HAS POLITICAL CORRECTNESS seeped into scholarship regarding the fall of the Roman Empire? Bryan Ward-Perkins thinks it has, resulting in a “new orthodoxy” that fundamentally mischaracterizes what occurred in Western Europe from the beginning of the 5th century to the crowning of Charlemagne as emperor of a new “Holy Roman Empire” in 800 AD.
The charge that “the dominant view […] today is that the ‘fall of Rome’ was a largely peaceful transition to Germanic rule, within a period of positive cultural transformation,” as written in the jacket of Bryan Ward-Perkins’ The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization, is a bit overstated. But it is undeniable that a significant school of thought has developed over the past 30 years or so, arguing that the fall of the western Roman Empire was not really that traumatic an event, and to think otherwise is to have a “pro-Roman” bias and a politically incorrect view that some civilizations are superior to others. As evidence of this “new orthodoxy,” Ward-Perkins, a fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge, cites Peter Brown’s 1971 work The World of Late Antiquity, and subsequent works that have built on Brown’s notion that the later Roman Empire and the “Dark Ages” were not divided by “an intervening catastrophe” but were a period of continuity and transition which he termed “late antiquity.” To further illustrate the point, Ward-Perkins quotes from Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Post-Classical World (Harvard University Press, 1999), which states, “[T]he period of between around 250 and 800 [should be seen] as a distinctive and quite decisive period of history that stands on its own” and not “the story of the unraveling of a once glorious and ‘higher’ state of civilization.” One can guess from the title of Ward-Perkins’ book (and the attractive cover, showing detail from Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire: Destruction) that Ward-Perkins has a different view.
But what would a work concerning the fall of the Roman Empire be without a little theorizing on the cause of the fall? Though this isn’t the purpose of this book, Ward-Perkins does indulge in a brief discussion of this topic. “In my opinion,” he writes, “the key internal element in Rome’s success or failure was the economic well-being of its taxpayers. This was because the empire relied for its security on a professional army, which in turn relied on adequate funding.” He believes it is wrong to put too much emphasis on a falling population and the abandonment of arable land during the 3rd and 4th centuries, since he thinks this phenomenon was more limited than widely thought. Instead, he focuses on the large-scale invasions of the early 5th century that devastated the western economy, combined with weak political leadership and almost constant civil war (the western emperor during much of this developing time of crises was the weak and incompetent Honorius who faced at least six major usurpers during his reign from 395 to 423). Ward-Perkins, however, does not subscribed to the belief that the western empire’s fall in the 5th century was inevitable, but rather holds the view of J.B. Bury that the fall was a “consequence of a series of contingent events.”
The first “contingent event” that went the wrong way for the West, ironically, occurred in the East. In 378, the eastern emperor Valens decided to engage a large Gothic army near Hadrianopolis in Thrace rather than to wait for the arrival of reinforcements sent by the western emperor. This turned out to be a mistake that cost Valens upwards of two-thirds of the eastern field army and his own life. The East, however, had the luck of geography — the fortress city of Constantinople and the Roman navy protected the Bosphorus, preventing a Gothic invasion of the East’s most economically important areas, thus allowing the eastern empire to recover and, indeed, thrive during the 5th and 6th centuries. The emperor Theodosius I (379-395) who succeeded Valens in the East, and who also effectively ruled the West for much of his reign, had some success in incorporating Gothic tribes as “federated” allies, contributing manpower to the imperial armies, but many were not content with a life of service to the Roman Empire, and most of these made their way west. Then, to top things off, starting in the early 5th century the West also had to deal with Alamans, Vandals, Sueves, and others crashing through the depleted defenses along the Rhine-Danube frontier.
No one really disputes that the Germanic invasions of the 5th century were often brutal and destructive. But was the official fall of the western empire in 476 just a transition from Roman rule to Germanic rule, with the new German rulers often mimicking Roman customs, or was it, in fact, a cultural and economic catastrophe? Ward-Perkins bases his belief in the latter not merely on literary sources (which are scant during this period) but primarily on archeological evidence, particularly pottery, roof tiles, and coinage.
In a nutshell, whereas the eastern empire recovered and thrived, in the West from the start of the 5th century, the archeological evidence clearly shows a dramatic reduction in quality, inexpensive pottery and tableware. Roof tiles, common for even the poorest of dwellings in the late Roman period, almost disappear, being replaced by cheaper, less durable substitutes. Important buildings, such as churches, are smaller and of lesser construction quality. Coinage all but disappears. What this all signifies is that with the fall of the western empire came the fall of an entire production and distribution network. Instability and a breakdown in security within the borders of the former empire led to a dramatic fall off in trade, especially over longer distances, and a consequential drop off in specialization as towns and cities needed to become more economically self-sufficient. The result was lost skills, fewer and lesser quality goods, and less wealth. Indeed, from Arctic ice cores, it appears that the level of pollution produced by the smelting of lead, copper, and silver dropped dramatically in post-Roman times to prehistoric levels, not to return to Roman levels until the 16th or 17th century (and this reduction was not due to the Goths instituting stricter pollution controls).
But the collapse of the 5th and 6th centuries was not just strictly economic. Though the evidence is less conclusive, there is, as Ward-Perkins points out, significant archeological evidence, mostly in the form of graffiti, that literacy was fairly widespread, even among the working classes in Roman times. And we do know that no western Roman emperor, not even any of the many from humble origins, was illiterate. On the other hand, we know that even in the aristocracy of the succeeding Germanic kingdoms that illiteracy was not uncommon — the most obvious example being Charlemagne. In short, Ward-Perkins concludes, “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. It is very likely that the population fell dramatically, and certain that the widespread diffusion of well-made goods ceased. Sophisticated cultural tools, like the use of writing, disappeared altogether in some regions, and became very restricted in all others.”
Ward-Perkins presents his evidence in a very nicely written, short but compelling work. Its limited focus may limit its interest to the general reader, but in addition to addressing the issue of the economic and cultural health of Western Europe in the late Roman period and Dark Ages, Ward-Perkins provides an idea of the difficulties faced by the ancient historian, and of how archeological evidence is used to piece together a picture of ancient life. If you are looking for a sweeping historical narrative, this is not the book for you. But if you are interested in reviewing some of the nuts and bolts used in constructing historical theories, The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization is the book for you.