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'The Sacking of Rome 455' by Karl Briullov (1836) 

Seven learned authors, seven substantial books and more than 3,000 pages packed with information on the collapse of Roman power in the West, all published inside four years. Even enthusiasts in this field, like myself, find such an outpouring excessive — a flood of similar titles invoking Fall, Barbarians and Ruin. While these books are subtly different in style and register, ranging from the academic prose and dense end notes of Walter Goffart's Barbarian Tides to the cavalier folksiness of James O'Donnell's The Ruin of the Roman Empire, five of them are aimed at, and priced for, a broad audience and will sell in their thousands (rather than the few hundreds that an academic monograph will attain). Why have so many scholars been busy writing books on essentially the same subject, and why have most of them chosen to pitch their wares at a wider public?

On one level, there is no need to be surprised. The disintegration of a huge empire, which had lasted for 400 years, reached from the Euphrates and the Nile to Hadrian's Wall and turned the Mediterranean for the only time in its history into an inland lake, is always going to be of wide interest. Barbarians and invasions, meanwhile, seem to hold a fascination for boys of all ages — it is surely not a coincidence that all seven books considered here are by male historians. Furthermore, the how and why of the fall of Rome will always be contentious and open to new interpretations, not just because crucial bits of evidence are missing, but also because major historical turning points, however well-documented, are always susceptible to rival explanations. However many archives are opened up and however many documents are made available on the internet, there will, for instance, always be debate over the underlying reasons, and the precise concatenation of events, that brought down the British or Soviet empires — if this were not the case, historians might as well shut up their laptops and retire.

The books we are considering here certainly exemplify the wide range of explanations for the fall of the Western empire which are currently fashionable, and which go far beyond the traditional view that it was overwhelmed by barbarians from beyond the Rhine and Danube, because of internal decline. At one end of the spectrum stands Walter Goffart who, fearful of modern German nationalism, has for decades fought a dogged campaign against any "Germanic" influence in early European history, including any significant role for barbarian invasion in the fifth century. His latest book is entirely true to form. For Goffart, the "Germanic invasions" of the Western empire never really happened, and the barbarian peoples who did settle in Roman territory during the fifth century were largely there at the invitation of the Romans, and then very rapidly adopted Roman ways. Important changes happened, but Germanic settlers played little part in bringing these about — and anyway we should never call these peoples "Germanic", lest this gives modern Germans dangerous ideas about their importance in history. In the early 21st century, this blanket fear of Germanism is perhaps a little obsessive, and more appropriate for an immediately post-war audience — though Goffart has a large and very loyal following among scholars and students in the US and Canada (where he has taught for many years). But whatever one thinks of his conclusions (and I am not a fan), Goffart's ideas are certainly radical: the defeat of Rome and the Germanic invasions do not need to be explained, because they never really happened. 

At the other end of the interpretative spectrum, Peter Heather's The Fall of the Roman Empire sticks firmly to successful invasion and the settlement of Germanic tribes within the empire as the cause of the collapse of the West, compounded by some bad luck and bad management on the part of the Romans. His is the book to read if you are looking for a detailed but clear narrative of the political and military events of the later-fourth and fifth centuries. For Heather, two key factors in the fall of the West were an increase in the size and strength of the Germanic tribes, as they coalesced during the fourth century in order to respond more effectively to the power and blandishments of their Roman neighbours, and the appearance in the 370s on the south Russian steppes of a terrifying new people, the Huns. Barbarian tribes, prodded in the rear by the Huns, and Roman errors of judgment were what brought down the empire, not underlying, let alone increasing, internal weakness.  This belief in continued Roman power is representative of a broad change in historical fashion: almost none of the authors we are considering here believes that Rome's strength had declined significantly before it fell, whereas for Gibbon and most authors of the 19th and earlier 20th centuries, this was axiomatic — it was indeed built into Gibbon's famous title The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  Gibbon blamed Christianity, while later historians often chose whatever was the fashionable crisis of their day (such as racial miscegenation, or class struggle). Rightly or wrongly, belief in grandiose structural weaknesses seems to be frowned on by present-day historians, who instead like to blame historical disasters on human error or simple bad luck.

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August 26th, 2010
9:08 PM
I like nature :)s

September 16th, 2009
2:09 PM wasn't lead in the drinking water

Gary Bowden
September 16th, 2009
12:09 PM
The list omits Thomas Homer-Dixon, The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization (Island Press, 2008). While the balance is different -- this book is explicitly about the future and the possibility of dealing with the intersection of multiple looming crises -- roughly one-third of the book is an examination of the Roman collapse. In contrast to the books reviewed here, Homer-Dixon focuses on the role of a particular structural weakness among the Romans: the inability to generate a level of energy input sufficient to support a civilization the size and complexity of the Roman Empire.

Frank M
September 2nd, 2009
3:09 PM
A good piece. As long as the books are good and can vary themselves enough, so its not just the author's name that is different, then a few of them on the shelves ain't too bad a thing.

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