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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The good old traditional explanation: it's the Barbarians, of course, 3 Jan. 2012
This review is from: The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History (Paperback)
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.
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