Monday, 22 July 2013

Vae Victis

Modern Depiction of Brennus
In the year 390 BC the Republic of Rome was about to be destroyed. Their armies had been utterly defeated at Allia by the Gauls, who had risen against them from the north. The city was defenceless and the tribunes, rulers and the people of Rome sought shelter on the highest of the seven hills while the Gauls slaughtered those who remained in the Senate House. The defeated Romans eventually tried to buy off the victorious Gauls with gold. An agreement was reached and the Romans agreed to pay a certain weight of gold in return for their lives. When they came down to meet the Gauls they found that the weights that the Gauls were using to measure were fixed. According to the tale, when the Romans complained that this was unfair one of the Gallic leaders unbuckled his sword and tossed it onto the scales in an ominous gesture whilst allegedly crying “Vae Victis!”, which means, “Woe to the vanquished!”

History is written by the victors. It is one of the few truisms about history that everyone knows. The story of the Gallic leader, Brennus, and his sword is just one of the many examples of this. Throughout history most civilisations and empires that ever existed have been destroyed and all that remain are paltry fragments of writings, occasional footnotes in the writings of other civilisations and the names of the vanquished. Who knows how many have left nothing at all behind them?

And yet I feel that the truism, while containing truth, is not complete. The only historical truism that I have found reliable in every instance is that history is never simple. It is instructive to look at the records of the ancient world. The one book from the Middle Eastern early Iron Age that most people have in their homes is the Bible (well, the early Old Testament sections anyway). Yet this record was not written by the victors by any means. The kingdoms of Judah and Israel were never that strong militarily and much of their historical works were composed after they had lost their independence entirely. If one had to pick a word to describe the Jewish people throughout history, “victors” would probably not be the first one that comes to mind. Yet their records remain after the empires that destroyed their cities have faded from memory.

Many of the most iconic Greek historians wrote after their cities had lost their independence to Rome (Plutarch, Polybius, Arrian etc.) The phenomenon is not confined to the Classical era or Europe. The Mongols under Genghis Khan conquered northern China in a particularly brutal fashion but all but one of the best sources of the conflict are composed in Han Chinese and from a Han Chinese perspective. Even in recent times, with all the censorship abilities available to European imperialists, I suspect that Achebe’s Things Fall Apart will prove a more durable cultural artefact than the records of the British administrators and explorers who conquered the area described in Achebe’s work.

So why does the truism fail in these instances when we can see that there is some truth to it. What made these examples different? I think the first and best answer is that certain cultures may be conquered and yet remain culturally distinct because the conquerors may be militarily stronger but may not have the wealth of knowledge to fully document their victories. The business of documentation is therefore left to their better educated subjects who can then write history as it suits them (as long as it does not blatantly insult the new rulers). Instead of “Vae victis” we should perhaps remember the line from HoraceGraecia capta ferum victorem cepit…” (Captive Greece took captive her wild conqueror). To write history it is better to be culturally dominant than militarily dominant.

The other reason is that the victors do not stay victors for long. Of all the empires that have risen in the past only a tiny fraction remain. So what one empire may try to suppress or distort may be resurrected by their successors. It is perhaps most notable for this, that the Gaul Brennus’ militaristic threat to the Roman state was doubtless spoken in some form of Celtic but is only recorded in Latin, by a Roman. Vae victis indeed.
Roman Forum today