How did they try to dominate the „uncivilized world” in ancient times?
How did they try to dominate the „uncivilized world” in ancient times?

Photo: Tibor Grüll

2023. 05. 23.
How did Rome assert its power against the barbarian people? By what means did the ancient propaganda influence the perception of peoples outside the territory of the empire? Were all barbarians barbarians? Among other things, we talked about these questions with the ancient historian Tibor Grüll, the permanent author of our newspaper.

In connection with the Russian-Ukrainian war, there is a lot of talk about the fact that the West and the East have once again faced each other. How did they see the East in ancient times?

– We should first clarify what we mean by East. It was a constantly expanding world, which we call the oikumene or inhabited world. The most habitable part of it was "naturally" occupied by the Greeks and later by the Romans. The east expanded significantly with the conquests of Alexander the Great. He reached as far as the Hüsstaszpés River in present-day Pakistan, which is now called Beas. But he wanted to go even further, as far as the mouth of the Ganges but as his army rebelled, he had to turn back. We know for sure that they also explored the area of the Persian Gulf with a ship captain named Nearchus. There are other legends about Alexander the Great, such as that he sailed down the Nile and circumnavigated the Arabian Peninsula but these are probably just legends. However, the Romans went even further, in the era of Marcus Aurelius, so in the middle of the second century, a Roman delegation already visited China, in the area of today's Shanghai. At the same time, as far as we know, the Chinese never made direct contact with the Roman Empire.

Was that part of the world seen as a serious threat?

– Yes, one of the most threatening challenges for the Romans was the Parthian Empire, especially when they had rulers who wanted to expand their borders to the West as well. For the archaic Greeks, the threat came not so much from the East but from the North, for them the Scythian or Scythian people represented a significant threat occasionally and in the fifth century, the Persians.

If the Greeks and Romans knew that the world was much bigger than the one they inhabited, why did they still draw more narrow boundaries of the "inhabited world"?

– Clearly for political reasons. It is a paradoxical phenomenon that while the Romans were constantly expanding the oikumene and sending expeditions everywhere: traces of such were found, for example, in the area of present-day Uzbekistan, in the region of Baku, which is very, very far from the line of limes. We know that the source region of the White Nile was discovered in Nero's time and it was not until 1858 that John Hanning Speke reached it from Europe. But Roman explorers reached Tashkurgan (Stone Tower) on the Western border of China and the Niger River. However, these Roman discoveries never made it onto official world maps. The Roman politicians were convinced roughly since the 1st century B.C. that the whole world was under the rule of Rome.

It was easiest to illustrate this on maps that depicted this world as small as possible, because if the real size of the world was revealed, no one would have been able to feed this propaganda text to anyone.

The general picture of Alexander the Great is that his goal was to unify the world at that time, to globalize it in today's terms. On the other hand, there are records of him that, realizing the threat of the eastern barbarian people, raised a kind of boundary line in the Caucasus, which the chronicles refer to as Alexander the Great's Ore Gate. How do these two approaches fit together?

– In addition to Alexander the Great's attacks in the Eastern direction, which affected the Northern part of India, he also carried out an attack in the Northern direction. After the Battle of Gaugamela, 331 B.C., when Darius III. he chased, crossed the territory of present-day Afghanistan and reached Central Asia, the territory of present-day Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. As far as I know, the story of the ore wall he built first appeared in the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus but it was also included in the 18th sura of the Koran. The historical reality of this is difficult to verify but it is certain that even in the time of Alexander the Great, the Northern people collectively known as the Scythians were regarded as something to be feared.

These peoples were considered terribly barbaric tribes that did not know any civilizational boundaries.

What did this barbarism mean in practice?

– The Greeks originally called the Asia Minor tribes barbaros, i.e. "stutterers", who did not speak Greek well. The word retained this meaning even later: we can even call it "cultural barbarism". In this sense, everyone who did not know Greek culture was a barbarian, including, for example, the Persians, who lived at a very high level of civilization. However, in the case of the Scythians, the Greeks saw that they essentially lived on horseback, had no cities, and did even more horrible things, such as eating their opponents and drinking the blood from their skulls. This was completely against civilized customs, so they were very afraid of these warriors, who also obviously represented a significant military force. At the same time, historians have shown that these folk-characterologies have no practical or real basis in the real world, they simply served to deter and demonize the enemy.

Has the perception of the peoples of the East changed over time?

– The Greeks already in the 6th century B.C. were confronted with the fact that they were not the only representatives of wisdom. At that time, the Scythian wandering philosopher Anacharsis, a friend of Solon, arrived in Athens, whom some wanted to include among the "seven sages". However, following the conquests of Alexander the Great in the East, the world was permanently transformed. B.C. For example, stoicism, born in the 4th century, was the first to state that all people come from the same blood, that is, in essence, all of humanity forms a brotherhood. The Greeks have a special role in this but who is "truly Greek" is not a matter of birth but of learning. In other words, even a born barbarian can become Greek if he/she learns Greek and acquires Greek culture. Then a new phenomenon appears in Athens: the "noble barbarian", on the stage of Euripides. By the way, this is also a known phenomenon in later centuries: just think of Montesquieu's Persian Letters, where the author sees contemporary French society through the lens of a Persian who came from the East and was deeply looked down upon by the Parisians.

The play reveals, of course, that this "barbarian" is much more cultured and much more civilized than most upscale Parisians. The barbarians of Euripides are also much more noble and fair in their way  than the most educated Athenians. 

Did this image remain later, when the barbarians directly attacked the Roman Empire?

– Yes. When the Goths- who belong to the Germanic people- appeared on the border of the Roman Empire, they were initially driven away by the Romans, but already in the third century, the policy towards them changed and they started to settle down along the borders. The Roman army then gradually became barbarized by itself, so already in the 4th century- with a little exaggeration- barbarians fought against barbarians like one wears a Roman uniform, the other wears a Goth. At first, the Romans were just as hostile to the Goths as the Greeks were to the Scythians, but Salvianus, in the 5th century or Jordanes in the 6th century (who himself had Goth origin) already wrote that the Goths behaved much more humanely and fair than the Romans. According to Salvianus, the reason for the collapse of the Western Roman Empire was corruption and immorality, which he believed the majority of barbarians were free from. That is why the Roman youth living in Hispania flocked to the Goths with a lot of people because they were attracted by this kind of uncorruption. I suspect we witnessed something similar when hundreds of young people left Europe to join the Islamic State. Another question is that they also had to be seriously disappointed…

According to them, is it not only today's historical perception that is changing?

- It is natural. History has been constantly being rewritten since this genre first appeared. For example, there are the Vandals, whose name is still synonymous with barbarism. We call a person a vandal who intentionally destroys, ruins and causes damage to other people's values. However, a turn can be observed in today's historiography regarding them, as researchers have discovered that the Vandal Kingdom established in North Africa in the 5th century - which was the first barbarian state established in the territory of the Roman Empire- adopted much more of the Roman culture than previously thought. I think there are many people in history who have become victims of the propaganda of other states or even empires. It is no different in our age.

At the same time, we hear little about the fact that a significant part of the barbarian people who invaded against the Romans had already become acquainted with Christianity by that time, and even joined one or another branch of Christianity. Some joined the Great Church, others the Arians. It is also no coincidence that one of the very first vernacular Bible translations was made in the Gothic language, thanks to a Gothic ecclesiastic named Ulfilas (or Vulfila), who was born in Cappadocia and was captured by the Goths. Here, however, he learned their language and translated the entire Bible to Old Germanic.

Few people know that in Hács-Béndekpuszta in a grave of the 5th century was found the 10th Chapter of John, engraved on lead plates from Ulfilas's kind of Gothic translation.

Were the people living in the Roman Empire affected by an evangelistic influence from the outside?

- So much. Around 860, Cyril met the Hungarians on their way back from the Khazars around the Crimean Peninsula and his brother Metód was hosted by a "Hungarian king" at Al-Danube about twenty years later. The Metód- legend also mentions that this "Hungarian king", who might have been a leader or a prince, welcomed the converted person with friendly gestures. However, the Hungarian tribes met Judaism earlier, in the territory of the Khazarian Khaganate. It is possible that one of the tribes adopted the Jewish religion. In any case, it is a fact that during the Árpád era, in our country, in a unique way in Europe, they had a positive attitude towards the Jews. Despite the series of papal protests pápai tiltakozások, the economic ministers of the Árpád kings were usually from among Jews and in Hungary they even minted money marked with Hebrew letters.

According to them, what happened was not that the barbarian world simply flooded the civilized world...

– We often imagine that AD in 476 they rang the bells and shouted that "the end of antiquity" or at least the Western Roman Empire. As we hear in Jenő Heltai's play: "Mama, it's a different day than usual, because today the Middle Ages ends, the new age begins precisely at midnight." In fact, it was a slow, continuous transformation in which, for example, Christianity played a large role. Remember, the pagan Roman Empire gradually transformed into a "Christian empire" starting with Constantine the Great. In the case of the Western Roman Empire, we can only speak of "fall" to the extent that smaller states were created in place of the politically and administratively unified empire, which Károly the Great first tried to unite again. In the east, however, the legacy of the Roman Empire lived on continuously until 1453.

In connection with historical analogies, the globalization efforts of the Roman period are often mentioned, when they created a kind of Pax Romana in the territory they ruled. Did ancient examples set the pattern for today's Pax Americana?

– This is again an extremely interesting and current question. Basically, we need to know that the constitutional system of the United States was consciously based on the constitutional system of the Roman Republic. The founding fathers, who had read Polybius (or at least Montesquieu, who intermediated it) and were well taught in Roman history, knew that it was the longest-lived empire in Western history. The so-called "mixed constitution" of the republican period combined royal (monarchical), aristocratic and democratic elements, which is why it proved to be extremely durable, and this durability- coupled with a powerful army - enabled the state to continue to expand, to become an empire. The fact that the Capitol in Washington is called the same as the spiritual center of ancient Rome and that the Senate meets there- these are not coincidences, but the consequences of conscious decisions. And if we look at which great power in the world today best corresponds to this Pax Romana period, then I could only name one: and that is the United States.

Only the USA is politically, financially, militarily and culturally present in the entire world. The European Union is not even close to it.

Today, the term soft power is often mentioned in connection with America, which means soft power or strength. Did Rome also use such tools?

- From the beginning, Rome strove to maintain friendly relations with the people living along the so-called Limes line as much as possible. Of course, this meant a far-reaching subordination of the interests of Rome from the other side. The so-called "friendly and allied" tribes were not even allowed to sneer at Rome. Thus, the empire was surrounded by a kind of buffer zone, which meant that attacks from the outside did not directly hit the border, but these buffer states, or better said, people and tribes. How did they achieve perfect obedience? For example, by virtually chaining the tribal aristocracy to themselves with various privileges, such as the granting of extremely valuable citizenship. The children of the nobles of foreign nations were more than once brought up in Rome, where they were, of course, practically hostages.

Did Rome have "ambassadors" who tried to influence the outside people?

– Of course. Roman delegations regularly visited countries as far away as India or Ethiopia. But even within the empire, there were "diplomats" who specialized in certain areas, where they had extensive contacts. To understand this, it is necessary to know that the Roman Empire was thoroughly enmeshed in the cliens-patronus system. Individuals, families, cities, and even provinces were clients of a Roman nobility, which in practice meant a kind of lobbying: the provision of mutually beneficial services to each other. For example, the patron spoke in the senate on behalf of the city he patronized. Or if controversial matters arose, the patron was able to close the case. During the imperial period, the entire Roman Empire actually became a client of the emperor.

Did they try to bring the  Roman culture into these areas?

– Throughout history, every real empire had its own ideological principle, which it tried to spread at any cost, as if to justify its conquests. Such was the Aryan race theory in the Nazi Third Empire; for the Soviet Union, Marxism-Leninism; or democracy to the American empire. The Romans aimed to spread humanitas among the subjugated people, which should be translated as "civilization". However, paradoxically, this did not work in the East, where they found themselves facing much higher and older civilizations. So here, in the Hellenized world, they didn't really voice it. In the West, on the other hand, the barbarian tribes were rather quickly accustomed to the comfortable Roman lifestyle, which of course included wine, free sexuality and various forms of mass entertainment, from gladiator games to sports competitions. And who could resist them? To some degree even the barbarians beyond the Limes were accustomed to these things.

Was there ever an attempt to train future leaders from these tribal elites?

– Yes, although this did not always worked out for them, because several of the tribal nobles who had apparently become Roman then incited their own people against Rome. It was precisely this that resulted in the famous Teutoburg defeat, which was the biggest Roman defeat in the history of Rome up to that point. A.D. in 9, the Germans massacred three entire legions (about 15,000 soldiers) in the forests of today's North Rhine-Westphalia. This was organized by a German man named Arminius, who came to Rome as a hostage when he was young, learned Latin, then joined the Roman army, where he rose up the ranks and eventually entered the knighthood. Yet he organized the resistance of the Germanic tribes and inflicted a historic defeat on the Romans. But I could say similar cases from the history of the Gauls, Batavians and Berbers.

(Translated by Anett Harmath)

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