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49 of 51 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Concise overview of the archeological evidence for the revisionist view of Rome's fall, December 4, 2008
This review is from: Barbarians to Angels: The Dark Ages Reconsidered (Hardcover)
As another reviewer mentioned, Peter Wells doesn't break much new ground here in arguing that the end of the Roman Empire as a political entity in Western Europe was simply part of a gradual transformation of European society rather than a cataclysmic event. Nevertheless, "Barbarians to Angels" is more than simply a rehash of ideas and arguments previously put forth. Wells provides a concise overview of the archeological research that supports the revisionist view that most people living at the time wouldn't have been aware of any particular "decline" or "fall" of the structures governing society.

That said, I wasn't completely persuaded by Wells's arguments. He does succeed in showing that there was substantial economic and intellectual activity going on during the so-called "Dark Ages," but he doesn't make much of an attempt to quantify that activity, or to compare the level or nature of that activity with what was occurring during Roman times. I don't think that even the most traditionalist scholars have argued that European "civilization" came to a screeching halt in 476 A.D., so it's hardly a revelation to discover that manufacturing and trade continued after that date; that doesn't, however, answer the question of whether, or in what ways, it declined (for lack of a better term) in the absence of Roman authority. It seems indisputable, for example, that the road network established by the Romans fell into disrepair after the Empire's demise, which must have made trade at least somewhat more difficult.

Wells also tends to extrapolate, perhaps overly so, from relatively few or narrow archeological sources. More than once, for example, he discusses the finds in a particular post-Roman gravesite somewhere in Europe, which often include jewelry and other objects demonstrating a high level of craftsmanship, to show that artisanship and trade survived during this period. The question remains, however, to what extent different classes of society were able to take advantage of such activity. Virtually all societies have their elite classes, and it seems reasonable to think that the gravesite of an elite member of society might be better preserved (due to the greater care used in its preparation) and more likely to attract a modern-day digger's attention (due to the presence of gold and other objects of value) than that of a commoner. To place too much emphasis on such sites, then, is not entirely consonant with Wells's "bottom up" approach to history, which focuses on the lives of average people rather than the actions of the "great men" of the time.

In fairness, I should point out that Wells does not limit himself to finds at gravesites; he also discusses, for example, several manufacturing sites to show that pottery (which serves as a useful barometer of overall manufacturing and trade because of its relative permanence in the soil and its widespread geographical and societal distribution) and other consumer goods were being turned out in substantial quantities during the period in question. Again, though, he does not make much of an attempt to compare either the overall level of such manufacturing, or the technical sophistication of the goods being produced, with that of Roman times. In that regard, his book compares unfavorably with Bryan Ward-Perkins's "The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization," in which Ward-Perkins argues (persuasively, in my admittedly non-specialist view) that the archeological evidence shows a marked decline in the extent to which the average person was able to obtain well-made pottery for everyday use after the Empire fell.

Despite those flaws, I found "Barbarians to Angels" rewarding. Wells may overstate his case at times, but the book still serves as a useful corrective to the notion that when Rome fell, it dragged all of European society down with it. Wells does demonstrate, convincingly, that the Dark Ages were much more than the violence-ridden period of ignorance and cultural bleakness that still dominates the popular imagination, and that this was, in many ways, a time of dynamic change that is worthy of study in its own right, rather than simply as an unfortunate gap between Roman imperial civilization and the Carolingian renaissance.

At 202 pages of text, the book is a quick read, particularly since the pages themselves are on the small side and there are a fair number of black-and-white photographs throughout. Wells has a straightforward writing style, although he tends to describe particular archeological artifacts in minute, if not excrutiating detail, some of which I frankly skimmed over. I should also note that in addition to his analysis of economic activity during the Dark Ages, Wells provides concise discussions of urban life, as well as of technological, religious, intellectual and cultural activity during this period, which are marked by the same strengths and flaws as his analyses of manufacturing and trade.

In short, this is a worthwhile read if you're looking for a brief exposition of the revisionist, "transformational" view of the Roman Empire's disintegration and its aftermath, with particular emphasis on the archeological evidence. Although stylistically accessible to the general reader, it will probably most appeal to, and would best be read by, those with at least a general familiarity with the subject matter. If you haven't done so, I would also highly recommend Ward-Perkins' book as a companion piece and counterweight to Wells's arguments; together, they provide a fascinating insight into the process by which historians examine and interpret the evidence, often with markedly different results.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Sep 23, 2010 6:25:48 PM PDT
This seems to me an excellent, thought lengthly, review. At the end of it I feel capable of making an informed judgement as to the desirability of owning and reading this book.

Posted on Oct 10, 2010 1:24:40 AM PDT
I think you're absolutely correct on the criticisms you make of Wells and on the great value of Ward-Perkins's book, which, as you know, deals not only with history but archeology as well, but in completely superior ways to Wells's half-hearted effort and (I'll show in a forthcoming review) his incredible lack of knowledge of the Early Middle Ages.
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