Book Review: Empires And Barbarians

Empires And Barbarians:  The Fall Of Rome And The Birth Of Europe, by Peter Heather

The period between Late Antiquity and the High Middle Ages has always been one where there has been a wide degree of controversy because of the various political questions that result from the dramatic changes of that time.  How violent was the transition between Roman rule of Western Europe to the rule of various barbarian tribes?  What was the influence of Christianity on European peoples, whether they were fast or slow in adopting it, as well as on the various pagan faiths that were neighbors of Hellenistic Christian states?  What sort of authority systems did the various regimes of the early Middle Ages have, and to what extent were these what we would consider legitimate?  Why was it that the Roman empire stopped where it did, or why was it that the Slavs became known to history in such a dramatic way in territory that had previously been Germanic?  How large were the armies of the early middle ages?  This book tackles all of these questions with a mixture of a sound and generally positive approach to the historiography of the period as well as a close eye towards archaeological findings, and is certainly a very worthwhile book if you want to read about the Europe in the early Middle Ages from 300-1000AD or so.

This book is a somewhat large tome, taking only 11 chapters to cover 600 pages and roughly 700 years of history in Western Europe.  Admittedly, this is not a book of political history although it does deal with questions of the legitimacy and power projection of various regimes during the course of its study.  After a preface and a prologue the author provides a chapter that looks at migrants and barbarians, examining what it was that drew the barbarians towards the Roman empire and how proximity to the empire encouraged a consolidation process that would allow the barbarian regimes to have more options in dealing with the Roman empire whose wealth they coveted (1).  After that the author discusses globalization and its effects on the various Germanic tribes based on what we can see of trade routes (2) as well as a discussion of whether all roads led to Rome during the period of late antiquity (3) in Western Europe.  The author writes about the fourth and fifth century crises of the Roman Empire as it was crumbling with a discussion of migration and border collapse (4) and then examines the Huns and their migrations as well as their collapse after the death of Attila (5).  After that the author discusses the case of the Anglo-Saxons and Franks as a migration or elite transfer (6) as well as the New Europe that was developed in the aftermath of Rome’s fall (7).  The author spends a great deal of time looking at the rise of the Slavs (8) as well as the Viking diasporas that took place towards the end of the first millennium AD (9).  Finally, the author closes with a discussion of the first European Union of Christendom (10) and the end of migration with the rise of fixed castles and the birth of what we view as Europe (11), after which there are maps, notes, primary sources, a bibliography, and an index.

While this is a deeply interesting book, it seems at times that the author does not realize that the subject is of interest to a mass audience.  This particular volume qualifies as one of those books that I happen to deeply enjoy but which I think may go over the head of many readers, as this author not only discusses the findings of castles defending the core regions of states like like Bohemia, Great Moravia, Piast Poland, and the Grand Duchy of Kiev, and even Denmark, but also engages in debates over migration and elite transfer and the failures of Marxism to account for the cultural development of the Slavs and for their expansion during the collapse of the Avar confederation.  The history is compelling, even where textual sources are thin on the ground, but the author has aims that are both about legitimizing the proper understanding of migration to European history during the period as well as writing about what happened from a point of view that focuses a great deal of attention on the strength that various polities were able to present in their struggle with various rivals and enemies.  The material is worth reading, but is not going to be an easy read for most who would attempt it.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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