There have been many, many books on the end of the western Roman empire; do we really need another? According to Bryan Ward-Perkins we do. He asserts that many recent historians, in their quest to re-examine the so called “barbarian” cultures of the Germanic invaders, have went too far and lost sight of the idea that the fall of Rome was a bad thing that severely impacted the lives of the (former) Roman citizens. He quotes various academics in articles portraying the invasions as a peaceful restructuring of the empire or a gentle transition period.
Personally, having stuck mostly to popular history, it seems like BWP is overstated the prevalence of this and that this may be a little bit of a straw man for him to argue against (any scholars out there in WordPress-land willing to share their own views on this?) but, despite these disagreements, he remains complementary and respectful of these historians so I’m willing to go along with him. I’ll come back to this overview and his conclusions at the end of my post, but for now I will cover his attempts to briefly explain and his idea of the empire declining and ending primarily due to violent invasion.
Why did Rome fall?
The author begins his discussion with a rather simple question, did the empire fall at all? Given that the book is called “The Fall of Rome” it’s not particularly surprising that he concludes that it did indeed fall. He begins with some historiography: what have been the tradition views on this, and how we got to a point where some have began to question the old certainties. How disruptive were these invasions really to the Empire? We’re then taken through a number of sources that highlight the violent and forceful nature of these barbarian migrations, and the massive effects they would have had on those already living in Roman territory. These sources are often exaggerating for effect or so utterly minimal that it’s hard to get a sense of the action, but taken together they build an unpleasant picture of horror and hardship. The barbarians weren’t going out to destroy Rome – they just wanted in on the deal and what they felt was a fair share – but it wasn’t a peaceful process, and in the end the unintended effect was that the Western Roman empire dissipated.
But, you might ask, why did the Eastern empire not fall? And wasn’t the empire already in a bad way by the time the fifth century came along? Just because these invasions were indeed violent doesn’t mean that they were at fault for the end of the empire. The author shows a page from a recent German article that lists 210 different reasons that have been given for the empire ending. The economy of the empire had typically been considered to be declining even before the invasions – but archeological finds in the twentieth century have disputed this and Ward Perkins takes this to suggest that the subsequent decline was entirely due to the stretched resources and devastation caused by the invasions – particularly once Africa fell to the Vandals and took with it the wealth of the west. It was made worse in the west by a young, weak emperor (Honorius) who ruled for an unfeasibly long time and constantly succeeded in fighting off rivals in civil wars but never quite managed to do anything productive about the barbarian invaders that were taking apart the empire. The East meanwhile had arguably worse barbarian defeats at Hadrianopolis and Naissus, but were lucky enough to have Theodosius, a competent and respected military man in charge. The success of the east is down to a fortunate combination of this internal calm, a relative peace with Persia and the relatively secure positions of Constantinople and the wealthy provinces of the east and Egypt.
Why did this matter?
Now we’ve more or less established that Rome fell to violent invasion, we might wonder what effect this had on the local populace once the initial shock of the invasion happened. What were the new barbarian rulers like? Did the quality of life suffer? These questions take up much of the rest of the book. On the positive side, the rulers did bring a relative peace and, unlike the later Muslim invaders of the east, they more or less looked up to Rome and attempted to keep aspects of the administration and culture (more notably religion. That admiration would eventually lead to Charlemagne and the foundation of the Holy Roman Empire (look back a few posts for more on that). Despite that admiration, there was still very much a two tier system – BWP quotes Anglo-Saxon and Frankish laws that list a weregild of half for a Roman what would be paid for a Saxon/Frank. However, a Roman in the royal court would still be worth more than a Frank outside the court – so there was a certainly a degree of valued working together. There are also a number of anecdotes on language and cultural traits, including a long section on the significances of mustaches. There are a few questions on the fluidity of identity in this period and things would shift, but it was not quick, and the chapter gives a picture of a world that is holding together, but that must have been a huge shock (and not entirely a pleasant one) to the ex-Roman citizens.
As for quality of life: BWP has served his time as an economic historian and devotes two chapters of this book to looking at the production, transport and use of items (both common and luxury) during this period. It is a difficult thing to judge, as many of these are perishable and changing tastes can also play a part in the decline of some goods. He thus spends a lot of time on pottery since the evidence for that under the Romans is pretty well documented. A huge number of varieties were made and sold around the empire, with items regularly making it from one end to the other – even for the common folk. They had professionals and advanced techniques to consistent create vast amounts of good quality pottery. After the fall however, this disappears and we are left with smaller amounts of poorer quality work produced more locally. This pattern is extrapolated to other goods and materials; sometimes convincingly, other times the assertions seem a little unsupported. There’s also an interesting discussion of literacy that doesn’t quite fit, but perhaps shows a general decline in standards of education. Again, it all builds into a picture of a (western) world that is in decline.
The end of an era?
Now for the conclusion. Did this mean the end of a civilization? What do we really mean by civilization anyway? How are different perspectives formed? The author concludes that it did mean the end of a certain era and that, as much as one tries to avoid placing cultures in some sort of hierarchy with Rome at the top, there was a general decline following the end of Roman rule. He places much of the rehabilitation of these post-Roman cultures (to the extent that they are almost a continuation) down to a number of factors. Firstly the increased interest in the early history of the church, particularly among scholars from the deeply religious United States. Secondly a northern European desire to see early precedents for the recent unity of Europe (some that Hywel Williams also brought up in his conclusions on Charlemagne). Thirdly, a liberal discomfort with the idea of an empire as the good guys. And finally, there’s a degree of negativity and dourness in talking about the decline of Rome compared to the rise of the Franks or Gothic Spain. Those may sound quite broad and even somewhat controversial, but there is a reasonable level of subtlety involved. For example, he argues that the Roman empire was unlike more recent imperial enterprises – it did not fall apart through nationalism or popular uprising, most of those inside would have been very sorry to see it go. They had comfort and sophistication and were more or less fully Romanized. In addition to these subtleties, he also sees positives of the new studies of Late Antiquity. They tend to view things on a global scale, whereas the old studies of Early Medieval would have been very regional with much more connections to the present day. The detachment that comes from more of an Ancient History view keeps things free of pre-emptively reading nationalist views in people who would not have felt that way, and allows a broader, more cosmopolitan scope.
It’s a short book, barely 180 pages, and half of it consists of graphs about pottery, but BWP gives a useful (if perhaps bias) state of the art summary about the fall of the western Roman empire. The historical anecdotes are good. The conclusions are interesting. The arguments are generally well made and supported. It’s maybe a bit of an obscure book and I’m not sure it’ll be in Waterstones/Barnes & Nobles/*insert popular bookshop chain* that often, but if you do see it around then you should certainly pick it up. I’ve read one or two others on the fall of Rome and the rise of the new powers but, while they have been interesting, this concise and intelligently written little book has probably taught me four times as much in a quarter of the length!