February 3, 2009
ONLY THE BRIGHT THINK THEM DARK:
REVIEW: of The Inheritance of Rome by Chris Wickham (Dominic Sandbrook, Daily Telegraph)
For grandiloquent rhetoric, savage wit and narrative drama there is still nobody to touch Gibbon. But the Oxford professor Chris Wickham’s new history of the last years of Rome and the rise of its successors, spanning an impressive six centuries of European history, is a worthy competitor. As a volume in the same series as Tim Blanning’s acclaimed history of Europe in the age of Louis XIV and Mozart, it has a lot to live up to (as if Gibbon’s shadow were not enough). But it is a tribute to Wickham’s awe-inspiring command of his sources, his stunning narrative sweep and his encyclopedic knowledge that it succeeds so masterfully.
The new year may be only a month old, but it is hard to believe that it will produce many more enduring and impressive history books than this.
Perhaps the most obvious difference between this book and Gibbon’s masterpiece is that Wickham almost immediately dismisses the idea of decline and fall. The late Roman world was, as he shows, a stable and sophisticated society, bound together by patronage, commerce and, above all, taxation, its citizens often living in bustling cities or country estates. But it did not suddenly fall apart when the Goths and Vandals showed up. Indeed, the people that we still call “barbarians” often adopted Roman models, whether of religion, coinage or language, and there was little sense of the end of an era. In North Africa, Wickham writes, the Vandals even “thought they were being very Roman”.
The end of the Western empire was a story of evolution, not overnight collapse – and the deposition of the last emperor, Romulus Augustulus, in 476 was one of history’s greatest non-events.
In the eastern Mediterranean, in any case, Roman rule continued for centuries. Gibbon had little time for the East Roman empire (which we call Byzantine, although nobody called it that at the time), but Wickham reminds us that for centuries it remained the most sophisticated and powerful state in the Eurasian world.
Posted by Orrin Judd at February 3, 2009 7:31 AM