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52 of 55 people found the following review helpful
TOP 100 REVIEWERon 14 July 2013
Peter Heather is without doubt a great historian who has done much to revisit some of the theories that used to be common currency regarding the end of the Roman Empire. In this book, he seeks to demonstrate how, after three failed attempts by "imperial pretenders" to "restore" the Roman Empire, "barbarian popes" finally managed to succeed in the "Restoration of Rome", although in a quite different form.

Written with a large audience in mind, this book is an entertaining and, at times, a brilliant read backed up by the author's rather exceptional scholarship. The three first parts of the book are vignettes telling the stories of Theodoric, Justinian and Charlemagne, and, according to the author, how each of them attempted, and failed to restore the Empire. The fourth part is about the ascendency of the papacy and how it managed to dominate and become the head of the Church in the western part of what had been the Roman Empire.

This is where I started having some problems. One of the lesser ones is the use of profanity because this allegedly "people's prose" is supposed to make the book's contents more accessible or even more endearing to a large audience. One of the mildest is the author's rather sweeping judgement about Justinian being a "bastard", given the Nikea massacre that saved his throne (and his life) and his long wars which he pursued with little consideration about the sufferings of the populations. He even gets compared to Hitler, Staline and Pol pot. Needless to say, passing judgement on a historical figure in such an anachronistic way is quite amazing for a historian of this calibre who clearly knows better than to compare apples and oranges and call them fruit.

Another manifestation of what can be seen as "dumming down" includes modern references, expressions and analogies which are supposed to help the reader to better understand the story although they may have little to do with it. So Emperors Justinian, Charlemagne (and, ultimately, the popes) get compared to the "Godfather" as if they were some kind of Mafiosi Don. Another of the author's "favourites" is to compare Charlemagne to some kind of CEO of the Early Middle Ages. Added to that, you get "treated" to the author's attempts to be clever and witty. Some of them were rather amusing but others were not really necessary nor were they particularly helpful.

More important is the ways in which the author sometimes feels obliged to manipulate what little historical facts are known to present what are some rather controversial - and sensational - interpretations. This is particularly the case in the first vignette on the life and times of Theodoric, which Peter Heather's portrays as wanting to restore the Western Empire. There is in fact very little evidence to support such a case and the author is essentially speculating and interpreting this evidence to match his speculations. The letter to Anastasius, to which Paul Heather refers, was clearly an assertion of independence. Whether it was a veiled declaration of parity and an attempt to lay claim to the Empire of the West is however much more doubtful, despite the author's statements to the contrary and regardless of what the Ostrogothic King's subject called him to flatter him (Semper Augustus, for instance). Another example is the take-over of the Wisigothic Kingdom in 511. This is presented as an offensive move allowing Theodoric to lay his hands on most of Gaul south of the Loire and on Spain, illustrating his imperial ambitions. In fact, it was a rather desperate attempt to shore up the Wisigothic monarchy shattered by its defeat and the loss of its king in battle a few years earlier. The purpose seems to have rather been to ensure that it would not fall prey to the Franks' inroads. Interestingly, the author does not mention that Theodoric's failure to support his Wisigothic relative Alaric II against Clovis was largely because the Byzantine fleet was raiding the coasts of Italy at the time and threatening a landing. It seems in fact that Anastasius, the Byzantine Emperor, encouraged the Franks' ambitions and supported them against the Gothic kingdoms, pitting them against each other. If such an interpretation, which the author neither discusses nor mention, is correct, the "strongman" of the story is no longer Theodoric...

The vignettes on Justinian and Charlemagne and his successors are less controversial, apart from some blunt and judgemental statements about Justinian's personality. In both cases, however, the extent to which they sought "the restoration of Rome" needs to be qualified. Both wanted to unify under their rule territories that had formerly been part of the Empire, and they were at least partly successful in doing so, for a time. Both also sought to revitalize elements of Roman culture, starting with the rule of law, and to use their control of Rome as a source of legitimacy. However, neither of them intended to rule from Rome or even to make Rome into one of their capitals. Moreover, at least in the case of Justinian, historians currently agree that he did not set out from the start with some kind of "master plan" to reconquer the West, as Peter Sarris shows rather well in his "Empires of Faith". As for Theodoric, his expansion in the North and his take-over of the Wisigothic Kingdom seem to have been defensive ad hoc measures more than anything else.

Nevertheless, both of these vignettes are often excellent. They make in a clear and concise way almost all of the main points. For the reign of Justinian, these include determining whether his conquests was opportunistic or whether they were part of some "grand plan" to recover the whole (or most) of the Western Roman Empire with the author concluding that there was no such grand plan initially. More controversial, however, is the author's view that Justinian's conquests were driven by a need to burnish his credentials and shore up support against the elites that had almost overthrown him during the Nika riots. The vignette on Justinian also includes a clear and unambiguous demonstration of the consequences of his conquests and on the issue of whether Justinian, through these conquests, overstretched the Empire's resources or not, and whether he can be held responsible for the Empire's subsequent and growing difficulties under his successors. For the vignette on Charlemagne and his successors, the author shows the main achievements of his reign and that of his father and grand-father, before explaining rather well why the Empire started to unravel during the last years of the reign of his son.

The last part of the book is on the reform and the rise of the papacy at the hands of "barbarian popes" and bears the rather grand title of "Second Coming." Here again, there is a rather interesting mix of fascinating story-telling and mastery of the sources, with some approximations that are needed to make the case. One example is the use of the rather inadequate expression "barbarian popes" to designate Germanic popes (mostly Frankish and, as the author acknowledges, some were not of "barbarian" origin) which mostly originated from Northern Europe. To the extent that the distinction between "Barbarians" or "Romans" in the West had become somewhat meaningless for several hundred years by the middle of the eleventh century (except, perhaps, if you were living in Byzantium!), the expression is sensational and somewhat inaccurate.

Having mentioned these reservations, this book is nevertheless worthy of praise. It is certainly a great and entertaining read although, to fully appreciate what the author has done, the reader probably needs to have quite a bit of background beforehand on each of the four parts. The first and the last part, respectively the life and times of Theodoric and the rise of the papacy, are probably the most controversial. In the part on Theodoric, the author tends to "second-guess" the Gothic warlord's intentions. In the part devoted to the rise of the papacy, he may give the somewhat simplified impression of a progressive and continuous evolution towards a medieval theocracy. Leo IX, for instance, a kinsman of the Germanic Emperor and the first of the reformist popes, does not seem to have had any intention whatsoever of asserting his supremacy over the Emperor and never really tried to do so. Instead, it is the Emperor who provided him with some 700 Swabian warriors which formed the hard core of the papal army with which he confronted the Normans in Southern Italy in 1053.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 6 May 2014
Peter Heather breaks ranks with the majority of historians because he is prepared to tackle the big picture and has strong opinions. He became known for his broad view that it was the rise of strong barbarian 'super-groups' that was the major cause, albeit amongst many others, of the fall of the west Roman Empire.

Here he tackles the attempts by four very different 'pretenders' to re-create the west Roman Empire: Theoderic in the fifth century, Justinian in the sixth century, Charlemagne in the 8th/9th centuries and the Papacy during the 12th-14th centuries.

The style is racy and occasionally annoying, with many a bet on 'the smart money' and strong statements of certainty about facts and issues which are shrouded in lack of evidence. However, Heather is right to try to avoid getting bogged down in detail.

Surprisingly, for one whose expertise was founded on the rise of the barbarians, the weakest part concerns Theoderic, perhaps because there are few big issues associated with this one-shot chieftain, who left little legacy. The intellectual vigour of the book starts to come through more effectively in the sections on the ruthless Emperor Justinian. Heather debates the achievements - if any - of the re-conquering Emperor and ponders how much he was to blame for the subsequent rapid collapse of most of the Eastern Empire (little). Wisely, Heather notes that it all depends on whose point of view one is writing from. He notes that the rise of Islam - which precipitated the descent of the Byzantines to wobbly regional power status - was not predictable nor anything to do with Justinian.

Heather really gets into his stride when writing about Charlemagne and the Papacy, possibly because this is relatively new ground for him so he is fresher. There is still too much detail, but the focus narrows down to the tussle between the centre and the periphery alongside the perennial issue of succession. This gives a reasonable frame with which to view the confusing swing of fortunes and purpose in the successor Carolingian rulers.

An illuminating set of contrasts are drawn between the old Roman Empire - built on a standing army, taxation and the necessary civil and bureaucratic culture to sustain institutions - and the medieval Carolingian empire, which remained based on personal warlordism, except for the crucial sphere of ecclesiastical politics. The Carolingian church reforms were central, particularly the search for written, legal authority from the past (not shrinking from large-scale forgery). The complexity of the power struggle between French bishops and archbishops and between German Emperors and their magnates, spilling over accidentally to a strengthening of the weak Roman Papacy, is extremely well told.

Eventually, this book becomes a tale of how elite-centric power slipped from Emperors to Popes in the medieval era - by accident, as 'barbarian' or northern Emperors and their clever churchmen sought church reform largely for their own ends, which ended up enhancing the hitherto nonthreatening Roman theocracy. However, in explaining the rise of the Papacy in terms of all-too-human political opportunism, Heather fails to account for how the Popes gained such a hold on the public and private lives of the whole population of medieval Western Europe: you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. Heather's rigidly secular and power-focused perspective is not wide enough.

Despite his best intentions, Heather still includes too much detail: in my opinion, the book could be cut by at least one third to make its arguments clearer and stronger. At the same time, the end story of the appeal and influence of the medieval Papacy needs more evidence and elucidation. Nevertheless, overall this is a welcome and accessible work of sweeping, broad-brush history.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
TOP 100 REVIEWERon 12 January 2014
A sequel to his The Fall of the Roman Empire, Heather here continues the story of what happened to the Roman west under three `imperial pretenders': Theoderic, Justinian and Charlemagne.

This is a popular book aimed at a non-academic audience, and Heather writes in an informal style throughout. Some of the chattiness of this grated a bit with me ("My own hunch would be...") and I didn't like the sweeping perjorative terms (the constant use of the term `barbarians' - what exactly does that mean? And from whose perspective? The ancient Greeks who first coined the term meant non-Greek speakers whose language sounded like bar-bar to them) and the popular cultural references so that Charlemagne, for example, is described as a Mafioso `Godfather' - very sensational, not terribly accurate.

But that's personal taste. This gives a broad historical narrative of what happened when, and helps to make sense of the period between about the fifth century CE and the eleventh century. It doesn't delve into cultural history so this isn't the book to go to if you're interested, for example, in the Carolingian court and the revival of Latin literature and poetry - practically all our extant Latin texts, for example, can be traced back to catalogues in Charlemagne's library, but Heather isn't interested in this aspect of appropriations from Rome.

So a good book if you want an accessible and fairly lively account of political history from the fall of Rome to the rise of the popes.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 19 October 2015
This is a very interesting book exploring episodes in history that are fairly unknown to most general readers.

Heather discusses the various attempts to restore the Roman Empire, starting from the Goth Theodoric (who attempted to grab land from the Byzantines, got booted out / bribed and ended up taking over Italy, then expanding into Spain and France). The next story is how Justinianus and his general Belisarius reconquered North Africa and much of Theodoric's land, temporarily restoring the 'full' Roman Empire as they combined the conquests with Byzantium itself. After the muslim conquests this fell apart, and Heather fast-forwards to Charlemagne and his Franks. The final part details the rise of the papacy. From inauspicious beginnings, the papacy arguably reached a nadir in the 9th and 10th century (the epic trial against the corpse of Pope Formosus - check out the epic painting! - and the 'pornocracy' period where Rome-based aristocrats/thugs fought it out for control of Rome itself, resulting in an average papal lifetime of about a year and the most likely papal cause-of-death being strangulation / stabbed / clubbed to death). However in the 11th century a number of 'barbarian popes' (i.e. popes born outside Rome) managed to become spiritual leaders of the Western world (in addition to being local potentates in central Italy).

All in all I found this quite a fascinating read. The book is written with palbable enthusiasm. Personally I did not like the popular idiom (calling the pope a 'CEO', texts 'going viral', Justinianus being an 'absolute bastard' and so on); however this did not materially detract from what is still a fascinating book. Recommended.
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
Peter Heather is a superb historical writer, entertaining, witty and deeply insightful. After reading this you will probably never look at the post-Roman West in quite the same way again. Heather considers three failed attempts to restore the geographic Western Roman Empire before turning to the totally unexpected rise of the Papacy and an ideological empire rather than a military one.

Theoderic King of Italy gets relatively little attention in the literature, but Heather considers his rise from the earliest days as a hostage in Constantinople, to King of Italy and effectively an emperor of territory also encompassing the Visigothic territories of southern France and Spain and hegemony over the Burgundians and Vandals of north Africa. Lack of dynastic succession doomed this new empire to collapse after Theoderic's death.

Subsequently the Eastern Empire under Justinian reconquered both Vandalic Africa and Ostrogothic Italy. Heather persuasively argues that retaking these Western territories was never a preconceived plan, but opportunistic. He rightly notes the devastation which the Italian wars caused, from which the region took a long time to recover, weakening it to such an extent that the reacquisition was never going to become permanent. On the other hand, unlike some authors, Heather absolves Justinian of blame for the later reversals of fortune for the Eastern Empire itself a couple of generations later.

Third to enter the stage is Charlemagne. Despite some analyses, his coronation as Emperor by Pope Leo III was the Carolingian king very much calling the shots. The Papacy was an institution of little real power, content in being acknowledged in its episcopal primacy, largely busy with using Carolingian money to keep the churches of Rome in good decorative order for visiting pilgrims. Meanwhile the Carolingians were busy completely remoulding Western Christianity entirely on their own terms. But the decentralisation necessitated to hold together militarily the various successor kingdoms to Charlemagne's empire ultimately had the opposite effect with the reduction in central tax revenues. No longer could a vast Roman style empire hold, with centralised tax revenues paying an army keeping an emperor in place by force. Many new territories outside the original empire had now grown wealthy and powerful, in a continuation of what Heather sees as happening in the later Western Roman Empire (see also his Empires and Barbarians: Migration, Development and the Birth of Europe) to the extent that no one side would ever be able to exert total military dominance over the other.

The Carolingians themselves were however partly responsible for the subsequent rise of the Papacy. Documents known as "Pseudo-Isidore", based on genuine but forgotten Papal decretals but which were subsequently falsified in the copying by Carolingian churchmen to give ammunition for internal disputes, became widely circulated and, alongside what Heather characterises as a "consumer demand" for legal guidance, created the conditions for the Popes to become the ideological masters of Western Europe at the beginning of the 13th century, affecting the daily lives of its people for hundreds of years. Heather sees this rise as not intended by the Papacy, but a change which came from outside entirely and which was essentially accidental in nature.

Pick up and read. You will be entertained by great historical writing, and perhaps attain a new perception on post-Roman Europe.
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on 4 October 2013
One of my favourite periods about which to read is the fall of the Roman Empire and the so-called 'Dark Ages' which followed. At times the period seems remote, but despite the intervening distances, which brought about such radical developments in technology and culture, human nature hasn't changed that much and, though some of them were hidden from the ancients, economic, political and psychological laws operated then just as inexorably as they do now.

Ancient Rome fell partly because the elites stopped supporting it and, apart from the Church, left the lower classes, including what composed the military rank and file, to fend as best they could with diminishing state and social support. Sounds familiar?
I am but halfway this latest work of Peter Heather but already I want to read his previous work on the Fall of the Roman Empire. He has a light and easy style of writing, which is both erudite and a page-turner (though admittedly the occasional lapse into colloquialism or slang can be a bit jarring). A mere chronicle of events, exciting though they are, would not be enough for me. Heather supplies a political, diplomatic and economic hinterland without which no real sense can be made of what followed the Fall. He basically sets out the explain why in the changed conditions of the world hundreds of years Anno Domini the Roman Empire could not be reconstituted. Basically, Rome taught the barbarians how to fight and the residual culture of Rome taught them how to rule so that there could be no longer be one overarching power such as Rome had exercised until perhaps now with the project of the European Union.

The only complaint I have against Peter Heath is that because his writing is so good my plan of reading in history for the next several months is wrecked while I read and consume this and his previous work!

Ave atque vale. ('Hail and Farewell'.)
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 17 February 2015
A really good introduction to the period and themes, and makes some observant points. However, around midway the book suffers from a repetitive and meandering style that is in contrast to the initial chapters
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on 21 December 2013
This is one of the best historical reads I have had in a long time. Peter Heather gives a coherent and convincing account of how exactly the medieval world, dominated, by the Papacy, emerged. It portrays a world, now so alien to us, where the need to have a semi-divine figure of moral and authoritarian power allowed the Papacy to emerge as a substitute. It is all written in a delightful jokey style as if one had dropped in on an informal undergraduate seminar. Get this if you care about this period of European history.
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on 6 June 2015
A thorough piece of work that completes the story from Rome's decline in late 4th century, particularly in the West, to the rise of Roman Catholic power in the middle of the second millennium. Immaculately researched and well written. Perhaps less interesting as it moves on to the Papal era, but the author's infatuation with the Gothic kingdoms are thoroughly aired and cast a new light on the 'so-called' early 'Dark Ages.' Fascinating stuff if a little more prosaic than the death throes of Rome in the West!
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 4 October 2013
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I had only a hazy idea of some of it and no knowledge of a lot. I feel it gave me plenty of information without making my brain ache and the writer made it clear when the views expressed were his alone or shared by other academics.
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