In the past few years, there has been an interesting cluster of history books focused on the end of the Roman Empire: its fall, its decline, its transition into other forms (part of the point is the disagreement on what to call what happened). I don’t know if this sudden supply of popular scholarship is coincidence, a sign of some general mood, or simply the result of enough new information to force a reevaluation.
I’ve read one (Bryan Ward-Perkins’s The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization) and am in the process of reading another (Peter Heather’s The Fall of the Roman Empire). Then there is Goldsworthy and Wickham. News on those when and if I get to them.
Ward-Perkins’s book is in three sections. The first is a impressionistic account of how various tribes moved into the Roman Empire and how they related to the people they now ruled. The last is a bit of a rant about recent historiographic trends that have repositioned the Fall of the Roman Empire as Late Antiquity, even as Ward-Perkins states that Late Antiquity is a pretty good term for that period (roughtly 400-800 CE). He is quite entertaining on why northern European members of the EU might wish to come up with a kinder and gentler Fall of Rome.
The best section is the middle one, where he analyzes physical evidence for an understanding of the economic complexity of the Roman Empire. He shows that, no matter what its flaws, there was one big advantage to living under the rule of the Caesars: the extended peace and trading networks raised the economy to a high level for a pre-industrial society. Everyone had tiled roofs, good pottery, and other implements of daily life—and Ward-Perkins is at pains to point out that the daily life of poor and middling people was actually relatively decent. Having access to trading networks allowed farmers to rise above subsistence and specialize in the crops best suited to their local soils and climates.
All of this disappeared after collapse of unified Roman rule in the West. Ward-Perkins is persuasive that, no matter how innovative the relations between Germanic rulers and native ruled, their lives had become materially much poorer.
Ward-Perkins goes directly at the point that comfort, safety, and material wealth are important measures of human happiness, and of civilizational complexity. Those who didn’t have to live it can praise spiritual values or other aspects of nonmaterial culture. As he points out, near the end of the book:
We have no wish to emulate the asceticism of a saint like Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, who spent solitary nights immersed in the North Sea praising God. But, viewed from a suitable distance, he is deeply attractive, in touch with both God and nature: after his vigils a pair of otters would come out of the sea to dry him with their fur and warm his feet with their breath. This is a much more beguiling vision of the past than mine, with its distribution maps of peasant settlements, and its discussion of good- and bad-quality pottery.
I’d say this a book for the enthusiast, not someone coming to this period for the first time—though I’m not sure what else I would recommend as an introduction. I might actually recommend Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity—although Brown is, in fact, the dark genius who pioneered the concept of Late Antiquity, and Ward-Perkins spends some time cautiously taking potshots at him. I think once I get through Heather, at least, I’ll return to Brown to remind myself of what these revisionists are going on about.
But if you are an enthusiast, Ward-Perkins’s book is well worth reading, and refreshingly short and brisk.