Empires And Barbarians by Peter Heather

original_400_600Years back I bought Peter Heather’s Fall of the Roman Empire (2005).  This 2009 book complements it, by viewing the period from the Barbarian perspective.  In particular Heather is looking at the topic of migration – striking out in a middle way between the traditional view of Völkerwanderung (the movement of entire and unified ethnic groups) and the revisionist view of Elite Transfer (the movement of a small group of typically male military leaders).

Heather does well to try to piece together all sources of information – archaeological evidence, written sources, economic, occasionally linguistic, and most notably comparisons to later migrations.  The elite of the Norman conquest, and the aggressive raiding turned movement of the Boers’ Trek are called to mind, as is the forced migration of Rwanda in the nineties.  This helps break down a complex topic into something that’s easier for non-specialists to digest.  There’s even an rare bit of humour in Heather’s writing (sometimes this takes it into awkward territory – too heavy to be accessible, too populist to be academic – but I think he normally lands it correctly).

Migrations into and around the late Roman empire are well covered – with the origin of The Goths getting particular focus; then a look at the power vacuum created by the decline of The Huns’ short-lived multi-ethnic empire.  It’s quite nice to read this without the Romans being the focus.  Beyond that though, Heather does challenge pre-conceptions and has the skill to make new ideas seem obvious.  He’s open about other historians who may not agree with his line of thinking (Walter Goffart, Guy Halsall) and I have a list of further reading to widen the picture.

Unfortunately the later sections don’t fit quite as well.  The formation/migrations of the Slavs are a difficult topic – too many unknowns, and heated nationalism – Heather does present what seems like a plausible timeline from the evidence available, but it’s not exactly thrilling stuff.  By contrast, a chapter on the movements of the Vikings suffers because the conclusions are too close to the conventional narrative.  Better is the penultimate chapter when these come together to show the formation of states in northern and eastern Europe.  The overall picture he portrays is complex: different forms of migration and state building at different times, but the book is well worth reading to get the valuable detail.

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