In her introduction, Judith Herrin sets out the aim of this book: to convey the idea of Byzantium (what it was and why it is worth paying attention to) to the general public (or more specifically, more builders who were working near her office). I don’t think it’s true to say that there’s isn’t a popular account of Byzantium. John Julius Norwich wrote a very good one – a chronological narrative that races along at pace (especially if you get the condensed version). Herrin takes a different approach, setting things into thematic (no pun intended) chapters which loosely follow the timeline.
This actually makes it a lot easier to get your head round this society, how it differed from classical Rome or the western medieval world, and how it changed over time. The chapters are filled with anecdotes and odd bits of information that really helped to provide colour alongside the broader streams. The jumble of facts can occasionally be a little awkward, leaping from one idea to another and shifting back and forth in time. It is all in there though. That makes this a nice introduction to the continuation of the Eastern Roman Empire – one where you can pick up the political organization, the religious life, the well developed education system – all in a brief three hundred pages.
Compared to John Julius Norwich, there’s a lack of drama. He plays well with the military campaigns, the plotting, and the politics. This buries it among the rest of the information. His chronology keeps track of the broader story better. Both have their place however, and right now I probably prefer Herrin’s book as an introduction.
This line about the Gallic emperor Postumus tickled me. It’s like a line from a song by The Fall.
He was slain at Cologne, by a conspiracy of jealous husbands
There a footnote among the discussion of the Caledonian war of Septimius Severus.
That the Caracul of Ossian is the Caracalla of the Roman History is… not without difficulty. In the Caledonian war, the son of Severus was known only by the appellation of Antoninus; and it may seem strange that the Highland bard should describe him by a nickname, invented four years afterwards, scarcely used by the Romans till after the death of that emperor, and seldom employed by the most ancient historians.
Quite. Almost as if Ossian was made up at a (much) later date.
As part of my read through The Decline & Fall, here’s a quote that sums up Roman attitudes to religion rather succinctly, but may say even more about the English Enlightenment.
The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.
I’ve been reading through Edward Gibbon’s classic Decline And Fall. It’s quite a task, and early days yet, but I came across a few lines here and there I liked and wanted to share. The 18th century historian Gibbon has been long since been superseded by later scholarship, but he is still well worth reading for his snippy style. I like that he offered well read, but occasionally very opinionated judgements throughout – right from chapter one, as the quote below shows.
After a war of about forty years, undertaken by the most stupid, maintained by the most dissolute, and terminated by the most timid of all the emperors, the far greater part of the island submitted to the Roman yoke.
Claudius, Nero and Domitian by the way.
There 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.
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.
As 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.
Recently I read two quite different works of historical fiction by French authors, both obsessed in their own way with a kind of authenticity. In the post-modern HHhH (from 2010) the author Laurent Binet inserts himself and his writing process into a story about the assassination of Reinhardt Heydrich. Uncomfortable about straying from historical fact or even inventing dialogue with real characters, Binet will intersperse the narrative with his thoughts on his own writing and his experiences researching the book. I’m not sure whether this quirk is inventive or not; but it is wasn’t quite as well done as this the book would be unreadable. The reticence against invention leads to the characters that a flat and, although the story still has its drama, it feels like Binet could have made more of it. His interventions do add to the build up, but it’s a gimmick that I enjoyed but wouldn’t particularly care to see again. In all, I enjoyed the book as a one off; and I’m tempted to break through my usual aversion to WW2 histories and find a real book on the assassination.
In 1951’s Memoirs of Hadrian, Margeurite Yourcenar tries to strip her own personality and touch away from the writing; through detailed research and critical editing (a number of earlier attempts were scrapped entirely) she produces what reads like a real set of memoirs. This sometimes leaves the book more admirable than enjoyable but at it’s best it can be moving, especially as Hadrian deals with the death of his favourite Antinous. His internal struggles show a character with real depth, as a man who fundamentally believes that peace is the best way forward but throws himself wholeheartedly into his military role. Compared to another recent read, Julian by Gore Vidal, the emperor feels genuine and subtle; the themes seem to occur naturally from the story. It’s a very gentle work, and you can feel the time and effort that have went into it.
As far as authenticity goes, Yourcenar definitely has the better balance of research and narrative; I could probably stand for a little less realism, but I think it’s a good model for fictionalised biography. Binet self-reflects on his failure to do justice to the narrative, and in a way that deprecation makes the book work, gives it a source of humour on a grim topic. I don’t think even close to a model of how to write, but it is however a very enjoyable book.