Collapse of a “Hyperpower”

A review of The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians by Peter Heather and The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization by Bryan Ward-Perkins.

by Victor Davis Hanson

The New Criterion

After September 11 and the acrimonious war in Iraq, America was castigated as the world’s sole “empire,” “hegemon,” or “hyperpower.” A series of books, especially in Europe, not only lamented the overweening power of the United States, but gleefully predicted our imminent collapse. The fate of Rome was the obvious and frequent imperial referent, the subtext of any such comparison being that an inwardly decadent America was no match for its poorer, more numerous, and zealous enemies: the Islamists would simply kick in an already rotten door.

Despite occasional revisionism, the story of Rome’s fall was pretty much universal until recent times. After some five centuries of imperial domination from the Sahara to the Rhine, and from the British Isles to Mesopotamia, the Western empire collapsed in the late fifth century, specifically when its last emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed in 476 by the German tribal leader Odacer, after a near century of enervating attacks by Visigoths, Vandals, and Huns.

Except for occasional crackpot efforts of eccentric German scholars who championed the barbarians as untainted forefathers of the racially pure and superior modern German Volk, most accepted the general picture of decline. An exhausted global empire was so plagued by financial corruption, a bankrupt elite, and rural depopulation that few citizens joined the army. Fewer still knew what fifth-century Rome stood for, much less whether it was any longer worth defending.

That was the general picture we were all taught in graduate school. Few bought into the classic antithesis of Edward Gibbon (reenergized forty years ago by the great Oxford historian A. H. M. Jones) that the incorporation of Christianity as the state religion of Rome by Constantine in 312 was the real beginning of the end. In Gibbon’s view, the growing church substituted the pacifist Sermon on the Mount creed for classical civic militarism, while emptying the state treasury to support literally millions of useless clerical drones, monumental new churches, and ecclesiastical lands that brought no financial return to the empire.

This entire question of steady decline until abrupt fall, however, was always clouded by a few bothersome facts. First, the eastern Greek-speaking half of the empire centered at Byzantium survived countless enemies for almost another 1,000 years, suggesting that whatever was wrong at Rome was apparently not wrong enough to make the entire empire collapse. And second, barbarians and Christians were both firmly established nearly two centuries before 476. Why and how, then, did the empire survive both the Church and the Germanic hordes for so long?

In the new revisionism of the postmodern era, the answer was more existential: Rome never really “fell” at all. Rather it benignly “evolved” into what we might now see as something like a proto-European Union in a steady continuum, as Gaul morphed into France, Britannia became England, and so on. As early as the 1970s Peter Brown and others sought to codify this benign evolutionary thesis into the formal field of “Late Antiquity,” in which it was taboo to think of an abrupt erosion of culture or civilization, much less to prejudge shaggier peoples across the Danube and Rhine. Instead, as Brown put it, the historian should be able to write about the period between 250–800 “without invoking an intervening catastrophe and without pausing, for a moment, to pay lip service to the widespread notion of ‘decay.’”

Indeed, “transformation” and “evolution” were the politically correct terminologies, not “decay,” “fall,” or “crisis,” value-laden misconceptions that wrongly implied that what followed Rome was somehow far worse. Now, however, the reaction to the reaction has set in—but sometimes with conclusions that may be just as antithetical to the old notion of civilization lost.

Oxford University Press has recently published two new interpretations of the fall, with obvious lessons for the present purported crisis of Western civilization. Both books are in agreement that there was most certainly a sudden end to Rome in the late fifth century that markedly changed life in Western Europe, but otherwise they are entirely at odds in both tone and analyses. Peter Heather’s effort is the more fully documented and better written book, but also the more disturbing in that it ultimately comes to distressing conclusions about the value of what vanished—something never lost sight of by the clearer-eyed Bryan Ward-Perkins.[1] In a concise, often cranky essay, Ward-Perkins seeks to demonstrate through literary, epigraphical, and archaeological evidence, first, that the prosperity and security of millions was abruptly lost, and, second, lost due to the invasions of less sophisticated, more warlike parasitical tribes who finally broke culture’s door and destroyed a millennium of civilization’s hard work that took millions of lives and left the survivors forever poorer.

The evidence he presents is at times overwhelming and consistent anywhere we look. Writers as diverse as Bishop Leo of Rome, the late-fifth-century Saint Severinus of Austria and Salvian, a priest near Marseille, all describe a collapsing world of constant invasion, loss of security, wide-scale rape and murder, with civilization retreating to fortified enclaves, beset by those who wanted its wealth, but nothing of what initially created it.

But the story is not just literary. Archaeology reveals that there was a drastic drop-off not only in luxury items such as silver and gold jewelry or buildings in mortared brick and stone, but also in mass-produced daily ware that once had been fabricated cheaply and efficiently at central factories and shipped all over the Mediterranean—to the benefit of millions who were given valuable consumer goods at affordable prices.

After the fifth century, however, not only were there fewer clay products, but their quality eroded as well. Numismatics likewise confirms the dismal picture: small change—mostly copper coins of lesser denominations—became scarcer as complex trans-Mediterranean transactions were abandoned and trade reverted to a more primitive and local barter system. Epigraphy tells the same monotonous story. Also, graffiti markedly declined, since, as literacy devolved to a small ecclesiastical elite, fewer Romans knew how to read or write.

Ward-Perkins is a materialist, interested in proving the concrete record for the fall rather than in explaining its root causes. He only briefly suggests how and why there was not enough money to equip a mercenary army against a horde of various barbarian enemies in the late fifth century. Yet he is still unequivocal in what this collapse meant for everyday people of the time—and its lessons for us today:

The end of the Roman West witnessed horrors and dislocation of a kind I sincerely hope never to have to live through; and it destroyed a complex civilization, throwing the inhabitants of the West back to a standard of living typical of prehistorical times. Romans before the fall were as certain as we are today that their world would continue forever substantially unchanged. They were wrong. We should be wise not to repeat their complacency.

Peter Heather’s much longer and more comprehensive Fall of the Roman Empire agrees with some of Ward-Perkins’s conclusions. Although the East survived because its more defensible borders (the Dardanelles and Black Sea) provided a buffer to the northern barbarians—and evolution made Byzantium into something ultimately un-Roman—there was most surely a calamitous end to Roman life in the late-fifth-century West. Its causes, as Ward-Perkins likewise maintained, were barbarian invasions across the Danube and Rhine.But there all agreement ends. Heather thinks that we have it all wrong in looking at the problem solely from Roman eyes, since there was not all that much different going on in Western Europe in the fifth, than, say, in the second or third century. Instead, in our ethnocentrism, we have entirely ignored the radical revolution in the so-called barbarian north.

To Heather, we have missed the significance of two unprecedented events. The invasions of 376 and 405–406 are not to be attributed to periodic incursions by tribal Tervingi and Greuthungi, Vandals, Alans, and Suevi. Those inroads were merely epiphenomena of a much larger and far more serious thirty-five-year-long mass migration caused by the advance of the Huns westward and southward, a gigantic demographic shift that drove other barbarians scurrying ahead into Roman territory—putting enormous pressures on tenuous Roman defenses along the Rhine and Danube.

These initial incursions led to subsequent decades of unrest where frontier territory was insidiously lost, taxes disrupted, populations scattered, and, perhaps worse from the Roman perspective, accommodation and appeasement—rather than genuine efforts of assimilation—became the standard mechanism for provincial elites to deal with Hunnic inroads. So after this initial haymaker, Rome never quite recovered and was laid low by the final Visigothic knock-out punch in the late fifth century. As Heather sees it, overweening Roman imperialism, its insensitivity to “the other,” its inability to integrate and empower the newcomers who might have offered needed fresh ingredients for new Roman citizens, all this at last created a perfect storm of sorts where almost anyone not Roman, according to his station, found a unity of common purpose in destroying the oppressor. As Heather puts it:

The west Roman state fell not because of the weight of its own “stupendous fabric,” but because its Germanic neighbours had responded to its power in ways that the Romans could never have foreseen. There is in all this a pleasing denouement. By virtue of its unbounded aggression, Roman imperialism was ultimately responsible for its own destruction.

So there we have it: two gifted historians, through quite different methodologies, come to surprisingly similar conclusions that the Western empire fell to foreign aggression from barbarian tribes in the late fifth century. To Ward-Perkins this was all a horror and a lesson for Western civilization today to remain vigilant. But to Heather, the fall was a result of unbridled Western “aggression” and thus something that was ultimately “pleasing.”Ostensibly both these erudite books are about the past, but their quite divergent interpretations perhaps tell us far more about the divide between ourselves than they do about the crisis of the Romans.


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  1. The Fall of the Roman Empire. A New History of Rome and the Barbarians, by Peter Heather; Oxford University Press, 576 pages, $40. The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, by Bryan Ward-Perkins; Oxford University Press, 258 pages, $28. Go back to the text.

©2006 Victor Davis Hanson

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