Friday, June 12, 2009

Spinning Rome

A couple years ago, while dismantling a piece of contemporary policy-wonkism, Jim McCormick explained Peter Heathers' Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History, and Bryan Ward-Perkins' The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization thusly:
These books summarize the post-WW2 archaeology and literary analysis covering the late Roman and post-Roman periods, and offer a useful corrective to a more recent trend in scholarship which has created a soft-soaped "Late Antiquity" ... in competition to the "Dark Ages" of popular imagination. For these revisionist scholars of the last thirty years, the migration of barbarians into the Roman empire (both eastern and western branches) was both justifiable ("they only wanted the Roman good life") and relatively benign ("they settled in and became staunch allies"). Heather and Ward-Perkins discredit this post-modern, New Age image of the Fall very thoroughly but we shouldn't be surprised if major portions of Western academia and literati will choose to hold onto such a rosy-hued version of Roman/barbarian relations. If only the Romans had been nicer to the barbarians, they'll proclaim, so much unpleasantness could have been avoided.
Recently, David Frum reviewed Adrian Goldworthy's How Rome Fell and also threw in the aforementioned books. He essentially agrees with McCormick:

The prevailing soft multiculturalism of our times has made the phrase “the fall of Rome” a surprisingly controversial one. It’s much preferred to talk about “transformation” rather than “decline and fall.” In this “transformationist” view, the High Classical period of 200 BCE-250 CE subsides gradually, almost imperceptibly into the “Late Antiquity” of CE 350-700. The barbarians did not invade; they migrated. Rome did not fall; it experienced a “fusion” with the new migrants in a “cross-cultural exchange.” (I am quoting here from the catalogue copy of a recent museum exhibition on the arts of Late Antiquity.)

I agree that there is a tangible post-modern influence upon the cultural equivalency revision from "invasion" to "accommodation". But both Frum and McCormick engage in oversimplification and caricature of the relevant--particularly recent--historiography to comment on contemporary times (McCormick more directly than Frum) . I'll stick with Ward-Perkins and Heather directly, who have more accurate analysis and assessment of the historiography (extended and edited excerpt):

HEATHER: The old view was essentially that internal decline had destroyed its capacity to resist: moral decadence, depopulation, lead poisoning, the debilitating effects of its recent conversion to Christianity, or another internal cause of your choice. It is important to remember that the Empire had always had important limitations....But all of this had always been true, and won’t explain the catastrophic collapse of the fifth century. In my view, the roots of collapse have to be sought in the outside world, among the barbarians. I should say that I use ‘barbarian’ here only in the sense of ‘outsider’ (one of its Roman connotations).


I am entirely convinced by all the evidence that shows that the late Empire was not being torn apart by irrevocable processes of decline by the fourth century. Where I do part company with some revisionist scholarship, however, is over the argument that, because some Roman institutions ideologies and elites survived beyond 476, therefore the fall of the western Empire was not a revolutionary moment in European history. The most influential statement of this, perhaps, is Walter Goffart’s brilliant aphorism that the fall of the Western Empire was just ‘an imaginative experiment that got a little out of hand’. Goffart means that changes in Roman policy towards the barbarians led to the emergence of the successor states, dependent on barbarian military power and incorporating Roman institutions, and that the process which brought this out was not a particularly violent one.

To my mind, this view of the end of the Western Empire is deeply mistaken. Surely, there were plenty of Roman elements in the successor states, but one key institution was missing: the central authority structure of the Western Roman Empire itself. This had unified much of Western Europe for 500 years, but by 500 AD, had entirely ceased to exist.

WARD-PERKINS: When it comes to explaining the fall of the Western Roman Empire, we both believe that a series of unfortunate events was central to the story. Events (such as the arrival of the Huns), and chance play bigger parts in both our accounts, than deep structural weaknesses. I even argue that the eastern Roman Empire, which survived until Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, was saved, not because it was structurally stronger than the West, but mainly because it happened to have been dealt a favourable geographical hand. A thin band of sea separated and protected the heartlands of eastern prosperity (in Asia Minor and the Near East) from the barbarian-infested Balkans.

It is interesting that both of us should prioritize events and chance over structural change, because this seems to be the way that historians are moving right across the spectrum of historical thought. When I was a student, in the early seventies, we were all into profound structural changes, that swept people along inexorably; and we viewed events as banal and superficial. Nowadays (and probably it is just another fashion), individuals and concatenations of events, all of which might have gone differently, are seen as central to human history. In theory at least, according to modern thinking, I might be writing this sentence, not in England, but in a still-extant province of Britannia – if a few things had only gone better in the fifth century.

HEATHER: Here, there’s maybe a bit of difference between us because I do believe in the importance of structural change outside the Empire. It’s the argument I start to develop in the last chapter of my book, but much more elsewhere, namely that having to co-exist with a large and aggressive Empire pushes neighbouring populations into processes of socio-economic and political change, the end result of which is to generate societies more capable of parrying the Empire that started everything off. There is, in other words, a kind of Newton’s Third Law: to every Empire there is an opposite and equal reaction which undermines the preponderance of power in one locality on which the original Empire was based. This, in my view, is what happens in spades in the Near East with the Sassanians, and is already happening in important ways in non-Roman Europe, when the Huns come along to generate a precocious unity among the Germani. But, given enough time, the Germani might have got there anyway!

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