Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe by Peter Heather

First, I just have to say that I appreciate that Mr. Heather doesn’t discount contemporary sources, which it appears to be the fashion for modern historians to do. Sure, they contain quite a bit of hyperbole, propaganda, and rhetorical formulae, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t, in large part, a true portrayal of, then, current events. His treatment of Ammianus and his account of the Alamanni, for example, and the fact that he doesn’t immediately toss out Gildas just because his De Excidio is a monastic polemic with a point.

Empires_HeatherHaving said that, Mr. Heather has the gift of taking an interesting subject and making it boring.

Being boring, however, does not mean the book isn’t informative.  Some of the things I learned:

  • The internal migrations within Germanic Europe, especially the Wielbark Cultural phenomenon and its equation, to his mind, with East Germanic speakers was fascinating, if a bit dry.
  • The role of the Hunnic Empire, both its rise and fall, in the subsequent “Volkerwanderung“.  Huge groups of Germanic elites and their retinues migrated out of the Middle Danube region, thus making room for the Slavic groups migrating into the Hungarian Plain as a new elite.
  • The similar role played by the Avars in, sort of, coalescing various Slavic groups into bigger, more militaristic, ones.
  • I wasn’t aware that the Baltic language area once took up that much territory!

The first 30% of this book is an extremely boring, often repetitive, chronicle and explanation of the massive migration of various loose confederations of Germanic and Iranian speaking barbarians into the Roman Empire from the second century on. It goes on, and on, and on, ad nauseam, about the difference between the modern definitions of “peoples” and “identity” versus the loose, often fluid, nature of the migrating tribal confederations and coalitions of the Roman and post-Roman period.

It’s at about the 30% mark that he starts talking about the Anglo-Saxon “invasion” of Britain. This is a case of a steady stream of small groups of immigrants, lasting for decades, with various ebbs and flows. It starts with pirates and raiders. This went on for a couple of centuries, until the abandonment of Britain by the Empire in the first decade of fifth century. This opened the way for settlers, whether mercenary or otherwise. War bands with families and retainers inviting others.

The legal evidence suggests, for instance, that freedmen stood in permanent dependence to particular freemen, so a freeman and his semi-free dependents might well have moved as a group.  This may also have been true of greater lords and their free retainers (and the free retainers’ freedmen too).

He’s talking about the Franks here, but I think this probably holds true for the Anglo-Saxons as well.

Britain_c600AD
Image credit: Hel-hama, obtained from Wikipedia.

This slow trickle of immigrants continued until the Britons, finally, managed to unite under one leader, Aurelius Ambrosius. This, probably, led to a build of Angles, Saxons, and other barbarians, to combat the united Britons. Nothing on the scale required of continental barbarians to combat the Empire, but, still, larger than had been occurring before. Finally, there was a massive battle at a place called Mons Badonicus, Mount Badon, or Baden Hill, that saw the Britons slaughter the invaders. After Ambrosius’s victory, there is evidence of a migratory “ebb”, even of some migration back to the continent. However, by the time St. Augustine and his fellow missionaries make there way to the Kentish Court of King Ethelbert in 597, the Romance speaking, Christian Britain of Ambrosius had been transformed into a pagan, Germanic speaking hodgepodge of kingdoms.

… something apparently tipped the balance of power established at Badon Hill firmly in favour of the Germanic-speaking immigrants — or at least the dominance of their cultural forms — in the mid- to late sixth century [bold is my own]. In all probability, continued immigration from the continent played some part in the process.

Plague of Justinian, anyone? Mr. Heather makes only one, nearly microscopic mention of this epic catastrophe, and that was during his discussion of the seventh century collapse of the East Roman Empire in the face of the Arab explosion:

… the periodic sequence of plagues that afflicted the Mediterranean world from 540 onwards …

I cannot agree with his conclusion that the Anglo-Saxon invasion/migration cannot be classified as elite transfer rather than mass migration just because it involved a lot more social upheaval than that of the Normans.  At the time of the Norman Conquest, the number of nobles and that of manorial estates was fairly equal.  Thus less disturbance in the landed economic and social norms.  This was not the case with the Anglo-Saxons.  There were more Anglo-Saxon landowning elite than there were landed Romano-British estates, therefore, those estates had to be broken up to meet a king or chieftains need to reward his following.  Despite this, in my admittedly amateur opinion, it should still be classified, if it must be, as elite transfer.

Anyway …

As you can tell, Ambrosius, Arthur, and the Anglo-Saxon conquest are among my favorite historical topics.  🙂

Jones_VikingsAfter this, Mr. Heather discusses the Franks and their dramatic, rapid conquest of Gaul and a huge portion of the former outer Roman periphery.  Then it’s the Vikings.  He begins with an anecdote about the directions to Greenland that was actually amusing.  And, in fact, this is the most interesting portion of the entire book.  However, Gwyn Jones’s excellent A History of the Vikings makes for much better reading.  It’s more than a little outdated, I know, but it’s still worth a look.

Then we get to the Slavs, about which I knew next to nothing so the part was of particular interest to me.  So, I slogged through it and learned quite a bit.

Empires and Barbarians makes for difficult reading due to the struggle not to zone out due to boredom.  Frankly, I skimmed the last, summarizing, chapter.

Rating:  2.5 out of 5 stars for readability; 4.25 for knowledge acquired despite that

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