NONZERO  THE LOGIC OF HUMAN DESTINY  By  ROBERT WRIGHT
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PART I: A BRIEF HISTORY OF HUMANKIND

PART II: A BRIEF HISTORY OF ORGANIC LIFE

PART III: FROM HERE TO ETERNITY

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Ten

OUR FRIENDS THE

BARBARIANS

We have to remember that the annals of this warfare between "civilization" and "barbarism" have been written almost exclusively by the scribes of the "civilized" camp. --Arnold Toynbee

 

In A.D. 410, the Visigoths sacked Rome. Saint Jerome, who had studied in Rome and had translated the Bible into its language, was in Bethlehem when he heard the news. He wrote to a friend, "What is safe if Rome perishes?" He answered his own question: "The whole world perished in one city...."

This was a somewhat insular view. As Romans watched the Goths wreak havoc, the Maya, for example, went about their business as usual. Still, there is a sense in which the stakes of the barbarian assault were indeed larger than the city of Rome, and larger than the whole empire. The belt of civilization that had spanned the Eurasian continent by the first century A.D. thereafter began to unravel in various places, thanks largely to "barbarian tribes"—Huns, Goths, Vandals, and others. China battled marauding nomads often, and sometimes lost. The Gupta empire of northern India fell under assault from Huns and finally crumbled. Sassanid Persia barely kept the Huns at bay, sometimes becoming, in effect, their vassal state. In the New World, some budding civilizations faced the same problem; citadels of urbanity were besieged by rapacious bumpkins, and some fell.

All told, barbarians had enough success to raise the question: What if they had prevailed? What if their devastation had been more thorough and widespread? Can we really be so sure that the basic thrust of cultural evolution would have resumed any time soon, or indeed ever? Did barbarians stand a real chance of ending the world's basic movement toward vaster and deeper social complexity?

No. Indeed, the existence of barbarians, far from impeding cultural advance, may have, on balance, promoted it. This fact is illustrated even by the most famously devastating barbarian triumph: the fall of the Roman Empire.

COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT BARBARIANS

What is a barbarian? To the cultural evolutionists of the nineteenth century, as we've seen, "barbarian" denoted a stage between "savage" (a simple hunter-gatherer band) and "civilized" (a state). This is indeed the level that most barbarian tribes of ancient times had reached; today we would call them "chiefdoms," though some were unusually mobile chiefdoms.

Historians use "barbarian" more loosely: Barbarians are peoples with a culture less advanced than their neighbors', and perhaps with a tendency to violently exploit their neighbors' advancement. Sometimes the exploitation—the pillaging—was done by swooping down on horseback, though this luxury was not available to New World barbarians.

To the Romans, "barbarian" was a less technical term. Its origins sound innocent—it came from the Greek word for "foreigner"—but its connotations were decidedly disparaging. Some Romans referred to the land within the empire's bounds as oikoumene--"inhabited land." The Roman view of barbarians—as uncouth, perhaps depraved, even subhuman—lingers on, making barbarians one of the most misunderstood and unjustly maligned of groups. Several misconceptions, in particular, need dispelling.

Misconception #1: Barbarians are less "civilized" than their neighbors in a moral sense--less decent, less humane...

[SNIP]

An excerpt from Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, By Robert Wright, published by Pantheon Books. Copyright 2000 by Robert Wright. Other excerpts can be found at www.nonzero.org.