Customer Reviews: The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians
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on December 28, 2005
In this volume Peter Heather attempts to explain that ultimately, the cause of the Fall of the Western Roman Empire was not due to tax inequities, a failure of the economy, internal discord, etc., but rather because of the simply overwhelming level of barbarian invasions which began in the late 4th century. This he proceeds to do very well.

This work is divided into three main parts; "Pax Romana" for chapters 1-3, "Crisis" for chapters 4-7 and "Fall of Empires" for chapters 8-10. I will discuss each of these briefly.

In "Pax Romana" Heather discusses the Barbarians, the Romans, and the Roman Empire briefly. For each of these groups he gives an overview of their development to the latter part of the 4th century, in order to provide us with a starting point for the period of the barbarian invasions. He discusses what it meant to be "Roman" and how even cities far removed from Rome, such as Trier, were fully involved in Roman life and, rather than being rustic frontier outposts, were as fully a part of the Empire as cities of the Italian peninsula. He discusses the increased autonomy of the Emperor and how the Empire changed and adapted to the rise of Sassanid Persia as a threat to the East, including changes in the taxation system to support an increased military presence in that area. He also discusses the evolution of Germanic tribes and their coalescence from small, isolated people into larger, more unified kingdoms, capable of truly threatening Rome rather than just gaining an occasional, ultimately meaningless victory, as had previously been the case.

All of this is to set the stage - to explain the status of the Empire and people within and outside it, and to show that in the late 4th century the Empire had recovered from the tumultous 3rd century and the Persian threat to once again reach a point of balance, able to maintain its prosperity as well as defend its borders.

It is impossible to do justice to section 2, "Crisis," with a summary. Here Heather provides what is simply the most detailed account of the military actions of the late Roman Empire that I have ever read. This section is outstanding. Heather provides a great deal of information, beginning with the Gothic campaign which resulted in the huge Roman loss at Hadrianople and ending with Aetius repulsing the Hunnic invasion at the Catalaunian fields. He discusses various battles, their effect on the Empire, and how the Empire responded to meet these threats. From the initial Gothic Invasion to Alaric, from the Hunnish threat to the Vandal invasion of North Africa, he covers these events and their impacts in great detail.

In the final section, "End of Empires," Heather first discusses the fall of the Hunnic Empire and why this was not of as much benefit to the Empire as might be suspected as it allowed many other Barbarian invaders access to the Empire, as opposed to facing one single threat. He also discusses the Western Empire's last struggles to remain viable, including its efforts to regain North Africa, a region which might have provided the necessary wealth for Rome to restore its military strength. Heather discusses how the failure of the North African invasion fleet in 468 spelled doom for the Empire. Finally he details the last days of Rome and the successor kingdoms that formed to fill in the void in Western Europe.

This is an excellent work. Heather writes well, the narrative is interesting, he references source material extensively and he goes into great detail regarding the last century of the Western Empire. I will say that I believe he proves his thesis rather convincingly. He does not try to minimize internal problems, particularly that so much of the military was focussed on Persia, however it is hard to argue with him when he says that were it not for the sheer size and number of Barbarian invasions, particularly those driven by Hunnish pressure, the Roman Empire would not have fallen when it did. He details this by discussing the relative size of the two forces and showing that the Barbarian fighting men very likely enjoyed substantial numerical superiority over the Western Empire's field armies.

Even if you are not interested in the argument as to "why" Rome fell, this is an excellent, extremely in-depth account of the Barbarian invasions of the late 4th and 5th centuries and how Rome responded to this threat. I would recommend it on that basis alone.
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on September 22, 2006
Notice the title of Peter Heather's fascinating study of the final centuries of the Roman Empire. It is a clear tribute to Gibbons, yet the "Decline" is intentionally missing. Because according to Dr. Heather the Roman Empire never declined; its fall was due to external, rather then internal, forces, and the perpetrators were two: the Huns and the Goths.

Heather rejects the theories that see the cause of the fall of the Roman Empire in internal maladies. Contra popular opinion, he argues that the division of the Empire to Western and Eastern parts was rational given the increased size of the Roman population. As the Roman way of life spread, and more and more conquered people became Roman citizens, the patronage that had to be distributed became too enormous for any single Imperial Court - hence, the need for two Courts.

Nor is the fault in the Christianization of the Empire; although he acknowledges that the rise of Christianity brought a Cultural Revolution (separation of the Living from the Dead; Equality of all before the Lord; diminished importance for the educated Romans in comparison with the simple true-believers, pp. 121-122), Heather doubts it effected the functioning of the empire much. The Roman Empire was still perceived as divinely blessed "only the nomenclature was different" (p. 123), Christian theology fitted neatly into Roman Chauvinism, and it was only as consequences of defeat that St. Augustine started to develop his anti-Nationalist theology (pp. 230-232).

The best evidence against the "internal decline" thesis is that the Roman Empire did not actually collapse - only it's western half did. In the East, the Roman Empire soldiered on, until another powerful foreign threat - Islam.

Therefore, Heather suggests, the answer is external: As a consequence of the exposure to the Roman world, the Germanic tribes confronted by the Romans have changed. An agricultural revolution took over the German world, increasing its population and changing its organization: along with surplus, there developed inequality, with powerful leaders and kings solidifying larger and larger groups of so-called "Barbarians" (pp. 87-94).

But the grows of the German population was not in itself, enough to shake and eventually to topple the Western Empire; the fuse for that was a new menace, coming from the East - the Huns.

Heather remains officially agnostic as to the origin of the horse riding people from the Great Eurasian Steppe, although he seems to support the theory that their origin related to the Hsiung-Nu - a Nomadic threat to the Chinese Empire several centuries before (pp. 147-149).

The Huns made their ways into the neighborhood of the Roman Empire in two stages - in the late 4th century, they have arrived at the Caucasus, and in the second quarter of the 5th century to East and Central Europe, culminating in the raids on the Western Empire, by their sole unifier and greatest leader, Attila.

But it was not ultimately the Huns who destroyed the Empire. What the Huns did was trigger a chain reaction of migrating "Barbarians" the greater, richer and more unified Germanic people who fled into the Roman Empire. "As Germanic groups moved on to Roman territory to escape Hunnic aggression, this long standing process acquired new momentum. One of the most important ... phenomena of the fifth century narrative is that all of the major successor states to the west Roman Empire were created around the military power of new barbarian supergroups, generated on the march"(p. 451).

As the Roman Empire faced these threats, it suffered from a vicious circle of damages; the more the Goths invaded the worse the empire's capacity to raise taxes became, thus turning the Empire weaker and more tempting target. The Loss of Africa to the Vandals was a particularly hard stroke in that regard. And every time the empire seemed to be able to overcome one crises, the continued advanced of the Huns pressed new waves of invaders into its boarders, undoing the Roman effort. "[T]he various crises faced by the western Empire ... represented no more than the slow working-out of the political consequence of the earlier invasions" (p. 434)

This short synopsis does not come close to doing justice to Heather's sophisticated and fascinating account. Yet in blaming the fall on an "Exogenous Shock" (p. 450), I think Heather may be ignoring one major change in the Roman Empire - its relative lack of belligerency.

As Heather tells it "Roman expansion was driven by the internal power struggles of republican oligarchs... and by the early Emperor's desire for Glory." But eventually, the provinces that the empire started to conquer were just too poor to be worth conquering "The Roman advance ground to a halt... around a major fault line of European socio-economic organization"... it was not the military prowess of the Germani that kept them outside the Empire, but their poverty" (pp. 56-58).

But as the agriculture revolution took over the Germanic world, did not that arithmetic change? If the Roman Empire's border was initially determined on economic cost/benefit grounds, it seems to have been perpetuated by tradition. New threats lurked in the dark forests of Germania, but new opportunities were there, as well. Why didn't the late Empire move to take advantage of the opportunities? To me, it seems that an answer to that is essential for the discovery of the causes for the Fall of the Roman Empire.
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on November 29, 2005
Heather has accomplished kind of an academic miracle: he has given new light to a very old issue that has been explored, analyzed and written about almost to death: the causes of the demise of western roman empire.

I know all the big names that have ever written about this: Gibbons, Bury, the many italians and french XIX century scholars, T. Mommsem, Spengler, Toynbee and many many more. Heather is different to all of them. Clear, simple explanations grounded in common sense AND new archeological discoveries make the trick and Heather make it very well. With his approach we see less the monumental and unavoidable development of a macro-dramatic internal "decline and fall" as the simple, direct and at last unbearable action of very obvious facts...once they have been explained by Heather. We simply see an still prosperous empire being gradually overwheelmed by too many enemies that became less barbarian and enough civilized to gather and muster the military forces and pressures that at last, coming from every side, were too much to be resisted anymore by the imperial resources. How this came along centuries of accumulative evolution is the task that brillianty accomplish Mr Heather. At the very least, his book offers a new, refreshing, intriguing view of such a colossal development. So it is a must for any history geek.
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VINE VOICEon January 28, 2006
Peter Heather, an Oxford history professor, offers a "new history" of one of the most controversial subjects in world history - discussing what caused the fall of the (west) Roman Empire. Although this book makes for interesting reading at points, the author's main hypothesis is neither particularly fresh nor well constructed. Heather's main focus is on external factors - Barbarian actions - rather than internal Roman factors such as political corruption or economic disintegration. The author's main thesis revolves around the contention that Germanic society changed rapidly between the 1st and 4th Centuries and allowed the heretofore-weak tribes to form confederations that could challenge Roman power. Once Hunnic aggression pushed these Germanic tribes into Roman territory he argues, the Romans could no longer assimilate or destroy these Germanic "super-groups" such as the Goths, and the resultant loss of territory gradually deprived the empire of revenues. A vicious cycle began with the arrival of the Goths on Roman territory in 378, and eventually resulted in a growing inability of the Empire to defeat the swarm of new foes, such as the Vandals, Franks and Huns. Heather tends to dismiss all other theories about the reasons for imperial collapse out of hand, claiming that internal factors were not essentially irrelevant. Hmmm...not exactly sound historical methodology. Essentially, the author subscribes to the "mono-causal" explanation for this very complex process of imperial collapse - his explanation. It is a telling indictment about the intellectual foundations of this book that the author never questions whether a "mono-causal" theory can even be applied to such a lengthy, complex process.

Heather sees the loss of North Africa to the Vandals in 440 as the crucial blow that ultimately doomed the (west) Roman Empire, although the series of crises began with the Gothic victory at Adrianople in 378. He argues that the loss of Spain and Gaul, followed by the Vandal conquests, deprived the Empire of so much revenue that its ability to defend itself was compromised. However the key weakness in this hypothesis - of the "chicken or the egg" sort - is that it fails to identify whether Roman military weakness led to successful Barbarian invasions or whether successful invasions led to Roman military weakness. Stepping back a bit, Heather sees the growth of Persian "as a rival superpower" in the 3rd Century as diverting Roman military resources away from Western Europe and draining financial reserves. Although Heather tries to link the growth of Persian power to Barbarian successes in the West, this is a non-sequitor since the resources needed to contain the Persians came primarily from the Eastern Empire, which survived the Barbarian onslaughts. Furthermore, the author exaggerates the Persian threat, which did not threaten the heart of the Empire, only border zones.

The author's failure to tackle Roman military or economic issues in a serious manner seriously weakens his ability to support his thesis. First, the author displays a poor understanding of the Roman military, mixing terms like "regiment" and "cohort," claiming that the "testudo" was a common battlefield formation and stating that training in the 4th Century was the same as it was centuries before. The fact is that the Roman Army of the 4th Century was nothing like its forebears in either quantity or quality. In earlier times, the loss of 15,000 Roman troops as occurred at Adrianople would have been regarded as only a setback, but in 378 it was a catastrophe. Why? Simply put, the Empire was incredibly short of troops and could not afford significant losses. The author's claims that the massive influx of Barbarians into the late Roman army had no effect on training or discipline is flatly absurd. The fact is that the Roman Army had gotten quite rotten before Adrianople due to repeated civil wars, mutinies and rebellions that damaged the level of discipline and motivation among the rank and file. That the Romans were desperate to get Barbarian recruits for the army despite the fact that the Empire had a population of 70 million indicates that military recruiting was not inhibited merely by fiscal factors. By 378, the army was a job that very few citizens wanted.

The level of scholarship is surprisingly vulgar at times throughout this book - almost as if the author has chosen to write a juvenile and rather "dumbed-down" history. He describes Saint Augustines' City of God as "the straightforward yah-boo-sucks variety" and describes assassinations as "snuffing it." He also refers to Roman "five star generals" (no such rank), the "year zero" (no such year) and says that legionaries were "just like the Marines, but much nastier." The author also tends to over-use second-rate source material and to draw very broad conclusions from disparate archaeological finds.

It is in the conclusion that the author finally shows his true colors. He writes that, "the Roman Empire had sown the seeds of its own destruction, therefore, not because of internal weakness...but as a consequence of its relationship with the Germanic world...there is in all this a pleasing denouement. By virtue of its unbounded aggression, Roman imperialism was ultimately responsible for its own destruction." Apparently, the author is unaware that Rome was viciously sacked by the Celts in 390 BC, which began cycle of Roman expansion to achieve defensible borders. "Unbounded aggression"? The Roman Empire stopped expanding 200 years before Adrianople. "Pleasing denouement?" Oh, so all the massacres, raping, looting and destruction by the Vandals, Goths, etc - which laid low Western civilization for darn near 1,000 years - was a good thing?? If what the author was saying about the Roman Empire were true, then that civilization would have made no more contribution to human development as the Mongols or the Third Reich. However, the Roman Empire was not just about conquest and this type of "history" - which appears to have some subtle axes to grind -adds little to our understanding of why the Empire fell.
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on December 23, 2008
Overall this book was very informative, educational, and presented very complex difficult material in a new light. I found the book enjoyable to read, even though I disagreed with much of it. My criticisms of this book--which is still worth reading--are as follows:

I'll start with the worst: Heather's inconvenient omissions. What disturbed me most about this book is Heather's deliberate attempt to downplay any evidence that conflicts with his thesis. While I appreciated the many moments when he acknowledges gaps in the historical record and when he theorizes, he simply omits so many relevant historical facts that this book is frustrating. For instance, according to Heather over 100 years of constant civil wars, "usurpations," foreign invasions, and the accumulation of wealth into the hands of a powerful few had little, if any, effect on Rome. Heather begins his account by boldly stating that after Diocletian "restored" the empire after the 3rd century crisis, Rome was back to its former glory. According to him, the Roman economy was plugging along fine. Heather fails to take into account the economic impact of the loss of a stable monetary system, edicts trying roman farmers to their lands and their father's profession. Heather is also guilty of extrapolation at too many points. He discusses archeological finds of a few large Roman villas from the time period in a particular region and then assumes this wealth is indicative of a good economy throughout Europa.

Also, he makes the bold assertion that Diocletian and Theodosius' legions and comitatenses were just as disciplined and effective as Caesar's Legio X. While I admit I do not have Heather's credentials, I am very well read in this area, and I have never seen anyone else make such bold, unfounded assertions. While Diocletian may have "restored" the empire by re-conquering it--one has to acknowledge the effects of 100 years of constant warfare, sieges, invasions, etc. Heather does not take into account the destruction of infrastructure, loss of human manpower or loss of effectiveness of the army that surely must have resulted after 100 years of constant infighting, civil wars, and foreign invasions. This pattern continued during the 5th century. Every generation involved a major campaign of east vs west or the west fighting off a so-called usurper. I cannot even begin to comprehend the loss of resources accompanied by this. Yet, Heather sees no fallout from Theodosius' "victory" over the west or the numerous other civil wars at the time.

A perfect example of this is the Battle of Adrianople. The roman legions in Caesar's time were renowned for their discipline and ability to follow orders. The mere fact that a portion of the army at Adrianople was "goaded" into attacking the goth's left flank before being ordered to do so and before the remainder of the army was fully formed speaks volumes as to the effectiveness and discipline of the army during this time.

Also, Heather has little discussion of the change in military equipment in this period--the change from the rectangular scutum to the oval shield, the change to cheaper, easier to produce armor and helmets, the gradual adoption of the spatha, etc. He also fails to mention or take into account the effect of Diocletian's military reforms on the micro level. I just cannot believe that troops garrisoned in watchtowers along the Danube that had wives and families in the nearby city and were responsible for growing their own food were anywhere near as effective as Caesar's hardened legions who slept in camp and drilled constantly.

Further, Heather seems to believe that anytime barbarian foederati were incorporated in a legion that they were just as effective as Rome's former troops. Again, he fails to even discuss whether battlefield tactics changed. The strength in Caesars legions was that the Romans fought as a unit with a solid shield wall that slowly and meticulously advanced while the front line used short "stabbing" thrusts to kill the enemy. Legions were disciplined enough to "substitute" and rotate out front line troops during a battle. This took an incredible amount of training. While Rome's legions always relied heavily on "barbarian" conscripts--in the past they were dispersed into small groups, assimilated into the legion and took part in the training, etc. The notion that the barbarians that were "incorporated" wholesale into the roman legions in the 5th century could perform these tasks and act as a unit with the same effectiveness as the legions of Caesar's time is quite absurd.

As mentioned by other reviewers, Heather's prose often degenerates into plebian clichés. At times you get the impression he could not decide on his intended audience.

In the end, I enjoyed this book as a great education on late empire Roman-barbarian relations and the structure and societies of the Germanic peoples who invaded the empire. No doubt Heather is the foremost expert in this field. However, as is all too often the case with books on this topic, the author tends to see everything through the prism of his or her specialty. It is no surprise that a study by an economist of the fall of the Roman Empire will attribute it solely to the economy. A specialist in early Byzantine history will attribute the fall solely to the acts of Justinian. Therefore it is no surprise that Heather, a specialist in the "barbarian" tribes finds them to be the primary cause of Rome's fall.

Despite my criticisms, this still is a good book and I found it very educational. However, you need to be well-read enough to separate fact from theory, and see through the bias. As such, I would not recommend this book to someone new to this area of scholarship. While I agree with Heather that Rome's demise was ultimately the result of "exogenous shock" from the multiple barbarian invasions--Heather never attempts explain WHY this occurred. I simply cannot believe that the change from a free market to a state-run economy, change in military structure and organization, constant civil warfare, loss of population, etc. had no role to play in this drama.
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on October 26, 2006
Heather is unquestionably one of our foremost authorities on the role of the barbarian invasions in the fall of Rome, and this book is a welcome overview of the subject. However, the writing style is simply weird.

One can almost imagine Heather sitting down with his publishers for a preliminary chat about how the work might be popularized, then going away determined to use a more chatty and colorful style than in his previous, more specialized studies. The result is simply jarring. He goes along for few pages in a more or less standard scholarly style, and then introduces some slang phrase: ambassadors "do their stuff", or people "bang on about" something instead of insisting on it. He uses trite metaphors ("banana skins" for hazards) and silly allusive chapter titles like "Out of Africa" and (groan) "Thrace: The Final Frontier." None of this adds to the readability of the book but it does take away from its credibility -- and its permanency. That's unfortunate, because it really is an excellent narrative of the last years of the western empire and a welcome reminder that, whatever other reasons might be advanced for the fall of Rome, the barbarian invasions were the proximate cause.
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VINE VOICEon February 2, 2006
The above quote on page 455 of Peter Heather's thorough study of the fall of the Roman Empire refers to his refusal to accept the cultural superiority of the Romans as compared to their Germanic neighbors; it is then contradicted two pages later when he bemoans the fact that by 600 AD, only a few generations after the fall the elites of Western Europe had for all practical purposes become illiterate. In spite of this, he does refer to the invaders with the culturaly incorrect term of "barbarians"; and states on on p. 449: "Without the barbarians, there is not the slightest evidence that the western Empire would have ceased to exist in the fifth century."

If there is one thing that the study of the fall of Rome does, is reflect how we perceive the faults in our own society and the challenges that we face. Heather's book reflects the current politically correct view of history as it is perceived by the European academic community; in fact he admits that much of his work was done for or under the aegis of the European Union's "European Science Foundation's Transformation of the Roman World Project". Many of his views reflect the current views of that organization, with concepts such as high taxation and bureacratization are good (pages 110-121)as it increases production; that laws restricting labor are good, as they reflect high population rather than labor shortages; that bureacratization is not expensive and usually harmless, with the implication that it increases the efficiency of society; and finally that no one group is culturally superior to another, whether it is 1st century Roman writers compared to 5th century, or Romans to Goths. One must wonder, however, if his use of the term "immigration" seemingly at times interchangeably with "invasion" is a veiled (no pun intended) reference to Europe's current concern with the new non-European communities who, like the Goths of the fourth and fifth centuries, as they grow in numbers seem to be less ammenable to assimilation.

There were some serious factual errors, and errors of omission in the book: He states that the Emperor Numerianus was killed by the Persians; if you check his source, the Chronicon Paschale, you'll see that it was the Emperor Carinus. Towards the end he refers to the collapse of Mediterranean Civilization with the onset of Islam, but omits crediting the great Henri Pirenne's work.

On the positive side, it is well written and quite clear. His general line of argument is that the Empire went under for external reasons and not internal weakness (although he has a self-contradictory argument concerning Roman imperialism. i.e. punitive and pre-emptive raids across the border)His financial and strategic arguments are clear and well reasoned. I strongly urge that the reader also consider Bryan Ward-Perkins "The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization."
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on January 6, 2007
This is the classic case of making an article a book. The article: "The Huns and the End of the Roman Empire in Western Europe" found in The English Historical Review was written by the author in 1995. The difference in language is astounding. While in the article the author uses normal academic English, in the book we are treated to phrases like "Super Powers" (a term from the 20th century) and chapter titles like: "Thrace: The Final Frontier" (from Star Trek). As more than one reviewer notes (see below), this gives the book a silly tone and is more than annoying. The fact is that it needn't be as long. Get the article which is 40 pages long and save your money from this generally long-winded and awkward book. Nonetheless, I give it 3 stars as it contains much information. The author's thesis: that the Huns set in motion migrations that were too much for the empire to handle is sound and well presented in both the article and book.
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on March 1, 2006
Peter Heather has written a very informative and readable book on the late Roman Empire and his take on the reasons for the fall of the Western Empire. In essence, his thesis is that the fall of the Western Empire was not due to internal imperial breakdown, but rather by the nature and extent of the impact of various groups collectively known as the Barbarians. Rome's imperial expansion, as he concludes in the last chapter, laid the seeds of its own ultimate destruction by the late fifth century AD.

Heather begins by laying the groundwork for our understanding of the history and status of the Roman Empire, how it functioned and how it evolved, in other words, what Romanness was about. He also gives us a glimpse of the Barbarians who lived outside the boundaries of the Empire, in Central and Northern Europe and other locations. The great pressure points of the Roman Empire fell roughly along the Rhine and Danube Rivers and Persia to the East. Long before the great challenges during the Fourth and Fifth Centuries AD, Rome had faced the annihilation of three legions under Varus near the Teotoburg Forest in the Empire's early history. During the Third Centrury AD, the Eastern part of the Empire had been threatened and humbled by the Sasanian Dynasty of Persia, which for a time posed the greatest threat to the Empire.

His descriptions of the changing nature of Rome are very good and give us a good sense of how the empire was evolving while at the same time adhering to its basic traits. The landowning classes, the military, the division of power at the top (i.e. two emperors, one East, one West), the imperial bureaucracy and other facets are all discussed. The changing nature of the Germanic speaking regions and their economy are also discussed, even with fairly limited evidence. The conflicts between Rome and those across its borders had been occurring for some time, but by the late fourth century AD, things changed in dramatic ways.

In AD 376, thousands of these Barbarians sought refuge in Roman territory, a decision that would have grave consequences for Valens and his army at Hadrianople a few years later. Heather argues that it was the Huns migration westwards, in turn pushing these other groups like the Goths into Roman territory, that ultimately had more impact on the decline and fall of the Western Empire than Attila's own raid on the West in the mid fifth century. In AD 410, Alaric's Goths had sacked Rome, though Heather makes it out to be more of a symbolic blow than a life threatening blow for the Empire.

There were imperial leaders like Flavius Constantius and later Aetius who managed to check and defeat numerous barbarian forces and usurpers who sought to exact more territory from the Empire, which was gradually weakening the Empire's revenue source and hence it's ability to survive. Ironically, Aetius had been able to enlist the support of Hunnic forces to confront the Visigoths at one point and later when Attila was attacking the West, Aetius employed Visigoths, including their king, Theoderic, against the Huns.

The seizure of most of the Roman territory in North Africa by the Vandal-Alan coalition, including its richest provinces like Carthage, was a major blow to the Empire's revenue and supply source. Heather also argues that Attila's death in some ways precipitated the decline of the West as the Hunnic Empire would soon dissolve and the various tribes would be asserting their own desire for independent kingdoms. A final attempt to take back Carthage and Rome's former territories in North Africa with massive assistance from Constantinople in terms of their large fleet would end up in total failure by AD 468. In AD 476, the last Western Emperor was deposed, thus ending the Western Roman Empire. As Heather argues, if internal problems had been the sole reason for Rome's fall, why did the Eastern Empire continue and even flourish for some time afterwards? He also uses the later Carolingian Empire as an example of an empire possessing fatal internal problems.

Heather's arguments are sound and seem to be based on pretty solid research. I still don't think there will ever be one definitive explanation for the reasons or the events that led to the fall of the Western Roman Empire. I guess since I'm not an expert on it I'm taking a safe approach to this issue. Heather's book is still impressive and displays some sturdy interpretations. Of course one of the difficulties in understanding this period is the lack of surviving evidence from written sources to material remains. There will always be so many unanswered questions. Heather utilizes both the written records and archaeological evidence very effectively. Many of the historians and writers from this period I had never heard of. Overall, a very good book.
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on August 24, 2009
Heather's analysis is annoying because it is circular, or even contradictory. He claims that the Western Romans were unable to deal with new Germanic "supergroups" invading the Empire, but fails to analyze why the Roman military was no longer able to do so. There is a complete lack of the discussion of military changes in the Empire from the First Century to the Fifth. For example, he refuses to wade into, or even acknowledge, the historical controversy over whether Constantine's military reforms left the frontiers denuded of experienced troops, and led to the permanent invasions of the Fifth Century. He does not analyze the effect of repeated civil wars, flowing from the failure of the Empire ever to develop a secure method of succession following the Antonines, on Roman military readiness and recruitment. He fails to explain why, although the Empire was invaded repeatedly, and subject to worse political anarchy, and suffered severe military losses, in the Third Century it bounced back (mostly) by the end of the Third/beginning of the Fourth Century. (In fact, Heather ignores the Third Century entirely, which is interesting, because the roots of many of the social, economic and political structures of the Later Empire were formed under emperors like Gallienus and Aurelian). Why were the Germans expelled in the Third Century, but allowed to remain in the Empire after 406? Why could the Romans never defeat and expel the Goths during 378-382? He claims at several points that the West Roman army (at least the field army) was still robust, even into the middle of the Fifth Century, but then treats its utter collapse as inevitable, and denies that it was brought down to lack of internal manpower or over-recruitment from foreign ranks. He argues that the Eastern Empire survived, in part, because the Goths and other Germans, and Huns, were not able to cross to Asia Minor and wreak havoc on the heartlands of that half of the Empire, and does not discuss the fact that they were doing precisely that in the later Fifth Century (and had done so repeatedly during the Third). He places far too much emphasis on the renewed Persian threat from the Sassanian Empire without really analyzing whether there was a disproportionate increase of troops across the Euphrates frontier (the troop increase doesn't account for the weakness in Western armies he sort-of, kind-of acknowledges. He simply dismissed economic analysis -- why was the Roman currency devalued terribly during the Third Century, what reforms allowed the reemergence of a stable metallic currency? He ignores the fact that the economy of the Empire in the Fourth/Fifth Centuries differed drastically from the economy of the First/Second Centuries, the growth of enormous estates, the switch to a barter economy, the depletion of silver and gold mines within the Empire.
The study serves at best as a critical review of the factors that, on the German/Hunnic side, enabled those groups to wield more effective military power against the Empire, but as an explanation of the end of Imperial authority in the West, it is circular and focussed too much on "barbarian" political and military developments, dismissing other, primarily internal, factors almost totally. Finally, I understand that the book is written for amateurs, not professional academic historians, but the style verges too much in the direction of the vernacular, and the book suffered (for this non-academic reader) as a result.
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