The Fall Of Rome | Essay
Published: Last Edited:
The debate about the fall of Rome and the way it happened is a centuries-old one and its vitality has been undiminished over the years. The traditional theory has the Roman Empire being violently overturned by barbarian Germanic tribes who started invading en masse during the last years of the fourth century. That wasn’t the first time that the Empire had to deal with pressure on its borders, but this time it eventually collapsed because it had already declined as a civilization due to internal problems.
The first scholar to support this line of thought was Gibbon in the late eighteenth century. His great, multi-volume, work goes by the title ‘The Decline and fall of the Roman Empire’, which speaks for itself as for its writer’s thoughts (?). He argued that the most important cause which brought about the end of the Roman Empire was the expansion and gradual predominance of Christianity. First, the new religion and the structures that came with it (such as the church and the monasteries) interfered with the distribution of wealth inside the Empire, by accumulating it in institutions that were inaccessible by the state. Second, its pacifist ideology reduced the army’s will to fight and its theology corrupted the classical ideals through the spread of superstition.
Another scholar arguing along the same lines was Rostovtzeff. He states the Late Empire was in retrogradation?, a sad and decadent remnant of its former self, partly because of the increase in absolutism during the reigns of Diocletian and Constantine and the emperors who succeeded them. Together with Gibbon, his arguments form the core of the ‘traditional’ theory, which puts stress especially on the issue of ‘decline’ as the main reason which made the disintegration of the empire, as a political entity, eventually inevitable. Due to the work of these two scholars, the ‘Fall of Rome’ has ended up being seen as something like the platonic idea of decline.
Along with the traditional theory, we should consider the work of a more recent scholar. Following the same methodological path as Rostovtzeff, Jones credited the barbarians with the destabilization and collapse of the Roman Empire. Their invasions, he argues, should be seen as a destructive agent which placed strain on the Roman administration. At the same time, in a well-known passage, he speaks of a large part of the population that was consuming without producing anything, such as senators, soldiers and the clergy. These ‘idle mouths’, as he calls them, partly a result of barbarian pressure again, at least as far as the army was concerned, was the main reason for the economic waning of the Late Empire.
Jones’ contribution was twofold. To begin with, he proposed a new chronological period, extending further than 476, the date traditionally considered as signaling the moment of death of the Roman Empire. His ending date was 602, the year of the emperor Maurice’s death as he strongly believed that the Roman Empire continued its existence, albeit geographically diminished, in the East, at least until the advent of the Slavic tribes in the Balkans at the end of the sixth century. This way, he managed to provide a connection between late- and post-Roman societies, hinting that there might have been a causal relation between the two. Secondly, he breathed new life in a period that was all but put aside by his contemporaries as of not much particular interest and after him scholars gradually started to perceive the Late Roman Empire in its own right.
This was countered by ‘traditionalists’ in 2005 with the publication of a book under the title ‘The fall of Rome and the end of civilization’. In this book, the author Bryan Ward-Perkins is arguing fervently that the fall of Rome was a violent experience for the people involved, which involved much bloodshed and catastrophe. It was centered more on radical change than gradual transformation and was characterized by decline and resulted in a decline in civilized values which actually that a number of Roman cultural achievements were lost.
Although this view has its merits and should not be discredited without consideration, it needs to be examined carefully because it conceals the danger of oversimplification. First, it can be argued that the author has gone too far with his emphasis on violence and catastrophe. Violence, no matter how hard on a society, is not by principle an agent of radical change which rules out any chance of transformation. Human history is full of violence and it would be surprising if the fourth and fifth centuries did not involve any at all. Despite Ward-Perkins vivid depictions, much of what was considered Roman did not disappear with the Empire. Roman qualities, such as a literate culture, can be shown to have survived as late as the seventh century, proving that the devastating barbaric invasions did not actually have such a devastating effect after all.
Stemming from that, we should examine if there was a specific moment in time when Rome actually ‘fell’. If we cannot point out such an instance, then we should regard it as a more gradual process. Italy, for example, shows that society was able to maintain its order in the face of much devastation. And if, as Ward-Perkins himself admits, ‘there was no single moment, not even a single century of collapse’, then we should discard catastrophist theories as inadequate and try more.
We should also keep in mind that the author comes from an archaeological milieu and, as a result, most of his proof comes from the study of material evidence. Archaeologists of the period tend to be advocates of the notion of decline more often than historians, mainly because such a decline is much more evident in the material remains of the Late Roman era. In addition to that we have to be careful with the origin the evidence. In the case of Ward-Perkins, he doesn’t hesitate to support his theory on data from Britain, but Brittania (i.e. the part of Britain which was conquered by the Romans) had never been the archetypal Roman province. So Britain is far from being the typical example of what happened after the Romans had left the island, particularly given the fact that we can find other provinces of the Roman Empire, which shared a completely different fate, such as Egypt and Syria. When talking strictly about the west, one has to be extremely cautious when trying to combine both the archaeological data with historical sources that might give the impression of continuity. One way approaches, such as the one only just discussed, will not do.
With good reason one might ask what the need of such a dramatic reassertion of the traditional view on the fall of the Roman Empire. The word traditional itself implies the existence of an opposite, neoteric theory.
In 1971, Peter Brown published a book which defied all the assumptions of the traditionalist school. His book ‘The world of Late Antiquity: from Marcus Aurelius to Muhammad’ argues about continuity, transformation, cultural and religious renewal. The enthusiasm that the book was met with in academic circles, especially in the United States, resulted in the banishment of terms as catastrophe, change, crisis and decline. Brown was influenced by the views of an earlier scholar, Henri-Irénée Marrou, who argued that late antique art had not deteriorated and that it should be looked at in its own terms.
Brown was influenced by the work of Henri Pirenne. In his works the Belgian scholar supported that there was continuity to be found in terms of long-distance trade in the Mediterranean which was not affected by the barbarian invasions but collapsed with the great Arabic conquests of the seventh century. Brown placed a new stress on the period resulted in a recent rethinking of Pirenne’s views through the prism of the newly proposed notion of continuity.
Finally, Brown could also be considered an influence because, as we saw earlier, he was the first to propose a causal connection between the Late Roman Empire and the post-Roman era. Thus, given the entailed predominance of continuity which was easily detected in themes such as art and religious belief, a new historical period has been founded with its own characteristics, that of Late Antiquity, in which “some of the basics of classical civilization still survived”. Its boundaries stress from the third to the eighth century, but they are still unfixed, with every writer proposing different dates, according to the issues they deal with.
Brown relied heavily on the methods of historical psychology and psychoanalysis. This methodological innovation is a general trend among scholars of Late Antiquity, particularly those in the United States. They have more or less identified themselves with the kind of history that falls outside the scope of socio-economic history. For example, the history of Christianity has proven very fertile for studying Late Antiquity, especially the effects it has had on different aspects of human life, such as death, sexuality and the family. Thus, this school of thought has made astonishing contributions in such fields as gender and culture history, the history of mentalities and of popular belief. Such methods, however, often tend to function with no respect to periodization and as such they lead to fragmentation.
Indeed, the work of these scholars shows more emphasis towards individuals and their perspectives than to the society they live in. As a consequence, post-modernist theories concerning source analysis have relied heavily on the works of scholars after Brown, while, in the meantime, the old philological approach has been largely abandoned. Ancient texts are dealt with not so much for their narrative value, but as agents the mentality of their authors. Of course, works exclusively focused on different authors have a lot to offer to the ongoing discussion of the period, but dogged commitment to them might create a handicap for our understanding of the period as a whole.
Furthermore, partly as a response to the traditional view of catastrophe, scholars of Late Antiquity have been particularly keen on seeing continuity and transformation. But this attitude can be harmful in two ways. First, the notion of continuity seems to have an overshadowing effect on the particularity of issues in a certain period. If everything is proven to carry on from the past not changed in the least, then historical periods will automatically lose their individual tone, by which it is defined. Simultaneously, by relying to heavily historical sources (as they provide ampler evidence for continuity) we may be overturned by the findings of archaeological research (in the way Ward-Perkins was).
Second, emphasis on continuity and transformation is the expulsion of their opposites from contemporary history books. Terms such as “crisis” and “decline” seem to have been anathematized in modern research and this has started to raise objections, even by scholars who are not polemicists of continuity itself. Powerful words like these falling into disuse can only be detrimental for historiography. These terms are usually avoided because of their moral implications, and it is somehow assumed that if there is decline someone needs to be charged with it. But we always have to bear in mind that history is a science and historians should concentrate purely on the facts of their research.
Nevertheless, Late Antiquity’s impact shouldn’t be confined within strict scientific limits. Continuity along with transformation, apart from being objects of historiographical debate, is also too powerful of terms to be overlooked by contemporary politicians. From 1993 to 1998 a large research project, funded by the European Science Foundation (ESF), brought together scholars from across Europe. Its title was “Transformation of the Roman World” and its aim was to provide a widely accepted interpretation of the fall of Rome, along the lines of a smooth passage to what was to become today’s Europe. Two thousand years after Augustus history is being repeated: the European Union is commissioning its “poets” to create its own foundation myth.
Late Antiquity is a new period that has had to carve its way bravely into powerful, deep-rooted views of modern historiography, much like the barbarians who had to carve their kingdoms fighting against the mighty Roman Empire. But unlike the former, somewhere along the way it had to make sacrifices which rendered it less effective as a means of interpretation and more limited in its scope. Also, it came to associate itself with “allies” with political agendas, who might have promoted it, but in the long term damaged somewhat its credibility in terms of objectivity. After all that, it is not surprising that Avril Cameron, a great advocate of the Brown school, herself admits “‘Late Antiquity’ is in danger of having become an exotic territory”, just before suggesting that it should be tested also in the fields of economic and administrative history.
Pekepersonal thekerkerethoughts-synthesis/LA+med west
Thus far, we’ve witnessed in brief a powerful debate: Ward-Perkin’s book came as a vivid reaction to a whole school of thought formed around Brown’s work, which itself was another dramatic response to an older tradition. But extremism is inherent in violent reactions, because only through opposition one side can define itself and stand out in relation to its adversaries. Naturally, the existence of opposition itself should not lead us to believe that one side is absolutely right, while the other is absolutely wrong (and in most cases they are not). Rather, it should direct us towards an evaluation of the new conclusions that emerged from the conflict and setting the problem on a new base.
However, it should be noted that both books have something in common: they are heavily focused on different geographical areas, where their conclusions seem to be more frequently affirmed. This way, Brown was able to find plenty of continuity in the eastern part of the Empire, while Ward-Perkins discovered a great deal of catastrophe in its former western provinces. As Jones had underlined long before those two, historians often tend to forget that only a part of the Roman Empire actually fell to the barbarians. So, nothing would be amiss if things were so well defined, but they are not. And although it seems that Late Antiquity is better suited for early Byzantine history, there are also those medieval scholars who deem it rewarding to try their hand at the concepts that this new approach brought with it.
Late Antiquity and early medieval history
One of these was jean claude van dam (‘the muscles from brussels’) mouahahhahahaha
Late Antiquity and the barbarians
The exclusion of notions of violence and catastrophe from the debates concerning the fourth and fifth centuries, which Late Antiquity scholars promoted, created a historiographical vacuum and a way had to be found for depicting the relations between the Roman Empire and the new arrivals. If violence could not be used to describe them, then the sources had to be searched for a different sort of evidence. The subsequent reexamination of the sources gave birth to the notion of accommodation.
The first scholar to do that was Walter Goffart. In a well-known book, published in 1980, he described in detail the way that the barbarians were settled on Roman lands. According to Goffart a fairly straightforward arrangement between the late Roman administration and the barbarian tribes can be derived from the sources. The critical feature of this arrangement was that the Empire relinquished its rights on the taxation of the region in which a group of barbarians were settled and instead those taxes would be collected by the barbarians. However, according to this theory, there was no expropriation of land, no partition of it to smaller units to be apportioned and no need for extra money from the tax payers. The only one who had something to lose in the process would be the central administration and this definitely helps explain the fact that there is no sign of any noteworthy resistance from the local population in the regions where the barbarians were settled in this way.
The aforementioned theory was further elaborated by Durliat. After analyzing the sources rigorously, he managed to take Goffart’s theory one step further. He argued that land tax in the Late Roman Empire amounted to no more than 20% of the harvest and it was collected and administered by the curiales. They split it in three and kept one third for their city’s expenses. The other two thirds were then sent to Rome to be used for the needs of the army and the central administration. With the advent of the barbarians, this system was very conveniently transformed to accommodate them: the curiales no longer sent anything to Rome but instead conferred the appropriate amount to the barbarian group that happened settle in their city’s administrative region. Furthermore, he argued that this modus operandi continued unaffected after the fall of the western Roman Empire, in the different successor-states, until the collapse of the Carolingian Empire.
This theoretical synthesis was attractive to scholars, not only due to its clarifying simplicity and astonishing applicability, but also because it served to explain the lack of any negative sentiment in the sources. The importance of it becomes clearer, if we take under consideration that actually there were complaints on the part of the sources, wherever the barbarians had not settled peacefully but by force. As we saw earlier, the curiales were unconcerned if two thirds of the land tax changed recipients, as long as they were still obtaining their part undiminished. One can easily imagine the effect that this argument had on the debate on continuity, especially since it was centered on Western Europe. Of course, this theory didn’t fail to raise some eyebrows.
Liebeschütz criticized Durliat’s arguments on a twofold basis. First, he doubts that late Roman cities actually collected for themselves any part of the imperial taxes and second, he argues quite convincingly that such an agreement would eventually provide little actual security to the settling barbarians, as security is usually better ensured through direct property of the land, than through any fiscal rights. What's more, it seems perfectly reasonable to assume that it was exactly this security that the barbarians were looking for and of course, their position of power during the last centuries of the Roman Empire made sure that they were not likely to settle for anything less.
Moreover, Durliat’s theory was commented on further in an article in 1998. There, Wickham analysis Durliat’s arguments and dismisses them one by one. Initially, he disagrees that the strict fiscal meaning which the latter ascribes to terms such as possessors and fundus is actually the one intended by the legislators of the fourth and the fifth century and in so doing he undermines the theory from the beginning. But he goes on to challenge other aspects such as the idea that Church constituted a part of the state administration in the post-Roman kingdoms (and thus church property consisted only of fiscal lands) and the view that servus is the term used to suggest a free landowner. By providing hard evidence following the chronological order (Late Empire, Romano-Germanic Kingdoms, Carolingian Empire), Wickham manages to discredit convincingly the arguments about fiscal continuity throughout this period. But, it should be noted that in the end of his article, where he discusses briefly the issue of continuity, he states that while he is not averse to it himself, it should not be considered tantamount to complete absence of change.
However, the predominance of continuity does not sit well with terms like ‘barbarian invasions’ and ‘Germanic immigration’. So, historians had to find ways to circumvent this problem; they started by looking at the ethnic identities of the Germanic peoples, because it could be argued for example that there was no clear-cut sense of common identity between barbarian groups, such as the Goths, or some common characteristics that defined ‘Germanic’ then it would be possible to downplay the importance of the aforementioned terms. This way, Late Antiquity affected another heated debate (and in the meantime was affected by it); that of European national identities.
The contribution of Walter Goffart has been essential at this point. Apart from fiscal continuity, in his Barbarians and Romans, he was also arguing about against the existence of definite ethnic identities among the barbarians. Another centuries-old historiographic tradition before him interpreted the movements of the Germanic tribes according to contemporary political ideas. For example, before the Second World War, Kossina had argued that there was a separate, identifiable culture to be associated with every Germanic tribe we come across in the sources and in 1961 Wenskus had maintained that there was a core of tradition carried by the elite of each barbarian group, according to which the whole mass of the tribe was defined. But, according to Goffart ‘migrations have served as the factual underpinnings of early Germanic unity’. Thus, if he could prove that no such unity actually existed, the migration and invasion theories would lose all sense.
Indeed, he argues for a ‘short history’ of these peoples oblivion was a result of translocation. The common past of these peoples at any point stressed as back as the time before their last migration. He refuses to use sources of the sixth century such as Jordanes because, in his opinion, they only reflect the ideas of their own times and cannot be trusted for their evidence of the distant past. Finally, after taking under consideration also the deductions of archaeological research, he thinks that, if one wanted to look at the discontinuity provoked by the advent of the barbarians, he should definitely put the emphasis on Rome and its security. It was the appeal that the Empire had on the barbarians and not their own expansionist agendas that brought about the fall, in an ‘imaginative experiment that got a little out of hand’.
It is therefore clear that Late Antiquity has given historiography of ethnic identities new areas of research to explore. This process gets even more complicated with the interference of modern international politics and historians of the Early Middle Ages recently find themselves and their research at the center of contemporary political debates. One can discern a pseudo-history in the making, which serves political and nationalistic purposes in the sense that it tries to define distinct nations that were created centuries ago once and for all. Another assumption is that by right these nations should form separate political entities, according to their defined ethnicity and territory.
To sum up, the search for continuity of the Late Antique scholars might not have been successful in the field of fiscal policies and accommodation but it ascertained the fact that we cannot presume long histories and ethnic identities of the Germanic peoples. This certainly confirmed transformation instead of catastrophe and crisis for some aspects of the fourth and fifth centuries but it surely proved that there was much discontinuity and heterogeneity concerning the notion of identity. And since the Early Middle Ages are of such a great importance in the international political stage, scholars of the period should benefit from the results of research in this field in order to prevent their academic field from becoming a plaything in the hands of international politics.
(…Projecting their own experiences on another period of time (as historians often do)
A = Heather, P., The fall of the Roman Empire: a new history of Rome and the barbarians (London and Oxford, 2005)
B = Ward-Perkins, B., The fall of Rome and the end of civilization (Oxford, 2005)
C = Cameron, A., The Mediterranean world in Late Antiquity 395-600 (London, 1993)
D = Marcone, A., “A long Late Antiquity? Consideration on a controversial periodization” Journal of Late Antiquity, 1 (2008), 4-19.
E = Jones, A.H.M., The Later Roman Empire, 284-602 a social, economic and administrative survey (Oxford, 1964).
G = Wickham, C., The inheritance of Rome: A history of Europe from 400 to 1000 (London, 2009).
H = Innes, M., An introduction to Early Medieval Western Europe, 300-900 (London, 2007).
I = Brown, P., The world of Late Antiquity: from Marcus Aurelius to Muhammad (London, 1971).
J = Liebeschütz, W., “Cities, taxes and the accommodation of barbarians. The theories of Durliat and Goffart” in Noble, T. F. X. (ed.), From roman provinces to medieval kingdoms (New York, 2006), 309-323.
K = Wickham, C., “The fall of Rome will not take place” in Rosenwein, B. H., Little, L. K. (eds.), Debating the Middle Ages (Oxford, 1998), 45-58.
L = Goffart, W. A., Barbarians and Romans A.D. 418-584: the techniques of accommodation (Princeton, 1980)
M = Goffart, W. A., “The barbarians in Late Antiquity and how they were accommodated in the West” in Noble, T. F. X. (ed.), From roman provinces to medieval kingdoms (New York, 2006), 235-261.
N = Wood, I., “Barbarians, historians and the construction of national identities” Journal of Late Antiquity, 1 (2008), 61-81.
O = Heather, P., “Late Antiquity and the Early Medieval West” in Bentley, M. (ed.), Companion to historiography (London, 1995), 69-87.
P = Noble, T. F. X., “Romans, barbarians and the transformation of the Roman Empire” in Noble, T. F. X. (ed.), From roman provinces to medieval kingdoms (New York, 2006), 1-27.
Cite This Essay
To export a reference to this article please select a referencing stye below: