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Mon, 14 May 2007 14:42:56 -0500
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The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians. By PETER 
HEATHER. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Pp. xvi + 572 + 16 maps 
+ 27 b/w photos. Cloth, $40.00. ISBN 0–19–515954–3.

Order from Amazon ($29.70) using this link, and benefit CAMWS:

Print Version: CJ 102.4: 396–9

    The question of what happened to the Roman Empire fascinates both a broad public 
and the scholarly world. From a European and text-based perspective, the fall of the 
empire represents the end of the Classical world, and with it a decline in literacy, 
urbanism and other signs of “civilization.” In the minds of many people, Roman 
civilization was a golden age of art, literature and law. Since the Renaissance, European 
and North American societies have widely adopted Roman architectural and sculptural 
traditions, as well as laws and both legal and medical terms.

    Historians, Classicists and anthropologists find the question of Rome’s decline of 
enduring professional interest. Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman 
Empire, written at the height of the Enlightenment, became a standard version, though it 
was only one of many attempts to synthesize and interpret what happened between the 
3rd and the 6th centuries. The diversity of explanations that have been proposed is 
represented in Alexander Demandt’s Der Fall Roms (1984), in which the author groups 
them into six main categories. Anthropological archaeologists have embraced the topic of 
the decline of empires as a worldwide phenomenon. The fall of Rome is examined as one 
of many collapses of civilizations, along with others such as the Indus Valley civilization 
of south Asia, the Shang of east Asia, and the Maya of central America. The Roman case 
is different from the others in that it offers such a vast array of evidence, both textual 
and archaeological. Of interest to historians and anthropologists alike has been the 
question, can we identify a “prime mover” to explain the fall of Rome, or must we 
understand the process in systemic terms, such that the interaction between a variety of 
different “causes” created the problems that led to collapse?

    The title of this new book by Peter Heather indicates the author’s approach and 
argument. Heather observes that the peoples north and east of the Roman Empire in 
Europe—the “barbarians”—are little understood by the public. His stated aim is to present 
a synthetic narrative, aimed at a general readership, to explain the fall of Rome and the 
role of the barbarians. Heather is a historian, and his presentation is based almost 
exclusively on the textual evidence, although he mentions archaeological data a number 
of times. He provides a great deal of interesting detail about some key players—
emperors, generals, officials and leaders among Rome’s enemies—in the events affecting 
the Roman world from the 3rd through the 5th centuries.

    The book consists of three main parts. The first begins with Caesar in Gaul and covers 
issues such as military training, Rome’s rise to power, the spread of Roman practices and 
materials among conquered peoples, and relations between Roman provinces and 
communities beyond the frontiers. The second focuses on interactions between the Roman 
world and the peoples to the north and east, especially those known as Goths and Huns. 
The third documents the collapse of the political and military power of the Huns, then that 
of Rome itself. Heather argues that the main factor in the fall of the Roman Empire was 
the military power of its enemies, especially the Goths and the Huns, directed against 
Roman interests. He cites the continued success of the eastern empire in the 5th and 6th 
centuries as evidence that internal causes were not the main factors that weakened the 
western empire, and believes that Christianity was not a major cause of the empire’s 

    The book presents a great deal of information. Heather’s style is casual and 
accessible, making the book well suited to the interested general reader. Footnotes lead 
to more specialized literature. Within the narrative, certain topics are highlighted with 
extra discussion. For example, Heather shows how slow travel within the empire was and 
how difficult it was to get news into hinterland areas, and explains the resulting problems 
for administering places removed from the principal centers. The book includes a number 
of maps which help the reader locate places mentioned. A dramatis personae section, a 
timeline and a glossary provide quick access to specific information. In several places, 
Heather makes thought-provoking comparisons with later contexts, including the Norman 
Conquest of Britain and the battles of the Spanish Armada.

    It would have been helpful to include a brief methodological discussion of the use of 
textual sources from the late Roman Period. One might come away from this book with 
the idea that what we read in the texts is straightforward statement of fact, without 
appreciating the complex process of critical analysis that historians apply to their 
documents. While the author clearly has full command of the textual sources, which form 
the basis of his book, he is not as strong on the archaeology. The main problem is that, in 
common with the Roman writers, Heather consistently understates the economic, social 
and political development of the peoples north and east of the Roman frontiers. 
Feddersen Wierde and Wijster do not represent the first “more or less permanent, 
clustered … settlements” in their regions. Permanent settlements are common from the 
Neolithic Period (4500 BC) on, and important predecessors of the Roman Period villages 
he mentions are Iron Age sites such as Boomborg-Hatzum in Germany and Grøntoft and 
Hodde in Denmark. Heather rightly emphasizes the great wealth placed in many graves 
beyond the frontier during the 3rd through 5th centuries, but does not consider the 
implications of the many earlier examples, such as at Langå in Denmark or Harsefeld, 
Putensen or Marwedel in Germany, to name only a few. Such burials are especially 
important for what they tell us about contacts between elites across Europe during the 1st 
and 2nd centuries. The great wooden trackways and earlier Iron Age weapon deposits are 
also important sources of information about political organization in northern Europe that 
are highly relevant for understanding the peoples Rome encountered.

    Heather’s book is an important contribution to the discussion, and is especially 
welcome in being aimed at a wider readership. He controls a vast amount of information 
and presents it clearly. In the future, authors and publishers might consider inviting an 
archaeologist to write a chapter for a book such as this one by a historian, and asking a 
historian to write a chapter for a comparable book by an archaeologist. The data and the 
interpretive literature in both fields have become so immense that no single individual 
can control them all.

University of Minnesota

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