The Fall of the Roman Empire by Peter Heather

Book Review by Virgil61

The fall of the Western Roman Empire is a topic that is at the heart of any complete analysis of Roman civilization and one that has held immense fascination for centuries. Its causes are a contentious and well-traveled path scholars (and amateurs) have argued since Gibbon. It is a daunting task, even for an established professor of classics to tackle, and Peter Heather tackles it with an intelligent, well-argued work of over 450 pages that takes the reader on an examination of the military and political aspects of that era. The layout is also well thought out even containing 19 pages of succinct biographies of key individuals mentioned, a timeline, a glossary of important terms of late antiquity, a healthy amount of notes one would expect from a scholar and a bibliography. Perhaps my only disappointment is with the bibliography, seeing the attention to detail given in the layout of this work I wished Heather would have included a narrative bibliography rather than a mere listing.

In the words of the author, the fall of the Western Roman Empire was one of the definitive markers in European history alongside the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Industrial Revolution. Heather gives an important and probably understated overview of the status of scholarship on the period known among contemporary scholars as the Late Antiquity, AD 300-600 (I'm rather hearted by the fact that he continues to use the BC/AD nomenclature). Large strides have occurred in the study of Late Antiquity in the last forty years that have turned many of the accepted beliefs of that era on their head. One of the author's stated goals is the integration of that information, which often tends to be specific and compartmentalized according to the specialty of the historian involved, with source material from surviving writings into this more over-arching narrative.

One major argument presented is the effect the Romans had on the economic development of the German tribes. This theory is an essential one for the author. The effect of economic wealth garnered by proximity to Rome by the nearest German tribes was a double-edged sword. Its supported by the evidence of recent archeological discoveries showing a transformation among German tribes between the Rhine and the Elbe. By the late first century BC Roman coins were commonly used as tender in the Germanic areas and there were villages dedicated to production of goods for trade with Rome. This concentration of wealth not seen before contact with Rome had drastic consequences for the tribes. Some stayed loyal to Rome, some veered between loyalty and combat. Germanic tribes on the periphery raided and looted those closer (and wealthier) to the Roman frontier. Most importantly tribal affiliations became more concentrated into larger confederations from the 3rd century on leading to stronger political and military entities among the Germans and with ominous consequences for Rome.

Conventional wisdom has it that the high burden of taxation worked to weaken the peasant class, led to lessen the tillage of land and make the population ambivalent to the empire's survival. Heather brings new archeological evidence to bear based on the work of Georges Tchalenko and others which points to the opposite conclusions in large parts of the empire; that agriculture was not only stable but expanding yields at rates better than any time in the empires history. The major exceptions, and perhaps the reason for the conventional wisdom of a lagging agrarian sector, were parts of Gaul and Italy. The reasons he states, were obvious; Gaul was adjacent to the rumbling German tribes and Italy, which treated with special privileges in the Republic and Principate, lost its tax-free status shortly after the capital's move to Byzantium curtailing production incentives.

Cities themselves had changed substantially in late antiquity. Gone for good were the councils of local elites elected who often invested their own wealth and with that of the taxpayers for the good of their cities, cities whose constitutions recent evidence had shown had been carbon copies sent from Rome and edited to conform to local realities. In their place bureaucrats began to be appointed by the emperor as his local representative and the taxation, appropriated for local spending, was tacked on to the original tax for the emperor and the greater good of the empire. With less power at their hands local elites slowly withdrew from active participation in city life opting instead for appointments to the central bureaucracy whose responsibilities were far less focused on local issues.

The importance of these landowning elites and their relationship with the government was an essential feature of Roman rule. Perhaps 5% of the populace, Heather states they owned well over 80% of the land and lived in relative comfort vis--vis the rest of the population. It was these elites the Romans depended on for local control and it was from these elites that the majority of participants in political life at the local and empire level came from.

Heather points to the empire's fourth century wars with Persia as having an incalculable effect on taxation and governance. The confiscation of funds for local development led to the dissolution of the unity of the old self-governing cities with profound consequences for the coming years. When the Persian problem was finally laid to rest in the latter part of the century, the West's real problems had begun to stir up with a vengeance in the north with the arrival of the Huns. The author casts great doubts on the theory that the Huns were the descendents of the Hsiung-Nu remnants driven west by the Han. The passing of 300 years, differences in political structures, culture differences and so on, he claims, reveal little in linkages between the two.

Whatever the origins, the Huns appearance, probably lured by the wealthier area of the northern Black Sea, changed the strategic complexion of the West. Among other things, this led to the antagonistic Gothic movement into the Empire's territory. Contrary to popular history request for settlement was in some ways considered a blessing. Valens could now take the opportunity to be more lenient during provincial levies by using Gothic units as part of the price of entry and pocketing the revenue due new recruits. It all went terribly wrong when the corrupt local Roman officials exploited them and attempted to slaughter their leadership in a botched ambush. This culminated in the Goths running rampant in Thrace and Macedonia until Valens could transport his eastern troops to do battle while at the same time the western Emperor Gratian would move his units to link with his. Disaster at Adrianople was due to two mistakes. First Valens underestimated the number of Goths and their allies by a large number probably realizing this only when a mix of thousands of Alan and Goth cavalry overtook his heavy cavalry on the left flank. Secondly, he sided with advisors who counseled to fight before Gratian arrived in order to obtain the glory for himself and his army. In spite of the historical and political importance of the battle, Valen's army may have only numbered around 15,000 or so. If this is true this may largely discount later analysis on the effects this had on late Roman military tactics and organization.

The ensuing movement of the Goths within Roman territory had a tremendous impact on the political climate of the Western Empire. The Goths wavered between combat and co-operation with the emperor, wanting a permanent territory to settle in and, at least among its elites, craving the symbolism and accolades Roman titles conferred. In addition to the Goths, Rome (or rather Ravenna) had to cope with a series of usurpers in Gaul, incursions and settlement of the Vandals into Spain, Hunnish encroachments, German raids and Alans. Each group at various intervals played the role of ally or enemy of Rome a prospect that even the most historically minded reader may get confused with.

In addition to the mess above were the internal divisions in the empire. Attempted usurpers, especially Constantine III in Gaul sapped the military, economic and political strength of Rome. Even the Eastern Empire wasn't adverse to playing the game, giving support when it benefited them, withholding when it didn't and on at least one occasion almost going to war with the West over control of Illyria, a province rich in manpower to supply the armies.

Into this stepped what Heather calls the last great Roman figure of the West, Flavious Aetius. He recounts Aetius' success in stabilizing the empire in Gaul, his shrewdness in retaining power but not title in order to garner aid from Constantinople and his ability to form alliances with Huns and Germans in order to maintain his goals. Unfortunately, in one of the ultimate ironies of history the fate of Carthage plays a key role in the fall of the Western Empire. With Aetius' "eyes off the ball" in Gaul, the Vandals in who had been contained in the western part of that northern Africa overtook Carthage, now an important trading post and second largest city in the West, and most importantly the fertile lands where much of the empire's grains were grown. This loss of its most wealthy province is in the author's view one from which it could not recover. The defeat of an expedition sent to retake the province by Constantinople was the final nail in the coffin of the Western Empire.

Peter Heather has written a masterful book, one that anyone interested in the fall of Rome should read. His "components of collapse" don't involve a peaceful assimilation of Germanic tribes wanting to become Romans. Instead he describes the approach of the Huns as contributing an "exogenous shock" which spurred politically maturing German "super-tribes" into conflict with the West. These intrusions were unwanted, brutal and nasty in many cases forcing local Roman elites to come to terms with the new realities. The author makes the observation that while succession problems were always ongoing in Rome, the new realities demanded a stable Emperor and political structure to respond to them, something that never quite happened.

I highly recommend Peter Heathers "The Fall of the Roman Empire" as a well-written and argued account of the West and Late Antiquity. With up to date scholarship, inclusion of the latest in archaeological evidence and excellently laid out for the reader it should be a welcome addition to anyone's Roman history bookshelf.

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