The Fall of Rome was not a walk in the park

I’ve just finished reading one of the best books I’ve read in ages. It was called The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, by Bryan Ward-Perkins. He’s an archaeologist and historian at Oxford University.

Why I found it so interesting is that (as I’ve mentioned in at least one previous blog post) I’ve been reading books about this period recently, all published within the last 15 years or so. I did postgraduate work in this field – the late Roman empire – and it has been an interesting experience revisiting the subject. But I’ve been puzzled about the fact that these books have represented the centuries of Late Antiquity as a period, not of violent collapse, but of gentle transition, between one type of society (that of the Classical world) and another (that of the early Medieval world).

What Ward-Perkins does is comprehensively blow this idea out of the water. He deploys evidence for the drastic decline in material culture – high quality pottery disappearing from the archaeological record, roof tiles being replaced by thatch, small denomination coinage vanishing, meaning that small-scale transactions have to be done by barter – to show that the disappearance of the Roman empire in the western provinces (Italy, Gaul, Spain and Africa, Britain and the Danube region) was accompanied by the drastic disruption of long-distance trade, the marked decline in the manufacture of high quality goods, and almost certainly a horrific shrinkage in the population. In much of western Europe, the 5th to 7th centuries saw material civilization go back to pre-historic levels of complexity. In the light of this archaeological evidence, the written evidence of contemporaries or near-contemporaries has to be taken for what it is, reflecting a time of great hardship and destruction, not explained away as propaganda or exaggeration.

What this shows is that historians, just like anyone else, can look at evidence and do pretty much what they like with it, according to their own preconceptions, prejudices or agendas. Any plain reading of the historical narratives and archaeological data from the period – even the ice cores of the Arctic which show a dramatic drop in pollution levels – point overwhelmingly to an awful collapse. To conjure all this away to present an entirely different picture of more or less peaceful immigration and integration strikes one as, well, odd, to say the least. It is a salutary reminder that historical writing can say as much about the standpoints from which the historian writes as about the historical subject matter with which they are dealing.

Peter Britton