December 13, 2006

Bryan Ward Perkins The Fall of the Roman Empire


The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire has been the subject of more historical monographs than possibly any other historical issue. Thoughts about it have ranged impressively from the implausible to the impossible (at some times even to the inedible food the Romans might have consumed). Great historians and philosophers from Montesquieu and Gibbon to Momigliano have tackled the question and come to various answers. Part of the problem is the geographical extent of the empire- from the Euphrates in the East to the Atlantic in the West, from Scotland in the North to the Sahara in the South and the geographical extent that any historian wishing to understand its fall needs to master- the rumblings which brought down the Romans may have started as many as three centuries before the fall of Rome in wars conducted in Northern China.

Facing such a massive project, providing as Bryan Ward-Perkins, an Oxford historian, seeks to do an explanation and account of what this event meant is something almost impossible to do. Ward Perkins rightly stresses the elements of contingency in the destruction of the West Roman state- at various points the West Romans could have succeeded in stopping the barbarion advance but because of bad luck or bad decisions failed to do so. His tale is one of the sudden erosion of a tax base upon which a proffessional army depended- every invasion by a barbarion army to acquire a piece of the empire left the empire weaker than before to respond to the next one. Particularly significant was the crossing of the meditereanean by the Vandals in 429AD and their conquest of the province of Africa: Africa had been the hinterland of the Western Empire, supplying the rest of it with tax revenues and grain, once it had fallen to barbarion depredations- there was no area of the West that was not a frontier and not under pressure.

From there on, Ward Perkins supplies a narrative of collapse. His barbarions invaded in order to acquire the fruits of economic sophistication- to join the Roman system. They actually ended up destroying it. The economy never recovered its vitality or sophistication and as it lurched into the seventh century, various areas in the West had regressed to a level of sophistication last seen in the Bronze Age. The archaeological evidence presented is definitely impressive- from the fall off in pottery production, to the loss of trade networks, the end of graffitti and the end of the tiled roof, what Ward Perkins indicates is a massive loss in living standards for the European population. Based on the record, he also infers a loss in population concommitant with that- though as the population left fewer material artifacts the exact loss can't be quantified.

Ward Perkins's book is definitely a useful corrective to anyone who argues that the decline of the Western Empire was a painless transition. As in a joint interview with Peter Heather (who has also written a recent book about Rome which will be referred to later and which I read just before beggining this blog) he muses- the main thrust of the book's argument is to concentrate upon this perspective. Ward Perkins shows what happened to the Roman empire after the invasion of the barbarians was horrible- the decline in economic sophistication was mirrored in his view by mass confiscations of land and ethnic tensions that persisted for at least a couple of generations.

This book like all books about Rome is limited by its viewpoint. We are seeing the Roman empire from the West, most recent scholarship has concentrated on the East of the empire and in particular the Levant and Egypt, Ward Perkins therefore is a useful corrective. But anyone who hasn't read say Peter Brown's Word of Late Antiquity ought to supplement this book with it, the story of the empire was a story of Constantinople as well as Rome. Again the empire's destruction involved other peoples. Peter Heather, referred to above, in his account concentrates far more on outside the empire to explain what happened. If Ward Perkins makes sense of how the empire collapsed- the loss of tax revenue- then Heather has a much more interesting account of why. Heather postulates that the West was denuded of troops to meet the growing Persian threat in the East and that just as in Byzantium with the Islamic invasions, so in Rome with the German the Empire was caught out by the swift development of peoples outside the empire. The Goths the Romans faced in the fourth century were a much more sophisticated people than the Germans they had faced in the 1st Century.

Ward Perkins's vista therefore is limited to an interior view of the Western Empire. His other limit is that there is very little cultural history here- again this is a useful corrective to histories which have prioritised the cultural in recent years. But in order for a general reader to get a sense of what the Roman empire's collapse felt like to the average Roman, it is well worth reading about the role of saints, the importance of the Church and growing internecine conflict between Christians and pagans that continued through fourth century.

Despite this, what Ward Perkins has provided us with is an up to date and sophisticated account of the impact on the West Roman empire of the barbarion invasions of the fourth and fifth centuries- this is an excellent book. It has its limitations but there are few books about Rome which don't- what it does is capture the importance of the networks of economic sophistication in the ancient meditereanean and the speed of collapse once they were removed. One can almost feel the shock of specialised workers as their industries closed thanks to lack of trade and they were forced back onto the land to work as ordinary farmers- this loss and destruction of specialisation is one that haunts a modern society which is even more specialised than the Roman.

Having said that, the situation in the Roman empire remains unique to it. As Edward Gibbon commented at the end of the 18th Century there are plenty of reasons to argue that there is no sdubstantive barbarion threat today- the more immediate threats to our civilisation lie not in the Hunnic horseman but in the nuclear weapon. Having said that if Ward Perkins's account of the Roman collapse describes the effect of a prolonged disruption of trade routes upon the ancient Meditereanean accurately, then we should beware any disruption in our global trade from either nuclear calamity or even protectionist impulse.

This is though not a book about politics but a book about history and its worth bearing in mind how contingent Rome's fall was. As a book about that fall it is a superb reconstruction of what happened in the West, and provides a useful corrective to current historiography- its worth though remembering that this subject is so big that it overflows the confines of any recent book and even from my paltry knowledge I would reccomend at least reading Brown and Heather to supplement the view here. This book was intended after all to supplement their views- and in doing that it succeeds.

5 comments:

james higham said...

...His tale is one of the sudden erosion of a tax base upon which a professional army depended - every invasion by a barbarion army to acquire a piece of the empire left the empire weaker than before to respond to the next one...

The fall of Africa I'd never seen as having such ramifications but a moment's thought shows it clearly did. They perhaps overextended at a time when they hadn't got their act together at home e.g. the US today.

Gracchi said...

Yes I agree its a thought that strikes you and suddenly you can see its importance.

One day I'm going to write a post about US 'imperialism' its something that I find fascinating- there is an economic aspect which is interesting and may be a problem there I'm not qualified to talk about- I think the other fascinating thing is the way that the concept of the frontier is altered by terrorism but actually more by high tech warfare.

However I'm pontificating here thanks for the response

CityUnslicker said...

Nice review of this book. Imust write a review of J.H. Plumb's Hisotry of the world when i finish it. An amazing book, surely one of the greatest works of the modern era.

Hi account og the Roman decline seems to match the one here; albeit in far less detail.

One point ot note is the huge depopulation in barbarian lands; anyone who says the transition was painless really needs ot try to account for this.

Gracchi said...

I haven't read Plumb- he was a great Cambridge historian- the rival of Elton in many ways.

As to his history I have no idea. I suspect its probably based on quite old research about Rome- though certainly good stuff- Plumb would have read the good stuff but it will be stuff that doesn't incorporate more recent research. I definitely would reccomend Peter Brown's World of Late Antiquity if this is an area you are interested in because Brown in a way has a less traditional (so more interesting if you are coming from Plumb) view of the world, Ward Perkins is trying to say that the Brown view is right but that its gone too far and needs to incorporate the traditional collapse narrative too. The best book on Barbarians is probably though I'm willing to be corrected Peter Heather's book on the Goths, and again that will update lots of what's in Plumb.

My feeling is that the account for instance of depopulation is probably not based upon archaeological record, whereas Heather's would be. Plumb will probably though I'm willing to be corrected be using the estimates provided by people like Ammianus Marcellinus the great late Roman historian and the problem with those estimates is that ancient historians are noticably of the one, two, many school of counting.

Sorry to waffle on but I'll be interested in what you say about Plumb more generally- he will be sound and right on most things- but I would just caution that it is quite old and so in various areas, whilst he will have read the best stuff around, he won't obviously be up to speed with modern research- one last thing is that in my own area for instance the seventeenth century, the world Plumb will have known of people like Christopher HIll, is now completely superceded. So there is a line on him.

But I'm looking forward to your review.

Anonymous said...

Mr Ward Perkins corrective to the gentle assimilation model of the early middle ages is long overdue.
He gives us a stark glimpse of the collapse of self-belief,lifestyle, population and standards of living. There is plenty in Michael Grant on the cultural aspects of the late empire and these are not Ward Perkins' main concern.
Although mentioned, the crucial role played by the disastrous decision of a demagogic Constantine to impose Christianity on the Empire and allow this ruthless, self-serving, autocratic religion to divert the energy of Empire to its own ends is insufficiently emphasised. This schismatic,squabbling ,intolerant and destructive faith had the effect of the Taliban on ancient civilistion and successfully diverted its funds and energies and demolished the empire's will to defend and resist.'City of God' says it all!You get the feeling that in the fifth century there wasn't much left to fight for as the civic culture was steadily demolished by an alien religion telling its adherents to abandon the baths,politics and the army,accept their fate and prepare for the next world.