Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Armarium Magnum Wish List - Part I

In between reviews I will be periodically posting notices of books that I (i) am reading and intend to review in the future, (ii) have bought or have my eye on and will possibly review or (iii) simply sound good and may buy in the future. This periodic "Wish List" may or may not reflect what books actually do get reviewed, but should act as a heads up regarding interesting books that are out there.

As I've mentioned already, I'm in the process of completing Chris Wickham's The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages, 400-1000 and will be reviewing it soon. This book encompasses far more than a history of post-Roman Europe and has detailed chapters on the Byzantine, Ummayad and 'Abbasid worlds well beyond Europe, which serve as a useful contrast to what was happening in Europe in the same periods. And sitting on my "to read next" shelf is Charles Freeman's The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason, which has been well-received in some quarters though is not highly regarded by historians of the Middle Ages, who feel Freeman is perpetuating some hoary myths. I'll reserve judgement until my upcoming review.

But high on my wish list at the moment is Misconceptions about the Middle Ages (Routledge Studies in Medieval Religion and Culture) edited by Stephen Harris and Bryon L. Grigsby. This collection of articles began life as a discussion between Medievalists on an online listserv about common misconceptions students have about the medieval period and developed into a series of articles hosted on the ORB online medieval resouce site. Routledge has now published the whole collection as a weighty tome. At $125, it's also a fairly expensive one, but I will be ordering a copy soon and posting a review. In the meantime, you can get a taste of the contents from this summary and table of contents from, which includes links to the book's introduction and an interview with the editors.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Addendum to the O'Donnell Review

In my review of James J. O'Donnell's The Ruin of the Roman Empire in my last entry below, I mentioned both Peter Heather's The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians and Bryan Ward-Perkins' The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization. A reader has since brought O'Donnell's own review of both books in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review to my attention and I thought it was worth linking to here. O'Donnell makes a good summary of where he agrees and (more interestingly) where he disagrees with both scholars and his comments would be of interest to anyone with an eye on the question of "catastrophe vs continuity" regarding the fall of the Western Empire.

Thanks to "Flavius Aetius" for the heads up.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Ruin of the Roman Empire: A New History by James J. O'Donnell

James J. O'Donnell, The Ruin of the Roman Empire: A New History

(Ecco: 2008) 448 pages
Verdict?: Provocative, stimulating and entertaining 5/5.

It is rare for a book to give a well-worn topic a new perspective and rarer for one which does so to be as accessible and entertaining as this. Or as provocative. Following in the wake of other excellent recent books on the "Fall of the Roman Empire", notably Peter Heather's weighty The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians and Bryan Ward-Perkins' The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization, O'Donnell takes the reader on a lively and colourful tour of the world of the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Centuries and the people who can give us an insight into the end of Classical civilisation and the beginning of the Middle Ages. In the process, he examines some old ideas from some new and sometimes controversial angles and seems to deliberately and rather gleefully couch things in ways that will raise some hackles. All that makes for a roller-coaster of a read on what could strike some as a fairly dusty subject.

The essence of O'Donnell's thesis, and his provocation, can be summed up in his book's subtitle: "The Emperor who brought it down, the barbarians who could have saved it". The idea that the Empire was brought down by a Roman Emperor (he's referring to Justinian I) and could have been "saved" by barbarians would strike traditionalist Classicists as both heretical and absurd, but the subtitle is a deliberate teaser for what is actually a nuanced and well-argued position, even if it is not always a wholly convincing one on every point.

Essentially, O'Donnell argues that the traditional date for the "Fall" - September 4th AD 476 - is only one of several dates which could be taken as the "end" of the Empire and gives good evidence that it was not seen as the "end" at the time as widely or as fully as modern writers tend to assume. He argues that in many respects, though clearly not all, the "Empire" continued in form, many functions and even in name under Odovacar, Theodoric the Great, the Visigothic kings and the Vandals. What destroyed this post-Imperial "Empire"-without-an-Emperor was Justinian's ill-considered attempts at reconquest, which plunged Italy into decades of destructive war, wrecked the surviving institutions of the Empire and left the west open to barbarians who were far less Romanised and civilised than the Goths and Vandals.

Continuity or Catastrophe?

The old Nineteenth Century idea of the barbarians who entered the Empire in the Fourth to Sixth Centuries as wolfskin-wearing savages from the primeval forests and the steppe has been abandoned long ago. Even the more "barbaric" of the invaders, such as the Angles, Saxons and Frisians who invaded Britain, were from frontier regions which had been heavily influenced by Rome for centuries. And the main players were more Romanised still - by 476 some of them had been living inside the Empire for almost a century and the Goths Theodoric led into Italy or the Vandals Gaiseric led across the Straits of Gibraltar were largely Christian, substantially Latin-speaking or at least bilingual or multilingual and armed, dressed and equipped more or less like the Romans they came to dominate. Theodoric' s men had been soldiers of the Empire for a generation, even if they were sometimes soldiers in various forms of revolt:

If there were any primeval forest dwellers in those communities, they were the ones their smarter, more acquisitive and more ambitious cousins left behind … by the time people like Theoderic’s followers find themselves in Italy, they were there not as barbarians but as Roman soldiers, bearers of the distinctive frontier culture of the north, to be sure, with styles of dress, religion, and speech that differentiated them from the settled southerners, but that made them nonetheless part of the same imperial community.
(O'Donnell, p. 121)

But here is where O'Donnell gets pointedly provocative. He deliberately emphasises this point to a high degree. When introducing Theodoric, for example, he writes of him as a young man from the edge of the Empire who was educated and raised at the Imperial court until the age of 18 and who then took up military roles in the Balkans pretty much like many of the other ambitious Roman soldiers and generals O'Donnell has already mentioned. He manages to describe the career of this canny Imperial player for about a dozen pages without once using words like "tribe" or "warband" or even "Goth". Of course, he knows precisely what he's doing and, at the end of this summary turns to the reader and draws attention to what he has just done and why. Doing this certainly does change the way the reader, who may have read other more traditional versions of Theodoric's story, looks at who he was and how he fitted in with the Imperial system.

And it is not like it is really unusual for a writer to do this about a "barbarian". Many traditional histories of the period write about people like the Emperor Zeno without so much as a hint that his original name was Tarasicodissa and that he was an Isaurian warrior from Armenia. Or that the Emperor Leo I was a member of the Bessian tribe of Thrace. The idea that these men were less "barbarians" than Theodoric and his men does not really make much sense, yet the traditional view means that Theodoric still gets presented as an "Ostrogoth" while Zeno and Leo rarely get presented in the same way.

The first section of the book, therefore, presents a vivid overview of the post-Imperial "Empire" viewed with this "continuity" perspective. It is important to note here, however, that O'Donnell is not plumping for some wholesale "continualist" position and arguing that "the Empire never fell" and that the whole business of the collapse of the Western Empire was a bloodless and pleasant transition from one type of ruler to another. He specifically points to Bryan Ward-Perkins' eloquent counter to that idea and cautions that, in some ways and some places at least, the end of the Empire was every bit as violent, bloody and destructive as the traditional picture would suggest. In Britain, northern Gaul and parts of inland Spain, in particular, this was very much the case from the mid-Fifth Century onwards.

That said, his emphasis on continuity is backed by good evidence. Under Odovacar, Theodoric, Gaiseric and others, traditional offices continued to be filled, poems written, elegant dinner parties attended, games held, ceremonial observed and so on, pretty much as if nothing much of note had happened in AD 476. One example of this is an inscription to Theodoric found by the Appian Way near Rome which begins:

Our Lord the most glorious and celebrated King Theodoric, victor in triumph, ever Augustus, born for the good of the state, guardian of freedom and propagator of the Roman name, who has tamed the nations ...

(O'Donnell, p. 145)

The noteworthy thing here is not simply the act of putting up a dedicatory inscription to commemorate some building work sponsored by a ruler or the traditional formulas being applied to an "Ostrogoth" rather than a Roman, but the use of the formula "ever Augustus" for the Gothic king. Clearly he is not being called an Emperor - he is specifically called "King" - but he has equally clearly slotted fairly neatly into the role of an Emperor nonetheless. And there are many similar examples of how, as O'Donnell argues it, the new rulers of Italy, Spain, Gaul and Africa were restructuring the Roman west in some ways but leaving things much as they were in most others.

In some respects, however, O'Donnell does push this too far. It is true that anyone who combs through the evidence of Ostrogothic Italy looking for elements that are uniquely "Gothic" or even Germanic usually comes up with very little. But O'Donnell de-emphasises the little that can be found to the point of it being virtually invisible in his narrative. As Romanised as the Goths in Theodoric's regime were, they still spoke at least some Gothic or spoke Gothic some of the time. They were still distinctive enough in dress and accoutrements to be identifiable as "Goths" (regardless of whether they actually had any Germanic ancestry at all). And they were still Arians while their Roman neighbours were Catholics.

O'Donnell goes so far as to argue that Theodoric constructed a purely ethnically Gothic identity and history for himself and his Amaling clan only towards the end of his life, when he was frustrated by increasing Eastern Imperial refusal to accept or accommodate his new world order in the west. He never presents any evidence for this interpretation however. All regimes certainly have a tendency to paint a romantic picture of their origins and to shape their image of themselves, but the idea that Theodoric's Germanic roots were largely a "construction" and only emerged at the end of his career does not seem to be based on any clear evidence that I know of. Indeed, Herwig Wolfram - the scholar who, literally, wrote the book on Germanic "ethnogenesis", the fluidity of Germanic tribal identity and the near total obscurity of any of the prehistory of the Germanic groups of this period - still attributes some aspects of Theodoric's reign to distinctively Germanic cultural elements. He pursued some wars against the Rugians, for example, that don't seem to have made much sense in terms of grand strategy but seem to have been driven more by the Germanic rules of blood feud than the chess game of post-Roman relations.

Overall, however, O'Donnell makes his case well enough - prior to Justinian's wars of reconquest things in the West were in battered shape in most places and in total collapse in many. But in Ostrogothic Italy, Vandal Africa and Visigothic Gaul and Spain, at least, the old structures either survived, were patched up or were rejigged and adapted to a new basis for the old civilisation. Not the Empire, of course, but close enough to it to raise an inscription to a Germanic king who had repaired a Roman road calling him "ever Augustus". Then along came Justinian ...

Enter Justinian

Justinian has generally not been treated kindly by many modern historians and O'Donnell is no exception. The picture he paints is fairly typical: Justinian and his uncle and predecessor Justin took the stable and prosperous Empire they inherited from Anastasius and, through a combination of pride, ideological fanaticism and religious intolerance, left it financially bankrupt, religiously polarised and militarily broken. He saw the Germanic rulers of the West simply as heretics and alien usurpers and struck out at them as enemies of Roman civilisation and, in the process, did far more to wreck what was left of that civilisation than the Romanised barbarians had ever done; leaving the West shattered and open to other, far more barbaric barbarians.

Again, there is a lot of merit to this view and overall O'Donnell substantiates it well and with a certain acidic vividness of language, such as when he says of Justinian "as a religious monarch [he] resembles Stalin and as a political monarch he favours Milosevic" or writes:

Hamlet would have made a terrible king. Justinian, intellectually arrogant, priggish, not as well educated as he thought he was and alternating between indecisiveness and rashness, shows us how Hamlet would have turned out.
(O'Donnell, p. 224)

In O'Donnell's view, Justinian failed on several fronts. Firstly, he was an arch-conservative and reactionary who saw all deviation from his views as dangerous dissent to be crushed. He championed the Chalcedonian position on the nature of Christ to a fanatical degree, alienating the Monophysites who made up the majority in his Empire. He also pursued a policy of crushing remnants of pagan culture, driving many intellectuals into exile in Persia, to the benefit of Persian and, later, Arabic intellectual culture. Secondly, he pursued policies against Persia and in the Balkans that were to have dire consequences for his successors. Finally, his policy in the West was quixotic, wrong-headed and wasteful and it ultimately destroyed the very things he thought he was trying to restore, "mistaking Rome for civilization and the opponents of Rome for opponents of civilization", he destroyed both.

Again, some of these views have dissenters - for example, Chris Wickham has recently argued in his The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages, 400-1000 (to be reviewed here soon) that "[Justinian's] Italian war would have been less of a mess if Justinian had put more, not less, money into it" (Wickham, p. 94). The fact remains, however, that Justinian did spend an estimated 21.5 million solidi on the Italian campaign against the Goths and, with it, bought himself a fractured wasteland. And this is in the context of an Empire which, in a good year, brought in just 5 million solidi in tax revenue and consumed most of that in administration. His "victory" in Italy was ultimately a political and financial disaster for which his successors had to pay.

The Ruin of Rome

The final part of the book focuses on the man O'Donnell calls "the last consul of Rome" and who history knows as Pope Gregory the Great. Gregory is depicted vividly as a figure straddling the Roman past and the early Medieval future; a man living - quite literally - in the ruins of the world that Justinian's disastrous policies created. Here is a man who was a vastly wealthy landowner and a member of the old Senatorial class that was now, in the post-Justinian world, finally fading to nothingness. And Rome - long since abandoned as a capital and strangled of the status, the taxes and grain that once artificially inflated its population - has become a city of ruins and the scars of Justinian's wars, with its remnant population clustered around the churches on its outskirts, its centre abandoned and the Forum on its way to becoming a cow pasture. The grim apocalyptic world of Gregory is vividly depicted as both the mournful consequence of Justinian's wrong-headedness, a shadow of what might have been and a hint of new beginnings still some centuries off.

Vividness is the lasting impression O'Donnell's excellent work leaves the reader. Throughout the book he manages to not simply explain complexities such as the convoluted theological disputes of the period or motivations behind Gregory's Moralia on Job, but he succeeds brilliantly in bringing the period to life. Vignettes such as the Emperor appearing on his balcony over the Hippodrome to engage in dialogue with the powerful chariot racing factions of Constantinople or Theodoric's stately and dignified visit to Rome in AD 500, to be greeted with ceremonies and acclamations fit for an Emperor make the characters in O'Donnell's story live and illustrate his themes in a lively manner.

O'Donnell aids this by his conversational and almost chatty tone and some subtle humour. Many of his chapters' subtitles have amusing modern cultural references in them: "Northern Exposures" or "A Country for Old Men". And there are references to current affairs tucked into his descriptions of ancient events. Cosmas Indicopleustes' abortive attempt at establishing a Biblically-inspired flat earth geography is said to have been motivated by his belief that the universe is "intelligently designed". Justinian's doctrinaire and reactionary advisers are called his "neo-conservatives". And O'Donnell draws attention to Julian's campaigns in what is now Iraq, which began with quick victories and ended in disaster thanks to his lack of an "exit strategy.

Overall, the book is a thought-provoking, vivid and dazzling read. True, some of his provocative arguments are a little overstated and the sections of "what if" counterfactual history about Justinian's lost opportunities and their potential implications for our time are a bit high flown. But this is a solid, erudite and remarkable contribution to a topic which has been well-served by other excellent books in recent years. Highly recommended.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Fall of the Roman Empire: The Military Explanation by Arther Ferrill

Arther Ferrill, Fall of the Roman Empire: The Military Explanation
(Thames & Hudson Ltd: 1986) 192 Pages

Verdict?: A failed thesis. 1/5

On the whole Ferrill's book is a useful resource as a summary of the major events in the collapse of the Western Empire, but the central thesis of Ferrill's work and his final conclusion are both very weak. Ferrill dismisses the longer term economic and administrative failings of the Western Empire, but does so without actually discussing them. He says that to see the later Empire "as a troubled giant .... a decaying Empire .... is to miss the point." (p.164) but he doesn't explain why. In fact, the long term problems of inflation, a declining population and a shrinking tax base, along with a widening gap between rich and poor in the West and a spiralling trend towards ruralisation of the population all combined and accelerated slowly over a long period between the reign of Diocletian and 476 AD.

What we conspicuously don't see in this period is any major military defeats of the Roman army by barbarian invaders. When the weakening, fragmenting and economically anaemic Western Empire is confronted by a military threat in this period it usually defeats it - at least for as long as the failing economy and collapsing administration is still able to organise armed resistance.

The fall of the West was an economic and administrative failing - battles and tactics had virtually nothing to do with it.

But Ferrill simply dismisses all this as "missing the point" without a word of explanation as to why all these highly significant factors are completely irrelevant. He simply tells us they are - end of story.

He writes:

"Many historians have argued .... that the fall of Rome was not primarily a military phenomenon. In fact, it was exactly that. After 410 the emperor in the West could no longer project military power to the frontiers."
(p. 164)

This is quite true, but what Ferrill skips lightly over is the reason for this - the depopulated and cash-strapped Western Empire, having fought five civil wars in the last century and wracked by political instability, was simply in no position to field the armies it needed to protect the border provinces. It's not as though outdated Roman armies were being tackled and beaten by superior barbarian forces. The armies weren't withdrawing after being routed on battlefields by overwhelming or tactically superior Germanic troops. The Empire simply couldn't maintain its centralised military infrastructure any more because it didn't have the manpower or the cash to do so.

Ferrill acknowledges that this so-called "military" collapse, strangely enough, didn't actually involved many battles or any major defeats, but he's not deterred:

"One need not produce a string of decisive battles in order to demonstrate a military collapse. The shrinkage of the imperial frontiers from 410 to 440 was directly as a result of military conquests by barbarian forces."
(p. 164)

Though these "military conquests by barbarian forces" occurred, strangely enough, without any decisive battles. The truth is the barbarians moved, usually without major opposition, into areas that the dwindling and economically starved Roman army had already abandoned or which it could no longer defend in strength. Their "invasions" - actually very small in number - were a symptom of the decline of the Roman army and the economic and administrative decline of the West, not its cause.

Ferrill asserts otherwise, with great boldness. But, again, he doesn't tell us why - he just tell us.

"To be sure, the loss of strategic resources, money, material and manpower compounded the mere loss of territory and made military defence of the rest of the Empire even more difficult. It is simply perverse, however, to argue that Rome's strategic problems in the 440s, 50s and 60s were primarily the result of financial and political difficulties or of long term trends such as depopulation."
(pp. 164-65)

Why is this quite reasonable and sensible conclusion "simply perverse"? Ferrill doesn't tell us, he just says it is.

He goes on to argue that any explanation of the fall of the West has to take into account the survival of the East - which is very true - and seems to believe that this is an argument against the "simply perverse" idea that systemic and economic problems were the real causes. In fact, the East always had a far greater population and a massive concentration of the whole Empire's wealth. The division of 395 made this disparity worse, giving the West more to defend and far less resources with which to do it. Further weakened by civil wars, local warlords and a string of weak or shortsighted rulers, it's actually amazing the West struggled on for as long as it did. So it's very clear why the East survived while the West fell.

Ferrill continually acknowledges key points in the real reasons for the fall of the West without acknowledging (or grasping) their significance. In discussing what the West did wrong while the East got right, he says the East "was better able to afford the heavy subsidies barbarian leaders demanded in the years after Adrianople" (p 166). But he fails to see why this is the case - because the East was far wealthier than the West. This was not a military factor, and it certainly had nothing to do with equipment, training or tactics - it is purely economic. The East was able to pay Attila off for years and then, when he became too much of a nuisance, refuse to pay him anymore. The Hunnic king then decided to make up for his lost revenue by attacking the West, since the more impoverished half of the Empire made an easier target than the still relatively rich and strong East.

Similarly, the East were able to pay off and deflect a succession of potential barbarian problems, usually getting them to afflict the increasingly weak and fragmented West. Ferrill briefly acknowledges the East's significant economic strength, but then ignores it to pursue his ghostly theory of military explanations.

Without giving any good reasons for setting aside significant and relevant factors in the decline of the West such as economics and depopulation, Ferrill blithely declares that they can, indeed, be set aside. But not before lumping them in with "race mixture .... lead poisoning and other fashionable theories" (p. 166), which is a pretty shoddy piece of rhetorical trickery.

He goes on to argue that the real reasons for the fall of the West was a deterioration of the Western Roman Army - not the decline in the infrastructure and recruitment which sustained the army, as I've argued above, but a decline in the tactics, training and quality of the troops.

For the decline in training he relies almost entirely on Vegetius' problematic manual and on a highly dubious report from Jordanes of a pre-battle speech by Attila about the quality of Roman troops. And for the decline in the quality of the troops he simply points to the "barbarisation" of the army and takes it as given that this meant the troops were therefore of low quality. Again, Hugh Elton shows the flaws in this idea. As he argues, the use of barbarian troops had been going on in the Roman army for centuries and continued in both the East and the West in this period. So why did this practice suddenly cause a decline in quality in the West in the Fifth Century?

Secondly, most of the barbarian troops used in the West weren't part of the regular units anyway - they were federate bands hired for specific campaigns or to defend particular territories. Their use and significance certainly did increase as the Fifth Century progressed, but largely for the very economic and administrative problems that Ferrill is so keen to dismiss. So, once again, we aren't seeing a "military explanation" - we're seeing the result of longer term, systemic economic and social weakness.

Ferrill's final sentence reads: "As the western army became barbarised, it lost its tactical superiority, and Rome fell to the onrush of barbarism". This is nonsense. There was no loss of "tactical superiority" - whenever the ailing Western Empire could field a decent sized army it won hands down. In fact the military history of the fall of the Western Empire is a string of Roman victories and barbarian defeats. It's the economic and administrative history of the West in this period which is the tale of woe and its the weaknesses here which robbed the Empire of its ability to field and maintain those armies and led, eventually, to its economic and administrative fragmentation and its eventual political collapse.