“The Phoenix on the Sword” - the first published story about Conan the Barbarian - opens at a time when the famous Cimmerian reaver has already trodden “the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet,” and he has become the king of Aquilonia, a civilized land. But Aquilonia’s courtiers, uneasy under a barbarian monarch’s rule, plot against his life. The entire saga of Conan stories is framed not just by Conan’s barbarian identity, but by the tensions between that identity and the ‘values’ of Hyborian civilizations.
In fact, one of the most interesting settings in which to place a ‘barbarian’ is not so much ‘out there’ in barbarian territory, as it is deep inside ‘civilized’ lands, where representatives of different cultures must negotiate a new understanding of their common ground (or lack of it). For exploring this theme I know of no richer setting than the late Roman Empire, a society that saw barbarians variously hired and fired, loved and hated, recruited and slaughtered, or rejected and integrated, in various ways. There is SO much rich potential for game-able setting ideas to be drawn from the late antique Roman world in general, and in particular from the complex roles barbarians had in that world. But unpacking those ideas requires that we challenge a lot of barbarian stereotypes, seeking something even richer than the easy assumptions.
“HIS NAME’S MR. FURIOUS, AND HIS POWER COMES FROM HIS BOUNDLESS RAGE”
But first, a word about barbarians and stereotypes. Here’s how one of the online d20 SRDs sums up the barbarian:
“For some, there is only rage. In the ways of their people, in the fury of their passion, in the howl of battle, conflict is all these brutal souls know. Savages, hired muscle, masters of vicious martial techniques, they are not soldiers or professional warriors—they are the battle possessed, creatures of slaughter and spirits of war. Known as barbarians, these warmongers know little of training, preparation, or the rules of warfare; for them, only the moment exists, with the foes that stand before them and the knowledge that the next moment might hold their death…”
|De Neuville - Wikipedia|
Almost everything in the rest of this blog post will push against that simple characterization - not because the historical-accuracy police have arrived to ruin your fantasy fun, but because - for some of you - the issues faced by real barbarians might actually be even more fun to see in play. But I get it. The barbarian stereotype in DnD exists for several reasons, and lots of gamers don’t really want to overthink it; they’re sitting down to play a game about kicking in doors, crushing hobgoblin heads, and looting treasure. And for those games, if somebody wants their Throgdar to grunt at his foes and wipe his drool on his loincloth and break everything and unleash power that comes from his boundless rage, then that is totally fine and I’m not going to tell them to stop. I’ll just be over here in the corner, hanging out with Throgdar’s barbarian cousins, who are...different.
FUZZY BOUNDARIES AND FUZZY PANTS: WHAT AND WHERE ARE BARBARIANS?
What is a barbarian, anyway? Well, that’s easy: a savage, uncivilized person. Ok then, what’s a civilized person? Well, you know, somebody cultured, advanced, sophisticated. Right then, sophisticated according to whom? Well, err, according to me, I suppose…
The term “barbarian” originates with the ancient Greeks, for whom it meant “someone who does not speak Greek” (note, ironically, that by this definition the Romans to their west started out as barbarians). The joke was that when non-Greeks spoke, the words that came out allegedly sounded like “barbarbarbar…” The Romans later took this concept and used it in reference to the outsiders beyond their own Empire, particularly those from peoples with less material complexity than that seen in classical civilization. Ah, ‘civilization’ - the opposite of barbarism - but ‘civilization’ itself comes from the words for living in a city. To the Romans, being a shepherd out in the hills was its own kind of barbarism, in a sense; to live in marble halls in a city, now that was sophistication.
The Roman dichotomy of civilization vs. barbarism actually broke down pretty quickly. By the time we get to the late Roman empire, it is in no way accurate to think of the Roman frontier as a thick line separating the lands of civilization from the lands of the barbarians. Rather, one can (oversimplify a little bit and) imagine the world of the Romans as a series of at least four banded zones:
+ the inner Mediterranean core, often dominated by civilians and by civilian Greco-Roman values. To make matters more complicated, each province or region had its own flavor of Greco-Roman culture based on the underlying cultural system there that had been integrated into the Empire.
+ the outer periphery of the Empire, often dominated by Roman military society, which was itself increasingly influenced by ‘barbarian’ cultures from outside the empire; even civilian groups in this peripheral area, while fully ‘Roman,’ often had values at odds with the ‘softer’ civilian values in the central core. And here too the underlying culture (say, Gallic) led to hybrid flavors of Roman culture itself.
+ now we hop across the frontier and enter the nearest barbarian territories beyond the Empire. Certain forms of Roman culture are all over the place. For that matter, Roman troops are not unheard of, as Roman patrols and raids are a recurring part of frontier strategy. Roman merchants are traveling around selling wares. Old barbarian men, veteran retirees who spent a career serving in the Roman army, are enjoying their twilight years in their Roman-style villa back home in barbarian territory. Of course, this region is also controlled by barbarian warlords and tribal groups, but many of them are forming and growing through cooperation or rivalry with Roman forces across the frontier.
+ and finally we reach ‘barbarian’ territories quite far from the Empire, where the Romans are a distant rumor. Even here - as in the bog deposits in Denmark that I mentioned in a recent post on treasure - Roman goods may arrive through long-distance trade, but they are reinterpreted and possibly given new roles in local social affairs.
So rather than any kind of split between a ‘civilized world’ and a ‘barbarian world,’ we should imagine the landscape between an empire and its neighbors as a spectrum, where cultures flow across military frontiers, and the “civilized” troops watching over the frontier may have just as much culturally in common with the barbarians across the border as they do with the senators back in the old core cities.
To make matters more complicated, we won’t really comprehend the late Roman world unless we understand ethnicity as fluid and flexible. Every semester in one of my courses, I ask my students a question that may sound ridiculous: “How many of you chose your ethnicity?” Dumb question, right?
Well, in contemporary North America, we tend to conflate race and ethnicity, so that we often envision ethnicity as tied to biology, tied to your genetic background and to the skin color that it produced. Of course, genetic differentiation can be enormously important for social grouping, and nothing here is meant to deny that. But ethnicity is not inherently racial or biological. Let’s ask the august dictionary.com to clear this up for us. Ethnicity = “an ethnic group; a social group that shares a common and distinctive culture, religion, language, and the like.” In other societies, those other features - culture, religious identity, language, etc. - have often been more important as markers of who-you-are or who-is-in-and-who-is-out.
So, back to my question about choosing ethnicity. To date, I have only ever had one student say “yes, I chose my ethnicity!” In his case, his life-story brilliantly illustrated my point. His father is Serbian, his mother Bosnian; as he noted, “If I go to a cafe in Sarajevo, I can talk to the staff and get service, but if I tell them my family name, they won’t serve me.” Waking into that cafe, that person has an identity that can’t be pigeonholed by his physical appearance, that isn’t betrayed by his accent; but his name is a marker of identity so influential that it alone signals whether he is “in” or “out.”
If you can imagine that many communities define themselves primarily according to flexible, non-biological identity markers like language or religion or naming practices or clothing fashions - all things that are not permanently fixed but can be chosen and changed - then you can “get” the complex ethnic dynamics that affected Romans and barbarians in the late antique world.
For a brief time during the 5th century CE, the crime of wearing trousers within the city of Rome was punishable by exile (you aren’t wearing trousers right now, gentle reader, are you?!). This is because trousers were a barbarian fashion (never mind that the Roman army had already borrowed this fashion during service in Germany), and anxieties were rife about people signaling or (gasp) even picking up barbarian identities. In 6th century Constantinople, youth street gangs started wearing mullet hairstyles - because they thought it made them look like Huns. In the late antique world, plenty of Romans flirted with barbarian identities. In fact, if you were to ask a Frank (in early medieval France) what happened to all the Romans in their territory, they’d likely tell you that their Frankish ancestors slaughtered ALL the Romans when they arrived and conquered Gaul. In reality, however, the Frankish conquerors were a minority group who assimilated into a much larger Gallo-Roman majority population - but the reverse happened, too; over time, conquered Romans simply “became” Franks and then forgot that their own ancestors were Roman. Ethnicity is fluid: Romans can become barbarians, and barbarians can become Romans. This means (uh-oh) that even if Throgdar is still wiping his drool on his barbarian loincloth today, his children might be wiping olive oil off their togas tomorrow.
FROM REFUGEES TO ROYALTY: THE VISIGOTHS’ LONG SAGA
Despite that ethnic flexibility, at any given moment the “barbarian” label could remain a powerful marker of difference, and trigger serious prejudices against outsiders. It’s quite easy to find “us vs. them” moments in late Roman history. Some of them could inspire RPG campaigns that would make any Trogdar proud! In the 3rd c. CE, for example, hundreds of years before the Franks would conquer Gaul, a band of Franks was defeated by Roman troops, enslaved, and transported across the known world to form a slave-labor crew in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). But these audacious Franks revolted, hijacked a ship (sorry: commandeered, it’s a nautical term), and then sailed their way all across the Mediterranean, out the Pillars of Hercules (the Straits of Gibraltar), up the Atlantic coast, and back home. Wouldn’t that make a fun campaign! Other “us vs. them” moments were more sobering. One of the last great pagan senators in the late Empire once wrote a distraught letter to a friend, complaining about his newly-purchased barbarian captives…although this senator had spent good money on this band of enslaved captives so that he could have them slaughter each other in gladiatorial games he was sponsoring, the ungrateful foreign captives had the temerity to commit mass suicide at night in their holding pen so as to deny him the pleasure of exploiting their deaths. And, of course, there are other stories of horrifying atrocities committed by “barbarians” against Romans.
What really stands out in late Roman history, however, is how often barbarian and Roman lives were instead intertwined in complex ways that might involve cooperation and mutual dependence as well as conflict and destruction. These provide thought-provoking fodder for a very different, very complex kind of RPG campaign. Let me illustrate these dynamics with a brief, whirlwind narrative of the long travels and travails of the 4th- and 5th-c. Visigoths.
I’ll start with a spoiler alert: in 410, the Visigoths under Alaric sacked and plundered the city of Rome. They must have been, well, barbaric enemies of civilization then, right? It’s not so simple…A Roman (Arian/Homoian) Christian missionary, sent by a Roman emperor, evangelized the Goths north of the Empire in the 4th c., and invented a Gothic alphabet so they could become literate in their own language. Thus they were already literate practitioners of a Roman faith when, late in the 300s, advancing Huns from central Asia pushed the Goths and others into flight. Many Goths arrived en masse at the Roman Danube-River frontier, seeking not invasion but asylum and the right to enter peacefully as refugees. There was nothing too unusual about this; Rome had been welcoming barbarians into its service for centuries, and had a good track record for peacefully assimilating such immigrants. In this case, however, the Roman officers sent to administer the immigration settlement decided to profit personally from the transaction; according to our sources, they began demanding the Goths’ children as slaves in exchange for food (including ‘dogs as food,’ again in trade for their children). Now, if history teaches us any lessons, surely one of them is “when a giant armed mob of thousands of desperate barbarian refugees are asking politely to come in and serve you, don’t alienate them and threaten their children.” Responding to Roman corruption, the peaceful Gothic entrance devolved into a proper military invasion. The emperor Valens marched north but, in his haste to win glory before reinforcements from the West could reach him, he overcommitted and soon perished with most of his army at Adrianople. Although Roman reinforcements did manage to pacify the situation in the next few years, the Goths were now loose as a mobile, militant force inside the Balkans.
One of the Gothic children at the time of the Danube crossing was Alaric - who would grow to become king of the Visigoths. Alaric came of age as a displaced outlaw-refugee inside the empire, a commander of barbarian violence - but therefore also a potential asset to be exploited by Romans for their own ends. Some years, Alaric and his men acted like bandits, sacking Balkan cities and threatening Roman communities. At other times, Alaric entered into the service of Stilicho, a half-Roman, half-Vandal barbarian warlord who dominated the West Roman court in the early 400s. For some time, in fact, Alaric functioned essentially as a private military contractor working for the west Roman court against the other, east Roman regime.
In 408, the ‘generalissimo’ Stilicho was outmaneuvered politically by a hardline anti-barbarian faction at the western court. Stilicho fell from the emperor’s favor and was put to death, but he had held command of a private army of about 30,000 mercenary soldiers. Unable to catch this private army, the new hardliners in the west settled for butchering the wives and children of the entire 30,000-man force that had served Stilicho.
Yeah, that one is worth pausing over.
Understandably enraged, Stilicho’s now-disavowed troops defected and joined Alaric’s army. As time passed, and as Alaric advanced across Italy, runaway slaves also swelled his ranks. Note that this means that the “Visigothic barbarian army” that sacked Rome in 410 was actually a much more diverse, even motley bunch, consisting not only of actual Goths (whatever that means; remember that Alaric’s generation grew up inside the Empire) but also of other soldiers, some barbarian and others Roman, along with slaves of many backgrounds. Over time, ALL of these people could “become Goths.”
Alaric had been promised support by Stilicho, and he still needed to feed and maintain his men. So he sent messages to the court (stacked with hard-liners, remember) and demanded the back-pay that Stilicho had promised him. That may sound like a total non-starter, except that Alaric was asking to be given a Roman title and office and provincial command, essentially assimilating him into the Roman command structure. To clarify, Alaric was asking for a (very profitable) way to make peace with the imperial regime, so that he could keep his men happy, work for the Romans, and get on with life. The hardliners at the court said no. Even though they didn’t have enough military strength available to stop Alaric. So Alaric did exactly what you’d expect him to do under the circumstances…
That’s right, he lowered his asking price, demanded a much less prestigious provincial command, and tried again to mend fences with the Romans. Variants on this pattern went on for some time; eventually, after Roman officials clarified that they had sworn a sacred oath that they would never, under any circumstances, collaborate with Alaric, and after another barbarian military commander unsuccessfully ambushed Alaric’s army (rightly or wrongly, Alaric thought the Roman court had put him up to it), Alaric had had enough and he sacked Rome in August 410. The sack sent panic and shock around the Roman world, but in many ways it was a largely symbolic event for the empire as a whole; the court and capital were up north at more-defensible Ravenna. For the citizens of Rome, some terrible things happened, to be sure; but if anything, the Gothic sack of Rome stands out as “a kinder, gentler” plundering, by the standards of antiquity. The Goths let it be known that they would spare anyone who took refuge in a Christian church. Certainly, the Goths treated Rome much more gently than the Romans normally treated cities they sacked.
Alaric died not long thereafter. In his place, his brother Athaulf led the Goths. During the Sack of Rome, the Goths had kidnapped a Roman princess, Galla Placidia, sister of the western emperor. Galla and Athaulf apparently fell in love; they married (in a Roman-style wedding) and had children together; for many years, Galla’s (apparently fairly happy) life among the Goths remained a sticking point preventing renewed negotiations with the now-softening imperial regime. Finally, after Athaulf’s death, Galla was returned (and married off, much less happily, to a Roman general), and the Visigoths finally got their sweetheart deal ca. 418 - rights to settle in Aquitania, in southern Gaul, where they would govern in the emperor’s name and stand ready to supply the empire with troops when needed. They actually held to their side of the bargain - for a while - and sent critically-important troops to help turn back Attila the Hun’s invasion in the 450s. Of course, in the 460s and 470s, as western order finally fell apart, the Goths turned Aquitania into the center of a conquest-kingdom in their own name, and they held Spain until the Muslim invasions centuries later.
Although this offers only a postage-stamp version of their story, one relying on a lot of oversimplification, for each step in this narrative there were other barbarian groups experiencing something similar. Some surged against the empire, and broke against its defenses. Others were quietly assimilated into Roman society (or the Hunnic empire to the north), and forgotten. Others carved out their own territories, only to fall prey to other ambitious barbarian regimes. In each case, however, barbarian groups in the late Roman period were fairly ephemeral things, groups that might or might not share some kind of core identity, but which certainly could change A LOT over time, and whose membership might wax and wane and become very flexible indeed.
GAMING IT WITH A SWORDS-AND-SOJOURNERS CAMPAIGN SANDBOX
So how does any of this craziness help us at the gaming table? Well, there are probably a million cool things to do with all-barbarian parties - here, I’m going to propose just one possibility. And I’m deep enough into all this to indulge some delusions of grandeur, so I’m going to get all avant-garde and try to coin a fancy-pants (new?) subgenre tag: the swords-and-sojourners campaign concept.
In ‘meta’ terms, I’m thinking of a campaign arc that reads like the Visigoths’ long, precarious, unpredictable journey from desperate refugees to conquering kings on Roman soil. In more concrete, mechanical terms, I’m imagining a campaign that is part procedurally-generated sandbox, part hex crawl, part social/intrigue system (again, partly procedurally-generated), and which incorporates a kind of domain management from the first session at level 1. You start the whole thing by creating a small band/tribe/clan/host that is in serious trouble - starving, on the run from one evil empire and falling into the hands of another - and you make all the PCs members of this mobile group of desperadoes. Domain-management, then, with a difference; where you end up is less important than finding somewhere to survive and thrive; your people form the domain that you’re managing and protecting. The goal for the campaign is simple: do whatever you can and must to protect your people, and ideally to build a better future for them. Your goals might include survival, material well-being, political independence, and cultural autonomy. Fail, and your entire people-group will be exploited and probably snuffed out. Win, and today’s worried refugees might be tomorrow’s kings.
At low levels, the motivation for ‘adventuring’ might be something like: ok, your band of 200 half-starved refugees has successfully crossed the border and now is camped out in frontier province X. The local governor has made it clear that he will look the other way and tolerate your presence - if you agree to do a few risky jobs around his territory that he’s not wanted to bloody his own garrison against. So off go the players for a traditional dungeon-crawl plundering run or monster-hunting session, but instead of ‘we want to get rich’ the stakes are ‘if we don’t pull this off, our people will get chased down by cavalry squadrons, but if we pull this off, maybe we can settle down here for a few winters.’ And wherever the PCs and their people go, the DM can roll on random tables to figure out which imperial officials are active there, what kinds of tolerances, vices, wants, prejudices, and opportunities they will face there, etc. So in one sense this is like a traditional sandbox hex crawl; however, discovering an area’s social challenges and possible patrons in the are just as important, or more important, than simply exploring land to see what’s out there.
With a dedicated group such a campaign could go on endlessly. On the other hand, I think this is one setting concept where the Night’s Black Agents or Shadow of the Demon Lord campaign structure could make sense - play will occur over a predetermined number of sessions (say, 10). Structure the campaign in 3 “Acts” - 3 sessions of low-level mollifying local governors, then move on to more serious stuff, and face really epic challenges by the final Act. And between each Act you could roll up or create new major setting-changing events; major wars and rebellions around your current refuge, shift in imperial regime that alters attitudes toward your people for better or for worse, etc. If you haven’t reached some minimum target of prosperity by the end of your current Act, your people are going to be in much greater risk come the next Act.
To make this really work, you’d also want to establish multiple paths to victory, or at least multiple end-states. Non-negotiably, one possible end-state should be the total defeat of your people (you can lose this campaign, and badly). Others might include getting assimilated into imperial culture and gaining their titles; another might involve pushing for real autonomy, carving out your own kingdom, but with all the political/military conflict and baggage that would entail, too. Players have meaningful choices and must determine what kind of end-state they want, and how much they’ll risk to get it.
A “swords & sojourners” campaign could harness late Roman-barbarian interactions very well, but there’s no reason to limit the idea to that sort of setting. Any context with a mobile, militant, underdog group would do fine. (There is lots of potential here for those palace-burning Late Bronze Age groups I talked about last time, too, of course!).
What do you think? Would a swords-and-sojourners sandbox campaign be fun?
On this Good Friday 2019, warmest regards and best wishes to each of you; and to those who care for such things, I wish a blessed Good Friday and Easter, in the name of the champion of widows, orphans ... and sojourners.
On this Good Friday 2019, warmest regards and best wishes to each of you; and to those who care for such things, I wish a blessed Good Friday and Easter, in the name of the champion of widows, orphans ... and sojourners.
[Quick title credit - the second half of this post’s title riffs off Thomas Burns’ 1994 book Barbarians within the Gates of Rome: A Study of Roman Military Policy and the Barbarians, ca. 375-425 AD.]