The Stages of Grief at the Frontier

Monday, February 6th, 2017

Jakub J. Grygiel lays out the stages of geopolitical grief along the unquiet frontier:

Recounted in a biography written by Eugippius, Saint Severinus’s peregrinations along the Danubian frontier illustrate different stages of coping with a growing insecurity on a frontier that was gradually abandoned by Roman forces and harassed by small tribes roaming the area.

First, there is the gradual recognition that imperial forces were not what they used to be. The tangible presence of the empire was disappearing, and the towns were losing their main security providers. “So long as the Roman dominion lasted, soldiers were maintained in many towns at the public expense to guard the boundary wall. When this custom ceased, the squadrons of soldiers and the boundary wall were blotted out together.” But the gradual withdrawal of Roman troops did not seem to have had a shocking impact on the locals, who perhaps did not notice immediately that their security required the presence of armed men. Indeed, few consider how security and deterrence are maintained while peace reigns.

The Roman troop at Batavis (modern day Passau), however, held out. The place was itself a military base rather than a town; located on the confluence of two important rivers, the Danube and the Inn, it occupied important strategic real estate that most likely was deemed more valuable than other towns east of it. It was a remnant of a string of military outposts, and the soldiers there seemed to be severed from the bulk of the legions. At some point, “some soldiers of this troop had gone to Italy to fetch the final pay to their comrades.” They did not make it far because the barbarians marauding in the area killed them. For a while no one was aware of this massacre, but “one day, as Saint Severinus was reading in his cell, he suddenly closed the book and began to sigh greatly and to weep. He ordered the bystanders to run out with haste to the river, which he declared was in that hour besprinkled with human blood; and straightway word was brought that the bodies of the soldiers mentioned above had been brought to land by the current of the river.”

That was a shock.

The role of these few Roman soldiers was first and foremost one of reassurance. They could not have defended the small towns in case of a prolonged barbarian assault. They also did not maintain the safety of the surrounding areas, leaving it open to small but frequent barbarians incursions — and as the violent end of the few soldiers heading to obtain the overdue pay indicates, they could not even protect their own forces. Finally, these scarce imperial forces certainly did not serve as a “tripwire” because it was unlikely that, in case of a barbarian attack on them, Roman legions would have marched north in retaliation. In brief, they did not deter the barbarians. But they were there to reassure the locals. They were good enough to reassure, even if not good enough to deter and defend. And that is why when imperial forces melted away the locals were discouraged.

Second, after the reassuring presence of imperial might has vanished, the next stage does not include calls for defense or balancing or stronger walls. No. It is the stage of disbelief and self-delusion. As Roman power waned, the locals comforted themselves with the delusion that the threats did not exist or, if they did, that the menace was not great. Perhaps the enemies would seek other targets. Perhaps the walls would suffice. Perhaps the barbarians liked peace and commerce as much as they did. Perhaps they would just go away. Perhaps they would peacefully blend in. The list of possible justifications for this delusion is as long as it is wrong.

In the first town he visited, Asturis, Severinus warned the population that the enemy was indeed near and dangerous. They should repent, he told them. They should pray and fast, and they should unite by abandoning the search for the selfish fulfillment of material desires. Of course, as was to be expected from a complacent and materially satisfied polity, Severinus was laughed out of town.

People who are deluded — and do not see higher reasons for their own existence — will gladly justify their material self-satisfaction. Severinus left “in haste from a stubborn town that shall swiftly perish.” And perish Asturis did.

Third, in the next town, Comagenis, Severinus had more luck — the locals were on their next stage of grief. Because one man escaped from Asturis bringing the terrible news, the people of Comagenis could no longer ignore the hard fact that the barbarians were near and in search of destruction.

They recognized that security was a creation of force, not a self-sustaining reality.
But even before the technical question of how to defend themselves, the locals needed a reason to do it. They needed what Roman troops, however scant, had provided before: some reassurance. And this was Severinus’s greatest contribution: he reassured the local populations. He supplied the surviving towns with a firm motivation to resist and defend themselves, a reassurance that defense was worthwhile. With his presence the frontier “castles felt no danger. The trusty cuirass of fasting, and praiseworthy humility of heart, with the aid of the prophet, had armed them boldly against the fierceness of the enemy.”

This stage of geopolitical grief can be productive because it is characterized by the nascent desire to engage in the competition at hand. Security, these frontier towns realized, was not guaranteed by impersonal forces, but needed to be underwritten by somebody. And they had to do it themselves.

The problem at this stage is that the passage from delusion and panic to the desire to produce indigenous defense is not automatic. Before the “how” and the “where” of defending oneself, it is necessary to have a clear and firm answer to the “why.” A polity can have all the technical marvels, logistical supplies, and tactical skills, but without a strong motivation to defend itself they will all be useless. A castellum can be architecturally pleasing and surrounded by thick walls, but if the people inside it do not know who they are and why they should fight, it is as undefended as a wide open field.

In one of the Danubian towns, the local commander Mamertinus was concerned that the forces at his disposal were insufficient. (He was also future bishop — a pattern that replicated itself elsewhere in the decaying western Roman Empire. Bishops quickly became the main city authorities, caring not only for the spiritual life but also for the material survival of their flocks.) Mamertinus told Severinus: “I have soldiers, a very few. But I dare not contend with such a host of enemies. However, if thou commandest it, venerable father, though we lack the aid of weapons yet we believe that through thy prayers we shall be victorious.” Material capabilities are important, indeed essential; yet motivation and morale is even more so. Severinus stiffened their spines. Go out and engage the enemy, he told them. “Even if thy soldiers are unarmed, they shall now be armed from the enemy. For neither numbers nor fleshly courage is required, when everything proves that God is our champion.” Mamertinus’s troops went out, found some of the barbarians, attacked, and succeeded in routing most of them while obtaining a stash of their abandoned weapons.


  1. Candide III says:

    They should repent, he told them. They should pray and fast, and they should unite by abandoning the search for the selfish fulfillment of material desires.

    Repentance, prayer, fasting and mortification of the flesh are, of course, most efficacious remedies, in case of barbarians. Please read the life of Severinus (there is an English translation) before forming an opinion on Grygiel’s article. Severinus never advises anything practical, but denounces sinners and sacrileges and calls down the punishment of God on those who defy him. Latynina related these episodes on her Echo Moskvy program a couple of years ago.

  2. Gaikokumaniakku says:

    ‘For a while no one was aware of this massacre, but “one day, as Saint Severinus was reading in his cell, he suddenly closed the book and began to sigh greatly and to weep. He ordered the bystanders to run out with haste to the river, which he declared was in that hour besprinkled with human blood; and straightway word was brought that the bodies of the soldiers mentioned above had been brought to land by the current of the river.”’

    The saint was apparently experiencing clairvoyance.

    “Severinus never advises anything practical…”

    What is practical from the perspective of a clairvoyant may be highly impractical from the perspective of a materialist.

  3. Some Random Guy says:

    Repentance, prayer, and fasting would seem to be a good way of leaving material concerns behind, thus preparing for the battles ahead. This is fairly common for armies as well. Get down to basics to prepare for the fight.

  4. Wan Wei Lin says:

    Random….Excellently stated. At some point the ‘bread and circuses’ must be set aside to deal with reality.

  5. Graham says:

    I’m always reminded in such discussions of this scene between Alec Guinness [as Marcus Aurelius] and James Mason at the beginning of “The Fall of the Roman Empire”

    Of course, in this filmic version Marcus Aurelius is also the emperor in charge of early globalization, foreshadowing the reorg of the empire started by his son Commodus and finished by Diocletian a century later: his speech starts around 3:50

    And of course it will all end in tears;

  6. Candide III says:

    Random Guy: I could buy that if repentance, prayer and fasting had been followed by battles and fighting back, but that wasn’t the case. The former Roman provinces were overrun, plundered and pillaged again, again and again, until barbarians settled down and established their kingdoms and dukedoms there.

  7. Some Random Guy says:

    Candide, you’ll notice I made no claims about the Romans at all. I merely stated that this was a good system to prepare for battle. One that even modern armies use (modified of course).

  8. Candide III says:

    Come on, we were discussing St. Severinus. Whatever he did, it wasn’t raising armies to fight. Besides, armies don’t use prayer, fasting and mortification of the flesh, they use comradeship and patriotism and the band-of-brothers stuff, because it works much better. Religion may be present for patriotic and personal purposes, but armies of actual zealots or stylites are very rare. (Even so — when Oda Nobunaga destroyed the warrior-monks of Mount Hiei, he remarked that the monks there meddle in politics and do not keep their vows, drinking, eating meat and wenching.) Try telling a private he can’t drink, gamble or go to hookers when off duty — it’s actually a punishment.

  9. Some Random Guy says:

    I guess it’s my bad for going off topic, you’ll have to get used to that.

    Actually I’ve been a private (and a bit more), sounds like you have too. No, we didn’t pray. Instead we focused intently on the tasks anticipated. We didn’t fast. Our diet sure was modified by field rations. We sure as hell mortified the flesh in training. All that to prepare for battle.

    See? It’s a modified version of prayer, fasting and mortification of the flesh. Things don’t have to be identical to be alike. I was Infantry for seven years so maybe it was different for you.

  10. Candide III says:

    Lol. I suppose some field rations could count as fasting. But really, your analogy doesn’t make any more sense than saying that shooting the enemy is a modified version of turning the other cheek. I’m sorry I don’t know how to explain the difference.

Leave a Reply