The Magazine

Why Rome Fell

The Empire was weak, the Barbarians were strong.

Sep 18, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 01 • By J.E. LENDON
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The Fall of the

Roman Empire

A New History of Rome

and the Barbarians

by Peter Heather

Oxford, 576 pp., $40.00

The calm of the vale of academe is broken by a shotgun crack, and Peter Heather has bagged a wild gobbler. His prey is the idea--grown plump and wattled over the last 30 years--that there was a separate period of European history, Late Antiquity, nested between the height of the Roman empire and the Middle Ages, and rejoicing in a distinctive common culture. Where once the late Roman empire (say, A.D. 280-410)--threatened, but still identifiably both Roman and empire--was followed by the early Middle Ages, when barbarous kings squatted over a shattered West, now both are confounded in a single gigantic epoch that sometimes reaches back into the second century A.D. and forward into the tenth.

This monstrosity cleverly exploits the intellectual consequences of the old academic periods of study: Classicists know nothing about the Middle Ages, and medievalists next to nothing about Rome, so no wonder they cannot see the difference. And, naturally, when students began to be trained only in "Late Antique Studies," they knew neither what came before nor what came after, so it all looked the same to them.

No convincing commonality was ever found between the disparate times and peoples that made up Late Antiquity, and the attempts to find such common ground contributed to the desperate triviality of so much academic work on the era: the fixation on magic and sex, on dream interpretation and bizarre religious enthusiasms--what has aptly been called the "Jerry Springerization of Late Antiquity."

But faith in a seamless Late Antiquity also required flattening obvious differences: If A.D. 300 and A.D. 500 were much the same, it would not do to have epoch-breaking barbarian invasions around A.D. 400. And so the barbarians were made into victims--innocent, wide-eyed, colonized folk--and all the apparatus of PC special pleading was employed to argue away the barbarian invasions. The fall of Rome became a "transition," or even a multicultural "experiment." Rather than killing the Romans and plundering their goods, seizing their farms, and raping their daughters, the barbarians came in like diversity facilitators, teaching the grateful Romans to be tolerant of alternative lifestyles and live close to nature.

In fact, the fall of the Roman empire in the West is the clearest boundary between eras in all of European history: Far clearer than the transition from the Middle Ages into the Early Modern period, far clearer than the moment when Early Modern gave rise to real modern, far clearer than the divide between the modern and what we are living in now--if, indeed, we have crossed such a divide. And at last this historical canyon is being rediscovered.

In The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (2005), Peter Heather's Oxford colleague Bryan Ward-Perkins catalogued all the things that changed in the West when Rome fell: The disappearance (in Britain, for example) of building in stone and brick, of making pottery on the wheel, of money--and of writing. He showed that, over great expanses of the West, the standard of living fell to a level more primitive than it had been before the Romans arrived. If common sense reigned, Ward-Perkins would never have needed to write his book: He simply demonstrated with greater rigor (and glee) what everybody knew from the age of Gibbon until the coming of the Late Antiquity fad. But it is a symptom of the malign spread of that vogue that Ward-Perkins must be thanked earnestly for having so ruthlessly proved his point.

In The Fall of the Roman Empire, Peter Heather moves on from Ward-Perkins to ask why this collapse occurred. He, too, reasserts the old common sense solution: the barbarian invasions. The tale of those invasions, and of Roman politics in their time, Heather tells accurately and enjoyably, with a good sense of anecdote. There is no false academic dignity here; instead we hear of "the merry crack of axe on skull" and "nothing like a little fart joke to lighten the mood." And there are traces of the trade-military-history style in which every victory is crushing, every defeat devastating, and where images are cheerfully overwrought: "Geiseric's forces were looming directly over the jugular vein of the western Empire" and "Aetius was contemplating sending his trusty breastplate to the cleaners."

But there are fine epigrams, too--"finally the scourge of God went to meet his employer"--and the whole is an unusual pleasure to read for a book about antiquity, a field where the rhetorical bombast of the ancient authors seems so often to have stunned modern students into pallid stylelessness. There are wonders here that might stump even Martha Stewart: Once one has captured a Roman emperor (as the Persian King Shapur did in the third century A.D.) and skinned him and tanned his hide, should one use him as a rug or a wall-hanging?

Heather's rampaging barbarians trample the fantasy of a happy and sharing Late Antiquity: Their coming was not a celebratory weenie roast after a naturalization ceremony, but a cataclysm. But why could the rampage occur? Rome had always faced barbarians across its northern frontiers. Why, after centuries of holding the barbarians off--even crossing the rivers to thrash them when their misdeeds or Roman politics demanded--did the borders suddenly collapse in the decade after A.D. 400? Either the Romans became weaker or the barbarians stronger.

Ever since Gibbon, who sought in Christianity the cause of the empire's moral decay, the great weight of opinion has been on the side of domestic decline. Mostly of that nature were the 210 causes proposed for the fall of Rome--including lead-poisoning and that dangerous luxury, bathing--which had piled up by the time a hard-working German collected them in 1984. But Heather, refreshingly, argues instead for stronger barbarians. Centuries of fighting the Romans compelled Rome's neighbors to become stronger for their own defense; and when a yet stronger power (the Huns) pushed them west, they were ultimately strong enough to break into the empire.

The Spartans were said to have an ancient law that forbade them from fighting the same enemies too often, lest those foes become better warriors than the Spartans. Peter Heather draws the same fearful lesson from the fall of Rome.

J.E. Lendon, associate professor of history at the University of Virginia, is the author of Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity.