BMCR 2011.03.16

Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe

, Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. xvii, 734. ISBN 9780199735600. $34.95.


Several years ago, my department deployed computer projectors to show maps, images, or whatever in our classes. We stored all the old pull-down maps that a younger generation may not even remember, but which were used to instruct me and I in turn used to instruct my students until then. However, whatever their faults, many of these old maps were things of beauty, lovingly produced by dedicated scholars of two generations ago. So we had them framed and they now decorate the department halls.

One such map, dated 1934 and entitled “Barbarian Migrations,” purports to show the collapse of the western empire in the fourth and fifth centuries and the subsequent creation of new barbarian kingdoms in the fifth and sixth. It is full of multi-colored arrows crossing the Rhine and the Danube and suggests powerful invading forces wreaking havoc on an already divided empire. Yet the invasion map in the “civ” textbook I use has been removed from recent editions.

And no wonder. Beginning in the 1960s the tendency has been to minimize disruptive periods in later Roman history, whether the near collapse of the empire in the third century or the breakup of the western empire in the fifth under pressure of the barbarian Völkerwanderungen.

Recently, however, maps with arrows have been making a bit of a comeback. When James O’Donnell (himself no fan of arrows) reviewed Peter Heather’s The Fall of the Roman Empire and Bryan Ward-Perkins’ The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization for BMCR in 2005, he referred to the generation beginning with Peter Brown as the “Reformation,” and the new-old outlook as the “Counter-Reformation,” with Heather and Ward-Perkins as “neocons.”

Now Heather has produced a weightier and more ambitious book. The full title is misleading, since it suggests that the birth of Europe follows closely on the fall of Rome, which is not his contention. Rather, his book covers a much longer period, down to about 1000 CE, and takes the reader through not only the violent encounters between Rome and various Germanic groups in the fourth and fifth centuries but also the subsequent movement of Slavic peoples into central and eastern Europe, or from the Marcomannic wars of the second century to the Viking invasions of the 10th and the birth of Rus, creating the basic ethnic and linguistic map that persists to this day.

Furthermore, Heather is not much concerned with the Roman Empire per se. “This book is about migration and development, not a fully fledged exploration of the collapse of the western Empire.” But the relative lack of literary sources means lack of narrative, which means page after page of comparative archaeological evidence, deciphering movements of “peoples” (itself a problematic term) east of the Rhine and north of the Danube. Such “peoples” or cultures or systems include not only such familiar names as Goths and Huns and Franks and Saxons, but those given labels such as Wielbark and Przeworsk and Cernjachov and Korchak. Heather’s coverage of archaeological work in central and eastern Europe over the last century is impressive, and together with comparative migration studies and his analysis of it all forms the core of the book. Though concerned with what Heather calls the old “Grand Narrative” of the Völkerwanderungen and the efforts to replace it, the book is not itself a narrative history at all, but an effort to offer the theoretical basis for rehabilitating the concepts of “invasion” or “migration” by substantially revising them.

The first chapter sets the parameters of debate. Down to 1945, the common conviction was that barbarian migrations of the first millenium—that is, the movement of identifiable and endogamous peoples from some point A to an eventual point B—lay behind the creation of many European nations. Heather aptly describes this as a kind of billiard-ball view of national migration; the Vandals who crossed the Rhine at the beginning of the fifth century were not only a definite people, but even after they rolled across the pool table of Europe and came to pause in Spain before moving on to north Africa they were still essentially the same. However much anyone might argue over details, this Grand Narrative seemed solid, even though it was in fact rooted in 18th and 19th century national ideologies. Such academic nationalism, however, apart from any faults of method or errors of detail, also had a dark side. Not least among the reasons for rejecting it was its use to justify Germany’s effort in the 1940s to find Lebensraum through the settlement of Slavic areas believed to have been previously and properly Teutonic.

A steady assault on the “invasion hypothesis” has been underway since the 1960s, however, especially in Anglo-American academia. It is no longer possible to maintain any kind of continuity between ancient peoples and present national identities. In fact, the very idea of group identity in antiquity—just what was a Visigoth or an Alan?—is itself problematic. With release from the “straitjacket” of migratory assumptions, archaeologists have come to believe that to use a term like “invasion” or “migration” is to demonstrate a lack of sophistication. But after rejection of invasion as a model, one must still explain all those arrows, and the “billiard-ball view has been replaced by the snowball,” in which a small group of warriors cross the frontier and provide the stimulus for profound change as they grow by collecting followers and women while cutting a path through Europe. However, Heather takes the next five hundred pages to demonstrate that “contrary to some recent trends in scholarship on the period, migration must be taken seriously as a major theme of the first millenium.”

After this, the book has two sections. Chapters 2 through 7 cover the various tribes of Germani as well as Huns and others that contribute to the collapse of the empire in the west. Chapters 8, 9 and 10 cover the movement of slavs, Vikings and Magyars. Chapter 11 looks at the resulting European demography. I will confine my remarks mostly to the first section.

Chapter 2 analyses the transformation of Germanic society stemming from its proximity to the Roman empire. Chapter 3 moves from development to migration in the second and third centuries, mainly but not only by Alamanni into the Agri Decumates formed by the bends of the Rhine and the Danube (nature’s own arrow into the Roman empire) and by Goths from what is now Poland to north of the Black Sea, drawn by the wealth of societies more developed by proximity to the Roman frontier. Chapter 4 treats the opening stages of the Völkerwanderungen from Adrianople to Alaric. Here at least there is a clear narrative source for the beginning, Ammianus Marcellinus. But it is Ammianus’ very clarity that has been questioned, since taken at face value his work supports the older invasion hypothesis so scorned by the last generation. Against attempts to dismiss his account of large migratory invasion of Goths in 376 as a topos, Heather points out that Ammianus was quite capable of distinguishing between different sizes and types of barbarian forces, and that there in nothing implausible about a form of “predatory migration” involving a “massed, mixed group,” even if that group does not really qualify as a “people” but rather as a “coherent mass of population.” Subsequent movements of Vandals, Alans, et cetera, can be similarly understood. Against efforts to find causes within Roman political and military policy, Heather restores the Huns to their primary role in the collapse of the Roman frontier.

This naturally leads to chapter 5, “Huns on the Run.” Ammianus’ famous description of Hunnic nomadism is, even if credible, insufficient as an explanation for Attila. The reasons for the Hunnic movements which precipitated the final crisis of the western empire remain murky, but Heather is more inclined to believe that the same inequalities of wealth that previously moved others prompted the Huns. Given the number of “peoples” forced into confederation by the Hunnic empire and then set loose by its collapse, the problem of group identity again comes to the fore. Becoming part of the Hunnic empire did not mean becoming a Hun, and the subsequent movement of groups from Theodeoric’s Goths to the Lombards cannot be explained by such models as “wave of advance” or “elite transfer.” Again, rejecting nationalistic conceptions of “peoples” does not mean that any sort of group coherence or mass migration is impossible.

As the title of chapter 6 –“Franks and Anglo-Saxons: Elite Transfer or Völkerwanderungen?” –suggests, Heather does not accept either of these characterizations. If “elite transfer” is epitomized by the Norman conquest, in which a warrior elite seized power but left an existing social structure largely intact, and if Völkerwanderungen implies the wholesale replacement of populations by mass invasion, then neither of these can be said to apply to what happened in Britain and Gaul in the fifth and sixth centuries. Nevertheless, a form of elite transfer followed by cultural emulation that erased evidence of earlier societies is the favored explanation of many, particularly archaeologists hostile to migration. However, Heather believes that a significant movement of population is required to account for the profound changes evident in lowland Britain and northern Gaul. Heather does not shy away from the term “mass” in describing such migration, so long as it does not mean ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the previous population.

Chapter 7 tries to sum up the foregoing analysis and ask how it resulted in the Europe we find in the sixth and seventh centuries. Heather insists that the revisionists were right in two ways. First, the collapse of the west and the creation of new states were not the result of any intention to overthrow the Roman order. Such invading groups fought not only with the Rome but also with each other, often in alliance with the Roman state. Second, such invading groups cannot be understood as “peoples.”

However, even after such revisions, it is still impossible to conceive of the transformation of Europe that resulted in such entities as Ostrogothic Italy or Merovingian Gaul as the product of invitation and peaceful accommodation. The violent predation of invading groups led to a reduction in the imperial tax base that inevitably led to systems collapse. Such deals as could be made by local aristocrats with invaders were thus the best that could be negotiated under duress rather than the result of a process of peaceful integration. And if the 19th century concept of “peoples” is to be rejected, it does not follow that identities simply evaporate from the map. Such groups are rather “new political entities,” “forged on the march.”

Chapters 8, 9, and 10 cover the next great migrations—the Viking Diaspora and the movement of slavs and magyars into the areas once dominated by Germanic speakers and beyond to form the essential demography of Europe by about 1000 CE. To even summarize such a complex set of movements would be to extend this review beyond its proper length. However, if there is a general lesson that Heather wants to derive from all of this, it is that the political and social development of societies beyond the Roman empire stimulated by interaction with that very empire—the difference, if you will, between the barbarians of Tacitus’ Germania and the Goths and others encountered by the Roman state in the fourth and fifth centuries—are what made the subsequent alterations to the map of Europe over the first millennium inevitable. The Romans had sold the rope to hang themselves with, so to speak.

Two final observations about this otherwise admirable and thought-provoking work. First, acknowledgements are made, and references given, to numerous plates which nowhere appear, without explanation. Second, Heather often tries to lighten the load of such dense material with illustrations drawn from popular culture. I enjoy references to Professor Calculus or Al Pacino or Basil Fawlty. But will a reader fifty years hence get the joke?