Friday, August 03, 2012

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

This book was supposed to be summertime leisure reading. I make no pretense toward familiarity with the historiography Roman Empire, whether early or late (I know more a 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 archeology) than the realities of the ancient world.

Via http://hnn.us/articles/jim-cullen-review-peter-heathers-empires-and-barbarians-fall-rome-and-birth-europe-oxford-2