BMCR 2005.07.69

The Fall of the Roman Empire; The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization

, The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History. London: Macmillan, 2005. xvi, 576 pages. ISBN 9780333989142.
, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. 350 pages. ISBN 0102805649.

The Counter-Reformation in late antique studies is well under way. If the Reformation began when Peter Brown pounded twice ninety-five pages of The World of Late Antiquity on the basilica door in 1971 and flourished through at least the 1980s, the 1990s have seen the rise of the resistance. A memorable conference at Smith College in 1999 brought together the now senior worthies of the last generation in a confrontation that surprised many by the sharpness with which Reformers and Counter-Reformers spoke up for their views. Wolfgang Liebeschuetz has been a leader of the Counters, most recently with the impressive The Decline and Fall of the Roman City, but the manual of the neocon approach is to be found in the splendid thirteenth and fourteenth volumes of the Cambridge Ancient History, for all that many of the old Reformers were among the authors and editors. The Bible of the Reformation, so to speak, will be the revised edition of Peter Brown’s The Rise of Western Christendom of 2003.

The main lines of difference between the New and the New-Old are straightforward. The Reformers speak more often of the eastern empire than of the western, show more interest in religious and cultural history than other streams, speak of rises rather than falls, and are at home in dialogue with similar strains of interpretation in other humanistic disciplines. The Counters focus their attention on the western empire, prefer military and political history to religious, have an Eeyore-like preoccupation with declines and falls, and are in the main untouched by “theory” and other broader academic projects.

Now two British scholars who have been of the generation of Reformers have written almost identically-titled books (and both will be published in this country by Oxford University Press) that make the case for the resistant views to a general audience. They are variously successful.

Peter Heather’s bulky (and, in the UK cheap-paper hardcover edition, clunky) volume might very well have been titled Barbarians and Romans, 332-489, were it not that this would come too close to the title of his own first book, Goths and Romans, 332-489. The focus is essentially the same in time and space, with the difference that Heather is more concerned now to speak synoptically of barbarian-Roman relations and their deterioration. This limitation must be emphasized, because a reader might reasonably be surprised to learn that a book of this title would deal with almost nothing that happened anywhere east of the great land walls of Constantinople — including events in the imperial city itself. And a reader who remembered that Arnaldo Momigliano and Brian Croke wrote important articles in the 1970s and 1980s on the factitiousness of the tradtional 476 CE date for “the fall of the Roman empire” (the selection of the date was made in Constantinople in the sixth century for quite specific political reasons that would be familiar to students of US-Iraq relations of 2001-2003) — such a reader would be surprised to find the old date resurrected and defended here.

Heather is at heart a military historian and he does that job well. His narrative of the events of the century and a half under review is clear and direct and accompanied by 16 quite excellent maps. In English there has been nothing comparable since J.B. Bury about a century ago, and it is high time to get a better account. The maps are worth emphasis because they so helpfully elucidate the text. They are very clearly and accurately drawn and they exactly match and make visible what Heather is saying in his prose. I do not see that they are credited anywhere in the book and that is a shame, for it is exceedingly difficult to embody the best of intentions when it comes to adding maps to a book like this. (The illustrations, by contrast, are predictable in the extreme: good for those new to the subject, but provoking no thought or interest in the scholarly reader.)

The main line of argument for Heather is a standard one: that the arrival of the Huns on the west Eurasian scene had the effect of dislodging and nudging other populations along the Roman frontiers, propelling them to seek refuge and residence inside traditional Roman domains. In a series of contingent events, Roman ability to manage and control the refugees and would-be residents collapsed; this was followed by collapse of the tax base on which armies could be raised to resist; and with additional Hunnic pressures and then (perhaps his nicest innovation in interpretation) when the Huns themselves were no longer available either as bugbears or as mercenaries, the “Roman empire” ended. P. 432: “What did come to an end in 476 was any attempt to maintain the western Roman Empire as an overarching, supra-regional political structure.” Heather insists that the exogenous causes are of the greatest importance, minimizing blame for overtaxation, moral decay, or religious zealotry.

What is missing in the book is a reflective sense of the context, particularly as informed in the last generation’s work. Though Heather is assiduous in reading and praising the last generation of scholarship, it has had little effect on him. He is well aware, e.g., of the work of C.R. Whittaker on the symbiotic relations and evolution of relations back and forth across the Roman frontiers, but I suspect that the general reader of this volume will benefit little from it — it takes the sharp scholarly eye to notice that the qualification is being made and then dropped. He makes almost no mention of the effusion of work on late antique “nation-building” except to demur at the conclusions drawn by Walter Goffart and Patrick Amory, but not at all engaging the work of Richard Wenskus, Herwig Wolfram, and Patrick Geary.

And the focus of the narrative is relentlessly Roman. In that regard more than any other, Heather is eminently traditional. I noted early in the book, for example, that he reported without comment how Constantine had two local kings from across the Rhine fed to the wild beasts at Trier in 306 — without reflection that to the followers of those kings, an act of that nature might have made it hard to be sure which side of the river the “barbarians” lived on. Very late in the book, without explicit reference, Heather has half a sentence that effectively allows that the moral advantage may not have been entirely one-sided, but the colors on his other pages are heavily black and white. The Reformers in late antique studies use more grays and earth tones in their narratives.

One aspect of the book was seriously off-putting to this reader, but may be less so for others: the flippant lecture-platform style. Many pages read as if they were taken from the lectures at Oxford on ancient history by Colonel Blimp’s great-grandson addressing the grandchildren of Bertie Wooster. I recognize that tastes will differ, and so what is incurably vulgar to me may be witty to others, but I think that borrowing an analytical style from the language of television commentators has a more pernicious effect. When he says, for example (p. 230), “Augustine’s immediate answer [to critics of Christianity worried by the sack of Rome in 410] was of the straightforward yah-boo-sucks variety”, my taste is repelled, but my intellect regards the description of books 1-3 of City of God, a sophisticated reincarnation of Cicero with sly effect, as simply wrong. So too (p. 263), his words “For one thing, the Visigothic supergroup settled so recently in Aquitaine got uppity again, aspiring to a more grandiose role in the running of the Empire than the peace of 418 had allowed them” left me in the end baffled at just what event or events this referred to, while observing that “uppity” certainly makes it clear whose side Heather is on. (The regular use of “supergroup” for the Visigoths and others left this reader of mature years distractedly thinking with pleasure of Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker more often than absolutely necessary.) Le mot injuste comes easily in such a style, leading to this ludicrous mischaracterization of Constantine Porphyrogenitus: 305, “He [Constantine Porphyrogenitus] conceived a maniacal project to preserve classical learning . . . .”

Ward-Perkins is an archaeologist by training and has done exemplary work on, for example, late antique building. Archaeology, indeed, has been one of the zones of greatest advance for late antique and early medieval historical scholarship in the last generation or two, as attention has turned enthusiastically to periods that used to be nearly ignored by diggers plowing past the late stuff to get to the classical. His book is shorter, better-written, more interestingly illustrated (with a fair amount of “School of Alma Tadema” luridities, archaeological artifacts and data graphs, and thought-provoking maps), and engages directly with the interpretative issues separating Reformers from Counter-Reformers. I find his characterization of the Reform school a bit overplayed (in W-P’s eyes, the Reformers believe that no bad thing happened in the fifth century, but instead that a happy multicultural community emerged where before there had been ethnic hostility and misunderstanding — and in saying that, I overstate him about as much as I think he overstates the Reformers), but quite take his main point: stuff happened, bad stuff, lots of it. Like Heather, he is too western in his focus to be able to claim that he has a comprehensive explanation for the transformation of the ancient world, but he knows eastern evidence as well as western and presents it fairly. He can make his points strongly and effectively, arguing, for example, that sub-Roman Britain fell back in standard of living below the pre-Roman Iron Age levels that it had known before. For him, the focus of attention remains on material culture and he salubriously and well demonstrates that the evanescence of Rome led to a significant decline in the complexity of organization and the prosperity of society in post-Roman times. In sum, he is right as far as he goes; but in so substantially omitting the east, he does not go far enough.

Ward-Perkins too is so Rome-centric that he misses important questions also missed by Heather. Any account of how Rome declined and fell is obligated, I think, to say what it imagines the alternative to have been. Neither goes anywhere near that question. The failure of Rome to understand or imagine what was happening across the Rhine and the Danube as indeed civilizational advance and its failure to co-opt, capitalize upon, or support such development perpetuated and hardened an adversary relationship past the point where Rome could sustain it. Heather almost sees this, but can’t say it; Ward-Perkins remains focused on effects.

Both authors tell us rather a bit more about their mothers than we ever heard about Mrs. Gibbon, and a certain insouciance of footnotes is now standard, as two examples quoted in toto may suggest: Ward-Perkins, “My Mum lives under one, so I know”; Heather: “Including Chanel No. 5, I am reliably informed.” Both are remarkable, after the long generation of the Reformers, in their disinclination to speak of religion — Christianity barely mentioned, “paganism” only a whisper, and neither book mentions Jews in its index at all.

In the end, both books are too linear in argument, too much devoted to special pleading for a single line of argument to sustain victory on a crowded field of interpreters. Heather is the better narrative history for the reader who wants to know what happened, while Ward-Perkins does a better job of situating narrative in a context of interpretative possibilities. If there is an implicit moral to each book, Ward-Perkins’s is that human prosperity and happiness are fragile things and need to be worked at assiduously, while Heather’s is that immigrants can be very bad for a society. The present reviewer will still be numbered amid the Reformers and not the Counters, but of the two he finds Ward-Perkins’s message more persuasive.