Hey there fans and inveterate enviers! I’m sitting on the top of the influencer world now, occupying my school-of-Stickley rocking armchair (bought second-hand in 2011 in St. Joseph, Michigan, $200) while electricity spills from flame-shaped bulbs (Ace Hardware, $6.99 for 6) after being generated from good old Sol (free; prices for photovoltaic setup and installation vary by locality). And in front of me is a copy of Walter Goffart’s Barbarians and Romans (Princeton University Press, 1980; paperback; $9 used from Powell’s Bookstore, 57th Street, yesterday afternoon). When I’m done with this I have a couple of reviews to check over for a journal and a backlog of student papers. Approximately four reviews and two papers from now, I will want lunch, and though it’s early yet I suspect this may involve some frozen green scallion pancakes from the Chinese market. I’m benefiting from free delivery of the bass track of some rap song, courtesy of my neighbors who are warming up their car. Life is good, especially when I consider all the less exciting things I could be doing.
There should be a word for the following situation, common in my crowd. I knew Walter Goffart for years as a pleasant person to have tea with at the Elizabethan Club in New Haven. We knew many of the same people (often medievalists, now that I think back to it: the Viking historian, the Old English philologist, the person reconstructing Anglo-Saxon pedagogy) but didn’t often talk shop, preferring to direct our mild jabs of irony at the Times from that morning, the latest idiocies of politics, and new novels that one or two of us had read and the others were putting on their to-read lists. But it turns out that this person I knew casually has written an astonishing book. The phenomenon I am referring to might be called the “The Crazy-Haired Dude Who Gave You a Quarter For Mowing His Lawn Was Albert Einstein” double-take.
It was just one of those things that I’d always known that Rome fell (476 AD, right?) to barbarian invasions. My ten-year-old was asking me about it the other day, which is part of why I was standing in front of the medieval section at Powell’s. I could draw you a picture of those barbarian invasions. Hirsute, armed to the teeth, mailed, fist-shaking, horsed, the rude strangers came pouring over the horizon and broke through the walls of one Roman city after another while senators and matrons ran screaming down the forum, tangling their feet in their long curtain-like clothing. But Walter asked what the records showed, and the story is different: groups of foreigners showed up, a few thousand per group, on the fringes of the Roman Empire, and asked to be taken in. They sometimes got allocations of land, sometimes received regular payments from the public purse. In short, it was the usual way that a powerful state, even a somewhat depressed one, handles an influx of refugees, and in time the refugees became a settled population of taxpayers. Goffart offers a story of “undramatic adjustments between Romans and barbarians” (p. 4). It is finely documented on the basis of local sources from across the empire, and makes one wonder whether the dramatic story of invasions and migrations might not be, as they so often are, a construction designed to prepare our minds for the inevitability of policies that seek to “close the floodgates” against the “barbarian tide” menacing Europe, or England, or Bognor Regis, as the case may be. “The attractive power of the empire, typified by the government’s welcome to foreign military elites, had a more certain role than any impulse from the barbarian side in establishing exotic dominations on provincial soil. When set in a fourth-century perspective, what we call the Fall of the Western Roman Empire was an imaginative experiment that got a little out of hand” (pp. 34-35).
It’s always a part of the “Einstein and the Quarter” scenario that when the penny drops, you wish you were back in that clubhouse drinking tea with the man who wrote the provocative book, so you could ask more specific questions — thereby defying, if need be, the tacit rule against talking shop. I’m sure I will be mentally translating the Goffart doctrine into terms suited to Chinese uptake in the coming weeks.
(Like this lifestyle influence column? Guess what — there’s no link you can click on here that will scrape your data and accept your money! Just scrounge around your own neighborhood for used furniture and used books — on paper, please — that will make living through the next disaster or epidemic tolerable.)