On Barbarians and Civilisations

Earlier this year, I wrote an essay to apply for the University of Michigan’s honours program. It was a piece of writing about history that I quite enjoyed writing. The following was the prompt: The Austrian writer and social critic Karl Kraus wrote, “Civilisations end, since barbarians erupt from it.” Our question to you is, what comes next? I decided that I’d change it up a little bit on this blog and share my writing:

On Barbarians and Civilisations

Terror cimbricus’: the terror of the Cimbri. Such was the fear that this particular barbarian tribe struck in the hearts of the Romans, in the 2nd century B.C., that a word was coined to describe the panic inside the Eternal City. The destruction wrought on Italy and the shattering of countless Roman legions showed clearly why invading tribes had, through the millennia, always been the dread of civilised societies. Only under the leadership of Gaius Marius, a formidable general, was the Roman Republic able to finally defeat the Cimbri and guarantee its own survival.

Or that, at least, is the version that the Roman historians have told. It may be ironic, in a sense, that the Romans should term the Cimbri ‘barbarian’. To imply that they were a savage, uncivilised tribe perhaps implies a degree of cultural and moral superiority. So never mind, then, that the Romans provoked the Cimbri, who trusted Roman assurances of free passage but were then ambushed by a consul while peacefully leaving Gaul. Just as one man’s terrorist may be another man’s freedom fighter, a civilisation in someone’s eyes could be viewed by another as a mere facade over treacherous savagery. The Cimbri could be viewed as barbarians for their violence; by the same yardstick, however, the Romans would barely have fared better.

To be sure, some clear elements did indeed differentiate the culture of the Roman civilisation from that of the nomadic tribes. The Roman Republic could boast of its adherence to laws and the Roman constitution, a democratic system of government and a commitment to equality in citizenship. It is ironic, then, that these values would be brought down not by a ‘barbarian’ tribe, as the Romans so feared, but instead through the erosion of the Roman Republic’s ideals by none other than Marius, the barbarian-slayer. Marius accumulated unprecedented power in the Republic and set a precedent for waging bloody power struggles. This trend would continue under his nephew Julius Caesar, who also engaged in civil wars with enemies and eventually installed himself as dictator for life. Despite the veneer of civilisation, the Romans were still perfectly capable of murdering each other, indeed on a grand scale; with the civil wars came the need for stability, and absolute power eventually prevailed. The Roman Republic all but abandoned its most deeply held ideals that distinguished it from what it saw as other decadent barbarian nations. So when Karl Kraus wrote that “civilisations end, since barbarians erupt from it”, he may not be referring at all to a barbarian invasion. Rather, Kraus could be pointing us to the barbarian within: what biologist Thomas Huxley felt was the struggle between cultural morals and our more primal instincts. Perhaps there is a natural tendency in civilisation towards decline and decay.

It can be argued, then, that if such a tendency was demonstrated in the Roman Republic, it could also happen anywhere else. Many political observers have recently perceived parallels between the decline and fall of the Roman Republic and developments in the United States, another country that prides itself on its republican values. Recent years has seen more power concentrated in the executive branch, gridlock on Capitol Hill and even doubt casted on the legitimacy of democratic election results. As Paul Krugman observed in a piece comparing republican Rome and the US: “The erosion of democratic foundations has been underway for decades”. This is not an isolated trend; doubt in the governing class continues to grow in many Western countries, resulting in events as varied as the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union to the continued electoral success of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, who has prided himself on building an ‘illiberal democracy’. In the perspective of some, this could very well be the unleashing of inner ‘barbarians’ to break apart the cornerstones of what we count as our ‘civilisation’, the international order of liberal democracies.

Yet, as a relativist approach would not allow us to label the Cimbri ‘barbarian’ and the Romans ‘civilised’, how do we decide when Huxley’s primal instincts have erupted? Just as imperial Rome provided a stability that republican Rome lacked, are voters wrong for voting against their own ‘civilisational’ values? To what extent can we be certain that the barbarians are wrong and the civilised are right?

We do not yet know what the answer is to this debate. But some sociologists have proposed a cyclical theory of history: that civilisations must rise, fall and be displaced. However, a long view of history could also perhaps lead us to believe that there may be a trend line, that despite setbacks and false starts, civilisation progresses towards greater prosperity. A particularly Eurocentric view of civilisation would see a Roman Empire that eventually crumbled away, replaced by the very barbarians it had struggled so mightily against, but that the Renaissance eventually allowed civilisation to continue on the path towards greater development. We do not know whether we in the 21st century stand on a peak or a trough in the cyclical model of development. But can we not also be hopeful that despite the tumultuous fluctuations of civilisational development and the occasional eruptions of barbarianism, this trend of greater prosperity and justice will continue into the future? Is the debate we are having about the nature of our values not simply part of a larger dialogue about the betterment of our society?

Martin Luther King once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Thus, to answer the question of what comes next: internal and external barbarians there may be, but despite their eruptions, we can be hopeful that a more just and prosperous society will emerge.

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