Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

The Fall of Rome – an author dialogue

As promised, here is ‘part two’ of the dialogue between Bryan Ward-Perkins and Peter Heather, colleagues at Oxford University and the authors of two recent books on the collapse of the Roman Empire; 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. Today they discuss the consequences of ‘the fall’ on western Europe and why they both decided to write about the fall of Rome at the same time. You can read the first part of their discussion by clicking here.

How important was the fall of the Western Roman Empire, in terms of its consequences for the history of Europe?

Ward-Perkins: Peter is primarily a historian of the state and of the army, while my background and intellectual roots are mainly in Archaeology; so our approaches to this question inevitably do differ. Peter prioritizes the collapse of a great power, in terms of its political and social consequences – above all, how landed aristocrats, once operating within a finely tuned and empire-wide system of patronage and status, had to adjust to life under heavily militarized and locally-based Germanic kings.

My book, and this is its major novelty, concentrates on the impact of the fall of the West on daily life, as revealed by a mass of new archaeological research over the last few decades (which I hope is presented in a readable and approachable manner). I argue what is currently an unfashionable view (though, in my opinion, it is blindingly obvious) – that the Roman world brought remarkable levels of sophistication and comfort, and spread them widely in society (and not just to a tiny elite); and that the fall of Rome saw the dismantling of this complexity, and a return to what can reasonably be termed ‘prehistoric’ levels of material comfort. Furthermore, I believe that this change was not just at the level of pots and pans, important though these are, but also affected sophisticated skills like reading and writing. Pompeii, with its ubiquitous inscriptions, painted signs, and graffiti, was a city that revolved around writing – after the fall of the empire, the same cannot be said for any settlement in the West for many centuries to come.

Roman Coins - Fall of Rome
Image credit: “Brutus, who drove out the Kings of Rome” – Lequenne Gwendoline, CC by S.A. 3.O, via Wikimedia Commons.

I recommend caution in praising ‘Civilizations’ (whether Roman, or our own), and I do emphasize that ‘civilizations’ have their downsides. But, equally, I think the current fashion for treating all cultures as essentially the same – and all dramatic changes (like the end of the Roman world) as mere ‘transformations’ from one system, to another equally valid one – is not only wrong, but also dangerous. It evens out the dramatic ups and downs of human history, into a smooth trajectory. This risks blinding us to the fact that things have often gone terribly wrong in the past, and to the near certainty that, in time, our own ‘civilization’, and the comforts we enjoy from it, will also collapse.

Heather: I never know, really, how to judge good & bad in global terms when looking at any societies. I am very sure, though, that the effects of Rome’s fall were huge and felt right across the board. It’s quite common now, for instance, while describing the history of subjects as diverse as Christianity or literacy in this period, to view Rome’s fall as incidental or unimportant. In my view, that is straightforwardly wrong. Late Antique Christianity evolved a series of authority structures, both centrally and locally, which were shaped around and based upon the existence of the Roman state. When that went, these authority structures, even when they survived, changed their nature fundamentally. In shorthand, the medieval monarchical Papacy is inconceivable had powerful western Emperors survived. So too literacy. Patterns of elite literacy, for instance, were based upon the career structures generated by the Empire’s bureaucracy – lots of jobs for those knowing a particular kind of Latin well – and once that bureaucracy went, so did the jobs and the patterns of education and literacy attached to them.

Why two books on the ‘Fall of Rome’ now?

Roman Temple - the fall of Rome
Image Credit: “Roman Architecture” – Photo by AlexVan, CC0 Public Domain, via pixabay.

Ward-Perkins: Even curioser, both books are by scholars from the same university who know each other well. A number of potential explanations spring to mind. Firstly, that the authors hadn’t communicated with each other and were rather cross to learn that the other had just finished a book on the same subject. Secondly, that it was part of a dark plot to overwhelm opposing views, and to ensure decent review coverage – since journals prefer discussing pairs of books to singletons. Thirdly, that this is a really important subject – the fall of a very great power, that dominated the Mediterranean and most of Europe for over five hundred years – that hasn’t been examined in detail for some time, and which cried out for two books, each with a different slant. Peter’s book is an immaculately researched (and highly readable) blow-by-blow account of the events that brought the western empire down; while mine contains only a brief look at the causes of the fall of the West, and spends most of its pages investigating the consequences of this fall (hence my subtitle ‘And the End of Civilization’).

Heather: We both knew we were doing them, I think, but there was a huge amount of chance involved in when our research leaves fell, and hence when we were able to write them. And, as Bryan says, they are to our eyes very different and complimentary books (although it would be interesting to find out if readers thought so too). In broader terms, we are certainly both responding to huge wave of interest in the late Roman period, which has unfolded since the early to mid-1970s. I myself am certainly part of this wave, but, so far, it has tended to carry scholarship forward in lots of different areas at once (mine was barbarians) and hence the energy has generated the raw material for new overviews rather than the new overviews themselves. Bryan and I are both, I think, in part pulling these many different findings together in ways that make sense to us. I would myself expect other people to start wanting to generate new, broader takes on the subject as well.

Featured Image Credit: “Colosseum, Rome, Italy”, Photo by Unsplash. CC0 Public Domain, via Pixabay.

Recent Comments


    empire falls, but not like the movies

    We have inherited memes of empire and catastrophe, of occupation and decline. These stories seem to be the plausible way in which the past is constructed. Built into our popular culture, distorted by collective amnesia, the story of Western…

  2. william cormeny

    The Western Empire and Eastern Empire or Byzantine Empire might have been able together to hold off or restrict Islam to the Middle East and not North Africa and Central Asia.
    It is also possible,with an emperor centered tradition of Councils,Christianity would not fall into division.Furthermore the economic recovery of Europe might have occurred far easier since trade would continue between east and west.However, this ignores the overwhelming number of disasters and invaders entering into all sides of the Roman Empire.German Barbarians and Huns are followed by Islam,the Slavs,the Vikings and Magyars,a fact seldom mentioned in the works.Nor is much made of the far smaller defensive position of the Byzantine Empire for over 650 years.The failure of Charlemagne’s children helped create the enduring legacy of turmoil.
    The Treaty of Verdun marked the end of a reunified Western Empire. The schism in l054 created Central Europe.
    In all cases the significant failure of political forces remained two fold. First,there was concensus regarding the method of succession embodied in either the Eastern or Western Roman Empire.Secondly, the invsions created the feudal states since no central authority could protect the outlying provinces for the loss of the key economic basis of the state,the ability to tax had been wiped out by the Empire’s greedy adherence to fixing people to places.

  3. Jeffrey Lionel Wood

    Do think that your view point is unique?

    Do you think that Edward Gibbon’s theory was based on his sources or the period that he was brought up in?

  4. Bryan Ward-Perkins

    No book on a subject that has been chewed over for more than a thousand years can ever be ‘unique’ – but what is distinctive and new about my book is that it presents (in a way that I think is accessible) the new archaeological evidence, for the consequences of the Fall of the West. None of this was avaialble until recently, and most of it is still only accessible, without synthesis, in scholarly journals.

    The available written sources have not changed that much since Gibbon’s time. One of his most distinctive theories – that Christianity was substantially to blame for the Fall of the Empire – came not from his sources alone, but from these combined with the anti-clerical perspective of the eighteenth-century ‘Enlightenment’.

  5. William Beckman

    For Peter Heather;

    I just finished reading your book and wanted to congratulate you for your entertaining and factual illumination of a most significant and long period of history that most historians have glossed over by simply showing arrows on a map of Barbarian invasions…and then picking up the story with Charlemagne. After all, for better or for worse, these Barbarians picked up the torch of western civilization from the Romans and have carried it till this day making that event one of the major or maybe THE major event in the history of the west.It was most refreshing and enjoyable to read a history of that period based on fact rather than opinions.
    You have connected the dots rather convincingly and have provided many intriquing insights… such as Attila’s court speaking Gothic and having numerous Germani peoples as part of his army.
    This information rhen raises many questions.Did the Germani under Hunnic control learn some battle skills from the Huns such as archery?..or just plain ferocity?… or fighting from horseback?…or tactics? As you pointed out in your book the Vandals quickly learned the art of naval warfare, resulting in the defeat of the Byzatine armada.Would it not be probable then that the Hunnic controlled Germani, over the course of several generations of living with and fighting alongside the Huns,likewise learned some of their lethal warfare techniques? If so, an already formidable Barbarian army would become even more ominous to Rome.Would they have become a fast moving mounted army similar to the Huns after the death of Attila? This may have rendered the slow and methodical Roman army style of fighting obsolete except for defending walled cities. But perhaps these and other questions will be answered in your next book which I eagerly await.
    Best Regards,
    William Beckman

  6. Peter Heather

    The answer is certainly. Tactics & weaponry clearly were pooled to some extent. The post-Hunnic Goths were substantially mounted, for instance, but lancers rather than archers. According to Procopius, this is why mounted Byzantine archers were able to defeat them in Italy in the sixth century.

  7. David Probert

    For Brian Ward Perkins: Such an excellent readable and timely corrective to the gradualist view of a melded Germano-Roman civilisation.

    The subject is so relevant as the New Europe faces problems of identity, mass immigration, religious challenge and common purpose. There are so many parallels in a civilisation unwilling and unable to defend its values and identity after decades of introspection and post Imperial guilt.

    The tragedy lies also in the glimpse you give of how the Empire might have survived and what a difference that would have made to European civilisation.

    I cannot help also feeling that the adoption of Christianity with its ruthless suppression of ancient culture and values played a key part in undermining the identity, way of life and self-belief of the Roman world.The Taliban have so much in common with those early Christian monks!

Comments are closed.