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The barbarians really did destroy the Roman Empire,
This review is from: The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History (Paperback)
The fall of the Western Empire in the fifth century AD has long fascinated the intellectual classes, Hollywood film makers, and politicians determined to show off their learning. Why is this? After all, as Heather points out, the Roman Empire was essentially a one-party state, in the sense that it tolerated no public dissent. In other words, it had a political structure similar to that of the Soviet Union. Indeed, Heather makes a comparison between the orchestrated `spontaneous' and prolonged applause which inevitably greeted the bombastic speeches of Khrushchev and Brezhnev in modern times and the synchronized acclamation with which Roman senators prefaced the speechifying of the ancient emperors (`We give thanks for this regulation of Yours!', repeated twenty-three times, was just one of the cries with which the great and the good of Rome greeted the introduction of a new law compendium by emperors Theodosius II and Valentinian III in AD 437.) Furthermore, as Heather also points out, the Empire, unlike the Soviet Union (or at least the Soviet Union according to its own rhetoric), primarily benefited the rich, in the sense that its political order involved a compact between the state and powerful landowners. With less than five per cent of the population owning over eighty per cent of the land, the Roman political economy worked whereby the landowners financed the state through taxation in return for their social privilege being protected through the law, and, if all came to all, the army.
Perhaps the hold of the Empire stems from the fact that, despite its lack of political freedom, its massive economic inequality, and off-putting self-regard, it was the best form of civilization around at the time. `Civilization', of course, is a loaded term, especially in a climate of cultural relativism where the use of such judgemental terms as `civilized' and its corollary `barbaric' is frowned upon. Each culture, we are told, is civilized in its own terms. I disagree with this. It is undeniable that life under Roman rule was preferable to life under the rule of such Germanic peoples as the Goths, the Vandals, or the Alans, even if one were a slave. The division of labour ensured that the Romans enjoyed such everyday products as pottery and warm clothing, along with clean water and central heating (if you were rich enough). Meanwhile, life amongst the barbarians was nasty, brutish and short. Although Saint Augustine was right to argue that Rome's success was motivated not by divine providence but by the 'lust for domination', life under the Romans was probably preferable to life anywhere else at the time.
Indeed, this fact played a major role in the fall of the Western Empire itself, at least as Heather relates the tale. In 376, two large Germanic groups, the Tervingi and the Greuthungi, sought refuge in the Empire, fleeing as they were from the marauding Huns. Admitted to the modern day Balkans, but suspicious of Roman intentions, the barbarians gave battle. As the Roman army was depleted due to concerns of a Persian invasion, an uneasy peace eventually came about, but only when the Romans acceded to the barbarian request of allowing them a certain amount of autonomy within the Empire, an unprecedented development. With this toe-hold in the Empire, barbarians proceeded to intervene in imperial affairs over the following century, sometimes of their own volition, but often at the behest of ambitious Roman generals. A further invasion of assorted barbarian groupings eventually led to the rich North African provinces of the Empire falling to the Vandals in the 440s. Feeling the effects of the resulting reduced taxation and strategic vulnerability, a massive fleet was arranged to ferry a large army of re-conquest across the Mediterranean, only for Attila the Hun to appear on the scene. Although the Romans managed to defeat his invading forces, the resultant disintegration of Attila's empire made the barbarian groupings on Rome's Balkan doorstep even more difficult to manage. The African invasion fleet was finally reassembled in 461, only for it to be scattered to the four winds by Vandal fire ships. The failure to re-conquer Africa, along with increasing political instability, reduced tax revenues, and barbarians in control of large parts of Western Europe, sealed the fate of the Western Empire, Heather argues. After four hundred years, the Empire ended with a whimper rather than a bang. A barbarian king of Italy, descended from one of Attila the Hun's henchmen, deposed the emperor Romulus, having satisfied himself that the Eastern court would not intervene against him: `He then sent the western imperial vestments, including, of course, the diadem and cloak which only an emperor could wear, back to Constantinople.' And that was that. The Eastern Empire continued on for almost another thousand years - with Constantinople only falling to the Turks in 1453 - although it wielded less and less influence as time went by. Western Europe, meanwhile, entered the dark ages, a four hundred period of reduced living standards, political fragmentation and loss of learning.