THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE – A New History of Rome and the Barbarians. By Peter Heather.
ON THE BACK OF THE BOOK
The death of the Roman Empire is one of the perennial mysteries of world history. Now, in this groundbreaking book, Peter Heather proposes a stunning new solution – centuries of imperialism turned the neighbors Rome called barbarians into an enemy capable of dismantling an empire that had dominated their lives for so long. A leading author on the late Roman empire and on the barbarians, Heather relates the extraordinary story of how Europe’s barbarians, transformed by centuries of contact with Rome on every possible level, eventually pulled the Empire apart. He shows first how the Huns overturned the existing strategic balance of power on Rome’s European frontiers to force the Goths and others to seek refuge inside the empire. This prompted two generations of struggle, during which new barbarians coalitions, formed in response to Roman hostility, brought the Roman West to its knees. The Goths first destroyed a Roman army at the battle of Hadrianople in 378 and went on to sack Rome in 410. The Vandals spread devastation in Gaul and Spain before conquering North Africa, the breadbasket of the western empire, in 439. We then meet Attila the Hun, whose reign of terror swept from Constantinople to Paris, but whose death in 453 ironically precipitated a final desperate phase of Roman collapse, culminating in the Vandal’s defeat of the massive Byzantine Armada, the west’s last chance for survival. Peter Heather convincingly argues that the Roman Empire was not on the brink of social or moral collapse.What brought it to an end were the barbarians. FROM PETER HEATHER’S BOOK PAGES 443/444. IN PRESENTING my own take on the reasons for the collapse of the west Roman Empire, I find myself lined up against one of the oldest historical traditions of all – in English writing, certainly. Famously, Edward Gibbon emphasized internal factors: The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and, as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight. Gibbon’s analysis picked up from where the Greek writer Polybius left off. Polybius, like most ancient historians, saw individual moral virtue or vice as the main moving force behind historical causation. The Roman Republic rose to greatness
because of the self-discipline of its leaders, went his argument, and started to fall from grace when the excesses produced by success fed through to corrupt their descendants. Polybius was writing in the second century BC, long before the Empire reached its full extent, let alone started to shed territories. Picking up his general line of argument, Gibbon, addressing the subject of Christianity, saw it as contributing massively to the tale of woe. For him, the new religion sowed internal division within the Empire through its doctrinal disputes, encouraged social leaders to drop out of political participation by becoming monks, and, by advocating a ‘turn-the-other-cheek’ policy, helped undermine the Roman war machine. There may be something to be said for this way of thinking but there is one counter-argument that relegates it to no more than a footnote in the debate. Any account of the fall of the western Roman Empire in the fifth century must take full stock of the fact that the eastern Empire not only survived, but actually prospered in the sixth. All the evils identified in the western system applied equally, if not more, to the eastern. If anything,
the Roman east was more Christian, and more given to doctrinal argument. Also, it operated the same kind of governmental system over the same kind of economy. Yet the east survived, when the west fell. This alone makes it difficult to argue that there was something so inherently wrong with the late imperial system that it was bound to collapse under its own weight. And if you start looking for differences between east and west that might explain their different fates, accidents of geography are what come most immediately to mind. The richest provinces of the east, the band stretching from Asia Minor to Egypt, were well protected by Constantinople against invaders from the north and east, whereas the western Empire had most of the Rhine and Danube frontier line to protect, and we have seen what hazards that threw up. Both of these points were made by two earlier commentators, N. H. Baynes and A. H. M. Jones; but since Jones was writing -forty years ago – it has become more necessary, I would argue, in any account of the collapse of the Roman west, to shine the spotlight on the barbarian-immigrant issue. This is for two reasons. First, the only factor that Jones saw as playing any real role in the different fates of east and west was their relative prosperity. In his view, overtaxation crippled the late Roman economy. Peasants were not being left with a large enough share of their yearly produce to feed themselves and their families, so that both population and output saw steady, if unspectacular, decline. This, he believed, was especially true in the west. Jones’s view of the late Roman economy was entirely based, however, on written, above all legal, sources. As he
wrote, the French archaeologist George Tchalenko was publishing the account of his revolutionary trove of prosperous late Roman villages in the limestone hills behind Antioch (see pp. 112-13); and since Jones wrote, rural surveys, as we saw in Chapter 3, have completely recast our view of the late Roman economy. We know that in the fourth century, taxes were certainly not high enough to undermine peasant subsistence. In the west as well as the east, the late Empire was a period of agricultural boom, with no sign of an overall population decline. The east may still have been richer, of course, but there was no major internal economic crisis at play in the Roman world before the fifth century. Equally important, understanding that both moments of frontier crisis, 376-80 and 405-8, had the same non-Roman cause, and reconstructing the detailed narrative of subsequent imperial collapse from 405 to 476, underline the central role played by outside immigrants in the story of western collapse.