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This is one of the best book on the fall of Rome since Gibbon. Heather shows that Rome didn't fall, it was pushed. I must say however, Heather writes like an academic and he enjoys flailing the reader with evidence and so this book won't be bedtime reading. Heather reckons that Christianity didn't weaken the empire and he also argues that Gibbon is dated because he couldn't have guessed about the archaeological digging up of ancient towns that shows that Europe in the 5th century was not the dying wasteland, as Gibbon thought, rather, the empire was just as thriving in Christian times as it was in the time of Augustus.

A few academics, like James J. O'Donnell, have written snooty write-ups of this book and there is supposed to be a political correct fight going on between this and Bryan Ward-Perkins book. I found nothing of the sort. Both books are impressive. Bryan Ward-Perkins is basically arguing that Rome lost more land and hence less taxes and less taxes meant losing more land; this was the Roman death spiral. Heather also says something similar and much more. I'm simplifying to the extreme here but I bought both books to see what the argument was about, but found little to quibble about. Heather also has little respect for Gibbon; this is sacrilege; Gibbon is still God writing in English!
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on 18 July 2017
It's a beautifully engaging account of the causes which led to the Fall of the largest and most enduring empire in our history. Heather has a flair for narrative as well as writing with the authority of a serious scholar. A treat for history lovers!
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on 19 July 2017
Well written and thought provoking for the non-specialist
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on 29 May 2017
There were undoubtedly huge internal problems in the Roman empire by the time of the fifth century, not the least of which was the logistical problem of actually knowing what was going on several hundred miles away in a world without any of the apparatus of modern communication. Equally, there were ongoing military pressures such as those created by the Sassanian Persians which tied up huge resources of manpower on a permanent basis. Finally, there was the insoluble problem of succession and the periods of instability that resulted from the death of an emperor.

However, these and numerous other imperial stress-factors might have been managed. What ultimately caused the empire to collapse, in Peter Heather's opinion, was the exogenous shock dealt by Attila the Hun driving huge numbers of Gothic immigrants across the borders of the empire.

These groups, which had existed in a long-standing symbiotic relationship with the Roman empire, were transformed by the process of interaction into coherent and formidable power blocs. That transformational process was accelerated by the process of migration. As a result, Rome allowed into its borders powerful, military and cultural elements whose competing demands it was unable to meet.

As the invaders began to take control of the situation and seize territories for themselves, Rome became increasingly starved of revenues until its generals no longer possessed the necessary resources to meet the military challenges.

The control of detail in this account is formidable but the narrative never gets bogged down Authoritative, entertaining and comprehensive, of all the recent accounts of the fall of the Roman empire, Peter Heather's is the most meticulously assembled.
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VINE VOICEon 4 October 2006
Do we need yet another book on the Fall of the Roman Empire? The answer on reading Peter Heather's masterly re-telling of the ending of Roman rule in western Europe in period 378-476 AD is an emphatic 'yes!'

Peter Heather cleverly and carefully shows that the Roman Empire had not, on the eve of the first of the 'barbarian' invasions in the late 370s AD, sown the seeds of its own destruction.

So what was it that led to the fall of Rome?

Were the peasants taxed too heavily, and as a consequence did land go out of production because it wasn't economic to till it, and did this lead to a shortfall in the imperial coffers? No, late Roman rural populations were probably as high or higher than they had ever been.

Was it the fact that the upper classes, the curiales, had withdrawn from local government? Certainly it's true local government was no longer as autonomous as it had been under the early empire and finances were now centrally controlled. Local politics was no longer a fun as it had once been. But Heather shows that many upper class aristocrats re-invented themselves as imperial bureaucrats in the expanding bureaucracy.

So were there too many bureaucrats and not enough farmers/soldiers? In fact the costs of all those civil servants were not as burdensome as some have previously thought. The Roman armies generally retained their fighting abilities, the Germans were not a significant military threat.

However, what happened in Germania beyond the borders was the development of regional groupings of peoples, where - fuelled by improvements in agricultural and productivity of land - there were population increases and a growth in competition for resources.

What did do for the Empire in the west, was the three main waves of 'barbarian' invasions, largely triggered by folk movements way beyond the Roman frontiers; movements of peoples caused, by Attila and his Huns. Cometh the hour, cometh the Hun....

The Goths, Vandals, Alans, Suevi and all the rest were looking for a litle bit of lebensraum inside the frontiers of the Roman empire - and they had the military muscle - thanks to those economic improvements in the barbarian economies - to get it.

So why couldn't the Romans kick them out? And how come the eastern Roman empire survived while the western half went down 1-0 in 476 AD after extra time?

Crucially the west Roman state lost control of its economically vital North African provinces which financially weakened it - drastically reducing the army it could afford to pay for. That smaller army could no longer kick out the barbarians with out OTHER barbarian support. For a while, ironically, they were able to use the Huns to help out. But when the Hunnic empire itself collapsed in the wake of Attila's death the so-called barbarians nations inside the territories of the western Roman state were able to make their settlements permanent.

But did the Empire strike back? The Eastern and Western Roman empires did come together to mount a hugely expensive campaign to kick out the Vandals. It bust the treasury at Constantinople, but it was a disaster, the Roman fleet was knocked for six by the Vandals, and neither Rome (or by this time Ravenna) or Constantinople had another shot left in their lockers.

After that it was Game Over for Rome in the west, and all that remained was for the last Roman to leave the Senate House to turn out the lights.

Okay, that last bit is slight exaggeration -- the successor states were keen to adopt as much of Roman civilisation as they could, and the Ostrogothic Italian kingdom was certainly no bunch of hairy grunting barbarians.

So Civilisation and Democracy died and the Lights of Civilisation went out and people blundered into the Dark Ages?

Not quite. The late Roman state was a one-party state where everybody had to toe the party line with extravagant praise for the Emperor.

Think of a cross between Stalin's Russia and Mao's China, except with togas. I doubt everybody was all that sad to see it go. Certainly not the great mass of peasantry.
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 3 January 2012
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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on 29 May 2007
When I first bought the book I was intimidated by its length for a while and so delayed starting to read it. However, once I stared reading it I enjoyed it so much that I read it very quickly. In fact I read the last third in one go.

The book deals very well with a number of complex themes and always has an eye on the overall argument which I will not set out here as others have done so in their comments. This period of history is certainly a very exciting one and there are many important parallels for present-day situations. That writers such as Mr Heather are producing books such as this one on the late Roman period is a benefit for us all and a change to the majority of history books published today which, I feel, tend to concentrate on much more recent history.

The Who's Who at the back of the book is very useful to keep track of the individuals mentioned in the text (as, necessarily, a book covering such a large and complex topic must deal with a many personalities). My only criticism, and it is a minor one, is that the maps could be improved; often the text refers to the maps but then goes on to discuss places that are not on the maps. Overall a brilliant and surprisingly 'unheavy' read for a book of its length.
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VINE VOICEon 24 August 2009
The Fall of the Roman Empire is undoubtedly a 'big' topic, yet Peter Heather makes it approachable for the casual reader in his excellent single volume history which tracks the demise of Romes from the battle of Adrianople to the replacement of the last emperor.

What I liked about this cogently argued tome is that - unlike many other 'popular' works about antiquity - Heather, a proper historian, keeps referring back to the archive and archaelogical record. This gives the work a great deal of rigour. In fact, of all the history books I have read in the last twenty years - and there's been a few - this was the one that most reminded me of studying at university, when my old lecturers shouted 'source!' with each new argument I tried out. In contrast to me, Heather produces one each time.

There is a debt to literary criticism in the analysis of classical texts and - might I suggest - a structuralist understanding of the apparent stasis of the late Roman Empire prior to the Gothic incursions, however Heather understands the importance of contingency, particularly military contingency in understanding historical events. The final nail in the coffin of the Western Empire is the Vandals - in some ways the least obviously threatening of the barbarian groups (compared to the better known Goths of Alaric and Huns of Attila) - getting to the grain-producing North African provinces, whereby having their boot on the Roman jugular. If the last naval attempt to oust them had not failed, there is every likelihood - Heather argues - that the Western Empire could have recovered; as it had done under Diocletian and Constantine.

In short, this is a serious, yet readable book and I would strongly recommend that anyone interested in antiquity - or history generally - reads it and keeps going through the 140 pages of scene setting, where Heather's slightly irritating digressions are at their most distracting. (He is a little fey with his 'our old friend' introductions for reappearing sources and 'history is a detective story' asides, but not so bad as to lost a star)

Excellent work.
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on 4 July 2007
To start off with I thought his language was irritatingly contemporary. I hate it when historians talk about "spin doctors". I read history to escape from, not to be reminded of, Alistair Campbell and co. However, I soon got over this because the book was telling me just the sort of thing I really wanted to know.
Some books take the stories from the ancient sources, put them in order and iron out the discrepancies, but give very little elaboration. I'm particularly thinking of the book I was previously reading, Byzantium: The Early Centuries by J. J. Norwich. This is okay as far as it goes, in fact it's quite readable, but it can get a bit boring. All the repeated usurpations, murders and civil wars don't seem to have much significance, and there are so many questions unanswered, along the lines of, "but what was it actually like? And how did that work?"
Heather's narrative covers a much shorter time-span so he has much more room for analysis and explanation. And at the end I really felt I'd learnt a lot. Why, I was wondering, if Attila was a nomad does he have such beautiful clothes in the pictures in Osprey books? (Whenever I go camping I become filthy in a couple of weeks!) Heather gives a reasonable explanation of the the Huns' lifestyle. And if you want to know who the Goths were, I recommend this book. He reminded me of the most enthusiastic lecturers at university - the ones I actually made an effort to get up for, which is another reason why I ended up liking his informal style.
The maps could be brushed up a bit though. On map 13 the towns on the Moselle look a bit wrong to me. And the text refers to several places which aren't marked, so you can't follow the story easily. It helps to have an atlas handy.
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on 16 April 2013
I was surprised when opening a book on the LATER Roman Empire to be confronted by an episode from Book V of Caesar's 'Gallic Wars' which took place in 54 B.C. I remembered studying this episode as part of Latin O.L. (over 50 years ago). I should add that it comes from Book V: 26-37 and NOT Book 6 as the endnote states. Even so, I realised why it was there. Peter Heather starts with what Rome once was, then passes on to what it thought it should be (e.g. the writings of Symmachus (345-404) and then examines the fall of Rome in the west.
Unlike Edward Gibbon in 'The Decline & Fall...', who threw away the Western Empire for love of Byzantium, Heather remains true to his title. It is an enormous subject and, although familiar with the subject, I found myself constantly introduced to new aspects. The work ,really in a way is like a spiral in reverse. It starts at a narrow point - Caesar, SPQR, the Principate etc. - and widens out gradually. So he deals with Rome's vulnerability at three points - the Rhine, the Danube and Mesopotamia. Then pops over the borders to look at the causes of such pressure, the Sasanian dynasty in Persia, the Goths the other side of the Danube and the Germanic peoples beyond the Rhine. As relations between Rome and the barbarians are described the reader can recognise both variation and flexibility in such relations but also how so much of historical scholarship has been forced to see matters from the Roman standpoint.
After looking more closely at the barbarians, Heather produces a masterly examination on 'the limits of empire'. The basic premise is that the Roman Empire had outgrown its chance of survival. So distances and shortcomings in both administration and communications undermined the effectiveness of the imperial rescript. The Emperor could only act on what he knew and the results could be modified on what both he and the locals knew. Heather dwells on the work of Tchalenko who questioned the thesis of rural decline largely due to imperial taxation after c.300 - as I'd been taught re' Roman Britain when studying AL History fifty years ago. There is a problem: evidence would indicate that the outdated image of rural decline actually persists in Italy and the northern frontiers. Heather cannot explain why? Might I suggest that a couple of factors might be that these areas were more under the imperial eye (& fiscal effectiveness); also I suspect a higher degree of 'out-sourcing' (to use a modern term) by those controlling the wheels of power at the centre. Again Heather notes the decline in 'civic display', pointing out how those with influence migrated away from local to central areas of power - e.g. the rapid rise in the numbers of upper imperial bureaucracies laying down the rules, although 'the process was taken over by locals responding to the rule changes and adapting them to their own interests' (P.117). In sum, life became too complex for central bureaucracy to handle, as contemporary governments are discovering nowadays. Heather argues that the army was neither under-manned nor under-paid when first it had to face unprecedented problems. Thankfully, he dismisses the arguments of Gibbon that the Empire was undermined by the conversion to Christianity. Apart from the theological quagmire of 'orthodoxy' during these centuries affecting the 'chattering classes' (my phrase not Heather's) the population was probably little troubled by this. Wealth granted to the Church simply replaced that granted to pagan institutions (N.B. Coptic Egypt); another point was that the numbers rushing off to a 'religious life' were a tiny minority. 'At the top end of Roman society, the adoption of Christianity made no difference to the age-old contention that the Empire was God's vehicle in the world' (P.125). He compares the system to the one-party state as seen in the Soviet Union, I would suggest Mao's China c. 1960 being a better example: however, he does describe the expansion of a legal 'apparatchik-style' privileged minority, as also seen in the contemporary growth of lawyers and accountants, dealing with the complexities central authority couldn't handle. Finally, his conclusion is quite clear: 'there is no sign in the fourth century that the Empire was about to collapse....... the late Empire was essentially a success story'(P.141). Nevertheless, within a couple of pages the reader DROPS into the section labelled 'Crisis'. May I suggest this relates to the unfashionable ideas of Arnold Toynbee regarding 'Challenge and Response' in 'A Study of History' (1934-61)?
The crisis came with the intrusion of Goths across the Danube border in 375, supposedly seeking asylum from the Huns. Why this occurred is obscure. The Gothic ruler, Ermanaric, features little in Heather's work, but large in legend. Might I suggest that Ermanaric applied pressure vs. the Huns who resisted, found defences weaker than expected and overthrew Ermanaric, forcing the Goths to flee westwards. A similar situation occurred in 1219 when the Kwarizmian ruler, Ala ad-Din Muhammad, tried to apply pressure against the Mongols under Genghis Khan to the east. The Mongols struck, overthrew his kingdom and poured into Persia - following that with advances through Russia etc.
Heather provides an excellent introduction to the Huns, arguing that their success depended mainly on a long, reflex bow which was asymmetric (knew to me!). Heather rejects firmly the idea that the Huns possessed stirrups, which I thought was debatable. He wades into the origins of the disaster of Adrianople (378), rejecting the usual explanation based on Roman sources. Essentially he argues the Empire was over-stretched because of tension with Persia, failed to control details of allowing the Goths into the Empire (e.g. keeping the two major groups (Tervingi and Greuthingi) apart and the treatment of the Goths by local officials) and actual strategy and tactics.
Afterwards, it was a question of patching up a structure on the point of collapse. Peace was made with the Goths under the deceptive glow of a Gothic surrender. A string of Emperors came and went - Gratian (375-83), killed fighting off usurpers; Valentinian II (375-92), and Honorius (395-423), nonentities not deserving the imperial throne; a collection of semi-legitimate emperors, such as Maximus (383-88), flashing and exploding in the chaos of internecine warfare; and Theodosius I (379-95), who tried to establish order out of chaos (like predecessors Diocletian and Constantine)but lacked the time to make it firm enough to survive the next crisis.
In 410 Rome fell to the Visigoths and the next 66 years was really a 'long goodbye' to borrow a title. Heather explains all this clearly and fully, with a masterly use of source material. He steps into a series of controversial topics with a sureness of touch; such topics are controversial largely because of the paucity of sources (e.g. the butchery of the work of Olympiodorus of Thebes by later writers / copyists) and their one-sidedness. He applies logic to sort out problems - certainly as a medievalist he must be well-used to such approaches. In this way he handles the gap between the Gothic victory at 'Hadrianople'(sic) and the sacking of Rome in 410; the migration of Vandals, Alans and Suevi in 406 and the early stirrings of Hunnish influence in the 'volkerwanderung' (an antiquated term he never uses). A masterly section is his description of the Vandal intrusion into North Africa. Meanwhile he tackles the infighting at the top of the Roman power structure, requiring close examination of source material, which explains partly how Roman power was swept aside.
In the midst of this twilight of a millennium one man stands out in the narrative like a colossus and that is Aetius, performing miracles in restoring imperial control in Gaul and ABOUT to repeat the act in North Africa when in pour the Huns - now under the determined and opportunistic control of Attila. Heather does not hide the fact that Aetius was a fixer, a juggler keeping so many balls in the air to maintain the impossible, the survival of the Western Roman Empire.
The challenge appeared to dissipate with the sudden death of Attila in 453 but it proved to be short-lived as the Western Empire was snuffed out in 476. It is no coincidence surely that Aetius was murdered(454) by Valentinian III and within six months the murderer, the last Emperor with any authority within the Western Roman Empire, was in his turn assassinated. As Heather remarks: 'Aetius's death was far more than one man's tragedy. It also marked the end of an era. The death of Attila and the end of the Hunnic Empire not only made it possible for Valentinian to contemplate life without Aetius, it also undermined the delicate balance of powers by which Aetius had kept the western Empire in business.' (PP 374-75) Thereafter heather's tale is of little men doing nasty things to each other until the dregs of a once mighty system trickled away.
The book is excellently written, with good citing of sources and a useful glossary. In fact, it is the best book I've read on an important, but usually ignored, subject..
One final point. My final impression is that the book should be retitled as 'The Fall of the Roman Empire: A Study in Near-Survival'. It certainly deserves 5 stars.
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