24 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Pottery is fun!
Don't be put off, as I initially was, by the technical illustrations and discussions of pottery types that at first sight may make this look like the drier kind of archaelogical textbook. It is in fact a witty and stimulating exposition, with skilfull deployment of supporting evidence of both "hard" and "soft" varieties, of the view that the end of the Roman Empire was...
Published on 23 Mar 2007 by Lobsterman
14 of 20 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars "Der Untergang"
Bryan Ward-Perkins makes a spirited case for the Downfall thesis of the West Roman Empire, using much empirical research and a no-nonsense approach to recent attempts to paint the end of empire as a cuddly cohabitation. It is difficult to fault his judgement on the qualitative decline in the fabric of everyday life shown by the loss of the Roman pottery industry and the...
Published on 19 Dec 2006 by K. N. Crosby
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24 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Pottery is fun!,
This is not, nor does it claim to be, an in-depth examination of why the Empire fell or a narrative of that fall. Instead, it is an attempt, in my view a successful one, to show that this was indeed a "fall" and not just a transformation or transition from one form of society to another. Despite some of the hype around the book, at least going by the description on the back of the paperback version, I am not sure that this view ever really went away although recent years have undoubtedly seen a strengthening of the contrary view that it was essentially a largely peaceful "transformation".
I found particularly interesting Ward-Perkins' use, of evidence like the aforementioned pottery, to show that the end of the Empire was manifested not just through the immediate and obvious impact of large numbers of greedy warriors with big swords taking over the land, but the resultant loss of links between the various parts of the Empire and thus of the flows of goods and services that enabled the Roman civilization to flourish.
This is not to say that Ward-Perkins denies that the "barbarians" were incapable of any positive achievements. Clearly they were so capable, and he admits as much. But what clearly emerges is a picture of a sophisticated and reasonably comfortable civilization falling into an abyss, admittedly deeper in some places than others, from which it took centuries to recover. (Try Alfred Duggan's "The Little Emperors" for a fictional, and to my mind very effective, treatment of what this must have fet like to those living through it.)
31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What did the Romans ever do for us?,
As other reviewers have commented, Ward-Perkins books explains the economic and cultural changes that took place immediately before and in the two centuries following the fall of Rome. Although he has his own opinions as to what happened he makes it clear where the evidence - written and archeological - is lacking and also puts across other viewpoints at variance with his own.
An excellent if slightly slim volume and a lesson from history that all empires come to and end sometime. Will the pax Europa ultimately be overwhelmed by a tidal wave of immigration from excluded people from beyond the frontiers or will its own internal problems, declining population and inability to renew itself prove its downfall?
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Bigger they are, the Harder they Fall,
This review is from: The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization (Hardcover)Every now and then, something happens which reminds us just how precarious is the way of life that we have all learned to take for granted. Most of us remember how, when the transport workers went on strike, petrol disappeared from the pumps and the super-market shelves emptied - all within about 36 hours. Had the TGWU not gone back to work the power stations would have shut down and mass transport would have ceased to function: you wouldn't have been able to light or heat your home; you wouldn't have been able to cook, wash or clean. People would have started pouring out of the cities to see what they could find in the country, but the country would already have been picked clean... and what would have happenned next doesn't bear thinking about... imagine the police trying to keep order without their lovely squad cars.
For a great number of years, a diverting topics of debate among those with an interest in the ancient world, has been how, in the first quarter of the CIV, the Western Empire came to collapse. One of the more entertaining of the theories advanced postulated that the Romans progressively poisoned themselves by using lead piping to convey their drinking water. I always thought this one was rather discredited when the archaeologists discovered the hollowed out tree trunks that were used to pipe water to the cisterns along Hadrian's Wall - the stalls in the Colosseum may have been full of the living dead, but the average legionary presumably still had enough in the way of brains to blow his nose?
In the simple-minded CXIX it was thought that what caused the fall of the Roman Empire was military failure: the Roman army was catastrophically defeated at Adrianople in 378 AD, and thereafter the Goths ranged through the Balkans and Northern Italy. In 406 AD the Rhine froze, the Germans crossed the ice and overwhelmed the northern frontier. In the years that followed Vandals, Lombards and Franks rampaged through Gaul, Spain and North Africa. Britain was ambandoned in 410 AD, and was never reoccupied. Order collapsed, lawlessness flourished, and it became impossible to find the funds to pay a professional army. Gildas was quoted to set the scene for what were referred to as 'the Dark Ages': 'some lay as food for dogs; for many a burning roof both took their soul and cremated their corpse. through villages and villas, through country and market place, through all regions, on all roads, in this place or that, there was death, misery, burning and mourning: the whole of Gaul smoked on a single funeral pyre.'
More recently, this vision of catastrophic collapse and wholesale destruction has become unfashionable. Sir Peter Brown, the brilliant scholar of Late Antiquity, has, throughout his work, stressed the continuities in the intellectual and cultural life of the Western and the Eastern elites, but one might almost infer from the work of some of Sir Peter's more complacent disciples that Gildas and those like him were merely indulging a taste for apocalyptic rhetoric - life, as they say, went on.
Well, a reaction was bound to come, and it comes in the form of this readable, entertaining and unassumingly scholarly work by Bryan Ward-Perkins, Fellow of Trinity College and joint editor of the Cambridge Ancient History. Life did go on; of course it went on - but what sort of life was it where people buried hugely valuable hordes of household silver - and were never able to return for it? Where great market towns with their impressive public buildings continued to be occupied, but where, when walls fell down, or roofs collapsed, there were no masons or tilers to repair them - and they were patched up instead with wood, wattle or thatch? The very refinement and sophistication of trade and distribution meant that when the systems of transport and supply broke down, there were no local producers who knew how to manufacture adequate substitutes.
In a brilliant analysis of the archaeological evidence, Mr Ward Perkins demonstrates the wholesale decline in the quality and quantity of pottery which he links, convincingly, to the destruction of the traditional centres of production and the dislocation of the established supply routes. In an even more impressive presentation Mr Ward-Perkins demonstrates that during the Roman occupation of Europe, stock animals showed a mark rise in average size; not only did size fall back in the early Middle Ages, but it fell back to a size that was distinctly smaller than it had been before the Romans arrived.
The above are only two examples of the wide range of evidence that Mr Ward-Perkins marshalls to demonstrate that the the collapse of the Western Empire was probably a lot more disagreable than it has been fashionable to allow. Better, perhaps, to follow Gildas and Victor than Orosius and Jordanes - each of whom had their own reasons for choosing always to look on the bright side of life.
Of course history, like so many other forms of intellectual endeavour, runs to a timetable of fashion: it was Hilaire Belloc who observed that 'you have only to note what any particular time takes for granted as obvious and beyond discussion to be certain that a readily succeeding age will be as confident of the opposite.' The preoccupations of the second half of the CXX may well have conditioned the kinds of attitude that tend to see continuity in the context of fundamental change. Mr. Ward-Perkins' view will, perhaps, set the new fashion in a world where western prosperity seems increasingly threatened by competition from its rivals in the East and by its own sclerotic dysfunctionality.
It may or may not be amusing in this context to reflect that if some Romans did welcome in the peoples who were once known as 'barbarians' (and are now more politely referred to as 'would-be immigrants') it was because they may have imagined, with short-sighted but excusable justification, that they would be better paying protection money to a bunch of unsophisticated thugs than continuing to suffer from an arrogant and corrupt bureaucracy, an extortionate and blundering tax system, the incompetence of the executive, and the complacent greed of a parvenu establishment.
As my boxing coach used to say, 'The bigger they are, the harder they fall' and we in the West have put on a lot more weight than the Romans ever carried.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Postmodern bashing of the finest,
55 of 60 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Consequences of the Fall,
One of the most popular and flourishing areas of classical studies in recent decades has been what is termed Late Antiquity, applied to the years between 250 and 800. Historians of Late Antiquity prefer not to speak of 'decline', 'fall' or even 'crisis' with regard to Rome, but rather of 'transition', 'change' and 'transformation' and the rise of Christianity, Islam and Medieval civilisation. It is "a distinctive and quite decisive period of history that stands on its own" rather than "the unravelling of a once glorious and 'higher' state of civilisation". Not only that, but they downplay the idea of invasion and conquest on the part of the barbarian tribes. Instead they talk about the barbarian desire to be included in the Roman Empire and Rome's attempt to accommodate them, or even make use of them for defence of the Empire itself. Thus was Rome not destroyed but transformed into another type of civilisation, not inferior, only different. In the words of two American historians, this transition occurred in a "natural, organic and ierenic manner" and we should not "problematize the barbarian settlements". (Does that last verb sound a warning to you? Is this beginning to sound familiar?)
So we don't talk of the fall of a civilisation, but of the rise of a different culture. We don't talk of agression, victory or defeat, but of accommodation and transformation. Above all, we don't make value judgements and claim that this or that civilisation was 'better' than another. In fact, we don't talk about civilisation at all with its connotations of superiority and exclusion; we talk about cultures, and we start from the assumption that all cultures are equal, if different, and must be viewed from their own perspective. (I'm sure this is starting to sound very, very familiar.)
Think about the Romans, and you're thinking about now. Neil Faulkner in <em>The Decline and Fall of Roman Britain</em> likens the Roman influence on the island as comparable to the worst effects of imperialism and capitalism. He goes on to say that the period after the Roman evacuation in the early 400s was a "short golden age" of a people finally free of exploitation. In the popular realm, there's Terry Jones telling us that the much-maligned barbarians were so much more than "the Roman killing-machine that marched out to rob and ruin them". Julius Caesar "makes himself 'Protector of the Gauls'. And by the time he's finished protecting them, he's killed or enslaved two million and he owns the whole of Gaul." Of course, both Faulkner and Jones are really talking about something else: "It's the same as Bush and Blair saying that they're going to rescue the Iraqis from that dreadful leader and killing a quarter-million in the process."
For Faulkner, Jones and their ilk, the Romans are the real 'baddies', and the others by consequence are the 'goodies'. However, there's no need to indulge in this kind of childishness to end up in just as absurd a place. If you take the multi-cultural view propogated by scholars of Late Antiquity, and view what happened in the 5th Century as merely an accommodation and transition to one culture to another of equal status, then you are led into a sort of quietism. If nothing was really lost, why bother defending it? If it is just a smooth change of state, why not just go with the flow and adjust your tastes accordingly?
Ward-Perkins asks a simple question of the archeological evidence: what was the effect of the collapse of the Roman Empire on the lives of ordinary people?
The evidence is obviously limited to those things that last. In this case, that means: pottery, roof-tiles, coins, buildings. To which he adds some other data: population density, literary ephemeria; evidence of exports and imports. The story told by the archeological evidence in all these areas is basically the same: from a sophisticated, widespread industrialised economy that could offer high-quality goods to even the lower strata of society, Europe descended into a fragmented, moneyless economy at a level of sophistication and production well below that of pre-Roman times, and that the ones to suffer this decline most were the 'common people'.
Ward-Perkins is conscientiously, fixedly materialistic in his analysis. He does not pronounce on the moral qualities of the Romans, on their spiritual status. He does not say that they were better people than the Celts, or the Visigoths, or the Alani. He does not reiterate what the Romans left behind for us to make use of, or laud the cultural achievements of their culture. However, he demonstrates that the available evidence all points towards an economic cataclysm for ordinary folk like me and you. That what the Roman economy attained for its people is comparable to what our economy has given us. That its decline was no smooth transition to another, different, though not inferior, culture. It was a disaster, but would be as nothing compared to what would happen now if we threw away what we have.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Turning the tide,
Firstly a traditional picture (incidentally taken from the excellent Osprey volume Germanic Warrior, AD 236-568); an isolated Roman cavalryman desperately attempting to flee as a Germanic horseman and foot soldier try to skewer him from each side, with yet more German warriors rushing in from behind.
Secondly two more contemporary images; the Germanic leader this time with helmet removed, an elderly gentleman with kindly and wise expression; and the Germanic warrior with his fruity glamour puss wife beside him posing almost pinup style.
Historians now invariably speak of "continuity" and "gradual transformation". The outsiders came peaceably, settled amicably with the Empire's inhabitants, everybody held hands and sang, and imperceptibly the Empire became medieval kingdoms.
Archaeology however speaks to us differently.
Once, even Roman peasants were able to obtain high quality wheel-turned pottery created by master craftsmen in factories, via distribution networks ranging across Western Europe and North Africa. After the 5th century this was no more; now there was only locally produced hand fashioned rough vessels looking more like a GCSE pottery student's early attempts.
Once, even Roman peasants were able to sleep under tiled roofs, durable and lasting. The 5th century saw an end to all that, now roofs were made from thatch. No less insulating or protective, but insect infested, liable to catch fire and needing regular repair and replacement.
Something drastic happened alright. A complex monetary economy producing high quality luxury goods widely available to many via extended trading networks collapsed. Skills disappeared which would not be revived for hundreds of years. The disintegration of the West had real and severe effects; most contemporary historians notwithstanding, we can genuinely talk of a fall of civilisation.
As Ward-Perkins notes, the arrival of the outsiders was no vicarage tea party. "The new arrival had not been invited, and he brought with him a large family; they ignored the bread and butter and headed straight for the cake stand".
Ward-Perkins considers what is behind such changes in historians' attitudes. There is of course the prevailing political wind. After the Second World War, French historians regarded the 5th century German invasions with understandable disdain. As France and Germany were creating their axis to dominate the European Union, old sins were forgiven, and now the Germans of Late Antiquity were rehabilitated to become saviours and the new lifeblood of Western Europe.
But in a sense Ward-Perkins does not go far enough here in his analysis. What is undoubtedly also affecting the modern viewpoint is the fact that these 5th century invaders were immigrants into Western Europe. Political correctness demands that everything about today's immigration must be seen in a positive light. Anything negative said about those ancient immigrants is by extension a criticism of modern day immigration, and that is unconscionable.
Whatever history might teach us I don't think there's too much comparison to be made between the two; that an unfavourable connection might be made seems to be the fear of contemporary scholars. Apart from anything else, today's immigrants don't come bearing swords and spears. It's chalk and cheese, and frankly irrelevant to the modern day.
This is a short and sweet work, beautifully written, scholarly yet accessible. It's a wonderful antidote to the currently fashionable opinions about the 5th century in Western Europe.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars DID IT FALL OR WAS IT PUSHED?,
Bryan Ward-Perkins will have none of this. In an admirably concise text, supported by excellent maps and diagrams, he blows the revisionists out of the water. The maps on pages 15 and 55 alone are enough to dispose of the theory of the accommodation, in relation to the Visigoths. Yes, they were allowed to settle in the South of France by means of a treaty; but they then proceeded to conquer a far larger area.
Ward-Perkins re-uses the old literary sources, to great effect - for example Gildas on the rape of Britain; but most of his argument is based on archaeology. He has excavated cities, and found the layer of ash which gives the lie to the idea of peaceful accommodation. More strikingly, he provides ample evidence for the catastrophic economic decline which followed the fall of Rome. The fact is that the post-Roman world was unable to match the Empire, in its production of 'low value products', such as pottery, houses, churches, coinage and graffiti, for several hundred years after the invasions of the fourth and fifth centuries. The population plummeted and even the cows grew smaller (see diagram on p 145).
I will close with the author's devastating parable (see pp 82-3). The revisionists would have us believe that the process of barbarian settlement within the borders of the Roman Empire were like a tea party at a vicarage, where a shy newcomer is invited in, but quickly made at home. Ward-Perkins points out that 'the new arrival had not been invited, and he brought with him a large family: they ignored the bread and butter and headed straight for the cake. Invader and invaded did eventually settle down together; but the process... left the vicarage in very poor shape.'
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Elegant and readable introduction to a complex period,
I recently visited Venice to see the wonderful 'Rome and the Barbarians' exhibition, and it is significant that the monograph discussion of this period in the catalogue raisonne refers to this book several times with high praise.
19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars One Man's Civilisation Is Another Man's Third Reich,
His main concern is to debunk a notion, apparently fashionable among historians, which I'm not sure many other people ever shared - the idea that the Fall of Rome wasn't such a big deal. Apparently, there is an historical school which regards the whole business as a mostly peaceful transition from the tail end of the Ancient World into the beginning of Medieval Europe. He collects an impressive pile of evidence that it was far from peaceful, and was indeed pretty catastrophic for many of those who had to live through it. Roman civilisation did not die of natural causes. It was killed, and mainly by the military force of the Barbarians.
Well, so far, so good. I doubt if the inhabitants of Italy, Gaul and Spain, who spent most of the years from 405 to 420 having one set of barbarians after another marching and counter-marching all over their homelands, would have any trouble agreeing with Ward-Perkins. Over the next couple of centuries many others would have cause to feel the same way. Nor was this temporary. For several centuries more, comforts that the Romans took for granted would become available only to a tiny few, and sometimes not at all. Pottery making virtually died out in Britain until about 700, tiled roofs, previously common, were little-known in the Middle Ages, and even coinage gave way to barter over wide areas. In short, standards of living, as usually measured, took a prolonged nosedive.
And yet - -. This is all very well, but if the Empire's fall was such a terrible loss to those who lived in it, how come it was never restored? The Chinese Empire "fell" lots of times, but was always rebuilt. When Rome fell, it stayed fallen, and its people seem to have soon become reconciled to doing without it.
Nor can the Barbarians be held solely responsible for what happened. In Asia Minor, which was virtually untouched by barbarian invasion, Colin McEvedy's "New Penguin Atlas of Medieval History" shows four cities - Ephesus, Miletus, Sardis, Smyrna - of between 15,000 and 50,000 people in AD 528. On the map for AD737, not one of them remains. Here at least, the Barbarians were not to blame for the decline, and other factors need to be considered.
At times, Ward-Perkins himself gives significant hints at this. He quotes ancient sources to the effect that, during Alaric's siege of Rome in 408/9, "almost all the slaves that were in Rome poured out of the city to join the Barbarians". And nine years earlier, when the rebel general Tribigild marched across Asia Minor, then a peaceful and prosperous region, his force was soon swelled by "such a mass of slaves and outcasts that the whole of Asia was in great danger, while Lydia was in utter confusion, with almost everyone fleeing to the coast and sailing across to the islands or elsewhere with their whole families". Clearly not all the Empire's subjects loved it.
But perhaps the most revealing incident is from 393, when "the Roman aristocrat Symmachus brought a group of Saxon prisoners to Rome, intending them to slaughter each other in gladiatorial games in honour of his son. However, before they were publicly exhibited twenty-nine of them committed suicide by the only means available to them - by strangling each other with their bare hands! For us, their terrible death represents a courageous act of defiance, but Symmachus viewed their suicide as the action of "a group of men viler than Spartacus", which had been sent to test him. With the self-satisfaction of which only Roman aristocrats were capable, he compared his own philosophical response to the event to the calm of Socrates when faced with adversity."
If Symmachus was at all representative of its ruling class, one can easily get an inkling of why the Empire failed, and see why not only the Barbarians, but many of its own less privileged subjects, might not have been sorry to see it go. One man's civilisation can all too easily be another man's "Third Reich", and one may suspect that many were ready enough to try and get along without the Roman State, even if it did mean having to make their own pottery.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars a dense essay to refute the "revisionist" view on the Dark Ages,
The first half of the book seeks to prove that the fall of Rome was essentially military: a number of barbarian tribes invaded the western portion of the empire, causing wide spread devastation as they marched through Italy, then France and SPain, eventually making their way to Northern Africa. He emphasizes that this undermined the tax base that was necessary to support the professional military, leading to a complete breakdown of the systems of protection. (Oddly, Ward-Perkins hardly mentions that their invasion of Africa also cut off the flow of grain to Rome, a huge factor in my view in the disintegration of the political order.) The author also strives to prove that many of Rome's elite were disenfranchised in the process, stripped of their lands, their laws, and authority. He did not need to prove this to me, but he needed to argue this way to counter the more idyllic version that many academics currently prefer. That being said, he also acknowledges that there was much cooperation, oases of peace for prolonged periods, etc.
The second half of the book is far more interesting. Here, Ward-Perkins brings in archaeological evidence to induce that there was a massive economic breakdown, leading directly to sharply lower living standards in the Western Roman Empire and with that, the loss of innumerable skills, habits, and institutional structures that went with what can only be called a civilization (reading, the rule of law, a tradition of tolerance, entertainment, etc.). To do so, he looks at the disappearance of high-quality pot shards (an indication of long-distance trade, hence economic specialization and efficiencies in accordance with Richardo's classic economic ideas), tiled roofs, and minted coin. Rather than trade and a functioning global economy, these developments signaled a return to autarky and strictly local exchanges, requiring peasants to produce everything themselves for a greatly reduced standard of living. In my reading, this is one of the best archaeological reconstructions of the antique economy that I have yet seen. It alone is worth the price of entry.
Ward-Perkins concludes the book with a fascinating discussion on how current events often influence the perception of historians. As such, in the 1930s, it was fashionable to view the germanic tribes as brutal destroyers, while the Romans were lone defenders not just their civilization, but also Christian ideals. Today, he argues, with Germany as a responsible partner in the EU, fashion has shifted to see their antique predecessors a willing participants in the maintenance of ROman civilization. All of these views, he concludes, require more nuance than is fashionable today. While I am a bit uncomfortable with this kind of reductionism to epiphenomena, it is worth considering. He also adds a great deal of nuance to the debate. Finally, he also criticizes the tendency of many contemporary historians to concentrate on subjective states of mind - in particular Christian ones - at the expense of economics.
I would recommend this book warmly to those with a scholarly bent. Indeed, I find his arguments eminently convincing and trust his judgement. The book is also superlatively written. It is rare that I enjoy such academic arguments!
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The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization by Bryan Ward-Perkins (Hardcover - 23 Jun 2005)
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