What Have the Pythons Ever Done For Us?

[cross-posted on Albion’s Seedlings]

From comedy troupe Monty Python’s Life of Brian:
REG: All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?
XERXES: Brought peace.
REG: Oh. Peace? Shut up!

As described by the Times recently, Monty Python member Terry Jones has written a book which attempts to correct the good press that the Romans have been getting for the last two thousand years by outlining recent discoveries of the technical accomplishments of the pre-Roman Celts in Britain. They weren’t such “barbarians” after all … they built their own roads, and created their own metallurgical masterpieces, innovated with the chariot in war, and were probably nice to their kids, as well.

Now I’m wondering how a comedian and amateur historian gets placed in the role of righting what apparently is a Great Moral Wrong of ancient history — the tired straw man of Celtic backwardness. Apparently times are tough in the history departments of British universities. No tweedy scholar with a promotional bent is up to the task. But in the spirit of Terry Jones, let me also do a bit of armchair amateur philosophizing … about the recent popularity of downgrading Roman accomplishment, whether say in Robert Wright’s Nonzero (2001), or Mr. Jones’ new book.

It’s no accident that we’re seeing a flurry of historical revisionism in the last five years, a time filled with loose talk about the American Colossus, imperial over-reach, and “not since the Romans.” Every American mote is fondly embraced, while the rest of the world’s beams are conveniently ignored. Darfur can be up to its knees in blood and the only sound to be heard is the bleating media … “What have the Americans ever done for Us?”

So our public historical discourse has devolved into comparisons of apples and oranges, and apple seeds and apples. Cultural relativism is now about reasserting cultural self-esteem and designating the historical Victim. We can see a similar disingenuousness when economic historians of the Left attempt to explain why the Industrial Revolution occurred in Europe. Try Mokyr’s “The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy” for a useful corrective.

Mixed into all this resurgent Celtic love is a religious and cultural identity crisis. God forbid (er, Great Mother forfend) that the Wiccans shouldn’t get equal billing with the Christian Church in British history. It’s tough for the British to find their treasured Victim-hood in the overwhelming affluence and freedom of the modern Anglosphere. It’s all too, how shall we say it, “Roman.”

Based on my visits to several dozen Roman sites in Britain and Scotland, my reading about Roman material culture and late Medieval Europe, the Anglo-Saxon period in England, (and Lex’s coaching on legal topics) over the last two years, let me take my amateur stab at comparing the Celts and the Romans.

Roman military expansion in northwest Europe had an impact very much like our own few centuries of European economic globalization. By establishing continental economic networks, the peripheral parts of the Empire (like Britain) experienced a substantial distortion of local economies (e.g. growing corn & barley to feed distant Romans rather than grains and livestock for the locals). There was also the importation of substantial technological/artistic/administrative/military skills (think intellectual property) from Mediterranean Roman culture. Those peripheral cultures could not afford to implement huge capital developments (aka foreign direct investment). Anyone who can look at the 70 miles of Hadrian’s Wall, complete with elaborate ditches, stone walls, mile-forts, sectional fortresses, river bridges composed of solid multi-ton stone blocks, military roads, and shipping depots (in Newcastle) … and claim that the Celts were somehow on par … is flogging an agenda not a technological argument. The Brits spent 1500 years just poaching the cut stone, brick and tile from Roman construction — literally “free money” to them. British roads weren’t built to Roman standards til after 1750 (when British military engineers responded to the Rebellion of the 1740’s by excavating Roman roads for technical details and then proceeded with a road-building frenzy … often simply on top of the old Roman roadbeds in Scotland!).

The distinction with our own time of economic globalization, as noted in an e-mail exchange with Lex, was that Roman society was slave-based for much of its labour input. As a result, by definition, much of Roman construction, economic activity, and “high” culture was predicated on many, many people living in servitude. The rural villas of the Roman British era were meant for Roman landowners … Roman slaveowners … but people of our own era would far prefer to live in such country homes than in the buildings of any subsequent era (til the 20th century). For one thing, the Romans were clean freaks. The Celts obviously preferred more British freedom and fewer Roman concrete walls/roads/sewers/baths, etc. etc.. Whatever their accomplishments, they weren’t able to unify in the face of an economically and technologically dominant culture. Squalor or servitude. Not much of a choice. As Tacitus notes, putting words in the Celt’s mouth, “they [the Romans] make a desert and call it peace.” One can only imagine that most of the modern world, watching its kids fawn over Hollywood actors and wearing gangsta clothing, would say the same thing.

Nonetheless, comparing Celtic material/technological innovation with Roman material/technological achievement is like comparing Third world space programs with the NASA/EU/Russian space programs. Yeah, stuff goes up in space in both cases … just not as often, as successfully, as significantly, or as far.

The dated straw man of “ignorant Celtic barbarians” should not be replaced by “just like each other” nor (apart from the sad old IQ debate) “just as good as each other” … a wood road across the Severn mud-flats doesn’t equate to tens of thousands of miles of roads across mountains, forests, and deserts maintained for centuries … sorry. And the odd bit of excellent metal-work can hardly compare to a continental network of manufacture and supply that put glass windows, basilicas, massive stone sculptures, and catapults almost as far north as Inverness in the Scottish Highlands.

The parallels with modern times are striking … because no small impoverished country in the world now makes its own watches, sneakers/trainers, televisions, business suit styles, musical notation or a replacement for the International Phonetic Alphabet. In the sorrier parts of the world, they sell copra or beachfront access for such things. In the sorriest parts of the world, they grow dope and sell humans. In the very worst parts of the world, they simply trans-ship stuff from elsewhere and provide a law-free zone. They could do all kinds of wonderful things, but in the current global economic environment none of those things have immediate economic value, nor any global cultural interest. As Strabo noted at the approach of the Current Era, Britain “produces corn, cattle, gold, silver and iron. These things are exported, along with hides, slaves and dogs suitable for hunting.” Roman arrogance aside, it doesn’t sound like the ancient world was in awe of Celtic creativity.

Should modern global trade collapse, for whatever reason, many nations would seek to create local replacements and would come up with some great new ideas (through unique innovation, drawing on inheritances or relict skills from the globalized period, etc.) … just as “Dark Age” Europe, we now know, innovated widely but was still in constant contact with the ideas, money, and skills of the Byzantine Empire from 400 – 1000AD, at which point the Northern Italian republics started to reassert their technological and economic dominance of the Mediterranean. In turn, the northern Italians were instrumental thereafter in spreading a wave of new (and old Roman) skills to the Lowlands and England.

I suspect this Celts were Good Too initiative is just an amateur iteration of Bad Romans=Bad Americans … suppressing our natural capacities at innovation and achievement, reminiscent of European claims for job-creation … “our jobs would be much better than American jobs, er … if we could create jobs.”

The fact that it’s an ex-Monty Python member flogging historical revisionism is deliciously ironic in so many ways. While Spamalot puts comfortable bums in expensive Broadway seats, Mr. Jones mutters about underappreciated Celts who lived and died two millennia ago. Nothing quite so satisfying as a life filled with both Gold and Virtue. I wonder if the shade of Togidubnus — reputed sellout king of the Regni Celts during the Roman invasion of Britain — recalls his glamourous Roman palace at Fishbourne in southern England (the remains are impressive to this day) and laughs uproariously at the new Celt wannabees bemoaning their new Roman overlords. “It’s good to be King,” one imagines him saying to himself. And for the comfortable multitude in the modern global economy, even for those much less than comfortable, the Anglosphere, and its American giant, are a target for equal parts envy and greed. How to be a Celt in a Roman World?

So “what have the Pythons ever done for us?” When we get our history from comedians, perhaps only our historians are left to record the farce of Utopianism and post-modern victimology.

14 thoughts on “What Have the Pythons Ever Done For Us?”

  1. Long term military success is often a good indicator of a superior civilization. Winning repeatedly is not just a matter of battlefield tactics but requires the constant support of the entire society. History is full of peoples who produced a superior military leader (like Alexander the Great) who could win battles but whose works did not survive their own demise.

    The Romans conquered as they did because they could consistently out organize their competitors even if doing so took decades. The Celts in particular could never maintain cohesion long enough to win anything more than local short-term victories. If they won one year, the Romans would just come back the next and the next until they got what they wanted.

    Especially in the era of the Republic, the character of individual leaders counted for less than overall attributes of the total society. It was precisely at the point that this ceased to be true in the imperial era that Rome began to falter.

  2. Much as I love those old Python shows, this is not surprising. I suppose you are aware that Jones has been a … humor (?) … columnist for the Guardian for the last few years?

  3. A historian, Peter Onuf, visited our little school a few weeks ago. I asked him about the Cousins’ Wars; he announced it was a terrible, terrible book. Since I’m not too far into it & we English types were there only at the sufferance of the history types, I didn’t argue because I didn’t know enough. But I had more doubts as his argument continued that he thought Fischer was wrong. Onuf argued that culture didn’t change circumstances; bigger things then culture did. Well, maybe–to someone coming out of English, of course, this was pretty close to heresy at the Arnoldian church to which I belong.

    In the early seventies, Goetzmann used to point out that the different ethnic groups settled the west in different ways – because to a large extent they looked at the country in different ways. The English, he argued, looked about and tried to figure out how they could use whatever was there. That led to a more various, more productive, and longer term adaptation to the new world. That was culture. (I do figure that however much the Pulitzers have their lack of proportion, two winners like Fischer & Goetzmann may be on to something big.)

    Both McCormick’s post & Shannon’s comment demonstrate that culture was (and is) very, very important. I would suggest that we can see in the U.S. army’s cheerful attitude toward a concept not unlike England’s shopkeepers something pragmatic & productive.

  4. Historians these days are unwilling to talk about these things. In short, they are being dishonest as a result of ideology. The kinds of cultural factors that Fischer, Philips and others write about are real and they are relied upon by political consultants, marketers of consumer products, jury consultants, and others to make major decisions. They do not have the luxury of playing politically correct make-believe games. Ethno-religious-cultural factors are reliable predictors for all kinds of behavior. If the academics are too fastidious to talk about reality, then the non-academics will do it instead.

  5. If you have any doubts, look at the synopsis of the book on amzon.co.uk:

    No one nowadays would try to tell the story of the British Empire from the point of view of the British, but it’s still the case that the story of the Roman Empire is always told from the perspective of Rome. Well, not any more! Accompanying a 4-part BBC2 spring 2006 TV series, also fronted by Terry Jones, this is the story of Roman history as seen by the Britons, Gauls, Germans, Hellenes, Persians and Africans. And suddenly the Romans don’t look at all familiar. In place of the propaganda spectacles the Romans pushed on our noses, we’ll see these people as they really were. The Vandals didn’t vandalize – the Romans did. The Goths didn’t sack Rome – the Romans did. Attlia the Hun didn’t go to Constantinople to destroy it, but because the emperor’s daughter wanted to marry him. Show an “Asterix” comic to an ancient Gaul and – surprise, surprise – he wouldn’t realise that it was supposed to be about him. His life was more sophisticated than a Roman’s, not more primitive. Terry Jones travels round the geography of the Roman Empire – through Europe and Africa – bringing wit, irreverence, passion and the very latest scholarship to transform a history that seemed well past its sell-by date, and make it relevant to living with the new American world empire.

    Yeah, “post-modern victimology” is exactly the right phrase. This is sad. Terry Jones used to be funny.

  6. Sidelight: The Python dialog at the beginning of the post echoes a far older text:

    For R. Judah, R. Jose, and R. Simeon were sitting, and Judah, a son of proselytes, was sitting near them. R. Judah commenced [the discussion] by observing, “How fine are the works of this people[the Romans]! They have made streets, they have built bridges, they have erected baths.” R. Simeon b. Yohai answered and said, “All that they made they made for themselves; they built market-places, to set harlots in them; baths, to rejuvenate themselves; bridges, to levy tolls for them.”

    Babylonian Talmud Tractate Shabbat 33b

  7. Both. I’d begun Phlllips’ book & since Onuf was talking about the Revolutionary period (his specialty is Jefferson & he teaches at Virginia), I asked him what he thought about Phillips’ theory. He said it was a terrible idea for a book and then he went on to lump it with Fischer & others that he felt weighted culture more than it should be. Fischer, Phillips (& Goetzmann) discuss quite different times & places, but all see the ethnicity and culture as having a large role in determining which actions a group of people are likely to choose and how they look at the world around them.

  8. Robert,

    Someone once told me that he saw anti-Roman graffiti in Hebrew on the Arch of Titus in Rome. I wonder how often this occurs.

  9. Ginny:

    Thank You. I have not previously heard of Onuf, but I googled him, and he seemed like a perfectly conventional Americanist. Which is to say that he probably has certain weak spots and blinders, as do we all.

    I have a M.A. in American History. (I also have a J.D., I needed a day job). I received it 25 years ago from the University of Michigan. It was not until years later that I studied British and European history more broadly.

    I read David Hume’s History of England, which spends a lot of time on such unfashionable topics as the political theories of the participants in the parliamentary debates that lead to the Civil War. It was as if the scales had fallen from my eyes. I understood for the first time that the US Constitution was a reply in a century old debate inside the mother country. I also began to understand that the emotional energy behind the American Revolution derived from English Civil War and that much of that energy was, in turn, derived from the Reformation.

    What I realized was that American History as it has been practiced and taught in the United States has been woefully deficient in ignoring the British and European context of American history and ignoring the religious and cultural matrix within which the USA was born.

    British Historians have not been much of a corrective because they were ensnared by marxism.

  10. — bringing wit, irreverence, passion and the very latest scholarship to transform a history that seemed well past its sell-by date, and make it relevant to living with the new American world empire. —

    Boy, do I have a response to that comment when it’s made in forums.

  11. Jones has been writing about this kind of thing for quite a while now, and there’s no question about his political agenda in doing so.

    (He’s also the least successful of the ex-Pythons, except for Chapman of course.)

  12. Terry Jones has produced a crude piece of anti-Roman propaganda. The Romans did not call all foreigners “barbarians”: this term was seldom applied to the Jews, Carthaginians or Parthians. The barbarians were typically northern tribes who were continually fighting amongst themselves and little concept of the rule of law.

    His account of Trajan’s conquest of Dacia is a travesty, leaving out prior raiding of Roman provinces by King Decebal and his subsequent treachery after accepting a peace treaty.

    His scorn poured on Roman historians like Tacitus is also an outrage, given that he uses them as sources for Roman misdeeds. He believes Tacitus when he tells us that Roman officials raped Boudicca’s daughters, but not when he tells us that the Druids practiced human sacrifice!

    Jones is an emotional neo-Druid riding an anti-imperialist hobby-horse because of his dislike of modern-day America. Those who have a serious interest in this subject should read Romans and Barbarians by Derek Williams.

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