The Fall of the Roman Empire
Peter Heather, 2005
Last summer when I was driving back and forth to Sacramento every day I listened to a big chunk of Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which famously advances the thesis that the chief cause of said decline and fall was that Christianity had sapped the Romans of the martial drive that had led them to establish and maintain the empire in the first place. Gibbon also put a lot of stock in the personal qualities of Roman leaders, as the book is in large part an exercise in declaring which emperors were wise and virtuous and which ones were dissolute and cruel. Other observers in the two centuries since Gibbon have observed that the Eastern Roman Empire was even more influenced by Christianity than the Western, yet it survived for nearly a thousand years after the West fell. Many of the more recent theories, apparently, have been economic in nature, blaming poor harvests or unsupportable levels of taxation. Much of Heather’s project in this book (which, like the Decline and Fall, I listened to rather than read) is to call the attention of a general audience to new research indicating that the fourth‐ and fifth‐century Western Empire was in fact economically prosperous, and that there was nothing to indicate that collapse was on the way. The Western Empire could also have lasted another millennium, Heather suggests, had it not been for external factors. He lays the blame primarily at the feet of the Huns, not for their direct assaults on the Western Empire, but rather for the way that when they swept into Europe from Asia, they displaced vast numbers of Germanic tribes, which not only fled across the frontier into the Roman Empire itself, but much more importantly, amalgamated as they fled. It’s sort of like how when I went to France with a student group when I was fifteen: when we got on the plane we were a bunch of kids from rival schools, but when he got off the plane suddenly we were all just Americans in Paris. Whatever differences may have existed between the Thervingi and the Greuthungi north of the Danube, once they were surrounded by Romans, they were all Goths. Having to fight large political units rather than scattered tribes, Heather argues, was what set the course for the Western Empire to collapse.
In the introduction to the book, Heather discusses the challenge of writing ancient history, chuckling that anyone who finds drawing conclusions from scant evidence more frustrating than intriguing need not apply. The scholar of ancient history needs to relish the puzzle‐solving required when the sources are so spotty. What do we make of a battle that is referred to in passing in a fragment of an eighth‐century copy of a fifth‐century panegyric written under duress—did the battle even happen? Heather says that he has “tried to involve the reader in the detective work, not simply casting him or her as the recipient of oracular answers”, but I think that may be why this book ends up falling between two stools to a certain extent. Popular history may make extensive use of primary sources, but it’s not about them, while the academic history books I’ve read have tended to be exercises in reporting, “Hey, here are some century‑old diaries I read through / statistics I analyzed / artifacts I dug up, and here’s what I think they tell us about conditions in this area at this time.” So in highlighting the way his account is woven out of such odds and ends as a random bureaucrat’s letters and the one surviving volume out of a 27‑volume Byzantine manuscript, Heather does end up veering into the realm of academia. From time to time he goes fully academic, spending interminable stretches cataloguing the names of minor officials and roving tribes, only to abruptly think “Whoops, this is for a lay readership! I’ve been too dry!” and throw in a bunch of colloquial phrases, sports metaphors, and what few colorful details he can find in his sources (he mentions that Olympiodorus of Thebes had a parrot no fewer than five times). But that change of surface doesn’t alter the book’s fundamental outlook on how to narrate history. It’s the literary equivalent of putting on a MUSIC ⚡ BAND T‑shirt and carrying around two skateboards.