I am back once again to wrestling with Chris Wickham’s fascinating but huge Framing the Early Middle Ages, but have yet again got distracted from thinking about peasants, even though that’s what the current section I’m reading is focused on. My distraction is, though, due to one particular strand of Chris’ argument (in Chapter 8, especially pp. 476-478), in which he argues for a militarisation of the western Roman aristocracy that occurred before widespread barbarian settlement within the empire, particularly in the north of Gaul. (Here he is building on the work of C.R. Whittaker, which I haven’t yet read). Chris associates this with a move away from a villa-based lifestyle of cultured leisure and the bringing of urban values into the countryside. Instead, this militarised aristocracy had a simpler material culture, at least in terms of buildings aristocratic residences are harder to tell from peasant ones. But this development seems to have happened at a time of relative peace in northern Gaul (the fourth century), and exchange patterns were largely maintained. In other words, this is a cultural shift, rather than a reaction to a crisis.
When I hear the word ‘culture’ of course, I immediately reach not for my gun, but for my theories of gender. The life of rural ‘otium’ and the militarised lifestyle are both essentially pursuits of elite men, even if aristocratic women did play a supporting role in both. The question then becomes why did the western senatorial elite abandon one form of aristocratic masculinity for another one? I think this ties into wider questions about the ways in which a male elite can achieve and then maintain dominance over ‘other’ men, whether it’s peasants, urban plebs or aspiring social climbers.
As a very broad-brush statement, most preindustrial societies have male elites who are militarised, whether it’s the Aztecs, the Hindu Kshatriyas, Zulu chieftains or Homeric kings. This isn’t so much because men, or even elite males, are intrinsically violent, brutal, etc. It’s the fact that military success is heavily dependent on better training than others (which means you can’t spend too much of your time doing other kind of work), better equipment than others (expensive) and a larger army than others (exceptionally expensive). And if you’re part of this military elite, in one sense, it’s easy to maintain your social position against your inferiors: if they don’t do what you say, or are slow paying tax/tribute/protection money, you beat them up, either personally or with your handy following.
On the other hand, this is hard work, and not invariably successful: even a fully-armoured knight can be defeated if you have enough bloody-minded and ingenious peasants. It’s also expensive, especially if you have an army or a following to maintain, because the one thing an emperor/male aristocrat/chieftain etc cannot afford to do is piss off close followers (or a whole legion) who happen to be rather handy with the weapons he’s so carefully supplied them with.
Therefore, another part of elite male dominance tends to be producing cultural superiority: creating and maintaining the belief that the top men are simply better, so that those below know their place, do what they’re told, and don’t need to be coerced physically (or only occasionally). In a sense, the form this cultural superiority takes doesn’t really matter, whether it’s being able to compose Latin hexameters, or tracing one’s ancestry back a hundred generations, or having been to Harvard, or understanding a balance sheet. All that matters is that the elite have some skills/knowledge/experiences that only they can easily gain, and that they are able to convince others that these skills/knowledge/experiences prove their superiority.
A third alternative is simple economic dominance by the male elite, where those who are richest are best. But my impression is that there aren’t many societies where elite masculinity is marked just by wealth, rather than wealth plus military dominance or wealth plus cultural dominance. This is probably because it’s easier to maintain your wealth if you’ve got hairy men with big swords to protect you (in a world without effective law and order) or if you’ve got the political system set up so that enough people believe it’s wrong to confiscate your wealth (in a more ordered and democratic world).
So the question then becomes the balance between military and cultural factors in elite masculinity in a particular society. The masculinity of the imperial Roman senatorial elite is unusual for most preindustrial societies precisely because it’s not militarised. The nearest parallels are probably the traditional Chinese exaltation of the scholar and the Talmud’s model of rabbinic masculinity (though there may be other examples elsewhere). In all of these, you’ve got societies where military activity and its control has essentially been delegated or transposed elsewhere, and you have an exalted masculinity that’s more or less purely based on civilian cultural activities, which are so time-consuming that only a favoured few can excel in them.
The move from a militarised ideal of masculinity to a more culturally-based one, as I’ve already suggested, makes sense if you want to maintain an existing dominance, while cutting down on your expenses, and the amount of coercion involved. It’s worth noting the argument by Myles McDonnell in Roman manliness: ‘virtus’ and the Roman republic that earlier Roman ideas of masculinity (till the later second century BC) focused heavily on martial prowess (although his ideas have been criticised). But why make the other move: from a civilian form of elite masculinity to a more militarised one?
One of the obvious answers is that it’s a response to a time of crisis: you can’t afford to stay a peaceful civilian Roman once there are hoards of hairy barbarians coming to destroy your central heating and bring on the Dark Ages. But if Chris’ suggestions about timing are right, this isn’t what is happening in the late antique example. Even in northern Italy, where villa culture seems to collapse just before the Gothic Wars in the mid C6, when the area is under Ostrogothic control, this isn’t a time of particular barbarian violence against Romans, as Cassiodorus’ experience shows.
But what Cassiodorus also shows is the limits of cultural dominance. Such dominance only works if those competing for dominance (and those who are being dominated) are prepared to be impressed. Cultural dominance requires an appreciative audience for its effect, and this audience cannot be taken for granted. There is nothing intrinsically ‘better’ in being able to speak Latin, or ride a horse, or know the right kind of wine to drink, than being able to speak Welsh, or milk a cow, or know the difference between a blue tit and a great tit. Cultural dominance relies on certain kinds of knowledge and skill being defined, more or less arbitrarily, as valuable and certain kinds being less so. In contrast, it is always relatively easy to impress someone if you have the ability to kill or hurt them, even if not in a very refined way.
In a frontier zone, where there is an increased large-scale mixing of Romanised and Germanised populations, cultural dominance becomes harder than in the earlier days of the Roman empire, when a relatively small barbarian elite had to be Romanised. Military prowess becomes a simpler and more direct way to maintaining elite dominance, and at some part would have a snowball effect, when the audience for traditional Roman culture simply collapses. The Roman empire’s new clothes are revealed to be a sham, and a purely militarised elite re-emerges. Under the Carolingians, of course, this military elite is once again encouraged to become cultured, but that’s a different story…