The Fall Of Rome And The End Of Civilization, by Bryan Ward-Perkins
Although this book is fairly short, coming in at about 180 pages of reading material and a lot of meticulous footnotes, it packs a pretty serious impact for several related reasons in a subject that appears arcane on the surface but is surprisingly relevant when its implications are considered, as the author explicitly does. The book is a powerful effort in an argument that divides those students of history whose areas of interest include the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages. This book argues that the use of the term “Late Antiquity” has often been used to minimize or soft-pedal or ignore the real and serious declines in material conditions after the Western Roman Empire fell and power was taken by successor barbarian states. The author is nuanced and moderate in his discussions, comparing the Western Empire to the much longer lasting period of classical material culture in the Eastern Empire, until it too fell to the invasions and incursions of Slaves, Avars, Persians, and Arabs, in the seventh and eighth centuries, pointing out that the material culture of the Roman imperial age was greater than that in the following period, and that it is likely that a great deal of death along with a lot of losses in literacy and standard of living occurred when both the Western and Eastern Empires were subject to repeated invasions that disrupted the lives of the ordinary farmers and townspeople upon which the economic and demographic strength of the empire depended. This is a sound thesis and it is well defended.
In terms of its contents, this book contains eight chapters and an appendix and chronology. The first chapter asks the question of whether Rome fell, and answers, with a strong use of primary sources from the fifth century Roman world, strongly in the affirmative. The next three chapters look at the fall of Rome from the point of view of the very real horrors of rape, starvation, and dispossession, aside from death, that resulted from the wars between different factions of Romans with each other and between and among different Barbarian realms, the road to defeat that showed how Rome fell as a result of a set of interrelated factors that included economic decline, military impotency, and glaring failures of leadership, and also the difficult but possible accommodations that the Romans were able to make with their new barbarian masters. The second part of the book looks at the fall of civilization by examining the disappearance of comfort from a material perspective, looking at such issues as pottery, the size of beef cattle, the areas settled in various periods, and the distribution of coinage. The author then looks at reasons why these material aspects of Roman civilization, which were widespread far down into very modest peasant dwellings and remote towns in obscure parts of the empire, disappeared to such an extent that what would have been widespread items in the late Roman period would have been elite luxuries in the periods that followed. The author then examines what he means by civilization, reminding the reader that it is not a moral judgment but rather a judgment about the material complexity of society. The author then closes with a commentary on the useful ways that Late Antiquity frees us from too dim a view of the Middle Ages, but also comments that too many historians have used the label of Late Antiquity to deny the material aspects of human existence by focusing only on those areas of the past that are of interest in our given political or cultural worldview.
Although the specific debate this book is a part of is most of interest to historians, there are subjects of far wider relevance as well. Although the author is an openly avowed irreligious person, and even though his area of research is in material culture and not such moral and spiritual matters as decadence, this book is a helpful reminder that in bemoaning decadence and societal decline it may be too easy to overlook the benefits that even a corrupt civilization provides that less complex societies, without networks of trade and the ability for people to specialize, are lacking. In railing against the corruption of elites, it is easy to want to destroy a corrupt society, without realizing that it is ultimately the common people who suffer the most when civilizations fall , because even corrupt societies allow ordinary people the opportunity to be literate and creative, to specialize in areas of skill, and to achieve remarkable levels of freedom and well-being. Simple societies ruled over by uneducated thugs reduce those opportunities and those freedoms considerably. As the author states to close his book, “I also think there is a real danger for the present day in a vision of the past that explicitly sets out to eliminate all crisis and all decline. 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 prehistoric times. Romans before the fall were as certain as we are today that their world would continue forever substantially unchanged. They were wrong. We would be wise not to repeat their complacency (183).”
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