The Fall Of The Roman Empire: A New History by Peter Heather

Heather’s book is subtitled A New History because he takes issue with the view, inherited from a long line of historians starting with Edward Gibbon, that the Roman state collapsed under the weight of moral and political corruption generated by over-prosperity and the accumulation of sheer, over-weening power. While Heather does not deny that internal factors – the limitations of an agrarian, pre-modern economy; the constraints imposed by primitive communications; the tendency toward civil strife inherent in any change of leadership in an authoritarian state; and the inability of the imperial tax system to respond to increased fiscal demands beyond a certain limit – were weaknesses that made the Empire vulnerable to collapse, he argues that these factors alone, individually and severally, were not sufficient to cause the fall of the Roman Empire in the West. Afterall, Heather argues, the Roman Empire survived in the Eastern Mediterranean for another 1000 years, even though it suffered from the same internal weaknesses.

Indeed, according to Heather, the late Roman Empire, far from being an ungainly edifice perched precipitously on the edge of inevitable disintegration, was in robust good health, internal weaknesses notwithstanding. It had survived the military crises of the 3rd Century AD more or less intact, had contained the threat of the rising Persian (Sassanian) Empire in the East, and was firmly in control of the territories it had ruled since the days of Augustus. And yet, in a mere matter of a decade, from 468-475AD, the Roman Empire in the West completely collapsed. Why?

Heather places the blame squarely on external sources. He argues that these did not act in isolation from internal sources, but neither did they merely exacerbate or speed up those internal weaknesses. On the contrary, the external sources, reaching back centuries before the final collapse, were primarily responsible for the fall of the Roman Empire in the West. The internal factors only become critical in response to the external sources; had those external factors never developed, the internal causes would have remained dormant, or taken centuries longer to become meaningful.

And what were these external factors? Heather identifies two major culprits: the Huns; and the Romans themselves.

Concerning the Huns, Heather identifies the rise and collapse of the Hunnic Empire as setting in train a series of events that were ultimately to lead to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. The emergence of the Huns as a new power north of the Danube in the period 350-375AD caused massive displacement among the peoples living in these regions, especially the Goths and other Germanic peoples such as the Vandals and their dependent allies the Suevi and the Alans. But what made these displacements unique when compared to earlier population movements was that they generated a nascent sense of nationhood among the refugees; the hardships suffered at the hands of the Huns, as well as the necessity of a unified response in the face of their overwhelming military power, drove home the advantages of acting en bloc as opposed to operating in tribal and clan units. Thus, gifted barbarian leaders, through a mixture of persuasion, conquest, and the ready submission of potential rival groups, forged coherent national groupings where had previously existed, at best, loose confederations.

The significance of this was that, unlike previous occasions when eastern invaders drove barbarian peoples up against the boundaries of the Roman Empire, the Romans were faced not with a few hundred or a few thousand refugees, but tens of thousands, a suitable proportion of whom were armed fighting men. In the short term, the Romans were able to prevail militarily over such groups; however, whereas previously they had been able to enslave or absorb the civilian population and draft the fighting men into the field army, the new national groupings were far too large to be facilitated by such tactics; and their new-found nationalism meant they would resist any attempt to scatter and absorb their numbers into the Empire’s wider population. Thus, the Romans were effectively obliged to settle such groups within the Empire in autonomous or semi-autonomous enclaves, allowing them to live as unified communities in return for payments of tribute and military assistance.

To begin with, these settlements presented a benefit to the Empire. They solved the problem of migrating nations placing pressure on the frontier; they were a source of additional military manpower; they were confined to discrete regions and were thus militarily controllable; and they were a much needed source of additional tax revenue. However, as more and more such groups sought entry to the Empire, the land resources available to satisfy the demands of these new groups grew ever scarcer, leading to an increase in conflict, both between the Romans and the newcomers, and between the different barbarian peoples themselves. This conflict resulted in some groups seeking to annexe parts of the Empire exclusively, while other groups sought to expand the size of their enclaves. As an example, the Goths settled in south-western Gaul gradually began to increase their dominion, while the Vandals annexed the whole of Spain, eventually moving on to conquer the rich North African provinces. The net effect of this conflict was that vast areas of revenue-producing land were lost to the Roman Empire, undermining the tax base and the Empire’s capacity to maintain its armies and resist further invasions.

However, what is most striking about Heather’s book is that he sees the collapse of the Hunnic Empire as equally, if not more, significant than its emergence. At first glance this appears anti-intuitive, and yet further analysis reveals that it makes perfect sense. The powerful Hunnic military machine was based on a core of Hunnic fighters supplemented by the fighting-men of conquered peoples – much the same arrangement as that which the Mongols would use to such devastating effect a thousand years later. In order to maintain this machine, perpetual warfare and conquest was necessary, both in order to replace losses and to ensure the control of the Hunnic minority over their conquered subjects. The net effect of this was that the Hunnic Empire, while itself a threat to Rome, also helped contain the threat which the numerous other barbarian peoples also represented; their submission to the Huns neutralised their capacity to threaten the Empire.

However, when the Hunnic Empire collapsed after the death of Attila in 453AD, it released the bonds that tied the subject people to their Hunnic masters; the Huns were overthrown, and the newly-freed subject peoples began to struggle against one another for the resources previously controlled by their erstwhile Hunnic overlords. The inevitable result was that the losers of this brutal contest for survival inevitably sought refuge in the Empire, contributing to and exacerbating the tensions and difficulties created by the settlement of the earlier Germanic nation groups. These later arrivals – Rugi, Herules, Burgundians, Sciri, Alemanni, and another group of Goths known as the Ostrogoths (“Eastern Goths”) – all competed with one another for land within the Empire, and for positions of influence within the imperial administration that would ensure their success. The result was, after 454AD, a series of largely ineffectual Emperors who ruled at the behest of various barbarian warlords. Combined with the loss of revenue producing lands in Gaul, Spain and North Africa, the weakness of the central administration persuaded many of the rich provincial landowners to throw in their lot with the new barbarian kings, thus providing them with the nucleus of an effective bureaucracy, further denuding the Empire of talent and sources of income.

The consequence was that the Roman Empire in the West did not so much “fall” as faded away. As central authority weakened and the flow of resources from the provinces failed, the infrastructure of Roman society gradually whithered away, reverting to village and small town based agrarianism. In the more central regions, barbarian kingdom replaced the Roman imperium; these new kingdoms continued to admire Roman systems of law and governance, resulting in the emergence of what would one day become the feudal bureaucracy of the medieval period, and also ensuring that Latin would transmute over time into the Romance languages of French, Spanish, Italian, etc. Of course, the imperial authorities did attempt to fight back, and frequently gained short-term success; but their efforts were constrained by the inability of the Eastern Empire to provide sustained, large-scale support owing to its own military commitments on the ever-dangerous Persian frontier. And when the last attempt to recapture the rich provinces of North Africa in 468AD collapsed in ignominious failure, the writing was on the wall; the deposition of the last Roman Emperor in 475AD was not so much a coup as a formal acknowledgement of the prevailing state of affairs.

Heather’s second proposition – that the Romans contributed to their own downfall – is simple: through centuries of economic, political, and military contact, the Roman Empire demonstrated to the barbarian peoples along its frontiers the benefits of creating and preserving a unified national grouping. Centuries of trade between the tribes and the Empire lead to increased material wealth, creating economic and social elites among the barbarian nations that had not previously existed. Likewise, the coherent command and authority structure of the Empire’s civil and military institutions was better able to respond to crises than the loose confederacy of the barbarians that was usually reliant on the individual charisma of a strong leader, and which was susceptible to being undermined by the rivalry and mutual hostility of the tribal and clan groupings. Further, the frequent punitive military expeditions that were part and parcel of the Empire’s policy of dealing with, and ensuring the compliance of, the barbarian tribes ultimately resulted in those tribes developing both an intensified sense of their own identity (and the spirit of independence that goes with this) as well as a desire to create more coherent social and political structures that could better preserve the nation-group.

In other words, it was precisely because of the dangers – military raids, invasions, enslavement, and conscription into the Roman army – as well as the opportunities – enrichment, attainment of political legitimacy, access to material goods and weapons – which the proximity of the Empire afforded that set in motion, over a number of centuries, processes that were to transform the barbarian peoples of the Rhine-Danube frontier from loose tribal and clan confederations locked in ongoing rivalry and warfare to solidified national groupings conscious of their particular identity and prepared to act in its preservation. This process then “collided” with the shock caused by the rise of the Hunnic Empire: national identity was strenghtened as some groups sought to preserve themselves by fleeing into the Roman Empire and setting up enclaves; or as they watched for an opportunity to throw off Hunnic dominion and re-establish their own autonomy. The slow process of socio-political evolution created by Roman-barbarian contact was vastly accelerated by the intrusion of the Huns into Western Europe: and the consequence was a desire for political independence and control of resources that ultimately brought down the Roman state.

Heather demonstrates this thesis by comparing the fallout of the Hunnic invasion with that of the Sarmatian invasion of the 1st century AD. The Sarmatians, Iranian-speaking nomads from the central Asian steppes, overran much of Europe north of the Rhine-Danube frontier just as the Roman Empire was forming itself after the collapse of the Republic. The consequence was a tide of movement against the Empire’s boundaries as various barbarian peoples sought refuge from the Sarmatian conquest. However, at this time, the barbarians were divided into many small tribes and clan groupings; their social structure was loose and undefined; their technological attainment had scarcely advanced beyond the early Iron Age; and they appeared at the various frontier posts in small groupings that were managed with relative – though not always complete – ease by the Romans. The upshot was a set of circumstances in which the Romans held all the power: in return for providing shelter, the tribesmen of fighting age had to agree to conscription into the Roman army, while the civilian population was settled in a manner convenient to the Romans. Consequently, the result was absorption of the population and neutralisation of any threat.

By contrast, the Hunnic invasion, as we have seen, resulted in the migration of whole population groups conscious of their national identity and determined to preserve it; such groups were not able to be divided and absorbed, but were able to bargain from a position of power, forcing the Romans to allow settlement on generous – if initially controlled – terms. And when the circumstances allowed as the Roman state broke down under the pressure of the building external forces, these enclaves expanded into powerful successor kingdoms to the Roman state.

Thus, Heather skilfully weaves a dual narrative of the rise and fall of the Hunnic Empire, combined with the centuries-long consequence of Roman-barbarian contact, as the primary causes of the fall of the Roman Empire. But what is its relevance for today? Simply, this relevance is to be found in the very final paragraph of this fine, absorbing book: a paragraph that warns the American Empire may, like the Roman, be laying the groundwork for its own destruction. It reads:

There is, I suspect, an inbuilt tendency for the kind of dominance exercised by empires to generate an inverse reaction whereby the dominated, in the end, are able to throw off their chains. The Roman Empire had sown the seeds of its own destruction, therefore, not because of internal weaknesses that had evolved over the centuries, nor because of new ones evolved, but as a consequence of its relationship with the Germanic world. Just as the Sassanians were able to reorganise Near Eastern society so as to throw off Roman domination, Germanic society achieved the same in the west, when its collision with Hunnic power precipitated the process much more quickly than would otherwise have been the case. The west Roman state fell not because of the weight of its own “stupendous fabric”, but because its Germanic neighbours had responded to its power in ways that the Romans could never have foreseen. There is in all this a pleasing denouement. By virtue of its unbounded aggression, Roman imperialism was responsible for its own destruction. (p.459)

It’s an analysis that certainly gives you pause for thought.

(c) Brendan E Byrne 2018. All rights reserved.