The House of David

"dawnbreak in the west"

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Rome's collapse

Oxford University Press has published two new books on the transition in western Europe between the Late Roman Empire and the Dark Ages. One is Peter Heather's The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History, which I have leafed through; the other is Bryan Ward-Perkins's The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, which I haven't come across yet.

Most reviewers have been looking at both together: Bryn Mawr Classical Review, Asia Times, and The Spectator. The Times and The Telegraph also reviewed them, but here Tom Holland and Peter Jones ended up writing "Torygraph" pieces on behalf of both.

According to the reviews: both books hold a bias toward Rome, or at least toward its values of preserving trade, law, and order; they argue that the Roman system did fail; and they propose that the "barbarians" north of the frontier were the villains in this drama. They differ among themselves primarily in focus. Heather, the "paleo-con" in this coalition, is interested in the power relations between a multi-ethnic empire and a proud nation of would-be immigrants. Ward-Perkins, the "neo-con", is interested in life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the bloody demise of these three when empires fail.

James J. O'Donnell's review at Bryn Mawr is the most trenchant. He lets on during the course of it that he has a jones for 1970s supergroups like The Band, and he gratuitously likens 476 AD Byzantium to 2001-2003 AD America; both of which tell us that he is not likely to be predisposed to histories written on the right side of the aisle. From what I have scanned of Heather's book, O'Donnell's bias has manifested itself into outright unfairness. O'Donnell claims that Heather "deal[t] with almost nothing that happened anywhere east of the great land walls of Constantinople". In fact, one of Heather's main lemmas concerns a review of the Battle of Adrianople 378 AD, which he argues was affected by Rome's prior shifting of military resources to its eastern frontier as a result of Sasanian Persian activities across it. Leading up to that section was a discussion on why Rome had beefed up that frontier in the preceding century. (Heather also points out Syrian archaeology providing proof for a fourth-century CE Roman prosperity, apparently too insignificant a finding for O'Donnell.) O'Donnell further claims, confusingly, that Heather made "almost no mention of the effusion of work on late antique 'nation-building'", but with so many exceptions and provisos that it is hard to know what O'Donnell expects of a book of this type. According to O'Donnell, Heather also "almost" noticed this statement: "The failure of Rome to understand or imagine what was happening across the Rhine and the Danube as indeed civilizational advance and its failure to co-opt, capitalize upon, or support such development perpetuated and hardened an adversary relationship past the point where Rome could sustain it. "; but it seemed to me that Heather noticed this just fine. To defend O'Donnell's three "almost" statements would require an effort in redefinition so profound as almost to deserve the monicker "Clintonian". But then, in O'Donnell's words, the moral of Heather's book is "immigrants can be very bad for a society"; therefore Heather is a racist who deserves no better treatment. And so it goes.

Ian Garrick Mason's Heather review at The Spectator is better. In what I read of the book, Heather had noticed Rome's internal squabbles and mutinies, and further noticed that the Goths noticed. In what I hadn't read of the book, namely its conclusion, Mason did manage to read; and Mason decided from it that Heather had not creditted these factors with sufficient weight. It seems to me that if Heather had devoted even more space to the leadup to Adrianople, with further discussion on the cross-border "telegraph", he could have delivered a stronger case for his thesis that Gothic sophistication was more to blame for Adrianople than was Roman weakness. (Heather also would have fended off O'Donnell's claim that the book had reworked much the same field as Heather had done earlier in "The Goths".) Mason also "reviews" Ward-Perkins in his article, but that part of it is just an approving summary.

Spengler's review at Asia Times concentrates on Ward-Perkins, and treats Heather to a summary view and a dismissive one at that. Spengler clearly sees Ward-Perkins as a rival theoretician: while the two agree that a strong economy makes for happy citizens and is worth fighting for, Ward-Perkins assumes that prosperity is a gauge of national power against adversity, and Spengler assumes that demographics and sexual ethics are a better gauge and that prosperity often weakens these supports.

From these reviews, I must conclude that Ward-Perkins has proven his central point: that a Roman Way of Life one existed, that this ended in the West as of the turn of the fifth century CE, and that this end was a calamity. What remains unresolved is, still, why this empire proved so resilient against the powerful Iranians yet so ineffectual against the bumpkin Goths. (Byzantine studies face a parallel, if underappreciated, problem: why the New Rome lost so much to the semiliterate Arabs 630-670 CE and so little to the Islamic Caliphate 670-1030 CE. Nevo and Koren are the "Peter Heathers" of this field, and get the predictable brickbats lobbed at them too.) To me, it would appear that Heather, Spengler, and Mason have offered worthwhile contributions to this debate; and that O'Donnell and Jones as yet have not.

posted by Zimri on 19:30 | link | 0 comments

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