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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 11 August 2017
Fantastic book, loved it.
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on 19 July 2017
Well written and thought provoking for the non-specialist
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on 12 October 2016
Good read
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on 30 June 2015
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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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