Heather — The Fall of the Roman Empire

[cross-posted on Albion’s Seedlings]

Heather, Peter, The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History, Macmillan, 2005, 572pp.

Earlier this year, I spent some time reading about global economic patterns. William Lewis’s book “The Power of Productivity: Wealth, Poverty, and the Threat to Global Stability” [reviewed here] was a great comparative introduction to the internal dynamics of national economies. Among nations over 10 million, the US has a per capita income (at purchase price parity) roughly 20% more than the next in line (Canada) and roughly 25% above the rest of the G7. Its “differential” with most of the other nations of the world is literally insurmountable. This economic gap is driven by long-standing economic dynamism (and therefore productivity) which is widely “diversified” across industrial sectors. And the “osmotic” pressure of immigration drawn by both that prosperity and individual freedom is relentless.

Amy Chua’s book “World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability” [reviewed here] presents her argument that much of the world’s economic activity is controlled by “market-dominant minorities” (MDMs) and as democratic values take hold, there is often a conflict with the power of those minorities in dangerous ways. More dramatically, she proposes that the US is effectively now a global “market-dominant minority” which controls global values and activities in ways that are often not in the best interest of many entrenched or traditional power bases in the industrial and non-industrialized world.

Even more recently, I had a chance to read Moises Naim’s “Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers, and Copycats are Hijacking the Global Economy,” [reviewed here] which looks at illegal traffic in humans, drugs, guns, information, and cash from a neutral or economic perspective. His investigations suggest that illicit trade is growing much, much quicker than legitimate trade thanks to reduced costs of communication and transportation. And law enforcement is falling behind, when it is even cognisant enough to spot the new forms of illicit trade.

Taken as a set, these three books suggest sobering times ahead. The patterns they describe are deeply engrained in our modern world and guide world events as the tides would a boat. We can also add to this list Tom Barnett’s book "The Pentagon’s New Map" which charts the flow of people, money, ideas, equipment, and violence in different directions to form a geopolitical pattern with contrasting Gap and Functioning Core. Barnett recommends particular institutional solutions to “shrink the Gap.”

Current events in Israel/Lebanon, and the recent debates over immigration in the US, have reawakened an interest I had several years ago in Roman frontier studies … an interest which led to intensive visits to the Hadrianic and Antonine Walls in England and Scotland, respectively. In the course of doing a little research on the German-Roman frontier (sussing out yet another guided tour for 2007) I came on a citation for a new book on the fall of the Roman Empire.

Since my knowledge of the “Fall” was sketchy and dated at best, I was long overdue for a refresh … and it turns out that this “New History” of the fall of the Roman Empire is very much worth the effort.

Heather, unlike authors like Gibbon (1737-1794) and those of antiquity, has a great advantage. The archaeological research and textual analysis of the late Roman period, since World War II, has been substantial. As a result, this book offers both a summary of what is now known of the culture and economies of the period, and a recollection and judgement of the different theories of causality for the events of 350-475 CE.

For our own time, when America has been compared with great enthusiasm to a faltering Roman giant, it’s even more appropriate to examine the last great collapse of “civilization” in the Western world. Putting civilization in quotation marks is necessary because many of the achievements of the Roman world were accomplished in a social and economic system that we would find extremely oppressive. Heather makes the case that the Roman imperial system was effectively a one-party state that was run for the benefit of land-owning families. In turn, those land-owning families formed a literate and educated nucleus that reaped the benefits, and paid the penalties, for the successes and failures of the Empire. As for the vast number of agricultural workers (slave and free), and the hundreds of thousands of professional soldiers in the Roman legions and frontier auxiliaries, their concerns and needs were rather incidental to the Roman system.

Setting aside then anachronistic attitudes (judging the Romans by our standards and sensibilities), what can we glean from history and archaeology to explain the collapse of central imperial power in Italy toward the end of the fifth century CE?

After a very useful summary of cultural features of the Romans and barbarians, Heather makes a convincing case that the size of the Roman empire was largely driven by practical limitations in its first few centuries, rather than by external forces. The “limes” or frontier through Germania, long thought to have been constrained by military adversaries, now seems more a reflection of where the agriculturally valuable land, and/or agriculturalists, were located. The northern boundaries of the empire in England and Scotland were similarly drawn by the growing seasons for grain crops. The frontier generally followed the Rhine south and then the Danube east to the Black Sea. Most of modern Turkey and south and east as far as the Tigris/Euphrates fell under Roman control, as did Egypt from the imperial period onward. To the south, the North African provinces bounded the desert, and to the west, all was Ocean. For several hundred years, during the early imperial period, these boundaries were relatively stable.

The staggering dimensions of the Roman Empire placed tremendous burdens on administrators trying to monitor provincial affairs. Eventually these limitations on direct rule led to a number of administrative changes and the appointment of Western and Eastern Emperors, often with junior Caesars who commanded the armies in the field. These centrally administered empires drew taxes from the provinces, supported tens of thousands of troops (i.e., provided imperial security), and took a modest slice of the income for imperial indulgence. Apart from a subsidized grain fleet and transportation system for the imperial cities, the economic development of the empire was not directly administered and there was no attempt to rationalize or optimize economic activity in the empire. Local elites were left to fund the construction of public buildings, hire Latin tutors for their sons, run the law courts and town councils … and cut their own deals with local military commanders.

Northern England and Scotland were to become the default punching bags for a succession of ambitious (but not too ambitious) emperors in need of military victory, from the time of Claudius (43 CE) onward. Some of their battle camps stretch as far as 57 degrees North latitude. But the only serious, existential, competitors of the early Imperial period were the Parthians, who handed the Romans a series of military disasters in Mesopotamia but lacked the strength to leverage their victories into a permanent Mediterranean foothold. Thus the Med, and to a lesser extent, the Black Sea were to remain Roman highways.

The Roman imperial system (kludgy imperial transitions and difficult communications notwithstanding) was in generally good shape during the first, second, and part of the third centuries CE. The first indication of trouble was the emergence in Iran of the Sassanian Persian empire (226-651). The Sassanids were sufficiently powerful and internally cohesive to push back Roman legions from the Euphrates and from much of Armenia and southeast Turkey. Much as modern readers tend to think of the “Huns” as the nemesis of the Roman Empire, for the entire period under discussion it was the Persians who held the attention and concern of Rome and Constantinople. Indeed, 20-25% of the military might of the Roman Army was addressing the Persian threat from the late third century onward … and upwards of 40% of the troops under the Eastern Emperors.

It took the Roman Empire about 50 years to cope with the Sassanid threat, and it did so by stripping the provincial towns of their regional taxation income. The resulting expansion of military forces in the Levant was eventually successful in stabilizing the frontiers with the Persians but the reduction of disposable income in the provinces led to two trends which were to have ominous impact. Firstly, the incentive for local worthies to spend their time and money in the development of local infrastructure disappeared. Public buildings from the late third century onward tended to be much more modest and funded from central budgets. Secondly, the landowning provincial literati now shifted their attention to where the money was … away from provincial and local politics to the imperial bureaucracies. And thus it was that the bureaucracies of the time expanded dramatically and became an established, dignified career trajectory for the literate and wealthy. At the same time, the legionary troop strength of Britain and the Rhine was reduced in order to bulk up the forces further East. Control over Ireland (only toyed with in the first century) and over Scotland, in particular, were set aside forever.

It was to be events far to the east on the Russian steppes which set in motion the difficulties of the Roman Empire in the late fourth and fifth centuries. The role of nomadic warriors on the history of both East and West is fascinating. For China, that history extends back to the Hsiung-Nu (200 BCE) and continued forward to the Mongol and Manchu domination of imperial government. An excellent book on the subject is The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China, 221 BC to AD 1757 by Thomas J. Barfield. In the West, it was the appearance of the Huns in the fourth century AD in the area northeast of the Black Sea that was to indirectly trigger mass migrations from Eastern Europe and then south of the Danube and west of the Rhine by the Goths, Vandals and assorted other tribal groups.

In the period between the initial Roman invasions of Gaul (early Imperial period at the beginning of the Current Era) and the mid-fourth century, the Romans had pursued frontier policies of control rather than domination. For them, there was little of concrete value across the frontier.Trade across the frontier (in wood, food, and amber) with barbarians was steady, as was minor raiding from the other direction. Once a generation or so, Roman legions would move into Germania, and destroy, kill or capture whatever and whoever they could lay their hands on. Lesson delivered, they’d retreat back to their river-side garrisons and undertake a more regular policy of bribery (focused on chiefs) and political divide-and-conquer to minimize the military threat for another twenty years or so.

The archaeological evidence across several centuries paints a fascinating political story. In the early years, the tribal groupings facing the Romans appeared to be small in size, and their grave assemblages show very limited amounts of class distinction. But after generations of raiding and Roman bribery, the German graves begin to show dramatic differences between the Haves and the Have-Nots, especially in terms of portable wealth. Gold and precious objects appear in growing quantities, as do the durable material goods such pottery that indicate that the Germans were starting develop larger political groupings and more hierarchical social structures.

By the mid-fourth century, it was these larger groupings of Germanic and Gothic tribes that began to assert their rights … often by moving closer to Roman borders to extort the tribes who had access (licit or not) to Roman largesse.

Into this mix came the Huns, with horse-borne nomadic ways and armed with a recurved assymetric composite bow with extraordinary range and power. Much as the English longbows decimated French knights and foot soldiers a millenium later, the Hunnish bow was to be a devastating stand-off weapon which shattered military cohesion and triggered mass routs (traditionally when the greatest casualties are inflicted). Hunnish military success was unrelenting.

By the fourth quarter of the fourth century, the pressure of the Huns on the eastern flanks of Europe had become unbearable and the first major tribal groupings appeared en masse (men, women, and children) on the Danubian border of the Roman Empire, requesting asylum. The Romans understandably prevaricated. And over the course of the next few years the Greuthungi and Tervingi simply stopping taking “No” for an answer. They swept south of the Danube, stripping the countryside of food and wealth and disrupting communities that had operated for centuries under Roman administration. In 378 CE, the Goths met, defeated, and killed a Roman emperor at Hadrianople and were able to sweep further into the western Balkans in what was effectively a search for wealth and sustenance (anywhere but where the Huns were).

Constantinople itself suffered an earthquake during the time of the Gothic invasions and it was only through the superhuman efforts of the inhabitants that the walls were repaired in time to halt the invaders. The Goths were not expert in assaults of fortified areas at this time, let alone one as massive as Constantinople. Nonetheless, the close call was sufficiently dire to trigger the Eastern Emperor’s direction to ring the city with a system of triple walls which ultimately kept the city safe from landborne assault for a further thousand years — breached in the end only by the giant seige cannon of the Ottomans.

The Gothic invasions of 377-382 CE were eventually resolved by the Eastern Empire when the invading tribes were settled in the Balkans on generous terms. The Goths had no logistics for creating an empire of their own but they did disrupt the provincial communities and economies of the entire region east of the Adriatic and south of the Danube. Those areas would never again support the stable large farming properties which were a necessary complement to the rural villas so beloved by the Roman elites.

From this point on, in Roman imperial history, the tale is one of constant new problems along the Rhine/Danube border. In some cases, Roman armies prevailed. In others, they met catastrophe and the invading groups (which now included the Huns themselves) penetrated past the river frontiers and disrupted economic and social life in the frontier provinces. Three centuries of natural selection had taught the barbarians that their only hope for success against the Romans was consolidating their forces and striking across a narrow front.

Ironically, this new era in frontier warfare included many side deals where Huns and Goths and smaller groups switched sides and became allies with the Romans. Roman gold and Roman land was occasionally bartered for transitory benefit. Nonetheless, the trend through the early fifth century was pressure … pressure of the Huns on the Gothic groups, pressure of the Huns and Goths on the Roman frontiers, and cash-strapped Roman imperial forces unable to place sufficient forces “everywhere at once.” The margins of the empire were stripped of their professional forces (especially the regional legionary armies) in order to focus on the riverine borders of Europe.

It was to be the events of 405/6 CE that were to spell the ultimate doom of the western Roman Empire. Goths, Vandals, and Suevi, joined by Franks in the north, made a concerted dash across the Austrian passes and further north across the upper Rhine frontier. While the southern invaders were ultimately halted and decimated, the invaders of Gaul were successful and entered an amazing period of mobile predation that was to carry them through modern France, Spain, and across North Africa as far east as modern Libya.

Now the central problem of the imperial system became clear. It was dependent on tax revenues from stable, peaceful provinces for the ongoing support of legions and frontier troops from the Euphrates to the North Sea. As the marginal provinces of Britain, Gaul, and the Balkans suffered incursions, their ability to contribute funds to the overall defense were diminished or simply disappeared. There was no magic economic process that the Roman Empire could invoke to increase revenues and manpower … agriculture of the time was what it was. The loss of agricultural land meant loss of tax revenue. The loss of tax revenue meant more limited capacity to field armies and bribe antagonists.

By 409 CE, the northern invaders had pillaged across Gaul and made their way south of the Pyrenees. Now they began disrupting food supplies for the central empire as well as tax revenues. Hispania had been a Roman province for centuries and had been pacified to the point where only a few legions were necessary for its maintenance. A second wave of Gothic invaders struck south from the Danube and one of their number, Alaric, successfully led a sack of Rome in 410. The sack was more desultory than anything else … the Goths were looking for land, and for participation in the Roman system. They were running out of places to go as various branches of the Huns pressed west from the Hungarian Plains.

A period of turmoil ensued where a variety of Roman strong men did their best to leverage Roman manpower, wealth, and barbarian allies to deal with first one, then another group. Goths, Vandals, Suevi were set upon each other throughout Gaul and Spain. A Visigoth alliance with the Romans destroyed the Alans and Siling Vandals in Spain. Unfortunately, Roman imperial politics meant that every transition between Roman emperors (East and West) was met with an extended period of bloodletting and confusion. And the various eunuchs, wives, and military commanders of the imperial household seemed to make sure that some plot was afoot at all times. As a result, imperial decision-making was often halted or delayed at moments when various barbarian groups were at their most vulnerable. It was never possible to conclusively remove the barbarians from Gaul, and Spain and as a result the lost foodstuffs and tax revenues continued to deplete the strength of the central government. Meanwhile, the local Roman elites in the provinces, dependent on their land ownership for social status, took the opportunity to switch allegiance to barbarian chieftains … allowed to keep a portion of their original holdings in return for their expertise in administration and taxation. Thus the natural allies of the central imperial governments began to hedge their bets, turning toward whoever could provide enough security to sustain agricultural productivity.

Finally, at the close of the first quarter of the fifth century, a remaining party of Vandals and Alans undertook what was ultimately the most momentous event in the collapse of the western empire … the invasion and capture of the North African provinces. Migrating across the Straits of Gibraltar, they took a year to work their way east to the Roman provinces of Mauretania and Numidia — close by the heartland of the old Carthiginian empire which the Romans had spent several centuries turning into a huge, relatively isolated bread basket for the city of Rome and its troops around the Mediterranean. In the year 430, the Vandals eliminated the local Roman adminstration of Mauretania and Numidia, and effectively set up shop next door to the ports and key food source for vast areas of the Roman empire.

Meanwhile, further north, the news just kept getting worse and worse. Deal-making by the central authorities with major barbarian groups scattered across Gaul, Spain, and the Danubian basins reduced conflict but did nothing to regain the fiscal and military strength of the empire. By 439, the Vandals moved into Proconsularis and captured the critical sea port of Carthage. The imperial bread basket was now controlled by barbarians. And in the following year, the piece de resistance, Attila became the supreme leader of the Huns.

Earlier authors made much of Attila and the role of the Huns in the collapse of the Roman Empire. Heather prefers to tell the story with a bit more nuance. He gives Attila his due as an exceptional leader of a group of nomadic peoples consolidated far more grandly than any time in their history. With a full suite of allies and subject tribes, Attila was to alternately woo and strike the eastern and western Empires in a series of attacks. Most critically, in 441/2, just as the Romans assembled a combined fleet and army to recapture Carthage from the Vandals, Attila chose the moment to strike into the Balkans. The dilemma for the Romans was excruciating. They needed to re-establish the central food source for the western empire (much as Egypt and Asia Minor continued to supply the eastern empire) but they could not ignore an existential threat to the core provinces of the eastern empire. Attila continued to threaten for a decade, culminating in two huge invasions of Gaul (451) and Italy (452) which were only repelled by the combined forces of Goths and Romans, and by the effects of disease on nomadic warriors who had none of the logistical train of Roman armies. The farther the Huns travelled, the more tenuous their military strength.

In 453, the Romans had a bit of good luck when Attila died in bed of an apparent cerebral hemorrhage. The subsequent unravelling of the Hunnic empire highlighted the unusual and temporary capacity of the Huns to form an “empire” of sorts but it did little to resolve the Roman predicament with many hungry barbarians looking for their next looting opportunity. As the various small tribal entities split off from the control of Attila’s sons (usually with maximum violence) they turned to the perennial challenge of finding land and resources for their followers. The eastern and western empires faced constant challenges to their borders, though by this time the western empire had shrunk to the Italian peninsula and a rump of southeastern France.

In 461, the two empires made a final effort to evict the Vandals from North Africa. The failure of that expedition left both fiscally and militarily weaker. The West fatally so. The subsequent decade saw Italy subject to additional incursions by different Gothic groups and a wider acknowledgement that Roman military power and financial strength now flowed almost exclusively from Constantinople. In 476, Romulus Augustulus, the final western emperor was deposed, and the military strong man of the time sent the imperial crown and garments east to Constantinople, indicating that there was no longer any need for them in the west.

Needless to say, my summary skips a few items in a 572 page book, and no doubt mangles a good many more. But the story is an important one, fascinating in its complexity and its implications for the foundations of the modern world, and for the armchair historians keen to seek pattern and causality in the ebb and flow of historical events.

Heather offers a newly refreshed summary of the events, balancing the cultural relativism and cynicism of post-WW2 historians with the practical insights of industrious archaeologists. Romans come off a lot less decadent and inept than Edward Gibbon would have them. Christianity gets less of a “ding.”

The great benefit of this book, to my mind, is that it is geared to the educated but non-academic reader, and it appears to cover most of the basic facts and puzzles of the time period. The arguments are outlined, and the author maintains his own point of view without trampling those of others. The entire sweep of the century between the first Goths crossing the Danube (376) and the final imperial reign in the western empire is laid out methodically and readers can reach their own conclusions if they wish.

Where did bad luck or Roman political stagnation or barbarian political evolution play a role? What circumstances distinguished the western empire from the eastern? And how did the lack of military and demographic advantage work against the Romans in tackling first the Persians, then the Goths, and finally the Huns? The book gives readers all the information they need to ponder these questions for themselves.

For myself, the clincher seemed to be the repeated failures (through circumstance) of the western empire to recapture its North African provinces. Without a peaceful, protected source of foodstuffs and tax revenues, the professional armies of Rome could not be maintained on the frontiers, generation after generation. Imagine for a moment the impact on the US if the food and energy resources of the Gulf Coast and Great Plains were to fall under foreign rule.

It should be remembered, of course, that the eastern Roman or Byzantine empire was to continue successfully for another few centuries, until it too lost its “bread baskets” to Islamic invaders. And in a much reduced form, it continued to exist until Constantinople finally fell in the 15th century … a thousand years after the last western Roman emperor fell.

The pattern of cross-frontier influence that gradually stimulated the political evolution and predatory habits of the Germanic tribes (over the course of several centuries) seems all too familiar to us in a world that had seen globalization of cell phones and AK-47s in the last fifty years. It is easier to loot and destroy than build, and the Romans ultimately could not protect what they had spent centuries developing. Persians, Goths, and Huns became a relentless and effective external pressure … and for the West, the incursions into Gaul, Spain, and especially North Africa, removed the economic resources needed for military strength.

This book is a pleasure to read if the subject interests you. Its size is right on the edge of manageability but it offers a thorough treatment of the topic that’s well worth the time. The Fall of the Roman Empire offers some cautionary lessons for our own time but those lessons must await a future post when I’ve had time to digest my expedition into late Roman history.

Table of Contents

Introduction xi

Part One
Pax Romana
1. Romans 3
2. Barbarians 46
3. The Limits of Empire 100

Part Two
4. War on the Danube 145
5. The City of God 191
6. Out of Africa 251
7. Attila the Hun 300

Part Three
Fall of Empires
8. The Fall of the Hunnic Empire 351
9. End of Empire 385
10. The Fall of Rome 431

2 thoughts on “Heather — The Fall of the Roman Empire”

  1. James – one aspect of the Fall that has always fascinated me is the character of precision and accuracy that the Roman elite had – evident in their architectural and agricultural achievements. They were organized politcally and technologically in a way that other peoples of their time period could not match. That exactitude seems to have disappeared from Italy, and today the Italians look more like the Russians and Chinese, two countries where I get a sense that the English term “close enough for government work” accurately describes the work ethic of most of the populace. At some point the Roman ethos moved North to Germany, and it’s probably the Germans (especially the Prussians) whom I idenitfy most with that Roman mindset. This did not happen all at once, since there was still enough precision of thought in Italy to spark the Renaissance, but I get the sense that the dynamics there had more to do with Italy’s wealth than her national character.

    Am I being too harsh in this judgement (I know very little about Roman and Italian history)? Do you know of any books that describe this Northern movement of what I might call, for lack of a better term, the “scientific” mindset?

  2. Dear John,

    >> since there was still enough precision of thought in Italy to spark the Renaissance, but I get the sense that the dynamics there had more to do with Italy’s wealth than her national character.

    This is a very interesting question in early medieval and later European history. Three books have something to offer by way of an answer … they map the extraordinary changes in mindset and “modernity” which appeared first in the northern Italian republics, and then migrated north to the Lowlands, England and Germany.

    Crosby, Alfred W., The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600, (Cambridge Univ. Press), 1997 Reviewed here:

    Mokyr, Joel, The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress, OUP, 1992

    Stark, Rodney, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, Random House, 2005

    The first identifies a narrow window of time in northern Italy when a brand new, and unprecedented, emphasis on precision in time-keeping, music, visualization/painting, and book-keeping revolutionized the European world, and ultimately the rest of the globe as well.

    The second gives a broad review of technological development from classical (and Asian) culture to the European Industrial Revolution. The author’s latest books are highly recommended as well.

    The last title, though its main thesis seems less than compelling, has one of the best historical summaries that I’ve ever read on the movement of trading/technical sophistication and republicanism from northern Italy to Holland and England/America. A few short chapters but very educational.

    My own view is that the eastern Roman Empire sustained many technologies and skills which the northern Italian republics revitalized and expanded by the end of the first millenium CE. Republicanism, wealth, and innovation seem to go together in preindustrial culture. Like the “wisdom of crowds” effect, it is a marginal benefit that (with compound interest) leads to relative success in comparison to autocratic states. When that success is militarily halted, as it was in Italy and Holland, then innovation and wealth moved elsewhere.

    Fascinating stuff.

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