Empires of Faith by Peter Sarris
Book Review by Ian Hughes
Over recent decades there has been an explosion of publications about the last days of the Western Empire and the rise of the "barbarian" kingdoms: a new generation with an interest in Late Antiquity is making itself heard. One of the main players in this phenomenon is Peter Sarris.
In Empires of Faith - The Fall of Rome to the Rise of Islam, c.500-700 (Oxford, 2011 -Volume 1 in the Oxford History of Medieval Europe) Sarris has written an overview of the period encompassing the Fall of the West to the Rise of Islam in the East and its conquest of much of the old "Roman" world.
Focusing first upon the West, in Chapter 1, "The World that had been Rome", Sarris begins with a quick review of events from the founding of the Empire before Chapter 2, "The Formation of Post Roman Society", gives a more detailed investigation into the social, economic and political status of the Western Empire in its final years.
In Chapter 3, "The Romano-Germanic Kingdoms: the Era of Theoderic and Clovis", Sarris enters into an investigation of the nature of the successor kingdoms in the West. The main focus of this chapter is an analysis of the Germanic kingdoms, especially the arrival and character of the Ostrogothic kingdom in Italy. This allows Sarris to explain the political decline of the West and the rise of the barbarian elites which allowed the formation of new political entities on the ashes of the West, while simultaneously outlining the continuities and the breaks with established Roman practices. The need to cover the arrival of the Goths in Italy forces Sarris to outline their relations with the East, a necessity that breaks Sarris`s attempts to keep the two halves of Empire separate, but there is little that can be done to alleviate the problem.
At this point the reader becomes aware that, although the title suggests a book focusing upon the period from 500-700, approximately one-quarter of the book is used to establish the background necessary for the remainder to be understood. This is a necessary "evil": an attempt to analyse and explain the events from the sixth to the eighth century would not make sense without a detailed overview of what had happened before.
Having detailed events in the West, Sarris turns to the East with Chapter 4, "The View from the East: Crisis, Survival, and Renewal". Returning to the fifth century, Sarris analyses the nature of the Eastern half of the Empire, an overview which emphasises both the similarities and the differences between East and West. Included in this section is an outline of the conquests of Belisarius as well as an examination of the effects of the plague that ravaged the East in the early-mid sixth century, plus the ongoing evolution of the relationship between the emperor and the Eastern Church.
Having finally reached the sixth century in both East and West, in Chapter 5, "Byzantium, the Balkans, and the West: The Late Sixth century", Sarris begins a more-or-less chronological narrative of events during the remainder of the sixth century.
In Chapter 6, "Religions and Society in the Age of Gregory the Great", Sarris examines the nature of Christianity within the boundaries of the old Empire. This is probably one of the most interesting chapters, even to those who have little interest in the rise and shaping of Christianity. Here, Sarris outlines the divergent nature of Christianity from Britain to the Sasanid Empire, in the process highlighting that the process of Christianisation was not the easy, straightforward process seen in old Christian textbooks, but was opposed by many different levels of the societies of the Early Middle Ages, with some aspects of Christianity being viewed with suspicion and hostility, especially in the "barbarian" West.
In Chapter 7, "Heraclius, Persia, and Holy War", Sarris returns to politics, retelling the tale of the debilitating war between Sasanid Persia and the Eastern Empire which so weakened both powers that their ability to resist the onset of the "Islamic explosion" was affected. Naturally, included in this chapter is a brief survey of the actions of Muhammad and the subsequent spread of Islam, plus the collapse of Sasanid Persia. The chapter concludes with an analysis of the reasons for the failure of the two empires to resist the Islamic onslaught.
Chapter 8, "The Age of Division", details the slow evolution of a new eastern frontier between the East and the new Islamic Empire, in the process explaining the evolution of the East`s military response to the new threat and the on-going wars that constantly erupted along the frontiers.
Sarris then reverts to studying events in the West, as in Chapter 9, "The Princes of the Western Nations", he looks at the development of Langobard Italy, Visigothic Spain, Merovingian France, and Anglo-Saxon England. Included is the spread of Islam across North Africa and the collapse of the Visigothic kingdom in Spain.
Finally, in the "Epilogue" Sarris makes a brief conclusion, using the journey of Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury (668-690), as the focal point for his thoughts on the condition of the old Imperial lands at the turn of the eighth century. Although brief, at less than three pages, the conclusions reached echo the narrative of the previous 370+ pages.
The preceding "review" may have seemed little more than a quick paraphrase of the contents of the book, however I feel this is justified, as without such detail it is difficult to emphasise the scope of the work. Sarris clearly outlines the processes which were at work throughout the period under review and highlights those that were responsible for the world view of Medieval Europe and the Middle East. He also manages to assemble a large amount of research material, including both the written and the archaeological, and for this deserves great credit.
The main difficulty faced with the book, as with any attempt at an overview, is the omission of much relevant detail, especially as the main text is less than 400 pages in length. Although necessary, the result is that the book may have omitted any historical trends or events that go against the proposed paradigm. The consequence of the brief narrative is that specialists in one of the many aspects covered by the book be they students, for example, of Late Antiquity, or the Rise of Islam may find themselves disagreeing with some of the specific arguments followed.
Yet this small caveat should not put potential readers off buying the book. This is a much-needed attempt to break the academic trend to partition history into false divisions. The Fall of the West was intimately tied to events in the East, and vice versa, and the collapse of Sasanid Persia and the Rise of Islam did much to influence the thought processes of the West in the Middle Ages.
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Sarris has created an excellent book showing how these different aspects interacted and affected each other, in the process covering a period far longer than that professed by the title of the book. As a result, it is with pleasure that this book is highly recommended.