This is a review that I did some earlier in the year and forgot to share here.Was the end of Roman power in the West a cataclysmic event? The prevailing trend has been ‘I think not’ but Bryan Ward-Perkins begs to differ. Lots of archaeological evidence which is fascinating. To me, anyway.
Ward Perkins is weakest on why he thinks the empire collapsed in the west, though to be fair he was trying to sum up the various of reasons that have been proposed over the years. One of the points he makes about the impact of its collapse is that the archaeological evidence seems to point to the end of a relatively sophisticated consumer economy. I’ve seen this article doing the rounds that is pessimistic about the longevity of our modern consumer economy.
It’s tricky making too many parallels between our era and that of the late Roman empire. But one possible parallel is that, in the western empire, wealthy landowners were less and less willing to cough up funds to maintain the empire (which mostly meant paying the army). But it was the existence of the Roman state that that make the a relatively complex economy possible. As a result, the burden fell on the curial and lower classes. In the end, the Germanic kings seemed to be as good an alternative.
Happy reading, everyone!
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The Western Roman Empire collapsed by 476. Beset by Germanic tribes from without and economic stagnation within, it was the culmination of a process that began nearly a century earlier with the annihilation of a Roman army at Adrianople.
Or did it? Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity sparked an influential school of thought suggesting a gentler transition into the post-Roman world. In essence, ‘late antiquity’ is seen as a distinct cultural phenomenon that differed profoundly from classical antiquity. Though Roman state power was ended, and though there were certainly sieges and battles, the period witnessed a convergence between Romans and non-Romans into new cultural units. Regionalism, a process in train since the third century, led to a growth of economic self-sufficiency based on the large villa and a decline in the importance of many cities. Christianity, which replaced the state-sponsored paganism of the classical period, also provided parallel structures that took over some of the functions of the state. While there is certainly not a universal consensus amongst scholars about how and why this process unfolded, those influenced by Brown’s work emphasise the gradual and relatively peaceful nature of the transition.
Bryan Ward-Perkins’ The Fall of Rome argues that the end of Roman state power in the west shoul be seen in catastrophic terms. He examines archaeological evidence to suggest that the collapse of Roman power had a profound negative effect on the lives of many of its citizens and led to a collapse in living standards. It was profoundly unpleasant for many of those who lived through the process. After a re-statement of the transformation thesis, Ward-Perkins examines some of the evidence that suggests how disruptive this process was. In the Life of Severinus, we see a Roman province attacked time and again. Not that he argues that the Romans were ‘the good guys’ in this process. The massacre of the families of Gothic soldiers in North Italy after the execution of Stilicho certainly made Alaric more determined to wrest a settlement for his people from the Roman state.
There then follows a section on the road to Imperial collapse, and this is by far the weakest part of the book. In particular, the question of why the west collapsed whilst the west did not is treated in a rather cursory manner. To be fair, the focus of the book is to argue about the impact of the event, rather than why it occurred. Where Ward-Perkins is really engaging is his discussion of the late Roman economy. The decline of pottery distribution in Britain, the changing pattern of urban settlement in North African towns and the changes in building from stone to wood all point to a diminution of living standards amongst the general population.
The Roman state allowed the development of a quite sophisticated economy. The evidence suggests that, while there was certainly an extraordinary concentration of wealth within the Roman elite, broad sections of the population also benefitted. The removal of this state led to an extraordinarily rapid end of urban civilisation in Britain. Roman urban settlements were by and large abandoned in toto within 20 years of Roman troops leaving the province.
This might not be the best place to begin if you are looking at the late Roman Empire in the west for the first time. There is little narrative to put events into context. At times it steers close to polemic, but it is certainly engaging.