May 28, 2009


REVIEW ESSAY: How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower
(Robert Messenger, Barnes & Noble)

The number of serious work in the recent surge of "Roman decline" books is attributable to the generation of scholars who came of age after Peter Brown's pioneering work -- his World of Late Antiquity was published in 1971 -- offering mature thoughts on Late Antiquity. One of the most individual is Bryan Ward-Perkins's essayistic The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, which considers the horrific realities of this age of "continuity" -- technology and learning basically vanished in the West thanks to the collapse of civil society. Almost all reviewers paired Ward-Perkins's book with another 2005 book, Peter Heather's full and dynamic portrait of the age, The Fall of the Roman Empire. Heather, the author of major works on the barbarians' ways of warring against Rome, has no doubts about the cause: It was the Huns that did it. Attila's empire may have collapsed within a decade of its founding, but it undid all of the careful layers of civil and military organization that held Rome and the barbarian groups in balance.

Heather seemed likely to hold the field for a generation, but this year has seen several new contenders. James O'Donnell's The Ruin of the Roman Empire is a fine synthesis of Late Antiquity scholarship. Focused more on the Eastern Empire and the fifth and sixth centuries, O'Donnell makes a compelling defense of the Gothic kingdoms and a hero of Theodoric, who tried to maintain Roman-style order in Italy. Christopher Kelly's The End of Empire: Attila the Hun and the Fall of Rome is marvelous account of the rise and fall of Hunnic power (and a superb narrative supplement to Heather).

Receiving the most attention is Goldsworthy's How Rome Fell, and expectedly so: the author's last book, Caesar: Life of a Colossus, took serious classical history to a broad international audience. Here, though, Goldsworthy is troubled by the sheer scope of the material -- he is covering the four centuries from the reign of Marcus Aurelius to that of Justinian, far different from the focused Caesar -- and his narrative comes across as workmanlike in a field where elegance is much prized. Goldsworthy, moreover, favors political reasons for Rome's collapse. (Rome-Washington parallelists like to cite the vast increase in the Roman bureaucracy in the wake of Diocletian and the attendant loss of efficiency.) The Roman state did evolve into an institution concentrated on protecting the emperor from usurpation and enriching an inner circle. But as compelling as this argument seems in detail, it is utterly undone by even a cursory comparison with the Eastern Empire, which lasted another thousand years with a bureaucracy even more inefficient and calcified than that in the West. It survived because its borders were defensible and were defended.

The West collapsed for many reasons, but the catalyst was the barbarian invasions. As Peter Heather, rejecting Gibbon, so clearly notes in his conclusion: "Without the barbarians there is not the slightest evidence that the Western Empire would have ceased to exist in the fifth century." Goldsworthy's is a steady survey, well aimed at a general audience that his books are doing much to establish, but the vastness of the material requires an impeccable guide. In a field dominated by figures like Gibbon and A.H.M Jones, Peter Heather is a worthy heir.

Rome didn't fall in a day
: Peter Jones reviews and The Fall of the Roman Empire by Peter Heather and The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization by Bryan Ward-Perkins (Peter Jones, Daily Telegraph)
Heather sets the scene in the early fourth century AD. The Roman army was still the most ruthlessly proficient in the world, and it had to be: frontiers needed guarding. To finance it, a vastly increased bureaucracy was in place. The provinces - stretching from Hadrian's Wall to Iraq, from the Rhine to the Atlas Mountains - were now thoroughly Romanised and demanding a say in imperial politics. A single emperor simply could not handle the workload. So in 295 Diocletian created a system of emperors and sub-emperors.

One important result of all this was that decisions were now taken in the great imperial palaces that sprang up all over the empire (Ravenna, Trier, Split, Constantinople, etc). The city of Rome was too far from the action. The Senate still met there, but was a shadow of its former self.

As for the barbarians (the northern Germanic tribes stretching from the Rhine to the Black Sea), they had nothing to offer Rome and after the destruction of Varus' legions in AD 9 were no longer thought worth taking on. They still raided from time to time, and Romans were not averse to doing deals (Germans made excellent soldiers). But the tribes were too disunited to pose a serious threat.

Edward Gibbon argued that this world was inherently unstable, doomed to collapse. Heather disagrees. Multiple emperors, admittedly, did cause sporadic and dangerous civil wars. But the problems generated by, for example, slow communications over massive distances, rigid economies and reactive bureaucracies were not new; tax increases to pay for the military did not lead to revolt, since provincials still saw benefits outweighing disadvantages; nor did Rome's Eastern (or "Byzantine") empire collapse - indeed, in the sixth century it fought back in the West under the emperor Justinian; and so on.

According to Heather, the collapse in the West was triggered in summer 376 by one event with huge ramifications: the sudden and quite unexpected irruption of a new and terrifying people into barbarian territory on Roman borders - the Huns. It was pressure from them that drove barbarians (Goths, Visigoths, Franks, Alans) into the Western empire over the next 60 years. The Romans were helpless to stop them.

The result was the establishment within the empire of barbarian kingdoms from Gaul to Spain, from Italy to North Africa. As its tax revenue dried up, Rome lost the capacity to raise troops to force these kingdoms back into the imperial fold. Stripped of the power to compel, it was thereby stripped of its authority. Local élites, so supportive of Rome when Rome could support them back, saw that their only option now was to collude with their new masters, whose forced migration had had the effect of forging them into cohesive barbarian "supergroups" capable of establishing permanent kingdoms that were to form the basis of modern Europe. In 476 the last Roman emperor, called (ironically) Romulus Augustulus ("little Augustus"), was quietly pensioned off by the barbarian Odoacer, and that was that.

-ESSAY: The Fall of Rome: Was the collapse of the Roman empire in the west a series of gradual adjustments or a catastrophic event that brought violent change? (Dr Peter Heather, BBC)
-INTERVIEW: Peter Heather, author of The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Roman and the Barbarians, fielded a few questions at the OUP blog (Marshal Zeringue, July 14, 2007, OUP)
-REVIEW ESSAY: Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History and Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (Reviewed by James J. O'Donnell, Georgetown University, Bryn Mawr Classical Review)

Peter Heather's bulky (and, in the UK cheap-paper hardcover edition, clunky) volume might very well have been titled Barbarians and Romans, 332-489, were it not that this would come too close to the title of his own first book, Goths and Romans, 332-489. The focus is essentially the same in time and space, with the difference that Heather is more concerned now to speak synoptically of barbarian-Roman relations and their deterioration. This limitation must be emphasized, because a reader might reasonably be surprised to learn that a book of this title would deal with almost nothing that happened anywhere east of the great land walls of Constantinople -- including events in the imperial city itself. And a reader who remembered that Arnaldo Momigliano and Brian Croke wrote important articles in the 1970s and 1980s on the factitiousness of the tradtional 476 CE date for "the fall of the Roman empire" (the selection of the date was made in Constantinople in the sixth century for quite specific political reasons that would be familiar to students of US-Iraq relations of 2001-2003) -- such a reader would be surprised to find the old date resurrected and defended here.

Heather is at heart a military historian and he does that job well. His narrative of the events of the century and a half under review is clear and direct and accompanied by 16 quite excellent maps. In English there has been nothing comparable since J.B. Bury about a century ago, and it is high time to get a better account. The maps are worth emphasis because they so helpfully elucidate the text. They are very clearly and accurately drawn and they exactly match and make visible what Heather is saying in his prose. I do not see that they are credited anywhere in the book and that is a shame, for it is exceedingly difficult to embody the best of intentions when it comes to adding maps to a book like this. (The illustrations, by contrast, are predictable in the extreme: good for those new to the subject, but provoking no thought or interest in the scholarly reader.)

The main line of argument for Heather is a standard one: that the arrival of the Huns on the west Eurasian scene had the effect of dislodging and nudging other populations along the Roman frontiers, propelling them to seek refuge and residence inside traditional Roman domains. In a series of contingent events, Roman ability to manage and control the refugees and would-be residents collapsed; this was followed by collapse of the tax base on which armies could be raised to resist; and with additional Hunnic pressures and then (perhaps his nicest innovation in interpretation) when the Huns themselves were no longer available either as bugbears or as mercenaries, the "Roman empire" ended. P. 432: "What did come to an end in 476 was any attempt to maintain the western Roman Empire as an overarching, supra-regional political structure." Heather insists that the exogenous causes are of the greatest importance, minimizing blame for overtaxation, moral decay, or religious zealotry.

What is missing in the book is a reflective sense of the context, particularly as informed in the last generation's work. Though Heather is assiduous in reading and praising the last generation of scholarship, it has had little effect on him. He is well aware, e.g., of the work of C.R. Whittaker on the symbiotic relations and evolution of relations back and forth across the Roman frontiers, but I suspect that the general reader of this volume will benefit little from it -- it takes the sharp scholarly eye to notice that the qualification is being made and then dropped. He makes almost no mention of the effusion of work on late antique "nation-building" except to demur at the conclusions drawn by Walter Goffart and Patrick Amory, but not at all engaging the work of Richard Wenskus, Herwig Wolfram, and Patrick Geary.

And the focus of the narrative is relentlessly Roman. In that regard more than any other, Heather is eminently traditional.

-REVIEW: The Fall of the Roman Empire by Peter Heather: Rome didn't really fall - it was pushed (William Napier, Independent)
The complex answer to why the western Roman Empire fell in AD476 would embrace sluggish population growth, manpower shortages, decline in military efficiency, training and matériel, fiscal incompetence and corruption, devaluation, hyperinflation and other dull stuff. The simple and much more Hollywood answer is: Rome was destroyed by Attila the Hun. Peter Heather's achievement is to show that both answers are valid.

Some historians, convinced that the drier they can make history sound, the higher their credentials in the world of academe, argue that the Roman Empire didn't really fall. Thanks to "change and continuity", it gently mutated into the kingdoms of early medieval Europe. Heather allows a modicum of truth in this, but also insists that 476 marked a calamitous end. The culture of Romanitas survived, tenuously, and still does to this day, despite the best efforts of loutish Education Secretaries; but Rome as an organising political force was finished.

"The Romans," as he puts it, "had central heating, a form of banking based on capitalist principles, weapons factories, even spin-doctors, whereas the barbarians were a simple people with a penchant for decorative safety-pins."

-REVIEW: The barbarians move in: Peter Heather makes deft work of a complex era in his masterly updating of Gibbon, The Fall of the Roman Empire (John Man, The Guardian)
As every schoolboy used to know, Rome fell to the barbarians in the late 5th century. But why? Two centuries ago, Gibbon argued that the Romans had been turned into decadent sissies by Christianity. Others have blamed causes as varied as lead-poisoning and taxation. Yet in 375 an observer looking around would not have seen much amiss. Crisis? What crisis? The empire, though divided, was doing fine.

A hundred years later, it was all over. Here, in this magisterial new history, Peter Heather explains what went wrong. Yes, of course it was the barbarians, Germanic tribes from across the Rhine and Danube. But these tribes had long been troublesome and had been managed, by trade, intermarriage, bribery, brute force and employment in Roman armies. Something happened to upset the precarious balance.

The first adumbration of disaster came in the spring of 376, when the empire suddenly faced a problem with a modern resonance. Asylum-seeking Goths by the ten thousand gathered on the northern banks of the Danube, begging for entry. Hoping the refugees would make good soldiers and slaves, Rome let the Goths in. Lacking land and food, they went on a rampage through the Balkans which culminated two years later in the Battle of Hadrianople, in which the Romans suffered one of their most disastrous defeats.

But this was not the real problem. In the words of the historian Ammianus, the Goths were fleeing "an unknown race of men [who] had appeared from some remote corner of the earth, uprooting and destroying everything in its path". The Huns were coming.

-REVIEW: Ancient world: The Fall of the Roman Empire by Peter Heather; The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation by Bryan Ward-Perkins (TOM HOLLAND, Times of London)
Peter Heather, in his monumental history, has no doubt that what he terms “the strange death of Roman Europe” constitutes “one of the formative revolutions of European history”. Bryan Ward-Perkins goes even further. In his book, he argues for the traditional perspective: that “with the fall of the empire, Art, Philosophy and decent drains all vanished from the West”.

The wit of this phrase is typical of Ward-Perkins’s style, but not even a taste for cricketing metaphors unusual in books on ancient history can obscure the apocalyptic quality of his arguments. No mealy-mouthed talk of transformation for Ward-Perkins. Instead, all is violence, horror and cataclysm.

Which is, of course, to restore to the history of the 5th century AD both a corpse and a mystery. Heather, presenting his solution, consciously employs the language of the courtroom thriller. “To get to grips with what was actually going on, the reader is invited to become a member of the jury . . . to become involved in the process of evaluating and synthesising the different kinds of evidence that will be presented.” Nor does it take him long to finger the prime suspects. Far from tottering effetely beneath the weight of its own greatness, he argues, the 4th-century empire was in fact as strong as it had ever been, and only an immigration crisis beyond Michael Howard’s worst nightmares served, in the following century, to bring about its ruin.

The barbarians, who are portrayed in current academic orthodoxy as integrating themselves seamlessly into a still-Roman world, are restored by Heather to their more traditional role of violent assassins. They may not have set out to destroy classical civilisation — most wanted only to share in its benefits — but they destroyed it all the same. As Ward-Perkins, who concurs in this analysis, puts it, “the invaders were not guilty of murder, but they had committed manslaughter”.

For Heather, in particular, this renewed emphasis on the role played by the barbarians has numerous literary benefits. It justifies him in shining a powerful searchlight upon the whole shadow-dimmed panorama of the empire’s end, from the bejewelled splendour of the imperial court to the dripping forests of “Barbaricum”, the lands of the barbarians. Even more refreshingly, it enables him to impose upon the complex events of the 5th century what academics so often shrink from: narrative. By tracing the exploits of Stilicho, Alaric and Attila, he provides the reader with drama and lurid colour as well as analysis. Like a late Roman emperor, he is determined to impose order on a fabric that is always threatening to fragment and collapse into confusion; unlike most late Roman emperors, he succeeds triumphantly.

Both his and Ward-Perkins’s book are part of what is a hugely encouraging trend in classical scholarship: a determination by specialists to communicate their passion and expertise, rather than hug them to themselves.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 28, 2009 7:21 AM
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