“Deep within the European psyche lies an anxiety that, if ancient Rome could fall, so too can the proudest of modern civilizations.”
There are many opinions and much scholarship about the fall of the Roman Empire, but one of the more popular arguments is that, far from being a violent step back, the “fall” of Rome was in fact a peaceful transition that incorporated the Germanic peoples into the Roman way of life. In The Fall of Roman and the End of Civilization, Bryan Ward-Perkins marshals a variety of evidence to show that the Germanic invasions caused commerce and the general standard of living to fall to well below pre-Roman conditions, and subsequently took centuries to recover. Although the Germanic conquerors did make use of much of the Roman infrastructure, there were still significant consequences and changes for the Romans now living under their rule.
Although basically opposed to the theory that the Germanic peoples were peacefully assimilated, Ward-Perkins concurs that there is ample evidence to suggest that many of them wanted to benefit from the fruits of Roman civilization rather than conquer it. For example, they often served in the Roman army as mercenaries, and were willing to accept settlements of land and money in exchange for peace. These were no ideologues trying to overthrow the Roman Empire on moral principles. However, the suggestion of a peaceful transformation elides the obvious evidence of suffering and difficulty caused by the arrival of the Germanic tribes. By examining the available archaeological evidence, particularly pottery and coinage, Ward-Perkins is able to make a very convincing argument that the Roman economy and standard of living declined drastically in the aftermath of the Germanic invasions. Although there is limited physical evidence from which to draw conclusions about events that happened more than a millennia ago, Ward-Perkins makes very good use of what is available, and is careful to qualify speculation as such.
Ward-Perkins is also careful to qualify his use of the somewhat controversial term “civilization,” using it to denote only the complexity and reach of the Roman economy, as opposed to a cultural judgement. This hardly seems inappropriate when he is able to demonstrate that a peasant in northern Italy was purchasing high quality tableware imported from Naples, and using amphorae that originated in North Africa. And indeed, as Ward-Perkins notes, there are significant drawbacks to these kinds of economic complexity which may in fact have contributed to the drastic fall in the standard of living after the Germanic invasions; people living in complex specialized economies often lose the skills necessary for survival when a crisis interrupts or destroys that system.
Although Ward-Perkins has written a largely economic history of the fall of the empire, he nevertheless has a number of interesting cultural observations to offer. For example, he points out that scholarship on the Germanic invasions has closely mirrored contemporary attitudes towards Germany. In the aftermath of World War II, when views of Germany were rather dim, scholars tended to focus on the more violent aspects of the invasion. As Germany reshaped its image and became a critical player in the European Union, scholars shifted towards more positive views of accommodation and integration.
At 239 pages, Ward-Perkins is offering a very brief look at a complex and much debated period of history. As the author points out, in 1984 a scholar was able to put together a list of no less than 210 potential causes for the fall of Rome. Nevertheless, this is an exceptionally intelligent short introduction to the factors leading to the fall of Rome. Ward-Perkins reviews many of the eminent scholars on their topic, such as Peter Heather, Edward Gibbon, and Peter Brown, whether to draw evidence for his own arguments, or to show errors in their logic. As a result, in addition to understanding Ward-Perkins’s position, the reader comes away with a decent (but by no means comprehensive) basic overview of Roman scholarship. If you want to know more about the fall of the Roman Empire, but lament of ever tackling a lengthier treatise, this is the book for you.
Already read and enjoyed The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization? I recommend The Black Count by Tom Reiss