The Fall of the Roman Empire – Peter Heather

I started reading this favorite again as I was reading ‘How Rome Fell’ and trying to compare its coverage of the subject of the Fall of Rome to this book. It came up short in most respects because, for one thing, ‘How Rome Fell’ really was a condensed summary of about two-thirds of the entire history of the empire, with a ‘bonus’ extension into the reconquest under Justinian.

Heather’s book is different – it starts in the 370’s, when the Gothic incursion to escape the Huns got out of hand, leading to the disaster at Adrianople, up until the dissolving of the West a century later. His thesis is simple enough – that the pressure of the migration of the Goths, Vandals, Alans, and Suevi induced by the Huns was too much to be resisted at once, causing parts of the Empire to be occupied, making it weaker, and less able to fight the growth of these occupied areas.  A major secondary disaster was the later move of the Vandals into the rich province of Africa, and the ultimate failure to reverse the situation.

With much of its productive areas occupied or under attack, the West needed some luck, some leadership, and some help to recover.  It didn’t get a lot of any of the three. There was never a combination of good military and political leadership at the same time, except perhaps in the era of Majorian.  Help from the East was inconsistent until very near the end, and the luck of the Empire was pretty much out from start to finish.

Could it have been prevented? I think that it could have been.  If, for example, Stilicho had been able to turn Alaric and the Visigoths into an ally instead of foe then the combined force might well have been able to manage the invasions of Gaul in 406.  In reality, the forces Gaul went unchecked, the Roman general Stilicho was killed by the emperor, and much of the Roman army joined Alaric and sacked Rome in 410. Hard to think of a worse outcome, but even so Rome recovered to a surprising extent in the following decades.

And the idea of using ‘barbarians’ to reinvigorate the Empire is not so far-fetched.  The ‘barbarians’ of Spain were providing troops in the early Empire and Emperors like Trajan and Hadrian a century and a half later.  The Illyrian emperors in the mid 200s saved the Empire that was expanding into their region in the era of Augustus and Tiberius.  Even generals like Stilicho and Ricimer in the twilight years were just a generation away from being ‘barbarian’ but were the backbone of the army.  It isn’t hard to imagine an Empire holding the Mediterranean basin and southern Gaul more or less permanently.

The book is an excellent view and defends its thesis well, using archaeologic information as well as ancient histories.  It shows that the real situation was a lot more complicated than ‘us versus them’ – barbarians wanted to join the empire rather than destroy it, the empires tended to create the barbarian ‘nations’ that they faced, and Rome used the invaders against each other to try to survive.

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