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Gosh. How did no-one tell me of HistoryTeachers, the best channel on the whole of the YouTubes? Dozens of tubes, covering topics ranging from prehistoric anthropology through the classical and medieval worlds up to the modern period. The formula might be simple (take pop song, make historical, profit) but damn if this isn’t relevant to my interests.

Okay, so the formula means that a few of the more interesting tidbits get sliced away to cram things into three-to-five minutes. She mispronounces scop (hint: it’s like ‘ship’) in the Beowulf video. The Crusades falls into traps about the Children’s Crusade and old-fashioned claims that it was about land-grabbing economics. These are the sorts of things that annoy me.

On the other hand, they acknowledgin’ the tradin’ inherent to goin’ a-vikin’.

The project is a great way to break folks into history-learnin’, and that is the point. You can open up the discussions about historical nuances and the more obscure facts after you get bored high-schoolers with their facetwitters and tumbooks to actually pay attention. Which these do. They are so much damn FUN, guys. SO MUCH. I wound up singing along to Charlemagne the first time I listened to it.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Mrs. B, the star of the videos, is gorgeous.


On Wednesday, P.Z Myers will discuss a movie about the Classical mathematician and philosopher Hypatia. I do not know a lot about this woman, although her wikipedia entry seems pretty reasonable. She looks like a fascinating figure; a female scholar who led the neo-Platonist school in Alexandria in the opening years of the fifth century. I hope that, if nothing else, a popular movie will inspire her works and life to be more widely studied. [Is she widely studied already? I’ve never studied the Greek-speaking half of the late empire; the earliest I know about is Justinian.]

I do have some concerns about the movie, as an historian. It appears to be set in A.D 391, and appears to incorporate the destruction of the Library of Alexandra. This, despite the fact that the great Library burned before the birth of Christ. It seems that the movie’s producers are conflating Hypatia’s death with the closing of the pagan temples in 391 AD. This was commanded by the Emperor Theodosius, the first emperor to make Christianity the only state religion- a significant event (although it occured in 380), and one can understand why the writers would wish to fold it into their story. Yet Hypatia died in 415 AD, and did not even become a leader of her school until 400. She is being murdered over two decades early!

I also all but guarantee that there will be some pointless love subplot  in opposition to the fact that Hypatia is agreed by the ancient sources to have refused advances and perished a virgin. I will never understand why moviemakers feel the need to add such things to stories which already possess great emotional depth. Maybe I will be wrong. One can hope.

On the other hand, I hope the manner of her death is toned down. Re-creating a mob of monks flaying her with pottery shards before dismembering her corpse and setting it aflame would be torture porn at its very worst.

EDIT: Armarium Magnum, the author of which appears to be a fellow Australian medievalist, has written a thorough post detailing the historical and philosophical flaws of the movie- as well as telling us where they did the right thing. It is well worth a read.

There is a particular tendency in European history to try and pin down the ethnic statistics of a given area in a given time. Within my own field, the interest is in how much of Anglo-Saxo England was populated by ‘genuine’ Anglo-Saxons? Were there Celtic holdovers? Classicists and Celticists alike wrestle with questions such as ‘What is a Celt, anyway?’ ‘How widely spread across Eurasia were they?’ Tracking the movements of pre-literate peoples is difficult, and it is tempting to combine genetic evidence with archaeological.

I don’t really object to this sort of thing in principle. After all our sources describe ‘Saxons’ or the ‘Jutes’ or what have you, and it is pretty apparent that a ‘Celt’ -whatever that may be- is a very different thing from a ‘Roman’- whatever that may be, particularly in the late Empire. Celtic scholars still quibble (rage is a bit strong a word) over how to define Celticness; should it be linguistically defined? Should it be defined on the basis of material culture? Which groups/artistic techniques are ‘Celtic’? Defining an Anglo-Saxon is almost as difficult. The primary sources list three tribes of people, and there is archaeological evidence for some others, but it is all a bit higgledy piggledy and scholars are only human: we want solid, reliable facts.

Or, at least, as close as we can get to such things.

I sympathise when historians and archaeologists turn to the apparently-reliable ghoul of genetics to identify the ‘ethnicity’ of a particular corpse. Tell us if this is a Welshman, we might say. Or an Anglo-Saxon. Or a Roman rather than a Frank or a Goth or an Alamann or a Saxon or a… wait. What IS the difference between an Alamann and a Saxon, anyway? They are both German, after all. Both spoke similar languages, and seem to have had similar material cultures. What makes genetic evidence so sure-fire?

Obviously we can’t go with linguistic evidence. For one thing, skeletons don’t speak dead languages any better than living ones. For another, languages are memetic, and memes don’t rely on ethnicity to travel. The more important reason is that people subordinated and/or neighbouring another tend to learn the language of the other guy. This is pretty obvious, but it means that a dead guy speaking Greek in Egypt during the reign of Justinian is not necessarily a Greek. The Germanic invaders of Italy adopted Latin as their language, and it has evolved into Italian.

Material culture is similar. The richness of early modern Irish and Anglo-Saxon art seems pretty closely intertwined; pottery techniques can and are mimicked, and so forth. Archaeologists have been long aware of this. The basic problem is that a given corpse may well be clad in the jewellery and robes (and language?) of Ethnic Group A, but ‘genetically’ belongs to Ethnic Group B.

So, we use genetics to prove things one way or the other and hurrah! now we know.

Except. Do we? I am incredibly suspicious of genetic evidence. If a guy wears the clothes, carries the spear, and speaks the language of the Old English, does it matter that much of his DNA is Celtic? Clearly he did not belong to that social group in any meaningful sense. It could mean that he rose above his station, or was a hostage fighting alongside his captors, or any number of situations which would mean that he did belong to his ‘genetic’ group. It could mean that he no longer considered himself part of his ‘genetic’ tribe. Women tend to be taken by invading groups, after all. The colonisers of Iceland stopped off at Ireland to collect some wives- would anyone then claim via genetics that an Icelandic corpse is Irish? It would be silly.

Humans are not our DNA. We are as whatever we identify ourselves. In early medieval France, different peoples retained their own laws, but there was no genetic test. While I am sure there are examples of individuals straddling boundaries, so far as I am aware it was simply based on an individual declaring himself of a given people- or obviously being so, thanks to his parentage. He, or she, would have been identified based on those pesky things I just dismissed for being too flexible: material culture and language.

I have yet to say anything new here. Scholars who like to play with genetic evidence know all this. It is obvious if you think about it; of course genetic evidence must be taken with extreme caution.

Research from the latter half of last year sheds doubt on the very existence of ethnicities. I suspect the journalist may be overstating it slightly, but nonetheless it seems clear that ethnicity has more to do with social boundaries than with genetic disparity:

The boundaries used by individuals to distinguish themselves from members of other ethnic groups are generally cultural, linguistic, economic, religious and political. Heyer and her colleagues confirm the absence of common ancestry in a specific ethnic group; there were on average more differences between members of the same ethnic group than there were between groups.

Ethnic groups are not based on genetics. They are based on human interaction with one another.

Human interactiona do not leave much in the way of evidence. This is inconvenient, and genetics offers us an easy way out, a means of identifying ethnic groups over the long years of history. If this article is followed by others of its kind, then we must discard genetic evidence. At the very least, we must approach such evidence with new scepticism, and be prepared to ask questions of the relevancy to a particular find.

Frankly this can only be a good thing. If ‘Celt’ is a linguistic term as some -as I- think it is, why were we using genetics to find specimens anyway?

[I would also like to point readers to this post at A Corner of Tenth Century Europe as being relevant to the discussion.]

A few years ago my Latin class was translating a section of Tacitus’ Histories- the first forty-six or so chapters of Book I. Tacitus is a fascinating author, and I highly recommend his prose, but the most intriguing part for me was the discovery of one Gaius Licinius Mucianus. Consul under Nero, governor of Syria in 67 AD, Mucianus is (in)famous for his role in the Year of the Four Emperors, 69 AD. Put simply, he is Vespasian‘s kingmaker. Tacitus (I.10) describes him thus:

luxuria industria, comitate adrogantia, malis bonisque artibus mixtus: nimiae voluptates, cum vacaret; quotiens expedierat: sed apud subiectos, apud proximos, apud collegas variis inlecebris potens, et cui expeditius fuerit tradere imperium quam obtinere.

He was a mixture of qualities good and bad; luxuriant and diligent; courteous and arrogant; his pleasures excessive whenever he had free time; [yet] as often as was convenient for him his virtues were great. Publicly he deserved praises; his private life had an ill reputation. But among subjects, friends, and colleagues he was powerful in point of his various blandishments; and [he was the kind of man] to whom it was more expedient to give away empire than to obtain [it for himself].

That is my translation, from some time ago, and one of the first pieces of Latin I ever memorised.  What a fascinating figure! One can easily imagine him, a classical governor reclining in deep red cushions, smoking a hookah among half-naked men and women; yet a capable general and a clever politician, as sharp-witted as he is decadent. Once I investigated further, Mucianus’ own actions bear out this image of him- at least, as Tacitus portrays him.

Obviously caution must be used, for Tacitus contrasts Mucianus with Vespasian and therefore shows us what he wishes to reveal.

His early history seems to be rather obscure. Syme speculated that he may have arisen from Spain or Apennine Italy; his early career is vague save that he served as a legate in Armenia. At some point he suspected the wrath of Claudius and avoided exile by taking himself to Asia Minor. Tacitus noted this (I.10) as he being “as near to exile then as afterwards he was to the throne.” He returned to favour under Nero, and earned a series of provincial postings.

Williamson suspects that the ‘vagaries of his personal life’ may have endeared him to Nero. Considering that emperor’s decadence, and the similar tastes of Mucianus, that seems a reasonable possibility. It is also a rather simple answer.

By 66 Mucianus had become suffect consul (64) and governor of Syria. Tacitus reports on jealousy and some enmity between Vespasian (then governor of Judea) and he, but they had forged a friendship by 69 through the intervention of Titus, Vespasian’s son. Nero sent Vespasian to put down the Judean revolt, and Mucianus added those legions he controlled to those of his future emperor. Suetonius (Vesp. 6) claims that Mucianus ‘swallowed his jealousy’ to do so, and this seems likely. Two powerful men, rulers of neighbouring provinces? At any rate, they were now firm friends, and during the riotous events of 69 the two became even closer. Tacitus (II. 76-78) ascribes a speech from Mucianus as nudging a vacillating Vespasian into making the try for the throne. The entire speech is well worth a read; Mucianus makes a compelling argument for war, even if he is mostly focused upon himself rather than the gains to Vespasian. Then again, Vespasian would make himself imperator; a reward in itself.

For the details of the military campaigns in 69 there are several good scholars who go into detail (Syme 1977; Levick 2005 (47-49). It is clear even from Tacitus gliding somewhat over the details that Mucianus was a skilled general, even if at the same time a careful politician. He always ensured he himself took the praise for successful battles, even when others did the fighting. On the other hand, he acted swiftly and decisively when Dacian barbarians surged forth to seize the Danube; it was ostensibly for this he was later given a triumph (Tac. III. 46; Syme).

On entering Rome, Mucianus took “everything into his own hands” (Tac. IV.6). Vespasian would later balance his ruthlessness with generosity, such as conferring a dowry upon Vitellius’ daughter. I suspect that this was a careful political game the pair played: Mucianus executed dangerous figures such as Vitellius’ son, while Vespasian was absent and therefore clean of hand. If this is the case, it was well-played. Tactius writes of Mucianus as somewhat of a decadent villain, while his depiction of Vespasian is somewhat reserved (II.5):

He [Vespasian] would have been quite equal to the generals of old if he had not been avaricious. Mucianus, on the other hand, was eminent for his magnificence and wealth and by the complete superiority of his scale of life to that of a private citizen. He was the readier speaker, experienced in civil administration and statesmanship. It would have been a rare combination for an emperor if the faults of the two could have been done away with and their virtues only combined in one man.

My brief experience in reading of Mucianus and Vespasian leads me to suspect that they did just that. Vespasian remained the humble general, the soldier-turned-emperor, while Mucianus did the bloody work and enjoyed the fruits of power while standing behind the throne. He was a clever politician, rewarding the subordinates of political enemies and playing allied factions against themselves. Tacitus notes his Machiavellian talents when discussing the rancor between Mucianus and Antoninus, another Flavian commander:

Of all this [Antonius’ attempt to discredit him] Mucianus was fully aware, and the result was bitter enmnity, fostered more openly by Antonius, with cunning and therefore more implacably by Mucianus.

Later, Mucianus would remove the threat of Antonius by first praising him and promising power and granting his friends influence and position; and then destroying his military strength (Tac. IV. 39).

Certainly Mucianus was an arrogant man, as Tacitus’ first description of him hints. Suetonius (Vesp. 13) claims that he treated the emperor with a certain degree of disrespect. While Vespasian is credited with not allowed Mucianus to get the better of him, the emperor’s retort is interesting: “But personally, I am content to be a male.” Tacitus also notes instances when Mucianus offended the senate, particularly as he was establishing order in Rome. Yet they granted him his triumphal honours in the aftermath of the civil war, nominally for his success against the Dacians during 69 (Tac. IV.4). He additionally became consul twice more (70, 72 AD), a feat very few ever attained.

In his final years he appears to have turned to literary matters. Perhaps he had fallen from favour somewhat, or it was the natural outcome of a long career as a military man and a politician. Unfortunately, nothing has survived intact. Pliny cites miraculous occurences from Mucianus’ memoir (see Williamson), while a passage in Tacitus’ Dialogus (37) indicates that he edited various volumes of letters and the like from Republican Rome. It’s a great shame that none of this survives, as much of the man could be gleaned from his writings.

His death preceded the publication of Pliny’s Natural History (77 AD), meaning that he did not long survive his third and final consulship.

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May 2018
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