A Few Questions for Peter Heather
Yesterday, Peter Heather the author of The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Roman and the Barbarians taught us about the Battle of Hadrianople. Today he has kindly answered a few questions for OUP.
OUP: Have you always been interested in Roman history? What inspired you to write this book about the fall of Rome, rather than tackle an easier Roman period?
Peter Heather: My interest in Roman history is all my mother’s fault. She was a frustrated historian, I think, and we were always going to Roman forts and villas, of which there are plenty in Britain. She’d visited Pompeii when young, but we never left Britain when I was a kid; my parents both found ‘abroad’ rather threatening I think.
The whole point of the fall of Rome is that it is difficult and therefore interesting. Trundling one more time through Caesar, Augustus, or Caligula would hold no pleasure for me. Fundamentally, I like complicated puzzles, where the answer slowly emerges from lots of interlocking lines of inquiry, and the late Roman period entirely suits that mentality.
OUP: Why is there so much controversy over the fall of Rome? Why don’t we know what happened?
Heather: There’s a huge amount of controversy because, in a sense, there’s just the right amount of surviving information to stimulate it. The fourth and fifth centuries are very well documented in relative terms for Ancient History both in terms of texts and – now – archeology, so there’s lots to get your teeth into, but not so well documented that final answers can be read off from the sources. Add to that the fact that its such an iconic event in European history. For classicists, who’ve dominated European educational thinking from the Renaissance until very recently, it was a huge disaster: the end of the ancient world of philosophy and rationality. In the era of nationalism, from the nineteenth century, on the other hand, Rome’s fall seemed to give birth to the direct ancestors of modern nation states and this could only be a good thing. What we’ve got, therefore, is an explosive cocktail of vested interests quarreling over a very big event.
OUP: How did you do your research for this book? What sort of sources did you use?
Heather: Although I wrote the book in one sense very quickly – about six months – I have actually been teaching and thinking about the subject for more or less 25 years now. There is a strong sense in which it is the summation of all that thought. I am fundamentally a historian rather than an archaeologist, so the book rests primarily on historical sources, but I do also bring in at least the big picture as it seems to be emerging from recent archaeological research.
OUP: Are there reliable historians from the Roman Empire that you study or other remaining narratives?
Heather: Reliable is such a difficult word! The book relies heavily in narrative terms on the ancient genre of classicizing history – history fashioned after Herodotus and Thucydides amongst others – which concentrated on detailed accounts of contemporary events. This genre was alive and kicking in the fifth century and gives us lots of information. But this History was a branch of rhetoric in the ancient conception, in other words historians weren’t simply aiming to report the past, but to present a persuasive account of it, using every literary trick in the book to bolster their view. In a sense, the better the historian therefore the more danger that you might be taken in. There is also the fundamental problem that, in the ancient conception, events were driven forward entirely by the virtues and vices of individual actors, with no role for big forces of social and economic transformation: a bit like explaining the rise of the US to superpower status entirely in terms of the personality traits of particular presidents with nothing about coal, steel, railways or immigration. There are sources which contain more and less information, therefore, but none whose account can simply be accepted at face value. The most accessible example, and one of the most detailed and interesting is Ammianus Marcellinus, who knew an unbelievable amount about his own times, and gives us our only account of the Battle of Hadrianople. But Ammianus was a clever writer with axes to grind, so users beware!
OUP: When did the Roman Empire collapse? Was there a defining moment? Or did it happen gradually?
Heather: Lots of possible answers to this! In a strong sense, once you have more groups of outsiders – barbarians as Romans called them – on Roman soil than the Empire can hope to neutralize then its merely a question of time before local Roman elites have to do deals with them and the unraveling of Empire follows. This had happened by 410, thanks to the Huns in my view, and from then until 476, when the last west Roman Emperor is deposed, we are merely watching the logical consequences of barbarian intrusion work themselves out. That’s the wide angle picture, but there were contingencies. As late as 468, when a huge attack on the Vandals fails, it would have been possible in my view to rescue a rump western Empire comprising Italy, North Africa, Spain and Southern Gaul. This would have been no small beast in the jungle.
OUP: Are there lessons to be learned from the fall of the Roman Empire that modern societies should head? How can the US avoid a similar fate?
Heather: The really pertinent lesson, I think, is that the very act of being an Empire – dominating a space and using your power to set up relations across it which benefit yourself – generates an entirely natural reaction amongst everyone else. Outsiders organize themselves to make the best of this set of circumstances, and, in the long term, this naturally and inevitably undermines the power advantage which made you an Empire in the first place. 400 years of Roman domination eventually created a process of development which produced political entities in the Near East and Europe which were capable of parrying Roman power, and when that happened, the Empire unraveled. What this suggests to me is that, as an Empire, one should not be too aggressive in your dealings with others and accept that in the long-term processes of development will in the end bring others to the fore. This doesn’t have to mean total collapse as in the case of Rome if you’re willing to renegotiate relationships when the old order of domination has become anachronistic.
OUP: How much did Attila The Hun’s reign of terror affect the collapse of Rome?
Heather: In my view, Attila is only a sideshow. The Empire fell not because Attila conquered it, but because groups settled on Roman soil removed large areas of its tax base from central control. Its tax revenues came primarily from agriculture so the loss of provinces meant the loss of imperial life blood, and eventually it didn’t have enough funds to keep big armies in the field and that was that. The main effect of the Huns came before Attila’s time: pushing too many barbarian groups too quickly onto Roman soil – in 2 pulses, one 375-80, the other 405-8 – for the Roman state to be able to neutralize them.
OUP: What was the role of Persia in all of this?
Heather: Easy to forget, since Persia is nowhere near the western Empire and never entered let alone conquered any part of it. But arguably the rise of Persia to superpower status in the third century was the single biggest erosion of the strategic power advantage, which had originally allowed the Roman Empire to come into existence, that there ever was. The actions of Huns, Goths and Vandals only make sense when you realize that much of the slack in the imperial system had already been used up combating Persia.
OUP: What was the role of internal limitations within the Roman system?<
Heather: The Empire is the biggest state western Eurasia has ever seen, and ran using primitive communications and technologies. The catastrophic political effects of introducing armed outsiders into its territories only make sense when you realize that its governmental system were and could only be highly devolved and inefficient. But this was nothing new, it had always been true: hence I prefer the language of limitation not weakness…
OUP: What is your favorite book?
Heather: My sons often ask me this kind of question and I don’t really know the answer: depends what mood I’m in! I use to love complex Le Carre type spy novels, but the fall of communism has really messed up the genre. O’Bryan’s Master & Commander series are great for planes, but I’m also a sucker for Sherlock Holmes (though his solutions usually involve cheating in that he has info which you don’t) and Jane Austen. I also love good history of all periods. Being a late Roman/early medieval historian means you have to be by nature a comparative one: there isn’t enough info from your own period so you’re always looking for inspiration from others.