History is written by the victors, usually. But using better methods and sources to debunk their PR is sometimes possible and fun. While Greeks and Romans, and later Spanish, French, British and Americans all built vast empires, the cultures they seemingly erased are given short shrift because they lost. How could the decentralized cultures of defunct Saxons, Thracians or Lakota matter in the long run?
James C. Scott, is a professor of anthropology and political science at Yale. He has argued that top down views of cultures obscure their values when they do not intentionally seek to eradicate these. Ultimately, empires must learn to assimilate the local gods if they do not wish to be poisoned by them. In truth, it was successfully doing this and not only centralized control or technology (e.g., roads) which marked the longevity of the Hellenic and then Roman empires. Believing their own PR however is necessary for centralized states and so they consistently underestimate the ability of unruly subjects to shape society in an open and non-absolutist way, which becomes heroic the more it is suppressed.
“In The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, Scott addresses the question of how certain groups in the mountainous jungles of Southeast Asia managed to avoid a package of exploitation centered around the state, taxation, and grain cultivation. Certain aspects of their society seen by outsiders as backward (e.g., limited literacy and use of written language) were in fact part of the “Arts” referenced in the title: limiting literacy meant lower visibility to the state. Scott’s main argument is that these people are “barbaric by design”: their social organization, geographical location, subsistence practices and culture have been carved to discourage states to annex them to their territories. Addressing identity in the Introduction, he wrote:”
… All identities, without exception, have been socially constructed: the Han, the Burman, the American, the Danish, all of them … To the degree that the identity is stigmatized by the larger state or society, it is likely to become for many a resistant and defiant identity. Here invented identities combine with self-making of a heroic kind, in which such identifications become a badge of honor …
— (pp. xii-iii.)
In reflecting on popular misconceptions of Western history which lately tend to celebrate Rome as prototypical empire, I am reminded of The Thracians. The befabled Spartacus was said to have been one of these, and his legend was spun up in a novel by Howard Fast and made into a great Hollywood spectacle by then up and coming Stanley Kubrick which was part of the terminus for the McCarthy era. These people had a decentralized, village-based society, with strong bardic and warrior traditions. They were conquered by invading empires but never really subdued.
The same can be said of Saxons in Britain, who long resisted assimilation into the Frenchified and imperialist Normans, who were Vikings infused with the culture of the nascent Holy Roman Empire, i.e. Romans twice removed.
The Lakota Sioux in The United States were all but eradicated by the US Cavalry, but their culture and identity continue to enliven American counterculture and disestablishmentarian urges.
What these examples share is not fairly described by backward projection of Marxist-Leninist tropes, but can more accurately exemplify the tendancy of local cultures to resist centralized power, as Scott showed in his study of Southeast Asian responses to Imperial China.
Humanity may be stuck with centralized power, but while the sultans may control media, they do not guarantee an outcome free of the leaven of natural anarchism, and they never have. So take heart barbarians. You are stronger than you know!