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4.0 out of 5 stars One Man's Civilisation Is Another Man's Third Reich, 16 Aug. 2007
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This review is from: The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization (Paperback)
Professor Ward-Perkins has done an interesting, if short, book on a majestic theme - the fall of one of history's greatest empires, and its aftermath.

His main concern is to debunk a notion, apparently fashionable among historians, which I'm not sure many other people ever shared - the idea that the Fall of Rome wasn't such a big deal. Apparently, there is an historical school which regards the whole business as a mostly peaceful transition from the tail end of the Ancient World into the beginning of Medieval Europe. He collects an impressive pile of evidence that it was far from peaceful, and was indeed pretty catastrophic for many of those who had to live through it. Roman civilisation did not die of natural causes. It was killed, and mainly by the military force of the Barbarians.

Well, so far, so good. I doubt if the inhabitants of Italy, Gaul and Spain, who spent most of the years from 405 to 420 having one set of barbarians after another marching and counter-marching all over their homelands, would have any trouble agreeing with Ward-Perkins. Over the next couple of centuries many others would have cause to feel the same way. Nor was this temporary. For several centuries more, comforts that the Romans took for granted would become available only to a tiny few, and sometimes not at all. Pottery making virtually died out in Britain until about 700, tiled roofs, previously common, were little-known in the Middle Ages, and even coinage gave way to barter over wide areas. In short, standards of living, as usually measured, took a prolonged nosedive.

And yet - -. This is all very well, but if the Empire's fall was such a terrible loss to those who lived in it, how come it was never restored? The Chinese Empire "fell" lots of times, but was always rebuilt. When Rome fell, it stayed fallen, and its people seem to have soon become reconciled to doing without it.

Nor can the Barbarians be held solely responsible for what happened. In Asia Minor, which was virtually untouched by barbarian invasion, Colin McEvedy's "New Penguin Atlas of Medieval History" shows four cities - Ephesus, Miletus, Sardis, Smyrna - of between 15,000 and 50,000 people in AD 528. On the map for AD737, not one of them remains. Here at least, the Barbarians were not to blame for the decline, and other factors need to be considered.

At times, Ward-Perkins himself gives significant hints at this. He quotes ancient sources to the effect that, during Alaric's siege of Rome in 408/9, "almost all the slaves that were in Rome poured out of the city to join the Barbarians". And nine years earlier, when the rebel general Tribigild marched across Asia Minor, then a peaceful and prosperous region, his force was soon swelled by "such a mass of slaves and outcasts that the whole of Asia was in great danger, while Lydia was in utter confusion, with almost everyone fleeing to the coast and sailing across to the islands or elsewhere with their whole families". Clearly not all the Empire's subjects loved it.

But perhaps the most revealing incident is from 393, when "the Roman aristocrat Symmachus brought a group of Saxon prisoners to Rome, intending them to slaughter each other in gladiatorial games in honour of his son. However, before they were publicly exhibited twenty-nine of them committed suicide by the only means available to them - by strangling each other with their bare hands! For us, their terrible death represents a courageous act of defiance, but Symmachus viewed their suicide as the action of "a group of men viler than Spartacus", which had been sent to test him. With the self-satisfaction of which only Roman aristocrats were capable, he compared his own philosophical response to the event to the calm of Socrates when faced with adversity."

If Symmachus was at all representative of its ruling class, one can easily get an inkling of why the Empire failed, and see why not only the Barbarians, but many of its own less privileged subjects, might not have been sorry to see it go. One man's civilisation can all too easily be another man's "Third Reich", and one may suspect that many were ready enough to try and get along without the Roman State, even if it did mean having to make their own pottery.
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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 21 Jan 2010, 22:36:47 GMT
Excellent, balanced review. Some of the Rome-sycophancy on this board is beyond anything from the heyday of the British Empire, and at least equals the idiocy of the 'cuddly barbarian' brigade on the other side - Ward-Perkins has created a man of straw by grotesquely exaggerating their position.

In reply to an earlier post on 14 Feb 2010, 07:26:59 GMT
Last edited by the author on 12 Apr 2010, 18:00:47 BST
M. W. Stone says:
Have you ever read Alfred Duggan's novel "The Little Emperors"?

It covers the fall of Roman Britain as seen by a second-rate provincial governor. The latter eventually concludes that the Empire has become no more than a device for collecting taxes to pay the soldiers so that the soldiers can enforce payment of the taxes - - - and so on in a circle, and that "He had been serving an intricate but useless organisation". Under a barbarian king, most of the peasants would have lived the same life, but with lower taxes.

Duggan may overstate his case, but I suspect there's a lot of truth in that thesis.

In reply to an earlier post on 17 Feb 2010, 01:11:58 GMT
Seems to me you are doing the same as a lot of revisionist writers Mr Stone. Taking a modern situation and embedding it in the Roman past. After all, the security forces don't seem to be able to protect us from terrorism, but they can book us for parking, speeding etc... very effectively.

In reply to an earlier post on 19 Feb 2010, 07:36:06 GMT
M. W. Stone says:
And Duggan was writing about fifty years ago!

He had, incidentally, a very jaundiced view of security forces. In another book, he remarked that the Secret Police wiped out the families of petty offenders whose friends hailed them as Emperor while drunk, but if a serious conspiracy developed, they were more likely to join it, safeguarding their position in the new reign.

In reply to an earlier post on 27 Feb 2010, 10:40:03 GMT
Last edited by the author on 12 Jun 2010, 13:06:08 BST
Very pertinent reply Mr Stone. If looked at logically however, the reasoning behind such behaviour is easily understood. All organisations are judged by 'results'. Thus security services existing to detect traitors/terrorists etc... must find a few scapegoats, simply to justify their wages/continued existence, as Witchfinder General had to find 'witches'. Should the real thing prove illusive, any unfortunate is better than none.

If however, they do happen to stumble across the genuine article, the Secret Police are in a unique position to judge the potential for success of any serious conspiracy detected. If, due to strength of support/public discontent etc..., the chance of the conspiracy successfully becoming the next Government is high; then logically those within the Security Sevices are also in a perfect position to 'assist' the conspirators with information, money, weapons etc..... This may well be the reason that Andropov, G. Bush, and Putin amongst other very senior western leaders in recent years, have all come from a security services background.
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