HNet Review | Heather, ‘Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe’

Peter Heather. Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the
Birth of Europe. New York Oxford University Press, USA, 2012. 752
pp. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-19-989226-6.

Reviewed by Christopher Gennari (Camden County College)
Published on H-Diplo (April, 2013)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach

Peter Heather’s compendium _Empires and Barbarians_ is an impressive
work in its scope, ambition, and sheer size. At 734 pages, this is a
serious academic work, yet its tone and language remain admirably
accessible and engaging for the interested, if uninitiated, general
audience. _Empires and Barbarians_’_ _subject is the events occurring
in Europe after the third-century crisis in the Roman Empire. This is
not an easy subject to cover. There are fewer primary sources than
for the imperial period and there are a lot of different and
not-well-understood characters and nations entering the narrative.
The Huns, Vandals, and Visigoths are well known by reputation but
Heather deals with the Suevi and the Taifali as well. Likewise,
Attila the Hun is notorious for his exploits but fewer people will
know the deeds of Radagaisus and Fritigern. Heather’s ability to tell
an engaging story of the famous and the forgotten is admirable.
Heather also deserves credit for wading into a subject matter already
covered by the likes of Edward Gibbon. In _Decline and Fall of the
Roman Empire_’s_ _six volumes (1776-88) Gibbon discusses Rome from
Marcus Aurilius to the fall of Constantinople to the Turks. Heather’s
work is less ambitious, nesting within that period, and adding modern
additions, such an archeology, genetics, and linguistics, for the
modern audience. This will make a good reference book for people
interested in the after-Rome-not-quite-the-Middle-Ages period of
European history.

Heather’s work will also fit nicely next to Gibbon’s masterwork. The
academic audience will find it a well-written and thoroughly
documented reference book. It modernizes Gibbon by having less
flourish but more science and modern theory. Medieval historians will
find it a useful addition as a general text of the period. It covers
all the parts of Europe, all the major migrations, and Heather has a
special focus on the future Russian areas of Europe. It gives the
literature a fresh perspective by concentrating on the Slavic world
though, without, denying the successes of the future West. As a
reference book it is hampered by a poor index which leaves out major
figures and events that are mentioned in the text. There’s no mention
of Saints Cyril and Methodius, who brought Orthodoxy and an alphabet
to the Slavic world; nor any mention of Princess Olga, who converted
the Kievan Rus to Orthodoxy after witnessing mass in the Hagia
Sophia. Yet all are mentioned in the text. A book this large and with
such a sweeping scope requires an overly detailed index–and
unfortunately this version does not contain one.

Heather’s update to the mountainous literature concerning the fall of
Rome is to turn the tables on the narrative. Most works, like
Gibbon’s, deal with the fall of Rome from the Roman perspective and
try to explain the melancholy tale of greatness turned to rust and
ash. It is the sad history of the losers and the defeated; one of the
few places in historiography where the defeated perspective dominates
the narrative. It makes sense since the Romans were the literate
peoples and the barbarians were illiterate, unable to tell the tale
of their success to future generations. The survival of the Christian
church as a literate institution also assured that barbarian success
was portrayed in apocalyptic terms by the likes of St. Ambrose and
Hydatius.

Heather, on the other hand, takes the perspective of the winners–the
illiterate, reputedly uncivilized, pagans who overwhelmed the Roman
defenses, squatted on the Roman land, and absorbed Mediterranean
culture while imparting their own Germanic, Slavic, and Scandinavian
customs to Europe–creating, Heather argues, the Middle Ages and
modern Europe along the way.

Heather divides the book roughly into three parts. In the first part
(approximately the first three chapters) he sets up the situation
concerning the late Roman world by describing the various tribes,
their situations, and their motivations before the migrations into
the Roman Empire. He also describes the larger economic and political
unit he calls “barbarian” Europe–stating that the word is meant to
describe the Europe separate from Mediterranean Europe (the
Greco-Roman world) and is not a statement of moral value and
inferiority (p. xiv). He also uses “barbarian” Europe as a way of
describing a world encompassing more than just the Germanic-speaking
peoples of Europe who had connections to the Roman world (including
the Goths and, most importantly for Heather, the Slavs). Heather’s
argument is that this was a well-connected and civilized world simply
outside of, but not apart from, Mediterranean culture. He also shows
that far from being unsophisticated the tribes were able to raise
professional retinues, collect taxes, and create laws. Heather uses
the modern concept of globalization to describe the
interconnectedness of the barbarian and Mediterranean worlds.

The second part discusses the migration of peoples into new
zones–the Germans and Goths enter into western Europe, the Huns
carve out a piece of central Europe for a time, and eastern Europe is
taken over by the Slavic peoples who began to displace several older
peoples from the lands between the Dneiper and the Oder Rivers.
Heather charts how the act of migration created these larger units
that protected their inhabitants from and enabled them to negotiate
with Rome. Heather shows a period of Europe in flux; the passing of
one age but not yet the formation of the next. He describes a Europe
in the act of becoming, a story that is often overlooked, as Heather
points out, in favor of the national origin myths which emphasize,
mistakenly, ancient continuity and unity.

Heather also discusses the coalescence and expansion of Frankish and
Anglo-Saxon civilizations–a brief respite before the smashing hammer
of the Viking invasions and migrations. He seems to have an affinity
for the rise of Slavic Europe, which is a topic not normally detailed
in the usual West-centric historiography. His affinity for Slavic
Europe, and his detail work on its rise and importance, is impressive
but makes the lack of a Byzantine narrative puzzling. Saints Cyril
and Methodius are passed over with barely a mention, Princess Olga’s
conversion is treated as a minor event, and I did not read any
mention of the Battle of Kliedon or the conversion of the Bulgars. It
is surprising that the Slavic achievements are treated as separate
from the larger Christian-Roman-Greek world. In fairness, Heather
does deal with the decline of East Rome after Justinian to explain
why a Roman imperial recovery (political, cultural, and economic)
turned out to be quixotic, yet never relates the Byzantine cultural
importance during the Macedonian dynastic period (867-1056 CE). The
Byzantine impact on the Slavic world is a surprising omission for
such a detailed work.

The final section is the settling of European culture after the
migrations. In this section Heather deals with the cultural and
political connections of the new hybrid societies, which are both
barbarian and Mediterranean. For Heather these connections are
exemplified in the Viking trade networks which Heather describes as
the “first European Union” for their depth, breadth, and importance
(p. 515). Labor and goods flowed from northern Europe and
manufactured and luxury goods came in from the Byzantine and Arab
world. In this section, Heather discusses the beginnings of state
formation, national kings, imperial pretensions, and the spread of a
core European culture to periphery areas. This is the “Birth of
Europe” section of the subtitle. This is the chapter where the reader
begins to see references to the Carolingians, the Ottonians, Hungary,
Poland, Cnut, and other states and persons with long, well-known
futures ahead of them. This section had the feeling of an astronomy
metaphor, the creation of planets from the coalescing of dust and
rock and debris; out of the movement of many separate parts comes the
union of something larger and more enduring. In fact, Heather’s last
chapter is an allusion to Isaac Newton’s third law of motion. Heather
argues that imperial action has an opposite reaction among periphery
states–thus creating the forces of future imperial demise and giving
warning to all present and future empires who believe they are
designed to last forever.

Heather tells a complicated story well and in a way that a general
audience will be able to understand and enjoy. He makes allusions to
famous historical events in other centuries in order to help present
his position to the audience–which people will find helpful. There
is a large section of detailed maps in the back and chapters are
broken down into subchapters so that the reader will not worry about
advancing through the 700-page tome. Heather makes an important
addition to the literature of the late Roman world/early Middle Ages.
This work emphasizes depth and accessibility instead of cutting-edge
theoretical arguments. I have come across some of the positions
before in other venues and works (for instance, that the Romans
created their own enemies by forcing the Germanic tribes to organize)
but not in so complete and detailed a manner. This work will be a
welcome addition to any early medieval collection.

Citation: Christopher Gennari. Review of Heather, Peter, _Empires and
Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe_. H-Diplo, H-Net
Reviews. April, 2013.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=37377

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States
License.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s