Book Reviews

Book Reviews (1)

BOOKS ON THE FALL OF ROME 2005-2013

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Introduction. 

 
Ever since Edward Gibbon produced his monumental historical masterpiece, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, between 1776 and 1788, there has been no shortage of interest, and equally no shortage of writing in most European countries, on this arresting and haunting subject. For Britons of the Nineteenth and the first half of the Twentieth Century, for whom the future prosperity of the British Empire was an expectation and whose governors and administrators had been steeped in the culture of Greece and Rome the better to prepare them to exercise the duties of the "whiteman's burden", the apparent lessons of Gibbon's classic were a sober warning as to the possible perils ahead with regard to our imperial destiny.

For Gibbon, the barbarian invaders who progressively occupied the Western parts of the Roman Empire during the Fifth Century A.D. only gave the finishing push to a structure which was already hopelessly rotten from within: 

"The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight. The story of its ruin is simple and obvious; and, instead of inquiring why the Roman empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long." (From Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume 1V.)

Thus, in Gibbon's view, the German barbarians whose successor kingdoms had successfully occupied all the previous domains of the Western Roman Empire by 476 A.D., had only a 'walk-on' part in the unfolding drama. The real reasons for the Empire's demise lay beneath: for Gibbon, these were the consequences of a long process of decline in moral virtue, the direct obverse of the outstanding moral virtues which in the view of the Second Century B.C. Greek historian Polybius had been the cause of Rome's rise to predominance in the first place; and the enervating effects of the recently adopted Christian religion, whose otherworldly, drop-out, fatalistic, and pacifistic value-system had grievously undermined the Romans' capacity to resist, and whose inexplicable doctrinal disputes sowed the seeds of serious internal divisions. Of course, Gibbon's conclusions, despite the majestic prose in which they were written, have been intensely controversial, not least his views on the dysfunctional consequences of Christianity. These are to be explained to some extent by his position as a product of the Eighteenth Century Enlightenment, but they have no doubt been far from welcome to the many committed Christians of succeeding generations, not least to the zealous missionaries who set out to convert the pagan populations of the British Empire.

Since Gibbon's time, the argument about the cause of the downfall of the Roman Empire in Western Europe has raged, with very little agreement. While no one has ever seriously argued that the barbarians played no part in the process, it has also been widely felt that such a powerful structure as the Roman Empire constituted could hardly have been destroyed in the absence of critical internal flaws, particularly when the immigrant groups themselves constituted such a small proportion (perhaps 4 %) of the populations which they conquered. But, while the argument in favour of the decisiveness of internal factors has continued to enjoy widespread support post-Gibbon, a plethora of different causes have been advanced, stretching from social and economic factors, particularly evident during the times of significant Marxist influence, to those relating to environmental factors, such as significant climate change, leading to agricultural decline and depopulation. One obvious factor, however, has always stood in the way of those seeking to emphasise the significance of internal weaknesses, whether moral, socio-economic or environmental: that is the undoubted fact that the Roman Empire was to survive in the East until 1453 A.D. and, even if for most of this time it was in the form of the somewhat alien Byzantine Empire, it existed as a recognisably Late Roman structure for at least 150 years following the end of empire in the West, and indeed during the Sixth Century it managed under the leadership of the Emperor Justinian to reconquer for a time Africa, Sicily, Italy and South-East Spain. Since the Roman Empire in the East must logically have suffered from all the same flaws or weaknesses as its Western counterpart, it has therefore seemed to many that the threat posed by the barbarian invaders must have been the decisive cause of its downfall. This point of view was graphically stated by the French historian Andre Piganiol, who concluded his consideration of the causes of the ruin of Rome with these memorable words:

"Roman civilisation did not die a natural death. It was murdered."
(From A.Piganiol, L'Empire Chretien, 1947.)

The dilemma created by the survival of the Eastern Roman Empire seemed to have been resolved by Professor A.H.M. Jones in his magisterial work, The Later Roman Empire: A Social, Economic and Administrative Survey, in three volumes (1964). On the basis of primary written sources alone, mostly legal, Jones concluded that the high rates of tax, which had been imposed to meet the additional military costs necessary to defend the Empire against both the Persians in the East and the barbarian threat on the Rhine/Danube frontier, had from the late Third Century progressively crippled the Roman economy. The effects of this were that the peasantry, after meeting the costs of their rent and taxes, were left with insufficient food to feed themselves and their families, and in consequence both population and agricultural production, and also the ability to recruit soldiers, all declined significantly. While Jones thought this overtaxation affected both parts of the Roman Empire, he believed that it was less critical in the East because of its relatively greater prosperity. In the West, however, its consequences were disastrous.

However, any chance that Jones' conclusions might create a degree of consensus around the subject of the fall of the Empire in the West were dashed shortly afterwards by the increasing realisation of the significance behind the findings, published by the French archaeologist Georges Tchalenko in the late 1950s, following his exhaustive investigation of the apparently prosperous and densely spread Late Roman villages in the limestone hills of North Syria in the hinterland of the metropolis of Antioch. The prosperity of these villages, based on the commercial production of olive oil, allowed the flourishing population to build both stone houses for themselves and also sizeable public buildings, and this ancient  population reached levels higher than anything achieved subsequently. Furthermore, while this prosperity arose in the latter part of the Third and the early Fourth Century, the archaeological evidence showed that it continued unabated into the Fifth, Sixth, and even the Seventh centuries. This exciting finding appeared to contradict Jones' belief that agricultural production had been seriously damaged by the levels of taxation imposed by the Later Roman state. Following Tchalenko's work, a number of field surveys carried out in other areas of the Empire showed that, far from North Syria being an exception, many other provinces saw a similar intensification of agricultural output and a resultant growth in prosperity. These areas included Roman North Africa and Libya, Greece, what is now the Negev Desert in Palestine, Spain and Southern Gaul. Furthermore, the population of Britain in the Fourth Century, when significant exports of corn were being exported to the Roman army on the Rhine, reached a level which it was not to see again until the Fourteenth Century. As a result it became clear that Jones' thesis could no longer be sustained.

Following the realisation of the much higher levels of prosperity in the Later Roman world of the Fourth and Fifth Centuries than had previously been thought to have been the case, there has also developed a growing tendency to question whether words like 'decline' and 'fall', and even 'decay' are relevant to the circumstances of what actually occurred in Western Europe during this time, and it has become fashionable to prefer words such as 'transformation', 'transition' and 'evolution' to describe the changes instead. This view was initiated by Peter Brown in his ground-breaking and very influential book, The World of Late Antiquity, 1971, in which he was able to draw attention to the very significant literary, intellectual, artistic and architectural achievements of the period 200-700, which he heralded by the name of 'Late Antiquity'. Subsequently, it has been suggested by Walter Goffart in his book,Barbarians and Romans AD 418-584: The Techniques of Accommodation, that the Romans actually decided at some point in the Fifth Century to allow certain German tribes to settle within the boundaries of the Empire and, in exchange for land, to become in effect a large part of the Romans' defence force. In consequence, Goffart asserts that it is more appropriate to talk of incorporating barbarian protectors into the fabric of the Empire rather than of invasion. Although he acknowledges that the final outcome was not what the Empire had envisaged, he sees what happened not as an invasion but as "an imaginative experiment that got a little out of hand". While Goffart's conclusions take the argument for transition rather than violent change somewhat further than most promoters of this school of thought would accept, its proponents held the field for some years at the end of the Twentieth Century. Furthermore, the well funded European Science Foundation's 'Transformation of the Roman World' project of the 1990s, which led to the publication of a stream of specialist articles on aspects of the period 300-800, appears to have had an underlying agenda of wishing to portray the events of the Fifth Century as signifying change rather than decline or decay.

Nevertheless, this emollient view of what historians of previous periods had almost universally portrayed as a catastrophe for the countries of the Western Roman Empire, and indeed for European civilisation as a whole, has never been accepted by all contemporary historians of this period. In 2005 two books were published which contradicted the more cosy notions of the 'transformation' school. These were The Fall of the Roman Empire by Peter Heather and The Fall of Rome by Bryan Ward-Perkins; both of these came down much closer to the viewpoint of Andre Piganiol. Following these two books there has been a steady stream of publications on the subject or incorporating it. The rest of this article provides a review of these books and an indication of where the respective authors stand on the causes of the end of the Roman Empire in the West.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

1)  Peter Heather, "The Fall of the Roman Empire", Macmillan, 2005.

In the writing of this long and comprehensive account of the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, Peter Heather has brought to bear his very considerable expertise both on the Later Roman world and on the development of the barbarians living in the area of North Central Europe. From the outset he makes it clear that he views with some scepticism the idea that it was internal flaws rather than invasion from without that were principally responsible for the end of the Western Empire in 476 A.D. While he draws the reader's attention to the amount of research on Late Antiquity which has been published in recent years, he points out that much of this is on very specialised subjects, and, as he makes clear at the outset, he thinks that narrative history is essential, both to avoid fragmentation and to make overall sense of the various discoveries that have been made. Such a narrative history covering the events which led to the end of empire in the West is the task he sets himself in this book.

The book is divided into three parts. The first section provides an analysis of the situation on both sides of the Rhine/Danube border in the Third and Fourth Centuries, which he believes it is essential to appreciate if one is to understand what happened later. The four chapters of the middle section are principally composed of the narrative of the events which led to the denouement of 476, but into this narrative Heather interjects some important analytical passages which highlight the significance of events which he sees as critical to an understanding of the outcome. The final section of the book deals with the end of empires, both of the Huns and of the West Romans, and, while Heather portrays this as narrative too, in reality it contains a thorough summary of his thinking on the subject of the fall of Rome. I now highlight areas of the book where I believe Heather has made an outstanding contribution to an understanding of this subject matter, and where his explanations make sense of matters which have previously seemed opaque.

Part One: Pax Romana

In his thorough review of the state of affairs in the German 'barbaricum' to the east of the Rhine in the four hundred years before the collapse of the Western Empire, Heather puts forward a most convincing explanation as to why the Romans made no further efforts after the reign of the Augustus (27 B.C.-14 A.D.) to conquer Germany east of the Rhine. While German historians of the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century, eager to highlight the martial capabilities of the Teutonic race and to create foundation myths for their newly established nation state, were clear that the termination of the Empire on the Rhine was the result of the heroic resistance of their ancestors, Heather believes that the reasons were very different from this. For logistical reasons it was always likely, he says, that the boundaries of the Empire would be fixed along the banks of a river, and, although Germany contains a number of north-south rivers that could have been used for this purpose, the Rhine had the great advantage of being linked to the Mediterranean via the Rhone, a relatively short portage, and the Moselle. At the same time, he points out that the real reason why the Roman Empire stopped at the Rhine was related to the different levels of social and economic development of Europe prior to the arrival of the Romans. In his view imperial expansion ground to a halt in the intermediate zone between the La Tene and Jastorf cultures. While La Tene Europe had larger settlements and produced sufficient food surpluses to allow it to support non-agricultural castes, i.e. warriors, priests and artisans, Jastorf Europe operated at a much starker level of subsistence, concentrated mainly on pastoral farming and produced much less food surplus. In short the Romans did not seek to colonise Germany east of the Rhine because its conquest would not have been economically worthwhile.

The conclusion Heather reaches with regard to the practical reasons behind the limits to imperial expansion in Germany were the result of relatively recent archaeological discoveries, which were not of course available to historians of previous times. Equally, archaeology has provided important insights into our knowledge of the transformation of Germanic Europe between the time of Augustus and the subsequent four hundred years. In this context, Heather also sets out very clearly how significant improvements in the Germans' agricultural techniques produced huge increases in food supply, which in turn led to a very significant increase in the population of Central Europe east of the Rhine and the growth of much larger settlements. The excavation of cemetery sites has shown a dramatic rise in burial numbers during these centuries. At the same time this period saw the growth of metal and glass production in Germania, and the wealth created by this economic revolution led to the rise of a very wealthy elite class, in which power became hereditary. Furthermore, these elites had armed retinues well supplied with weapons acquired through trade with the Roman Empire. The consequence of all this development, as Heather points out, was that the threat provided by Germania had increased exponentially since the Empire had been established. In the light of this picture which archaeological research has established, it is much harder now to downplay the significance of the barbarian invasions.

Another area relevant to our considerations, which Heather has, I believe, helped to explain, is how the recently acquired evidence of the economic prosperity of much of the Roman world in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries is not incompatible with the literary evidence which led A.H.M. Jones, amongst many others to consider that the peasantry was being taxed to extinction. He points out that the laws enforcing agricultural labourers to remain on their holdings could only have been enforceable in circumstances where population levels were relatively high, and that references in the laws to 'agri deserti', which had previously been thought to denote abandoned arable land, and therefore to prove that both agricultural production and rural populations were declining, was probably referring only to marginal land which had never been cultivated in the first place. Heather also suggests that higher taxation may actually have led to increased agricultural production, since it gave peasant farmers an incentive to avoid the 'slack' which usually arose when they had produced enough crop to pay for their rent and taxes and to meet the immediate subsistence needs of themselves and their families. Also relevant to the issue of alleged economic decline is the disappearance of inscriptions on public buildings from the middle of the Third Century. While this has traditionally been taken as evidence of the sharp decline in the wealth of the provincial aristocracy, Heather argues that, following the confiscation of the proceeds of local endowments and estates by the central government as a part of its response to the Persian crisis (Heather believes that this was done in the middle of the Third Century rather than in the reign of Diocletian, as previously thought), local landowners largely ceased to endow public buildings as a means of competing for local power, since the purpose of the competition had ceased, but instead competed eagerly for posts in the increasing state bureaucracy in the various metropolitan centres where the government offices were based. At the same time they tended to build villas on their rural estates or houses in the provincial capitals instead of endowing buildings in their home towns, a practice which may help to explain why these metropolitan centres appear to have expanded while the smaller towns and cities declined somewhat. At all events Heather believes that the previous consensus around the decline of both the curial classes and the peasantry from the middle of the Third Century was erroneous. On the contrary, archaeological evidence now suggests that much of the Roman world was flourishing economically right up to the period of the barbarian invasions.

Heather also takes issue with the view that the adoption of Christianity had weakened the state. While he accepts that Christianity may have caused a cultural revolution, he can see no evidence that it had dysfunctional consequences for the workings of the Empire. While the Christian church may have received large financial endowments from the state, so had the previous pagan cults, and the manpower lost to the cloister was, in his view, hardly significant in comparison with the rising population numbers. At the same time the number of aristocrats renouncing their wealthy lifestyle was very much less than the number of Christians actively seeking positions in the imperial bureaucracy. In Heather's view, Christianity and the state achieved an ideological rapprochement, in which the Christian God had displaced the old Roman pantheon, but this god continued to support the destiny of Rome, and the values of the Church emphasised the unity of  the Roman world around God and the Emperor, and expressed full confidence in the social order. Furthermore, Heather can find no evidence that doctrinal disputes caused any damage to the functioning of the state. Such divisions as they caused were mainly within the ranks of the bishops.

Heather completes this first section of the book with a statement of the balance sheet of the Roman Empire in the Fourth Century. He sees it as a phenomenon of enormous power in which its subjugated peoples had internalised the values of Rome and its way of life. Its drawbacks included travelling distances, primitive communications, that the government was mainly reactive (except with regard to taxation), and that only a small number of people, say 5%, were benefiting from its existence. However, there was absolutely no sign in the Fourth Century of its collapse, and the fifty year military, financial, political and bureaucratic transformation of the Empire from 250 to 300 had allowed it to see off the Persian threat and to adjust to the issues arising from 300 years of evolution. Despite the rigidity and slow moving nature of the imperial bureaucracy, the Roman Empire was still a success story in the Fourth Century, its economy was flourishing and its landowners were keen to fill the officers of state and contribute to the processes of government. 

Part Two: Crisis

The four mainly narrative chapters of the central section of the book give an excellent and coherent account of the events leading up to the collapse of the Western Empire, but in view of their nature they contain perhaps a little less original or thought-provoking content than the previous section. However, some points emerge as of particular interest in this section too. While it is a generally accepted fact that the Huns, by moving into the area of the Caucasus, provided the motive force which impelled the Gothic Tervingi and Greuthungi across the Danube in 376, Heather has developed the theory that they had moved again, this time on to the Great Hungarian Plain by 405-10, and that they were were therefore behind the decision of the combined group of Hasding Vandals, Siling Vandals, Sueves and Alans to cross the frozen Rhine on the last day of 406. By way of strengthening this argument, Heather points to the fact that there were three other incursions into the Empire around this time: the invasion of Italy by Radagaisus' Gothic horde in 405-06; the ill-fated attack by Uldin with a group of Huns in 408-09; and the migration of the Burgundians to the Rhine frontier by 411. These separate incursions are not usually linked, but Heather convincingly suggests that they all arose from a desire to escape the pressure created by this further westward movement by the Huns. This is important for him, because it is a central contention of this book that the crossing of the Danube by the Goths in 376, and the Rhine crossing of the Vandalic federation in 406, were eventually to prove mortal wounds to the Western Empire; thus the Huns were a very significant, if indirect, cause of its demise.

Another point of interest in this section of the book is Heather's suggested explanation for the policies of Stilicho in the year leading to his fall and execution in 408. Stilicho has enjoyed a mixed appraisal from historians over the years. For some he has appeared as misguided, if not disloyal in his apparent links with Alaric, and his decision to pick a quarrel with the Eastern Empire in 408 about the control of the Illyrican provinces of Dacia and Macedonia, which had been transferred to the East in 395, has appeared with hindsight to have been unwise to the point of being suicidal. To others, however, Stilicho has been seen as a heroic figure who against all the odds sustained the fortunes of the Western Empire from 395 to 408; for those of this persuasion the way in which the fortunes of the Western Empire were to nose-dive from the point of his death, culminating in the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410, has appeared to vindicate, albeit posthumously, Stilicho's reputation. Nevertheless, even for supporters of Stilicho, his plan to go to war with Constantinople in 408 has been hard to explain. Heather suggests, however, that it made very good sense. Stilicho was faced with the uncomfortable fact that the Vandalic federation was roaming around Gaul, looting and pillaging, almost at will, and the usurper Constantine III had recently come over to Gaul from Britain and had taken control of much of Gaul and Spain. To confront these two threats to the Western Empire he was proposing to employ the 20,000 strong army of Alaric's Visigoths. Although Alaric had occupied lands in Illyricum since 397, these lands were legally in the domain of the Eastern emperor, and Alaric's conditions for intervening in Gaul on behalf of the Western Empire was to have his right to these lands regularised by a treaty. Since these lands were not in the possession of the Western Empire, Stilicho was not in a position to meet Alaric's condition, and so Stilicho wished to have the relevant provinces returned to the Western Empire. How far Heather's hypothesis here is correct will never be known, but it seems convincing.

A third area of interest which arises from these narrative chapters is the degree of emphasis which Heather quite rightly gives to the significance of the capture of Carthage and the central provinces of Roman North Africa, Proconsularis and Byzacena, by the Vandal king, Geiseric, in 439. Both at the time and with hindsight this loss must have been seen as a terrible disaster for the Western Empire, since its African revenues were crucial to its financial solvency. Previous loss of land and the damage done to many areas of the Western Empire, arising from the depredations of the barbarians, had already reduced its tax-take, and, in consequence, its ability to recruit soldiers or pay for mercenaries. The loss of this important source of income just made a bad situation a whole lot worse for the Western Empire, and set up a downward spiral, from which, unless Africa could be recovered from the Vandals, it would never be able to escape, as its reducing income would lead to reducing military capacity and increasing losses of territory. The significance of this was not lost on Aetius, the generalissimo of the Western Empire, who, as Heather sets out very well, had done so much to hold things together in the 430s. With the assistance of the Eastern Empire, Aetius had assembled a large force on the island of Sicily at the beginning of 441, and was preparing to cross over to Africa to confront the Vandals and take back the stolen provinces. But at that very moment the Huns, possibly at Geiseric's instigation, launched a devastating attack on the Balkans and the Eastern Empire was forced to withdraw its troops from the expedition. As a result Aetius was forced to come to terms with Geiseric in 442; the Vandals kept Carthage and the central provinces and the prospects of the Western Empire consequently worsened critically. It must have been clear to all that the West still needed to reconquer Africa if it was to ever to flourish again, but the fearful Hunnic invasions of the Balkans in 441-42 and 447, of Gaul in 451 and of Italy in 452 made such action impossible, and then in 454 Aetius was murdered by his own emperor. Nevertheless two more attempts were made to recover Africa: in 461 by the Western Emperor Majorian, and by a huge force assembled by both parts of the Empire in 468. However, due to a mixture of misfortune, incompetence and cunning on the part of Geiseric, both of these attempts failed disastrously, and after 468 neither part of the Empire had the resources to mount a further attack. As Heather explains so well, this was effectively the end for the Western Empire, and, although it lingered on until 476, it was almost completely impotent. However, if any of the three abortive expeditions had succeeded, as Belisarius' expedition from Constantinople was to succeed so triumphantly in 533, the outcome for the Western Empire could have been very different indeed. Many histories of the Fifth Century, while reporting the loss of Carthage in 439, have failed to bring out its fatal significance. It is one of the virtues of this book, however, that Heather has underlined its importance so clearly.

Part Three: Fall of empires

The third and final section of the book covers the facts behind the collapse of the Hunnic empire following Attila's death in 453, and then of the Western Empire itself in 476. Then in the last chapter of the book Heather summarises his thinking about what the fall of the Empire actually involved and what it signified.

With regard to the disintegration of Attila' s empire, the traditional view has been that after the defeat of the Huns by the Gepids at the battle of the Nedao in 453, the Hunnic empire immediately dissolved. Heather argues that this was untrue and that Attila's sons continued to exercise a degree of authority over other subject tribes and to mount raids for some time, but he agrees that by 469 at the latest all Hunnic sway north of the Danube had disappeared. However, as he shows, this did not provide a respite for the Roman Empire, since the chaotic and increasingly competitive conditions on the Great Hungarian Plain encouraged a number of tribes to try their fortunes within the boundaries of the Empire. One of these tribes, the Sciri, defeated in the internecine conflicts which had broken out, offered its swords to the Western Empire in return for pay, and in due course its leader Odovacar decided in 476 to take over from his paymaster and declare himself king of Italy. Heather shows that, paradoxically, the break-up of the Hunnic empire, far from providing the Western Empire with a breathing space, caused a destabilisation that accelerated its demise.


With regard to the end of empire, Heather seeks to show what was lost and, with regard to all the recent emphasis on transition, what remained. In order to deal with this question, he makes the distinction between 'Central Romanness', which, in his view, came to an end in the West, and 'Local Romanness', which remained for a time. With regard to the former, Heather states that what ended in 476 was the attempt to maintain the Western Roman Empire as " an overarching, supra-regional political structure". The Roman state had involved an emperor, court, bureaucracy, a tax-raising system, a professional army and legal structures which protected provincial Roman landowners. All this disappeared. Summarising the arguments which he has advanced at earlier points in the book, Heather writes that: "In my view it is impossible to escape the fact that the western Empire broke up because too many outside groups established themselves on its territories and expanded their holdings by warfare." On the other hand, while Roman culture in Britain, and perhaps in parts of North-East Gaul, was to disappear completely, Heather accepts that established forms of provincial life did not disappear so suddenly or so totally elsewhere. In Gaul south of the Loire, Spain and Italy, a laity literate in Latin, villas, towns and more complex forms of economic production all survived to some degree on the back of the landowning aristocratic class, which reached an accommodation with the new kingdoms, and indeed contributed to their running in return for the protection of their lands and status. This is what Heather means by 'Local Romanness'. However, while he agrees that traditional concepts such as cataclysm and 'the Dark Ages' were a considerable exaggeration, he does not think that it is right to take a minimalist view of the significance of the end of empire in the West. Even in areas where the concept of 'Romania' continued to exercise some influence, significant cultural change occurred. For instance, as the need for literacy among laymen declined, the old emphasis upon the need for a high level of education among the elite declined, and it became more important for provincial aristocrats to build up armed retinues; also the Christian church, previously obedient to the wishes of emperors, broke up into 'Christian microcosms' based upon the new kingdoms, and having very little contact between each other. For these and other reasons, Heather distances himself distinctly from the more recent emphases upon continuity and evolution, and believes that the downfall of the Western Empire did signify large scale disruption and change, much of it not pointing in a positive direction.

In the final two sections of the book, Heather repeats his earlier points that Gibbon's emphasis on moral decay is contradicted by the survival of the Empire in the East, and that A.H.M. Jones' theory that overtaxation of the peasantry destroyed the economy in the West is clearly disproved by the archaeological evidence of Tchalenko and subsequent field surveys. While he accepts that internal weaknesses had some part to play in the unfolding of events, he emphasises the exogenous shock of the barbarian invasions as of much greater significance. Although it has been common to emphasise the relatively small number of barbarian invaders, Heather argues that the total number of these involved around 110-120,000 armed outsiders, when totalled together, and that, when this number is compared with the field army of  80-90,000 available to the Western Empire in 420 according to the 'Notitia Dignitatum', the invaders clearly outnumbered them. While this disparity was hidden initially because of the invaders' disunity, it was to prove crucial as the Fifth Century progressed. Local landowners were progressively compelled to reach an accommodation with the invaders, and instability within the Empire gave the latter the chance to advance their interests. But Heather is adamant that, while internal factors were important, they did not play a primary part in the collapse, because it cannot be demonstrated how the imperial edifice would have crumbled without these external military assaults. Heather points out that in the Fourth Century control over Britain was re-established, and in the 440s rebellion in Armorica was put down, in both cases with relatively small armies. To explain how the Empire would have fallen from within, Heather argues that a critical number of areas would have had to rebel simultaneously and carry the local army contingents with them. This, he believes, was not going to have happened. In  his view it was the barbarians who caused the collapse.

However, right at the end of the book, Heather strikes an original note of his own. In relation to the components of this fatal exogenous shock, he states that there were two: the Huns who generated it, and the German groups that delivered it. But Heather points out that the fact that, even before the invasions, the Germans had learned to amalgamate themselves into larger federate groupings, whether to make their border raids more effective or to protect themselves against Roman aggression, was a crucial factor, and he emphasises that once inside the Empire this tendency accelerated for the same reasons. Thus he concludes: "The Roman Empire had sown the seeds of its own destruction, therefore, not because of internal weaknesses that had evolved over the centuries, nor because of new ones evolved, but as a consequence of its relationship with the Germanic world .... The west Roman state fell not because of the weight of its own 'stupendous fabric', but because its Germanic neighbours had responded in ways that the Romans could never have foreseen ... By virtue of its own unbounded aggression, Roman imperialism was ultimately responsible for its own destruction."

I cannot conclude the review of this book without a brief reference to some surprising flaws in its content, which, while not perhaps of major significance, have caused me some surprise. The first is the way in which the maps which it contains are often imperfectly coordinated with their adjacent texts or contain errors. For instance Map 4 on p.81 highlights both the areas of Cernjachov culture and Cernjachov glass finds without there being any reference to Cernjachov culture in the text on this page, and indeed there is no reference to Cernjachov culture at all until p.199, i.e. over a hundred pages further on. It is similarly disconcerting that, when one eventually does get to this reference, together with a mention of the older Przework culture on p.199, one is specifically referred to Map 7 on page 193. Yet, when one turns to this map, there is no mention of either culture. Another concern is the failure of maps to include the locations of places highlighted in the adjacent text, which they are intended to illustrate. This criticism applies to Map 3 on p.61, which fails to show either Carrhae or Hatra, despite the text on p.60 specifically referring the reader to them in respect of this map; to Map 6 on p.169, which fails to indicate the location of any of the six towns in the area south of the Danube specifically mentioned in relation to it on p.172; and to some extent to Map 11 on p.310, which does not show Nicopolis ad Istrum, despite the attention given to its destruction by Attila in the adjacent page. The maps also include at least two inaccuracies. On both Map 6 and Map 11, which are mentioned above, the mountain range marked as the Julian Alps is in fact the Dinaric Alps, and on Map 6 this is despite the fact that the reader's attention has been specifically drawn to the Dinaric Alps on the adjacent page. (The Julian Alps is, of course, a mountain range adjacent to North-East Italy and Slovenia.) Another inaccuracy - this time presumably an editorial error - is the reference on p.264 to Map 8, when Map 9 is clearly intended. While these inadequacies which I have highlighted with regard to its maps are disappointing, more surprising are some factual errors. On p.66 there are two: firstly it is stated that the Emperor Valerian was captured by the Persians in 259, when June 260 is the generally accepted date; and secondly it is stated that the so-called 'Gallic Empire' existed in Gaul for "the best part of three decades" when in fact less than fifteen years separates the usurpation of Postumus in 260 from the defeat and abdication of Tetricus in 274. More serious than these errors is the very surprising statement on p.273 that following its foundation in the year 814 B.C. the city of Carthage had "spent a fair part of the next seven centuries vying, often violently, with Rome for the mastery of the western Mediterrean". In fact the city of Rome only emerged as a power of any international significance in the Fourth Century B.C. and for most of that century it enjoyed remarkably good relations with Carthage, which perhaps saw Rome as a possible counterweight to its principal enemies at that time, who were the Greeks of Sicily and Southern Italy. Indeed, with all due respect to Virgil and the supposed wishes of Dido, it was only really with the outbreak of the First Punic War in 264 B.C. that Rome and Carthage were to become implacable enemies.

Despite the shortcomings to which the previous paragraph draws attention, I believe Peter Heather's book, The Fall of the Roman Empire to be a masterly work of cogent historical writing, which both sets out the facts leading to this significant event in an engaging and riveting manner, and simultaneously provides the reader with a vivid context of the circumstances relating to the main actors in this drama, both the Romans of the West whose empire was to collapse, and the Germans who were to take over the rule of most of Western Europe and North Africa from them. In the course of this book, and while building up a cumulatively convincing set of arguments, Heather seems to me both to have demonstrated convincingly that the argument that it was the flaws and weaknesses of the Empire that bore the primary responsibility for its downfall is fallacious, and that the recent emphasis on transition and relatively peaceful change in Western Europe is misplaced. Heather believes that the downfall of the Western Empire was principally due to violent assault from without, and that its demise was the precursor of real changes, both political and cultural, which had consequences, not necessarily neutral in their impact, for its former inhabitants. In conclusion, I believe that the quality of Heather's work in this book, and the conclusions which he has reached, should form the benchmark against which the later books on this subject which I shall review can be compared.



2)  Bryan Ward-Perkins, "The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation", Oxford University Press, 2005.

While the first part of this book is most stimulating to read and full of interesting comment with regard to the end of empire in the West, it is perhaps in the second part where Ward-Perkins makes his most distinctive and original contribution to this subject matter. For it is here that he brings to our attention the amount of archaeological evidence which exists to show the extent in the decline in the material prosperity of the inhabitants of the western provinces during the period when the rule of Rome was disappearing.

Before setting out the stark facts about economic decline, Ward-Perkins demonstrates those levels of sophistication which the economy of the Roman Empire possessed. Archaeological findings have shown that trade and manufacturing industry benefited not just the social elite but large sections of the middle and lower parts of the Roman class structure. The most telling evidence comes from pottery, which includes functional kitchenware used in the preparation of food, fine tableware for the presentation of food, and the large amphorae used for the storage of wine and olive-oil. This pottery is remarkable, he tells us, for three reasons: its excellent quality and high degree of standardisation; its massive levels of production; and its widespread diffusion, both geographically and socially. The manufacture of tableware during imperial times was dominated by a few major producers operating on a vast scale via major logistical networks. Ward-Perkins also emphasises the extent  to which Roman houses, involving the whole range of social classes, were roofed with tiles, and like pottery this also required considerable complexity both in production and distribution. From the extent of the archaeological evidence, it is now clear that these networks of trade and production were driven by profit, not just by the needs of the state, as previously thought, but the state was an important customer, both in relation to the needs of the capital cities of Rome and Constantinople and the need to supply the 500,000 or so soldiers stationed on the Rhine and Danube frontiers and the Persian border in the East. In fact, the distributive efforts of state and private commerce worked together. The African grain ships could have carried African pottery as a secondary cargo, and the number of Italian bricks found at Carthage indicate that these were shipped back to Africa as ballast in what would have been the otherwise empty grain ships.

In the post-Roman West Ward-Perkins is clear that this material sophistication disappeared. Specialised production came to an end, as did long-range distribution. The impressive range of high quality functional goods vanished or was drastically reduced, and the middle and lower class markets disappeared completely. There is no further evidence of decorated tableware, and the kitchenware vessels still being produced were now confined to a few basic shapes. In this context, he also points out that in the East the picture was very different: here the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Centuries saw the appearance and diffusion of new tableware and new types of amphorae to transport wines and olive-oil. A similar decline is evident in the West in relation to building techniques. In Britain all building crafts disappeared in the course of the Fifth Century, and all new buildings were made of wood or other perishable materials, and all were roofed with wood or thatch. In the Mediterranean regions some building in mortared stone or brick survived, but most were not built from newly quarried stone or fired brick but from second-hand materials superficially reshaped to fit new purposes. Roof tiles disappeared from all but elite buildings and floors were usually of beaten earth. As a concomitant feature copper coins became scarcer in Western Europe throughout the Fifth and Sixth Centuries and evidence of them in the Seventh is minimal. Ward-Perkins concludes this dismal survey of post-Roman decline by observing that in Britain the level of economic complexity sank to below that of the pre-Roman Iron Age, and even in Italy where it still remained higher, the degree of economic regression brought economic complexity to  a level below that of the pre-Roman period, i.e. the first half of the First Millennium B.C. By contrast, however, in the Byzantine Empire economic prosperity and complexity continued to develop until 600, when the Persian wars and the Arab invasions occurred. 

In order to analyse the reasons for this dramatic economic decline, Ward-Perkins shows a graph which shows that, while Britain's sophisticated economy disappears from the beginning of the Fifth Century, the economies of North Africa and North and Central Italy go into a much more gradual decline during the Fifth and Sixth Centuries, while in the Eastern Empire both those of the Aegean and of the Levant continue to flourish until 600, when the prosperity of the former came to a dramatic end in the face of the Slav and Avar invasions of the Balkans and then the Persian and Arab invasions. Only the economy of the Levant, together with that of Egypt, maintained its level of prosperity up to 700, since both areas were overrun without prolonged fighting and then became the centre of the new Arab empire based at Damascus.

Looking at these patterns, Ward-Perkins concludes that "a close link between political and economical developments seems unavoidable" (p.129). The disruption and disappearance of the Roman Empire will have hit some areas especially hard - for instance, the frontier zones where troops will have spent their salaries on local produce, and the towns of North Italy that had provided the 'fabricae' for military materials. The end of empire also led to a severe reduction in expenditure on roads, bridges and harbours, which were essential to the maintenance of trade, and the loss of physical security was critical. Above all these factors, however, Ward-Perkins highlights the problems arising for the loss of specialisation as the vital factor in the loss of economic specialisation, since this had destroyed the local skills and the local trade networks, which in pre-Roman times had provided a degree of economic complexity. In consequence, most of the Western world sank to pre-Roman levels of economic sophistication after the barbarian invasions. 

Ward-Perkins then looks at the evidence underpinning what he considers to be the 'death of a civilisation', features which he considers to be beyond the loss of material products. Firstly, he considers it likely that there was a drop in agricultural production and population. Archaeological surveys in the West have found evidence of far fewer rural sites in the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Centuries than in earlier centuries. Although he acknowledges that evidence based on pottery is unreliable, since with wooden houses and friable pottery populations could have existed that are archaeologically 'invisible', on balance he still thinks that a significant population decline is probable. He also argues that there is generally a correlation between increasing sophistication in production and rising population levels. This is because the ability to specialise in agriculture - for instance the olive-oil production in the North Syrian limestone hills - leads both to increasing productivity and an increasing capacity to invest in improvements, such as olive-presses and irrigation and other water-management systems in areas of arable farming. These improvements in turn lead to increasing levels of productivity. When sophistication breaks down, farmers are obliged to revert to more mixed, and therefore less efficient, farming, and the rural population begins to fall. While Ward-Perkins acknowledges that no method of measuring agricultural output during these centuries exists, there is evidence available relating to the changing size of livestock, which is taken from leg bones. It is clear that there was a sharp decline in cattle size, which in early Medieval times, fell back to prehistorical levels, and this reinforces Ward-Perkins' conviction of a marked decline in both agricultural productivity and rural population.

Other aspects of cultural decline to which Ward-Perkins draws our attention, were the marked decline in the size of church buildings during the Sixth, Seventh and most of the Eighth Centuries, and an evident reduction in levels of literacy. In Roman times, high levels of literacy existed not only among the aristocracy and bureaucracy, but also in the army, and, as surviving graffiti and inscriptions from Pompeii, show, literacy among the lower classes was widespread as well. In addition most of the provinces of the West would have lost the facility of a copper coinage, and such commerce as still survived would have had to be conducted on the basis of barter. He concludes that the transition from Roman to post-Roman times was a dramatic movement away from sophistication towards much greater simplicity.

In the final chapter of this book Ward-Perkins evaluates the views of the 'transformation school'. He notes that these views are strong in North Europe and North America, and that the research sponsored by the European Science Foundation in the 1990s has had evident political reasons to to seek to see the events of Late Antiquity as a more consensual process than previously believed. the main focus of the 'transformation school' has been upon intellectual and religious aspects, and not upon details of material life. He expresses concern that economic history has become very unfashionable since the decline in the attraction of Marxism. While he does think that the concept of 'Late Antiquity' is a helpful correction to misleading connotations about the 'Medieval' or 'Dark Ages', he thinks that reluctance to use  the word 'civilisation' because it might denote moral superiority over other cultures, or the word 'decline' because it might involve the need for someone to be blamed, are inappropriate. In his view, a vision of the past in which there is no 'downward turns' just does not fit the evidence. Indeed, Ward-Perkins concludes emphatically that the Fifth Century witnessed a "profound military and political crisis, caused by the violent seizure of power and much wealth by barbarian marauders ... The post-Roman centuries saw a dramatic decline in economic sophistication and prosperity with an impact on the whole of society, from agricultural production to high culture, and from peasants to kings' (p.183).

In conclusion, I can firmly recommend this book not only to the specialist historian of this period but also to the general interested reader, for whom its most engaging illustrations will provide a further attraction. The arguments employed by Bryan Ward-Perkins are persuasive and the evidence provided to support them both relevant and interesting, especially the archaeological and epigraphic data he cites. His conclusions with regard to the causes of the downfall of the Western Empire are very much in line with those of Peter Heather (see 1 above), whose conclusion that the principal reason for this was the violence of the barbarians he reinforces. What is particularly remarkable about this book is the vivid portrayal of the drop in living standards experienced by the lower classes that inhabited the provinces of the Western Empire as a result of the barbarian invasions and take-over. A peasant in a farm in Central Italy or one living near  a town on the Danube in the Noricum of St. Severinus would progressively have lost access to high quality tableware, would have been unable to obtain good quality wine or olive-oil, and would have exchanged a stone- or brick-built house with a tiled roof for one constructed out of wood or wattle with a thatched roof; at the same time any prospect of crop specialisation leading to a productive surplus exchangeable for money in coin form by which he could have financed land improvement schemes would have disappeared, and he would have been left only with the grim task of supporting his family by subsistence farming at the baseline of human existence.  More than any other book recently written on the subject of the fall of Rome, this one brings out the stark reality of what it meant for the ordinary inhabitants of the former Western Empire. With regard to Ward-Perkins' assault upon the emollient views of the 'transformation school', which, as I indicated at the beginning of this review, it appears to have been his first priority to refute, there can be little doubt that his arguments are most convincing, and once again his perceptions are shared by Peter Heather. My only slight reservation is that perhaps he spends an undue amount of time in destroying arguments which it is frankly difficult to take seriously in the first place. Indeed, with the wealth of data which Ward-Perkins, following Heather, has produced, it is surely inevitable that advocates of the 'transformation school', if they really have advanced arguments as naive and unrealistic as Ward-Perkins has portrayed them, must be in the process of heavily and rapidly revising their views.

3)  Stephen Mitchell, "A History of the Later Roman Empire, A.D. 284-641", Blackwell Publishing, 2007.

This book by Stephen Mitchell differs from the previous two books which I have reviewed in that it is a textbook, and does not therefore espouse any particular point of view but seeks to give a balanced account of the events and developments of the Later Roman Empire. In his preface Mitchell says that he is guided by four principles: 1) to provide a top-down focus on the the evolution of the Roman Empire during this period; 2) "to explain historical developments as transformations in response to circumstances rather than to interpret them for signs of decadence and collapse"; 3) to create a precise picture of major events and historical processes including detailed information about dates and geography and an emphasis on historical narrative; and 4) to avoid lengthy explanations of cultural developments and to let contemporary witnesses and primary sources speak for themselves via quotations.

Part One:  Introduction

In his introduction to this study of the final three and a half centuries of classical antiquity, Mitchell goes on to emphasise the profound transformation which occurred in relation to the character of the ancient world, at the end of which there had emerged the medieval civilisation of Western Europe on the one hand, and the Islamic empire of the Arabs in the East on the other. He reminds us that the ancient world, as we know it, had been formed by the interlocking civilisations of Greece and Rome, of which the latter had incorporated the entire Hellenised system of city-states. One crucial strength of the Roman Empire was its capacity to incorporate newcomers and outsiders, and regional differences were largely overridden by the emergence of social hierarchies and a massive gulf between rich and poor. In Mitchell's view, the Roman Empire lasted so long because of the Romans' "mastery of the arts of hegemonic rule". To begin with the Empire had emerged due to the overwhelming military predominance of Rome, but then its talent for organisation was transferred to mechanisms devised for ruling provinces, assessing and collecting taxes, and the development of a universal legal system. The Romans also placed a big emphasis on state religion. Rome's success was, they believed, based on the support of the gods, the 'pax deorum', and this conviction remained just as strong even after monotheistic Christianity replaced the polytheistic pagan cults as the state religion. Between the Fourth and the Seventh Century there emerged a major geopolitical split between the Empire in the West and in the East. According to Mitchell, "Rome devised new strategies of accommodation, by which the barbarian peoples were integrated in to the Western classical world", a statement which on the face of it seems remarkably consonant with the views of Peter Brown's 'Transformation School'.  However, Asia Minor, the Near East and Egypt remained relatively unscathed by these changes, and in the East the Empire remained resilient and highly effective.

While his statement about "strategies of accommodation", taken together with the second of his guiding principles stated above, does suggest a close link between Mitchell's thinking and that of Brown's 'Transformation School', he then expresses some significant reservations about the value of this approach in his thoughtful section entitled "The Later Roman Empire, Late Antiquity, and the Contemporary World", which is perhaps the most interesting part of his long introduction. Observing that historical approaches vary in accordance with the differing perspectives of individual historians, Mitchell reflects that, while the label 'Late Antiquity' appears to be a neutral term embracing the whole range of issues with regard to the Roman and the post-Roman world, it has in practice taken on much more specific connotations mainly concerned, on the one hand, with the Eastern Mediterranean and the Near East, and, on the other hand, intellectual, cultural, and religious issues at the expense of political or institutional history. Above all, the concept of Late Antiquity concentrates upon religious history, and in particular the change from paganism to the religions of the Book, that is, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as well as with the survival, and transmission, of classical culture. At the same time Late Antiquity also favours the longer span of 200-800 rather than the more conventional focus upon 300-600. With regard to the radically different approaches that have been taken, Mitchell contrasts in particular those historians who, following in Gibbon's footsteps, have sought to analyse and explain Rome's decline, with those, who following Peter Brown, have torn up the Rome-focussed agenda and have looked at society and culture in all its regional diversity. But, while Mitchell considers that the eclectic approach of the 'Transformation School' is exciting and often captivating, he considers it is "uneven" in that one cannot "elicit generalized patterns of meaning from studies of this sort". He then states that his book conforms to the older pattern of Late Roman historiography, and he expresses concern that the 'victims' of the preference for the Late Antiquity approach include the historians of the period such as Ammianus Marcellinus and Procopius, and also the church historians of the mid-Fifth Century, who only contribute marginally to studies of Late Antiquity according to the 'Transformation School', which tends to play down the significance of of individuals and specific events in favour of underlying patterns and long term slow moving change (the 'longue duree'). Mitchell thinks that the history of the world in the past twenty years indicates the importance of specific events and political developments ('histoire evenmentelle'). Indeed, this section on the relevance of Later Roman history for us in the present day world is very thoughtful and repays careful reading.

Mitchell completes his introduction with a chapter on the evidence which is available to the historian in relation to the Later Roman Empire. This is a very comprehensive account of the wealth of written evidence, and the diversity of this material, and his coverage of the period is very thorough in this respect; it is however a little surprising that he makes no mention of the papyri material from Egypt, and the reference to archaeological evidence is somewhat thin, particularly since he makes much use of it later in the book.

Part Two:  Narrative chapters: 284-540

Before he turns to more thematic subjects Mitchell then provides the reader with two narrative chapters, dealing, respectively with the periods A.D. 284-410 and 410-540. These chapters are full of the necessary information about the key events of both these periods, although these factual accounts by their very nature lack any key threads or explanatory themes that might make them more comprehensible for any readers unfamiliar with the circumstances of this time. Here, I comment mainly on particular points which he makes that stand out, due either to their originality or their emphasis. While descriptions of the circumstances of the death of Numerian and Diocletian's accession to the throne in 284 have always been opaque, historians have tended to accept without much comment the propaganda which represented the praetorian prefect Aper as the principal culprit and Diocletian as Numerian's avenger. This is no doubt because history has tended to cast a favourable light upon Diocletian, who has been widely seen as the saviour of the Roman Empire. However, Mitchell is clear that the probability is that Diocletian was at the centre of a plot to usurp the throne, that Aper may even have been loyal to Numerian, and that Diocletian may have struck him down for that reason. Mitchell also remarks upon the extraordinary symmetry between the circumstances of the deaths of Carus and Numerian and the accession of Diocletian in 283-4 and the deaths of Julian and Jovian and the accession of Valentinian in 363-4. With regard to the period as a whole he sees it as the period of the 'military monarchy', during which emperors were expected to lead their armies into battle in person, and indeed did so. However, he contrasts the periods of the tetrarchy and of the rule of the dynasty of Constantine, when the personal authority of emperors was strong, with that of the 370s and 380s when the empire's destiny was effectively determined by an oligarchy of senior courtiers and generals, with the emperors having largely to tow the party line; he also believes that the later decisions of Theodosius to elevate his sons Arcadius and Honorius to the purple while they were still children was a reflection of his acceptance that real power was held by this oligarchy. Mitchell questions the generally accepted view that the Goths were driven across the Danube in 376 by the depredations of the Huns, and suggests that more stress should be laid on the attractions of life within the Roman Empire as the principal cause of their migratory motivation. Mitchell also has a new perspective on the circumstances leading to the accession of Theodosius I in January 379. The traditional view has been that Theodosius was called out of retirement in Spain by the Emperor Gratian after the battle of Adrianople; however, Mitchell accepts the recent argument that Theodosius had probably been called back to duty in 377 and given a senior military command on the middle Danube. According to this view, Theodosius would have been on the scene, and thus a strong candidate for both military promotion and elevation to the imperial throne after Valens' death. Mitchell also states that Theodosius' subsequent decision to support Valentinian II against Magnus Maximus in 387 was a surprise, since the latter was not only a devout Nicaean Catholic, as he was, but came from Spain like himself; Mitchell suggests that the key factor behind the decision was that Valentinian's mother Justina offered her daughter Galla in marriage to Theodosius. He also says that the period of the military monarchy came to an end in the 380s when emperors ceased to reside in frontier regions. Theodosius himself rarely left Constantinople, the exceptions being in 388 and 394 when he led armies against the usurpers Magnus Maximus and Eugenius. Mitchell then provides us with a detailed account of the actions of Alaric and Stilicho in the 390s and 400s but an analysis of their policies, which might make this welter of detail more intelligible, is lacking.

Mitchell begins his second narrative chapter, which deals with the Fifth and the first half of the Sixth Centuries, from the point when the Roman Empire is permanently divided into East and West. Following on from the end of the previous chapter, Mitchell provides a good account of how the role played by the emperors changed radically. After Theodosius I, emperors rarely left the protection of their capitals - Constantinople in the East and Ravenna in the West - and effective power passed into other hands, that is, powerful figures close to the emperors, whether family members such as Pulcheria in the East and Galla Placidia in the West, dominant individuals at court, such as Anthemius and Chrysaphius, or prominent generals such as Aspar, Constantius, Aetius and Ricimer. The static position of the emperor reduced his capacity to intervene in local or regional matters. This did not matter much in the East, where, largely undisturbed by serious military threats in the Fifth Century, the imperial system of administration and bureaucracy remained effective; but in the West Rome relinquished military control to the barbarians and ceased to maintain its administrative structure and tax base. Mitchell gives us a thoughtful description of the the style of the Fifth Century court of Theodosius II in Constantinople, in which he brings out well the influence of his sisters, especially Pulcheria, the very pious and devotional character of the Emperor, and the deliberate fusion of imperial piety and public policy, typified by the communal hymn-singing in the Hippodrome. He thinks that criticisms of Theodosius II's apparent inertia are misplaced; indeed, he sees his eirenic and tolerant policies as remarkably successful, and believes that in the first half of the Fifth Century the Roman Empire, at least in the East was "more harmonious and at ease with itself than at any time since the second century AD". There is a full narrative account of the facts and events leading to the downfall of the Western Empire and the part played by the Huns of Attila and the Vandals of Genseric in this, together with the machinations of the two Theodorics - Theodoric the Amal and Theodoric Strabo -  in the 470s and 480s, and the civil wars of the Isaurian dynasty, in which they played a part. While this account is written in an engaging manner, the key factors and events do not readily emerge from it. Furthermore, he makes no attempt at all to consider what were the crucial causes of the end of Empire in the West, and thus avoids completely the traditional controversy about this. However, Mitchell's account of the early years of Justinian's reign, that is, 527 to about 540, is more coherent. He brings out well Justinian's passionate concern with Christian orthodoxy and his own personal religious convictions, the importance Justinian attached to the codification of the law, and the reasons for the outbreak of war with Persia. With regard to the circumstances of the Nika Riot in 532, he rejects the traditional perception of Justinian's hesitancy and his need to be stiffened by the resolution of his wife, the Empress Theodora. On the contrary he says: "No explanation of Justinian's handling of the Nika riot is likely to be correct that does not take account of the fact that Justinian during his early years was as decisive and self-confident a ruler as any that the empire had known in its history". This chapter, the fourth, is completed with thorough accounts of Belisarius' triumphant campaigns in Africa and Italy, that is, up to the point when Ravenna is surrendered by the Ostrogoths, and the building of the incomparable Haghia Sophia. 

Part Three:  The Roman State and the Barbarian Kingdoms

The centre of this textbook is composed of six chapters on thematic subjects covering the period 284-641 as a whole. The first two are studies of the nature of the Roman state and of the major barbarian states which replaced it in Western Europe. Any account of the Roman state has inevitably to be selective in what topics it covers; the chapter on the Roman state - Chapter Five in this book - focusses on the nature of Roman government, its use of visual propaganda, the ideology of the emperors, and the administrative framework of the Empire. While the Empire depended on its ability to raise taxes, deploy military power and resolve disputes in accordance with the law, Mitchell emphasises the almost universal acceptance of the emperors' right to rule, a right established over generations of experience. Also crucial to the functioning of the Empire was the maintenance of an effective transport system, the building and maintenance of roads, bridges, harbours and shipping, maritime communications being of particular importance to the Eastern Empire from the beginning of the Sixth Century onwards. This whole chapter on the Roman state is one of the highlights of the book, but the section on "Propaganda and Ideology" is of especial interest. In it Mitchell begins by stressing the importance of ritualised acclamations of emperors and governors. He looks in detail at the stone carvings on the Arch of Constantine in 315 and the decorated base of the obelisk erected by Theodosius I in 390. He notes the relative lack of reference to Christianity in Fourth Century triumphal monuments and inscriptions; and, while Christian symbols were very evident by the time of Justinian in the Sixth Century, he notes the shift from the triumphant note of the Barberini ivory of c.533, which he thinks resembles the rock reliefs of the Sassanian kings, to the devotional emphasis of the mosaics in San Vitale in Ravenna in 548. There is an informative section on "Military Security", in which he analyses in detail the numbers and structure of the Roman army. He also looks in depth at the impact of Roman rule on the Syrian city of Edessa, and he shows how around 500 the inhabitants were required to bake bread for the military despite a severe local famine. Contemporary sources also indicate the means by which tax remission could be sought from the emperor; only the provincial governor or the city's bishop had 'the clout' to ask for this.

In the section entitled "Ruling the Empire", Mitchell draws our attention to a recently deciphered inscription of an imperial rescript, dated 533, concerning taxation arrangements at the city of Didyma in Caria, Western Asia Minor, which, he believes well illustrates both the vigour of Justinian's government at the time, and the efficient mechanics of the imperial bureaucracy in Constantinople. He believes that this rescript is evidence of how open and rational Roman government of the Sixth Century was, an impression that contrasts sharply with the traditional portrayal of Byzantine government as devious and tortuous. He also questions the common interpretation of the extension of Roman citizenship to all free inhabitants of the Empire by the Emperor Caracalla in 212 merely as a cynical measure to raise more tax. From epigraphic evidence it is clear that a large number of newly enfranchised citizens took the 'nomen' Aurelius from Caracalla, and Mitchell suggests that this radical measure to extend citizenship helped to create a broad ideological unity within the Empire at a time when it was facing severe threats to its integrity both from within and without. He also suggests that the Christian faith, and, in particular orthodox Catholic belief, acted increasingly as a unifying factor within the Empire during the Fourth Century. This process culminated in Theodosius edict "cunctos populos" of 380, which required all people to be followers of Catholic Christianity, something which remained the goal of all subsequent emperors. Indeed, by the time of Justinian, all the soldiers in his army had Catholic and Chalcedonian Christianity as a common bond. Mitchell completes this stimulating study of the Roman state by an analysis of changes in civic life, changes in the social hierarchy and changes caused by the impact of Christianity on imperial society.

The chapter on the barbarian kingdoms begins with a consideration of the origins of these kingdoms. It stresses the importance of trade to the tribes east of the Rhine, and how Germanic society close to the frontier was affected by this. Mitchell also brings out the savage brutality meted out to the barbarians by Roman emperors in the Fourth Century, notably Constantius II, and how they gradually banded together into larger groups or confederations in order to protect themselves. After a section on the Huns, in which he again downplays their significance in relation to the crossing of the Danube by the Goths in 376, Mitchell looks in detail at the 'successor' German kingdoms of Western Europe in the Fifth Century: the Visigoths, the Burgundians, the Franks, and the Ostrogoths in Italy. He highlights the differences between them in their forms of military organisation and their ways of asserting royal power. He stresses the continuing influence of the Roman Empire in all of them. Why he does not deal with the Vandals in this section is not altogether clear; even though they eventually established a kingdom in Africa rather than Western Europe, they were still a Germanic successor state set up within the boundaries of the former Western Empire.


Part Four:  Religious Issues

Chapter Seven traces the religious development of the Roman world after the Third Century and analyses the diversity of religious practice and experience in the Third Century. It notes the persistence of paganism, and then discusses the reasons behind the transformation which led to Christianity becoming the Empire's dominant religion. The central articles of Christian belief are considered, as are the many Christian sects and heresies, such as the Montanists, Novatians and Manichees. This chapter also examines the attitude of the state with regard to matters of religious tolerance, and looks at the perspective of pagan rulers in the face of Christianity, and then that of Christian emperors confronting the survival of paganism. Mitchell ends this chapter by noting that the first book of the Justinianic Code was concerned with legislation about religion, and that this reflects the priority which Justinian gave to it.

The next chapter focusses upon the politics of religious identity following the adoption of Christianity by the state. After looking at the social context and consequences of the three most significant conversions in the Fourth Century, those of Constantine the Great, Julian the Apostate and St. Augustine of Hippo (while these studies are interesting, their relevance to the rest of the chapter is opaque), this chapter looks at the politics of Christianity in the Later Roman Empire, and the evolving doctrinal disputes about the central tenets of Christian belief, in particular the Trinitarian controversy of the Fourth Century and the Christological controversy of the Fifth. Mitchell demonstrates how theological controversies were carried on amid bitter controversy by leading bishops under the watchful eyes of successive emperors, whose objective was to establish a unified Christian church which was co-existent with a unified Roman state. Thus, he argues, orthodox Catholic Christianity was the central feature of the political ideology of the Roman world, and the main symbolic identifier of the Empire's inhabitants.

Part Five:  Economy and Society in the Later Roman Empire

Chapter Nine looks at the economic basis of the Later Roman Empire and the political and economic institutions through which the Empire was maintained. It draws attention to the importance of the cities as the focal points where imperial power could be demonstrated and and where local aristocrats could display their wealth and influence, often through buildings which they had provided and which bore inscriptions celebrating their beneficence. The survival of the Roman Empire was guaranteed by military power, but depended too on the sustainability of long distance links enabling the circulation of people, goods and ideas. As Mitchell points out, without these links the political unity and common culture of the Roman Empire would have disappeared. He also places a considerable emphasis on the economic importance of the state 'annona' system, through which the capital cities and the army were supplied with grain, wine, olive-oil and other commodities. The chapter concludes with comprehensive surveys of the capital cities of Rome and Constantinople, and the major regional cities of Alexandria, Carthage and Antioch. These surveys are very valuable and conveniently concentrated information about the cities in question, although, as in the case of the accounts of the three conversions above, their connection with the rest of the chapter is not clear.

Chapter Ten focusses on the regions and provinces of the Empire, both in the East and in the West, and considers the evidence for patterns of rural settlement and the importance of regional security to economic development. The varying degrees of that security played a decisive role, Mitchell argues, in the split between the Eastern and Western parts of the Empire, and in their different destinies. Until the middle of the Sixth Century most of the East had been free of war and invasion. During the period 280-540 both the cities and agriculture flourished, and the population continued to grow. In the West, however, during the Fifth Century the provinces were exposed to continuous threats from barbarian groups, and were progressively handed over to these invaders. This caused not only the collapse of the Western Empire in a political sense but a downward transformation in its economic and social structures. As Roman administrative and fiscal mechanisms were removed, cities shrank and lost their significance, and the population that remained was increasingly dispersed into villages with narrow economic horizons and trading networks. 

This distinction between East and West is illustrated by a socio-economic review of four regions within each of these two parts of the Empire.  The East is divided into the Near East, Asia Minor, the eastern frontier zones and Egypt. The sections on the Near East and Asia Minor are particularly valuable sources of information, and appear to be areas of expertise for Mitchell. With regard to the Near East, Mitchell focusses upon the archaeological findings relating to the limestone hills of North Syria in the hinterland of Antioch and Apamea. This section is particularly valuable: it not only highlights the prosperity of the villages in these hills between 330 and 550 and especially in the period 410-480, but emphasises the extent of church building that occurred there. At the same time, Mitchell refers to the archaeological evidence which shows that similar prosperity was being experienced in other areas of the Levant, where, as in the case of the North Syrian massif, improved techniques of water management, including irrigation, underground canals and hydraulic systems, had facilitated the productive development of previously marginal land. These areas included the steppic area east of Chalcis, the plain of Amuq just north of Antioch, the region of South Syria between Damascus and Bostra, and even the northern fringe of the Negev desert. In most of these cases olive-oil production was central to this prosperity. The proximity of Antioch was essential as providing a market within reasonably easy reach, and in the case of the Negev region the thriving port of Gaza allowed the transport of its produce to other ports and areas. The archaeological record shows that similar levels of prosperity were also experienced in Asia Minor during Late Antiquity. Urban prosperity and organised public life were focussed on provincial capitals, such as Ephesus, Sardis, Ancyra, Aphrodisias and Side. From the end of the Third Century churches were replacing temples, but there is widespread evidence too of new public buildings, such as theatres, baths, hippodromes and aqueducts, although such building often involved renovation, adaptation and enlargement rather than completely new constructions. There was also a major economic shift towards the southern coasts of Asia Minor. Recent research has shown the impact of the Empire on the Lycian coastal settlement of Aperlae as a centre for the harvesting of the molluscs from which came the purple dye. There is also dramatic evidence of the economic development of the harbour city of Corycus in Cilicia Trachis, which boomed from the Fourth to the Sixth Century. Once again its commercial staple was olive-oil, and this together with wine and timber were transported to Constantinople as part of its 'annona' ration.  For Mitchell, who published a learned article on olive cultivation in the economy of Roman Asia Minor in 2005, this subject area is one of particular interest, and his specialist knowledge emerges clearly in this and the associated sections. In the section on the frontier zones, he emphasises the importance of the cross-border trade with Persia, which was strictly confined by successive treaties to three cities only:  Nisibis in Mesopotamia, Callinicum on the Euphrates and Artaxata (later Dubios) in Armenia. Tolls of 25% were imposed on imports from the East. However, as Mitchell helpfully clarifies the position, this restriction and these tolls applied only to luxury articles, such as gems, spices and silk, not to the everyday commodities traded between the people on both sides of the border. Turning to Egypt, Mitchell brings out the significance of the development of cities during the Third Century and thereafter, as a result of which the cities and the landed aristocracy gradually took control of the countryside. The towns became centres of the Hellenised elite which became the driving force of Roman society in Egypt. At the same time Egypt became progressively Christianised in the Third and Fourth Centuries; as a result Greek began to be spoken widely, and in their daily diet wine and olives replaced beer and beans.

When the focus of Mitchell's socio-economic survey turns to the West, the picture is more mixed. Protected by its geographical position from  many of the external pressures which weighed on the rest of the Empire in the West, the economy of North Africa boomed during much of Late Antiquity. The large hinterland of Carthage in the provinces of Proconsularis and Byzacena were taken up with cereal production; Mitchell tells us that as much as two-thirds of its corn crop may have been transported to Rome under the 'annona' system. Where the quality of the land was poorer, as in the interior of Numidia and the hinterland of Tripolitania, olive-oil production became the major feature of the economy. All these areas boomed during the Third and Fourth Centuries. At the same time, African 'red-slip' ceramic production was the most widely distributed pottery ever produced in the ancient world. According to Mitchell, the archaeological evidence does not suggest that the economic prosperity of Africa was adversely affected by the Vandal conquest, although he believes that more work needs to be done on this, but following the Byzantine reconquest of 533 the prosperity of Africa seems to have declined.  The position with regard to Gaul in the post-Roman world differs between the North and the South. In the North, where the archaeological evidence suggests that the villa-based economy never recovered from the barbarian depredations of the Third Century, the withdrawal of the permanent garrisons and garrison towns on and near the Rhine during the Fifth Century removed the raison d'etre for the complex and sophisticated systems of communication, employing river and road transport as the basis for most economic activity. The cities and towns disappeared or shrank drastically in size. The Franks fused with the local population, and put in place their own smaller scale trading networks based on local markets. In the South of Gaul, where civic traditions were stronger in any case, towns survived, albeit they were transformed into smaller fortified centres dominated by a new ecclesiastical hierarchy. Commercial contacts with the Mediterranean were maintained through the port of Marseilles, which continued to flourish throughout the Fifth and Sixth Centuries, although the main stakeholders of the medieval economy were now the Frankish kings and the Catholic Church. In Italy too, there was a considerable difference between conditions in the North and the South of the country in Late Antiquity. Mitchell refers to the evidence of the field surveys in Central Italy, highlighted also by Ward-Perkins (see 2 above), which shows that rural settlements became fewer and more impoverished between the Third and the Seventh Centuries. Indeed, the number of sites occupied around 500 were only 20% of the figure for the First Century A.D., and by the Seventh Century the lack of coinage in circulation suggests, according to Mitchell, the total collapse of the market economy. However, he then stresses that the economy of Southern Italy appears to have held up remarkably well; no decline in the number of settled areas is apparent in the provinces of Apulia, Basilicata and Lucania during the same period, and the cities of Lucania and Bruttium were still flourishing in the early part of the Sixth Century. The relative prosperity of Southern Italy was due to the needs of Rome, with a population of 500,000 still in 450. Grain, wine, and pork were all supplied in large quantities to this large market. A serious downturn in the villa economy of the whole of Italy, occurred after about 540, due to a combination of climatic disasters, the Gothic Wars and the drastic reduction in Rome's population. Finally Mitchell's survey encompasses the Danube region and the Balkans, which he notes had always been "the least developed and least classical part of the Roman Empire", and in which urban settlements, away from the coasts were sparse. He says that there is no evidence for large landed estates in the region, and that soldiers were the most powerful element in local society. The fundamental feature of the Danubian region was the continuous stream of immigrants from north of the river, some as individuals, some in large groups. This influx destabilised and changed the nature of the region.

Mitchell completes this very interesting survey of the different regions of the Empire in Late Antiquity with a conclusion in which he makes a number of penetrating points. In his view, the great cities of the Roman world were crucially important for its economic development. Indeed, he believes the infrastructure required to supply the populations of Rome and Constantinople with grain, wine, olive-oil and bacon, in the form of 'annona' deliveries, constituted the largest enterprise of transporting foodstuffs ever achieved in the pre-industrialised world. The agricultural economies of Africa, Southern Italy, Egypt and South Asia Minor were shaped by the demands of these capital cities, and major ports to handle this exchange had developed at Carthage and Alexandria. The distribution of 'annona' depended on an organised system of maritime transport, and indeed shipping was the biggest industry of Late Antiquity. The effects of the 'annona' system on Corycus in South Asia Minor and on the economy of Southern Italy are clear, and it also facilitated other privately organised commercial exchanges, such as the distribution of fine African pottery to the urban markets of the Western Mediterranean. As the Roman roads through the Balkans became insecure and Northern Gaul and Britain became lost to the Empire, the Roman world became largely oriented again upon the Mediterranean, and sea ports became the key centres of economic and political power. Mitchell stresses firmly that cities were a central defining feature of the Roman Empire: they were places where large landowners could display their power and wealth; and taxes were collected on a city-by-city basis. In consequence, he writes that "state and regional interest converged in the creation and maintenance of prosperous and sustainable civic institutions which became the visible and material symbols of the empire itself. The viability of the empire may reasonably be measured by the presence or absence of city life." The loss of such city life in Britain, Northern Gaul, the Central Balkans and the Danube region in the Fifth Century meant that their populations now lived in villages which exchanged goods and services within a very localised network. Finally, he stresses that physical security was the key factor in sustaining prosperity, and that in the last resort the Roman Empire was sustained by its ability to deploy military force successfully to protect its people. When the use of force failed to do this, as it did in Fifth Century Gaul, in the Central Balkans against Attila's Huns in the 440s, and in Illyricum as a whole against the Sclaveni and the Avars towards the end of the Sixth Century, these provinces were lost and civic life collapsed. The very prosperous cities and the large population of the Eastern Empire were only threatened when the Roman state, through its armies, could no longer protect them.

Part Six:  Narrative chapters: 541--641

Towards the end of the book Mitchell returns in Chapters Eleven and Twelve to the narrative of events which he had left at the end of Chapter Four, at the point in the reconquest of Italy when Belisarius had taken Ravenna, an event which marked perhaps the high point of Justinian's reign. After that things started to go badly wrong, due to a mixture of natural disasters and military setbacks. In Chapter Eleven Mitchell provides us with the most up-to-date assessments of the causes and consequences of the natural disasters. An extraordinary occlusion of the sun which appeared to persist for a whole year between 535 and 536, and which was probably caused by a dust-cloud following a major volcanic eruption, seems to have led to repeated bad harvests in the years 536-537 and again in 539-540, which led to widespread famine, as Procopius indicates in his history of the Gothic Wars. In 541 bubonic plague broke out in the Empire, beginning in Egypt but reaching Constantinople in 542. The fact that maritime communications were so vital to the Empire at this time helped to spread the disease, which returned repeatedly throughout the second half of the Sixth Century and into the Seventh. The first visit of the plague in 542 may have killed up to a third of the population of Constantinople, and over the next century the population levels of the Empire may have declined by as much as 50%. While there is surprising little evidence of adverse economic consequences from the plague, Mitchell believes that the overall impact on the Empire must have been negative, and would have created great problems for Justinian in his task of raising and equipping armies. Following his descriptions of the famine and plague which beset the Empire during these years, Mitchell sets out in detail the facts of the difficult campaigns which the Romans had to fight, both against the Goths in Italy and the Persians, who had invaded the Eastern Empire and sacked Antioch in 540. With regard to the latter much of the campaigning that occurred under Justinian took place in Lazica on the east coast of the Black Sea, but when his successor Justin II declared war on Persia in 573, the results were disastrous. The Sassanians destroyed Apamea and captured the key Roman fortress of Dara, the loss of which is reputed to have caused Justin II to become insane. Mitchell provides the reader and the student with a great deal of accurate detail concerning these wars. His coverage in this respect of the reigns of Justin II, Tiberius II, and Maurice, which covered the final third of the Sixth Century, is notably thorough, as this period has tended to be somewhat neglected by historians. A particularly interesting and original theme of Chapter Eleven is Mitchell's identification of the significance of the disasters which afflicted the Empire around the year 540 on the personality and policies of Justinian himself. He points to the Emperor's increasing religiosity, which showed itself in prolonged fasting and vigils, and he suggests that this behaviour may be related in some way to the extraordinarily demonic picture of Justinian presented by Procopius in his Secret History. With regard to one such passage of Procopius, Mitchell writes as follows: "A rationalist reading of this passage suggests that the emperor may have suffered a serious and irreversible breakdown of his mental health. His personality and behaviour bore no relationship to those of his earlier years. At moments such as those that spooked his pious companions, he had, quite literally, become a zombie, a ghost of his former self." Mitchell also links to this apparent nervous collapse of Justinian to the fact that there was "a substantial change in Roman foreign policy after 540", as a result of which, where he had previously pursued wars with some eagerness, he now used diplomatic methods to pay potential enemies off against each other, and to pacify aggressors by gifts and subsidies. While this suggestion of Justinian's inertia is intriguing, it is to some considerable extent called into question by Mitchell's own acknowledgement of his government's continuing determination to fight foreign wars and to retain and control the reconquered territories of the West, as a result of which Italy was finally conquered, Africa pacified, the Persians driven out of Lazica, and the South-East of Spain reoccupied. Mitchell is also right to point out that the turning point in the Romans' fortunes was around 550, when Procopius completed Book Seven of his Wars and probably wrote the Secret History. This may, he thinks, account for his depressing account of the Romans' circumstances at that time and the amazingly vitriolic tone of the Secret History. By the time he wrote the eighth and final book of the Wars, the position had improved substantially, and this may perhaps be one reason for the sycophantic tone towards Justinian adopted by Procopius in his panegyrical work, 'On Buildings', written in 554.

The last chapter of this book, Chapter Twelve, which is entitled "The Final Reckoning of the Eastern Empire", covers the details of the almost apocalyptic events of the end of Late Antiquity. It deals with the occupation of the Balkans by the Avars and Slavs, the conquest of Northern Italy by the Lombards after 568, the exhausting Perso-Roman war of 602-30, and the Islamic conquest of the Near East and Persia between 632 and 642. Mitchell brings out well the way in which the Avars took the place of the Huns in dominating the subject peoples north of the Danube and pushing the Slavs (or Sclaveni) across the border. He shows how the Avars took full advantage of the Romans' military preoccupation with the Persians in the 570s and 580s, and how, once peace had been made with Persia, the Emperor Maurice was able to drive them back. When Maurice was overthrown in 602, due to his difficulties in paying his troops, war broke out with Persia again. Although the usurper Phocas was overthrown and killed by Heraclius in 610, the position in the war with Persia went from bad to worse. The Persians overran the Near East, and Egypt and occupied much of Asia Minor. Eventually Heraclius decided to take personal control of his army, something which Roman emperors had not done for over two hundred years, and, despite the joint Persian and Avar siege of Constantinople in 626,  led his forces deep into Persian territory and reached the Persian capital of Ctesiphon in 627, after which Shah Khusro II  was overthrown. Mitchell calls this desperate conflict "The Last Great War of Antiquity", and he writes eloquently about the religious transformation which the war no doubt accelerated. The Marian cult, the growing importance of icons and the popularity of ritual processions were all aspects of this transformation which united the rulers of the Seventh Century Roman world with their subjects. Heraclius' presentation of the conflict as a holy war met the enthusiastic endorsement of his people in an atmosphere which was a prelude to the crusades of the Middle Ages. Finally, Mitchell looks briefly at the coming of Islam and makes some suggestions as to how it was that the followers of the prophet Muhammed were able to overrun and retain control of the Levant and Persia. He had already pointed out that Arabs had previously migrated in large numbers into Syria and Palestine, just as the gradual infiltration of Slavs into the Balkans had prepared the way for the occupation of that region by them and the Avars. He sees two factors as decisive in explaining the remarkable success of the Arab invaders. Firstly, their high level of military organisation, by which they had fused a large number of tribes and clans into a large force of disciplined warriors; and secondly, that they were united around an unconditional allegiance to the one god, Allah.

Before concluding the review of this book, I am drawing attention to a number of errors or inconsistencies, which mar its generally sound quality as a source of facts for this period. On p.49 Mitchell writes of the "conflict between Diocletian and Carus at Margus" in 285, when he means not Carus, but his son Carinus. There is a some confusion with regard to the length of time of an 'indiction', i.e. the length of time of each cycle of the system of tax-assessments, introduced by Diocletian in 297. On p.60 Mitchell talks of "regular five year cycles", whereas on p.171 he says that these "universal censuses were conducted at fifteen-year intervals". This glaring inconsistency can perhaps be explained by the suggestion that these cycles lasted initially for five years, but were lengthened to fifteen years in 312 at the beginning of the fourth indiction period. On p.78 Julian is described as "the last emperor in direct line of descent from Constantine"; this is, of course, untrue, as Julian was not descended from Constantine at all, but was rather the son of his half-brother Julius Constantius. He could, however, have been accurately described as the last emperor in direct line of descent from Constantine's father, Constantius I. A more serious error is on p.111, where Aetius is said to have "quashed the usurper John ... with a large force of Huns". In fact, Aetius had raised this force of Huns in order to support John, but, having arrived at Ravenna too late to save him, he did a deal by which he agreed to support the young Valentinian III, on condition that his mother Galla Placidia agreed to pay off the Hunnic mercenaries he had brought with him. On p.269 Mitchell is wrong to describe Symmachus as "the richest senator of the western empire"; although he was certainly very rich, Symmachus was not in the top league of the wealthy aristocrats of that time. Indeed, in a quotation from the historian Olympiodorus, of which he makes use himself on p.308, Symmachus is called only "a senator of middling wealth". The most disturbing factual error made by Mitchell in this book is the amazing suggestion on p.117 that Armatus was the brother of the barbarian king Odoacar, when only four lines further down he is described - this time correctly - as the nephew of the Empress Verina and her brother, the short-lived emperor Basiliscus. These two statements would appear to be mutually exclusive. However, this aberration is maintained on p.119, when Mitchell speaks of "Odoacar, Onoulph, and Armatus" as "the three children of the union of Ediko, Attila's trusty legate, and his Scirian wife". On this basis he goes on to suggest that the deposition of Romulus Augustulus by Odoacar in 476 and Basiliscus' successful coup against Zeno in Constantinople in 475, in which Armatus was closely involved, were connected, although he does not indicate how. However, Mitchell is wholly mistaken in his statement that Odoacar and Armatus were brothers, and the only known link between Armatus and the third so-called brother Onoulph is that the latter was to murder Armatus in 476 at the behest of the by now restored Zeno. I am totally unable to account for this surprising error, although I can at least confirm that Odoacar and Onoulph were indeed brothers. A rather less serious, but still avoidable, inconsistency concerns the spelling of the name of man who was the Vandal king from 428 to 477. This king's name is spelt in a variety of ways, and, while it is reasonable that different historians should employ different variants, one does expect consistency within the same book. In this case, however, we read of Gaiseric in pp.112-117, but on p.347 he suddenly becomes Genseric. I can confirm that it is the same man.

The shortcomings listed above scarcely affect my overall estimation of this book, which, if used as a textbook by a student coming to Later Roman history for the first time, would be the source of an enormous amount of relevant material. This would provide him or her with an introduction into most themes which s/he might then have to study in greater depth. One can ask for little more from a history textbook. Within the book itself there were some particular highlights. I have already drawn attention to the very thought-provoking section in the Introductory Chapter One, entitled "The Later Roman Empire, Late Antiquity, and the Contemporary World". I think Chapter Five on the Roman State, and Chapter Ten on Society and Economy in the Mediterranean and the Near East are really interesting to read, even by someone relatively knowledgeable on this period, and Chapter Eleven on the Challenges of the Later Sixth Century is the strongest of the four narrative chapters. In all these three chapters we see Mitchell draw on his personal expertise to the full. A strength of the book is its excellent note sections at the end of each chapter, in which the references often identify the learned article or piece of archaeological research behind a recent development of our knowledge. With regard to where he stands on the controversy about whether the fall of Rome occurred primarily because of violent invasion from without or due to its internal weaknesses, Mitchell does not address this issue very directly or specifically, but from his comments about the strength of the Roman state in the East at the time of the end of the Western Empire in his introduction and the concluding section to Chapter Ten from which I have quoted above, it is clear that he believes that the Empire fell at that time due to the force of external invasions. Furthermore, when commenting on the external threats which caused the loss of half of the remaining Empire in the Seventh Century, he states clearly his view that "These enormous external forces, rather than internal decadence or decay, provide the main clues to to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire". To say this in relation to 641 may not be very controversial. Why, one might legitimately ask, should it be different with regard to 476?

4)  Adrian Goldworthy: "The Fall of the West, the slow death of the Roman superpower," Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2009.

Four years elapsed from the date of publication of books specialising in the the fall of Rome (see book reviews 1 and 2 above) before another book on this subject appeared, this time written by Adrian Goldsworthy, the renowned writer on Roman military history. Well produced and with an attractive set of coloured illustrations this book promises to be an exciting prospect for the general reader, as well as for any reader with some knowledge of the subject.

With books of this nature, the introduction often proves to be among the more interesting sections of the book, and the preface and introduction do not disappoint in this respect. In his preface Goldsworthy comments on the enduring appeal of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. In this case, people see similarities between ancient Rome and the modern world; whereas in the past parallels may have been drawn between the fate of Rome and the British Empire, today it is America that is seen to be at risk of decline. Goldsworthy observes that Robert Harris, the best selling novelist, has said openly that writing about Roman themes has been a way of commenting about modern America, and for many writing about Rome has facilitated criticisms of American policy and culture. Goldsworthy, however, distances himself from such purposes, and makes it clear that this book is not about America and its place in the world, but only about "the collapse of the Roman Empire, which vanished in the west and was left as little more than a rump in the east" (p.5). Furthermore, he questions the intellectual validity of using history to make such comparisons, and says that it is only at the very end of a historical enterprise that one is entitled to draw such parallels with regard to the past or to suggest any lessons for the present.

In terms of his own motivation for the writing of this book, Goldsworthy states that it was the logical next project after his widely acclaimed biography of Julius Caesar. He accepts that he is not a specialist on the Later Roman history, and that his previous works have concerned earlier periods of Roman history. Indeed, he describes himself as an "outsider to the field" (p.7). However, he hopes that not being a specialist on this period may give him a perspective which specialists may not have, and, while he acknowledges the wealth of good work on Late Antiquity by historians and archaeologists in recent decades, he states that "the main reason why I wanted to write this book was a dissatisfaction with quite a few of the conclusions and assumptions made in these works" (p.7). In particular, he makes it clear that he does not share the perceptions of what I have called 'the transformation school', and indeed for him the decline and fall of the Roman Empire in the west were very real phenomena. On the other hand, he also disputes the conclusion that some have recently drawn that the Roman Empire in the Fourth Century was as strong, or stronger, that it had been under Hadrian and the Antonines in the Second Century, and believes that this view in contrary both to the evidence and to common sense. Right from the start therefore, it is clear both from what he says in the preface, and indeed from the book's sub-title, that the fall of the Roman Empire was the culmination of a long process of gradual decline. In the preface Goldsworthy also establishes that narrative will be the predominant characteristic of this book, and that issues of religion, culture, law, government and society in general will receive only brief attention, not because they do not matter, but because in his view (and this is not one with which everyone will concur, I am sure) "they were of minor significance for the slow rotting of Roman power" (p.9).   

In his introduction, which he entitles "The Big Question", Goldsworthy discusses at some length the reasons behind the continuing fascination which the subject of the fall of Rome has provided ever since Gibbon's magnificent work at the end of the Eighteenth Century, and sets out in a general manner the different answers which have been offered to the question of its cause. As I have already covered much of this ground in my own introduction to the book reviews on this subject, I shall not repeat it here. However, I do think it is appropriate to pick out his point that an exceptional aspect of this empire was that neither any of its inhabitants, or even its invaders, wished to destroy it. As he says: " ... there were no equivalents in the Roman period of Gandhi or Nehru, Washington or Bolivar, Kenyatta or Mugabe ... The greatest paradox of the Roman Empire's fall is that it did not end because people inside it - and, indeed, outside it - stopped believing in it or wanting it to exist" (p.16).

Goldsworthy deals perceptively with the reasons for the rise of 'the transformation school' and the belief that it is inappropriate to talk about 'decline' and 'fall' in relation to the end of the Roman Empire. He suggests that the amount of available Fourth and Fifth Century literature on social, cultural and religious subjects, which has encouraged a boom in the studies on these matters, as opposed to wars and rebellions, and the actions of individual emperors or ministers, which provide the more usual context for historical investigation, has tended "to produce a more static view, emphasising continuity rather than change" (p.19). However, he is withering in his conclusions about the weakness of thinking of 'the transformation school'. On p.20 he writes: " ... the slightest trace of continuity is imbued with deep and widespread significance. As an example, the survival of a Roman bureaucratic title in the court of a German king does not necessarily mean that he was doing the same job at all, let alone that he was doing it well. Similarly, the find of a stylus pen in a late fifth-century site from Britain cannot be taken to prove widespread literacy in the post-Roman period. Extending the same logic to our own day would mean that the survival if imperial institutions and English as a language of government really meant that it was still part of the British Empire. This would doubtless come as a great surprise to the country's inhabitants".

Goldsworthy then goes on to refer to the two studies published in 2005, written by Bryan Ward-Perkins and Peter Heather (see book reviews 2 and 1 above), which took effective issue with the views of 'the transformation school' of thought. But, while he commends these two books in this respect, he believes that they are too restricted in their scope, failing in particular to link the Empire of the Fourth Century with the earlier Roman Empire. He believes that the Empire was not as strong in 300 as it had been in 200, and that it was even weaker in 400. In his view, a longer perspective than that adopted by either Ward-Perkins or Heather is needed to explain these shifts in relative strength. Since the concept of 'decline' has been out of fashion - and here Ward-Perkins and Heather do not differ greatly from 'the transformation school' in relation to their view of the strength of the Empire around 400 -, most historians have tended to emphasise the pressure from without, and that this had grown significantly in comparison with the threats faced by the Empire in its early years. For instance, he says, it is regularly asserted by historians that the Sassanid dynasty that replaced the Parthians in Persia in the first half of the Third Century presented a far greater danger to the integrity of the Roman Empire than their predecessors. Goldsworthy, however, believes this is open to considerable doubt. On the other hand, the significance of usurpations and civil wars as an attenuating factor from the middle of the Third Century onwards, is, in his view, seriously underemphasised by historians. He, therefore, sets himself in this book to examine closely both the internal and external threats to the Roman Empire, which he proceeds to do in the three parts of this book, the first of which looks at the apparent crisis of the Third Century, the second at its supposed recovery in the Fourth Century, and the third at the Fifth and Sixth Centuries, which saw both the fall of the Empire in the west and the attempted 'reconquista' of Justinian.

 Part One:  Crisis? The Third Century

Goldsworthy sets the scene with an admirable chapter which describes the state of the Roman Empire, including its social, political, and economic make-up, at a time when it is widely recognised that its power and prosperity were at their zenith. The philosopher emperor Marcus Aurelius, who ruled from 161 to 180, was the last in the line of the 'Five Good Emperors' who presided over its fortunes during this period, which Gibbon has described as "the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous". The remarkable level of peace under which the inhabitants of the Empire lived and flourished during this time and the extent to which the Romans managed to accommodate and accustom its peoples to their rule is well described. The prosperity of the Empire at this time is also indicated by the large number of wrecked ships discovered in the western Mediterranean which have been dated by archaeologists to the first two centuries A.D. As Goldsworthy points out, the incidence of such wrecks relating to this period is far greater than any other period of Roman history, and this indicates graphically, if starkly, the extent to which trade was booming across the Empire. Goldsworthy also draws our attention to the extent of technological development occurring at this time. Archaeologists are finding evidence of water power being used to drive hydraulic machinery in mining operations in Spain and North Wales, the scale of which exceed anything known about before the Nineteenth Century. Water powered-saws were also used to cut marble and other building materials. At the same time, the carts and carriages designed at this period were far more sophisticated than has previously been considered to have been the case, and indeed as good as any such vehicles until modern times. Goldsworthy highlights well the high level of industrial activity in the following passage: "Analysis of core samples taken from the polar icecaps has revealed traces of pollution produced by industrial activity such as smelting. The levels of this for the first century B.C. through to the second century A.D. dwarf those of both earlier and later centuries, and indeed of any period before the Industrial Revolution" (p.48-49). It is clear that historians have previously underestimated seriously the Romans' technological competence, but the extent of their progress in this field still has the capacity to astonish one. The strength and confidence displayed by the Romans of this time is dealt with well by Goldsworthy; however, the difficulties experienced by Marcus Aurelius during his reign, particularly the plague which affected the Empire from 166 onwards, and the constant fighting on the northern borders of the Empire which occupied so much of his final decade (the so-called Marcomannic War) are not glossed over.

The following five chapters provide a very interesting account of events from the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 until the accession of the reforming emperor Diocletian in 284. Because classical ancient history, i.e. that studied in 'A' Level ancient history and degree courses in Classics, has tended to end with the former date, and courses of Modern and Medieval History have normally commenced no earlier than the latter, the Third Century, occupying, as it does, a somewhat desultory 'no-man's land', has been very much neglected. However, Goldsworthy, true to his strictures that the decline of Rome cannot be properly understood unless one goes back a considerable distance into the past, covers this period very thoroughly. After the reign of the personally inadequate Commodus came to an end with his murder at the end of the year 192, civil war darkened the horizon of Rome for some five years, but from 197 to 217 there was a prolonged period of relative peace and stability under the Severan dynasty, although during that period, as Goldsworthy demonstrates, the army's predominance had become clear. After a somewhat unstable but relatively peaceful interlude associated with the reigns of the ridiculous Elagabalus (218-22) and the feeble Alexander Severus (222-35), in which the Empire was effectively under the dominance of the women of the Severan dynasty, Rome entered a perilous fifty year period of relative anarchy (235-285), characterised by constant usurpations and civil wars, barbarian invasions by both land and sea, recurrent attacks of plague, rampant inflation, as successive emperors sought to find sufficient resources to pay their soldiers by debasing the proportion of silver in the coinage, and a crisis of religious belief which led people all over the Empire to turn to new gods. During this period over sixty persons claimed the imperial status. Goldsworthy emphasises rightly the extent to which civil war weakened the Empire during this time, and how successive emperors felt obliged to prioritise military action against internal rivals before action against external threats, but, while circumstances in the Empire were undoubtedly grim during this period, and Goldsworthy shares many of the views which are common among historians about it, he does question orthodox thinking in a number of areas. For instance, he thinks there is no historical basis for talking about a separate 'Gallic Empire' in the years 260-74; Postumus and his short-lived successors considered themselves legitimate emperors of the whole empire, and the only unusual thing about them was their apparent reluctance to seek to extend their control over the remaining imperial provinces. He also doubts the truth of some of the claims made about the changes in military strategy allegedly adopted by Gallienus (sole emperor 260-68). He is supposed to have built up a large military reserve force kept behind the frontiers, much of it near his capital at Milan, in order to confront any forces breaking through the perimeter, and to have developed the cavalry as a large part of this force; but Goldsworthy, with his thorough knowledge of the Roman army and its military thinking, questions whether Gallienus' strategic decisions involved anything new. He thinks it most improbable that cavalry would have formed a significant part of any strategic reserve force, since it was not suited to the sort of long marches which such a force would have been expected to undertake. This was because horses were harder to feed and to keep in good condition than men. He also points out that Milan was very close to the frontier with the breakaway 'Gallic Empire', and that his location of troops was therefore quite conventional. Above all, and in furtherance of the doubts sounded in his introduction, he challenges the widely accepted view that the threat provided by Persia under the new dynasty of the Sassanids was exponentially greater than that previously provided by the Parthians. As a result of this threat, the conventional view has been that the Romans were compelled to increase massively the size of their army and their military expenditure and the levels of taxation upon which it depended, and that this created a great strain on the economy, thus causing profound social and political changes. Goldsworthy, however, is sceptical about the claim that Sassanian Persia was a superpower that threatened the integrity of the Roman Empire. While he acknowledges the very real successes of the Persian army under Shapur I (241-272), he does not believe that there was ever any intention on the part of the Persians to make permanent conquests that would restore the borders of the old Achaemenid empire. The aims of Shapur, he believes, were more limited. Apart from winning glory and booty, he wished to reduce Roman influence in their border areas, especially in Armenia, and to take captives in sufficient numbers to facilitate the construction of buildings and major irrigation projects in his own territories. Goldsworthy goes on to point out that in the final twelve years of his reign (260-72) Shapur made no further attacks, despite the continuing divisions within the Roman Empire during these years, and indeed that in the 260s Odaenathus of Palmyra was twice able to raid as far as Ctesiphon without suffering any setbacks.

The first part of the book is embellished with a final chapter, entitled "Crisis", in which Goldsworthy evaluates the extent of the difficulties experienced by the Empire during the Third Century, and the changes which occurred in this period. Whether "crisis" is the right word to describe what happened he doubts, " ... since it is clear that there was never any question about the survival of the empire in some shape or form" (p.139). With regard to the economic situation and the consequences of the massive debasement of the coinage practised by successive emperors, his view is inconclusive. He believes there is clear evidence of significant economic and commercial decline, but because of the lack of statistics the extent and incidence of it is hard to gauge. Yet, however great the decline was, the economic strength of the Roman Empire in 300 was still immense. More interesting perhaps are Goldsworthy's comments on the changes in the hierarchy of the Empire, that is between the relative positions of members of the senatorial order and equestrians. Pointing to the generally accepted view that Gallienus banned senators from controlling armies, he doubts that there was ever any specific decree made by him with regard to this, but he does believe that his reign may have seen a strengthening of a trend towards specialisation that was already evident, under which senators pursued careers in administration and law and equestrians took up senior positions in the army. It has been often suggested that the greater threats apparently emanating from barbarian confederations on the northern border and from the Sassanids on the eastern compelled the requirement for more professional commanders, and it is the case that during the Second Century the sons of senators ceased serving as the senior military tribune to a legion, which had long constituted the traditional military apprenticeship of future senators. At the same time, it has been supposed that Gallienus and other emperors, both before and after him, were concerned that senators who commanded legions were always likely to present potential threats as imperial rivals. While this may have been a factor behind the effective debarring of senators from holding military commands, Goldsworthy believes human factors were more significant. Once equestrians began becoming emperors themselves  - Macrinus was  the first in 217 - they tended to support people they knew and trusted, and these were usually other equestrian officers, including their relatives. However, if there was a concern that senators with armies behind them posed an unacceptable threat to the reigning emperor, Goldsworthy argues persuasively that in the long term the exclusion of senators from military commands actually increased the threat of usurpations, since, while the number of senators from whom imperial rivals might emanate was relatively small, once equestrians became eligible for elevation to the purple any man who was able to gain the support of his troops on the spot could proclaim himself emperor. Goldsworthy also disclaims the notion that equestrians were more effective commanders than their senatorial predecessors in previous centuries; indeed he can find no evidence that equestrians led their armies more effectively or that they led them in different ways. Goldsworthy, therefore, dismisses the idea that the replacement of senators by equestrians had anything to do with military effectiveness.

The first part of the book ends with a most interesting analysis of changes to the way in which emperors operated during the Second Century. The commonly held view is that during this century, emperors felt obliged to lead their armies in person, and that as a result they spent little time in Rome or even in Italy. Emperors also increasingly associated their sons with them in the purple. For many scholars, according to Goldsworthy, this has meant that the Empire had become too big to be governed by one man, but he believes this is to read history backwards or to assume that these changes were a reasonable or indeed an inevitable response to the new problems presented by the growth in external threat, the existence of which as we know Goldsworthy questions. Indeed he writes: "This sort of analysis robs the individuals whose decisions and deeds shaped the process of any independence of action, perhaps even of responsibility. More importantly, a closer examination of the course of events paints a very different picture. Many of the underlying assumptions prove deeply questionable and any sense of inevitability vanishes" p.150). He then proceeds to point out that different emperors had acted very differently in the past. For instance in the First Century, while Trajan had led his armies in person both in Dacia and in Mesopotamia and Hadrian had spent years abroad touring the provinces, Antoninus Pius had stayed in Rome and had taken the credit for victories won by has commanders. Marcus Aurelius, out of his sense of duty, had decided to conduct the Marcommanic War in person, but Commodus had elected to stay in Rome and leave any fighting to his generals. At the beginning of the Second Century Septimius Severus had chosen to lead his armies in person, both to Mesopotamia and in Britain, to create a bond with his troops in areas which had previously supported his rivals, and his son Caracalla preferred being on campaign with his troops. Later emperors were increasingly obliged to lead their armies in person, because by reducing the size of provinces and armies, no  individual governors or commanders had sufficient resources to deal with any external threats by themselves. This situation had come about  because emperors were more concerned about rival claimants to the throne than they were about foreign invaders. This was because, while invaders might do much damage, in the end they would have to go back, whereas a rival claimant, if successful, would take both an emperor's throne and his life. So, Goldsworthy concludes, "In the third century the Roman Empire wasted much of its strength fighting itself. Its military system suffered much dislocation and became less able to deal with foreign threats" (p.152). While he accepts that the reign of Diocletian (284-305) saw the position stabilised, he does not believe that circumstances ever returned to the relative tranquillity and prosperity of the Empire's first two centuries.

Part Two:  Recovery? The  Fourth Century.

This part of the book is largely narrative which recounts in highly readable style the events of the reigns of Diocletian and Constantine, the strong men under whose aegis the Empire was to a great extent stabilised and then changed to meet the requirements of the times, and then of their successors during the rest of the Fourth Century. While Goldsworthy acknowledges the relative strength of the Empire at this time, he continually refers to what is the effective thesis of this book, its continuing susceptibility to imperial usurpations and civil wars.

While he accepts that under Diocletian's tetrarchy the Roman world enjoyed a greater degree of stability and security than it had had for many years, he challenges the claims which many historians have made with regard to the significance of his rule. "For many modern scholars the centralisation of power, massive increase in bureaucracy and the blatantly monarchic public image of the tetrarchs were necessary to deal with the greater problems faced by the empire. A philosopher emperor like Marcus Aurelius simply could not have coped. The time for senatorial amateurism was long past and, instead, tougher rulers were needed, who simply had no time to play out a Republican charade. Leaving aside the point that such arguments have been made to justify dictators throughout the ages, this is very much an analysis based on hindsight. Diocletian's success was not inevitable, nor necessarily was the shape of the fourth-century empire that he did so much to create. The root cause of the ills remained the internal instability producing such frequent civil wars. The tetrarchy proved only a temporary and partial break in this cycle" (pp.158-9). That its success was only partial Goldsworthy illustrates by the decade long breakaway rule of the usurpers Carausius and Allectus in Britain (286-296); the temporary nature of its success was caused by its manifest failure to resolve the problems of succession. In any case, he believes that the tetrarchy was only possible due to Diocletian's strength of personality, and probably only happened because of his lack of sons. While he accepts that civil wars did not occur so frequently in the Fourth as in the Third Century, he believes that when they did break out (e.g. Constantine against Maxentius, and then against Licinius; Constantius II against Magnentius; and Theodosius against Eugenius), they were more serious and hence more damaging to the fabric of the Empire.

His portrayal of Constantine is mainly in line with the views of most recent historians. He shares the assessment that, while Constantine's conversion was of great long-term significance for the Empire, and certainly for the Church, his aims and his conduct were highly conventional, and that the support of Christians was a relatively minor element in his success. In Goldworthy's opinion, his style of rule was very similar to that of other recent emperors, especially Diocletian, and this is one reason why it is hard to tell which of the two was responsible for initiating a particular reform.

The sections on Constantine's successors are especially interesting. Making good use of the surviving books of the historian Ammianus Marcellinus, Goldsworthy illustrates to chilling effect 'the climate of almost paranoid suspicion' (p.198), existing during the reign of Constantius II (337-61), with a detailed account of the reluctant usurpation of Silvanus in 355, who had proclaimed himself as emperor solely in order to protect himself from the suspicions which had been manufactured against him by other powerful men at court. On p. 199 he writes: "Even the briefest of challenges for imperial power caused considerable upheaval, creating a climate of nervousness that filtered a long way down the hierarchies of the army and administration. Men had
to choose sides, trying to guess who would win. Even if they remained loyal to the eventual victor, they could not be sure that their innocence would protect them. Ambitious officials grew powerful through accusing others, sometimes out of personal enmity, but also because they felt that they could get away with it. At the top, the emperor was suspicious that his most powerful subordinates wanted to supplant him - usurpation and civil war remained facts of life. Added to which, the growth in bureaucracy and the grand ceremonies of court life made it harder for him to know what was going on".

After a short reign of twenty-eight days, Silvanus' men were successfully bribed to turn against him, and he was executed. This was followed by a campaign of denunciations of his supposed supporters, led by the infamous courtier Paul 'the Chain', after which, according to Ammianus, at least five victims were also executed. Enlarging on his theme, Goldsworthy writes further: "No emperor was ever wholly secure. The complex bureaucracy and divided hierarchy, with strict division between military and civil power and complex relations within each one, gave some protection. It was harder for a man to mount a successful challenge. Yet it was not impossible, and if he managed to build up wide support in the different branches of the army and administration then the challenges was likely to be a dangerous one. Emperors were understandably nervous and mistrustful, and their attitude inevitably filtered downwards. Their subordinates knew that they could at any time fall under suspicion. A career could end abruptly in torture and death, or could flourish, quite possibly through the demise of others. Violent competition underlay all levels of government, especially the highest ranks" (p.203).

The narrative sections on Julian the Apostate bring out well his eccentric personality and his disastrous campaign in Persian Mesopotamia. However, as a prelude to this he emphasises the priority given by Constantius II to defending the eastern border area against the Persians, and the strength in depth provided by the fortified cities of the region. There is  a useful section on the Roman army, which allows Goldsworthy to display his undoubted expertise on the subject. While he accepts that far more separate units were created during the Fourth Century, he is determinedly agnostic on the subject of total army numbers. However, the increased number of units entailed a significant growth in the number of military officers. When this is taken together with the rise in the size of the bureaucracy at the beginning of the Fourth Century to some 30-35,000, the amount of patronage available to emperors and their senior entourage was obviously very considerable. Nevertheless it was still difficult for emperors to know what was happening, and Goldsworthy uses the Romanus and Leptis Magna scandal during the reign of Valentinian I to illustrate this well. The chapter on the Goths, which deals with the circumstances leading up to the disastrous defeat and death of the Emperor Valens in 378, and then the following four years during which Theodosius eventually forced to Goths to come to terms, makes excellent reading. For Goldsworthy the story of this difficult campaign says more about Roman weaknesses than barbarian strength. Like previous emperors Theodosius gave a higher priority to defeating the usurpers Maximus and Eugenius than to confronting the Goths, whom, like Valens had done in 376, he saw as a valuable source of recruits to the Roman army.

Part Two of the book is completed by an analytical chapter entitled "East and West", which provides a summary of the state of the Empire and of the world around it in 395, the year when its division into two parts became effectively fixed. One significant change that can be dated to this time, according to Goldsworthy, was the end of the expectation that imperial armies would be led by emperors. After 382, Theodosius, himself, had campaigned in person rather less than his predecessors, perhaps, as Goldsworthy suggests, because he recognised his limitations in the capacity of a general in the field. Apart from the campaigns against Magnus Maximus in 388 and Eugenius in 394 he left any fighting to his generals. After his death his two sons Arcadius and Honorius were too young to lead armies, and from then until about the middle of the Fifth Century the practice was for emperors to remain at court, Constantinople in the East and Milan (Ravenna after 402) in the West. In terms of its international position Goldsworthy accepts that at the end of the Fourth Century the Empire was still very strong, but its relative position compared with Persia had weakened, and the division of 395 was to accentuate that. Furthermore, the fact that it took six years to bring the Goths to terms in 382 indicates the difficulties the Empire had in marshalling its resources to meet external threats. With regard to its economic position he accepts that that much of the Empire was prosperous during this century but he warns against using the archaeological evidence of such prosperity in certain places, such as the North Syrian massif, to generalise about prosperity elsewhere. Above all internal instability had continued to plague the Empire throughout the Fourth Century, and the result was that emperors prioritised their own survival above the good of the Empire as a whole.

Part Three.  Fall? The Fifth and Sixth Centuries.

Much of the content of this part of the book, which encompasses both the downfall of the Western Empire in the Fifth Century and the mixed fortunes of the Eastern Empire in the Sixth Century, is narrative, most of it being highly readable and unexceptionable in its content. However, I did find the section on Stilicho a little disappointing as it does not really address the strategic dilemmas this exceptional able statesman had to face, and the same is also true, perhaps, with regard to Aetius. There is a very thorough chapter on post-Roman Britain, a subject most historians of this period avoid for want of evidence, and, although much of this chapter involves inevitable speculation, I thought the attempt to use what little we do know about Fifth Century Britain to illustrate what was happening in the West as a whole an interesting and valid exercise. Goldsworthy does bring out well the spiral of decline affecting the Western Empire, through which lack of resources compelled accommodations with barbarians leaders which led to loss of land and subsequently of taxes, which then led to further decisions of a similar nature. He joins other historians as seeing the loss of North Africa to the Vandals as being particularly crucial in this process of gradual decline. For the most part, Goldsworthy uses the events of the Fifth Century to substantiate his continuing thesis that the decline and fall of the Empire was due to Roman weakness rather than to the overwhelming strength of their adversaries, and that much of this weakness stemmed from usurpations or the fear of them, and the tendency of successive emperors to prioritise their own survival above the wider good of the Empire.

Much of the analysis in relation to this part of the book is contained in Chapter 20, which is entitled "West and East". Goldworthy has little time for the 'Transformation school' of thought. Indeed he writes as follows: "It has long been fashionable for academics to speak of the transformation of the Roman - or, more usually, Late Antique - world into the kingdoms of the kingdoms of the early Middle Ages. Certainly, change did occur, and some things changed gradually and so might reasonably be described as having been transformed over time. Yet on the whole this characterisation is deeply misleading. Transformation tends to suggest a voluntary and relatively gentle process, but the changes to occur in the Roman west were anything but voluntary as far as the wider population was concerned" (p.372). He then goes on to describe conditions in the new kingdoms which replaced the Empire in the west, and in common with other historians concluded that there was a gradual decline in respect of most dimensions of human activity, but that the degree and the pace of this decline varied considerably with regard to geographical factors, particularly whether areas had access to the sea, and, especially, to the Mediterranean. He also sees geography as a principal cause of the survival of the Empire in the East, as the Bosphorus created a permanent barrier which made it extremely difficult for any enemy to cross into Asia Minor. He accepts the generally accepted view that the threats faced by the Eastern Empire were significantly less than those of the Western Empire, but notes that it was also less susceptible to usurpations than the West and that the relatively long reigns of Eastern emperors in the Fifth Century was a major factor behind its relative stability.

After a final chapter in which he accounts for the events of the Sixth Century and, in particular the remarkable reign of Justinian (527-564), Goldsworthy appends a conclusion in two chapters, the first of which summarises his thinking on the causes of Rome's decline, and the second in which he offers the reader some suggestions as to the relevance of that process to the present day. Throughout the book Goldsworthy's main thesis is that the regular incidence of civil war after the reign of Marcus Aurelius, and the attempts made by emperors to protect themselves against usurpers, severely attenuated the Empire's capacity to deal effectively with external threats, and he concludes the book thus: "Rome's fall was to a great extent self-inflicted. It is hard to say when the process became irrevocable, but it began with the four-year civil war that followed the successive murders of Commodus and Pertinax. Emperors tried to make themselves safer and in doing so weakened the the capacity of the empire to act" (p.423).

His sub-plot is that the marginalisation of the senatorial class during the Third Century, and the relegation in the importance of the city of Rome, had a disastrous effect on the effective functioning of the Empire. While historians of the Later Roman Empire have tended to see the reduction in influence of the senatorial class and the growing irrelevance of Rome as a focus of power, as an inevitable process and part of the natural development of Roman society and institutions, Goldsworthy, perhaps due to his interest in the earlier period of republican Rome, and in the Roman army during the Second Punic War, sees this as a very significant factor in the gradual weakening of Rome's governmental and military effectiveness. Aware as he undoubtedly is of just how much was achieved by the Romans in the last three centuries of the Republic and in the first two centuries of the Empire, under which so much of the structure of republican Rome was maintained under the principate, he writes as follows: "It may seem odd in this day and age to praise a system based on an aristocratic elite, consisting of men who were amateurs in a modern sense. Yet the system had many advantages in the Roman context. It provided a manageable group of senior soldiers and administrators - an emperor could know all of these men and their families. Only a minority were potential rivals and these could be closely observed. Public life remained focused on the fixed location of Rome itself, making it easier to sense the mood of the aristocracy. Emperors in the first and second centuries were able to trust selected senators to control substantial armies and large provinces. Only rarely - usually during times of major conflict with Parthia - was it necessary to appoint a commander to control more than one province and this did not automatically lead to an attempt at usurpation. In the first and second centuries emperors were able to delegate and did not feel obliged to direct armies in person. Rome was the centre of the empire in more than just a spiritual sense. We do not need to idealise the senatorial legates of the early period. Some were incompetent, a few untrustworthy and probably quite a lot were more or less corrupt. In all these periods they seem at the very least no worse than the senior officials of the Late Roman Empire. Politically, the small senatorial class was simply easier for the emperor to control. Reliance on the Senate was a Republican tradition, but actually made sound sense" (pp. 412-13). Goldsworthy's obvious respect for the old governmental systems of Rome, while perhaps unfashionable among historians, demands our respect in my view, and his argument that the effect of dividing up provinces and drastically reducing the size of military commands, made it increasingly difficult for anyone other than the emperor himself to confront any significant external threats, has obvious merit.

The final chapter of the book, in which Goldsworthy gives his personal opinions on the weaknesses of modern governmental and business cultures, rather departs from the historical process, but allows him to share with the reader a number of views which are only vaguely related to the the fate of imperial Rome. That having been said, this chapter is as readable as the rest of the book and gives us some food for thought. He does see a parallel between the Later Roman experience and the dangers of bureaucracy in the modern world: "Bureaucracies are stubborn, they tend to expand on their own and develop their own agendas" (p.423). In this context he sees the extension of target-setting from business practice to the sphere of of government as being particularly dangerous. He also highlights the tendency of America and its allies to rely on private companies to support their war efforts as likely to reduce the longer term effectiveness of their forces, and presumably sees an analogy here between this and the the increasing reliance of the Later Roman Empire on barbarian mercenaries.

In conclusion, I consider this book one of considerable merit and a worthy successor to Adrian Goldsworthy's  first-class biography of Julius Caesar. The book is very readable and well illustrated. Factual errors are almost totally absent, although he follows Peter Heather in erroneously designating the Dinaric Alps as the Julian Alps in the map on p.256, and wrongly indicates the parentage of Theodosius II in the genealogical table on p. 265. His strong focus on Rome and its institutions does undoubtedly bring us to question the underlying strength and military effectiveness of the Roman Empire, certainly from the middle of the Fourth Century onwards. Obviously, the decline and fall of the Roman Empire in the West is the story partly of external threats and partly of internal weaknesses. However, Goldsworthy, in concentrating, as he does on the sources of Roman weakness, does not do justice to the significant increase, as unequivocally demonstrated by recent archaeological research, into the growth of both population and wealth in the Germanic world to the north and east of the Western Empire in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries. He repeatedly denies that the threats facing the Empire at this time were greater than in previous epochs. Here, I believe he is just wrong. While I accept as largely justified his critique of the Empire, and his belief that, in comparison with the first two centuries of Imperial rule, the Empire had declined in its effectiveness in a number of important respects, I believe that it would have continued to to exist in the West for many more years beyond 476 A.D., just as it did in the East, if it had not been overwhelmed by this rising tide of Germanic invaders. 

5.  James J. O'Donnell: "The Ruin of the Roman Empire,"  Profile Books, 2009. 

The next book on the subject of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, which came out in 2009, is a very different book from those previously reviewed by me. It is a book representative perhaps of the post-modernist approach, in which it is claimed that there is really no such thing as objective historical truth, and that history is only what an individual historian chooses to make of it. In the case of this book, this may also reflect that fact that the author is a professor of classics, rather than a professional historian, and is perhaps more at home with literary criticism than with evaluating his historical ideas and perceptions against the available evidence, archaeological and epigraphical, as well as documentary. However, while a number of the many statements made in this book may therefore be open to question in the light of such evidence, the book is most stimulating, since it does challenge existing thinking about the fall of the Roman Empire in a number of respects, and the breadth of content contained in the book does certainly demonstrate O'Donnell's impressive knowledge of the ancient world, and also of the development of the early Christian church. With regard to the latter, one should be aware of his previous book, "Augustine, a new biography", published in 2005, and in this present book we have the evident benefit of his deep understanding of the issues at stake in the Trinitarian and Christological controversies which so rent the early church. Nor would I wish to suggest that O'Donnell is not concerned that his opinions should reflect the truth, although one can sometimes be disconcerted by the deliberately ironical notes which he strikes in this book, and at times his statements can veer towards obscurity, almost as though opacity is being used as a defence mechanism when the statements made may be particularly open to question. That having been said, Tom Holland's arresting description of the book, published on the front cover, as "Poetic, haunting and humane" is certainly justified, and reflects perhaps both the book's fascination as well as its unusual style.

O'Donnell's main thesis, as clearly delineated on the book's inside cover, is that the Roman Empire was destroyed not by the barbarians but by the actions of the Emperor Justinian, whose policies of imperial restoration and Christian uniformity, reflected a serious misunderstanding of the Empire's past as well as its present.  Furthermore, the barbarian kings, particularly Theoderic the Ostrogoth, whose new kingdoms replaced the former Empire in the West, are represented as the "good guys", valiantly attempting to maintain Romanitas, if not the Empire itself, in their new dominions, but their efforts are brought to naught by the destructive outcome of Justinian's mistaken policies, and the Empire is eventually so weakened that its Near Eastern and African provinces are swept away by the Arab conquests of the Seventh Century. Indeed, at the end of the Sixth Century in Italy Pope Gregory the Great is left preparing for the end of the world. The ironical nature of this thesis suffuses the whole book. It is apparently summed up by the following sentence in the preface: "This book tells the story of the central, tragic episode, when the mighty Roman empire, unable to understand itself or its world, chose to be true to its past ambitions and accomplishments and so brought itself to ruin." This early sentence is, indeed, a sign-post towards many such statements in the book. The irony in this statement is evident, but it is difficult to evaluate because its exact meaning is not clear. In addition to its challenge with regard to our understanding of the past, the book has an evidently didactic purpose, in that it is intended to bring home the painful relevance of some of its findings to issues of our own time, by which there can be little doubt that O'Donnell is referring to contemporary American foreign policy in Iraq. 

The book commences with what is called an "Overture", which is an instance of synaesthesia, a rhetorical device by which one sense is described in terms of another. This section is full of very interesting information about a number of subjects, but the relevance of much of it to the stated title of the book, or indeed its central thesis, is unclear, as indeed are the connections between its component parts. (Perhaps this is why this section of the book is given the musical title "overture" rather than the more usual but more prosaic "introduction".) This overture starts with a description of the Night Sky and its significance for the ancients. Then comes the following statement: "This is a book about changes on earth below that left ancient heroes marooned in the sky, stripped of their celestial powers. If we can understand those changes - and what has not changed - we may have a better chance of avoiding calamities of our own. We will begin with a man who thought that the world below the stars was flat." We are then informed in some detail of the career of the Alexandrian merchant Cosmas Indicopleustes, who wrote his "Christian Topography" in the 540s, and whom we meet first when he visits the ancient Eritrean port of Adoulis, and this section leads into a complementary one about the view of the world from Alexandria, which, together with Antioch, were in O'Donnell's view the real capital cities of the Eastern Empire and the entrepots of imperial trade. We learn of the Silk Road and the Nestorian manuscripts found at the oases of Turfan and Dunhuang in the Talamakhan Desert, the importance of Mesopotamia as the fault line between the two great empires of Rome and Persia - this unhealed fault line is a continuing theme of the book, and apparently of continuing relevance to today -, we receive a guided tour of the principal cities of this region, and we then return to Sixth Century Egypt to learn about Dioscoros, a business man from Aphrodito, and about the Apiones, the grandest and most powerful family in Egypt. It is also clear that Alexandrian merchants such as Cosmas looked eastwards and southwards, and that the Western Mediterranean was considered a backwater, scarcely worthy of a visit. The overture then moves on to consider the physical circumstances of life in Late Antiquity. Food and drink, tableware, luxury articles, clothing disease, childbirth, travel, the decline of public bathing, and the shrinkage of cities are all covered in passing, before we look at the composition of society in the Sixth Century, and in particular the vast chasm between rich and poor and the relative vulnerability of the latter.

Then, under the title of a section called somewhat curiously "What becomes of the Roman-hearted?", this fanciful, if not whimsical, kaleidoscope of the Sixth Century world comes to an end, and for the first time the subject of the book comes into focus, although the sharpness of this focus begins to flicker as the section proceeds. In referring to the significance of Edward Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", O'Donnell dissociates himself from Gibbon's two scapegoats of barbarians and priests. He goes on to point out that the multi-ethnic community of nations, which the Empire constituted by this time, had little to do with anything Roman, and that the traditional focus adopted by Gibbon "will inevitably under-imagine the distinctiveness of local cultures and places in that world" (p.40). He then highlights the emergence into political importance of Isauria in the second half of the Fifth Century as significant in this respect, although the relevance of this to the subject or theme of the book is frankly unclear. However, while commenting about how Rome continues to hold our imagination, O'Donnell makes clear that he finds no good reason to accept the significance of 476 CE as a date for the end of the Roman Empire, although he discusses, without being able to identify any as especially relevant, a range of alternative possibilities from as early as the end of the Second Punic War in 202 BCE to as late as the disappearance of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 CE. He then goes on to make the following observation: "If we ask what became of the Roman-hearted (who had power that's now departed), looking for a single date at which a switch was thrown and an empire ceased to exist never makes real sense. Instead, we'll first have to reframe the question as one that can be answered, and answered on a human scale. Human beings live in a moving window of time that remembers a generation or two of the past reasonably well and that imagines a future best measured in decades, not centuries or millennia. The century or so from 476 to 604 CE reflects human plans and wishes with their successes and failures, showing how rulers who could not understand their world as existing on a continuum much older than themselves squandered countless opportunities" (p.43). This statement is a bizarre combination of the banal, in relation to the quaint rhyming in the first sentence, with some quite profound comments about the limited timescales in men's minds, and then the obscurity of the comment in the final sentence.This last is perhaps an example of the difficulty one has in addressing O'Donnell's opinions, because of their lack of clarity and specificity. Nevertheless, the implication that people may not always appreciate the significance of an event at the time does not make it less significant from a historical perspective. The final section in the overture deals with the different dating systems used by the ancient and early medieval worlds, but, while these details are certainly interesting, their relevance is once again unclear.

Part One.  Theodoric's World. 
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