Knowing history: the late Roman Empire

History informs much of my work, and makes up a lot of my free reading.

But it's easy to think that the past is a story that's been told to us, whereas it really is just a few syllables here and there, vaguely heard through a gale.  As part of my reading on the fall of the Roman Empire (not great scheme behind it--it's just that a lot of good books have recently come out on the subject), I recently finished Peter Heather's The Fall of the Roman Empire, which, really, is a detailed history of the period 376-476 with a few halfhearted attempts to show how the whole melancholy thing could have come out differently.  I don't think Heather ever convinces himself.

But he's extremely clear on what we know, and what we just guess.  The sources are, as always, fragmentary and partisan.  He  has his opinions on who is trustworthy, and whose testimony should be regarded with suspicion.  It's a nice glimpse at the history workshop, where those nice seamless narratives are put together.  And Heather's characterization of what was really a grim bureaucratic tyranny, which he compares to Soviet party congresses, is enlightening.

Attila, of course, plays a prominent role.  But the commander who really caught my attention was the Vandal leader, Geiseric, conqueror of North Africa, previously unknown to me.  Escaping a difficult situation in Spain, he shuttled his followers across the Straits of Gibraltar into the remote province of Mauretania Tingitana in 429.  He then moved east (St. Augustine died in the besieged city of Hippo Regius), and conquered what was the richest province in the Empire.  This conquest was a major nail in the Empire's coffin:  the revenues from this province helped pay for the army.

In 455 Geiseric launched a naval expedition which sacked Rome, much more violently and destructively than the relatively benign looting of Alaric back in 410.

In 468, an huge fleet sailed from Constantinople to reconquer North Africa, but was destroyed by fireships, much like the Spanish fleet of 1588.  Heather indulges in one of his wishful counterfactuals here, considering what the fleet could have accomplished if the wind had been blowing in the other direction.  Maybe.  Geiseric was clearly a formidable opponent, and his descendants ruled his kindgom through peaceful succession until Justinian's conquest in the next century.

If Geiseric were on the "right" side, he'd be someone we knew about.  His political and military talents were incredible.  He not only conquered and destroyed, but built a functioning and stable kingdom.  If Justinian hadn't come along, what would have become of a wealthy Arian Vandal kingdom in North Africa?  Probably conquered by the Arabs as they swept on their conquests, like everywhere else.  But maybe not....  There's a counterfactual for you.