Ward-Perkins — The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization

[cross-posted on Albion’s Seedlings]

Ward-Perkins, Bryan, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, Oxford University Press, 2005, 239pp.

In an earlier book review article on Peter Heather’s The Fall of the Roman Empire, we got a chance to revisit the subject with a new generation of scholarship at hand … to correct for the prejudices of Edward Gibbon’s contemporaries, to integrate substantially more knowledge about events in the eastern Empire, and to apply more modern perspectives on economics and communication to our understanding of the “Fall.”

The who, when, and where of the Fall have been known for centuries, at least in rough outline. Heather’s book provided a thorough overview of the details. The how and why have also been subject to generations of debate and mountains of written scholarship. Nonetheless, it’s only in the last fifty years that new perspectives on the “what” … as in “what actually happened, where?” have been more fully addressed by archaeology. The details of settlement and material culture which can give us a physical baseline for cultural activities is only now coming into focus.

A comment by Albion’s Seedlings reader “Mark” led me to an online interview with Peter Heather and Oxford colleague Bryan Ward-Perkins … both had co-incidentally written books on the fall of the Roman Empire in the same year (2005). I’d enjoyed Heather’s book so much, and found the online interview so interesting, that I was inspired to borrow Ward-Perkin’s title from the local library.

This second book approaches the subject from a very different vantage point … it reviews the latest perspectives on the why and how of the fall of the Roman Empire, and discusses the material impact of the Fall in the centuries following the abdication of the final western Emperor (476 CE). Finally, it discusses the academic “sugar-coating” of the Fall of the Empire that has taken place over the last 30 years. How did we go from centuries of “The Fall of the Roman Empire” to a “Transformation of the Classical World” in the scholarship of the 1990s? What combination of EU political requirements, post-modern post-colonial fantasy, and New Age religiosity converted the Dark Ages into “Late Antiquity”? The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization goes quite a ways to solving both the historical puzzle and the academic muddle of the 21st century.

This year, we’re not celebrating the 1600th anniversary of the invasion of the Vandals, Alans, and Sueves across the Rhine river, which triggered a fatal seventy year crisis in the western empire. After reading Ward-Perkin’s book, you’ll only be surprised that the EU didn’t commission an anthem, a logo, and a cartoon mascot! By let’s first turn our attention to an outline of Professor Ward-Perkin’s compact, beautifully written book.

The Fall of Rome

To recap the story, by mid-fourth century, the Roman empire stretched over most of Europe (west of the Rhine and south of the Danube), much of Asia Minor and the Levant, and across the entire coast of North Africa. It had divided into two administrative regions governed by separate emperors. Responding to a series of military disasters against the Parthians and Sassanid Persians, the imperial system had reorganized its taxation structure to increase revenues and centralize administration of the provinces. Aspiring Roman landowners no longer built local infrastructure to increase their prestige, they headed to Rome for an elite education and participation in an elaborate, extraordinarily literate, bureaucracy.

In 376CE, a first group of Goths, under dire threat from westward Hunnic migration, made application to cross the Danube and enter the eastern Roman empire for asylum. They were refused. Soon after they invaded south anyway, met and slaughtered a Roman emperor and his army at Hadrianopolis (north of modern Istanbul) and triggered decades of disorder in the Aegean and Balkans by their migrations. The Huns continued to push west and Gothic and Germanic peoples responded with increasingly desperate efforts to be anywhere the Huns weren’t. By 401, the Goths were invading northern Italy, which forced the western imperial command (under a weak emperor Honorius) to strip legionary troops from Britain and northern Gaul. The Goths were beaten, just, but in the winter of 405/406, another group of Germanic peoples crossed the Rhine in mass and entered unprotected Gaul.

From that point forward, the western empire was never without tens of thousands of pre-literate peoples rampaging in some or many of its provinces. By 410, the Goths had returned to Italy, captured Rome, and triggered a massive crisis in confidence in not only the Roman, but now Catholic Christian, worldview. The tax base of Italy collapsed, never to fully recover, and the loss of Britain, Gaul, and soon much of Spain deprived the central authorities of what they most needed to reassert security — money. As Ward-Perkins himself notes:

“In my opinion, key internal element in Rome’s success or failure was the economic well-being of its taxpayers. This was because the empire relied for its security on a professional army, which in turn relied on adequate funding.”

“… [The] chaos of first decade of 5th century will have caused a sudden and dramatic fall in imperial tax revenues, and hence in military spending and capability. Some of the lost territories were temporarily recovered in the second decade of the century; but much (whole of Britain, large part of Gaul and Spain) was never regained, and even reconquered provinces took many years to get back to full fiscal health”

“Military expenditure was by far the largest item in the imperial budget, and there were no massive departments of state … whose spending could be cut when necessary in order to protect “Defence”; nor did the credit mechanisms exist in Antiquity that would have allowed the empire to borrow substantial sums of money in an emergency. Military capability relied on immediate access to taxable wealth.”

Contrary to what’s generally thought:

“The story of the loss of the West is not a story of great set-piece battles, like Hadrianopolis, heroically lost by the Romans in the field. … The West was lost mainly through failure to engage the invading forces successfully and drive them back. This caution in the face of the enemy, and the ultimate failure to drive him out, are best explained by the severe problems that there were in putting together armies large enough to feel confident of victory. Avoiding battle led to a slow attrition of the Roman position, but engaging the enemy on a large scale would have risked immediate disaster on the throw of a single dice.”

And here we face a key fact overlooked by most commentators … and something of ominous import for our own day … the Roman army was never invincible. It’s advantage over most opponents was considerable but it never had absolute nor unshakeable superiority. A series of military disasters (against the Parthians in 54 BCE, against the Germans in 9CE, against the Sassanids in the 3rd century, and especially against the Goths in 378CE) had created huge fiscal and security shocks to the Roman imperial system. The Empire was always in some danger. It was never a sure thing.

In responding to Persian might in the 3rd century, the Romans had created a brittle frontier system extending for thousands of miles. All civilians behind that line were unarmed, and their towns and cities were unwalled. It was a full generation (430CE) after the initial trans-Rhine and Italian Gothic invasions that civilians were, by imperial edict, permitted to carry weapons. It’s worth pointing out that the era between Pompeii’s suppression of the pirates in the mid-first century BCE and the fall of Carthage to the Vandals in 439CE is the longest period of Mediterranean safety in its history. Thus professionalization of security in the empire, and its reallocation to face its most grave danger (the Sassanids), had left huge economically-productive areas to prosper … but they were also extremely vulnerable to even casual predation.

“For the Germanic peoples, unity or disunity was the crucial variable in military strength; while for the Romans, as we have seen, it was the abundance or shortage of cash. … The invaders had no sense of pan-Germanic solidarity, and were happy, when it was to their own advantage, to fight other Germanic peoples in the name of Rome. But they also seem to have been well aware that to fall back into small groups that were characteristic of their life beyond the Rhine and Danube would quite simply be military and political suicide.”

The Romans, when not engaged in civil war triggered by the loss of provincial security, were constantly looking for opportunities where they could meet the Germanic, Gothic, and Hunnic peoples on something approaching parity (with or without a set of Germanic and Hunnic allies). Given an even playing field, Roman military training, equipment, and logistics would slaughter opponents into oblivion. Size, to the invading peoples, was literally life. With so many domestic and security issues to address simultaneously, the western Romans simply never got the chance to apply their superiority in a way that balanced the overall risk. Attrition was the best that they could hope for.

Once the German tribes were firmly across the Roman military frontier (taking advantage of Gothic invasions in Italy proper), they began a long period of movement in Gaul and Spain. Unlike the Goths, who had been stalled at the Straits of Messina in 410 and at the Straits of Gibraltar in 415 or thereabouts, the Vandals (and their allies the Alans) were able to fight their way down from Gaul, through Spain and across the Straits to north Africa in 429CE. Over the next ten years, they were able to capture and control the richest portion of the Roman western empire. Rich because of its agricultural and industrial productivity, and rich because it had only required a single legion for protection from the Berbers to the desert south. North Africa was the western empire’s “cash cow” which had been successfully milked for centuries — grain, olive oil, high quality pottery, the list was extensive. Roman pottery from what is now Tunisia has been found as far away as Iona off the west coast of Scotland.

The overall story, then, was not of overwhelming Germanic or Gothic superiority — a clash of titans — but of a Roman system unable to convert its hinterland from a peace to a war footing before a welter of barbarians broke through to create utter chaos. Whatever treaties were made between Roman central authorities and invading groups were inevitably at the expense of local provincial land ownership and its prosperity. And as Ward-Perkins points out, what might have seemed like peaceable settlement of barbarians was usually matched by violent expansion from those settlements to neighbouring areas. When an armed community unified under a chieftain or king moves into an unarmed civilian population, the balance of power shifts immediately.

Was the West Doomed to Fall? Here, as in Professor Heather’s book, we can identify a number of key moments and key peoples that could have had a counterfactual impact on the survival and rebuilding of the western empire. If emperor Valens had waited for reinforcements at Hadrianopolis in 378CE, if the Goths in Italy had been exterminated in 401, if the Vandals had been turned back at the Straits of Gibraltar in 429CE, much would have been different. If attempts to recapture Vandal Africa had met a little better luck and a bit better command judgment, who knows what would have changed? After all, the eastern emperor retook North Africa in 535. If, during the Ostrogothic control of Italy in the sixth century, they had been able to consolidate control over southern Gaul … we might have seen a Gothic emperor of a reconstituted western empire centuries before Charlemagne’s claims of a Holy Roman Empire.

What we can say, based on a review of all research, is that the internal structure of the eastern empire was not inherently superior to the West. The eastern army butchered in 378CE took generations to reassemble. Constantinople’s reputation as the most elaborate citadel of Roman history was only gained in response to the depradations of Huns and Goths who turned the Aegean, Balkan, and Danubian areas into wastelands. The Huns even managed a raid into Armenia and Syria in 395. It wasn’t eastern Roman innovation or technology or leadership that allowed it to survive and even prosper in the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries.

What was it? Apparently, geography and good luck. The Goths and Huns never managed to cross in large numbers into Asia Minor, the Levant, and Egypt. Roman naval control of the eastern Med held fast. The eastern empire’s “cash cow” was to continue giving milk through the critical fourth and fifth centuries … until Arab conquerors took it over. Here we can turn again to Ward-Perkins:

“By far the largest part of the eastern empire’s tax base (probably well over two-thirds) was safe, and indeed, during the fifth century enjoyed unprecedented prosperity. … War and devastation might of course have been carried into the heart of the eastern empire by other means, and two further factors were needed to guarantee the survival of the East: freedom from civil war … and peace on the Persian frontier”

” …I am very reluctant to believe that a chance geographical difference is central to explaining the remarkable situation at the end of the fifth century (undreamed of only 100 years earlier): an eastern empire, richer and more powerful than ever before; and a western empire that had entirely disappeared. However, the evidence is very strong that a thin band of water, reinforced by sea power and supported by peace on other fronts, was the eastern empire’s greatest defence. Whereas, without this advantage, a series of invasions at the start of the fifth century plunged the West into a vicious spiral of devastation, loss of revenue, and bitter internecine strife – from which it never recovered.”

The author concludes with a discussion of the painful adjustments that the Roman literati and land-owning class needed to make with the Ostrogothic and Visigothic overlords who were now in charge of most of the key provinces of the old western empire:

“Some of the recent literature on the Germanic settlements reads like an account of a tea party at the Roman vicarage. A shy newcomer to the village, who is a useful prospect for the cricket team, is invited in. There is a brief moment of awkwardness, while the host finds an empty chair and pours a fresh cup of tea; but the conversation, and village life, soon flow on. The accommodation that was reached between invaders and invaded in the fifth- and sixth- century West was very much more difficult, and more interesting, than this. The new arrival had not been invited, and he brought with him a large family; they ignored the bread and butter, and headed straight for the cake stand. Invader and invaded did eventually settle down together, and did adjust to each other’s ways — but the process of mutual accommodation was painful for the natives, was to take a very long time, and, as we shall see … left the vicarage in very poor shape.”

The End of Civilization

Ward-Perkin’s summary of the dissolution of the western empire, and the corresponding and counterintuitive prosperity of the eastern empire takes us only part way through this book. Now the author turns to the archaeological record for the period of the Fall and, more importantly, the post-Roman period that led into what we amateurs might think of as the early medieval period.

“It is currently deeply unfashionable to state that anything like a “crisis” or a “decline” occurred at the end of the Roman Empire, let alone that “civilization” collapsed and a “dark age” ensued. The new orthodoxy is that the Roman world, in both East and West, was slowly, and essentially painlessly, “transformed” into a medieval form. However, there is an insuperable problem with this new view: it does not fit the mass of archaeological evidence now available, which shows a startling decline in the western standards of living during the fifth to seventh centuries. This was a change that affected everyone, from peasants to kings, even the bodies of the saints resting in their churches. It was no mere transformation — it was decline on a scale that can reasonably be described as “the end of a civilization”.”

To buttress his overall argument, the author takes us on a fascinating review of the material culture of the Romans in the third and fourth centuries CE. Being the son of a classical archaeologist, having spent his childhood in Italy, and continuing to excavate Roman sites in rural Italy as an adult … his description of the material items to be found in Roman homes both rich and poor are vivid and compelling.

Who can fail to be swayed by Roman prosperity and logistical excellence when Ward-Perkins describes Mount Testaccio near the old river port of Rome … one kilometer around and up to 45m high, containing the broken remains of 53 million amphorae, representing 6 billion liters of olive oil imported from around the Mediterranean?

Or by the ice caps of Greenland recording the pollution from Roman smelting of lead, silver, and copper at levels unmatched til the 16th and 17th century.

Or by Gaulish pottery spread across archaeological sites in the entire western end of Europe from Scotland to the Baltic to North Africa.

Using only the labour of man and beast, the energy of wind and tides, the Romans created a trading network much like that of the 13-15th centuries … the era of the Italian trading city-republics. The Romans clothed, armed, fed, and paid a professional army of 600,000 men spread over thousands of square miles and resupplied them from a series of specialized factories located mostly in Italy. They drew agricultural and manufacturing products from North Africa at such a huge scale that returning ships were ballasted with Italian construction brick … used in turn to create massive public works in Africa throughout the imperial era.

Of all the many thought-provoking ideas offered by the author, it is his methodical presentation of Roman economic sophistication which is probably the most surprising and important. Earlier scholars considered the Roman economy to be modest, mostly local, and where not local, overwhelmingly driven by the state and the army. The archaeological record says otherwise. The distribution of artifacts and discarded pottery and coinage establishes a massive and vital commercial economy, geared to satisfying the appetites of humble and modest customers, well away from the State and military installations of the era. And as for that, one can only wonder at what the economic impact was of the soldiers stationed in Wales and Mesopotamia, and along the thousands of miles of frontier or limes. They were paid in gold, many were literate, and in the few places where we have suitable archaeological records (Vindolanda in northern England, dry-region Egypt) it was clear that they had access to hundreds of different well-made and mass-produced items of ordinary daily use.

It is little wonder then, as the archaeological record displays the collapse of these regional economic systems during the fourth and fifth centuries, that Ward-Perkins titles his chapters and subheadings with phrases like “The Disappearance of Comfort” or “The End of Complexity.” The city of Rome, and some parts of the Mediterranean with key trading locations, continued to have an economic life after the fall of the western empire but for abandoned frontier regions, the collapse of military subsidization and access to large regional trading networks were catastrophic. In England for instance:

“There is no evidence whatsoever of the continued quarrying of building stone, nor of the preparation of mortar, nor of the manufacture and use of bricks and tiles. All new buildings in the fifth and sixth centuries, whether in Anglo-Saxon or unconquered British areas, were either of wood and other perishable materials or of drystone walling, and all were roofed in wood or thatch.”

Matched with this disappearance of goods, services, and skills was the collapse of coinage suitable for ordinary daily transactions. Copper coinage, in that day as well as our own, the bottom of the ladder of value, simply evaporates from all of the former western empire … except for a handful of spots like Marseille and Rome that could support ongoing minting of coins for minor transactions. As Ward-Perkins notes, in response to claims that Britons were better off after 400AD …

“I think this, and similar views, are mistaken. For me, what is most striking about the Roman economy is precisely the fact that it was not solely an elite phenomenon, but one that made basic good-quality pottery widely available, and in regions like Italy even the comfort of tiled roofs. I would also seriously question the romantic assumption that economic simplicity necessarily meant a freer and more equal society. There is no reason to believe that, because post-Roman Britain had no coinage, no wheel-turned pottery, and no mortared buildings, it was an egalitarian haven, spared the oppression of landlords and political masters. Tax, admittedly, could not longer be collected in coin; but its less sophisticated equivalent, “tribute”, could perfectly well be extorted in the form of sheaves of corn, pigs, and even slaves.”

The author makes a compelling and careful case that for much of the western empire, there was reversion to economic structures and scales that reflect pre-Roman, even pre-Greek and Etruscan times. In other words, for areas near the Mediterranean, they saw a return to Iron Age economies. For Britain, traumatized most by the removal of Roman infrastructure, there was a return to Bronze Age economic activity. Britain in 500CE was worse off economically than it was in 43CE before the Romans invaded. The coinage, pottery, and trade goods that had tied it to Celtic Europe at the beginning of the Current Era had disappeared completely … along with the ability to maintain the Roman roads, bridges, baths, villas, and towns that had dotted the landscape for three hundred years.

“This link between economic and political decline has been explored by many historians over the years; but most have concentrated on the period before the fall of the empire, in order to explore whether declining prosperity weakened the Roman capacity to resist invasion. … My focus here, however, will be on what happened after the invasions began. The evidence available very strongly suggests that political and military difficulties destroyed regional economies, irrespective of whether they were flourishing or already in decline.”

For general readers, the author offers an excellent summary chart for the entire Roman Empire, showing the timing of breakdown of security and prosperity — ranging from dramatic collapse by 400CE in Britain … to a steady degradation in the western Mediterranean during the 5th century, while the Aegean and Levant actually had an uptick of prosperity during the fifth and sixth centuries. The Aegean collapsed abruptly soon after 600CE with Slav and Avar invasions while the Levant experienced a diminished but still prosperous economic base which was taken over (mosaics, public buildings, and all) by invading Arab Muslims.

It was the very elaboration of the Roman economic system that made the collapse of central authority and centrally-administered security so catastrophic for the ordinary people. Peace over centuries had allowed specialization, specialization had allowed marginal land to enter the economic system through cash exchange (e.g. a focus on olive oil production), and regional trading networks had pooled consumers for items with low overall volumes. The result, for both luxury and mundane goods, was an unprecedented variety of goods available at a range of prices. Ward-Perkins:

“Comparison with the contemporary western world is obvious and important. Admittedly, the ancient economy was nowhere near as intricate as that of the developed world in the twenty-first century. … We would be quite incapable of meeting our needs locally, even in an emergency. The ancient world had not come as far down the road of specialization and helplessness as we have, but it had come some way. … The enormity of the economic disintegration that occurred at the end of the empire was almost certainly a direct result of this specialization. The post-Roman world reverted to levels of economic simplicity, lower even than those of immediately pre-Roman times, with little movement of goods, poor housing, and only the most basic manufactured items. … It took centuries for people in the former empire to reacquire the skills and the regional networks that would take them back to these pre-Roman levels of sophistication.”

The author then seeks to address the obvious question. If economic sophistication and specialization collapsed, pulling marginal or low-volume resources out of production, what was the impact on human population? Here, the archaeological record becomes less conclusive. The dramatic reduction in the volume and quality of durable goods (reflected in pottery remains, and stone construction in buildings, harbours, and bridges) is a sign of reduced prosperity and permanent settlement with capital reinvestment. Unfortunately, wooden buildings and perishable consumer goods leave very little record so there is no definitive way to match the record to the population.

Nonetheless, through a methodical consideration of what archaeological record there is, Ward-Perkins makes a compelling case that populations fell substantially. For one thing, the highest status dwellings and settlements in each area became dramatically smaller. This suggests chieftains or leaders with fewer followers. Even the remains of domesticated animals found in trash pits revert from Roman period sizes back to Iron Age sizes.

“On balance, slippery and elusive though the evidence is, I believe it is much more likely than not that the post-Roman period saw a marked decline in agricultural productivity, and therefore in the number of people that the land could sustain. This was decline at the baseline of human existence.”

Ward-Perkins goes out of his way to affirm that life could be pretty grim for people in the Roman world. It was a culture that was supremely self-confident and saw no contradiction between the merciless treatment of conquered peoples and slave classes, and the elaboration of foodstuffs, ornaments, and engineering. The term “blood sport” could equally well apply to the public games, the civil wars, and power struggles in the Roman political class. The Romans were no harder on their enemies than they were on themselves.

Nonetheless, the author refuses to accept that the dramatic disappearance of so many useful mundane items of value was a cultural choice by either the Germanic elites or their population. The archaeological record continues to record luxury goods for the elites of this period (such as that of seventh century Anglo-Saxon Sutton Hoo) but the ordinary items of the period (even for the elite) were pathetic in comparison to what was available to peasants used during the Roman period. The animals of Roman Italy slept in better buildings than the kings of post-Roman northern Europe. The gold and silver of the elite burials do not, according to Ward-Perkins, reflect some new taste in portable finery (as has been suggested by some historians) but rather reflect the fact that metal-smithing skills were able to survive while mixing mortar and cutting stone became lost arts. The Romans, too, had staggering skills in precious metals, gems, and glass. It is just that their portable precious goods were matched with grand public constructions which still stand in modern Rome and Istanbul.

Literacy is one major avenue of insight into Roman and post-Roman periods. The Roman era matched its economic sophistication with an elaborate need for record-keeping and literacy. Literacy was by no means universal but it was widespread to a degree only seen in modern times. Literacy for the elites was absolutely obligatory and basic literacy was only the first rung on the ladder for any Roman with political ambition. Ordinary citizens took pride in their literacy (as reflected in portraits preserved in Pompeii) and the military was awash in mundane paperwork that demanded that officers, and likely many soldiers, were able to read and write (as evidenced in the thin wooden notecards discovered at a Roman fort at Vindolanda, west of Newcastle, England). More strikingly, for Ward-Perkins, is the widespread presence of casual graffiti and commercial notations on items in the archaeological record. Whether whorehouse commentary at Pompeii, or commercial labels on amphorae found on the sea bottom, Romans wrote often and wrote well. At the very least, many Romans would have known enough of the alphabet to annotate their own belongings and recognize those of others. Contrast that fact with the illiteracy of kings such as Charlemagne, and the role of literacy during Roman and post-Roman periods is brought into high relief.

Was This the End of A Civilization?

In the concluding section of his book, Professor Ward-Perkins begins to address the broader question of whether the historical and archaeological record lets us answer any questions about “civilization.”

The quote marks are intentional because the professor wants to distance himself from the older definition of civilization as a claim of moral superiority. The events of the 20th century, the author apparently feels, bring that definition into question.

But if civilization is used as “shorthand for complex societies and what they produce. … [I]t is my belief that modern scholars have thrown this particular baby out with the bath-water of moral judgment. In wanting to depict the post-Roman centuries as ‘equal’ to those of Roman times, they have ignored the extraordinary and fascinating decline in complexity that occurred at end of the empire.”

Why have scholars sought to underplay the dramatic change from Roman to post-Roman periods? For Ward-Perkins, there are several key factors:

  • The relocation of much scholarship on the subject to Germany and America (or Europeans teaching in America), where Roman imperial civilization was problematic for national narratives.
  • The post-World War 2 rehabilitation of the German people as peaceful partners in development as the European Union sought a historical basis for its existence. “… [I]t is doubtful whether the historical Franks can really live up to the projection upon them of such high ideals, though the baptism of Clovis, a powerful Germanic warrior accepted into the Catholic faith by the Gallo-Roman bishop of Reims, does fit rather well with a French vision of the respective roles of France and Germany within the European Union: German might, tamed and channeled to positive ends, by Gallic culture and civility.”
  • The appearance of New Age culture in America which made the spiritual, immaterial, and small-scale religious activities of post-Roman Europe a compelling topic of study at the expense of material culture. “The only way that ‘Late Antiquity’ can work as a unit for the whole Roman world, and a positive one at that, is by a concentration on the one ‘positive’ change that did impact on the entire post-Roman world and the whole period between 250 and 800: the spread, and momentous triumph, over the older religions of Rome and Persia, of two great monotheistic cults, Christianity and Islam. … Modern Late Antiquity is primarily a spiritual and mental world, almost to the exclusion of the secular and material one.”

Matched with these trends in scholarship, many of which rightly corrected over-emphases of an earlier era, is the broader trend in modern globalized society which has reduced the importance of, and admiration for, Greco-Roman culture and language generally. The days of The Times Of London using untranslated Greek and Latin tags in its editorials are long gone. Few people learn Greek and Roman as part of an elite education. Egypt has replaced Greece and Rome in the affections of the museum-going public and the average inquisitive youngster. Now everyone has a “culture” … none better than another … rather than a “civilization.” In this atmosphere, it is both controversial and impolite to suggest that the collapse of Roman society was any great loss at all.

“But abandoning altogether the concept of ‘a civilization’ risks imposing too flat a view on the world’s cultures. For better or worse (and often it is worst), some cultures are more sophisticated than others. Societies with large cities, complex production- and distribution- networks, and the widespread use of writing, are markedly different from societies of villages, with essentially household production and an oral culture. The transition from Roman to post-Roman times was a dramatic move away from sophistication towards much greater simplicity.”

“Rome did not fall because provincial subjects struggled to be ‘free’ … Roman rule, and above all Roman peace, brought levels of comfort and sophistication to the West that had not been seen before and that were not to be seen again for many centuries.”

Ward-Perkins wraps up his assessment of this recent shift in historical attitudes (barely 30 years old) with a summing up of the pluses and minuses. On the plus side, the re-evaluation of Roman history to provide a more balanced view of the eastern empire is long over-due. And the extrapolation of Late Antiquity forward from Roman times is far more useful than the retrospective (and rather parochial) sourcing of national histories back into early medieval period.

On the minus side is the apparent scholarly aversion to any sense of decline or crisis in post-Roman times. All is “transformation” and euphemisms that won’t offend national or ethnic sensibilities … the word “rise” is embraced enthusiastically on the slimmest of pretenses while its companion “decline” is avoided at all costs, irrespective of the archaeological and documentary facts.

“In my opinion, the fifth century witnessed a profound military and political crisis, caused by the violent seizure of power and much wealth by the barbarian invaders. The native population was able, to some extent, to adapt to these new conditions, but what is interesting about this adjustment is that it was achieved in very difficult circumstances. I also believe that the post-Roman centuries saw a dramatic decline in economic sophistication and prosperity, with an impact on the whole of society, from agricultural production to high culture, and from peasants to kings. It is very likely that the population fell dramatically, and certain that the widespread diffusion of well-made goods ceased. Sophisticated cultural tools, like the use of writing, disappeared altogether in some regions, and became very restricted in all others.”

…”I also think there is a real danger for the present day in a vision of the past that explicitly sets out to eliminate all crisis and all decline. … Romans before the fall were as certain as we are today that their world would continue for ever substantially unchanged. They were wrong. We would be wise not to repeat their complacency.”

Anglosphere Musings

Ward-Perkins brisk corrective to pre-WW2 scholarship and post-WW2 Panglossian delusion has some immediate contributions to thinking about the Anglosphere.

  1. English history is even more distinct from the Continent than earlier supposed. The collapse of material culture on the island reduced subsistence to a level not even the pre-Roman Celts would have recognized. The Anglo-Saxons built on economic bedrock … to an extent not seen anywhere else in the former western empire. Unlike North Africa, which eventually became Arab and Muslim, the Franks of Gaul and Visigoths of Spain eventually became Catholic (converting from Arian Christianity) and lost their Germanic languages. Meanwhile in England, we see a cultural tradition built from scratch which reintroduced literacy, Christianity, cut stone and mortar, and the use of glass. England had lost virtually everything with the departure of the legions in the early fifth century. The Romano-British who could, moved to Brittany where a semblance of an earlier era was maintained. On the island, however, a profoundly new era had begun.
  2. EU sponsorship of historical research is deeply compromised by its need to find a historical narrative that matches its modern political goals. The generation of a “Late Antiquity” out of whole cloth, to replace the “Dark Ages,” should be held in deepest suspicion. The vision of Germans as harmonious partners in the building of that Late Antiquity does not, it would appear, match the historical or archaeological record. This hymn of “everything for the best” and the “rise and rise” of a transformed Classical world masks devastating reductions in material comfort … and quite likely substantial depopulation of western Europe. With growing modern chatter about “Eurabia” and anxiety amongst the general public there, we cannot expect EU politicians or scholars to accept any hint in their sponsored historical narrative that dramatic declines in living standards or social governance are even possible. “Civilization” to whatever extent it is allowed to have existed, cannot be allowed to have perished.
  3. The tale of an unarmed civilian population ringed by a professional but underfunded army is a very unhappy tale indeed. If Ward-Perkins makes the case for the substantial sophistication of the Roman economy (based upon earlier ancient economies of Greek and Etruscan settlers) then he also makes the case that a populace stripped of its ability to defend itself, or regenerate its local or regional economies, is subject to catastrophic collapses in living standards and population. This bodes ill for modern nations which have contracted the tools of violence exclusively to professionals. The American capacity, through its vast reserve and National Guard system, to deploy force in federal structure gives it a flexibility and security that other Western nations (and other Anglosphere members) cannot match.
  4. The Fourth Generation Warfare folks probably have a much more useful historical example for their arguments than they previously realized. In this newly refurbished tale of the Fall of the Roman Empire, the Romans have insufficient military advantage on the battlefield to risk a substantial engagement. A professional army, without recourse to the assistance of an armed populace, must find some way to forestall the critical demographic and military pressure the Huns were placing on the Goths and Germans. Expensive, and designed for frontier warfare or engagement with another state (such as the Sassanids), the Roman legions were spread too thin and were too valuable to use in repulsing entire tribal entities entering the Roman provinces. The state was unable to financially support enough legionary troops (especially with the loss of Spain and North Africa), and unable to convert its unarmed populace for self-defense in a timely manner. The modern parallels are self-evident and will be discussed in a followup post soon.
  5. Things can go very far south, very very quickly. As Ward-Perkins notes in his closing remarks, the Romans of the western empire could not have imagined in the year 400 that their way of life would be totally lost within 75 years. Despite many opportunities for reconstitution, the western empire did not get the breaks when it needed them. Incidental events turned out to have great significance. Leadership was absent when it was most needed and the resources and economic flexibility to fund security for millions of people was unavailable at critical moments. When several tens of thousands of illiterate warriors and their families were able to roam the Roman provincial countryside for decades, they could wreak havoc bit by bit that was fatal to the political and economic system. The barbarians were able to live by destroying … but they had no possibility of rebuilding what they had destroyed. Ward-Perkins makes a compelling case that Roman levels of prosperity and sophistication did not return to the western Mediterranean for almost a thousand years.

In A Nutshell

If one wants a great historical bridge between the writings of Victor David Hanson and Robert Kaplan, few titles can beat The Fall of Rome. Throw in Alfred Crosby’s The Measure of Reality for some early Renaissance insight, and you’ve got a solid train of interesting historical reading stretching from ancient Athens to yesterday’s Baghdad.

In a few weeks, The Fall of Rome will be out in affordable paperback from Oxford University Press. Let’s hope this “if you only read one book” title makes it into the hands of new generation of young historians, and onto the holiday gift list of anyone who’s wondered what “the end of a civilization” really looks like. This compact summary of the fall of Rome will amaze you, maintain your interest, and cause the odd shiver.

Table of Contents

I. Did Rome Ever Fall [1]
Part One: The Fall of Rome
II. The Horrors of War [13]
III. The Road to Defeat [33]
IV. Living under the New Masters [63]

Part Two: The End of A Civilization
V. The Disappearance of Comfort [87]
VI. Why the Demise of Comfort? [123]
VII. The Death of a Civilization [138]
VIII. All for the Best in the Best of All Possible Worlds? [169]


13 thoughts on “Ward-Perkins — The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization”

  1. Dear GFK,

    Using CE is a habit I’m trying to acquire late in life. It seems more appropriate for public conversations about history where the entire world is reading, and the entire world, now, has a “dog in the fight.” All faiths welcome.

  2. Why does the current era begin with the birth of Christ? Outrageously bigoted. Let’s start it in, oh I dunno, maybe “September” “22” “1792”. And why do we privilege these moldy old pagan gods in our months and days? It’s completely unfair to non-pagans. Why not completely objective names like Messidor, Thermidor, Fructidor, and so on for the months, and primidi, duodi, tridi, etc. for the days? And of course the whole thing should be decimalized. It’d be so worth doing! After all, let’s not forget that social justice is at stake.


    Sledgehammer sarcasm aside, another good take on the Roman collapse from a libertarian perspective can be found here.

  3. Bartlett’s conclusion:

    “…the fall of Rome was fundamentally due to economic deterioration resulting from excessive taxation, inflation, and over-regulation. ”


    This post and James’ previous one show that the fall of Rome was due to the failure of military defense on the borders.

  4. It bears repeating – “Romans of the western empire could not have imagined in the year 400 that their way of life would be totally lost within 75 years”

    Furgeson’s book “Empire” pointed out (to me at least) that the entire British Empire went from top of the heap to dust bin of history in about 20 to 25 years.

    Eternal vigilence, indeed.

  5. “L Sprague de Camp’s _Lest Darkness Fall_?”

    A classic, of course. The basic idea of the book is that human action matters and that contingency matters and that the “deep forces of history” can be channelled into one course or another depending on what people actually do. I agree completely with this interpretation.

  6. The British Empire was the Boston Chicken of empires – they were already over-extended in their franchises well before WWII, and were planning in the 1930s to start the process giving back India by 1948. Their decline looks precipitous because WWII forced the issue.

  7. When the Chinese would get their act and resources together, they would kick the respective posteriors of the Central Asian nomads back from their borders. That in turn would start a domino effect of one group of tribes pushing the next group ever westward. They in turn would reach the Goths and Slavs who in turn would kick someone else further westward. It was much more fun doing it to someone else than getting it done to you. That’s the core of the problem for the Empire. It was at the end of the line.

    However, a compounding factor that usually doesn’t get as much attention as imperial administration and policies, the financial state of the empire, or the population crunch, is the changing effect of climate upon the situation. The last Little Ice age before the Medieval warming period and Big Chill, dovetails with the ‘Dark Ages’ along with the arrival into the neighborhood of the uninvited overbearing guests, who decide to make the visit permanent. Two big blows upon the long great prosperous period of the Mediterranean centric based civilization from which it will require a ‘re-birth’ to get rolling again.

  8. This is a nice review, sufficient to motivate me to buy the book. But are you sure one set of convenient narratives isn’t being tossed out in favor of another?

    Don’t get me wrong: I have railed against the EU at length in smoky Central European basements to Eastern Europeans intent on signing up… but blaming the EU and momumentalist German historiography is one thing… utterly ignoring the existence of the Pirenne Thesis in order to do so, as if the whole notion of Late Antiquity had merely sprung from the head of an EU-crat (perhaps Belgium is the common factor?), is another matter entirely.

    Can’t wait to read the book… but the “Late Antiquity” argument stands on firmer ground than one might think reading this review.

    /decidedly non-squishy medieval milhist guy

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