On my coffee table sits a beautiful big book called History of the World Map by Map, full of maps and arrows and timelines. And in its overly confident narration, it is perfectly clear that the Persians conquered southwestern Asia, Alexander the Great conquered everything, the Romans too, then Vandals and Visigoths ran amok, then everyone was muslim, then the Normas conquered the UK, then everyone was Mongolian, and finally everything was either Spanish or English.
What isn’t so clear is what actually happened in each of these cases. In which cases was it simply an overlord that galloped past shouting “you’re part of X now” (Genghis Khan); in which was there lasting cultural (the Romans) or religious (Greeks) influence; in which did languages become dominant (Anglo-Saxons) and in which was there wide-scale replacement of people and ethnicities (Americas), or just a new but persistent ruling class (the Ptolemies).
The question is delivered perfectly in this scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail:
Arthur, King of the Britons: I am Arthur, King of the Britons. Muddy peasant woman: Who are the Britons?
That is, each time some map changes colour, would the peasants occupying the territory have even noticed? What would they have noticed, and when?
This question has become a personal fixation, and I judge every new history or archaeological book I read by the efforts it makes to answer it. Fortunately for me, some popular non-fiction writers seem to be trying quite hard to do better than veni vidi vici.
Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler is my latest (but not the latest, as it was published in 2005) foray into this question. It’s a hefty study of imperial conquest, with a focus on the fates and roles of languages. Attila the Hun barely gets a mention because, despite how many maps he caused to be redrawn, who on earth speaks Hungarian.
Empires of the Word is pretty focused on languages, and pretty focused on imperial ones, so the question doesn’t get answered in all its forms. But language is probably a fair proxy for culture so we can at least distinguish lasting changes from passing hordes. So it asks (and answers) some of the questions, but obviously doesn’t make much progress on others, like ethnicity. But he does at least attempt to tackle the central question of map versus territory, and it’s a great start. I was going to write a full review of the book, but I didn’t enjoy it enough. So I’m just posting up this stub so I can delete if from my drafts folder.