Peter Heather has written a mostly comprehensive overview of the final century or so of the Western Roman Empire, but I have numerous issues with his approach.
This is the kind of topic that so many people have tried to tackle in different ways. Ever since Edward Gibbon wrote his landmark epic, every ancient classics historian worth his or her salt has put forward their own thesis on why Rome fell when it did, which factor was more important than all of the others. This is Heather’s contribution, and per his own speciality in the field, his focus is almost exclusively on the “barbarian” element.
This is where things start to go wrong really. For a book on the fall of Rome, Heather spends an inordinate amount of time discussing barbarian history, culture and politics, to the detriment of the nominal subject matter. In fact, Heather goes off-topic to such a frequent extent as to leave the rest of the narrative in a very jarred state. He takes every opportunity coming to discuss the minutia of ethnic groups beyond the Danube frontier and their various cultural and political evolutions, while ignoring the internal workings of the actual Roman Empire to too much of an extent.
This continues in other ways, as Heather writes pages and pages on the life stories of various authors from the period, talking far too much time to discuss their biographies and accuracy of their source material. What could be just a few comments on possible bias and upbringing becomes chapters worth of detail, that is of very little relevance to the thesis being discussed. As a historian publishing a work in a popular setting, he also spends too much time discussing “exciting” episodes in the time period being discussed, to the detriment of any worthwhile study in a larger sense. Case in point: he spends thousands of words talking about a loosely described assassination attempt on Attila the Hun and how it affected a Roman embassy, while leaving discussion of Attila’s actual campaigns as a secondary concern. Heather seems obsessed with creating “characters” out of historical personalities, when he may be better served sticking to the actual title of the book. The author also spends a poorly allocated amount of time discussing conflicts between the Persian Empire and Constantinople, which he exaggerates as a factor in the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.
Worse than that, Heather goes over the same points repeatedly, to the extent that I began to wonder if each, fairly large, chapter was conceived as its own book or academic article with little relation to its neighbours. The author feels the need to rehash points constantly, which reaches its nadir during the books overly-long and needlessly drawn out conclusion, which might as well have been an academic article all of its own. The author seems to have no faith in his readers memory retention.
That’s a pity, because the central argument is actually well thought out, when Heather finally gets round to it. In his eyes, it is the activities of the Hunnic peoples in displacing the Goths around the 370’s that got the ball really rolling on the extinction of the western empire, but it was not until the 440’s and the loss of the North African provinces that things really reached a tipping point. I liked the way that Heather went about discussing this idea, focusing on the loss of revenue, the loss of recruiting power, and the over-bearing tide of barbarian expansion as something that simply choked the life out of Rome and left it easy prey to new barbarian “super-powers”. A cancelled expedition to re-take North Africa, financed and supplied largely by Constantinople, is identified as the key point in this whole process, and in this Heather argues his point well. However, one cannot help but wonder if it is indeed barbarian gains that caused the fall of Rome, should we not be looking more closely at military failures as the main culprit in its collapse?
But it must take some flak from the numerous things not discussed. Heather seems to have little care or regard for matters relating to the internal workings of the Empire, only causally stopping at points relating to political corruption, depopulation and financial hardships. His focus is almost entirely on how the barbarian element made Rome change, rather than any thoughts on how Rome may have wrung its own neck. Heather seems to take the extraordinary view that the western empire in 376 AD was on a par with the earlier glory years of the “good emperors” in terms of –prestige and power, when any reading on such a subject will take an opposite view. Taken with the somewhat disturbing final lines of the book, when Heather seems to look on the fall of Rome as some sort of just reward for previous hubris, you begin to wonder just how much genuine research has gone into the Roman side of the equation. The crisis of the third century, which left the Roman state and military is such a pitiful way, is not even worth discussing apparently and the author is further uninterested in really getting in-depth on the well documented economic problems that the Empire was suffering from due to currency debasement and land reform.
The worst is probably the military issue. Heather seems to have little actual knowledge of how the Roman military was faring in the time period discussed, drawing a very weak line between its general performance and abilities with that of the legions of Julius Caesar. While mixing up unit terms and making very basic assumptions about battle formations and tactics, Heather seems to have completely overlooked – by choice or accident – the serious deficiencies that were evident in the Roman army before the Goths crossed the Danube, such as looser organisation, less numbers, poorer quality weapons and training as well as greater number of non-Roman auxiliaries who could not carry out battlefield manoeuvres to the same level as the famous Tenth Legion. Considering that it was a failure of military prowess that allowed the barbarians to spread through Europe, Spain and onto Africa, this is a rather serious oversight , and leaves the author open to damaging criticism. The most eye-opening for me was the authors apparent inability to recognise just why the defeat at Adrianople was so catastrophic. Rome had suffered many such defeats at the hands of Hannibal, much closer to home and in a much more vicious conflict. Yet, it survived and sent more armies out. Heather may have been better served discussing just why things had changed in the military of the Roman Empire, since it had gotten to the point of such a defeat being a decisive blow to their hopes of survival.
Moreover, Heather is caught in several contradictions throughout the text, the most serious in my eyes coming towards the end. Having spent hundreds of pages talking up the rise of barbarian culture and commenting favourably in comparisons with Rome, he suddenly switches tack in the concluding chapter and talks critically about the rising tide of illiteracy in Europe following the fall of Rome as a consequence of the barbarian “victory”. Considering how praising he is of the cultures and rise of the Goths and Huns at times, one might also find it odd that he uses such a derogative term as “barbarian” in the first place. Also, as previously mentioned, he talks up the Roman army as an organisation of immense power, before suddenly deciding that its collapse and defeat was “inevitable”.
There is also the language employed throughout the text, which is academic for the most part, but then contains some eye raising “popular” phrases. People “do their stuff” and “bang on about” things. “Banana skins” are mentioned, people “snuff it”, books are described as the “yah-boo-sucks variety”. Legionaries are “like the Marines, only nastier” and chapter titles include “Out of Africa” and “Thrace: The Final Frontier”. This is not a terrible problem, but does point to some indecision in the author as to what kind of book he actually wanted to write. Clearly, there is an element of “dumbing down” in such language and this is not the best book for an academic audience.
The portions focusing on Roman political life and the military campaigns are interesting enough, but far too brief. Heather’s central thesis is solid, but is damaged by the limitations of his thoughts elsewhere, his language, his omissions and his occasional contradictory information. While it is one of the better texts for anyone looking to get information on Roman-barbarian diplomatic relations, it is not the best history of the latter Roman Empire to read.