- The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History
In 1787 Edward Gibbon declared farewell to the massive project that had claimed his attention for over twenty years, namely, a description of the "greatest and most awful scene in the history of mankind." The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–88) comprises seven volumes in J. B. Bury's critical edition (1896–1902), beginning with Emperor Trajan (2d century CE), detouring to pastoral nomadism and the rise of Islam, and terminating with the Renaissance popes' adornment of Rome and Sultan Mehmet II's storming of Constantinople on 29 May 1453. So vast, learned, and eloquent a History would seem to foreclose imitation, but empire-building and imperial collapse hold perennial appeal and invite philosophical speculation.
Peter Heather, drawing upon twenty years of research, writing, and teaching on Romans and "barbarians" of the fourth and fifth centuries CE, has sought to explain "the strange death of Roman Europe" (p. xii) in a survey that revises Gibbon's grand narrative. Although it bears a similar title, Heather's survey limits itself to the western or European half of the Empire. [End Page 489] In agreement with traditional political history, he fixes the "fall" at the moment when Odovacar deposed the Western Roman emperor, Romulus, in 476 CE (p. 430). Heather organizes his materials in a tripartite structure. Part One ("Pax Romana") rejects the view that decline was evident from 180 CE onward; instead, state and society functioned soundly, despite military setbacks, until the end of the fourth century. In Part Two ("Crisis") Heather deploys research of the past four decades on the Huns, Attila, and Germanic ethnogenesis. He shows that the Germanic "successor states" of the later Migration Age were already forming during the fourth century. When Germanic peoples migrated westward in 376–380 and 405–408 in advance of Hunnic expansion, they constituted a greater military threat to Rome than had their less-organized ancestors centuries before. In Part Three ("Fall of Empires") Heather speculates on causation, taking issue (p. 443) with Gibbon's blame of internal weaknesses for the Western Empire's fall. In his oft-cited Chapter 38, Gibbon had stated that "the decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness." Though cognizant of socio-economic weaknesses in the western empire, Heather emphasizes instead "exogamous shocks" caused by dynamic Romanized intruders. His conclusions thus conform with at least two of the 210 "causes" listed by Alexander Demandt for Rome's collapse (Der Fall Roms, 1984).
General readers will be captivated by Heather's vigorous, sometimes breezy, jargon-free narrative, whose tone resembles traditional lectures in a university auditorium. The classical-age legionaries, he writes, were "Just like the Marines, but much nastier" (p. 61). Portraying the privileged, land-owning elites of the fourth century, he observes: "there is certainly a touch of Jane Austen in togas about the late Roman upper crust" (p. 138). Aids to the reader and an updated bibliography make this book attractive for anyone interested in Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages.