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104 of 111 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Really Good Book That Can Be Challenging to Read
This is a challenging book to read. There is so much information crammed into every page that you have to read slowly or you'll miss something. And there are 550 pages of this. Having the information crammed so tight doesn't exactly make for an engaging read, but it is worthwhile. This book covers the entire Dark Ages and a bit before, giving a broad overview of the...
Published on August 14, 2009 by Arch Stanton

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62 of 69 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Somewhat like a diamond wrapped inside a Gordian knot
This book is a tough read and leans much more towards the graduate school level textbook than the popular history book it seems to be marketed as. The author clearly has extensive knowledge and research for his subject matter and the depth of information is more extensive than I have encountered in any other history book. This could have easily been expanded to a...
Published on September 19, 2009 by G. Zilly


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104 of 111 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Really Good Book That Can Be Challenging to Read, August 14, 2009
By 
Arch Stanton (Nottingham, UK) - See all my reviews
This is a challenging book to read. There is so much information crammed into every page that you have to read slowly or you'll miss something. And there are 550 pages of this. Having the information crammed so tight doesn't exactly make for an engaging read, but it is worthwhile. This book covers the entire Dark Ages and a bit before, giving a broad overview of the period from the 5th Century Roman Empire to the end of the First Millenium. There is rather a sense of information overload when reading this. Too much is covered in too short a time. Considering how long the book is already I can't see what could really be done about that. Even with all the names thrown at you it feels as if the author is really holding back.

The narrative sections dealing with the political history of the kingdom especially have an impressive number of indecipherable and hard-to remember names forcing the reader to slow down. The narratives are the worst part of this book reading almost like an encyclopedia article. Part of this is no doubt due to the bared down nature of the sources. Fortunately the chapters are reasonably short and the book will soon pass on to better topics. The author is at his best when describing trends or social conditions. Here he really shines and you can feel something of what it was like to live in these societies. Many of his choices of quotes are perfect, giving an idea of the feel of the society he's describing. The first Roman quote is probably the best. It comes from a children's Greek-Latin Primer and deals with Roman justice which was clearly a particularly chilling affair. The emphasis is always on discovering what changed and what caused these changes, as well as determining what made one culture different from another. The author has a problem with charting the progress back from future events to see what caused events to happen since he feels that this places too much emphasis on what the later writers felt was important and gives a sense of inevitability. He does mention important trends but he tries to see them as they would have been seen at the time. On the whole I think his arguments make sense.

He doesn't take any risks in his interpretations and when he doesn't have much data he refuses to even guess. This is especially apparent in the section on Britain where he refuses to make educated guesses about the questionable sources available. Some of what he chooses to leave out is unfathomable. In 600 pages you'd think he would at least mention the battle of Poitiers, probably the single most important battle of the Dark Ages. I think that he's trying to draw history away from setpiece battles and dramatic personalities and deal more with the changes over a long period of time. It's not always effective. The biggest problem with this book is it's dry tone. It is not a particularly easy read, although some sections are better than others. This book is probably essential as background information for anyone reading up on the Dark Ages. At the least I don't know of any better. At the very least this book is useful as a starting point for future reading.
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42 of 45 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars THE INHERITANCE OF ROME: ILLUMINATING THE DARK AGES 400-1000 BY CHRIS WICKHAM, October 1, 2009
Many people refer to the period of 400-1000 as the "dark ages." After the fall of Rome, when society in Western Europe shut down, people went back to simple, primitive ways - terms like savages and barbarians are often used - as they squabbled and fought against each other, killing mercilessly for a bit of land; the only beacon of hope the growing light of Christianity. I've never been a fan of the term "dark ages," or all the connotations, thoughts, and ideas that people - historians and laymen alike - infer from it. Thankfully there is Chris Wickham: a Chichele Professor of Medieval History at the University of Oxford and author of Framing the Middle Ages. Wickham has worked hard to educate those who are unsure or simply don't that the period from 400-1000 was one of the most important growth period of ideas, invention, and thought in the history of Western Europe. The Inheritance of Rome does a fantastic job of explaining this in comprehensive detail with viewpoints from all of Western Europe, including the Near East with the Byzantine Empire. I won't lie to you; this isn't an easy summer read; it's a heavy book in every sense of the word; but if you're looking to educate yourself on what exactly was going on between the fifth and eleventh centuries in Europe, after reading The Inheritance of Rome, you will have amassed an impressive amount of knowledge and be able to defend yourself and the period against anyone who attempts to call it the "dark ages."

Wickham begins with a concise wrap up of the waning centuries of the Roman Empire, setting the stage for the focus of the book, which is divided into four parts: "Part I - The Roman Empire and its Break-up, 400-550"; "Part II: The Post-Roman West, 550-750"; "Part III: The Empires of the East, 550-1000"; and "Part IV: The Carolingian and Post-Carolingian West, 750-1000." While the time periods of each part do overlap, this doesn't prove to be a problem as Wickham is analyzing different areas, but also does a great job of linking what's happening in a particular location with what was going on in another location in the previous chapter. The author uses maps, illustrations, diagrams, and photographs to illustrate points about the constant trade, migration and commingling of societies, cultures, and kingdoms that continued to thrive during this period and were instrumental in setting a foundation for the eventual High Middles Ages and beginning of the renaissance. Wickham does have a theme and clear point to make, which is in the title: most of Western Europe had at one time been either a part of or bordered with the most dominating and impressive empire the world has ever seen, so it makes perfect sense that most of these different cultures would try to maintain and emulate the ways of Rome, which helped spark a genesis for new forms of writing, new ways of trade and negotiation, new forms of farming, a new judicial system of laws and ways, and forced societies that had been sheltered, supported and lapped from the bosom of Rome for so long, to gain their independence and establish themselves as individuals, with unique technology, development, and cultural ways, which helped give rise to the likes of the Merovingians and Clovis, the Carolingians and Charlemagne, Alfred the Great, William the Conqueror, and many others.

The Early Middle Ages has always been my most favorite period of history and I've never been able to explain succinctly why. It has something to do with the fall of Rome and leaving this vast world of different peoples and cultures to live on their own and develop their individuality whilst maintaining contact and trade with each other. It's about the countries of Western Europe beginning, with the birth of many of the renowned cities we know today. The Inheritance of Rome helps fuel my interest and love for this period. And as more knowledge, evidence, and archaeology about the period is discovered, the more we learn that the "dark ages" is a great misnomer that should be stripped from this important period of discovery and development.

[...]
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24 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Richly detailed, January 16, 2010
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The period 400-1000 is a blank spot in the minds of most people, even for those who know a great deal about Rome and medieval Europe. What we do tend to know are a handful of decontextualized names (e.g. Charlemagne) and some stock images of bearded men in leather armor killing each other. Wickham, then, was faced with a formidable task: not just to introduce his readers to the Ostrogoths, the Merovingian kingdom, etc., but also to disabuse us of popularly held notions, like the precipitous fall of Rome in 476 or the discontinuities between Rome and its 'barbarian' successor states.

It's for this reason that I strongly disagree with the reviews complaining that this book has too many details, and should not have been marketed to a general audience. The many details are not the intended "takeaway" of this book. Rather, Wickham presents us with such rich anecdotes so that long after the names and events vanish from memory, readers will be left with a deep (and accurate) feel for post-Roman culture, society, and government. Given how shallow (and inaccurate) my feel for post-Roman Europe was before reading Wickham's book, I consider his book extremely effective.

On the dust jacket, a reviewer describes Wickham's writing as "pointillist." I think this description is apt. As with pointillist paintings, this work's intent can only be comprehended after you take a step back from the anecdotes. Wickham's prose is only difficult if you get too worried about remembering that Sidonius Apollinaris was so-and-so's son-in-law, lived in Clermont in the 5th century, etc. General readers need not worry about the details - Just keep on reading, and be confident that you will finish the book with a different understanding of 400-1000 AD than when you started.
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62 of 69 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Somewhat like a diamond wrapped inside a Gordian knot, September 19, 2009
This book is a tough read and leans much more towards the graduate school level textbook than the popular history book it seems to be marketed as. The author clearly has extensive knowledge and research for his subject matter and the depth of information is more extensive than I have encountered in any other history book. This could have easily been expanded to a multivolume series (and perhaps should have been). An additional strength of the book is the analysis of the civilizations of the period. Both their relationship to other civilizations of the same time period and different time periods of the evolving European landscape are extremely well thought out and convincing (although often require lots of rereading to understand). Wickham knows the facts and scholarship of his subject thoroughly and it shows.

Unfortunately Mr. Wickham is not much of a writer. Much of the text feels like trying to untangle a ball of string and can be quite a frustrating read. Sentences and paragraphs are often unwieldy and facts are much too dense to maintain the right interest level and flow of the narrative. Reading this book feels more like the self torture of an eating contest than a leisurely and enjoyable experience. This book may make a great reference or text for a college level course but the casual reader will probably find it difficult and unenjoyable.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding, January 2, 2010
There is most likely a negative correlation between the amount of historical evidence for any given period and the degree of its interpretation by historians. So the "Dark Ages" (although we no longer call it that) following the decline of the Roman Empire of the West -- the period between the mid fifth century and the year 1000 -- have always been the subject of intense speculation by historians because there is such paltry evidence. Edward Gibbon, with his Decline and Fall published from 1776 through 1789, posited a number of hypotheses impossible to verify; for example, that the decline was due to moral decay from the gradual introduction of Christianity into the Empire. Henri Pirenne, the Belgian historian writing in the early 1920s, theorized that the Empire didn't so much collapse as "morph" into new structures, until at least the rise of Islam and the conquest of Al-Andaluse in Spain. And many countries of Western Europe have used this period as the source of their "establishment myths". The French have appropriated the Merovingians as the "founders" of France even though the latter reigned over a loose confederation which included south-east Germany and the Low Countries, with the center of gravity closer to what is today Luxembourg.

Into this forbidding historical swamp strides Chris Wickham with "The Inheritance of Rome -- Illuminating the Dark Ages". This book is absolutely outstanding in bringing together all the available evidence, both ancient and recent, from written sources to coins, pottery shards and other archeological remains, and piecing it all together into a coherent view of the period. I am by no means an historian (although I read history extensively) but I have been devouring his book. For the first time I have discovered a rational overview, untainted by mythology and by nationalist hindsight; what I have found is that this period was much more complex (and less calamitous) than I had thought, although it is indeed true that both the standard of living and population declined in Western Europe. Societies become more localized, and most importantly, militarized. Whereas the aristocracy in the late Roman Empire were for the most part civilians, by the seventh century all aristocrats were military or religious, or both (indeed, many aristocratic titles are direct descendants of Roman military grades -- Duke from Dux, for example). In the West the highly sophisticated centralized Roman tax system was replaced by local levies and in-kind contributions, including labor; trade, which had covered thousands of miles in the early fifth century, shrank to local exchange of products, with some exceptions (in coastal Spain for example); women's rights declined although some remarkable women do stand out. And the Eastern Empire, increasingly Greek, drew away from the now mostly Germanic kingdoms of the West. Mr. Wickham is careful in avoiding speculation, perhaps excessively so in some cases. He writes clear prose that is a pleasure to read, his chapters are very well constructed, and he does not presuppose a level of knowledge of the period by his readers, so his explanations of events and trends are clear without being patronizing.

The book is divided into four broad sections: I. The Roman Empire and its Breakup (400 - 550); II. The Post-Roman West (550 - 750); III. The Empires of the East (550 - 1000); and IV. The Carolingian and Post-Carolingian West (750 - 1000). It contains a number of excellent maps which lay out where different peoples resided at different times (Visigoths, Franks, Ostrogoths, Vandals, etc.)

For anyone interested in this period of history you could do far worse than plunge into this book. Mr. Wickham's book has given me great pleasure over the last couple of weeks, and I'm sure I will reread the book in coming years.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Difficult to Rate, October 15, 2009
By 
David B. Johnson (Minneapolis, MN United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
If you are a casual reader of history I'd give this book 3 stars - if you've read other material on this period I'd give this book a strong 5 stars. Professor Wickham is undoubtedly an expert on this subject. Editorial constraints of the series within which this book fits has led him to compress a lot of material into a too short survey. I won't recapitulate a textual review here as that is well done in the other reviews.

The main methodological theme of continuity without teleology as an approach to understanding this period of time is well argued. In addition, the inclusion of recent archaeological evidence and the discussion of how that has changed the historical interpretation of the era is welcome. In an area that I have studied, (Islamic conquest and rule in this period), I found several interesting insights tying Roman political practice to follow on Arab practice that writers in that specific genre have either missed or underplayed.

The difficulty in this book is the narrative. If you are looking for well written prose and concise descriptions you will be disappointed. My recommendation to reader would be to start with the Introduction and the Conclusion chapters to get an idea where the author wants to go before diving into the main text.

Maps, end notes, and index are all first rate.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Drowning In Detail, December 3, 2009
Most reviews of this book I agree with. It seems mis-marketed as a history for the general reader - but reads more like a history textbook.

Wickham well illustrates that the phrase `the Dark Ages' is misleading, and looking for the seeds of `national identity' in medieval Europe is futile - but he spends much of his time focussing on obscure kinglets who seem to have very little effect on anything outside their own domains. For a book which I expected a lot of `big picture' from, I felt drowned in the details of the relatively peripheral.

That being said, I still enjoyed reading The Inheritance of Rome, even though I am only a casual reader of history.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Much to admire; Little to love, May 24, 2011
Chris Wickham has been given an impossible task. In one volume, cram 600 years of years of turbulent history (is there another kind?) that spans two continents--Europe and the Middle East. Discuss the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, its bifurcation into kingdoms and fiefdoms, the rise of Islam, the splintering of Christianity into east and west and the ascent of Byzantium. Yes, in one volume. The editors at Penguin must be mad.

Wickham acquits himself as best he can. The reader has extraordinary amounts of information thrown at him from the dissolution of the Western Empire to the rise of the Mergovingians including laundery lists of kings and tribes. We then slalom over to the rise of Islam on the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant--mogul over the Shi'a/Sunni Split, the Caliphate of Damascus and on to Irag. Back to the British Isles and ooops! Almost forgot the Iberian peninsula. Circle back to the Byzantine Empire and for God's sake don't leave out the Carolingians.

The fact that any historian can cram all of this into one volume is an astonishing feat. To make it cogent, and Wickham does, is quite miraculous. Imagine trying to write a single volume of history from the War of the Roses to the second Iraq War and you have an idea of his task. But to make it come alive, as the best history does, is simply impossible. This is history on steroids and amphetamines. All that bulk just made me fidgety and anxious.

Hats off to the author for his obvious breadth and depth of knowledge. Shame on Penguin for not giving the subject the space it deserves.
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars What Dark Ages?, July 15, 2010
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This book has two major drawbacks. One is technical and the other is conceptual.

No doubt due to its academic precedents this book spends far too much time in discussing what the author believes cannot be known or guessing at situations where there is not enough evidence to establish a conclusion. If all discussions of the unknown and the unsubstantiated were removed the book could be reduced by a third or a half.

Much more important is the conceptual weakness of the book. The Merovingian/Carolingian developments were so different from the Islamic developments that it seems futile to discuss them together unless the main purpose the work is to compare and contrast the two. Essentially the Islamic world was a continuator of the old Middle Eastern and Roman Empires whereas a completely new civilization was developing in Europe. The Author fails to describe this fundamental difference.

Every new age owes much to its predecessors and so did Europe. But the great revolution that occurred in the new Europe was a shift from a city based civilization to a land based civilization. When we read of Alexander, or Rome conquering the world we understand that they conquered the cities, their hinterlands and the roads or sea routes joining them. But what the Carolingians and their predecessors did was to set up a political and cultural system based on the countryside and its control, with the cities only as a relatively small part of the total system.

Behind this of course was the missionary movement of the church in the 100+ years before the Carolingians, and its ideology of pilgrimage and exile, the unique European monastic movement, and many other church related factors. It is this movement, its ideology, and its subsequent development that gave the Middle Ages their unique character and made them utterly different from Byzantium and previous Roman Civilization. The Author seems unaware of this or at least makes virtually no reference to it.
It is not quoted in this book but elsewhere the Franks are said to have hated cities and regarded them as nets to ensnare and tie people down. This attitude to cities crystallizes the difference between Europe and Rome.

The "dark ages" or the "middle ages" were not a step backwards or even sideways but they were a dynamic, progressive movement without which the world could never have moved beyond the age of the old Empires and towards the modern age. This book fails to catch the spirit of those times.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Impressive, but not necessarily fun, November 6, 2009
By 
Jay C. Smith (Portland, OR USA) - See all my reviews
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Chris Wickham states that he intended to make this volume "comprehensible to people who know nothing about the period." "Comprehensible" it is, but "palatable" is another matter. The other reviewers who have emphasized the impressiveness of the scholarship accompanied by the dryness of the reading experience have it just right, in my opinion. Readers who are students of this period or who intend to be are likely to appreciate The Inheritance of Rome more than those with only limited knowledge who might be seeking an engaging overview (like me). My rating reflects a compromise between the perspectives of these two audiences.

Wickham covers a lot of territory both geographically (not just what became "Europe," but also Byzantium, Arab lands, and other "fringe" territories) and substantively (the emphasis is on political history, but he attends to social, economic, cultural, and intellectual history as well). One of his main themes is that this period was often characterized by "provincialization," the rise of the local in politics. As a result, it seems to me, there are just too many stories to tell, making it difficult for non-specialist readers to be able to absorb the material.

That is not to say, however, that there is little of value here for some readers. Wickham offers up so many rich insights that even if one latches on to only a small part it may justify the reading effort. For example, he claims that at the end of this period (1000 AD) there was no common "European" identity -- the developments we now know of through hindsight were not inevitable. Western Christianity was diverse in both beliefs and practices, and Wickham judges that the papacy remained "fairly marginal" to politics in the West for much of the period (with England as a partial exception). He notes that the ability to choose bishops enhanced the power of some secular rulers, but that bishops also helped hold many in check.

Wickham concludes that shifts from taxation-based polities to those grounded in land ownership were not supportive of the maintenance of empire. There was a "dramatic economic simplification of most of the West," he believes, with aristocratic buying power serving as the primary driver of consumption. He stresses the "caging" of the peasantry late in this period, as they were slowly excluded from the public sphere (assemblies and the military) and came under the control of local lords.

These represent just a few of Wickham's larger themes and assertions, ones that I found provocative. For the most part, though, his emphasis is on the particular, not the general. The book is composed of myriad details, many regarding disputes between and within ruling families, at least some of whom may be obscure even to students of medieval history. If you choose to read The Inheritance of Rome you should be prepared to wade through it.
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The Inheritance of Rome Publisher: Penguin
The Inheritance of Rome Publisher: Penguin by Chris Wickham (Paperback - 2010)
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