The Fate of Rome by Kyle Harper

34427005There have been many reasons suggested for the end of the western Roman empire – there’s a famous list of 210 from a German historian that sometimes gets brought up on this (everything from lead in the drinking water and gout to anti-German racism). Here Kyle Harper doesn’t make those kind of sweeping statements, but he does show the impact that environmental factors may have had in the fall of the west and the decline of the east. The ideas can be summed up simply – the expansion of the empire coincided with a period of relatively good climate in the Mediterranean and beyond, before falling into trouble as the climate became harsher. The environmental boost may have led to Rome becoming a more urban and prosperous society than we might have expected given its level of technological development. This in turn placed them in a risky position where infectious disease was concerned.

Firstly, it wasn’t a great place for health in general – Harper shows that the Romans grew to smaller statures than people in the region before or after the empire, never mind elsewhere in more rural societies. It was a rich society, but not necessarily a healthy one. Secondly, it was primed for particular pandemics to strike: the Antonine Plague, a mid-third century plague and finally Justinian’s Plague. The particular diseases and situations led to different impacts – but ultimately the drop in population and the sheer sense of shock for the survivors would be difficult to deal with.

Harper doesn’t rule out the effect of the normal socio-political/great man explanations – in fact he rather skips over the actual fall of the west. He does however point out that these took place in a world defined by the environmental diseases, a world where those people and structures had to be resilient in the face of infectious disease. The idea doesn’t seem that new or complicated (and I don’t know enough of the academic history to say if it is) but Harper explains it well, going into just enough detail on epidemiology and the evidence for historical climate variation.

There are a few flaws with the book, it would really help to have a reasonable knowledge of the later Roman empire – the chronology, the people, the geography. Not too much, but the author doesn’t exactly hang around to explain who Stillicho was. In addition, some attempts in a conclusion to give a warning of our future relationship to the climate don’t read that well. I appreciate the sentiment, but it’s not really a conclusion. Finally, the following graph wound me up – a bit too much smoothing on there!

Seriously, it’s a good book – not quite as mind blowing as some reviews might suggest, but meticulously put together, well written (it made me want to read more medicine/biology – and I’ve avoided that since I was 15) and something that will surely be an influential book in the years to come.

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The World of Late Antiquity by Peter Brown

81cc3vgzqalAs I understand it, this book from 1971 was influential in paving the way for current scholarship that treats the period form the 3rd to 8th centuries as distinct from the earlier Classical Roman period.  Brown is positive about this era finding growth and creative in place of or alongside the traditional views of decline and destruction.  I’ve read more recent, and more detailed books on this – The Inheritance of Rome by Chris Wickham stands out.  This still added something for me – the short accessible format is, for want of a better word, accessible.  In particular the book brings up cultural figures like Augustine and Plotinus and shows the vibrant world of religious transformation (for better or worse).  There are some great pictures throughout the book that really help to make the topic anything but dry.  It would sit nicely alongside Bryan Ward-Perkins’ The Fall Of Rome, which adds a much more argumentative and pessimistic view of the era – bringing up economic and archaeological evidence that Brown brushed over.  Both books are rather short introductions to what could be a very heavy debate.

Patrick Wyman/Fall of Rome bibliography

I do like a good bibliography – I’ve been interested by the books Mike Duncan has been selling as fundraisers – not necessarily to get his copy, but it’s a good prompt for what I might get myself.  I recently finished Patrick Wyman’s podcast Fall of Rome and I’m looking forward to his follow up, Tides of History, that promises to cover a little more on the end of the Roman Empire and a lot more on the formation of the (early) modern world (or Europe at least).  I was therefore interested to see that he has put a biography on his facebook page.  For my own notes as much as anything else, I have copied the post below.

A number of folks have asked me about a bibliography. I’ll continuously update this post as I have time.

General Works – Fall of the Roman Empire:
-Chris Wickham, “Framing the Early Middle Ages”
-Guy Halsall, “Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568”
-A.H.M. Jones, “The Later Roman Empire, 284-602: A Social and Economic Study”
-Michael McCormick, “Origins of the European Economy”
-Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell, “The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History”

Late Antiquity and the Fall of the Roman Empire:
Bryan Ward-Perkins, “The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization”
-Peter Brown, “The World of Late Antiquity”
-G.W. Bowersock, Peter Brown, and Oleg Grabar (eds.), “Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World”
-Guy Halsall, “Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568”
Peter Heather, “The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians”
-Megan Hale Williams, “The Monk and the Book: Jerome and the Making of Christian Scholarship”
-Peter Brown, “The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity”
-Peter Brown, “Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD”
-Thomas Sizgorich, “Violence and Belief in Late Antiquity: Militant Devotion in Christianity and Islam”

The Renaissance:
-Guido Ruggiero, “Renaissance Italy: A Social and Cultural History of the Rinascimento”
-Charles G. Nauert, “Humanism and the Culture of Renaissance Europe”
-Brian Jeffrey Maxson, The Humanist World of Renaissance Florence
-Patrick Baker, “Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror”
-Paul D. McLean, “The Art of the Network”
-Richard Goldthwaite, “The Economy of Renaissance Florence”
-Richard Goldthwaite, “Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy, 1300-1600”
-Gary Ianziti, “Writing History in Renaissance Italy”

Justinian, Natural Disasters, and the End of the Roman Empire:
-Kyle Harper, “The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire”
-Lester K. Little, “Plague and the End of Antiquity”
-John Moorhead, “Justinian”
-Peter Sarris, “Economy and Society in the Age of Justinian”
-Michael Maas (ed.), “The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian”
-M. Shane Bjornlie, “Politics and Tradition Between Rome, Ravenna, and Constantinople”
-Torsten Jacobsen, “The Gothic War: Rome’s Final Conflict in the West”

Rise of Capitalism:
-Avner Greif, “Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy”
-Christopher Dyer, “A Country Merchant, 1495-1520: Trading and Farming at the End of the Middle Ages”
-Edwin S. Hunt and James M. Murray, “A History of Business in Medieval Europe, 1200-1550”
-Martha C. Howell, “Commerce Before Capitalism in Europe, 1300-1600”
-Wendy Childs, “Trade and Shipping in the Medieval West”
-David Nicholas, “The Later Medieval City, 1300-1500”
-James M. Murray, “Bruges, Cradle of Capitalism, 1280-1390”
-Robert Duplessis, “Transitions to Capitalism in Early Modern Europe”
-Maarten Prak (ed.), “Early Modern Capitalism: Economic and Social Change in Europe, 1400-1800”
-Richard Lachmann, “Capitalists in Spite of Themselves: Elite Conflict and Economic Transition in Early Modern Europe”
-Reinhold C. Mueller, “The Venetian Money Market: Banks, Panics, and the Public Debt, 1200-1500”

Roman Cities:
-J.W. Hanson, “An Urban Geography of the Roman World BC 100 to AD 300”
-Helen Parkins (ed.), “Roman Urbanism: Beyond the Consumer City”
-Adam Rogers, “Late Roman Towns in Britain: Rethinking Change and Decline”
-Ray Laurence, A.S. Esmonde Cleary, and Gareth Sears, “The City in the Roman West, C.250 BC-c.AD 250”
-J.H.W.G. Liebeschuetz, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman City”
-Hendrik W. Dey, “The Afterlife of the Roman City”
-John Rich, “The City in Late Antiquity”
-Michael Kulikowski, “Late Roman Spain and its Cities”
-Claudia Rapp and H.A. Drake (eds.), “The City in the Classical and Post-Classical World”
-Brogiolo, Gauthier, and Christie, “Towns and their Territories Between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages”

Military Revolution:
-Geoffrey Parker, “The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800”
-David Parrott, “The Business of War: Military Enterprise and Military Revolution in Early Modern Europe”
-FrankTallett, “War and Society in Early Modern Europe, 1495-1715”
-Adrian Bell, Anne Curry, Andy King, and David Simpkin, “The Soldier in Later Medieval England”
-Michael Mallett, “The Italian Wars, 1494-1559”
-Fritz Redlich, “The German Military Enterpriser and His Work Force: A Study in European Social and Economic History”
-’Idan Sharar, “Warriors for a Living: The Experience of the Spanish Infantry in the Italian Wars, 1494-1559”
-Maurizio Arfaioli, “The Black Bands of Giovanni”
-Jan Glete, “War and the State in Early Modern Europe: Spain, the Dutch Republic, and Sweden as Fiscal-Military States”

Eastern Roman Empire in the Fifth Century:
-Michael Maas (ed.), “The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Attila”
-Fergus Millar, “A Greek Roman Empire: Power and Belief Under Theodosius II, 408-450”
-Anthony Kaldellis, “The Byzantine Republic: People and Power in New Rome”
-Gerard Friell and Stephen Williams, “The Rome That Did Not Fall: The Survival of the East in the Fifth Century”
-Christopher Kelly, “Ruling the Later Roman Empire”
-Alan Cameron, “Barbarians and Politics at the Court of Arcadius”
-Roald Dijkstra (ed.), “East and West in the Roman Empire in the Fourth Century”

The Rise of the State:
-John Watts, “The Making of Polities: Europe, 1300-1500”
-Joseph Strayer, On the Medieval Origins of Modern States
-Hendrik Spruyt, “The Sovereign State and its Competitors: An Analysis of Systems Change”
-Thomas Ertman, “Birth of the Leviathan: Building States and Regimes in Early Modern Europe”
-Daniel Nexon, “The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe: Religious Conflict, Dynastic Empires, and International Change”

I’ve bolded the ones I have actually read, but I do have works by some of the other authors: Christopher Kelly, Anthony Kaldellis, Chris Wickham.

March Podcasts: The Fall of Rome by Patrick Wyman

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.

The Fall of Rome by Peter Heather

51wyaq06g3l-_sx320_bo1204203200_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.

Post 34: The Fall of Rome by Bryan Ward-Perkins

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