There’s sometimes a bit of a paradox as you look closer and closer into an event or period in history. The end of the Roman empire can a great example of this – classically it was thought that the empire (and indeed civilization) came to a crashing halt under waves of barbarian invasions, but as historians have looked more closely at the years, decades and even centuries after they see all sorts of continuity. Often the same type of people were running things, often using the same methods. People living through these world changing events may not have realized they were quite so defining. Yet living standards did fall, economically things declined, the quality of items found by archaeologists drops. How do you trace a middle path that can account for both sides of the argument?
For Chris Wickham, you do it very carefully. In this book Wickham tries to summarize european history between 400 and 1000 A.D. (including the Byzantines and Islam) while constantly stressing that there is no overarching story or end point. At times this begs the question, why put it all together in one book? But Wickham does piece together certain themes throughout the book – the influence of Rome on these successor states and how they continued or broke away from the old ways of doing things.
Despite all the ambiguity, Wickham seems authoritative (on Latin Christendom at least). The range of anecdotes, analysis and information is breathtaking; and where there is nothing to go on, Wickham is explaining that as well. The painstakingly precise style means that it isn’t always an easy read, but it does feel worthwhile. It may help that my podcast listening had recently taken me to Patrick Wyman‘s podcasts, and he stresses very similar continuities.
Perversely, the sheer scale and depth of the book actually helps. A look into the political procedures of one kingdom might be dry and difficult to follow; but repeated over multiple kingdoms, regions and cultures it starts to become understandable. This comparison seems to justify Wickham’s scope for the book: Why include Islamic empires? Why even include outlying regions of Europe like Ireland or Scandinavia? Because these shine light on the successor kingdoms to Rome that could otherwise be the focus of a more conventional book.
In my last post, I said I had been listening to two new podcasts this month. The first was Slow Burn by Slate. The second is a show called The Fall of Rome by a podcaster called Patrick Wyman – who went into sports journalism after finishing a history PhD, but still provides a state of the art view of the end of the Western Roman empire (whatever form that may take). I’ve read plenty on Rome, what makes this different?
Well, Wyman is able to approach the topic on multiple levels, from multiple angles: not just the political fall of the empire and its military causes that went along with it, but the economic and social processes that went along with it. He’s well versed in the unresolved debates and discussions that go along with the topic – were the barbarians ethnically unified peoples or mixed bands of soldiers under particular leaders; what exactly did it mean when these armies settled? Going higher, what do we even mean by the Fall of Rome? Wyman’s own PhD topic was to show a decline in transport and communication, by showing a decline in the frequency of letters that would have been sent via travellers. And that is the level of detail that he can delve into. His grasp of the material feels reassuringly secure, but he’s open about having own take on some of the topic’s controversies.
He does make these ideas accessible through fictional biographies of invented characters – describing how these processes and changes would have appeared to those who were living through them. Some of these changes would have been gradual, but others (Britain in particular) had a short, sharp decline. I’ve tried reading various views on this area of Late Antiquity – Peter Heather, Chris Wickham, Bryan Ward-Perkins – but seeing the ideas compared and contrasted directly, Wyman presents a very plausible story. In podcasts, Mike Duncan is still probably the best narrative start to this topic but Patrick Wyman is definitely essential for anyone who wants a more detailed analytical approach to the end of Rome.
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.
According to the author Neil Gaiman: “Heliogabolus was just a weird kid with a thing about animals and big dicks.” As summaries go, this may not be far off – he’s that strange a character. Elagabalus (officially Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus) was emperor for for years, starting at the age of fourteen. In that time, he mostly concerned himself with religious matters – he had been brought up to be the priest of a Syrian sun god called Elagabal. As emperor he continued in this role and promoted the sun god as the highest of the gods. He was also, mostly famously, accused of shocking acts of decadence and sexual behaviour. In the end, he was assassinated by guards and replaced by his cousin at the age of eighteen.
In this book, Icks starts by reviewing the historical sources and Elagabalus’ probable life. Although the sources are heavily biased and reports of scandalous behaviour has to be taken with a pinch of salt, the emperor was unpopular enough to be killed after a short reign despite the lack of any military, natural or economic disasters. The religious element too is exaggerated, despite stories to the contrary it does not seem that Elagabalus was planning on turning monotheist – but the religious reforms seem like the most likely source of discontent.
In the context of the 3rd century, Elagabalus could seem like a step in the transition from the Principate to Constantine – the shift of focus on to the Syrian sun god (Sol Invictus) was later carried out more successfully by Aurelian and certainly helped the later transition to Christianity under Constantine. In fact, the religious changes seem more of a false start than a stepping stone, and only add to the feeling of a character ‘out of time’.
Much of the second half of this book is taken up with reviews of literature and historigraphy in the centuries after, right up to the modern day. There is a transition from medieval and early modern works that treat the emperor as a generic decadent tyrant, to twentieth century works that play with his gender and sexuality. Both of these have something to them, depending on which sources you wish to use – the stories give a lot of scope: five marriages including a vestal virgin; marrying a chariot driver who he referred to as his husband; killing guests by smothering them with rose petals; selling himself as a prostitute; harnessing naked women to his chariot; attempting to have his genitalia surgically changed. Among all the myths and interpretations the one that actually sits best for me is Elagabalus as the young, insecure emperor – bullied by his mother and grandmother, not quite mature enough for his role.
In the end, despite the lurid tales he’s a somewhat peripheral figure in Roman history and even in the art and literature it has inspired. Despite the number of works covered in this book, they are all relatively obscure – he may or may not have been a unique personality among the emperors of Rome, but he is far from the infamy of Nero or Caligula – and even Commodus has Gladiator. Perhaps his story is just a bit too odd to make great fiction?
As I often do, I skipped the preface to this book and went straight into the main text. Because of that, it was only about half way through that I realised Neil Faulkner was a Marxist – all the references to class war finally started to make sense.
In this book, actually charting the whole history of the Romans in Britain, this approach has advantages and disadvantages. Roman society was undeniably full of inequality and, in an otherwise dry book, Faulkner does succeed in bringing that to life. His descriptions of the settlements, showing the disparity in wealth, are bolstered by plenty of archaeological evidence. His explanation of the effects of Diocletian’s economic reforms is much more vivid that I’d thought the history of taxation could be.
On the downside, his conclusion, that the end of Roman Britain would let a peasant revolt kick out the landlords and live a brief but ideal agrarian society before the Saxon warlords moved in, comes across as far fetched and lacking any real basis to back it up. His descriptions of the Roman empire outside of Britain are short and one-sided, mostly existing to show either Britain’s role in the empire or the inequality in the system.
I’m not as well read on Roman Britain as I should be, but this stands as an interesting if occasionally uneven take on that particular fringe of the Empire. Worth reading, but perhaps best balanced with an alternative point of view.
I’ve read a few of Michael Grant‘s books now, and this one begins in typical fashion. Grant gives a brief overview of the history of the period (in this case, the Roman Empire from Marcus Aurelius to Constantine) before discussing the changes in architecture and art during that era. His thesis is that the third century, often seen as nothing more than a period of military emperors, chaos and decline, is in fact a fascinating series of gradual changes – and not necessarily for the worse.
The first part of the Climax of Rome is a bit of a mixed bag. The changes in artistic style are interesting, but the chapters come across as slightly disjointed with sudden jumps between eras (the book does cover a long period of time). The military and political history (often the focus in this period) is rather skimmed over. This all comes to make sense later.
The book really shines is the second half, when Grant gets onto the topic of philosophy, literature and religion. He traces developments in style and genre, and manages to link them to the political situation. In the face of ever more authoritarian government, the culture drifted towards more personal, self-reflective styles – Marcus Aurelius’ stoicism, Galen, the neo-platonic thought of Plotinus, early Christian thinkers, and the rise of the novel as an artform.
This was, in a sense, a form of climax for classical culture, in not necessarily a high point. Alongside this, the success of legal writers in the 3rd century and developments in architecture would lay the groundwork for medieval Europe. Was this the true peak of the Roman empire? Grant admits this would have been a “gloomy place for the majority” and far from an egalitarian or democratic society, and the succession of military crises would make it hard to see the 3rd century (or even the revival under Diocletian and Constantine) as a military high point. Yet, this period is hugely influential in the move out of the Classical world and into Medieval Christendom and I will definitely be looking for further reading on the subject.
Valens has a poor reputation as a Roman Emperor. Given that he presided over the disaster at Adrianople, this is understandable. This book goes some way to suggesting that although he could never be classed as a great emperor, he was a competent man who momentarily lost control.
The book starts at the last days of Julian’s reign and runs through the rule of Valentian I and his brother Valens. Throughout most of the book Hughes takes a methodical, almost annalistic, approach. The military campaigns and major events of each year are briefly described. This is quite a dry style, but it does pay off when the author begins to draw conclusions later in the book. The battle of Adrianople, and the campaign around it, is covered in more detail in the last few chapters.
Continue reading Imperial Brothers by Ian Hughes