on 15 December 2016
Professor Peter Heather's The Restoration Of Rome : Barbarian Popes And Imperial Pretenders starts approximately where, in 476, The Roman State ends--and its inexhaustible European legacy begins. The period-concept itself of Late Antiquity, the period in which Heather is a, in my readerly experience the, leading historical expert, which period may be said to span from The Crisis Of The Third Century all the way to the end of barbarian turbulence for Europe with the defeat of Harold Hydrata in 1066, and which Restoration also spans, albeit with a strong focus on the period's earlier phases, especially on the underrated (6C) reign of Theoderic, has inherently what one might call a "cultural-historical bias" : "Late Antiquity" was, after all, invented by art historians with an eye to distinguishing trends in artistic style, not a socio-political order and the continuities or ruptures thereof. Professor Thomas F. X. Noble, whose lecture series for The Great Courses, Late Antiquity : Crisis And Transformation, I also recently studied, takes, as the title of his lecture series implies, what has settled down as a conventional stance on Late Antiquity : the death of the Roman State with the deposition of Romulus Augustulus by Odovacer in 476 is, politically-historically, a fact, of course, but a Late Antique Culture kept going and going--all the way down, if you like, to the defeat of Constantinople by The Turks in 1453.
For me, however, Peter Heather's critical, yet vigorously inclusive, interpretations prevail : Historians eager to make a revisionary splash dismiss 476 as an Old Textbook Date, but Peter Heather, without ignoring continuities does not. According to Peter Heather, the absence of a Western Emperor was not something that, say, entrenched Romano-Gaulic landlords could ignore in their grand strategising even where they held onto their privileges as very many of them did, their administrative know-how being indispensible to fledgling Wisigothic and Frankish kings. A key example : tutoring in The Trivium such as would prepare one for life at a literarily sparkling Imperial Court took years and years and cost a terrible lot of money. ( St. Augustine's family struggled financially to provide their brilliant son with it. ) But what sense did such an investment make in a post-imperial world, wherein the new lords of the realm, lacking the core agricultural-civilian tax-apparatus that paid for a professional army for so long under the Roman Imperial System, were themselves, both perforce and par goût, generals and, consequently, had little time even to learn to write at all leave alone master every detail of the Golden Age Latin subjunctive ? Peter Heather explains that, under post-imperial circumstances--down even to the famous scholar-patron, Charlemagne--, The Nobility contented itself with reading The Classics and did not themselves aspire to write. Heather believes that this alteration in typical noble educational aspiration alone, which the absence of an Imperial Court ensured, even by itself would have amounted to a sea-change in The Culture Of Late Antiquity. I agree.
Heather is also stronger, and in a similar manner, than ancient historians who, driven by anti-nationalist antipathies, attempt aggressively to debunk early German social formations as fluid and crudely utilitarian. As he accepts the best of the period-concept of Late Antiquity promulgated by its inventors without scoffing at traditional political-historical models, Heather is deeply convinced and convincing with regards to the emergence of German Kingship, not spontaneously, but through foreign construction and in reaction against foreign construction : the coalescence of barbarian "supergroups" such as Theodoric's Ostrogoths, who ruled an empire in Italy and beyond between 493 and 553 A.D., were even conceivable only in the wake of Hunnic domination of The Goths, Heather explains ; that domination, in turn, lasted only so long as the Hunnic First Tier could keep pumping extorted Roman tribute into a Gothic Second Tier. It was that Gothic Second Tier that would go on to rule itself once The Hunnic Empire, inevitably, collapsed and in which "Ostrogothic Identity" was forged and the top-down wealth that sustained a vastly more hierarchically sophisticated society than "Native Germans" ever dreamed of was accumulated. Yes, but that doesn't mean that there "never was any such thing" as Ostrogoths but only a ragbag of tribes welded together under that moniker by Roman wealth and Hunnic tactics. They spoke a common language from time immemorial, for one thing, they could be welded together, and ( as is proof of the latter : ) their common struggle resulted in a durable identity and promising early medieval kingdoms. The great tradition of anointing Christian kings, I learned from Heather, was originated in Visigothic Spain, which, had it not been wiped out by Islamic aggression in 711, might have had a much longer tale to tell us of The Restoration Of Rome. Four rather than five stars because of a general impression I had, to which I alluded above, that the vigor of the book, great as it is, tails off a bit toward the end and because of a somewhat sensationalistic title that the book also doesn't perfectly bear up.