Monday, March 27, 2006

Young Huns go for it

The Fall of the Roman Empire - Peter Heather

The great thing about explaining the fall of the Roman Empire is that it inspires almost everyone to have a crack. Peter Heather doesn't actually mention the theory that it was all down to the Romans becoming mentally infirm after drinking from lead water pipes, but it's safe to say that doesn't pass the two questions any theory needs to explain. Why did the Empire fall in fifth century, rather than earlier or later? And why was it only the Western Empire which fell? (The Eastern half continued on, eventually becoming the Byzantine Empire, which Heather feels to be a successor state, and who am I to argue?)

These two questions knock out many favourite theories. Roman licentiousness can't be to blame, as the first century emperors excelled at this - performing a selection of their favourite violin solos while the capital got torched, promoting horses to consul and poisoning each other's figs. The later emperors, by contrast, were a much less lively bunch.

The second knocks out the I blame the Christians argument of Edward Gibbon. Which is sad, because pointing out that the advent of Christianity as a state religion coincided with the Empire's decline had good irritation value. Saint Augustine wrote City of God while the Vandal army was camped out in the suburbs of Hippo. This book started a backslide of Christian thought: having been more than happy to embrace the Empire, they were now starting to put some theological distance between Church and State. But the Eastern Empire was more religious and Christian than the West, and it survived.

Peter Heather refreshingly takes the direct approach, which is that the Western Empire fell because it was overcome by a seemingly endless stream of mainly Germanic invaders. As provinces fell, the Imperial treasury became empty, its ability to pay its armies diminished, and the crisis intensified.

Heather identifies the Huns, steppe-dwelling horsemen, as the catalyst behind all the main crises in the century long fall. A build up in the population of German tribes had increased their danger to the empire. The arrival of the Huns on the Volga led to the collapse of various (German) Gothic kingdoms in the Ukraine. Survivors fled south over the Danube. Conflict with the Empire forced amalgamation of these tribes, and the defeat by these Visigoths of the Romans at Adrianople was a turning point. With Valens, the Emperor, dead, it's difficult not to see Adrianople as the beginning of the end.

But the end would be a long time coming. The Visigothic War was ended, only for a worse Germanic crisis to erupt in the decade after 400. Another Visigothic war in 401-402 was worsened after group of Vandals, Huns and Alans walked over the frozen Rhine on the portentious 31 December 406. In 410 the Visigoths, led by Alaric, sacked Rome, though it was apparently a comparatively civilised affair. Peter Heather sees the arrival of the Huns in Hungary as having sparked off this crisis, but he doesn't appear to have any evidence that they were there before 425.

We then move on to Aetius, the "last of the Romans". He is traditionally seen as an untouchable hero after his defeat of Attila's Huns in 451, but as someone (can't remember who, sorry) once said, he was only the last of the Romans because he didn't leave any Romans to come after him. In particular, Heather lets Aetius off lightly for signing a ridiculous peace treaty which let Geiseric's Vandals stay in Morocco. They were then able to wait till Aetius went off cruising for Germans in Gaul and then marched into Carthage, taking the Romans' most financially important provinces. For all Aetius' heroism against Attila and his fruitless plans to retake North Africa, it was this decision which did for the Empire. Without the excess finances to buy large armies, the Western Empire was pretty much sunk.

The disappearance of the Huns after Attila's Huns as marking another stage in Rome's decline. Aetius had used the Huns to keep the Germanic tribes in check. With the formidable Roman army much diminished, modern Britain, France, Spain and north Africa had been lost. This left only the Eastern Empire which could recover the situation in the West, but once Anthemius' fleet had been lost off Carthage, the East was bankrupt and the West was finished. A few years later in 476, the last Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was pushed into retirement and the Western Empire was over.

Another factor in the fall was the amalgamation of the Germany tribes into ever-larger groups. Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals and Franks were recent inventions, as groups of invaders realised they would rather hang together than hang separately.

Peter Heather has a fun and informal (well, for a historian) style. Traditional historians probably wouldn't have approved of Heather's amusement at the Roman habit of inviting barbarians to banquets and then sticking the fadge on them, but you've got to admire someone who can come up with a heading like "Thrace: the final frontier". Definitely worth reading.

Monday, March 20, 2006

To the Editor of the Pebble Lake Review

Dear Ms Auchter

My knowledge is uncertaine in these times, and I truly know not whether thine appelatione is Mrs or Miss; and thus have I settled on Ms, though in truth I find it unseemlye and strange, as it seemeth to lack a vowel for proper pronunciatione.

I pray thou would consider my poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, for publicatione in thine esteemed journal, the Pebble Lake Review. My poem is a strange, forsaken tale, whereby a mariner slays with an arrow an albatross, a veritable pious bird of good omen. The mariner thereby is doomed by a curse to walk the Earthe as a phantasm, encountering such ungodly beings as a Spectre-Woman and her Death-mate before his final redemptione. He learns finally to teach, by his own example, love and reverence to all things that God made and loveth.

Yours hopefullye

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Dear Samuel

Sounds like some shit about vampires to me. Bet it rhymes as well. Fuck off.

A Auchter, Editor

(Carter's Little Pill)

Hundredth post paralysis crisis

Can't think of anything suitably momentous for my hundredth blog post.

Instead, here's an idiot with a Norfolk accent.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Psychbloke disappears

Nothing to see there any more. And I can't even say nice things about it without looking like a bit of a hypocrite. He was threatening to kill off a blog as part of his multi-crossover "Crisis on Infinite Blogs", as well.

Come back, you bugger.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Between the dead and the unborn

My eldest daughter finally asked me the question I've been quietly dreading since her birth, four and a half years ago. Have you got a Daddy? Having time to prepare an answer isn't the same as having a good one, and the best I could manage was a feeble euphemism: he isn't with us any longer. She just brushed this aside - where does he live then? - and I was stuck with the old, awful question. What do you tell them about death?

Three and a half decades ago, faced with a similar problem, my mother had an easier task. When we die, she said, we go to a place called heaven, where Jesus lives with all our loved ones. You won't die until you're old - and that won't be for a very long time - and when you do, you'll be happy. This original message was reinforced with a few years at Catholic school, which taught me about heaven and hell and purgatory and the importance of doing what your priest says.

It took me until I was eleven or twelve to see through these sugary lies, and many years to stop feeling angry about it. Those teachers had taught me that my soul was like a piece of blotting paper, black and vile until it was turned white by confession. They asserted the existence of these elements of their theology with the same sureness that they used to told me that the Romans once conquered Britain, or that two plus two equals four. Unable to understand that personal belief is not the same as verifiable fact, that belief without evidence is just hope, these charlatans, blotting paper and all, had used the classroom as a forum for my indoctrination.

And now, perhaps for the first time, I was seeing how easy a religious white lie could be how bleak atheism can seem. My father is gone forever, and I will never see him again. That's hard to accept as an adult, but to a child?

I could hardly speak anyway. My father's death was a harsh one, and all it takes is a trigger for grief to come stampeding back. When I won't sit in the chair where he used to sit. When I see the rug that covers the stains on the carpet where he lay dying. When I tend his grave.

I used to have a Daddy, I told her, but I don't any more. He isn't alive now. He died.

And my daughter just nodded her head, and started jumping on and off the settee. She doesn't mourn her grandfather, and she never will. Was it Thomas Paine who said that the greatest chasm of all is that between the dead and the unborn? Grandad will always be an abstraction, nothing more than a missing piece in the puzzle that is our parents.

My daughters will never know him. And he never knew of them. That's the worst of all.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Ian - it's pure dross

Which of these is the most believable historical figure?

1) Ian the Magnificent, who conquered Wallachia and Rumelia with an army of fifteen thousand janissaries before returning back to Istanbul and his harem of three hundred sumptious, if neglected, beauties.

2) Ian Earp, impeccably dressed rootin'-tootin' hard-drinkin' womanisin' sharpshooter who ended the Clantons' reign of terror at the OK Corral and then rode off into the sunset with Jane Russell.

3) Sir Ian de Cherbourg, Norman Knight who sacked Tyre in the Second Crusade and later became King of Jerusalem and Bishop of Bath and Wells.

4) Ian VIII McSwegan, known as the Unpalatable, who ruled Falkirk and East Renfrewshire with a rod of iron before being accidentally disembowelled on the eve of a climactic showdown battle with his hated foe, Archie Throatslash McClintock, Tyrant-Laird of Kippielaw and Dalhousie.

Monday, March 06, 2006

My dislike of Ian

My first name is 'Ian'. Just let that roll around your mind for a moment. What does it summon up? How about superannuated demagogue 'The Reverend' Ian Paisley? Or nasty former Rhodesian leader Ian Smith. Then there is Iain Duncan Smith, a Tory leader so unsuccessful even the Conservatives were forced to junk him before he'd even fought an election. And much, much worse is child-murderer Ian Huntley.

And while Ian gets some redemption in cricketer Ian Botham and actor Ian 'Gandalf' and 'Magneto' McKellen, there's not much doubt that Ian is a name with much to be modest about.

It's also generational. It had its moment in the sun in the sixties, when it emerged from its Scottish heartlands and enjoyed nationwide popularity, but it is now heading towards senescence. Nobody calls their son 'Ian' any more. Ian is the 'Percy' of the 2040's.

If it hadn't been for that brief period of popularity, I might have had an unusual, Celtic name, like 'Eoin' or 'Callum' is now. While most Ians got their name because their parents like it, mine is a family name, going back, as far as I can tell, to 'Ian Grant', an Invernessshire crofter in the 1800s.

It's unlovely, Ian. Any name worth only three points on a scrabble board can't avoid being plain. With two vowels and a terminator, it's little more than a grunt. I just can't think of myself as 'Ian'.

So why not use your middle name, you're probably thinking. Only - and here I think there is justification for registrars taking new parents into a sideroom and slapping them over the head with a naming dictionary - my mother wanted my second name to be that of her father.

Which was John. As in, the name of which Ian is the Scottish version. I have two identical names. I am a built-in, two-for-the-price-of-one, there's-no-escaping-me-sucker repetition.

'Ian John.' Without wishing to get into any I-blame-the-parents fingerpointing, you'd have thought my mother and father would have done a little elementary fact checking before saddling me with a redundancy for the rest of my natural. People were weird in the sixties.

I'm not sure whether familiarity breeds contempt, but my love of this name has not grown over the years. I should take up another name, but I just can't think of one that fits. I suppose I'd have to if I ever got published - the thought of seeing those three droney letters attached to my work sends a zing of alarm down my spine.

My surname, on the other hand, I love. That's because it's... oh, but that would be giving away too much in one post. It'll keep.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Scarily accurate

Which country should you REALLY be living in?
A vast terrain filled with beautiful scenery and interesting characters. You don't trust the world. You feel they are always up to no good. Which is why you'd make a great Russian. You want life to be simple and have no desire for riches, fame or wealth - and thats the only way your government would have it.
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