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.
Half Vandal. If it matters. Which it probably does. In this book Ian Hughes is all about defending the Roman general’s reputation. He’s not unreasonable about it, but there’s a lot time spent piecing together a plausible narrative from opposing sources and a generous view of the actors’ behaviour. In that sense it’s very balanced, and Hughes does convince in showing the weak position of the Western Empire – demoralised, under-resourced, with the crucial path through Illyria to Italy in the hands of an uncaring Eastern empire. Hughes does present Stilicho as a canny politician who identifies these weak spots and does his best to solve them.
Boosting the armies moral and fighting defensively helps the first two. The last is difficult – first Stilicho aims at taking a leading role in both halves of the empire, then he aims at a more direct reshuffling of provinces. Maybe some of this is later propaganda, maybe other parts are mistakes on Stilicho’s behalf. Stilicho had his break as much through family connections as his talent, and remained more a political general than a battlefield leader. In the end it doesn’t end well for him or the empire in the hands of less capable successors.
Ian Hughes has written a number of books on this period for Pen & Sword (I previously posted on his book Imperial Brothers, about Valentinian and Valens). This one suffers from the same narrowness of scope as some of the others, but does do a better job of setting the background (it feels odd that the rushed introduction actually covers similar ground to Imperial Brothers itself). It might be nice to see a longer book from Hughes, one where he doesn’t have to do that kind of recap – but on the other hand, a longer book might not allow such a focus on a single character.
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.
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