipe out civilization and throw society and human thought back for a thousand years. The productive forces suffered a violent interruption. The cities were destroyed or abandoned as people fled to the land in search of food. As even our old friend Rudgley is forced to admit: "The only architectural remains left by the Huns are the ashes of the cities that they burned.
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