Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.01.49 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.01.49

Neil Christie, The Fall of the Western Roman Empire: an Archaeological and Historical Perspective. Historical Endings.   London; New York:  Bloomsbury Academic, 2011.  Pp. xi, 306.  ISBN 9781849663373.  $100.00.  


Reviewed by Damián Fernández, Northern Illinois University (dfernandez@niu.edu)

The Fall of the Western Roman Empire: An Archaeological and Historical Perspective undeniably belongs in Bloomsbury Academic’s series ‘Historical Endings.’ The books’s Introduction sets the tone of Christie’s project. Titled ‘Questioning Decline in the Late Roman West,’ the chapter advances the book’s main hermeneutical strategy. Contrasting Victor de Vita’s testimony on Vandal destruction in North Africa with the relative absence, at the archaeological level, of any signs of damage, Christie claims that the written/material contrast can show ‘how archaeology provides its own eyes to observe and discuss this period of significant political reworking…’ (4). And he successfully does so, by providing numerous archaeological (and literary) examples inserted within the context of this ‘historical ending.’ I will focus this review on what I consider the major strength of the book: an absolute lack of shyness with taking positions in the field’s historiographical debates. In what follows, I will present how the author positions himself within the core debates of late antique historiography.

The book starts with a narrative history of the late second through fifth centuries. In Chapter 1, wars and military affairs receive a great deal of attention, as his core assumption relates the ‘fall’ to external, chiefly military events (and not supposed internal weaknesses). The chapter covers the period’s main events from the imperial perspective up to the late fifth century. A final section on the sixth century would have been useful, since other sections of the book are, fortunately, not bounded by the alleged political break of the fifth century.

Chapters 2 and 3 purport to deal with military and defensive affairs, but can be more accurately described as a history of late-Roman statehood, since the army and the defensive system was Rome’s largest budgetary item and chief administrative concern. These chapters tackle the issue of whether the late Roman empire had a ‘grand strategy’ or not. The answer offered is a mixed one, describing a centralized but evolving system of planning combined with occasional spur-of-the-moment decisions taken in response to immediate challenges. First, the author outlines the skeleton and muscle of the imperial military organization: chain of command, infrastructure, and army supply. A discussion of the role of barbarians in the army and the empire in general follows. The author counters claims about a drastic ‘barbarization’ of the army and shows that barbarians belong to the late Roman military or frontier universe. In terms of the defensive infrastructure, Christie favors the hypothesis that the defensive landscape evolved over time rather than the theory of a synchronic program during the Tetrarchy. As Christie does not omit to mention, the transformations of the army and its defensive strategies resulted not only from adaptations to the ‘third-century crisis’ but also from the changing threats of the fourth century. These chapters remind the reader that in spite of all its problems, the empire’s military and defensive policies (the ‘barbarian question’ included) were effective and faced external pressures with relative success until the Battle at Adrianople in 378.

Chapters 4 and 5 address late antique cities. The author relates changes in topography, especially with regard to monumental architecture, to the local notables’ abandonment of public benefactions from the third century onwards. The central section of the chapter describes seven cities with seemingly different trajectories: Barcelona, London, Iol Caesarea, Gorsium, Trier, and Falerii Novi. An overarching economic approach permeates these chapters and becomes particularly clear when Christie relates the abandonment of bathing complexes and entertainment buildings to their maintenance cost, rather than to the supposed impact of Christianity. The logic of his argument resides in the impoverishment of local elites in contrast to the economic muscle of the fourth-century imperial state, which was able to effect noticeable interventions in provincial capitals and in the empire’s main administrative centers (the book mentions the ‘oppressiveness’ of the late Roman state on several occasions). The effects of state intervention are still better illustrated in Chapter 5, which is entirely devoted to imperial capitals. Christie chooses to focus on Rome, Milan, and Ravenna because, in his opinion, ‘the Italian capitals represent the enduring imperial attachment to the home and core province’ (142). The chapter compares the relative impact of the imperial state and the church over these three cities’ landscapes, which knew markedly different fates during late antiquity.

In Chapter 6, Christie surveys the impact of Christianity in the western provinces. His underlying narrative opposes the idea that stark transformations resulted from religious change. The key to understanding this process of transformation, according to Christie, is the role of elites in urban and rural contexts. Three case studies illustrate the ‘end of paganism’: the imperial cult, the cult of Mithras, and rural shrines. In the first two cases, Christie paints the picture of a slow but marked abandonment in the first half of the fourth century, whereas ‘paganism’ in the countryside proves more resilient. In the author’s opinion, the Christianization of urban topography resulted from a flowing of private wealth combined with the actions of Christian bishops and religious impresarios. The ‘Christianization of the space’ in both urban and rural settings was a slow-paced evolution that would not be fully realized until the fifth century, if not later. This ‘thin Christianization’ is even clearer in the three regional studies offered by Christie: Noricum, Pannonia, and Britain (a refreshing reminder that there is religious history beyond Africa, Italy, and Gaul).

The economy and infrastructure are the central themes of Chapter 7. Christie’s main goal is to assess the impact of military events and state policies on the empire’s overall economic activity. After reviewing evidence relating to communication and transport, the author argues that the infrastructural skeleton of the empire did not suffer any major collapse until at least the early fifth century, when changes became noticeable in several parts of the Mediterranean (although the meaning of these changes cannot be fully assessed). Likewise, when dealing with changes in distribution networks during the late empire, Christie argues that the seeming waning of long-distance trade may have resulted from increasingly locally-oriented markets rather than a stagnating or declining economy. In general, his argument on trade supports the theory that the Rhine frontier and economic consumption in Rome were still the principal driving forces of the economy. Only the early fifth century would introduce a major break in large scale late Roman distribution patterns. Production, on the contrary, faced fewer challenges in the fifth century. Christie argues that agriculture and husbandry were very likely uninterrupted, with the only noticeable change being the abandonment of villas at different points between the fourth and the fifth centuries.

Post-Roman Britain, Noricum, and Italy, and a glance at the fate of the Bavarians and Moors, are the central themes of Chapter 8. Its purpose is to consider their ‘relative levels of decay, decline and continuity’ (210). These cases follow divergent post Roman paths, in which the ancien régime is transformed to various degrees depending on the region. As would be expected, the analysis concludes that there was a greater degree of continuity in the Mediterranean kingdoms, while the border regions coped with the withdrawal of the Roman administration by abandoning the markers of Roman culture (or adopting those of newcomers).

It is not completely clear whether the book questions the concept of decline (which the author affirms as his intent in the introduction) or whether it simply qualifies it by showing regional and chronological differences. The language of ‘decline and fall’ is certainly present at various moments in the book. But it is combined with a healthy dose of the semantic field of change-and-transformation, which is more in line with Christie’s previous scholarship. The book cannot be placed within the ‘end of civilization’ discourse (though, surprisingly, the term ‘civilised’ appears twice in the conclusion in relation to Rome and Persia). Admittedly, this combination of ‘change-cum-decline’ may cater to the intended audience of the book, some of whom might still operate within the decline paradigm. Moreover, the theme of the series may exert some pressure to adopt some, at least, of the language of 'decline and fall.' But it could also be that the historiography and archaeology of the western empire in particular suffers under the weight of the tripartite chronology of change/fall/continuity. The first applies to the fourth century, when the language of transformation seems to dominate scholarly discourse. ‘Fall’ characterizes the fifth century, the moment of putative transformation in state structures. The sixth century becomes the moment of continuity par excellence, which does not necessarily denote an absence of changes. Rather, the sixth century, and especially its first half, is viewed as a post-hurricane city from which the observer tries to grasp how much of the pre-catastrophe landscape has survived. Christie does not necessarily break with this chronological division, but he certainly qualifies and moderates it considerably. At various moments, the book focuses on sparse and highly differentiated assemblages of late Roman evidence to complicate any mono-causal explanation. The author’s expertise in, and selection of examples from, border regions enriches late antique histories that usually prefer to focus on the Mediterranean core.

In spite of this array of specific and sometimes highly detailed case studies, Christie does favor a few ‘big ideas.’ The book’s thesis posits that change was compelled by the necessity of adapting to third-century conditions and socio- economic transformations. The curiales’s loss of economic muscle emerges at several points as a prime mover in the fourth century, as does the reorientation of local elites’ riches into the institutionalized church by the fifth century. But the demands and requirements of a renewed state also serve as a causal explanation for changes at the archaeological level. In contrast, Christie tends to attribute decline/fall and fast-moving change to external factors, primarily to military events and their consequences in the late fourth and early fifth centuries.

The impact of the author’s archaeological approach is visible not only in the use of archeological evidence but also in the organization of the book’s chapters. Those familiar with recent archaeological research will recognize current topics from the specialized literature: the army and barbarians, fortifications, cities, capitals, paganism and Christianity, trade, and villas. Thus, archaeology provides not only much of the data discussed in the book (though texts receive their fair share of attention), but also the axes along which the narrative is organized. The focus of the book is undeniably more urban than rural. This disproportion is a problem in the discipline rather than a flaw of the book: it mirrors the limited number of excavations that have taken place in rural areas (with the exception of villas) and the bias in favor of field surveys. However, since Christie’s previous publications demonstrate a perceptive grasp of rural archaeology, readers would have perhaps benefited from a separate chapter on the late antique countryside.

I strongly recommend this book for classroom use, particularly to help students realize the impact of recent archaeology on the study of the late antique past. Moreover, Christie does not shy away from offering alternative interpretations of the same sets of evidence, with very instructive results and insights into the challenges of using archaeological data. The book raises several of the central historiographical questions of the past two decades, though sometimes these are not explicitly mentioned. My only caveat for a classroom adoption of this text relates to its illustrations. Instructors should be aware that they would need to supplement its vivid descriptions of objects with images not provided in the book (I suspect this to be an editorial choice rather than the author’s). All in all, the strength of The Fall of the Western Roman Empire is its constant movement between overarching historiographical themes and snapshots of archaeological and literary evidence which leads readers into a strong engagement with central issues of late antique history.

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