Thursday, August 2, 2012

Book Review - The Fall of the Roman Empire

This is the first book review for this blog, but I'm sure there'll be plenty more!

Peter Heather tells the narrative of the fall of Rome as has been done before, but also adds an interpretive spin on the often quoted sources, using archaeological  evidence as well as the texts to either support his theories or debunk the old ones. Often the lack of evidence leads him to make educated guesses based on his theories, but this doesn't detract from the story as the historical record is patchy and requires filling in the blanks.

He does not buy  the classic 'decay' theory fashionable since Gibbon's 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'. He describes the evidence of decay as purely limitations that did not point to the inevitable fall of the Western Empire; lack of clarity in succession of emperors and the resulting civil wars, endemic corruption, downtrodden peasantry being bled dry by the taxman, and the reliance on 'barbarians' to safeguard the Empire. All these issues had featured as aspects of the Roman Empire, both East and West, so why should they suddenly cause the West to collapse while the East survived for another millennium? 

The author's main contention is that the fall of the western half of the empire was due to the unprecedented movement of barbarian peoples after the advent of the Huns onto the scene in the late 4th century. This caused a cascade of events that the Roman civilisation of the west was unable to counter-act, or if it attempted to, other factors cropped up that prevented an effective response to the 'barbarian' migrations. In a continental version of 'whack-a-mole', the West was too exposed to the pressure of these refugee migrants who were not assimilated into the Roman polity, but remained as separate entities carving out their own 'homelands' within the empire.

Another accepted meme that the author scotches is that the 'barbarian' were homogeneous groups, totally alien and foreign to the 'civilised' Romans. All the groups along the borders, 'Roman' and 'barbarian', actually had a lot in common with each other. A lot of interaction across the border led to much transference of culture, language, fashion etc. By the time the tribes moved across the border there was little to distinguish Roman from barbarian in the immediate border area. The tribes were also not ethnically pure as a lot of 19th and early 20th century historians assumed, but a collection of many different peoples led by a leadership group of a particular culture, with everyone else adopting and adapting to that culture. Languages were probably a patois of Latin and other Germanic tongues.

What he ascribes the 'Fall' to is the deviation from time-tested policies of absorbing entire polities into the empire by suborning the leaders and scattering their followers throughout the empire and the men into the legions. Instead, from Valens' defeat at Adrianople onwards, whole groups were allowed in without being broken up and diluted into the Empire. These became alternate power foci in the power struggles that normally occurred between generals of various 'Roman' armies in the search for power over the increasingly weak emperors of East and West. The leaders of these groups wanted in on the power and wealth the associated with the empire and fought to get it when it wasn't forthcoming from the established powers who used their military strength when it suited, but often didn't follow through on their promises.

The Romans could well have dealt with the various threats posed by these groups, including the Visigoths, Franks, Alemanni, Vandals, etc. but for the fact of the Huns. Despite their fearsome reputation, the Huns played little more than a spoiling role in the history of this period. They acted like a huge standover group like the mafia, extorting gold from the Eastern Empire in return for not raiding within the empire, while keeping a firm grip on the groups they controlled. It was only until the pickings became harder that they turned to what seemed like easier pickings in the West. The resulting campaign in Gaul distracted the Western strongman, Aetius, from dealing with the Vandals, Suebi and Alans who had crossed the Rhine and rampaged their way to Spain to establish their own slice of the action. By the time Aetius had won the Battle of the Catalunian Fields (with the help of the Visigoths, who'd settled in south western Gaul), the Vandals et al had a firm grip on Spain, never to be regained by Rome.

It was this death by 1000 cuts that really did in the Empire as it lost the taxation income form these areas resulting in a weaker and weaker central government that couldn't raise the armies required to protect what was left over. The abortive attempt to retake Carthage with the help of Constantinople nailed the coffin lid for the western empire when it ended in farce, neither the east or the west then had the resources to attempt another invasion as they'd spent everything on the venture. Contrary to accepted history, the Byzantine general Basiliscus wasn't incompetent or treacherous, but the weather conspired against him just as it did against the Spanish Armada nearly 1100 years later. the prevailing winds should have kept his fleet sheltered in the lee of a bay, but an unforseen shift in the wind trapped the fleet and allowed the Vandals to launch fireships and attack the panicked fleet trapped against the shore.

Any attempt at retaking the lost areas was doomed from then on as the tax-base of the west was fatally crippled and the east had invested everything in the venture. Failure was not an option, but disastrously was the result.

Heather's main culprits for the fall of Rome, then, were 3-fold;

  1. The Romans themselves for forgetting how to deal with outsiders, ie co-opting their leaders into the nobility and dispersing their followers throughout the empire and army, creating another group of happy Romans livin' the dream. Instead the empire allowed the Goths in without giving them the benefit of full integration, using them when required and shunning them when they weren't allowing feelings to fester until they broke forth in battles and sackings and eventually the loss of great swathes of territory in the west.
  2. The barbarians themselves became more and more Romanised during long contact with the empire through trading and fighting for and against the empire. They emulated the Romans in their political organisation to enable them to resist outsiders like other tribal polities and Rome itself, absorbing weaker tribes more or less willingly to create super-tribal groups like the Visigoths, Vandals, Franks etc.
  3. The Huns became the catalyst for the end of the west, even though they were not directly responsible for the collapse. Initially, their intrusion into Europe brought the first Gothic groups into conflict with Rome at the disastrous Battle of Adrianople in 376 AD after the Goths requested amnesty en masse from the Hunnic threat and were ruthlessly exploited by local Roman commanders. After that initial indirect involvement, the Huns under Attilla actually stabilised the Danube front by absorbing all the tribal entities remaining north of the Danube and extorting protection money from Constantinople. Only when Attilla moved west to invade Gaul did he become a direct threat on a large scale, by attacking in force as well as distracting Aetius from dealing with the Vandals in Spain. Once Attilla died and his empire broke up, the tribes kept in check were then free to move, and by that stage the western empire was far too weak to counter them militarily, ergo the slow disintegration of the empire.
A thought provoking read.

1 comment:

  1. A terrific review mate. I think I'd like to add that book to my quite considerable bed side reading pile. A lot of late 19th and early 20th century historians could be accused of propagandising more than historical scholarship hence that "racial purity" crap among other things. Cheers.