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39 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Account of a Monumental Event, 28 July 2007
This review is from: The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History (Paperback)
The "Fall of the Roman Empire" casts a huge shadow. A vast Empire, one of the "great civilisations" of history, went in barely a century from being the "sole superpower" to a mere plaything of barbarian tribes.

Why did it happen? All sorts of reasons can be offered, and Heather offers several, but what it comes down to is that this is simply what empires do - they rise, they exist for a time - years, decades or (as in Romes's case) centuries - and then they fall. Rome had already had a better "innings" than most, and in the fifth century its luck ran out.

It is usual to blame the Fall on the Empire's internal problems, and say that it became "decadent" or whatever. Heather, probably rightly, focuses more on what was happening outside Rome's borders. The Barbarian tribes, living for centuries with that 800 pound Roman "gorilla" next door, combined into larger units like the Frankish or Gothic kingdoms, which were a tougher proposition for Rome to cope with. Everlasting warfare with these states gradually wore the Empire down, and finally another barbarian, Attila, drove many tribes from their old homes and forced them to try their luck migrating into Roman territory. This proved more than Rome (or at least its western half) could cope with. So down the tubes it went.

No doubt, had Rome not fallen from this cause, it would eventually have fallen another way. Empires are usually longer lived than individuals, but are no more immortal. But Heather does a magnificent job of showing how and why it fell as and when it did.

One minor regret. Perhaps a little more "afterword" about post-Roman Europe might have been in order. For the significant thing about the Roman Empire is not that it fell (which was bound to happen sometime) but that it was never rebuilt. By contrast, China fell to Mongol "barbarians" in the 13C, an invasion probably as devastating as anything Western Rome underwent, yet within a century had gotten its breath back, expelled the invaders, and installed a native Ming Dynasty. Similarly, Egypt was able to spit out the Hyksos and other intruders. Yet Rome's former subjects not only didn't do this, but (unless the Arthurian legends count) seem never to have even tried. Rather, they appear to have largely shrugged their shoulders and made the best of things under barbarian rule. While purely external factors can explain the fall itself, they can't explain this apparent acceptance of it. Even when Roman lands were "liberated" by Justinian, the inhabitants seldom rallied round, and when Byzantium's grip loosened they just flopped back into barbarian hands. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that, however traumatic the Empire's fall had been, a lot of its subjects soon found they didn't really miss it all that much. This calls for explanation.

Still, that's quibbling. Heather has written a great book (even if his 21C idioms can irritate at times) and it needs to be read by anyone interested in this subject.
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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 4 Feb 2010 10:28:32 GMT
Last edited by the author on 4 Feb 2010 10:36:09 GMT
When looked at through modern eyes, the various social, technical and/or economic idea's; such as that the Roman Empire in the West fell due to the loss of the tax revenues from the North African provinces, which in turn reduced the size of the army Rome could pay for seems logical. My problem with all these 'sophisticated' theories is simple:- If the barbarians were at the gates, ordinary people's homes, wives, children etc... were threatened as never before! Why didn't the millions of young men available within the Empire rally to defend their homes, even without pay? It has been suggested recently that ancient Rome was "a cross between Stalin's Russia and Mao's China"; but when the USSR faced a very similar threat in the 1940's, finding the money to pay his soldier's wages was the least of Stalin's problems. Did the warriors of Attilla quit because they hadn't been paid? of course they didn't, they merely looted another Roman province!!!

Despite having become unpopular with the politically correct brigade recently, the true cause of Rome's defeat was a centuries long decline in the calibre and unity of it's people, exactly as the ancient writers say. While things obviously moved at a slower pace two millenia ago; people's motivations and loyalties were basically the same then as they are today. For centuries Rome had imported conquered enemies by the million as slaves IE:- cheap labour. Rome also had a soup kitchen system where the urban poor could eat for free, thus preventing starvation. In times of hardship this system acted as a magnet to refugees from the less prosperous provinces, many of whom were none to happy with Roman rule in the first place. These twin immigration routes operated on the Empire's social and genetic base for generations, with radical effect on both Rome and Italy.

By the time Alaric's Gothic armies violated her frontiers, the empire's 'citizens' numbered possibly eighty million; but loyal citizens of genuine Roman blood, prepared to fight and if need be die; to ensure Roman victory, were far fewer. Threatened on a world war scale; for the first time in more than a century the Legions needed to recruit every fighting man the Empire had. The muster was a diverse horde of Gauls, Carthaginians, Syrians, Germanics, Sardinians, Africans, Spaniards, Jews, Dacians Lybians etc... none of whom felt genuinely Roman, many of whom had a close allegiance to the enemy, all of whom had a heritage of defeat at Roman hands, and most of whom were quite prepared to dump their weapons and run at the first sight of a barbarian warrior, killing any Roman officer who tried to stop them. Similarly, once conquered, these multi-racial masses genuinely saw no difference between barbarian German or civilized Roman landlords.

That's the reason; the Ancients tell us, caused Rome to fall. There were simply not enough loyal Romans left to defend her!!!

What do you do? and the lights went out; all over Europe, for a thousand years.............

In reply to an earlier post on 7 Feb 2010 20:07:07 GMT
Last edited by the author on 7 Feb 2010 20:08:13 GMT
M. W. Stone says:
Well, of course, the lights had never been on in much of Europe. The Empire stopped at the Rhine and Danube.

Nor did they go out for long (if at all) in the Iberian Peninsula. Moorish Spain was probably as advanced as Roman.

So the lights only went out in a relatively narrow band - mainly Britain, Gaul and Italy. And quite a bit of that - notably North Italy and Flanders - was urbanised back to the Roman level by about 1000AD.

Regarding the military prowess of the inhabitants, it's a bit different when the civilian population hasn't borne arms for four centuries - no country of modern Europe is anywhere near that. In most, a large part of the male population has done military service well within living memory . Fifth Century Romans hadn't.

In reply to an earlier post on 19 Feb 2010 03:17:57 GMT
Last edited by the author on 19 Feb 2010 03:52:31 GMT
Looking through modern eyes too fervently isn't always wise when evidence contradicts it. When you say a "diverse horde of (etc)", you're lumping the very Romanized Gauls, Africans and Sardinians in with the more religiously divergent Syrians and "Germanics", by which we might include both loyal Gothic aristocrats and totally hostile Vandals and Sueves (allied as they were with Iranian-speaking Alans). "Roman blood" was the result of conquest, and is basically an ideological product of later nationalisms. Read Ammianus Marcellinus - he refers to perfect Romans as "blood barbarians" only when they rebel; if they didn't, we'd have been none the wiser (The half-Vandal yet arch-Roman Stilicho is another good example).

Not sure what you mean by bringing the "PC brigade" into this... Heather's thesis that outsiders developed stronger political groupings and overwhelmed the Empire resulting in economic and technological decline seems perfectly correct whatever one's modern political leanings, and I also agree with him that barbarian identities could be stronger than some modern historians imply. Predatory migration was as much a product of the enticement of Roman wealth as the desire to escape from Hunnic hegemony, but to generalize too much along old school lines is misleading. Look, for example, at the vast differences between what happened in post-Roman Italy and Britain. One held strong for some time under a Roman-styled leadership in an Italien Ostrogothic state while the other fragmented into socio-political meltdown with emerging tribal pirate kingdoms barely the size of modern counties.

In reply to an earlier post on 24 Feb 2010 20:25:03 GMT
Last edited by the author on 24 Feb 2010 20:39:06 GMT
Although there is much good sense in what you say, IE the barbarian tribes had both grown in size, and developed stronger cultural/technical depth etc....; the fact remains that they were still counted in 100,000's, while the Roman Empire's population at this time has been estimated at anything from 50-80,000,000. From that manpower inbalance it is obvious that Roman weakness was the problem; basically internal division, which mean't those overwhelming numbers could not be deployed to advantage. Why? Because millions included within that huge number of 'Roman citizens' were in fact barbarians themselves, and these disaffected millions formed a fifth column; an 'enemy within' which weakened, not strengthened the Roman State.

You use the expression 'old school', and you are also right here. I am to some degree, repeating what I was taught in 'old school' history lessons some fifty years ago; but those lessons have not become invalid with the passing of half a century. If anything they have become more relevant as we watch how events in Iraq/Afganistan are affecting British domestic policy today; and this is exactly why I mentioned Politically Correct doctrine. We have all heard George Orwell's classic lines "Who controls the present controls the past, and who controls the past controls the future." Well for centuries, Classical history was taught to British schoolchildren such as myself, with the intention that the mistakes which brought low the Hellenic Greek/Imperial Roman civilizations; could be avoided in our own times. Since the sixties political fashion/opinion has changed massively, and most recently published studies on Rome's decline now avoid/downplay the part increasing racial diversity/animosity played in undermining Roman military strength. Because historical facts fall out of fashion however, should not mean they become 'untrue'.

In reply to an earlier post on 20 Jul 2010 14:27:52 BDT
Last edited by the author on 20 Jul 2010 17:47:15 BDT
Roland says:
Indeed Mr Bradbury, your history lessons HAVE become somewhat invalid with the passing of half a century, and here is a passage from the book to demonstrate why:

"To some extent, the lack of first-hand contemporary Germanic sources has been filled by archaeological investigation. This has the priceless advantage of bringing us face to face with contemporary and genuinely Germanic artefacts and contexts, but Germanic archaeology is a subject with a difficult past. As a scientific discipline, it emerged in the late nineteenth century when the Hermann monument was under construction and when nationalism was sweeping through most of Europe. It was generally assumed at this date that the 'nation', or 'people', was the fundamental unit in which large groupings of human beings had operated in the past, and should operate now. Most nationalisms were also fuelled by a strong sense of their own innate superiority. The German nation may have been split up over time into lots of small political entities, but the efforts of Bismarck and others were now, through German unification, successfully restoring the natural and ancient order of things. In this cultural context, Germanic archaeology could have only one agenda: to research the historical origins and homeland of the German people. The first great proponent of such studies, Gustav Kossinna, noticed that the increasing quantities of artefacts then coming to light from excavated cemeteries could be grouped together by similarity of design and burial custom. He built his reputation on the argument that the geographical spread of particular groupings of artefacts and customs represented the territories of particular ancient peoples.

Such was the quasi-religious fervour surrounding the concept of the nation that politicians were ready to use identifications of the ancient spread of 'peoples' as evidence for claims about the present. At Versailles in 1919, Kossinna and one of his Polish disciples, Vladimir Kostrewszki, made rival cases for the positioning of the new German-Polish border on the basis of different identifications of the same set of ancient remains. Things got nastier still in the Nazi period, when high-flown claims about ancient Germania became a basis-cum-justification for territorial demands in Poland and the Ukraine, and an associated sense of Germanic racial superiority led directly to the atrocious treatment of Slavic prisoners-of-war. In the last two generations, however, Germanic archaeology has successfully reinvented itself, and from this have resulted huge advances in our understanding of the long-term social and economic development of the Germani. With the excision of nationalistic assumptions from the interpretation of literary sources, the history of Germanic-speaking Europe in the Roman period can be rewritten in new and exciting ways."

So I strongly suggest you read Heather's books. I think you will be pleasantly surprised to find that he is not writing fashionable, politically correct propaganda, but is working hard and applying a deep understanding of human nature to try to find out the truth of what happened.
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