Jim Cullen: Review of Peter Heather's "Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe" (Oxford, 2012)





Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. His new book, Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions, is slated for publication by Oxford University Press later this year. Cullen blogs at American History Now.

This book was supposed to be summertime leisure reading. I make no pretense toward familiarity with the historiography of the Roman Empire, whether early or late (I know little more about the Republic than either). Actually, the subtitle of the book -- "the Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe" -- is misleading; as the author says explicitly, the former is only peripherally in his purview. What we really get here is a survey of what used to be called "the Dark Ages." It's a deeply suggestive one, not only an explanation of 500 years of history, but a model for thinking about the demographic dynamics of peoples much closer to home.

Seven hundred pages and two decades in the making, Empires and Barbarians has the heft of a generational statement. (First published by Macmillan in Britain in 2009, it has just been issued in paperback in the U.S. by Oxford.) As such, it can be considered a piece of counter-revisionism. Once upon a time, the story goes, the Roman Empire was destroyed when its ability to repel wave upon wave of barbarian hordes was finally worn down. After hundreds of years of trying, the marauders finally broke through in the fifth century CE, and, like drunken party guests, wrecked a civilization. In recent decades, however, this invasion hypothesis has been deconstructed. "Barbarians," after all, is a loaded term that reflected the ethnocentrism of Mediterraneans; what we were really seeing was an encounter between peoples. And they weren't hordes, either -- they were small groups of people, and very often what happened was not so much a violent overthrow of "civilization" (another loaded term) as a transfer of power from one elite to another. The old story said more about the nationalist preoccupations of the twentieth century (and the curious nationalism of Soviet-bloc Marxists, who poured impressive resources into archaeology) than the realities of the ancient world.

Peter Heather, a professor of medieval history at King's College London, does not deny that the old version of the story is problematic. But he believes that the attempts to overturn it -- which have calcified into a refusal to consider evidence that doesn't comport with post-nationalist notions -- miss some important indications that there were, in fact significant, broad-based movements of people south and west into Europe in the second half of the first millennium. It's not that the revisionists are entirely wrong, or that their model has not applied in other historical circumstances -- the eleventh-century Norman invasion of Britain is pretty much a textbook illustration of their notions. But it didn't really happen that way when the Angles and Saxons showed up five hundred years earlier, or for that matter, in many other places on the continent in that era, either.

Here's the key to understanding what happened as far as Heather is concerned: a significant disequilibrium in development -- defined here in terms of resources, technological sophistication and political organization -- that evened out over a five-hundred-year period. When the first millennium began, the wealth and power of Europe ran in a rough oval corresponding to the shores of the Mediterranean. Above it was a strip of loosely organized Germanic peoples whose contact with the Romans formed a frontier of intercultural contact. Above that was another frontier formed by the near outsiders with far ones. As has been long understood, the end of Roman empire was not so much a matter of destruction by the near outsiders as it was far outsiders (like the notorious Huns) pushing their way into the turf of the near outsiders (like the Goths), who in turn pushed a weakened and distracted Western empire to collapse.

This was not a pretty process. It required a massive allocation of resources -- which had to be expropriated to attain the scale necessary for a successful push -- and required mobilization on a scale much more significant than anything that immediately preceded or followed it. The migration may not have been a billiard ball of people moving from one point to another, as the old grand narrative would have it. Instead, it was more like a snowball: not necessarily large at first, but increasingly and inevitably substantial, pulling women, children, and slaves along with it, if for no other reason as logistical support. (The book is salted with vivid analogies like this.) And it was highly dynamic, not just Germans sweeping into Rome, but Slavs sweeping onto German turf, and then Vikings sweeping onto Slavic turf. This transformation was nasty, brutish, and long. When it was over, the locus of civilization had shifted north and west and had taken on a Frankish hue. This is a big deal, an epochal change that turned the edge of a continental landmass into a place we have come to know as Europe.

I'm not in a good position to judge how iconoclastic an argument this really is in the context of its field (though I am familiar with the work of Brian Ward-Perkins, whose 2005 The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization I found quite edifying, and which seems consonant with Heather's findings here). But as Heather wrote of Ostogroths and Magyars -- with occasional references to Rwandans and Kosovars as a point of comparison -- I found myself thinking of Puritans and Algonquins. In what sense was what happened in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Atlantic basin a barbarian invasion? Was the U.S. acquisition of Texas a case of elite transfer? I think the answer to these questions is superficially yes, though I suspect Heather and others would qualify and texture them. In any event, the overall paradigm here is a deeply resonant one. Heather can't claim all the credit for that -- his interdisciplinary approach to his subject is clearly shared and part of a lively scholarly literature -- but the breadth, depth and brio of Empires and Barbarians is a significant accomplishment and a welcome gateway for the curious as well as the deeply informed.


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