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A masterful analysis of the post-Roman West,
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This review is from: The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes & Imperial Pretenders (Hardcover)
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.