Years 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.
This was one of the first proper history books I bought, back in 2007. Fresh from Robert Harris‘ Cicero first novel and Tom Holland’s Rubicon, I overreached. It’s a fascinating, interesting, well written book, but it is a lot more academic than either of those. I enjoyed it, but being unfamiliar with the details of the debate on the end of Rome I didn’t really get the most out of Heather’s arguments. More recently, I read his The Restoration of Rome and found it to be a much lighter book than my memories of this. Inspired by this and my improved understanding of Rome in the intervening decade, I decided to return to The Fall of Rome.
Peter Heather has the same stylish way with words that he showed in the more recent book ( one quote that stood out: “Clovis, in particular, seems to have enjoyed the merry crack of axe on skull”) but the popular analogies don’t come quite as frequent or quite as broad. This is a much more serious book, which tries to set out a middle ground between the ideas that Rome either fell entirely because of internal decline, or that it collapsed solely due to the external force of the invading barbarians. As he states near the start, no one seriously takes either opinion so a middle opinion was always inevitable; but he does have some points to make about the exact role that the Huns played in the process.
In Heather’s opinion the western movement of the Huns sparked the movements of other peoples, and it was these that caused the real damage to the empire. There had been similarly fierce nomads before – the Sarmatians in the first century BC – but this did not have the knock on effect because the Germanic tribes that bordered Rome were too small and localized to have the same impact. In the face of Roman power large confederations of tribes formed and united into even bigger ones. Once these were forced to move, real trouble was unleashed.
The book covers both this argument and the surrounding history with some skill. It’s not overly populist, but Heather uses anecdote and colour where appropriate. On the other hand, he compares the archaeological record against established ideas and offers conservative and plausible figures on numbers. I’m glad I returned to the book, and even after my intervening decade of reading about Rome felt that I was reading a unique and valuable account of the topic.
I once read the criticism of Adrian Goldsworthy that he has a tendency to just report facts and evidence without adding much in the way of interpretation or conclusion. And that is sort of true of this book, but like Philip Parker’s The Empire Stops Here it covers such an area and such a time period that it is hard to criticise the book for lacking a grand conclusion.
The two books actually cover some similar ground but Goldsworthy records some of the attitudes and experiences of the Roman empire (both as the Republic and fully fledged empire), while Parker seemed more concerned by the physical geography of the empire. There’s nothing hugely new, but it’s a well written summary of how the Romans operated – economically, their laws, their taxes – and how parts of the empire were integrated in so successfully. There’s not much narrative, and some material is a little dry, but the explanations are clear and well written. His comparison of banditry to car crashes does linger in the mind – an ever present danger, but one that would easily be risked by most people.
The author largely suspends judgement on the morality or success of the empire, but does describe the brutality of Roman repression and that a push for security (as opposed to prosperity) was the main driving factor of the empire’s operation. It’s not exactly a damning condemnation of the empire, but neither is it much of an endorsement. It’s not state of the art academia, but Adrian Goldsworthy has written an interesting and relatively accessible book on a wide ranging and often complex topic.
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.
Continue reading Post 34: The Fall of Rome by Bryan Ward-Perkins