TOP 500 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.