norman etherington on the movements of barbarians and settlers, ancient and modern


Norman Etherington,’Barbarians Ancient and Modern’, American Historical Review 116, 1 (2011).

from the intro:

Two noteworthy historical controversies have proceeded in parallel fashion since the early 1980s without the protagonists in either debate being aware of the other. One concerns warfare and migration among early-nineteenth-century African societies and their contribution to the ethnic divisions that flowered under South Africa’s apartheid regime. The other concerns the role of external barbarians and their migrations in the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the founding of enduring European nations. Unquestionably these controversies differ substantially, both in the issues at stake and in their temporal and geographical scale. But they raise similar questions about concepts of tribes, barbarians, and mass migrations formulated by previous generations of historians. Nineteenth-century knowledge about the precolonial societies of Southern Africa was generated by methodologies and assumptions now known to be flawed, with many of them reflecting the legacy of classical studies in the West. Major errors stemmed from the application of inappropriate European models to African societies—models that owed much to the heritage of classical learning about Romans and barbarians. In a parallel development, encounters with exotic peoples on imperial frontiers since the sixteenth century had been reshaping classical scholars’ concepts of ancient barbarians. The result was a complicated process of intellectual interchange: modern conquerors viewed their newly acquired subjects and colonial neighbors through the distorting prism of Roman history, while historians of the classical world continually reinterpreted ancient sources in the light of present-day imperial experience. The critique of evidence developed during the debate on the so-called mfecane in South Africa applies with equal validity to the study of barbarian movements and identities in European late antiquity. It is perhaps not surprising that the two controversies developed along similar lines in the late twentieth century, when old certainties about colonial others and the nature of ethnicity were subjected to unprecedented scrutiny. The central points at issue transcend the disciplinary boundaries of both fields of study, bedeviling historical scholarship wherever national or ethnic movements claim connections to long-past migrations, vanished peoples, or defunct polities.

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