The British scholar Peter Heather boldly tackles an endlessly disputed question in his simply but aptly titled The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians. Since the last Western Roman emperor was deposed in 476 c.e., people have wondered how so powerful and magnificent an edifice as the Roman Empire could collapse before the attacks of barbarian warriors. This debate was given fresh impetus with the publication of the first volume of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in 1776. Gibbon’s magisterial work is a literary classic, and its intellectual influence persists to this day. Gibbon provided a sophisticated, multifaceted analysis of Roman failure. He followed traditional lines of explanation, however, by emphasizing internal weaknesses that left the Romans vulnerable to invasions by virile barbarian nations. A true son of the eighteenth century Enlightenment, he advanced a famously bold and controversial critique of Christianity, arguing that Christian otherworldliness and pacifism fatally weakened Roman martial resolve.
For the following two centuries, historians worked in Gibbon’s shadow. Operating within his conceptual framework, many contented themselves with advancing novel variations on his theme of decline and fall. Lead poisoning from Roman plumbing, overheated public baths, and “race suicide” all at various times were seriously advanced as the root cause of the empire’s demise.
In the second half of the twentieth century, a generation of scholars challenged the traditional narrative of Roman decay and collapse. Historians such as Peter Brown emphasized the continuities between the late classical and early Medieval worlds. These scholars argued that the transition from the late empire to the Germanic successor kingdoms was far less traumatic than had been previously thought. Many of the barbarian armies that roamed through Roman provinces in the fifth century had served in or sought to serve in the Roman army. Large numbers of Roman aristocrats and administrators switched their allegiance to German kings who, in turn, allowed their new subjects to continue to live under Roman law. The Roman Catholic Church survived, preserving Rome’s diocesan structure and much of the classical world’s literary culture. According to this line of interpretation, the date 476 would have been meaningless to most contemporaries. Instead of heralding a ghastly descent into the Dark Ages, the fall of the Roman Empire was part of a creative transformation of the European world. These revisionist scholars even coined a new term, late antiquity, to soften the traditional impression that a civilization disappeared with the empire.
Heather robustly rejects this effort to pretty up the fall of the Roman Empire. His account is in many ways a reversion to a more traditional view. Heather returns the barbarian invasions to center stage. His central thesis is that the Roman Empire did not fall of its own weight but was brought down by attacks from outside. He would not disagree with the famous dictum of the French historian Andre Piganiol: “Roman civilization did not die a natural death. It was murdered.” Heather has written an absorbing narrative of violent conflict. The Roman state fought back against every barbarian encroachment. The struggle ended only with the empire’s powers of resistance. While many Romans came to an accommodation with the barbarians, others carried on local wars against the newcomers, even when all hope of imperial assistance had faded away. The Roman Empire did not go easily.
To buttress his argument, Heather spends the first section of his book making the case that the Roman Empire in the latter half of the fourth century was not on the brink of collapse. Here he takes on the ghosts of Gibbon and many others who assumed that internal weaknesses had to explain the fall of the empire before a comparatively small number of barbarians. An obvious problem for the traditional view, acknowledged by Gibbon himself, is the fact that not all of the empire fell. In the eastern Mediterranean the Roman Empire lived on, prosperous and powerful, centered at its capitol of Constantinople. In the sixth century, Emperor Justinian launched a vigorous campaign to recapture lost territories in the west. The Roman Empire in the east eventually evolved into what historians call the Byzantine Empire, and was not finally extinguished until the Turks captured Constantinople in 1453.
The case has been made that the east benefited from relative geographical isolation. Most of the barbarians struck the long western frontier along the Rhine and Danube...
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