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June 17, 2008

Who Sez Rome Fell

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

My radar must be aimed really high. Because lots of stuff is flying under it.

A case in point is the fall of Rome. Naive me, I thought it just, er, fell -- the western part anyway.

Apparently there's a pack of recent scholars who don't see it that way. Which prompted Bryan Ward-Perkins (yes, he's a Brit) to write this book as rebuttal.

If Ward-Perkins is correct and not simply doing the intellectual grandstanding one sees all too often in academia these days, a number of historians have been claiming that the western empire more or less faded away and the former not-really-Barbarians simply stepped up to the palazzo, signed a few treaties and took over the show in various parts of the old realm. Less fuss, muss, bother and bloodshed than Gibbon and his followers had led us to believe, apparently.

Ward-Perkins literally digs in with physical anthropological evidence of the collapse of the standard of living. This is measured by the presence (or lack of it) of pottery of all kinds, including items used to transport goods such as olive oil, as well as by coins and building materials such as roof tiles. His evidence indicates Roman Britain disappeared in a comparative flash while other parts hung on until the tide of conquest took out the last refuge when the Visigoths reached North Africa. He also cites contemporary written material to support his case that the end of Rome wasn't painless.

I find it interesting that there were 27 customer reviews on the Amazon page linked above. That's a lot more that I'm accustomed to seeing, so perhaps the matter really is controversial.

I read a lot of history, but not a lot of the Ancient variety. That means I'm not well qualified to pass judgments on to you. All I'll say is that the traditional version of Rome's fall in the sense that a lot of aspects of what one normally thinks of as "civilization" were seriously diminished or eliminated seems the most plausible description. And Ward-Perkins' contribution supports it.

Please comment if you are better informed regarding the apparent controversy; I'm curious to learn what you have to say.



posted by Donald at June 17, 2008


"If Ward-Perkins is correct and not simply doing the intellectual grandstanding one sees all too often in academia these days..."

Of course, I haven't read it but my gut is always telling me these days that the above proposition will be right many more times than not.

"Ya gotta have a gimmick," etc.

Posted by: vanderleun on June 17, 2008 4:55 PM

If you go to Amazon you'll find the book 'The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians' by Peter Heather recommended as a companion volume. That is very good advice. I have read both books and they complement each other very well. Heather's book is a more detailed narrative and seems to support Ward-Perkins's thesis. (Why the sarcastic 'yes, he's a Brit' remark?)

Posted by: Graham Asher on June 17, 2008 5:01 PM

Graham -- Why, the hyphenated family name, of course. (I have to provoke comments somehow and am capable of using every fiendish trick in the book.) I don't mind it if the person is English, but in the USA it strikes me as an unnecessary cave-in to political correctness.

BTW, interesting how Winston Churchill's family used hyphenation to ease out of the Spencer trap to make their Marlborough connection more obvious.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on June 17, 2008 5:12 PM


I too read the book and found it an interesting take on a period of history that is usually dismissed as a debacle that quickly led to the Dark Ages.

It's probably fair enough to say that the political framework of the Empire in the West came crashing decisively down. The trend now is to look for cultural continuities that persisted. It shouldn't be surprising that not all remaining communities (there weren't any Roman provinces left) didn't immediately revert to the Stone Age. The tribes that increasingly migrated into Roman territory in the Empire's latter years no doubt acquired a little bit of polish and book (or scroll) learning that stuck around for a bit. Handicrafts didn't instantly vanish along with the Roman governors.

But, as you point out, the archaeological record suggests that after a few generations, craft quality generally didn't win any J.D. Power Awards. A few remarkable examples of artistry, such as the Mildenhall treasure now in the British Museum, continued to me made as late as the 7th or 8th century, but they were the exceptions. We know of no notable architecture from after the 5th century until the Romanesque period some 500 years later.

Ward-Perkins offers enough evidence to convince me that for most people, life in the former Roman-ruled areas was dismal and perilous. So on the whole, it's valid to speak of the fall of the Roman Empire, as long as you don't imagine it as a single melodramatic cataclysm.

One thing I found remarkable in Ward-Perkins's book is the reproduction of a piece of graffiti with his translation, which includes the earliest example I've ever seen of the predecessor of our now ubiquitous "f" word.

Posted by: Rick Darby on June 17, 2008 5:20 PM

In John Morris's history of the Dark Ages "The Age of Arthur", he says that on the Continent "The rich barbarian became Roman and the poor Roman was barbarised". The first part of that didn't happen in Britain, probably because our barbarians had had very little prior contact with Romans, whereas the barbarians from along the Rhine had already been partly civilised. Still, "Dark Ages" seems a pretty fair metaphor to me: he points out that subRoman Britain was in some ways more backward than preRoman Iron Age Britain - they'd lost Iron Age skills and their Roman skills were now often worthless. The next few decades might give us more insight into that period, as our own civilisation crumbles, don't you think?

Posted by: dearieme on June 17, 2008 6:14 PM

The Roman empire had experienced demographic collapse before the barbarians invaded. That's how the barbarians pulled it off. By the late empire, most of the Roman army was composed of barbarian mercenaries. The two big changes that (according to the sources with which I am familiar) caused the reduction in population were plagues brought in by trade with nations to the East (India) and a cooling of the weather.

According to Plagues and Peoples, the very breadth of the empire first allowed major networks of traded to flourish. Then those same networks provided the pathways for contagious diseases to spread. The city of Rome wound up being largely depopulated because of (new) malaria from the nearby swamps.

The cooling reduced agricultural productivity. It also froze the Rhine over and allowed the barbarians to walk into the empire whereas before then they had to ask the Romans to ferry them across.

The Goths, who first came into the empire with permission, were treated so badly that they went to war with the Empire. They killed an emperor (Valarian IIRC). A lecturer I heard quoted a historian as saying "the barbarians came to the Roman empire not to destroy it, but in order to partake of its benefits." After the Western empire had been split into various barbarian kingdoms, each of those kingdoms tried to emphasize their continuity with Roman traditions in order to enhance their legitimacy.

Posted by: Alex J. on June 17, 2008 8:07 PM

Without being able to give specific examples, I have the impression that many contemporary scholars deny that Rome fell not because they think the process was non-violent (Donald) and not because it undoubtedly took a long time (Rick Darby), but because they object to the idea that Rome's civilization was in some sense higher than what followed. They don't believe in levels of civilization, and prefer to think that Rome didn't 'fall' from a higher to a lower state, it just changed from one form to another quite different form (or several different forms, since the fall of the Roman Empire was also a breakup).

This has always seemed ridiculous to me: when the sacking of cities and slaughter of armies leads to huge decreases in living standards, inter-city travel and trade, and literacy rates, just to give three plausible indices of civilization, saying that the civilization 'fell' seems a perfectly reasonable metaphor.

Similarly, I've read claims that no society ever really practiced cannibalism as a general cultural practice, because all the evidence for cannibalism comes from books written by foreigners who despise the allegedly cannibalistic cultures. This argument is not foolproof. What if there are levels of civilization, and the lowest level consistent with literacy is higher than the highest level consistent with cannibalism? That would put illiterate cannibal societies at the bottom, illiterate non-cannibals in the middle, and literate non-cannibals at the top. Are we allowed to think that some cultures are 'higher' or more civilized than others? Most of our contemporaries would say 'obviously not, all cultures are equal' while somehow at the same time thinking that Afrikaner and southern American ('redneck') cultures, just to give two examples, really are inferior.

Posted by: Dr. Weevil on June 17, 2008 9:45 PM

What Dr. Weevil said.

These latter-day historians are just peddling PC, revisionist BS, to make names for themselves and to make money.

Did the (West) Roman Empire, after Rome had been sacked, shortly thereafter, cease to govern the territories it had been governing? Did barbarian kingdoms supplant the Roman authorities in all the territories Rome had governed? Of course! I don't even understand why there's a debate about this, except that as Dr. Weevil pointed out, it just bugs those who can't accept the possibility that one culture may be superior to another.

Posted by: Will S. on June 17, 2008 11:03 PM

The "traditional view" was right.

Ward-Perkins is right.

See this excellent review-essay by James McCormick on ChicagoBoyz. James is an amateur archeologist himself and knows of what he speaks.

Posted by: Lexington Green on June 17, 2008 11:04 PM

The area in the West where Roman civilization and the Latin language persisted the longest was in the area of southern France known as Aquitaine. A debased form of Latin was spoken there right into the late eighth century in the time of Charlemagne. But more than that, the country estates and economic model of the Roman world survived longest here and Charlemagne himself, who conquered this area in the last half of the eighth century, was mightily impressed with the level of civilization he encountered. It must have been rather high, indeed, for we later read of Carolingian palaces with hot and cold running water, heated floors, marvelous courtyards and other niceties of civilization we associate with advanced cultures, and which were copied from Aquitanian models. From the Frankish artifacts I have seen in the Metropolitan Museum in NY, I would judge that the level of society was quite a few steps above the level of barbarism that many are describing here. Roman civilization, according to the great French historian Ferdinand Lot, did not go out like a candle, but rather sputtered and popped and smoked and finally crept back to life in the form of the High Gothic after the 11th century before morphing into a dazzling economic revival which itself led to the Renaissance. In fact, by the 13th century, trade in Europe had revived and surpassed that of the Roman Empire at its height in the 2nd century. Think of Roman civilization in the West as a patchwork quilt of lights going out one by one with finally only a few blinking lights dimly left by the early seventh century, then slowly blinking back to life until the entire quilt suddenly blazed up different colors than before. This economic process, from 2nd century peak to complete revival, took 1,000 years. Culturally, though, it is difficult to gauge and one must be cautious in throwing around words like "barbarian". Having said that, I believe multiculturalists are living in a fantasy world if they deny various degrees of civilized society existed then...and now.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on June 18, 2008 8:53 AM

The Roman Empire didn't fall, it was infected by Christianity which then used the might of the Romans to spread itself further across Europe at the point of a sword. It took everything that was evil of the Empire and threw away the good (the engineering, the learning, the society). Christianity had been beaten down, but it's actively trying to rebuild its empire again.

Posted by: Atheist Joe on June 18, 2008 9:11 AM

Charlton is right. Rome crumbled over a long period, it didn't fall. But as it crumbled the economic and social benefits of Roman strength and unity diminished massively as well. There's a real sense in which you can talk about 10th century AD Europe as less civilized than 3rd century AD Europe.

Posted by: mq on June 18, 2008 12:30 PM

Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) maintains that the Empire did not "fall" in the sense normally used.

An interesting point he makes is that the Roman army, which was the main instrument in maintaining the empire, became more and more professional and less and less civic.

It became very separate from the population as a whole. The people did not really like the army. They felt it was more of a paid police force. As recruitment became more and more difficult non-Romans ("barbarians") were often offered the benefits of citizenship if they would serve in the army.

Gradually the central power of Rome became less and less important and local leaders of the Roman army sort of took over.

I am paraphrasing. That's what Belloc says and I find it more plausible than the idea that Roman was taken over whole-sale by barbarian hordes.

There seem to be a lot of parallels between the Roman Empire and the US today. Our military is also becoming more of a professional police force. The members are often recruited from the poor. Many US citizens feel no kinship with the military etc..

Posted by: Franco Bertucci on June 18, 2008 6:32 PM

Franco, this is a concept that has also been on my mind. It is a troubling thought.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on June 18, 2008 7:35 PM

I seem to recall reading about the U.S. military toying with the idea of creating a "foreign legion" like the French, and granting citizenship to foreigners who join. But I can't see Americans standing for that...

Posted by: Will S. on June 19, 2008 12:55 AM

"A debased form of Latin was spoken there right into the late eighth century in the time of Charlemagne."

It still is... French.

Posted by: Intellectual Pariah on June 19, 2008 1:14 AM

See this double review of the Ward-Perkins and Heather books by a classics professor at Fordham.

Posted by: Gerald on June 19, 2008 10:17 AM

I don't think that anybody denies that what followed the Rome was in some sense less great. It is undeniable, simply from an archaeological perspective. Baths filled with sediment, the colloseum was used for cockfights and coinage reveals a collapse in trade.

People who want to change the typical view of the fall of the Roman empire are usually rebutting Edward Gibbon's thesis of barbarian conquest enabled by martial weakness caused by Christianity.

On the one hand, Rome became weaker before the barbarians invaded for reasons other than Christian otherworldliness and pacifism: demographic collapse. On the other hand many Roman institutions continued for some time after the sack of Rome proper.

Posted by: Alex J. on June 19, 2008 1:04 PM

Intellectual Pariah, I was speaking specifically of the original language in which The Song of Roland was written. Check it out to see that it is very different from modern or even Medieval French. By the way, Charlemagne was fluent in this Latin, though he could not write it.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on June 19, 2008 3:02 PM

I wonder if there won't be an uptick in the interest of this period as our own civilization continues to slide. I suppose there will be some incentive for the po-mo PC-ists, after a few decades of screaming history is unknowable except that there have been victims, VICTIMS, to propose that the changing demographic scene and subsequent, erm "decline" (they'll need a new term there -- "Change"?), was a more or less painless process.

Posted by: Mickie on June 25, 2008 12:20 AM

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