The Rise of Books on the Fall
In the final chapter of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon wrote, “in the preceding volumes of this History, I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion.” By religion he meant, of course, Christianity:
The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity; the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of the military spirit were buried in the cloister … the Roman world was oppressed by a new species of tyranny; and the persecuted sects became the secret enemies of their country. (vol. iii “General Observations”)
Gibbon’s problem with barbarism and religion was a moral one. As a student of the Enlightenment, he considered Christian doctrine partly responsible for the dissolution of the most Roman of virtues: manly vigor. For him the rise of Christianity was one of several factors—along with petty infighting, excess luxury, and willing servility—contributing to the internal corruption that left the empire vulnerable to barbarian attack.
In assigning moral weight to history Gibbon followed his ancient forebears Polybius and Tacitus. Already in the second century BC the former had attempted to show that the Romans’ civic virtues helped explain their meteoric rise to Mediterranean dominion, achieved in roughly seventy years and, unbeknownst to Polybius, continuing in its imperial form for another seven centuries. Gibbon himself wrote for an audience that, after Machiavelli and Montesquieu, demanded a civic humanism of history. The Enlightenment historian interpreted past events according to a clearly defined telos: his aim was to explain the kind of society that could lead men to virtue or, in the case of the later Roman Empire, vice.
Although this kind of philosophic history and its attendant telic morality have fallen out of favor among academics, in 1999 an international group of scholars still formulated part of the premise of Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World in direct response to the Decline and Fall: “the period between around 250 and 800...is not, as it once was for Edward Gibbon, a subject of obsessive fascination only as the story of the unraveling of a once glorious and ‘higher’ state of civilization. It was not a period of irrevocable Decline and Fall; nor was it merely a violent and hurried prelude to better things.” The contributors to Late Antiquity, as the period has been re-named since Peter Brown’s ground-breaking 1971 study, The World of Late Antiquity, AD 150-750, seek rather to reframe the debate by stressing “transition,” “continuity,” and “culture” over “decline,” “fall,” and “civilization.” Indeed, the recent surge in scholarly interest in the later Roman Empire—one may properly speak of a Renaissance, if not Reformation—has witnessed a move away from the strict periodization and value judgments implicit in the language of Gibbon. At the same time, scholars have placed a renewed emphasis on the religious activity of the period. As is often pointed out, late antiquity witnessed the reshaping or creation of the three most important religions to emerge from the ancient Mediterranean world: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Regular Bookman readers may recognize here a line of thought akin to that of Christopher Dawson, for whom the post-Roman centuries introduced an age of the spirit, even an “Age of Faith,” as the Oxford archaeologist Bryan Ward-Perkins points out in his new and decidedly material history of the period, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization. Ward-Perkins’ title alludes to the work of Gibbon, as does The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians from his Oxford colleague, Peter Heather. While of course not as grand in style or design as the original Decline and Fall—Gibbon’s command of history was matched only by his mastery of language, which explains why his work continues to be read today—both of these studies show an impressive familiarity with the subject matter and make significant contributions to what has been called elsewhere the “Counter-Reformation” in history on the later Roman Empire.
In short, both books respond to recent work on the late antique period, perhaps best represented in the above-mentioned Late Antiquity: A Guide and the latest volumes of the Cambridge Ancient History. Both Heather and Ward-Perkins have contributed important articles to CAH, and the latter was co-editor of the most recent volume. Ward-Perkins’ editorial work has put him in excellent position to assess current scholarly opinion, and his new book characterizes the ascendant view on the later Roman Empire as too “rosy.” He is especially critical of the tendency among contemporary historians to see the “fall of Rome” as a predominantly peaceful and positive transition to Germanic rule after an initial period of accommodation of non-Romans within the empire’s borders. His own study is based on recent archaeological evidence not available to scholars of even a generation ago. In Ward-Perkins’ analysis, this evidence shows that Rome fell, that her fall was abject, and that what came after was quantifiably worse: “the transition from Roman to post-Roman times was a dramatic move away from sophistication towards much greater simplicity.” Ward-Perkins may slightly overstate his case, but his points are valid and his book comes as a welcome counterpoint to the prevailing opinion in the English-speaking academy.
Heather is hardly as polemical (perhaps because he actually participated in the European Science Foundation’s five-year project on the “Transformation of the Roman World,” of which Ward-Perkins offers some pointed criticism) and, as befits a military historian trekking over well-trod territory, he’s also more patient. Hence, his history is almost triple the length of his colleague’s. And yet its organization and thoroughness make it easier to follow than Ward-Perkins’ study, where the reader is thrown in medias res, subjected to tedious backtracking, and sometimes left to conjecture from a seemingly inscrutable archaeological record.
In the end, these books complement each other: what we learn from Ward-Perkins’ archaeological analysis about the devastation of the western empire is fleshed out by Heather’s account of the actual peoples—Goths, Alans, Vandals, Suevi, Burgundians, Franks, and especially Huns— responsible for it. According to Heather, three separate Hunnic incursions west—first from the Great Eurasian Steppe in the 370s, then from the region north of the Black Sea in the 400s, and finally from the Hungarian plain under Attila in the 440s-50s—forced other non-Roman tribes across the empire’s increasingly porous northern frontier. Ultimately, the Huns’ movement along the empire’s north-western border led to the ousting of Rome’s last emperor, Romulus Augustulus, by the Germanic prince Odovacar in 476 AD, the de facto “fall of the Roman Empire” of Heather’s title.
Clearly, both Heather and Ward-Perkins are concerned with the city of Rome and the European west, and one cannot expect to learn much from their histories about the eastern Roman Empire, which continued to thrive well into the seventh century and is now the primary area of focus among scholars of the new late antiquity. But both books represent solid scholarship and are handsomely produced, with helpful maps, indices, and timelines, though Heather provides substantially more notes and a handy list of dramatis personae. Ward-Perkins, especially his analysis of contemporary scholarship and the reasons for why it has taken on its current shape (“nowadays, instead of ‘civilizations’, we apply universally the neutral word ‘cultures’; all cultures are equal, and no cultures are more equal than others”), is recommended, but Heather supplies a richer piece of scholarship about the reason behind the collapse of the western Roman Empire.
Matthew McGowan is Assistant Professor and Chair of Classical Studies at the College of Wooster in Ohio.
Posted: May 15, 2007
What’s Relevant? Roman History and Latin Literature