The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilzation

  By kilroy, 26 March 2007; Revised
The Fall of Rome And the End of Civilization - By Bryan Ward-Perkins; Oxford University Press 2005.

The fall of Rome has been one of the most talked about and controversial events in history.  The process was long, complex and scholars are still throwing around ideas and theories about the empire’s collapse and aftermath.  One of the latest scholars to throw his hat into the ring is distinguished archaeologist and professor at Oxford University, Bryan Ward-Perkins, in his latest title The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization.

One of the more recent theories revolves around the barbarians and their effects on the empire’s collapse.  Some scholars have put forth the theory that the barbarians peacefully inherited Rome’s empire and functions intact, life went on like it always did, and no major change was seen after Rome’s central government collapsed in the late 5th century.  In other words, the ‘continuity thesis.‘  Perkins makes the analogy that the continuity thesis is like a "tea party at the Roman vicarage. A shy newcomer to the village, who is a useful prospect for the cricket team, is invited in. There is a brief moment of awkwardness, while the host finds an empty chair and pours a fresh cup of tea; but the conversation, and the village life, soon flows on." (p 82).   Using archaeological evidence and primary sources, Perkins convincingly refutes this thesis. 

Armed with an array of hard evidence, Perkins argues that the quality of living within Rome’s old boarders dropped considerably for all members of society.  Quality manufactured pottery that even farmers living on the furthermost boarders of the empire enjoyed, ceased to exist late in the 5th century.  Tiled roofs, which were considerably superior to the thatched or straw roofs that they were replaced by, disappeared. Post-Roman Britain, in fact, closely resembled that of bronze-aged Britain. Literacy rates also dropped considerably, even among the aristocracy. However, he notes the difficulties of proving the actual literacy rate among post-Roman societies, but does a convincing comparison of the usage of the written word in both the Roman world and the post-Roman world.  Trade over, both long and shorter distances, fell in frequency or even disappeared entirely in places such as Britain and northern Gaul. Building projects within major cities (including Rome) became scarce in both frequency and in size when they were built. 

However, Perkins is not claiming that Roman culture was superior to Visigothic, Frankish or any other culture the tribesmen brought with them.  In fact, he clearly states in his introduction that he “never much liked the ancient Romans” (p. 3).  Instead, he focuses solely on the material evidence left to us in the archaeological record and evidence left to us in the  primary sources.  In other words, the facts as best we know them.  He states the migration tribesmen did not seek out to murder the Empire and it's civilization, but, instead, committed manslaughter. 

Rome's actual fall, Perkins argues, came from the combination of three things:  barbarian invasion, political instability and loss of tax revenue.   This lethal combination robbed the western Roman Empire of its army, and, thus, the means of protecting itself, which eventually led to the breakdown of the Roman system.  The barbarians could, therefore, be allowed to flow into the Empire and take it's land at will, permanently robbing it of it's tax paying citizens.  The loss of tax led to the loss of Rome's western navy, which allowed the Vandals to invade and conquer previously untouched lands in Africa - and even later on - in Sicily, robbing the Empire of its only steady supply of money and men.  While on the other hand, the Eastern Empire, Perkins claims, may have well suffered from the same effects if it wasn't for three things: the Dardanelles, Constantinople and the Eastern Roman navy, keeping the Empire's tax revenue safe, which, in turn, kept the army going.  However, Perkins is quick to note that peace with Persia was essential during this time. 

Perkins' book is a difficult read for those not use to scholarly narratives.  It’s not a page turner like Tom Holland’s Rubicon, but is a detailed and effective scholarly work.  Don't be fooled by the size of this book.  Weighing in at just over 200 pages, this book contains an incredible amount of detail; every chapter is filled to the brim with facts and even the occasional dry wit.  Included in the book is an array of useful pictures of the objects he’s talking about.  So, instead of him saying “this helmet has this on it etc etc”  he actually shows it to us.  The maps included are both detailed and thought provoking and a useful addition to the book.  Not a page is wasted on useless fluff in this book.

If you are looking for a comprehensive, detailed, well researched and interesting look on the fall of Rome and it’s after effects, look no further than Bryan Ward-Perkins latest title, The Fall of Rome And the End of Civilization

4 out of 5