Over a few decades now the image of the barbarian invaders of Western Europe in the 5th century has undergone a total makeover. From once being uncultured and destructive thugs, they have seemingly become, you would be forgiven for believing, cuddly touchy-feely hippies into soft furnishings and flower arranging, bringing every possible benefit to the Empire, not like those nasty, beastly Romans. Ward-Perkins neatly summarises the difference in his introduction with contrasting pictures.
Firstly a traditional picture (incidentally taken from the excellent Osprey volume Germanic Warrior, AD 236-568
); an isolated Roman cavalryman desperately attempting to flee as a Germanic horseman and foot soldier try to skewer him from each side, with yet more German warriors rushing in from behind.
Secondly two more contemporary images; the Germanic leader this time with helmet removed, an elderly gentleman with kindly and wise expression; and the Germanic warrior with his fruity glamour puss wife beside him posing almost pinup style.
Historians now invariably speak of "continuity" and "gradual transformation". The outsiders came peaceably, settled amicably with the Empire's inhabitants, everybody held hands and sang, and imperceptibly the Empire became medieval kingdoms.
Archaeology however speaks to us differently.
Once, even Roman peasants were able to obtain high quality wheel-turned pottery created by master craftsmen in factories, via distribution networks ranging across Western Europe and North Africa. After the 5th century this was no more; now there was only locally produced hand fashioned rough vessels looking more like a GCSE pottery student's early attempts.
Once, even Roman peasants were able to sleep under tiled roofs, durable and lasting. The 5th century saw an end to all that, now roofs were made from thatch. No less insulating or protective, but insect infested, liable to catch fire and needing regular repair and replacement.
Something drastic happened alright. A complex monetary economy producing high quality luxury goods widely available to many via extended trading networks collapsed. Skills disappeared which would not be revived for hundreds of years. The disintegration of the West had real and severe effects; most contemporary historians notwithstanding, we can genuinely talk of a fall of civilisation.
As Ward-Perkins notes, the arrival of the outsiders was no vicarage tea party. "The new arrival had not been invited, and he brought with him a large family; they ignored the bread and butter and headed straight for the cake stand".
Ward-Perkins considers what is behind such changes in historians' attitudes. There is of course the prevailing political wind. After the Second World War, French historians regarded the 5th century German invasions with understandable disdain. As France and Germany were creating their axis to dominate the European Union, old sins were forgiven, and now the Germans of Late Antiquity were rehabilitated to become saviours and the new lifeblood of Western Europe.
But in a sense Ward-Perkins does not go far enough here in his analysis. What is undoubtedly also affecting the modern viewpoint is the fact that these 5th century invaders were immigrants into Western Europe. Political correctness demands that everything about today's immigration must be seen in a positive light. Anything negative said about those ancient immigrants is by extension a criticism of modern day immigration, and that is unconscionable.
Whatever history might teach us I don't think there's too much comparison to be made between the two; that an unfavourable connection might be made seems to be the fear of contemporary scholars. Apart from anything else, today's immigrants don't come bearing swords and spears. It's chalk and cheese, and frankly irrelevant to the modern day.
This is a short and sweet work, beautifully written, scholarly yet accessible. It's a wonderful antidote to the currently fashionable opinions about the 5th century in Western Europe.