This is one of the best book on the fall of Rome since Gibbon. Heather shows that Rome didn't fall, it was pushed. I must say however, Heather writes like an academic and he enjoys flailing the reader with evidence and so this book won't be bedtime reading. Heather reckons that Christianity didn't weaken the empire and he also argues that Gibbon is dated because he couldn't have guessed about the archaeological digging up of ancient towns that shows that Europe in the 5th century was not the dying wasteland, as Gibbon thought, rather, the empire was just as thriving in Christian times as it was in the time of Augustus.
A few academics, like James J. O'Donnell, have written snooty write-ups of this book and there is supposed to be a political correct fight going on between this and Bryan Ward-Perkins book. I found nothing of the sort. Both books are impressive. Bryan Ward-Perkins is basically arguing that Rome lost more land and hence less taxes and less taxes meant losing more land; this was the Roman death spiral. Heather also says something similar and much more. I'm simplifying to the extreme here but I bought both books to see what the argument was about, but found little to quibble about. Heather also has little respect for Gibbon; this is sacrilege; Gibbon is still God writing in English!
on 19 December 2005
Although I will agree with my fellow reviewer below that this is indeed a very detailed narrative (this however making it also of interest to the "serious" historian) it should also be said that despite this, the author has managed to nevertheless make this book eminently readable. Many of the detail concerns the ways in which the author has pieced together the often very fragmented factual information in order to come to a conclusion or assumption, which in itself often makes for interesting reading. Moreover, in this way he very flatteringly invites you to consider if you would on the basis of this have reached the same conclusions.
On top of this, mr. Heather has a narrative style and choice of words that will regularly have you smiling (the title of this review is a case in point)and he vividly brings the events and players of Rome's final century to life. Finally, he is not afraid to deviate from established opinions on the events leading to the fall of Rome and will exactly tell you why.
This is not a book most of us will read in one go, the wealth of information being one important reason. But you will find the time spent on reading this book not only well spent but entertaining as well.
on 23 February 2011
As someone who has little knowledge about the Roman Empire, Heather's work was an excellent introduction.
Heather basically states that the western Roman Empire did not collapse under its own weight (as stated by other scholars) but was pulled apart by barbarian immigration. Huns, Goths and Persians all played a role in both draining the empire's wealth as more and more money was spent on defence and frontier security. The Germanic tribes were not a political threat in the first century AD but by the fifth they were a clear and present danger to the Roman entity, coupled with a simmering Sassanid superpower to the east.
Written in simple and understandable language, Heather's work is both informative and entertaining and has left me wanting to know more about the period which he describes as the crossing line between ancient and medieval history. Good solid research has been used where available with Heather freely admitting the areas where there are vague facts.
All in all, excellent.
on 16 April 2013
I was surprised when opening a book on the LATER Roman Empire to be confronted by an episode from Book V of Caesar's 'Gallic Wars' which took place in 54 B.C. I remembered studying this episode as part of Latin O.L. (over 50 years ago). I should add that it comes from Book V: 26-37 and NOT Book 6 as the endnote states. Even so, I realised why it was there. Peter Heather starts with what Rome once was, then passes on to what it thought it should be (e.g. the writings of Symmachus (345-404) and then examines the fall of Rome in the west.
Unlike Edward Gibbon in 'The Decline & Fall...', who threw away the Western Empire for love of Byzantium, Heather remains true to his title. It is an enormous subject and, although familiar with the subject, I found myself constantly introduced to new aspects. The work ,really in a way is like a spiral in reverse. It starts at a narrow point - Caesar, SPQR, the Principate etc. - and widens out gradually. So he deals with Rome's vulnerability at three points - the Rhine, the Danube and Mesopotamia. Then pops over the borders to look at the causes of such pressure, the Sasanian dynasty in Persia, the Goths the other side of the Danube and the Germanic peoples beyond the Rhine. As relations between Rome and the barbarians are described the reader can recognise both variation and flexibility in such relations but also how so much of historical scholarship has been forced to see matters from the Roman standpoint.
After looking more closely at the barbarians, Heather produces a masterly examination on 'the limits of empire'. The basic premise is that the Roman Empire had outgrown its chance of survival. So distances and shortcomings in both administration and communications undermined the effectiveness of the imperial rescript. The Emperor could only act on what he knew and the results could be modified on what both he and the locals knew. Heather dwells on the work of Tchalenko who questioned the thesis of rural decline largely due to imperial taxation after c.300 - as I'd been taught re' Roman Britain when studying AL History fifty years ago. There is a problem: evidence would indicate that the outdated image of rural decline actually persists in Italy and the northern frontiers. Heather cannot explain why? Might I suggest that a couple of factors might be that these areas were more under the imperial eye (& fiscal effectiveness); also I suspect a higher degree of 'out-sourcing' (to use a modern term) by those controlling the wheels of power at the centre. Again Heather notes the decline in 'civic display', pointing out how those with influence migrated away from local to central areas of power - e.g. the rapid rise in the numbers of upper imperial bureaucracies laying down the rules, although 'the process was taken over by locals responding to the rule changes and adapting them to their own interests' (P.117). In sum, life became too complex for central bureaucracy to handle, as contemporary governments are discovering nowadays. Heather argues that the army was neither under-manned nor under-paid when first it had to face unprecedented problems. Thankfully, he dismisses the arguments of Gibbon that the Empire was undermined by the conversion to Christianity. Apart from the theological quagmire of 'orthodoxy' during these centuries affecting the 'chattering classes' (my phrase not Heather's) the population was probably little troubled by this. Wealth granted to the Church simply replaced that granted to pagan institutions (N.B. Coptic Egypt); another point was that the numbers rushing off to a 'religious life' were a tiny minority. 'At the top end of Roman society, the adoption of Christianity made no difference to the age-old contention that the Empire was God's vehicle in the world' (P.125). He compares the system to the one-party state as seen in the Soviet Union, I would suggest Mao's China c. 1960 being a better example: however, he does describe the expansion of a legal 'apparatchik-style' privileged minority, as also seen in the contemporary growth of lawyers and accountants, dealing with the complexities central authority couldn't handle. Finally, his conclusion is quite clear: 'there is no sign in the fourth century that the Empire was about to collapse....... the late Empire was essentially a success story'(P.141). Nevertheless, within a couple of pages the reader DROPS into the section labelled 'Crisis'. May I suggest this relates to the unfashionable ideas of Arnold Toynbee regarding 'Challenge and Response' in 'A Study of History' (1934-61)?
The crisis came with the intrusion of Goths across the Danube border in 375, supposedly seeking asylum from the Huns. Why this occurred is obscure. The Gothic ruler, Ermanaric, features little in Heather's work, but large in legend. Might I suggest that Ermanaric applied pressure vs. the Huns who resisted, found defences weaker than expected and overthrew Ermanaric, forcing the Goths to flee westwards. A similar situation occurred in 1219 when the Kwarizmian ruler, Ala ad-Din Muhammad, tried to apply pressure against the Mongols under Genghis Khan to the east. The Mongols struck, overthrew his kingdom and poured into Persia - following that with advances through Russia etc.
Heather provides an excellent introduction to the Huns, arguing that their success depended mainly on a long, reflex bow which was asymmetric (knew to me!). Heather rejects firmly the idea that the Huns possessed stirrups, which I thought was debatable. He wades into the origins of the disaster of Adrianople (378), rejecting the usual explanation based on Roman sources. Essentially he argues the Empire was over-stretched because of tension with Persia, failed to control details of allowing the Goths into the Empire (e.g. keeping the two major groups (Tervingi and Greuthingi) apart and the treatment of the Goths by local officials) and actual strategy and tactics.
Afterwards, it was a question of patching up a structure on the point of collapse. Peace was made with the Goths under the deceptive glow of a Gothic surrender. A string of Emperors came and went - Gratian (375-83), killed fighting off usurpers; Valentinian II (375-92), and Honorius (395-423), nonentities not deserving the imperial throne; a collection of semi-legitimate emperors, such as Maximus (383-88), flashing and exploding in the chaos of internecine warfare; and Theodosius I (379-95), who tried to establish order out of chaos (like predecessors Diocletian and Constantine)but lacked the time to make it firm enough to survive the next crisis.
In 410 Rome fell to the Visigoths and the next 66 years was really a 'long goodbye' to borrow a title. Heather explains all this clearly and fully, with a masterly use of source material. He steps into a series of controversial topics with a sureness of touch; such topics are controversial largely because of the paucity of sources (e.g. the butchery of the work of Olympiodorus of Thebes by later writers / copyists) and their one-sidedness. He applies logic to sort out problems - certainly as a medievalist he must be well-used to such approaches. In this way he handles the gap between the Gothic victory at 'Hadrianople'(sic) and the sacking of Rome in 410; the migration of Vandals, Alans and Suevi in 406 and the early stirrings of Hunnish influence in the 'volkerwanderung' (an antiquated term he never uses). A masterly section is his description of the Vandal intrusion into North Africa. Meanwhile he tackles the infighting at the top of the Roman power structure, requiring close examination of source material, which explains partly how Roman power was swept aside.
In the midst of this twilight of a millennium one man stands out in the narrative like a colossus and that is Aetius, performing miracles in restoring imperial control in Gaul and ABOUT to repeat the act in North Africa when in pour the Huns - now under the determined and opportunistic control of Attila. Heather does not hide the fact that Aetius was a fixer, a juggler keeping so many balls in the air to maintain the impossible, the survival of the Western Roman Empire.
The challenge appeared to dissipate with the sudden death of Attila in 453 but it proved to be short-lived as the Western Empire was snuffed out in 476. It is no coincidence surely that Aetius was murdered(454) by Valentinian III and within six months the murderer, the last Emperor with any authority within the Western Roman Empire, was in his turn assassinated. As Heather remarks: 'Aetius's death was far more than one man's tragedy. It also marked the end of an era. The death of Attila and the end of the Hunnic Empire not only made it possible for Valentinian to contemplate life without Aetius, it also undermined the delicate balance of powers by which Aetius had kept the western Empire in business.' (PP 374-75) Thereafter heather's tale is of little men doing nasty things to each other until the dregs of a once mighty system trickled away.
The book is excellently written, with good citing of sources and a useful glossary. In fact, it is the best book I've read on an important, but usually ignored, subject..
One final point. My final impression is that the book should be retitled as 'The Fall of the Roman Empire: A Study in Near-Survival'. It certainly deserves 5 stars.
on 23 May 2007
This is a splendid and comprehensive examination of the last hundred years of the Roman Empire, and provides convincing arguments that the external pressures on the empire were the primary cause of its collapse in Europe.
However, Heather allows himself to get a little carried away for dramatic purposes; for example, repeating the (widely disbelieved) myth that the Romans sowed the ruins of Carthage with salt, and claiming that Caesar was assassinated "on the steps of the senate" when all contemporary accounts agree that the murder took place in the atrium of Pompey's Theatre. Minor inaccuracies maybe; but it is the propagation of such inaccuracies that slowly mutates real history into myth, and also makes one then question the accuracy of other areas of the book.
Overall, an interesting and well written history, but one which is best read in accompaniment to other titles dealing with the same period.
on 17 October 2013
One of my favourite periods in history because of all the questions it throws up is the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and the succession of the Dark Ages. I am coming to the conclusion that Peter Heather's writing, which I have only just come across through a recent review in the Sunday Times, is amongst the best. He looks at a variety of economic, sociological, political and diplomatic reasons for the Fall - which indeed is the only way to examine it. A mere chronicle tells you nothing nor does a single-cause theory, most famously espoused by Edward Gibbon who argued that it was Christianity whodunnit! Pathologists find that a lot of human beings die of multiple causes; so, it seems, do Empires.
I am only halfway through the book but already have reached the point where Heather treats how the Romans so badly handled the problem of hordes of Goths turning up on the Northern Frontier that it was a major cause of the decline in what previously had been a viable Empire