The Fall of the Roman Empire: A Contemporary Perspective

I’ve been reading The Fall of the Roman Empire by historian Peter Heather, currently at King’s College London, previously at Oxford.  The book’s subtitle, A New History of Rome and the Barbarians, indicates the author’s objective and thesis.

Popular arguments about the “fall of Rome” tend to focus on internal decadence, often allowing the author to give an ideological account with a contemporary message.  Enlightenment-era British historian Edward Gibbon, in his massive Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, made the argument that Christianity had sapped the strength of the Roman Empire by promoting renunciation of worldly concerns.  Yet another British historian and contemporary of Heather, Adrian Goldsworthy, claims that repeated civil wars wasted the military strength of the Empire.  (While individual units of the Roman Legion remained disciplined, the Empire clearly never developed an ordered succession or even a means of balancing military and political strength between the Western and Eastern Empire.)  Jared Diamond‘s well-known book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed attributes imperial decline to human damage of the environment–in Rome’s case, too much clearing for agriculture, over-irrigation and overgrazing resulted in drought and desertification, forcing people to move to increasingly-overburdened cities.  Conservative Bruce Bartlett produced an intriguing theory that the progressive devaluation of Roman coins in the 200s resulted in direct requisitioning of desired goods from citizens in order to support the Roman state.  As this system imposed greater hardship on farmers, they eventually either moved to the cities and went on the famously-draining dole or turned to wealthy landowners and offered their labor in exchange for protection from property requisitions; in this way feudalism was born.

These arguments have a certain attractiveness precisely because focusing on internal problems lends itself to contemporary political argument: Gibbon didn’t like Christianity, Diamond is worried about the environment, Bartlett is opposed to socialism and state control of monetary policy.  Heather, while discussing the Roman Empire’s internal problems extensively, goes with a simple, pessimistic theory dismissive of ideology or agency: exogenous shock destroyed the Roman Empire.

Heather thinks the migration of the Germanic barbarians into the Western Roman Empire in the late-300s and the 400s in response to the westward invasions of the Huns resulted in a military collapse, period.  Against the various arguments about decadence, corruption and civil warfare he submits contemporary evidence that the Empire was near the peak of its production and military mobilization not long before the Sack of Rome in 410!

In Heather’s account, the major political developments in Rome, from Julius Caesar’s coup, Caesar Augustus’s founding of the Empire, the gradual shift of the actual Imperial capital from Rome to several cities north or east of it, Diocletian’s division of the Empire into East and West, Constantine’s establishment of a new Eastern capital at Constantinople, and the fall of the Western Roman Empire itself, can all be attributed to the military challenges of the Empire and its success in addressing them–until the Legion was overwhelmed by barbarian settlers.  The Fall of the Roman Empire is both an enriching read and very accessible.  The book offers a clear, Realist military history to explain both the rise and the fall of the Empire, but also addresses social history, in the way Roman culture constituted the Legion, the ways in which cultural change didn’t impact its collapse, and both the basis of Latin and Greek cultural continuity and change before, during and after the fall.  I heartily recommend it to those looking for a clear explanation for the strengths of an empire that dominated the West for over half a millennium, the challenges that brought it down, and yes, what this Empire’s story can tell us about the health of our own (and no, it doesn’t have anything to do with Christianity, illegal immigrants, welfare, political balkanization or homosexuality).

I’ll close with the author’s explanation of his method from the book’s “Introduction,” on the middle of page xiv:

“I will also be arguing that it is vitally important not to lose sight of narrative in the midst of the current emphasis on ideology and perception, much of it inspired by recent trends in literary criticism.  Some scholars have even been led to doubt whether it is possible, given the nature of our sources, to get past these sources’ representations of reality to ‘actual events.’  Sometimes, it quite clearly isn’t.  I would argue, however, that the kinds of intellectual process suitable for literary criticism are not always adequate for historical studies.  The tools of literary analysis are hugely valuable when applied to individual sources, but a legal analogy, it seems to me, is more appropriate to the overall enterprise of history.  All of our sources are witnesses, many trying to advocate, for their own reasons, a particular view of events, but what they are describing are not, or not all the time, constructs of their authors’ imaginations, in the way that literary texts are.  History, like the legal system, does have measurably burgled property and actual dead bodies to deal with, even if an understanding of these phenomena has to be built from ideologically constructed sources.  The Roman Empire encompassed many ideologies, as will emerge, and promoted a particular way of looking at the world.  But it also employed bureaucracies, passed laws, collected taxes and trained armies.  And in the course of the fifth century, the western half of the Roman Empire, along with all the structures and procedures it had maintained over centuries, ceased to exist, leaving behind the corpse that lies at the heart of this book.”

Read an interesting interview of Peter Heather on his Roman researches here.

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One thought on “The Fall of the Roman Empire: A Contemporary Perspective

  1. colgam7

    This is a really great article, and I’ve been trying to cite it in an extension history essay I’ve been working on, but I’m having a lot of trouble finding the author to properly use it within my essay. Anyway I could get an authors name?

    Reply

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