Bryan Ward_Perkins looking casual

Seminar XI: The Return of the ‘Fall of Rome’ – Peter Heather and Bryan Ward-Perkins

By the 1990s the Brownian concept of ‘late antiquity’ – of the period between the second and the eighth centuries as an age of revitalization rather than as one of decline – and the new theories about the Barbarians merged to form a new orthodoxy. There is perhaps no greater symbol of its ascendancy than the European Science Foundation’s decision to fund a vast interdisciplinary research project entitled ‘The Transformation of the Roman World’. This project has so far yielded some thirteen volumes (no less than eighteen are envisaged) which cover various aspects of the transition from the late Roman Empire to the Early Middle Ages (that is, the 4th-8th centuries) in Western and Central Europe. Though it is not concerned with the eastern Mediterranean world which lies at the centre of the Brownian view, the underlying vision is of a Roman Europe seamlessly and gradually ‘transformed’ into the multi-ethnic empire ruled by Charlemagne. The various Germanic peoples who entered the empire in the fifth and sixth centuries are not seen as invaders, but as peaceful settlers within a civilisation that continued much as before.

A smiling Peter Heather

The last few years have seen, however, a dramatic turn of the historical pendulum. A ‘counter-reformation’ is now under way and two of its sharpest products to date are Peter Heather’s The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History (2005), and Bryan Ward-Perkins’s The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (2005). Now neither historian is that impressed with the later Roman Empire, but neither has much time for the idea that it was in deep decline. Peter Heather, for instance, emphasises the solidity and cohesiveness of the Empire in the fourth century. There was, he argues, no weakening of the rural economy, trade was flourishing in a far from demonetarized economy, local elites were participating in imperial structures in unprecedented numbers, and the adoption of Christianity as the religion of the Empire was giving new cultural dynamism to the political and social edifice. ‘There is still not the slightest sign’, he argues, ‘that the Empire would have collapsed under its own weight’ (Heather, ‘The Huns and the End’, p. 39). To this extent, Heather’s views are in keeping with the Brownian view of later Roman history.

Heather is in no doubt, however, that the western empire really did ‘fall’, and that its collapse had far-reaching consequences. As he puts it in his contributions to an online discussion with Bryan Ward-Perkins, on the Oxford University Press USA Website,

the effects of Rome’s fall were huge and felt right across the board. It’s quite common now, for instance, while describing the history of subjects as diverse as Christianity or literacy in this period, to view Rome’s fall as incidental or unimportant. In my view, that is straightforwardly wrong. Late Antique Christianity evolved a series of authority structures, both centrally and locally, which were shaped around and based upon the existence of the Roman state. When that went, these authority structures, even when they survived, changed their nature fundamentally. In shorthand, the medieval monarchical Papacy is inconceivable had powerful western Emperors survived. So too literacy. Patterns of elite literacy, for instance, were based upon the career structures generated by the Empire’s bureaucracy – lots of jobs for those knowing a particular kind of Latin well – and once that bureaucracy went, so did the jobs and the patterns of education and literacy attached to them.

The crucial point here is that the pattern of aristocratic ‘service’ in the west was much altered by the end of the Empire: both the emperors and their barbarian successors legitimised and supported the power of the landed élite by rewarding participation in the work of the state, but whereas that participation had usually taken the form of a short-term stint in a civilian bureaucracy, in the successor states it typically took the form of military service, either in person and/or by lending the king the use of a private army. The fall also permitted, Heather argues, the proliferation of diverse centres of authority, creating a new and far less centralised kind of political order.

When it comes to explaining the causes of the Empire’s fall, Heather attributes it to a series of external developments that were largely out of the empire’s control: firstly, the appearance of the Huns in the regions to the north and east of the Black Sea (c.350); secondly, their arrival in the Danubian basin (c.410); and thirdly, the collapse of the Hunnic Empire after the death of Attila in 453. The first two developments had the effect of dislodging various, mostly Germanic, peoples and of propelling them to seek refuge or residence within the limits of the empire. Thanks to their profitable economic relations with the Empire, these peoples had been gaining in strength and social cohesion, but it was the simultaneity of their intrusion which caused the imperial authorities so much difficulty. Entering at much the same moment, they set in motion the process by which the authorities in the west gradually lost control of the Empire’s lands and revenue. The third development, finally, meant that the Huns were no longer available to the Empire’s leaders to be used as mercenaries or as a ‘common threat’ to keep the intruders under control.

Since the innovations in his account of the western empire’s fall are subtle rather than sweeping, Heather has been accused of merely re-asserting J. B. Bury’s theory that it fell because of a series of contingent events. He certainly means to defend the importance of engaging with ‘narrative history’ (see p. 436), but the theory of events implicit in his work is more nuanced than these critics allow. His argument implies that minor contingencies, such as the length of ‘Cleopatra’s nose’, make little difference in the long term. Rather, it is the larger phenomena which organise events over the longer-term that matter. Note, for example, the following statements: ‘there is’, he writes, ‘a coherence to the process of western imperial disintegration’ (p. 433, emphasis added); ‘the trajectory of the Roman west was set inescapably towards fully independent Gothic and Burgundian kingdoms’ (p. 435, emphasis added).

The originality of Ward-Perkins’s book lies in its emphasis on the material consequences of the fall as revealed by a mass of new archaeological research. As he himself explains in his contribution to the online discussion with Peter Heather,

I argue what is currently an unfashionable view (though, in my opinion, it is blindingly obvious) – that the Roman world brought remarkable levels of sophistication and comfort, and spread them widely in society (and not just to a tiny elite); and that the fall of Rome saw the dismantling of this complexity, and a return to what can reasonably be termed ‘prehistoric’ levels of material comfort. Furthermore, I believe that this change was not just at the level of pots and pans, important though these are, but also affected sophisticated skills like reading and writing. Pompeii, with its ubiquitous inscriptions, painted signs, and graffiti, was a city that revolved around writing – after the fall of the empire, the same cannot be said for any settlement in the West for many centuries to come.

Ward-Perkins argues that the Germanic invasions of the fifth and sixth centuries did tremendous damage to the delicate economic structures of the Roman world. These structures had permitted even those of relatively humble means to enjoy a remarkable level of material wellbeing and comfort which all but disappeared – albeit at different rates in different areas – with the Fall of Rome. In Ward-Perkins’ view this material collapse cannot be reconciled with the Brownian orthodoxy – with, as he calls it, ‘the new upbeat thinking about the end of the Roman world’. He finds utterly implausible the suggestion that people would have willingly given up the many comforts provided by the relatively sophisticated Roman economy – tiled roofs, mass-produced pots and amphorae, brick and stone floors, heating systems and hot baths, and so on. With the loss of these technologies and with the erosion of access to literacy the subtler side of civilisation – poetry, books, high culture, and so on – will also have suffered.

It is clear, moreover, from his contributions to the online debate that Ward-Perkins means to challenge, not only the current orthodoxy, but also the core, relativist, premise that all cultures are equal:

I recommend caution in praising ‘Civilizations’ (whether Roman, or our own), and I do emphasize that ‘civilizations’ have their downsides. But, equally, I think the current fashion for treating all cultures as essentially the same – and all dramatic changes (like the end of the Roman world) as mere ‘transformations’ from one system, to another equally valid one – is not only wrong, but also dangerous (emphasis added). It evens out the dramatic ups and downs of human history, into a smooth trajectory. This risks blinding us to the fact that things have often gone terribly wrong in the past, and to the near certainty that, in time, our own ‘civilization’, and the comforts we enjoy from it, will also collapse.

It is too early to say whether the remarkable success of Bryan Ward-Perkins’ book – it was awarded the Hessell-Tiltman History Prize for 2006 – reflects a wider shift in historical fashions, but it appears that the movement towards cultural relativism which was so powerful in the 80s and 90s has had its day. How much its present retreat owes to the ongoing confrontation between European humanism and fundamentalist Islam (and fundamentalist America!) is a moot point; but it certainly seems as though the moment for the post-modernist’s cheeky, playful, aesthetic attitude to cultural questions has passed. In the wake of 9/11 and, perhaps more importantly, of events such as the murder in 2004 of the Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh by radical Islamist Mohammed Bouyeri, there seems to be a greater willingness among scholars to acknowledge that some cultures (albeit ‘sub-cultures’ rather than whole societies or ‘civilisations’) are indeed better than others – that the Roman world, for example, was better before it was wrecked than afterwards when it was dominated by hirsute barbarians and holy men. For the time being, then, the future seems to reside with the secularist opponents of Brown’s ‘late-antiquity’ thesis.

Bryan Ward-Perkins has been a lecturer in modern history and a fellow of Trinity College, Oxford, since 1981. He is the son of the archaeologist John Bryan Ward-Perkins (1912–81), a long-serving director of the British School at Rome (1946–74). Peter Heather (1960–) is Professor of Medieval History at King’s College, London (2008). He was formerly a lecturer at University College London (1991–2002) and at Oxford University, where he was a fellow of Worcester College (2002–8).

Paul Hayward (10.xii.07).

Photos: Peter J. Heather (left), Bryan Ward-Perkins (right).

Set Texts

  1. Heather, Peter J., The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History (Basingstoke, 2005), chp. 10, ‘The Fall of Rome’ (pp. 431–59). LVS.*
  2. Ward-Perkins, Bryan, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (Oxford, 2005), chp. 8, ‘All for the Best in the Best of All Worlds?’ (pp. 169–87). If you can, you should read the entire book, giving particular attention to part two, ‘The End of a Civilization’ (pp. 87–168). LVS.*

Worksheet Questions

  1. What, according to Heather, were the consequences of the Empire’s fall and how did the fall work to produce these consequences?
  2. What view does Heather take of the barbarians? (How, for example, does it differ from the views taken by Walter Goffart and Walter Pohl? Is Heather’s account of the historical background to the barbarian invasions ‘long’ or ‘short’? How does his view of how barbarians identities such as those of the Visigoths and Ostrogoths were created differ from that of Pohl?)
  3. Why, according to Ward-Perkins, have the current orthodoxies of (a) ‘a long and rosy Late Antiquity’, and of (b) the Germanic peoples as ‘peaceful collaborators with the native Romans’ become so popular?
  4. What, according to Ward-Perkins, were the consequences of the Empire’s fall and how did the fall work to produce these consequences?
  5. To what extent do the arguments of (a) Peter Heather and (b) Bryan Ward-Perkins constitute an effective response to Brown’s late-antiquity thesis?

Useful Additional Reading

Bryan Ward-Perkins – the Podcast!

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