TOP 1000 REVIEWERon August 27, 2011
This is a truly wonderful book, of the kind that I wish I had had when I studied this stuff in school. Unlike the dry textbook that I suffered through, this book brings the process of discovery alive as well as tells a great story. You follow an inspired scholarly mind as he puts together a compelling narrative with loads of delicious detail. I was utterly riveted by this for more than a month.
Heather begins with a description of the Empire as it stood about 300 A.D. Rome itself had become a religious and ceremonial capital, far from the frontier, where the real political power had migrated to serve military necessity. It was a vast and integrated world, unified not just by military power, economic activity, and the most advanced administrative system to have yet existed, but it had a literate culture that, once mastered, allowed indigenous (conquered) populations to make their own careers within it. Heather describes this culture in sensuous detail, relying largely on the words of its most illustrious citizens, many of whom were accomplished letter writers and poets - you get to know them. Of course, they were all super-rich landowners, but then Rome represented them aboveall, which became the model for the European aristocratic states that arose and lasted until the 19C. He also describes both the brutality of life at the top - losing a political battle meant losing not only your head but those of your entire family - and the limits of administrative reach across such a huge expanse of territory.
He then shifts to the barbarians. After centuries of contacts with Rome, they had adopted many of the economic methods of the empire. This led to an extraordinary increase in population among the Germanic tribes with more diversified economies and societies; they were also uniting politically into far greater groups and better organized as war machines. Even worse, there was a major empire - the Huns - who were pushing the Germans into the Roman Empire, first as refugees and then as roaming pillagers. As one of the world's experts on them, Heather offers a wealth of detail on their cultures, war techniques, and origins. There are many surprises: Alaric, the first sacker of Rome in 410, was a Christian and hence reluctant to sack the capital; Theodoric the Great was bought up in Byzantium and hence classically educated and trained. He also describes their technology, such as the Hunnic bow, of uniquely lethal power.
This is his way of refuting the arguments that the Roman EMpire was in some kind of inexorable moral decline, from the adoption of Christianity to demographic stagnation and economic exhaustion. To strengthen his case, Heather relies on new archeological evidence of the economic prosperity, particularly in African and the Near East, but also within the graves of germanic tribes, who "taxed" the empire by the threat of pillage. While I found his treatment of the impact of its christianization a bit too quick, he makes a solid and fascinating case that is very very fun to read.
If you accept his premise - that the empire's fall was not at all inevitable - then the author's argument becomes entirely geo-political. Once certain Germanic tribes were inside its borders, they undermined the fragile structure of the huge economy: Vandals captured the North African breadbasket provinces, which lessened tax revenues and food exports to Italy, fatally weakening it as the pressure from the Huns was greatest. Thus, while the Huns never invaded Rome the city, their actions did lead indirectly to Rome's fall.
Heather also incorporates fascinating theories on empires and how they evolve. Rome was different: it unified and co-opted local elites, which enabled it to survive 500 years. In contrast, the others were based on plunder by their troops, requiring continual victories (via charismatic leaders like Attila, who was viewed as infallible) that eventually stretched their supply lines too far. After the failures began, the troops (often multi-ethnic) fell to fighting eachother; no unifying culture and economy could channel their energies, leading to quick collapse. I had never thought of this so succinctly, but this is only one of the many details that Heather explains and examines in the course of his argument.
What is amazing about this book is what a pleasure it is to read. Heather is a master stylist, has the erudition you expect from Oxford scholars without the stuffiness, and can transmit his love of the subject on every page. While my interest began to flag towards the end, the book left me very hungry for more.