Monday, March 27, 2006

Young Huns go for it

The Fall of the Roman Empire - Peter Heather

The great thing about explaining the fall of the Roman Empire is that it inspires almost everyone to have a crack. Peter Heather doesn't actually mention the theory that it was all down to the Romans becoming mentally infirm after drinking from lead water pipes, but it's safe to say that doesn't pass the two questions any theory needs to explain. Why did the Empire fall in fifth century, rather than earlier or later? And why was it only the Western Empire which fell? (The Eastern half continued on, eventually becoming the Byzantine Empire, which Heather feels to be a successor state, and who am I to argue?)

These two questions knock out many favourite theories. Roman licentiousness can't be to blame, as the first century emperors excelled at this - performing a selection of their favourite violin solos while the capital got torched, promoting horses to consul and poisoning each other's figs. The later emperors, by contrast, were a much less lively bunch.

The second knocks out the I blame the Christians argument of Edward Gibbon. Which is sad, because pointing out that the advent of Christianity as a state religion coincided with the Empire's decline had good irritation value. Saint Augustine wrote City of God while the Vandal army was camped out in the suburbs of Hippo. This book started a backslide of Christian thought: having been more than happy to embrace the Empire, they were now starting to put some theological distance between Church and State. But the Eastern Empire was more religious and Christian than the West, and it survived.

Peter Heather refreshingly takes the direct approach, which is that the Western Empire fell because it was overcome by a seemingly endless stream of mainly Germanic invaders. As provinces fell, the Imperial treasury became empty, its ability to pay its armies diminished, and the crisis intensified.

Heather identifies the Huns, steppe-dwelling horsemen, as the catalyst behind all the main crises in the century long fall. A build up in the population of German tribes had increased their danger to the empire. The arrival of the Huns on the Volga led to the collapse of various (German) Gothic kingdoms in the Ukraine. Survivors fled south over the Danube. Conflict with the Empire forced amalgamation of these tribes, and the defeat by these Visigoths of the Romans at Adrianople was a turning point. With Valens, the Emperor, dead, it's difficult not to see Adrianople as the beginning of the end.

But the end would be a long time coming. The Visigothic War was ended, only for a worse Germanic crisis to erupt in the decade after 400. Another Visigothic war in 401-402 was worsened after group of Vandals, Huns and Alans walked over the frozen Rhine on the portentious 31 December 406. In 410 the Visigoths, led by Alaric, sacked Rome, though it was apparently a comparatively civilised affair. Peter Heather sees the arrival of the Huns in Hungary as having sparked off this crisis, but he doesn't appear to have any evidence that they were there before 425.

We then move on to Aetius, the "last of the Romans". He is traditionally seen as an untouchable hero after his defeat of Attila's Huns in 451, but as someone (can't remember who, sorry) once said, he was only the last of the Romans because he didn't leave any Romans to come after him. In particular, Heather lets Aetius off lightly for signing a ridiculous peace treaty which let Geiseric's Vandals stay in Morocco. They were then able to wait till Aetius went off cruising for Germans in Gaul and then marched into Carthage, taking the Romans' most financially important provinces. For all Aetius' heroism against Attila and his fruitless plans to retake North Africa, it was this decision which did for the Empire. Without the excess finances to buy large armies, the Western Empire was pretty much sunk.

The disappearance of the Huns after Attila's Huns as marking another stage in Rome's decline. Aetius had used the Huns to keep the Germanic tribes in check. With the formidable Roman army much diminished, modern Britain, France, Spain and north Africa had been lost. This left only the Eastern Empire which could recover the situation in the West, but once Anthemius' fleet had been lost off Carthage, the East was bankrupt and the West was finished. A few years later in 476, the last Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was pushed into retirement and the Western Empire was over.

Another factor in the fall was the amalgamation of the Germany tribes into ever-larger groups. Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals and Franks were recent inventions, as groups of invaders realised they would rather hang together than hang separately.

Peter Heather has a fun and informal (well, for a historian) style. Traditional historians probably wouldn't have approved of Heather's amusement at the Roman habit of inviting barbarians to banquets and then sticking the fadge on them, but you've got to admire someone who can come up with a heading like "Thrace: the final frontier". Definitely worth reading.


Blogger Dave said...

We don't really need to rad it now, do we, given your detailed summary?

1:27 pm  
Blogger Dave said...

For 'rad' read 'read'.

1:27 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Eclectic and interesting, as always. I have nothing to add as I know almost nothing about the topic, but just wanted to thank you for doing that thang that you do.

2:19 pm  
Blogger Greg said...

Arrrggghhh! You ruined the ending for me! I own that book but haven't read it yet.

It's always nice when a historian goes old-school on us - for years the focus has been on the internal falling of the Romans, and a tendency to see the Germanic people (and, I suppose, Turks, if you want to call the Huns that) as just hanging around waiting for it to fall. The various waves of invaders had SOMETHING to do with it, after all.

From what I've read about this book, it appears Heather might swing the pendulum back too far. I'm looking forward to reading it someday (I have a backlog of books to read).

2:11 am  
Blogger doppelganger said...

It's just so much more interesting to see the decline as due to cancer in the heart rather than the wolf at the door.

The latter viewpoint can reduce history to one giant game of 'Risk'- So much more interesting to pick over the thanatos-fuelled failings of the corrupt and the decadent from the safety of the moral high ground!

But hey, I'm mostly with comment number three on this one....

10:16 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know, I disagree with these arguements. They seem way too simple and ignore too many points.

I agree with Gibbon that Christianity played a role, but that being said, the spread of Christianity is not the only thrust of Gibbon's argument, or even the largest part, and it's ridiculous to pare his arguments down to that point. You'll also note that the fourth century Romans had worse armour, no helmets and no breastplates, and fewer soldiers than in the second century BC,(Legion size went from 6,000 men down to 1,000 due to the military reforms of Constantine), nor did the Romans of the fourth century entrench and fortify camps, which sounds like a small thing, but has major consequences as it left them without an area to retreat to in case of defeat or fortify the physique with constant physical labour and regular discipline.

Adrianpole is also overrated as a cause of the fall. Valens was the Eastern Emperor, remember, not the Western. The end might have been said to come with Theodosius appointed Eastern Emperor. He recruited the Goths into his army and led them into Italy against Gratian's usurper Eugenius.

Also, Alaric was an agent of the Eastern Empire, appointed by Leo as Master General of Eastern Illyricum. The Western Empire, after having taken the brunt of large civil wars and Germanic invasions for the last century, just could not stand up to a war being waged against it by its other half in the East. And the theme continued with Justinian's campaign against a Gothic Italy a little more than a century later, when that kingdom was in effect colonized by Theodoric acting under the auspices of the regent of Constantinople.

The Roman Empire largely fell on it's own sword. Looking for external causes is a mistake.

4:12 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, that'd be "arguments" in the first line. Very embarassing.

4:13 am  
Blogger Excalibor said...


I finished that book about three weeks ago, nice synchronicity... :-)

I am writing a novel centerd in this conflict during Alaric's life.

Neither Heather, nor anyone else, it appears, has tackled the issue of numbering the populations involved. On my blog I am trying to discuss (and find out) how many people crossed the Danube in 376 (and then moved through Thrace until Hadrianopolis...) and how would they move...

My initial numbers have been (severely) reduced in other discussion groups (RAT), which is a bit worrying, because things start to be worrisome with smaller numbers...

would you take a stab to this issue (and then visit my blog :-)


8:00 pm  
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