restricted access A Interview with Bryan Ward-Perkins on the Fall of Rome
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March/April 2006 Historically Speaking 31 A Interview with Bryan Ward-Perkins on the Fall of Rome Conducted by Donald A. Yerxa "AT THE HOUR OF MDNIGHT THE SALERlAN GATE WAS silently opened, and the inhabitants were awakened by the tremendous sound of the Gothic trumpet. Eleven hundred and sixty-three years after thefoundation ofRome, the Imperial city, which had subdued and civilized so considerable a part of mankind, was delivered to the licentious fury of the tribes of Germany and Scythia. " The emotion and drama thatflowed so eloquentlyfrom Edward Gibbons spen has been largely drained from our contemporary historical imagination. Recent scholarship has drastically transformed the subject thatfascinated students ofhistoryfor centuries, and Oxford historian Bryan WardPerkinsfears thatsomething important is being lost. Historically Speaking editor Donald Yerxa asked Ward-Perkins to speak to some of his concerns, developed more fully in Ward-Perkins s The Fall ofRome and the End ofCivilization (Oxford University Press, 2005), winner of the 2006 Hessell-Tiltman Prize for History. Donald Yerxa: In your book you mention that there has been a "sea change in the language used to describe post-Roman times." How has the language changed? Bryan Ward-Perkins: There has been a very strong tendency recently—particularly, but not exclusively, among scholars working in the U.S—to play down any unpleasantness at the end of the Roman Empire and any negative effects of the end of Roman power. Until quite recently scholars were happy that the settlement ofthe Germanic peoples in the 5thcentury West was the result ofviolent invasion and viewed the next few centuries as a "Dark Age" marked by the collapse of Roman civilization . Currently the use of such negative language is seen as very old-fashioned: "decline," "crisis," and "Dark Age" have disappeared from the titles of academic books, conferences, and university courses. They have been replaced by neutral words like "transformation" and "transition." For instance, a recent, massive European research project on the 4th to 9th centuries A.D. was entitled "The Transformation of the Roman World," as if Rome never really came to an end, but just changed into something different but entirely equal. Yerxa: What has happened to the Roman Empire's dissolution by "hostile 'waves' of Germanic peoples," dare I say "barbarians "? Ward-Perkins: Nowadays, what was once seen as invasion is often interpreted as a process of "accommodation," entered into willingly by Roman hosts. The argument runs that the Romans got tired of fighting the barbarians , and decided to let many of them into the empire, in order to use them to defend it against further invaders. The former poachers became the gamekeepers. Yerxa: How has the new periodization scheme of "Late Antiquity" changed historians ' thinking about the fall of Rome? Ward-Perkins: A groundbreaking book published in 1971, Peter Brown's The World of Late Antiquity, identified a cultural period (characterized primarily by the rise of two new monotheistic religions, Christianity and Islam, and the codification of a third, Judaism), stretching from the 3rd century right through to the 8th century and even beyond. This periodization, which is now widely followed , deliberately ignores the 5th-century collapse of Roman power in the West and the 7th-century loss of most of the Eastern (or Byzantine) Empire to the Arabs, events that conventionally were seen as heralding "dark ages" in both areas. Rather than viewing the 5th to 7th centuries as a time ofcrisis and rupture , historians of "Late Antiquity" see it as a period of continuous cultural growth. Yerxa: In what ways do you believe that the current view is flawed? Ward-Perkins: The 5th century is portrayed as a time ofpeaceful accommodation. It is true that the Germanic invaders wanted reasonable relations with their Roman subjects (who were always in a massive numerical majority) and with the remnants of independent Roman power. Consequently, they were very happy to enter treaty arrangements with the empire, and generally treated their own Roman subjects reasonably well. But the evidence is unequivocal that most of the empire's territory was taken over by Germanic rulers, either by force, or, at best, through the threat of force. This was not one of those fortunate periods in which...