Anniversary Post: No More Barbarian Clothes!

Emperor Honorius - Jean-Paul LaurensOn this day in 397, Emperor Honorius banned the wearing of barbarian clothing in Rome. It’s always interesting to me that the definition of “barbarian” is simply “not Roman” — or more generally, “Not us.” Every society thinks that its ways are the best, so other peoples must be inferior. In this particular case, Honorius seems to have had the Visigoths in mind. But what did he know anyway? He was only 12 years old.

I don’t necessarily think that the Roman Empire was especially bad. But I do think that we tend to hold up the Roman Empire as a much greater thing than it was simply because of centuries of Catholic propaganda. It is wrong to judge civilizations outside their time, but the Roman Empire was highly fascistic. It’s important to remember that when people recount barbarian misbehavior.

Of course, the biggest problem with even talking about this stuff is that most of what we know about conflicts between the Romans and the barbarians comes to us from Roman writers. Imagine how the history of the world would look if all we had left in a century were the official histories out of North Korea.

The main thing is that people are bigoted. They don’t like outsiders. This is a fact that libertarians can’t seem to get their heads around. (At the same time, they realize that democracy is a great impediment to their policy prescriptions.) I do understand that Alaric I was an existential threat to Honorius and his empire. But I don’t see how policing clothing was a helpful policy.

Here is the Visigoths episode of Terry Jones’ Barbarians. It’s very good, but bear in mind that Jones is not exactly a fan of the Romans.

We mark this day in the history of intolerance.

4 thoughts on “Anniversary Post: No More Barbarian Clothes!

  1. When I started reading this, I thought of Jones’s stuff. One can take or leave it, but he’s the best kind of contrarian. He’s not trying to pimp his own legacy (that legacy is secure), just posing alternative historical views. Maybe Rome wasn’t all that great; maybe the Dark Ages weren’t so bad as advertised. (Peasants had more days off than we do, thanks to Catholic holy days; no doubt, how the Church maintained its power, by providing buffer between workers and exploitative landlords.) Jones does make you think; he always has.

    • Growing up, I always thought the Dark Ages were dark because we didn’t know anything about them. It turns out we know a lot and there was a lot going on. I do think we are too Rome-centric. Big empires are all bad. Given I am pretty down on the American empire, I don’t see why I should think any better about the Roman. I know they did good things too, because I’ve seen Life of Brian:

      • Yeah, I remember a loaded question “moderator” Tom Brokaw asked Obama and McCain during a debate: Reagan called Russia an “evil” empire,” would you? McCain said “yep, I’m red meat all the way” (I paraphrase, natch) and Obama said nothing memorable.

        I wish one had answered, “sure, Tom. All empires are evil, including ours.” Not any chance of that happening, but still.

        I wonder if Rome was as lousy by the end at maintaining those good things the “Brian” People’s Front grudgingly admit to as we are today.

        Not that I know much about ancient Rome or Greece besides some translated Greek writing (the usual name writers.) Certainly nothing about their politics, besides Greece city-states being shitty at conquering anything and Rome good at it. I do know that many of our “founders” were more into Rome than Greece. George Washington, in a big way. As Franklin warned, every republic becomes an empire eventually.

        • It does seem that Greece was more along the lines of the libertarian ideal — local control and all. Rome was more along the lines of fascism. Noah Smith has argued that the ultimate refutation of libertarianism is the “barbarians at the gates” problem. I’ve argued much the same thing: libertarianism requires 100% buy in. And even if you got that, the way we know things go is that there would be the very rich and the very poor. And there would be a lot more of the very poor and they would band together and take over everything. It’s interesting that rich libertarians don’t notice this problem. But the rich aren’t exactly farsighted.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.