Today we present a dialogue between Bryan Ward-Perkins and Peter Heather. Ward-Perkins and Heather are colleagues at Oxford University and the authors of The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization and The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians, respectively. Both books were published this fall and offer new explanations for the fall of the Roman Empire. Here is part I of their dialogue, part two is available here.
Recent scholarship has argued that the Western Roman Empire did not “decline” or “fall,” but was “transformed” by accommodating new barbarian populations within the Empire’s political and economic structure. You both seem to oppose this argument and view it as a more cataclysmic affair. How would you characterise what happened in Western Europe between 376 and 476 AD?
HEATHER: I am entirely convinced by all the evidence that shows that the late Empire was not being torn apart by irrevocable processes of decline by the fourth century. Where I do part company with some revisionist scholarship, however, is over the argument that, because some Roman institutions ideologies and elites survived beyond 476, therefore the fall of the western Empire was not a revolutionary moment in European history. The most influential statement of this, perhaps, is Walter Goffart’s brilliant aphorism that the fall of the Western Empire was just ‘an imaginative experiment that got a little out of hand’. Goffart means that changes in Roman policy towards the barbarians led to the emergence of the successor states, dependant on barbarian military power and incorporating Roman institutions, and that the process which brought this out was not a particularly violent one.
To my mind, this view of the end of the Western Empire is deeply mistaken. Surely, there were plenty of Roman elements in the successor states, but one key institution was missing: the central authority structure of the Western Roman Empire itself. This had unified much of Western Europe for 500 years, but by 500 AD, had entirely ceased to exist.
Despite some assertions to the contrary, the central empire did not give up land voluntarily to the immigrant groups around whom the successor states formed. Every act of immigration except the first, in 376, was opposed to the best of the Empire’s strength, and even that was an attempt to make the best of an impossible situation. Likewise, every subsequent attempt by the immigrants to expand their position was resisted with determination, and for very good reason. Every loss of territory to an outside group represented a loss of vital, agricultural, tax base, and therefore of the Empire’s capacity to maintain its armies.
What emerges from all this is that the central Empire did not pass away quietly but was fought to extinction over a 70 year period of intense struggle. As the power of the imperial centre collapsed, local Romans had no choice but to make their peace with the new immigrant powers in the land, and their survival made it possible for some (but not all) of the successor states to use some Roman governmental mechanisms. But this kind of post de facto negotiation process absolutely does not mean that the Empire went peacefully. As all the recent evidence for fourth-century economic, cultural, and political vigour might lead us to suspect, the fifth-century Empire fought a long and determined, if ultimately unavailing, struggle for survival.
WARD-PERKINS: Disappointingly (perhaps) I basically agree with Peter here – neither of us have much time for the theory that the empire was quietly ‘transformed’, by the peaceful ‘accommodation’ into it of some Germanic barbarians. We both believe in invasions that were violent and unpleasant, rather than what I have termed the ‘tea party at the Roman vicarage’ theory of settlement by invitation. I probably share Peter’s views, because I have heard him lecture on the subject many times, always with great conviction! Anyway, the idea that the fifth century was more peaceful than violent, just doesn’t fit the facts. Some degree of accommodation between invaders and invaded was possible, particularly over time. But I argue that the horrors of invasion are undeniable, and were often protracted, and that adjusting to rule under Germanic masters was painful and difficult for the Romans, used as they were to lording it over the known world.
Why was the Western Empire unable to fight off the fifth-century military challenge?
HEATHER: The old view was essentially that internal decline had destroyed its capacity to resist: moral decadence, depopulation, lead poisoning, the debilitating effects of its recent conversion to Christianity, or another internal cause of your choice. It is important to remember that the Empire had always had important limitations. The inherent limits of its largely agricultural economy meant that output could not be increased dramatically should new revenues and manpower be required to face new threats (the Romans failed, in other words, to invent either the tractor or chemical fertilizers). It had bureaucratic limits which affected its capacity to mobilise resources, and, perhaps above all, political limits. Its sheer size, especially after the rise of Persia to superpower status from the third century (see below), meant that power needed to be shared for administrative reasons, but political stability was immensely difficult to achieve. Any period of unity was always likely to be succeeded by another of internal rivalry or even civil war. But all of this had always been true, and won’t explain the catastrophic collapse of the fifth century. In my view, the roots of collapse have to be sought in the outside world, among the barbarians. I should say that I use ‘barbarian’ here only in the sense of ‘outsider’ (one of its Roman connotations).
First, in the third century, a new dynasty, the Sassanians, united what is now largely Iran and Iraq with the overt aim of overthrowing Roman hegemony in the Near East. Rome, for the first time, faced a rival superpower, which quickly inflicted three huge defeats on the Empire’s existing military establishment. New and bigger armies needed to be raised, therefore, as well as the funds to pay for them, and one Emperor was now required more or less permanently on the Persian front. The result was the so-called Third Century Crisis, which saw the Roman Empire go through 50 years of painful adjustment until, by c.300 AD, this new Persian threat was parried. Parried, though, not defeated, and this is a key point. After 300 AD, Persia remained a superpower and about a third of the Empire’s forces had always to be stationed on the eastern front. This directly affected its capacity to deal with further crises elsewhere, as did the fact that most of the available fiscal slack in its generally rigid agricultural economy had already been used up to fund the larger military establishment raised to face down the Persians.
This further ‘barbarian’ crisis duly unfolded towards the end of the fourth century on the Empire’s European frontiers brought on by the intersection of two separate phenomena. First, the Germanic world had been through a social, political, and economic revolution since the first century. Germanic socio-political units were now larger and more powerful than they ever had been before. Second, the Huns – the latest of what were clearly, in the ancient through to the later medieval period, periodic intrusions into central Europe of originally steppe nomadic groups – convulsed this hinterland in the generation after 375, especially in two particular moments of crisis, 376-80 and 405-8. By 410, enough barbarians were inside the western Empire to push it into a vicious circle of decline as its military assets were burned up in battle and its agricultural tax base eroded by warfare and forced grants of territory made to different barbarian groups.
Once inside the Empire, the barbarian immigrant groups continued to unify, producing still larger and yet more powerful entities that the Empire could not hope to dismantle. The result was a reversal of the strategic power advantage that had brought the Empire into being, so that these new, and more powerful, barbarian groups were able to carve out kingdoms for themselves from the Empire’s living body politic. This was no peaceful process, even if, in its aftermath, some local Roman elites came to terms with the new powers in the land, and hence made it possible for these kingdoms to show some Roman features.
The existence of odd Roman elements must not, however, mislead us into thinking that we are looking at anything other than a revolution. The new states that emerged were not mini-Roman Empires. Key institutional differences – the absence of professional armies funded by large-scale taxation amongst others – as well as entirely different cultural patterns in areas such as elite literacy – the Classics – mark them out as entirely different kinds of entity from the Empire which preceded them. This was a highly violent process which both marked the culmination of long-term patterns of development in the periphery of the Empire and set European history off on a new course.
WARD-PERKINS: When it comes to explaining the fall of the Western Roman Empire, we both believe that a series of unfortunate events was central to the story. Events (such as the arrival of the Huns), and chance play bigger parts in both our accounts, than deep structural weaknesses. I even argue that the eastern Roman Empire, which survived until Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, was saved, not because it was structurally stronger than the West, but mainly because it happened to have been dealt a favourable geographical hand. A thin band of sea separated and protected the heartlands of eastern prosperity (in Asia Minor and the Near East) from the barbarian-infested Balkans.
It is interesting that both of us should prioritize events and chance over structural change, because this seems to be the way that historians are moving right across the spectrum of historical thought. When I was a student, in the early seventies, we were all into profound structural changes, that swept people along inexorably; and we viewed events as banal and superficial. Nowadays (and probably it is just another fashion), individuals and concatenations of events, all of which might have gone differently, are seen as central to human history. In theory at least, according to modern thinking, I might be writing this sentence, not in England, but in a still-extant province of Britannia – if a few things had only gone better in the fifth century.
HEATHER: Here, there’s maybe a bit of difference between us because I do believe in the importance of structural change outside the Empire. It’s the argument I start to develop in the last chapter of my book, but much more elsewhere, namely that having to co-exist with a large and aggressive Empire pushes neighbouring populations into processes of socio-economic and political change, the end result of which is to generate societies more capable of parrying the Empire that started everything off. There is, in other words, a kind of Newton’s Third Law: to every Empire there is an opposite and equal reaction which undermines the preponderance of power in one locality on which the original Empire was based. This, in my view, is what happens in spades in the Near East with the Sassanians, and is already happening in important ways in non-Roman Europe, when the Huns come along to generate a precocious unity among the Germani. But, given enough time, the Germani might have got there anyway!
Click here to read the rest of the dialogue.
Bryan Ward-Perkins is the author of The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization and teaches at Trinity College, University of Oxford.
Peter Heather is the author of The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians and teaches at Worcester College, University of Oxford.