Top critical review
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Hardcore history, but not a classic
on 11 August 2009
I read this book a few months ago and just picked it up again having read Dominic Sandbrook's effervescent review (above).
There has been a glut of historians chronicling the demise of the Roman Empire and the immediate aftermath (if the next 500/1000 years can be termed such). On my shelf are Tom Holland (Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom - Sep 2008), James O'Donnell (The Ruin of Rome - Feb 09), Adrian Goldsworthy (The Fall Of The West: The Death Of The Roman Superpower - Feb 09) and Peter Heather (Empires and Barbarians: Migration, Development and the Birth of Europe -Jun 2009). Collectively they catalogue the politics of the marbled empire descending into brutal muddy village squabbles. For the general reader seeking good writing, not an academic or someone seeking to pass exams these books are - at best - dull. The problem is a) they cover so much, politics and military entanglements, emerging economic, social and ecclesiastical structures and b) the evidence is complicated and controversial, as are the primary sources and archaeological data. Dr Wickhams' book is hardcore academic history covering six centuries and almost all of the European ""theatre" in 560 pages. He dispels the myth of the dark ages and charts the birth of nations (or entities that name can be applied to - I struggled with this). It is well written but I have a problem with this - and these - collective histories(this being part of the 8 book Penguin history of Europe). They tend to be formulaic, get it all down and fill the library shelves. Perhaps written to a deadline rather than with passion.
In these books, and specifically this book, the quantity of material and quality of interpretation is demanding if not frustrating as the non-specialist reader seeks to pull all the elements together. For their authors they are academic rights of passage, and if they get accepted as definitive historical reference the sales follow. But many of the books that got me through my undergraduate (and postgraduate) exams were instantly forgettable. I wonder had Wickham adopted thematic approach, for example the history of taxation over the same period would you get an astonishing historical perspective, political, economic and social. I find the publicani an intriguing, illuminating aspect in understanding Rome, pros and cons. All Kings tax! That would be a great book for a scholar of Wickhams's ability - some commissioning editor could make a career on this one.
Apparently Dominic Sandbrook is a cultural commentator. I wondered if his review were a spoof. Some 43 people appear to think not though "some of the people all of the time" comes to mind. My reading was this book is a excellent chronicle, all of the facts in a logical order. This is not a revisionist tirade, that the Barbarians were meek and mild (the Monty Python / Terry Jones thesis), more a well-reasoned essay in adaptation and evolution over a lot of geography. This is a work of historical scholarship but as for Sandbrook's comment that "The new year may be only a month old, but it is hard to believe that it will produce many more enduring and impressive history books than this...... No review, in fact, can really do this book justice: it is a superlative work of historical scholarship " suggests to me care in the community may have gone too far. Of the five books noted here, read one only unless you want to get serious (or confused). I'd personally opt for Peter Heather (above) or The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History also by Peter Heather (May 2006). Just how do you reach a conclusion short of doing a Phd and adding a new book to the crowded shelves?