On 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.