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Vandal massage

 •  • by Paul Ingraham
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Weekly nuggets of pain science news and insight, usually 100-300 words, with the occasional longer post. The blog is the “director’s commentary” on the core content of a library of major articles and books about common painful problems and popular treatments. See the blog archives or updates for the whole site.

I enjoy it when extremely different interests overlap. I am a nut for Roman history, and I recently found a reference to massage in a charmingly oddball context: “massage instead of exercise” as an explanation for the corruption and weakness of the Vandals, and how they lost their North African kingdom to the last great Roman General, Belisarius, in the 6th Century.

Almost everything about this historical situation was a little odd. It was odd that a Germanic tribe had migrated all the way to North Africa and taken Carthage from the Romans in the first place. It was odd that Rome had lost Italy as well, yet continued to thrive in the east. Belisarius himself was a remarkable character, almost freakishly competent. And rarely in history has any hostile takeover been as rewarding as the Vandal occupation of Carthage: they got about as rich from it as anyone has ever been, and it should have been easy for them to keep their kingdom.

But perhaps the wealth did make them soft. In Robert Graves’ as-true-as-possible novel about the life of Belisaurius, Count Belisarius, he describes the condition of the Vandals like so:

As for their fighting qualities: these fair-skinned, fair-haired Northerners had now, by the third generation, become acclimatized to Africa. They had intermarried with the natives, changed their diet and yielded to the African sun (which makes for ill-temper rather than endurance) — and to such luxuries as silk clothes, frequent bathing, spiced foods, orchestral music, and massage instead of exercise. This enervating life had brought out strongly a trait common to all Germanic tribes, namely an insecure hold on the emotions.

And so Belisarius beat them. Outrageously outnumbered, far from home, without even the element of surprise, and thanks only to a little good luck, he beat them fair and square and reclaimed Carthage for Rome, before moving on to take Italy back as well. I bet the Vandals really regretted all that enervating massage!

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