One of the wittiest moments in Monty Python's The Life of Brian is when one disgruntled Hebrew turns to another and asks angrily, "What did the Romans ever do for us?" to which his equally anti-Roman friend can't help but produce an incredibly long list of benefits. Well, one of the things, for good or ill, they did for all of us was to 'invent' spin doctors! And perhaps one of the first was a certain Themistius in the year 369 AD. Are you sitting comfortably? Then let me tell you the story . . .
At that time the Roman empire was ruled jointly by two emperors, one in the east and one in the west. The head of the eastern branch was the Emperor Valens and he had big trouble on his hands from from the Tervingi (German Goths - my dear, simply the most appalling neighbours!) living north of the Danube. Valens had crossed the Danube and marched his army hither and thither whilst indulging in an orgy of destruction ('Oi, Sarge, I'm fed up wiv all this pillage, when's it my turn for some rape?') but his foe, Athanaric, was the sort of clever, unmitigated swine who would not stand still and fight like a decent Roman would but instead kept shifting his army out of the way leaving the Romans to punch thin air. Part way through this campaign - if you can call it that - Emperor Valens had another spot of bother, this time over in the east where the Persians had kicked off on one - see, those bloody Persian/Iranians never change! - led by the Persian King of Kings, Shapur.
Rather rapidly a truce was offered to Athanaric and his ghastly barbarian Goths and a summit was held on a magnificent imperial barge in the middle of the Danube at the end of which a 'peace' treaty was signed. Themistius, the eastern emperor's spin-doctor wrote an account of the summit and its outcome and immediately set off for Constantinople in order to read it to the Senate:
Valens was so much cleverer than the man who spoke for the barbarians that he undermined their confidence in him and rendered the verbal contest even more hazardous than the armed. All the same, having thrown his opponent he then set him on his feet once more, stretched out his hand to him in his confusion and made him a friend before witnesses ... And so [Athanaric] went away highly contented, in the grip of contrary emotions; at once confident and fearful, both contemptuous and wary of his subjects, cast down in spirits by those aspects of the treaty in which he had lost his case but exulting in those in which success had fallen to him.
Included in this 'press release' was a description of the barbarian tribesmen gathered in a rabble on the northern bank awaiting their leader's return and a pointed comparison made of the massed ranks of the Roman army on the southern bank formed up in their usual smart formations. All of this confirmed Roman prejudice, held throughout the empire, that barbarians were lesser men, barely one step up from the animal kingdom. The 'press officer' concerned, Themistius, did his job brilliantly and like all 'press releases' ever since it was not worth wrapping your chips in! The fact was that the Goths gained some considerable advantages from a beleaguered Valens who was desperate to pull his army out and get back east where the Persians were causing considerable grief. But, as the Press Officer's motto has it: why let the truth spoil a good story? (I'm told that as a motto it sounds better in Latin!)
Any similarity between this tale and that told by press officers in Washington and London concerning the Goths barbarians tribesmen in Afghanistan is entirely co-incidental. You may be assured that everything is going absolutely swimmingly over there despite the unfortunate habit of our troops in leaving their bits and pieces littered all over the countryside, you know, like arms and legs and things!
I am more than just obliged, more like grovelingly grateful, to Peter Heather and his absolutely first-class book The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History. Written in clear English with occasional but delicious drops of wit and irony this is a MUST READ book! There's nothig new in this old world of ours. I sort of knew that already but it's good to be reminded it of it especially by such an intelligent writer and historian as Peter Heather.