Cover of The Fall of Rome

The Fall of Rome
Bryan Ward-Perkins
239 pages including index
published in 2005

When I was googling for some background information on Peter Heather's The Fall of the Roman Empire, Bryan Ward-Perkins' The Fall of Rome was mentioned the most alongside it in reviews. In those reviews The Fall of Rome was described as a much more agressively counter-revisionist attack, compared to Heather's book, much more scathing in its rejection of the view that the fall of Rome was not that big a deal. Therefore I thought it would be interesting to read, to see what the more traditional view of Rome's collapse would look like.

It turns out however that Ward-Perkins' rhetoric here is actually stronger than his actual disagreement. He's scathing about those historians who go too far in arguing that the transition from Roman Empire to the post-Roman, Germanic west was a relatively gentle affair, but his own view isn't quite the Gibbonesque tragedy of traditional history either. He argues that the transition period was violent, that there was a decline in civilisation, that the death of the western Roman Empire was a tragedy, but that this was far from the end of civilisation. But because Ward-Perkins spent much of this book arguing against the more rose-tinted views currently in vogue of the transistion from a Roman to a post-Roman world, his disagreements may seem bigger than they actually are.

Where Ward-Perkins differs from Heathers, is that Heathers' book is much more of a traditional, linear narrative, while Ward-Perkins focuses much more on the historical debate about the fall of Rome and how it's been interpreted since Gibbons. A second difference is that he spends more time discussing direct archaeological evidence, whereas Heathers tends to use contemporary, usually Roman, reports, histories and other chronicles. Finally, Ward-Perkins much more than Heathers looks beyond the actual fall to the world that came into being as a consequence of that fall. It all makes for a slightly different perspective, though they don't differ much in their conclusions.

The view Ward-Perkins is arguing against is one that started to gain currency in the early seventies, with the publication of Peter Brown's The World of Late Antiquity: AD 150-750, which first made mainstream the idea that the Fall of Rome was not as great a disaster as was traditionally though and that it was better to speak of a transition from a Roman to a post-Roman, Germanic world. At the time it was a necessary corrective to the idea that the Roman Empire had degenerated into decadence and senility by the second or third century AD, that its end in 476 AD meant the end of civilisation and the start of a dark age, when in fact the Eastern Empire not just survived but flourished for at least several more centuries and even most of the territories taken over by the barbarians didn't suffer as much as was traditionally assumed.

In The Fall of Rome this view is argued against, by showing that the end of Roman hegemony did bring a lot of tragedy with it, didn't end peacefully and was indeed a loss to civilisation. Ward-Perkins shows, using archaeological evidence that in many areas there was a decline in living standards in the fifth century as compared to the third and fourth centuries. This was especially so in Britain, where living standards dropped even below pre-Roman standards after the end of empire there.

Now much of the idea that the end of the Roman Empire wasn't that great a loss might be due to the modern suspicion with which empires are treated, but for Ward-Perkins the Roman Empire, while oppressive in its subjugation of Gaul and such, had evolved into a much more benign system in which the descendants of conquered peoples now lived in comfort, considering themselves to be Roman.

In the end what Ward-Perkins argues isn't that much different from what Heather put forth and in all both only differ in emphasis from the more revisionist view of Peter Brown and his followers. It's been an interesting argument, but as said Ward-Perkins' rhetoric was much stronger than his disagreement seems to be. Not, I think, a book to be read on its own, but following a more traditionally written history like Heather's The Fall of the Roman Empire it works quite well.

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Webpage created 09-01-2008, last updated 19-01-2008.