I think some of the reviewers here are far too harsh in what they say about Heather. This is an immaculate study of the decline and fall of Rome. Heather's theories sit well within the prevailing historical consensus- he is illuminating on many of the themes that surround the fall- the rise of Barbarion tribes and the reasons for their rising and falling. He writes an analytical narrative- unlike some major popular histories he actually does analyse why things happened. The Fall of Rome can easily be reduced to battle after battle, imperial slaughter after slaughter but Heather gives you the reasons why one tribal confederacy won through, why imperial turnover was a constitutional feature of the empire. Perhaps most impressively, Heather thoroughly describes what he doesn't know as well as what he does- we don't have an internal account of the Hunnic Empire so can't know why Attilla headed west but can guess for example. Overall this is a wonderful study- full of analysis, full of narrative, which provides a coherent account of why the Empire fell and how it fell.
on 4 September 2008
This is a book which is as every bit of epic as its subject matter. Peter Heather writes in an accessible, easy-to-follow manner making this book ideal for the layperson, scholar and student. Rather than seeing the end of the western Roman Empire as a result of internal decline and internecine warfare (the Edward Gibbon approach), Heather argues that the Empire fell due to the rise of the Germanic tribes north of the Danube, both economically and politically into supergroups, which became too strong for the western resources to ovecome. Coupled with this, argues Heather, the movement of the Huns in the 370s, forcing the Greuthungi and Tervingi Goths onto Roman territory, and again between 395-420 onto the Great Hungarian Plain, forcing this time more Goths, Burgundians and Alans etc, provided the catalyst for barbarian encroachment upon Roman territory. Each loss of teritory meant loss of revenue with which to pay the diminishing legions. The most telling of losses were the rich African provinces to the Vandals. Really, it is not so much as the decline of the west, but the rise of the barbarians, caused by the sudden appearance, and disappearance, of the Huns.
Other reviewers have provided more in-depth looks at the pros and cons of this book - with which I would agree (in particular some of the contemporary language and jokes would seem out of place)- therefore I will not repeat them here. Suffice to say this is an excellent, informative account of one of the world's most important events.
As almost 30 reviewers have already recognized (I am number 30!), this is an excellent book and a wonderful read. However, and just like the book of Adrian Goldsworthy on the same topic, this is a book that seeks to answer the traditional BIG question - WHY did the Roman Empire Fall - but in a somewhat biaised way. The core of the story is that the Fall of the Empire was caused by the Barbarians (just how I had learned it at school almost four decades ago!) rather than by anything else, and it was caused by the Huns in particular (and perhaps also by the Vandals flying the Huns and who sized Africa from the Western Empire, depriving it of its most prosperous Diocese.
He essentially makes, in what is a very accessible narrative story, three main points.
First, the Empire as it stood about 300 AD had survived the "crisis of the third century" and emerged from it in a better position to resist the "ennemies at the Gates" (i.e. the Germanic ones but also the Sassanid Persians, which had become much more aggressive than the previous Parthian dynasty) whose pressure along the Rhine and the Danube had increased considerably. This is the traditional argument about the increased difficulties entailed by having to fight on several fronts simultaneously where each of the ennemies will take advantage of any withdrawal of troops facing it to attack its piece of the frontier. The date chosen for beginning the book is anything but innocent. While showing that the Germanic tribes had merged into a few more powerful confederations (the Vandals, Franks and Alamans, in particular), selection 300 AD as a starting allows to mention the 3rd century civil wars without having to emphasize how destructive they were on the Empire.
Second, the next point is to show that the whole Empire was reorganized by Diocletian (and Constantine after him) and militarized or put onto a war footing. The point here is that they did whatever it took (even executing Christians, viewed by Diocletian as essentially traitors) so that all energies could be mobilized and controlled by the State. Nowadays, we would view this (and some historians have taken such a view) as a form of somewhat totalitarian military dictatorship bent on its own survival, whatever the cost, that is bent on making the Empire - and starting with its army - more efficient, even if it meant institutionalizing State terrorism and absolutism.
Third, these reforms were largely successful over the three first quarters of the 4th century, therefore refuting the idea of an inexorable decline that we have inherited from Gibbon and which Adrian Goldsworthy, for instance, generally buys into. However, by about 370, the Huns appeared in modern Ukraine and their "irruption" and growing pressure started a chain reaction that the Empire was unable to control. They pushed the Goths to flee over the Danube. These destroyed the Eastern Empire's field army and killed the Eastern Emperor at Hadrianoplis. Then, a few decades latter, they were largely responsible for the Barbarian attack over the Rhine in 406. Finally, there was Attila...
This book is just as good as the one written by Adrian Goldsworthy, but it is just as biaised because it minimizes the Empire's internal weaknesses (while not denying them) and somewhat overemphasizes the Barbarian threats to the Empire. The Huns were far from being invicible, with those in the employ of Aetius (several thousands of them) being for instance cut to pieces by the Wisigoths in the South of Gaul in 439. Moreover, there were only a minority within Attila's horde. Heather also tends to overemphasize the importance of Hunnish bows and the advantage that this supposedly gave them. Also, the emphasis placed on the "contingent factors" (the Barbarians) can lead to emphasizing the military factors and does lead to the same kind of "chicken and egg" issue (or "two sides of the same coin") that you will comes accross if you read Mr Goldsworthy's "Fall of the West".
Finally, Peter Heather's emphasis on the Barbarians, and their increased ability to "interact" with (read "take advantage of") the Empire means that there became overtime increasingly able to take advantage of its weaknesses. For this to happen, you may consider that the Barbarians essentially became more powerful and capable, as Peter Heather does, or that the Empire became weaker, as Adrian Goldsworthy does. In practice, however, the most likely outcome was that both happened and reinforced each other, so that the Western Empire's recoveries were increasingly difficult and partial and left it ever more weaker to face the next onslaught.
Essentially, in both cases, you get a very well told and very exciting story, but it's only half the story and you have to read both books if you really want to grasp the whole of it. I personnally prefer Adrian Goldsworthy's narrative, but only slightly. This is not because I am more convinced by his arguments, but because he gives more consideration to the Eastern part of the Empire (The Rome That Did Not Fall). In practice, however, both deserve four stars as both come up with excellent books and wonderful stories that are part of the whole one.
on 29 May 2007
When I first bought the book I was intimidated by its length for a while and so delayed starting to read it. However, once I stared reading it I enjoyed it so much that I read it very quickly. In fact I read the last third in one go.
The book deals very well with a number of complex themes and always has an eye on the overall argument which I will not set out here as others have done so in their comments. This period of history is certainly a very exciting one and there are many important parallels for present-day situations. That writers such as Mr Heather are producing books such as this one on the late Roman period is a benefit for us all and a change to the majority of history books published today which, I feel, tend to concentrate on much more recent history.
The Who's Who at the back of the book is very useful to keep track of the individuals mentioned in the text (as, necessarily, a book covering such a large and complex topic must deal with a many personalities). My only criticism, and it is a minor one, is that the maps could be improved; often the text refers to the maps but then goes on to discuss places that are not on the maps. Overall a brilliant and surprisingly 'unheavy' read for a book of its length.
The Fall of the Roman Empire is undoubtedly a 'big' topic, yet Peter Heather makes it approachable for the casual reader in his excellent single volume history which tracks the demise of Romes from the battle of Adrianople to the replacement of the last emperor.
What I liked about this cogently argued tome is that - unlike many other 'popular' works about antiquity - Heather, a proper historian, keeps referring back to the archive and archaelogical record. This gives the work a great deal of rigour. In fact, of all the history books I have read in the last twenty years - and there's been a few - this was the one that most reminded me of studying at university, when my old lecturers shouted 'source!' with each new argument I tried out. In contrast to me, Heather produces one each time.
There is a debt to literary criticism in the analysis of classical texts and - might I suggest - a structuralist understanding of the apparent stasis of the late Roman Empire prior to the Gothic incursions, however Heather understands the importance of contingency, particularly military contingency in understanding historical events. The final nail in the coffin of the Western Empire is the Vandals - in some ways the least obviously threatening of the barbarian groups (compared to the better known Goths of Alaric and Huns of Attila) - getting to the grain-producing North African provinces, whereby having their boot on the Roman jugular. If the last naval attempt to oust them had not failed, there is every likelihood - Heather argues - that the Western Empire could have recovered; as it had done under Diocletian and Constantine.
In short, this is a serious, yet readable book and I would strongly recommend that anyone interested in antiquity - or history generally - reads it and keeps going through the 140 pages of scene setting, where Heather's slightly irritating digressions are at their most distracting. (He is a little fey with his 'our old friend' introductions for reappearing sources and 'history is a detective story' asides, but not so bad as to lost a star)
on 28 July 2007
The "Fall of the Roman Empire" casts a huge shadow. A vast Empire, one of the "great civilisations" of history, went in barely a century from being the "sole superpower" to a mere plaything of barbarian tribes.
Why did it happen? All sorts of reasons can be offered, and Heather offers several, but what it comes down to is that this is simply what empires do - they rise, they exist for a time - years, decades or (as in Romes's case) centuries - and then they fall. Rome had already had a better "innings" than most, and in the fifth century its luck ran out.
It is usual to blame the Fall on the Empire's internal problems, and say that it became "decadent" or whatever. Heather, probably rightly, focuses more on what was happening outside Rome's borders. The Barbarian tribes, living for centuries with that 800 pound Roman "gorilla" next door, combined into larger units like the Frankish or Gothic kingdoms, which were a tougher proposition for Rome to cope with. Everlasting warfare with these states gradually wore the Empire down, and finally another barbarian, Attila, drove many tribes from their old homes and forced them to try their luck migrating into Roman territory. This proved more than Rome (or at least its western half) could cope with. So down the tubes it went.
No doubt, had Rome not fallen from this cause, it would eventually have fallen another way. Empires are usually longer lived than individuals, but are no more immortal. But Heather does a magnificent job of showing how and why it fell as and when it did.
One minor regret. Perhaps a little more "afterword" about post-Roman Europe might have been in order. For the significant thing about the Roman Empire is not that it fell (which was bound to happen sometime) but that it was never rebuilt. By contrast, China fell to Mongol "barbarians" in the 13C, an invasion probably as devastating as anything Western Rome underwent, yet within a century had gotten its breath back, expelled the invaders, and installed a native Ming Dynasty. Similarly, Egypt was able to spit out the Hyksos and other intruders. Yet Rome's former subjects not only didn't do this, but (unless the Arthurian legends count) seem never to have even tried. Rather, they appear to have largely shrugged their shoulders and made the best of things under barbarian rule. While purely external factors can explain the fall itself, they can't explain this apparent acceptance of it. Even when Roman lands were "liberated" by Justinian, the inhabitants seldom rallied round, and when Byzantium's grip loosened they just flopped back into barbarian hands. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that, however traumatic the Empire's fall had been, a lot of its subjects soon found they didn't really miss it all that much. This calls for explanation.
Still, that's quibbling. Heather has written a great book (even if his 21C idioms can irritate at times) and it needs to be read by anyone interested in this subject.
on 4 July 2007
To start off with I thought his language was irritatingly contemporary. I hate it when historians talk about "spin doctors". I read history to escape from, not to be reminded of, Alistair Campbell and co. However, I soon got over this because the book was telling me just the sort of thing I really wanted to know.
Some books take the stories from the ancient sources, put them in order and iron out the discrepancies, but give very little elaboration. I'm particularly thinking of the book I was previously reading, Byzantium: The Early Centuries by J. J. Norwich. This is okay as far as it goes, in fact it's quite readable, but it can get a bit boring. All the repeated usurpations, murders and civil wars don't seem to have much significance, and there are so many questions unanswered, along the lines of, "but what was it actually like? And how did that work?"
Heather's narrative covers a much shorter time-span so he has much more room for analysis and explanation. And at the end I really felt I'd learnt a lot. Why, I was wondering, if Attila was a nomad does he have such beautiful clothes in the pictures in Osprey books? (Whenever I go camping I become filthy in a couple of weeks!) Heather gives a reasonable explanation of the the Huns' lifestyle. And if you want to know who the Goths were, I recommend this book. He reminded me of the most enthusiastic lecturers at university - the ones I actually made an effort to get up for, which is another reason why I ended up liking his informal style.
The maps could be brushed up a bit though. On map 13 the towns on the Moselle look a bit wrong to me. And the text refers to several places which aren't marked, so you can't follow the story easily. It helps to have an atlas handy.
on 2 February 2006
Along with many others, I suspect, I knew little about the late 4th and 5th centuries in Europe, the Asian margins and the Mediterranean lands, apart from the fact that the Roman empire had collapsed, taking civilsation with it, and that 'barbarian' hordes had swept in, eventually to fill the power gap with the early medieval kingdoms. Actually it always seemed rather an obscure and muddled period.
But Peter Heather's book, with its wit and schoalrship, casts a clear light on the immense landscape from Gaul to the Danube and on the complexity of desperate political manoeuverings, heroic battles and undoubted brutality on both sides. It must have been tempting to only deal with the broad canvas, but Professor Heather studs the text with real individuals, the admirable Aetius, last effective defender of the West (how Tolkienesque can you get?) and the brilliant, wily and charismatic Attila, for example. It was also enlightening to learn about the original source materials, from the endearing Olympiodorus (and his parrot!) and from the pragmatic saint Severinus, so effective in defending Noricum against the invaders. And how amazing that such revealing diplomatic correspondence,noted in later Byzantine archives, has survived, at least in part.
Professor Heather insists that the western empire collapsed not though internal decadence, nor through the debilitating influence of Christianity (turning warriors into wimps) but through the 'exogenous shock'of the expansion of the Hunnic peoples and the intolerable pressure this put upon the Germanic groups clustered around the Roman frontiers. He also explodes the myth that Constantinople connived at the West's destruction - a theory completely at variance with its sending,at considerable cost, a (doomed) armada as practical action aid in 461.
All this, I suppose, could read as a dry-as-dust narrative, but it is pacy and exciting stuff, enlivened by amusing asides (Heather and his son apparently spent an exhausting five minutes practicing acclamations to get the feel of the boredom of the later western emperors listening to more that 200 shouts of ceremonial acclaim by the court and senate). The language is vivid, and telling modern analogies and short ironic comments pepper the text - not a dull moment!
There is, of course, far more in this book than any amateur review can do justice to - the splendid corruption scandal at Lepcis Magna, the desirable life-style of the wealthy Symmarchus, land-owner par excellence,the description of the barbaric splendours of Attila's court. Just read the book!
Although an exciting and an easy read, the wealth of detail is hugely informative and deftly handled, the analysis rigorous and the conclusions worthy of serious consideration.
This is a truly wonderful book, of the kind that I wish I had had when I studied this stuff in school. Unlike the dry textbook that I suffered through, this book brings the process of discovery alive as well as tells a great story. You follow an inspired scholarly mind as he puts together a compelling narrative with loads of delicious detail. I was utterly riveted by this for more than a month.
Heather begins with a description of the Empire as it stood about 300 A.D. Rome itself had become a religious and ceremonial capital, far from the frontier, where the real political power had migrated to serve military necessity. It was a vast and integrated world, unified not just by military power, economic activity, and the most advanced administrative system to have yet existed, but it had a literate culture that, once mastered, allowed indigenous (conquered) populations to make their own careers within it. Heather describes this culture in sensuous detail, relying largely on the words of its most illustrious citizens, many of whom were accomplished letter writers and poets - you get to know them. Of course, they were all super-rich landowners, but then Rome represented them aboveall, which became the model for the European aristocratic states that arose and lasted until the 19C. He also describes both the brutality of life at the top - losing a political battle meant losing not only your head but those of your entire family - and the limits of administrative reach across such a huge expanse of territory.
He then shifts to the barbarians. After centuries of contacts with Rome, they had adopted many of the economic methods of the empire. This led to an extraordinary increase in population among the Germanic tribes with more diversified economies and societies; they were also uniting politically into far greater groups and better organized as war machines. Even worse, there was a major empire - the Huns - who were pushing the Germans into the Roman Empire, first as refugees and then as roaming pillagers. As one of the world's experts on them, Heather offers a wealth of detail on their cultures, war techniques, and origins. There are many surprises: Alaric, the first sacker of Rome in 410, was a Christian and hence reluctant to sack the capital; Theodoric the Great was bought up in Byzantium and hence classically educated and trained. He also describes their technology, such as the Hunnic bow, of uniquely lethal power.
This is his way of refuting the arguments that the Roman EMpire was in some kind of inexorable moral decline, from the adoption of Christianity to demographic stagnation and economic exhaustion. To strengthen his case, Heather relies on new archeological evidence of the economic prosperity, particularly in African and the Near East, but also within the graves of germanic tribes, who "taxed" the empire by the threat of pillage. While I found his treatment of the impact of its christianization a bit too quick, he makes a solid and fascinating case that is very very fun to read.
If you accept his premise - that the empire's fall was not at all inevitable - then the author's argument becomes entirely geo-political. Once certain Germanic tribes were inside its borders, they undermined the fragile structure of the huge economy: Vandals captured the North African breadbasket provinces, which lessened tax revenues and food exports to Italy, fatally weakening it as the pressure from the Huns was greatest. Thus, while the Huns never invaded Rome the city, their actions did lead indirectly to Rome's fall.
Heather also incorporates fascinating theories on empires and how they evolve. Rome was different: it unified and co-opted local elites, which enabled it to survive 500 years. In contrast, the others were based on plunder by their troops, requiring continual victories (via charismatic leaders like Attila, who was viewed as infallible) that eventually stretched their supply lines too far. After the failures began, the troops (often multi-ethnic) fell to fighting eachother; no unifying culture and economy could channel their energies, leading to quick collapse. I had never thought of this so succinctly, but this is only one of the many details that Heather explains and examines in the course of his argument.
What is amazing about this book is what a pleasure it is to read. Heather is a master stylist, has the erudition you expect from Oxford scholars without the stuffiness, and can transmit his love of the subject on every page. While my interest began to flag towards the end, the book left me very hungry for more.
on 29 May 2009
This is a well written and useful introduction for those - like me - who have a limited knowledge of the subject.
But, like some other reviewers, I have some serious misgivings about how thorough Heather has been in ensuring that he has taken all the latest discoveries and research into account. For example, how can he claim that this is a "New History" when he repeats ideas that have already been challenged, if not discredited? Besides the claims about Carthage and the location of Julius Caesar's assassination, there is also the matter of describing the Roman building at Portchester as a "military installation," when archaeologists have already failed to find any evidence that the compound in question was ever used for that purpose. In fact, the whole assumption that the so-called "Saxon forts" were - indeed - a consciously planned network of defensive structures has been brought into question on both evidential and practical grounds.
He is also rather inconsistent. On the one hand, he devotes much time and energy in emphasising the durability of the Empire while also claiming that its revenue systems were "ramshackle." But how could an Empire last for half a millenium if that was the case? And - what's more to the point - how did the Romans compare with their contemporaries in this respect? Did the Persians, Chinese and American civilisations use revenue systems that were any more sophisticated than those used by Rome? Such a comparison should have been undertaken before Heather drew his conclusions. Similarly, the evidence we have from the Roman period is far from perfect. The imperial archives were burned to the ground on a number of occasions.
Lastly, there are times when he comes across as unjustifiably negative. In his closing argument he makes the passing remark that: "the Roman Empire... saw nothing amiss in feeding human beings to wild animals for the pleasure of the multitude." Maybe so, but given the fact that what we would describe as brutality was the stock in trade of every tribe and polity on the planet at the time, this is a rather pointless assertion to make, especially as he provides plenty of evidence to that effect himself. Admittedly, the Romans' contemporaries may not have had the resources and technology to indulge their own impulses in the same manner, or to the same extent, as the Romans, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that their intentions were just as red in tooth and claw.