Customer Review

4.0 out of 5 stars Sweeping, broad-brush history, albeit with an excluse focus on elite power, 6 May 2014
This review is from: The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes & Imperial Pretenders (Hardcover)
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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