Monday, June 22, 2015

The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation

Very few historical subjects have inspired as many books as the fall of the Roman Empire.  Bryan Ward-Perkins’ The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation is slightly different. Ward-Perkins has little interest in the reasons that Rome fell. What interests him is a slightly different topic - what were the results of Rome’s fall?

These days it is unpopular in historical circles even to admit that the Roman Empire did fall. The fashionable view is that there was a largely peaceful transition and that for most people life went on much as before. Civilisation did not end. There was peaceful change and change is a positive thing and should be embraced. Marxist historians have even suggested that if Rome did fall it was a good thing - that it represented the overthrow of evil oppressive capitalist Rome and its replacement by a golden age of egalitarianism and freedom.

This means that the author’s first task is to demolish this sort of fashionable feelgood nonsense. Which he does, quite comprehensively. He is not however interested solely in the disastrous fifth century when various barbarian tribes overran the western empire and the last emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was finally toppled. Ward-Perkins is concerned with what happened next.  Was it just a change of masters for the empire or did civilisation really fall apart? If civilisation did collapse what did this mean for ordinary people? And what evidence is there for the consequences of civilisational collapse?

Ward-Perkins relies to a considerable extent on archaeological evidence. He points out that we can learn a great deal from looking at the evidence of pottery, coins and the remains of ancient buildings. The evidence points overwhelming towards almost total economic collapse and a cataclysmic decline in living standards. He isn’t concerned with making moral judgments - the Romans could be every bit as unpleasant as the barbarian invaders. What matters is that a complex civilisation that supported fairly high material living standards was replaced by a much simpler culture that supported a significantly lower material standard of living. And the decline was dramatic - post-Roman western Europe was economically and technologically on a level even more primitive than pre-Roman Europe.

Ward-Perkins admits that the investigation of ancient pottery can be a rather dry subject. Fortunately he gives us just enough detail to make his case and to make his story comprehensible. This is a book aimed at the intelligent general reader. No specialist knowledge of archaeology is required and anyone with at least a cursory acquaintance with late classical history should have no difficulties following the author’s arguments. 

His speculations on the extent of literacy in the ancient world, and its decline in the post-Roman world, are especially interesting.

One of the problems with books written by modern academics is that many are quite poorly written and in particular tend to be repetitive. Happily this book does not suffer from any such flaws. The author makes his points clearly and succinctly and he assumes there is no need to labour points that are already self-evident.

It’s also refreshing to encounter an historian with no particular ideological axe to grind (although he does display a certain understandable aversion to Marxist interpretations of history). In fact it’s ideologically driven history that he is reacting against and he points out the obvious ideological underpinnings of the currently fashionable theory of a peaceful transition from Roman to post-Roman society. The parallels to social and demographic change in our modern world are clear enough not to need spelling out.

A stimulating and fascinating work. Highly recommended.

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