On The Origins of The State and the Fall of Rome

I have really been going to town on the Tides of History podcast. Wow, it’s interesting.

Here’s a link to an example episode: [wondery] Isn’t it amazing that with content like this available, people would prefer to listen to Joe Rogan? But, I digress…

Tides of History does a good job of not being (white)Euro-centric, and has been discussing the invention of civilization, and how and where it happened. As you’d probably expect, if you thought a bit, it arose in multiple places at multiple times and sometimes died out or changed, merged, morphed, became kingdoms or empires. There’s an interesting question that the podcast taught me to ask, which I hadn’t, before: “when is something a ‘state’?” The philosopher in me says that obviously it’s going to be a vague concept and there’s no clear dividing line in which, one day, Boss Thag of Mud Wallow becomes King Thag of the Mudwallian People’s Kingdom* and begins expanding the good news that “Hey guys we’ve invented government.” But details like that aside, if a historian/archeologist wants to try to pin a date on when such-and-such town became a city, and that city became the head/capital of a state, I don’t think we should stop them from making that analysis. It’s useful. I suppose part of it is also tied to the question: “who invented the state?” It appears to me that historians would say that the state is an emergent property of a successful town/city and here’s where it gets interesting: one of the best ways to tell you’re looking at an emergent state is signs of inequality. That warms my flinty old anarchist heart: government and the Stark Fist of Removal co-evolved. Note that they’re not necessarily saying that inequality is the only way you can tell you’re looking at a state – there are others. But all these are arguable criteria: when does a city have defensive works? Defensive works don’t just indicate that there is enough surplus work and resources for defenses, but it also shows that the new state has become wealthy/successful enough to be worth attacking.

The episodes around the early evolution of the state in what is now China are pretty darned interesting. For one thing, there’s the actual state, what happened or appears to have happened – and then there’s the legendary state. Because, it turns out, King Thag didn’t only cheat on his taxes, he liked to brag about his military victories and fantastic golf handicap, etc. So, if you have a modern nation like China (notably formed out of the joining of several states around 200BC) there may be a cultural interest in being able to claim that one of the cities in that region was the successful proto-state from which everything else arose. That mythology does not always play itself out when you start digging up the skeletons from the closet. I find the podcast’s explanation of these things, and the way they describe it, to be very interesting.

I have not bothered to fact-check their historiography because I guess I don’t care that much whether it’s accurate; it does not affect me much. This is interesting stuff but I don’t have an interest in who invented politics and when.

To me, it amounts to an interesting meditation about the problem of knowledge about the past, and how unreliable and uncertain things get only relatively recently. It makes me think about how, in the last 300 years, we’ve managed to ruin a pretty nice planet so badly that there may well not be much archeology in the future because there may not be archeologists. Or, any archeologists that there are, are going to have a lot of work. (“There was a religion called ‘Twitter‘…”)

Anyhow, give it a check-out!

Also from Wondery is another fascinating history podcast that gives my mind huge vistas to wander over: The Fall of Rome Podcast. [fall of rome] This one is, as you can infer from the title, about what we can figure out about the collapse of the Roman Empire. It’s really thoughtful and very well put-together, in my opinion. One thing that I really like about it is how they narrate the impact of certain events in terms of what a person at the time might have experienced. I.e.: what would Gothic raider Thag have experienced when the English part of the Roman Empire collapsed out of the imperial economy and there was increasingly less of an official Roman Army keeping order, and more opportunity for a bit of raiding and setting oneself up as a local lord. It’s a really good way to snap the listener out of the view that things were more stable than they appeared, at the time, because we (spoiler alert!) know how it ended. So, for example, they encourage us to think about what the mini ice-age would have felt like to a formerly Roman share-cropper, who suddenly found starvation was a real danger, at around the same time that the Roman Empire appeared to be losing its hold on the area and bands of armed men, looking for food, stopped asking nicely.

The Goths did not do it.

It’s cracking good stuff and it’s also important because, I think, it steps away from the fairly “just so” take that the Roman Empire was collapsed by too many Goths in the army. The podcast goes into the fact that the Roman Empire was a long-running set of economic relationships, upon which there were military and governance relationships, but that the effect after 100 years or so would have been that the Goths stopped thinking of themselves as “Goths” and thought of themselves as “Romans” Of course there were the usual dynamics between “who is the barbarian here?” that you’d get in any aristocracy, but in ancient Rome money talked very loudly and power and talents [the Egyptian currency] trumped breeding almost all of the time.

Many of the points the podcast makes hit upon one of my pet topics, namely the idea that people who imagine there is a racial identity in post-Roman parts of the world are just fooling themselves. We can’t really say that the Romans of yore are strongly related to the Italians of today, precisely because the Romans of yore fucked everybody and Roman civilization was highly mobile. It was not at all out of the question that a Gothic “barbarian” might actually be raised in Rome, think of themself as a “Roman” and then go back to their origin and turn against Rome and become part of what’s pulling down the edges of the empire. [I just described Alaric the Visigoth] We are talking about hundreds of years and after 200, 300 years of Roman legions arriving and departing from an area, the local gene pool is irrevocably and permanently mixed. Suck that, Madison Grant. As I’ve mentioned before, there are no “English” they’re just more or less Roman. Likewise anyone from a region where the Mongols or Ottomans or whoever else came storming through.

Sorry, I was digressing into my personal hobby-horse. But, the Fall of Rome Podcast is so interesting I’m jealous. Go check it out! Or, if you’re already a fan, tell everyone else that I’m not just blowing smoke.
------ divider ------* Naturally, the Mudwallians have no say in the decisions made by the Mudwallian People’s Kingdom – King Thag calls it that because he wants to put the Mudwallian “citizens” on notice that he intends to enforce his laws upon them, not that the kingdom is in any way responsive to the will of the people; that would be laughable except King Thag doesn’t laugh about things like that, he has his spearmen do the laughing.


  1. AndrewD says

    Have you ever been to the blog, A collection of unmitigated pedantry by Brett Devereauv? You might find it interesting, Google it and have a look

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    As I’ve mentioned before, there are no “English” they’re just more or less Roman.

    That doesn’t jibe with what I’ve read about recent genetic studies. The three biggest contributions to modern British DNA seem to be;

    The Bell Beaker folk, who mostly replaced the indigenous population by around 2000 BCE
    The Anglo-Saxons, mostly in south, central and eastern England, up to maybe 40%
    The Vikings, in the neighbourhood of 10%

    Romans (and the much later Normans) seem to have left only a very small contribution. But there are some families which seem to be descended from legionaries of African origin. And no doubt there are traces from other parts of the empire.

  3. hatty says

    There is a youtube channel and podcast, Fall of Civilizations, that is along these lines and also very good.

  4. lumipuna says

    It appears to me that historians would say that the state is an emergent property of a successful town/city

    This is pretty much how it was stated in my high school history book, in regard to the origin of early Middle Eastern civilization. However, in terms of global history it seems a bit simplistic or misleading.

    AFAIK in many areas of the world, states/kingdoms have coalesced from small “tribal” polities without a strong central city (1), or without real cities at all. In these cases, King Thag wouldn’t be the chieftain of a town that grows into a city and goes on to conquer nearby towns, but rather he’d be a small town chieftain and the nominal leader of an expanding confederation of semi-independent small chiefdoms. For example the origin of Scandinavian kingdoms (2) very much fits this model. It appears to me that in more sparsely populated areas the state tends to evolve first, and the cities come afterward. It appears that central government, as well as social stratification and inequality, can evolve in the framework of rural aristocracy, as long as the whole polity has a moderately large population (3).

    (1) Back in middle school there was some talk of ancient Greek city states, without anyone really explaining what a “city state” is. I was baffled like, how can a state be just one city? Later I understood that city states aren’t really that different from what I considered to be regular states.

    (2) Relevant to national history here in Finland. Everyone here knows that (most of the present territory of) Finland became part of the Swedish Kingdom by the end of Middle Ages and later split off by sheer geopolitical accident. However, the process of this Swedish annexation, and what existed here before it, and how the Swedish Kingdom itself originated is complicated and fascinating and never really understood by people who only learn history from school. I spent good many hours as a teen and young adult trying to figure this stuff out by myself.

    (3) In Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond suggested that primitive proto-states tend to have a population in thousands or tens of thousands, while fully organized states tend to be upwards from 50,000.

  5. crivitz says

    It’s unfortunate that the people of Mudwallia never got a chance to enact their well-deserved revenge upon their king. I mean, you must have heard of the Thagomizer incident in which the king was killed by a great beast.

  6. says

    there’s no clear dividing line in which, one day, Boss Thag of Mud Wallow becomes King Thag of the Mudwallian People’s Kingdom

    Sure there is. It’s the day when Thag puts on a crown and nobody laughs. It’s when he’s ambitious enough to claim it and powerful enough to make it stick.
    I would say that you have a state the moment that you’re no longer free to decide if you’re a part of it or not. Also, I’m not sure that state equates with government. A state could be run just by a single guy shouting orders. Not a very big one, but still. is that government?

    I feel like maybe this is a relevant place to mention this, from Gene Wolfe:

    “Severian. Name for me the seven principles of governance.”
    It was an effort for me to speak, but I managed (in my dream, if it was a dream)to say, “I do not recall that we have studied such a thing, Master.”
    “You were always the most careless of my boys,” he told me, and fell silent.
    A foreboding grew on me; I sensed that if I did not reply, some tragedy would occur. At last I began weakly, “Anarchy…”
    “That is not governance, but the lack of it. I taught you that it precedes all governance. Now list the seven sorts.”
    “Attachment to the person of the monarch. Attachment to a bloodline or other sequence of succession. Attachment to the royal state. Attachment to a code legitimizing the governing state. Attachment to the law only. Attachment to a greater or lesser board of electors, as framers of the law. Attachment to an abstraction conceived as including the body of electors, other bodies giving rise to them, and numerous other elements, largely ideal.”

    I think this speaks mostly to the reasons people have for feeling loyalty to the state or the state’s propaganda reason for why you should. It’s starts with the simple “he’s a great guy, of course he should be king”, and ends with “our Founding Fathers passed this form of government to us, grounded in the constitution and protecting the rights of the voting public to choose their own leaders, thus granting the government the consent of the governed.”
    It seems to miss the part where it’s most often just “attachment to your life, which will definitely end horribly if you ever oppose King Thag.” Then again, I’m not sure this part was ever technically supposed to be about government. Link with extended quote and discussion, if you’re interested.

    And sorry if this was a bit of a rant. Something clicked.

  7. Ketil Tveiten says

    Tides of History is great stuff. Lots of good economic history in the older episodes about the transition from the medieval to the early modern period, too.

    A Collection Of Unmitigated Pedantry (url is acoup.blog) is also excellent, cannot be missed. Check out e.g. the series of posts on Sparta for a starter, or one of the many «how correct is this stuff» posts looking at military stuff (battles, sieges, armor and weapons, logistics or the lack thereof) in pop-culture hits like Game of Thrones and LotR.

    For a quite chill tangent on archaeology, you can find all the episodes of Time Team on youtube. It’s remarkably relaxing to watch some British people dig square holes in the ground and be excited about the stones they find, highly recommended as well.

  8. Ketil Tveiten says

    Forgot to mention: ACOUP is currently in the middle of a series of posts on the end of the Roman Empire in the west, so there’s another tie-in for you.

  9. Dunc says

    Seconding Ketil Tveiten’s recommendation for Time Team @ #7… It’s a bit oddly constrained by the “we only have 3 days…” format (which I believe grew out of an undergrad training / rescue archaeology program where they had to cram the work into weekends), but in many ways I think it’s one of the best representations of how science works that’s ever appeared on television – because you get to see them making mistakes (lots of mistakes!) and re-evaluating the evidence as it comes in, more-or-less in real time. Some of the most interesting episodes are the ones where they start out with a very clear idea of what a site is and what they expect to find, only to end the weekend having proven that everything they thought they knew was wrong and with basically no idea of what the hell they’ve been looking at. They really show the sausage being made, and sometimes they don’t end up with sausage at all… I also love the very polite but quietly furious academic disagreements between the various experts, all of whom are quite “colourful” personalities.

  10. Pierce R. Butler says

    There’s an interesting question … “when is something a ‘state’?” … here’s where it gets interesting: one of the best ways to tell you’re looking at an emergent state is signs of inequality.

    … but I don’t have an interest in who invented politics and when.

    Internal contradictions signify impending doom.

  11. sonofrojblake says

    there are no “English” they’re just more or less Roman

    I do get weary of this pernicious “we’re all immigrants really” bullshit. It plays into the hands of the likes of Nick Griffin and so-called Tommy Robinson and their far-right ilk by disingenuously trying to pretend that the UK in general, and England in particular, is and always has been a great big ethnic melting pot, when the truth is that nothing, nothing at all, happened that substantially affected the genetic/ethnic makeup of this land for well over a thousand years. For more than a millienium, we were in the vast, ludicrously overwhelming majority Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, with traces of Celts like the Brigantes.

    Then, after the second world war, there was another invasion, this one by people coming in peace from the Caribbean and from south Asia, that for the first time drastically affected the ethnic makeup of our society.

    Yes, before that there were ethnic minorities here, in much the same way that there are Jews in North Dakota, which is to say yes, they’re there, but they would all be able to live on the same street without anyone calling it a ghetto.

    The USA has always been a melting pot, not least because there were already diverse people there before we (and the Dutch, and the Spanish, and the Germans, and the Portuguese, and the Italians) ever turned up and started importing Africans. But if you’re honest, if you know what you’re talking about, and you’re not too politically correct to report the facts, the history of the people who live in England is absolutely nothing like that. And it really winds me up when people on the left (and it is always people on the left) can’t be honest about it. It’s not racist to say it. It helps racists to try to conceal it.

  12. Dunc says

    For more than a millienium, we were in the vast, ludicrously overwhelming majority Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, with traces of Celts like the Brigantes.

    Nope. Anglo-Saxon and Viking between them are almost certainly less than 50%. The single biggest genetic component of the modern British population is still from the Bell Beaker people.

    Where we unquestionably are a melting pot is culturally. And it’s very noticeable how racists switch back and forth between arguing about the genetic data, and arguing about how they’re not really racist, they’re just concerned about culture, depending on which they think will be most advantageous to them at any given moment…

  13. sonofrojblake says

    I don’t so much think of us as a cultural melting pot, more the world’s greatest ever bunch of cultural thieves. Language, art, music, technology, fashion, if you’ve got it and we like it… Well, it’s ours now. Congratulations, you’ve been discovered.

  14. seattlesipper says

    > The USA has always been a melting pot, not least because there were already diverse people there before we (and the Dutch, and the Spanish, and the Germans, and the Portuguese, and the Italians) ever turned up and started importing Africans.

    The “United States as a melting pot” idea is a polite fiction, somewhat akin the the long-living “lost cause” fiction of the American (?) Confederacy. When in St. Louis, “the hill” is the Italian part of town and the “north side” is where the Black folks live. In Chicago, the Black folks live on the south side, and the Polish neighborhood is around Pulaski somewhere. Seattle has an “International District”, originally named “Chinatown”. And on it goes. We all know where a particular group lives and the groups do not often mix. Whypipo do not cross town to attend a Black church, even if the theological affiliations are the same. We may attend a Vietnamese New Year celebration, but most of us attend as observers and outsiders. The reality in the United States is far from a “melting pot”.

    A much better metaphor is the fruit cake. There are concentrated lumps held together by a binder. Sarcasm aside, the net result is a pleasing bit of a-homogeneity at the small scale, not a pot of melted, gray crayons.

    This comment relates to the rise of civilization because the original nuggets that congeal are rather homogeneous. Let us join together under Thag because all of us in this valley speak the same dialect of Mudwallian, we celebrate the same holidays and festivals, we use the same coinage, and we are intermarried, making us distinct from the rabble and barbarians in the next valley over. Over time, our mud walls cannot contain us as trading breaks down some of the invisible walls between Mudwallia and the next valley over, and we follow a process to merge with ever larger groups that draw new boundaries to make new civilizations. This merging process does not erase the original lines or dialects. The Roman, Alexandrian, Mongol, and Mughal Empires all spanned vast regions with subregions speaking different languages and following different customs. There were certain things that the *[nl] Empire standardized, but when the Bad Times came, the large region (civilization) fractured and regrouped along the lines of the original subregions to merge again in new forms. We forget, but the map of Europe has changed constantly over the last few hundred years (Austria-Hungary, Yugoslavia), and this pattern is repeated throughout the rest of the world. The exceptions come when the original peoples are destroyed (viz. North and South America).

    If you do not like fruit cake, choose another lumpy, heterogeneous metaphor like concrete or conglomerate rock, but let us get rid of the “melting pot” idea for civilizations.

    Where does a “melting pot” metaphor apply? In genetics. Although we make statements about percentages of Bell Beaker, Viking, and other peoples, the fact is that we are not pure lines. We are, each of us individually, melting pots of genes made up of various waves that come out of Africa. Most of the individuals reading this have a dab of Denisovian and a splash of Neanderthal, even though we may have no (known) ancestors from Germany or Siberia. Ironically, the human genetic variety within Africa far outweighs the human genetic diversity in Europe, Asia, and the Americas. It is rather mind-blowing that the Eurasians and Americans are more genetically homogeneous (melting pot) than the original peoples that live today in Africa.

    I got carried away, but this “melting pot” idea is only valid from the narrow point of view of the colonizers.

  15. Rob Grigjanis says

    sonofrojblake @13:

    I don’t so much think of us as a cultural melting pot, more the world’s greatest ever bunch of cultural thieves

    Really, the world’s greatest? We (humans) have been “thieving” since we became humans. “Ooh, see the way the people over the hill make pots/arrowheads/huts/drums/clothes? Let’s do that!”. Whether it’s to achieve technological parity (e.g. stone->bronze->iron), or just because we think it’s cool, we’ve all been doing this shit from day one. In fact, choosing not to do that probably dooms your group to replacement or assimilation.

  16. Dunc says

    I don’t so much think of us as a cultural melting pot, more the world’s greatest ever bunch of cultural thieves.

    Pot-ay-to, pot-ah-to…

  17. Dauphni says

    @Rob Grigjanis #15
    What you’re describing as “thieving” is what we today call copyright infrigement, and really is just copying good ideas other people came up with, which I have no objections to either.
    What the British Empire did was literally load priceless cultural artifacts from all over the world onto their boats so they could ship them off to their own capital city and pretty up the place. That is rightfully called thievery, and on a scale unsurpassed by any other culture in history.

  18. enkidu says

    Just wanted to say thank you Marcus for the links.
    I have an abiding interest, at times amounting to an obsession, with Roman history (or any history really). It has been quiescent for a while but I’m quite happy to have it revived, especially as recent research has questioned many of the “eternal verities” of past historians.
    You, and others, may like “The Rest is History” podcast with Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook. It has a very eclectic collection of topics, one recently was on the “Fall of Rome”.

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