Indo-Roman Trade — Roberta Tomber

Indo-Roman Trade

Indo-Roman Trade
Roberta Tomber
216 pages including index
published in 2008

Indo-Roman Trade: From Pots to Pepper is less a history book than an overview of the state of archaeological evidence for trade between the Roman Empire and the Indian subcontinent. It’s short and very much a synopsis; I think for serious students of this subject much of the value lies in the extensive bibliography at the back. For me, it’s one of those books you take a punt on at the local library, which also leaves you wondering why it’s there, lost amongst a sea of pop history books.

I didn’t know much about Indo-Roman trade going into this book, other than vaguely knowing that the Roman Empire was aware to some extent of India as a country, if only through Alexander the Great’s campaigns there. What Roberta Tromper maked clear to me was how extensive the trade was, in both directions, with pepper from India becoming somewhat of a staple in the kitchens of well to do Romans, while Roman wine travelled the other way. It’s not just India Roman traders went to: they all along the Indian Ocean, from Ethiopia and Somalia to Sri Lanka and Arabia. This trade between at least the first century BCE and seventh century CE, though the Romans were of course not the first westerners to reach the Indian Ocean.

Roberta Tomber starts the book with a short history of Indo-Roman trade as well as the discovery of archaeological evidence for it. She opens the chapter with a quote from its first discoverer, the British colonial historian Mortimer Wheeler, who found Roman red pot shards “of the sort that any student of things classical could readily recognize” in a dusty display case in Pondicherry in southern India. Once she has given a short overview, she moves on to the textual evidence in both Roman and various historical Indian texts. These do not just included surviving books like the Periplus Maris Erythraei, a travel guide to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, but also references in texts like Pliny the Elder’s Natural History and more mundane documents like merchants’ inventories and such. Finally, there is also graffiti, as the Tamil inscription found on a Roman pottery fragment at an Egyptian archaeological site, dramatic proof that some Indian goods moved to the Roman Empire.

From there on she moves on to the archaeological evidence itself, ranging from pottery, coins, tp traces of ancient spices like pepper. This combined evidence is then used in the next two chapters to sketch out the evolution of the Roman Red Sea, where the main ports for trade with India were located and what was going on beyond the Roman world — there are even some tantalising hints that Roman trade might have reached beyond the Indian Ocean into Indonesia and beyond. The final chapter looks to how this trade changed over the centuries.

I read this book in an afternoon, while babysitting my nephew together with my father. Sometimes it did take effort not to start dozing, but that was more due to the comfortableness of the couch I was laying on than any shortcomings of the book itself. This is the sort of book that looks dry, but isn’t; I enjoyed it quite a lot.

Europe after Rome — Julia M. H. Smith

Cover of Europe after Rome

Europe after Rome
Julia M. H. Smith
384 pages including index
published in 2005

To be honest I only took this book out of the library because there was little else in the way of good history books that day. Europe after Rome was a bit of a safe choice, on a subject I’d already read a lot about and if perhaps it would offer little new knowledge, I knew I would at least enjoy the refresher. I had no high hopes for this book, but sometimes gambles pay off — this was one of these cases. Because Europe after Rome is, as the subtitle makes clear, A New Cultural History of the period between 500 and 1000 CE, between the “fall” of the Roman Empire and the start of the “true” Middle Ages.

Traditionally historians have treated this period as a transitional one between this two high points of civilisation, as a story of collapse and rebound, when the seeds were laid for what would become the familiar nations of modern Europe: France, Germany, England. Europe after Rome abandons this teleological view deliberately in favour of an approach that follows three interpretative threads: the role of the Roman heritage in the formation of Early Medieval cultures/policies, the diversity of experience for these cultures — this is not a book about European culture, but about the cultures of Europe — and finally, the dynamism of these cultures, all changing a lot over this period, which Smith is careful never to imply as meaning that these were evolving towards a set goal. To help her with this approach, she takes care to look at a wide range of European experiences, both geographically by looking at a region that reaches from Spain to Scandinavia and from Italy to Hungary and by crosscutting between cultures within each chapter for her examples.

Before I go into the structure of Europe after Rome, I should point out another relatively unusual feature, the care with which Smith has made this a history of all the people who lived in the Early Middle Ages, women as well as men. It’s easy to slip into historical narratives that priviledge the male experience, if only because traditional histiography and contemporary sources both tend to this already. It takes effort to seek out and highlight female experiences as well and more so to incorperate them as naturally as Smith has done here. You almost need to have it pointed out to you to see how unusual this is.

Smith builds up her history from the bottom up, starting with the fundamentals: speaking and writing, living and dying, moving through affinies: friends and relations, men and women, to resources: labour and lordship, getting and giving and finally on to ideologies: kingship and Christianity, Rome and the peoples of Europe. The focus of Europe after Rome at first therefore lies squarely on the common people and their experiences, only slowly moving up the social scale to the kings and popes who are usually in the spotlights. Each chapter is divided into several subchapters, looking at specific aspects of the subject under discussion. So the chapter on friends and relatives looks at identity, friends by blood and honour and vengeance, while the chapter on labour and lordship in turn looks at servitude and freedom, peasants and lords and the search for status, each building logically on its predecessor.

In every aspect of Early Medieval life Smith examines, the influence of Christianity is clearly visible. What’s equally clear however is how diverse Christianity was in this period. Even apart from the differences between the “western” church of Rome and the “eastern” Byzantine church, there’s a lot of diversity in how people experienced Christianity. It quickly becomes obvious that much of what Christianity means to its followers was decided locally, often incorporating already existing traditions and rituals and sometimes based on no more than secondhand information about Christian beliefs. A far cry from the image I sort of had of an Europe ruled by Catholicism.

Though there is something of a broad chronological sweep in Europe after Rome, this is not a chronologically orientated history, so you do need to have some rough idea of what happened in the Early Middle Ages, of who the various players were, to get the most out of it. It is full of interesting little facts, asides and anecdotes, like the one about Boniface of Canossa on his way to pick up his bride, who shod his horse with silver shoes, deliberately made easy to lose so “people may know who he was”. Such a story is not just interesting in itself, it’s also a good illustration of, in this case, the important role gift giving and shows of generosity played in establishing a noble man’s power and worth.

So yeah, a good addition to all the other books about Late Antiquity/the Early Middle Ages and highly recommended to anybody. Sometimes a gamble pays out very well indeed…

Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West — Guy Halsall

Cover of Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West

Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West 376-568
Guy Halsall
591 pages including index
published in 2007

I spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve with my parents in Middelburg and took advantage of this visit to check out the town’s library, which used to supply most of my reading back before I moved to Amsterdam. It turned out to be an wise decision as less than an hour browsing found half a dozen excellent history books to read, including this one. Guy Halsall is an author I had just seen slagged off by Peter Heather in his book Empires and Barbarians for being Completely Wrong about the impact of barbarian migrations on the late Roman Empire. This piqued my interest to see how exactly Halsall’s interpretation of the end of the Roman Empire differed from Heather’s views and if Halsall’s explanations make any sense on their own.

To my not inconsiderable surprise, it turned out that the story Halsall puts forward in Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West 376-568 does not differ quite so much as Heather made it seem. They don’t so much disagree on what happened as on why it happened and on where the emphasis should be placed. To keep it simple, Heather believes barbarian invasions are the cause the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west, while Halsall argues they are an effect of the collapse. It was the weakness of the western empire that made possible the barbarian takeover of various provinces. Another major point of disagreement is on the composition of the “barbarian hordes”: Heather has argued that the more classical image of entire population groups invading the empire is largely correct, with caveats, while Halsall sees them more as proper armies rather than tribes. Ultimately these differences in intepretation however for me were less important than the sheer quality of Halsall’s history.

For my money, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West 376-568 is the best one volume history on the end of the Western Roman Empire I’ve read so far. It’s not the only book on the subject you should read, because there is so much disagreement between historians about just exactly what happened and why, but it’s an excellent start. What Halsall does well is to put his history in the context of the continuing historiographically debate taking place about the Fall of Rome and how the world of the Western Roman Empire was transformed in the transition from Late Antiquity to Early Middle Ages. In this debate we’ve long since moved on from the classical ideas about huge massess of barbarian invaders overrunning the west of course, as well as from the backlash against this that got under way in the sixties with readings of history that stressed the continuities between the late Roman world and the Early Middle Ages. Halsall stands sort of midway between these two approaches.

In Halsall’s own words, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West 376-568 “presents the end of the Roman Empire and the barbarian migrations as a dramatic, bewildering, massively important and comparatively short-term sequence of events, whose results were all the more dramatic and bewildering for being unintended”. It wasn’t inevitable in other words, but largely caused by the actions of the rulers and important actors within the Roman Empire responding to specific, internal crisises rather than barbaric hordes hammering the gates, but these crisises did open the door for new political entities to take over parts of the empire in the end.

Like Gaul, Halsall’s book is divided in three parts. In the first part, Halsall describes the world of the (Western) Roman Empire and its neighbours. This part also serves as an introduction to the whole problem of the Fall of Rome and the role “barbarians” played in this. He also goes into detail on the thorny question of identity, not an unimportant topic in a period where the boundaries between “barbarian” and “roman” were suddenly much more fluid. Finally, this part also shows how interconnected the Roman and barbarian worlds were.

The second part depicts in detail the period of transition, from 376 CE to 550 CE and is the most traditionally chronological part of the book. So we get the Gothic wars in 376-382 in the Eastern Empire, the crisis in the west and the sack of Rome in 410, the sidelining of the western emperors and the take over of the old provinces by new political elites, which eventually evolved into separate kingdoms. Halsall shows here how much these processes were done with the support and active involvement of the local elites, rather than having been imposed on passive Roman populations by foreign conquerors.

Finally, in the third part, Halsall surveys the post-Roman world, looking at how Roman provinces transformed themselves into Frankish, Visogoth, Lombardian kingdoms, how the political and provincial elites reinvented and reorientated themselves and how much the successor kingdoms still considered themselves to be part of a Roman world. Here he also looks at what ultimately caused the failure of the Roman empire in the west, how the loss of a monopoly of political legitimacy in the end meant that people no longer bought the pretence of empire, but went on to make their own policies as rulers no longer needed the legitimacy of Rome to rule their countries.

Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West 376-568 is a tough book to digest, a book you need to read with your full attention. If you do so, it will reward you. This is a hard book to read not because Halsall makes it hard to read, but because this is a difficult subject, which he does his very best to make understandable not just for the expert, but for interested novices to the period as well.

The Inheritance of Rome — Chris Wickham

The Inheritance of Rome

The Inheritance of Rome 400-1000
Chris Wickham
651 pages including index
published in 2009

The way you learn about history as a kid, both in school and through pop culture is as discrete chunks. You got your prehistory, your Bronze Age, your Greeks and Romans, your Biblical Times if you’re in an Christian school, your Middle Ages and so on and so weiter. It’s comprehensible, makes history all very neat and tidy and of course completely wrong. This is not a new truth of course, but it was driven home for me once again by Chris Wickham in The Inheritance of Rome, which is all about showing the continuity the Early Middle Ages had with the Late Roman Empire, without being blind to the ways in which Europe evolved away from its Roman era roots during this period. There is no bright line you can draw that divides these two eras.

Nor is there a Dark Age. As Wickham puts it in his introduction, the centuries between the Fall of Rome and the Central Middle Ages, between 400 CE and 1000 CE, tend to fit it awkwardly with the traditionally whiggish view of history as one of inevitable progress leading from antiquity to modern times, where Classic Antiquity can be seen as a vanished Golden Age, with the Renaissance or Late Middle Ages as the starting point for that story of inevitable progress, the centuries inbetween banished to the awkward limbo of the Dark Ages. When these centuries were treated in traditional history it was because that’s when modern European nations like France or England got their first start. Neither view sits well with Wickham, who argues that these essentially teleogical views of this transitional period, judging them in the context of what came after them, give the wrong image. You have to look at this time on its own terms rather than trying to glean the beginnings of future developments in it.

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The Goths – Peter Heather

Cover of The Goths

The Goths
Peter Heather
358 pages including index
published in 1996

Most of Peter Heather’s professional output has, in one way or another, featured the Goths. Usually this has been in the context of their contribution to the fall of the Roman Empire in the west, which Heather has long argued they played a central role in. In The Goths his focus is slightly different, more concerned with the Goths themselves than with how they interacted with the Roman Empire, though that still of course is an important part of their story. The Goths is an entry in the Blackwell series The Peoples of Europe and is meant as a one volume overview of their entire history, for people largely unfamiliar with them. As Heather mentions in his introduction, the last book to attempt this was published in 1888, so it was high time for an update.

Heather’s divides his book in three main parts, preceded by an introductionary chapter. In this he discusses why the Goths were important and the problem of social identities, where the old assumptions of unchanging peoples recognisable by some checklist of unique features had been challenged in the 1950ties and 60ties by new research showing how individuals could change their identity when advantageous. Heather applies a synthesis of these approaches to the Goths, arguing that while there was such a thing as a Gothic group identity, it was fluid enough for non-Goths to join into and for the group as a whole to adapt to changing circumstances. He then goes on to first explore the origins of the Goths, thentheir invasion and defeat of the East Roman Empire and further wanderings through the Balkans into Italy and Gaul and finally looks at the history of the two Gothish kingdoms established on parts of the Western Empire. In all three parts Heather puts the search for Gothish identity central.

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