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  • Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe by Peter Heather
  • Steven K. Ross
Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe. By Peter Heather. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. 752 pp. $34.95 (cloth); $24.95 (paper).

When Peter Heather’s The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History appeared in 2005, a natural choice for reviewers was to cover it jointly with Bryan Ward-Perkins’s The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, published by Oxford the same year. For one reviewer, the two represented a “counter-reformation” in studies of what used to be called Rome’s “decline and fall.” So, the “reformers” would be those many scholars who now view the late Roman–early Medieval as a world of new beginnings rather than a time of death and destruction. For the counter-reformers, the years leading up to 500 c.e. saw true decline, and the widely pooh-poohed “end of the Western empire” in 476 had a more than symbolic significance. Now, in Empires and Barbarians, Heather professes not to bemoan the loss of a civilization that had a decidedly unsavory side (“a world happy to feed people to wild animals in the name of entertainment” [p. xiv]). Thus, no moral judgment is implied in the traditional term “barbarians.” These are value-neutral barbarians, if you will, and Heather duly devotes attention to “agency” among them, not just to the actions and fate of the empire. Still, the main question is how and why the arrival of new peoples caused the “fall” of the West; a recurrent theme is the violence and disruption involved.

But this is more than just another “who lost China?” essay. Heather wants to examine the whole first millennium and the shaping of Europe after 500. Hence he opens with an incident of 882, from a Frankish chronicle, in which a band of Moravians mutilated and killed a Frankish leader on their territory. The question is, how did this “impressive” Slavic state (Moravia) arise before 1000 c.e. in an area dominated by Germanic-speaking peoples at the turn of the era? Heather calls it “the fundamental transformation of barbarian Europe in the first millennium ad” (p. xiv). [End Page 957]

Migration and identity take center stage. Chapter 1 (“Migrants and Barbaric Barbarians”) recapitulates migration’s role in nationalist historical theories and its rejection, since the mid twentieth century, as an important historical factor. For an earlier generation, the Völkerwanderungen and the peopling of Western Europe by self-contained Germanic “nations” underlay an understanding of this period. Today, scholars (especially English-speaking ones) want to avoid explaining anything by migration, if at all possible. To Heather, this “major intellectual U-turn” (p. 19) is an overcorrection. His aim is not to revive the ideologies of the nineteenth century, but perhaps to rescue the reputations of the late Roman Ammianus Marcellinus and others who testify for migration: notably, the occasion in 376 c.e. when (per Ammianus) thousands of Gothic Tervingi, fleeing the Huns, crossed the Danube into the Empire. Heather contends that Ammianus (who elsewhere proves quite capable of describing barbarian movements without invoking migration) was not simply in thrall to a “migration topos.” Chapters 2 through 7 focus on the social and political dynamics behind the creation of large identity groups in confrontation with Rome, and the fate of Western Rome at the hands of Goths, Franks, Anglo-Saxons and others. Chapters 8 through 11 deal with Slavicization, the world of the Vikings and the creation of the “first European Union” by 1000 c.e.

Chapter 6 (“Franks and Anglo-Saxons: Elite Transfer or Völkerwanderung?”) provides a good example of Heather’s approach. The Anglo-Saxon takeover of the former province of Britannia is one of the test cases of the “Counter-Reformers”; some deem it to show that the “barbarian invasions” were indeed violent and destroyed a sophisticated civilization. For Heather, the Anglo-Saxon invasions were not a single cataclysmic event (the Venerable Bede’s adventus Saxonum) but took place over an extended period. Already before Rome’s departure, Saxons were mounting seaborne...


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