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Reviewed by:
  • Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe
  • Michael Kulikowski
Peter Heather , Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

This is a clever book. At first, it seems like a genuine attempt to create a comprehensive explanation for the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of medieval Europe in the light of modern sociological studies of migration. Upon closer examination, however, it is revealed as a spectacular lesson in how to reverse-engineer narrative and analysis to get back to a long-held belief; that is, it turns out to be a more elaborate restatement of Heather's long-standing project to restore rampaging barbarian hordes as the sole cause of the fall of Rome. Heather has told this story three times already: this time it gets both less subtle—"the connection [End Page 277] between immigrant violence and the collapse of the western Empire could not be more direct" (339)—and more insidious; the trappings of both sociological theory and archaeological research hang heavy on the footnotes. Sadly, the result is not actually interdisciplinary in any meaningful sense: Heather has a very traditional view of the fall of the Empire and its aftermath—one that has barely advanced beyond the communis opinio of the 1890s. His tactic in this book is to descend upon other, more modern and nuanced studies in order to pluck whatever bits of theory or data can lend this reactionary project an aura of authoritative modernity.

The technique is to make an assertion so often that it is transmuted into fact—for example, "repeat large-scale migration was of the essence of continued existence for barbarian groups on northern territory" (104). Restated with variations throughout 600 pages, migration becomes the universal key to European history in the first millennium. Contradictory evidence, literary and archaeological, is relentlessly excluded because the "better evidence" always supports whatever Heather wants it to: On the one hand, because Goths were so numerous and large a group, their material culture was highly tenacious; on the other hand, because the early Slavs were such a numerous group, their material culture was highly flexible and malleable, far more open to the adoption of foreign modes. Never mind the simplistic assumption that material culture always reflects ethnic identity—impervious to thirty years of theoretical advance. One can only marvel at the way identical patterns of evidence can be said to produce diametrically opposed conclusions, so long as those are congenial to the argument.

There are also good things in evidence, particularly regarding the sudden consolidation of Slavic kingdoms in the ninth and tenth centuries—a reminder that Heather has always come at late Roman questions with a medievalist's preconceptions. Elsewhere, he is right to try to deduce governing apparatus from the actions that kings and chieftains were able to compel their followers to take. This approach, more than anything, goes some way toward justifying his assertion that a broad class of nonaristocratic "freemen" warriors must have existed in many of the barbarian cultures of the first half of the millennium. Yet to claim the point proved and build further hypotheses upon it is not legitimate; he comes perilously close to recreating the old, volkisch notion of an inherent "Germanic" belief in freedom. Throughout, in fact, Heather makes the tacit assumption that evidence from any "Germanic," "Celtic," or "Slavic" group can be used to analyze any other "Germanic," "Celtic," or "Slavic" group—in other words, that linguistic identity and socio-institutional behaviors go inevitably together.

Historical comparanda are certainly a legitimate tool of analysis, and Heather picks some apt ones that support his mass-migration hypothesis, not least an extended analogy between what he regards as a mass Gothic migration from the Baltic and conquest of the Black Sea littoral and the Afrikaner migration to, and conquest of, the Transvaal and Natal. It [End Page 278] must be said, however, that a great many historical comparanda would support a model that he ignores—that the Goths were formed from a large number of indigenes and a small number of migrants under the pressure of Roman...


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pp. 277-279
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