Sunday, December 19, 2004

Conquerors Born On The Edge Of Annihilation

[Part on Teutons revised 30/01/2005]

This is the first article in the history series I threatened you with. Behold, you may skipeth them, but you who ignoreth history, thou art bound to repeat it! Lo', the Dark Ages cometh down upon thou!!!

...sorry, now that the manic net preacher solidified his credentials as prophet of doom, back to the regular broadcast. As illustration to the strange turn of fates mentioned in the title, four examples, walking back in time:

In the early second millennium AD, the Baltic people - living on the Eastern and Southern shores of the Baltic Sea - were still pagans, surrounded by Christians on every side. The Easternmost (in what is now Northeastern Germany) even existed as a kingdom prosperous due to trade, with its capital, the Atlantis of the Baltic, Vineta [link in German] - which was destroyed by a Danish king around 1160 AD. Now, at the same time successive Popes sent Crusaders to Palestine, they also set out to 'convert' the remaining Baltic pagans. This was another bloody chapter in the deadly history of the spreading of Christianity - the main Crusader force was the Teutonic Knights, tough crusading armies came from as far as Hungary.

In the middle of the 13th century, a number of tribes formed a defensive alliance against the Teutonic Knights - the new kingdom Lithuania was born. Which soon after began to expand, and conquered today's Belarus, Central and (in part) Western Ukraine, and neighbouring areas in just a century. In the meantime, the king balked on the religion issue and converted to Catholicism, while most of his subjects were Orthodox - the situation became even more complex when Lithuania united with Poland as dual kingdom.

The greatest (and bloodiest) conquerors of all time arose a few decades before the Lithuanians: the Mongols. The area North of China was kind of a hell on Earth: between regular Chinese attacks that can be best described as extermination campaigns, the nomadic tribes did the same to each other, especially in times of famine. Temujen (born c. 1167), the future Ghenghis Khan, was named for a Tatar chief his tribe (led by his father) catched in a raid. But the Tatar tribe took revenge, poisoning his father and dispersing the tribe. So young Temujen hang out with other tribes, and developed the idea to unite them all - to form a force that could measure up with China, too. In which he succeeded, already with much blood - f.e. killing all adult or adolescent males in the Tatar tribe that almost drove to extinction his own, after he beat them in 1202. (BTW, his palace was unearthed recently.)

Some of the tribes united as Mongols were descendants of the Huns (Xiongnu). Now that people had a varied history - one largely unknown to most Westerners, as the common reference to their Far East endeavours is that the first Chinese Great Wall was built against them. In the 3rd Century BC, Huns came on the verge of annihilation: pressed on by Qin principality/newly unified China from the South, the Tungusic Donghu people [ancestors to the Manchurians] from the East, and the possible Indo-European Yuezhi from the West. But in 209 BC, Modu/Modok, a prince kept as hostage, escaped the Yuezhi, was elected leader, and immediately started the backlash in all directions.

In 200 BC, the first Han Dynasty Emperor Liu Bang set out with the 300,000-strong imperial Chinese main army to avenge a prince's defeat the previous year - but Modu surrounded it at Mount Baidong (South of Datong) with 400,000 men. After a 7-day battle, peace was agreed, but one can guess the real winner from the fact that henceforth Chinese emperors had to send a sister or daughter as wife to the Hun Chenyu (emperor). But battles broke out periodically anyway (and yes, the Great Wall proved to have little practical value). After a century, the great Hun Empire declined. The Chinese messed heavily in the first civil war (~60-35 BC), which pushed a first group (Zhizhi's Huns: later the Kirghiz[*]) Westward, with the rest now under Chinese influence. In AD 48, the latter split into Northern and Southern branches, of which the latter finally became Chinese subjects. In AD 89, a Chinese army smashed the Northern Huns and split them in two, and hunted those who fled West further in AD 91. Those remaining in the North were exterminated in another campaign AD 125-127.

But both the Southern and Western branches rose again. From AD 304, the former even took over a Northern part of the then splintered Chinese Empire (Hunnic Han/Zhao Dynasty). The Western Huns built a country not well known. But they came on the verge of annihilation again: when a branch of the Donghu, the Toba, conquered most of Northern China later in the fourth century AD, they hunted away the Ruruans[*] - who smashed the Western Huns.

After fleeing Huns, probably heavily mixed up with other nomads on the run, crossed today's Kazakhstan - the great black box of Eurasian history, a region probably more war-infested than Northern China or Europe - they entered European historical records in AD 374: first smashing the Alans, a year later the great Ostrogoth Empire (roughly today's Ukraine), establishing their own in its place. During further expansion, no European army was a match for them - yes, not even on the Fields Of Catalaun in AD 451: the Roman account's interpretation can be more than doubted, with the 'losing' army marching on towards Rome. And what stopped them there? Tough later Church legend credits the Pope, there is a more prosaic explanation: not wanting to catch pestilence. (Actually, malaria: due to a mass burial found in Poggio Gramignano, the AD 452 Italian is the best known antique epidemic.) Tho', after Attila's death the next year, infighting led to the freedom of all the subdued people - and armies; just a year later, the Germanic Gepidae smashed the Huns, their remains assmililating all around.

My last example is the Teutons. Teuten->deuten-deutschen, which means "mean(ing[ful men])", that is, German[-speaker]. Around 121 BC, German tribes in the North (around Denmark) suffered a terrible famine. The largest among the affected were the Cimbri [who may be a Celtic/German mix or transition] and the Teutons, lesser tribes included the Germanic Ambrons and the Celtic Tigurinii. So members of multiple tribes set out to find a better place to live. Only problem, those better places were inhabited - so they turned into a ruthless invasion force, and once they did, they aimed for ever better areas.

First they moved to what is now the Czech Republic, where they met resistance from the Boii, a Celtic tribe. Rather than fight it out, this time they moved further South, across the Danube to what is now Austria then the territory of another Celtic tribe, the Noricii. The Romans, then already ruling all of the Western Mediterranean, were called to help in 113 BC, and they sent an army. The invaders again sought to avoid battle, but according to the Roman's own records, the Roman general perfidiously promised to lead them to good lands, in truth leading them into a trap - only to have his forces annihilated. The tribal alliance then moved East and smashed the then central areas of Celtic(=Gallic) culture, in Northern Switzerland - Southwestern Germany[+] - Romans took note when they had to battle fleeing Helvetians. From 109 BC, the Romans again had to confront the real deal, along the river Rhône. In each battle, entire Roman (& allied) armies were eliminated - 120,000 in the worst (Battle of Arausio, 5 October 105 BC).

However, after that, the tribes again began to move, but the Teutons and Cimbri spit. First they took separate tours across Southern Gallia, then in 103 BC they set out for the Po valley along separate routes. Under the lead of Gaius Marius, Romans defeated them separately in 102 and 101 BC. Defeat meant genocide, killing over a hundred thousand in both cases. (Tough, according to the Roman records, part of this was mass suicides to avoid slavery. But some were taken anyway, and there were some last Cimbri among Spartacus's troops three decades later.)

[*] Ruruans: a nomadic people probably closely related to the Huns. At the end of their relocation, they too set up a great Central Asian empire, covering most of the later 'stans - to be smashed when the Turks, then the Ruruan's ironsmith slaves, rebelled AD 546-553. But no grand empire lasted in Western China - after first the Huihe/Uygurs toppled the Gokturks, around AD 840 the Kirghiz took over for a century - then it was the Khitans' turn...

[+] That's why you'll read of Caesar subduing the Celts in today's France & Belgium, while the 19-15 BC conquering of the onetime Celtic core, now sparsely populated by the Germanic Raetians, is at most a footnote in history books. But, tough no written record exists, archeology shows that Germans already pushed Northern Celts across the Rhine in a war around 200 BC.


At 8:05 AM, Blogger Editor Choice said...

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At 3:19 PM, Blogger Michael J. Farrand said...

Thought you might enjoy my poem about Marius and his battles with the Teutons "The Man Who Saved History".

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