This post is a bit overdue, but I couldn’t resist the urge to comment on Norman Etherington’s article, “Barbarians Ancient and Modern” in the February volume of The American Historical Review (116 (2011), 31-57).  Etherington compares debates over the role of migrations called the mfecane in southern Africa to the invasions of Rome’s northern borders in the 4th to 6th centuries.

Etherington is particularly interested in considering how scholars of southern Africa could use Walter Goffart’s theory of accommodation in the Late Roman West to reflect on the controversial invasions of that region in the early 19th century. Goffart’s Barbarians and Romans, A.D. 418-584: The Techniques of Accommodation argued that the so-called invaders of the Late Roman state were, in fact, groups who had enjoyed a long period of cultural, social, and political interaction with the Roman state and were nearly as Roman as the Romans themselves. Moreover, he undermined various longstanding efforts to identify these groups as belonging to particular identifiable ethnicities, claims that these groups represented vast quantities of displaced people, and arguments for the role of so-called “barbarians” for the destruction of the Late Roman state.  While not all scholars have accepted Goffart’s arguments, they have continued to be a significant point of contention in arguments for the collapse of the Roman empire in the West.

The significance of these debates for scholars studying southern Africa stems from the value judgments associated with scholarly views of “barbarians” and arguments for ethnogenesis which tend to see migrations as being based upon or leading to the formation of identfiable (typically modern) ethnic groups. Apparently the practice of using oral accounts to identify (and ultimately vilify) groups as the Zulu, for example, during the period of the mfecane movements in southern Africa has clear parallels with Roman and modern practices of identifying the Goths, the Vandals, and even the Huns on the basis of problematic ancient literary accounts.  Modern scholars steeped in 19th century ideas of ethnicity, nationalism, and colonialism read ancient texts and oral histories as confirming their own views of ethnogensis in both Africa and antiquity.  These views, then, served to justify colonialist practices in southern Africa just the same way that modern (and ancient) readings of ethnicity in the Late Roman West served as foundation myths for modern nation states.

While reading this article, I couldn’t help but think of the controversies involving the so-called “Slavic invasions” of Greece in the 6th and 7th centuries which have played such a key role in the construction of periodization schemes for the Late Roman East and arguments for the persistence of a Greek ethnic identity through time.  The parallels between this narrative and the better known narratives involving the “fall of Rome” in the western part of the Late Roman Empire are obvious.  I wonder what role periodization played in the reading of the mfecane in South Africa? Historical periodization often depends, particularly in a colonial context, on identifying the arrival of one group and the displacement of another. In other words, ethnicity, ethnogenesis and periodization have a clear points of interdependence which are all the more striking in the context of the colonial encounter.

This article also provided me with food for thought when I realized how influential arguments for the end of antiquity have been for the genesis of modern nation-states in Europe, for the architects of the colonial encounter abroad, and for more recent scholars who have sought to understand the colonialization process. In the 19th century, administrators and scholars attempting to understand the migrations and bloodshed associated with the mfecane in South Africa looked to the Late Roman invasions for points of comparison. The flurry of relatively recent activity in the fields associated with Late Antiquity has called into question not only the foundations for the “modern” West, but also the basic interpretative paradigms used by contemporary Western scholars (or in fields indebted to Western epistemologies) to understand the past in a colonial context.

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