I’m no expert on Ancient history, and I never read much about the end of the Roman Empire in the west. Nevertheless, Peter Heather’s book The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History (PanMacmillan, Basingstoke, 2005) does look like a reasonable summary of where the historical understanding of that period is. It’s very readable and has plenty if supporting sources and interesting arguments. I recommend it, though clearly not as an expert.
Anyway, he’s clearly an academic expert in the field who got the chance to write a relatively commercial book. with a slightly populist cover. So even if this is not the best perspective, it certainly represents a highly scholarly perspective. There seem to be a few relatively popular recent books by academic experts around, so I hope to read a bit more and post on those perspectives in time. There is the interesting question of why these books are appearing. Does it reflect some general sense that the ‘West’ is declining in relation to the rising countries of Asia? Or is there another reason? I can’t really think this through right now, but maybe I’ll come back to this.
What is Heather’s perspective?
The Roman Empire was not in long term decline after the last of the ‘Golden Emperors’, Marcus Aurelius (d. 180). It remained in very robust shape, as reformed by Diocletian (reigned 283-305), with regard to borders, political cohesion and military strength until the very last years of the Fourth Century.
The Empire did change, particularly under Diocletian who introduced a tetrarchy to control the Empire more effectively (the tetrarchy was two senior emperors and two junior emperors, one of each in the west and the east). This responded to a very real need to diffuse power from Rome, but in a limited way. There were often conflicts between western and eastern emperors, but these did not threaten the administrative structure of the economic substance of the empire.
Power was diffused, to some degree to secondary centres: Milan, Ravenna and Trier in the west; Salonika in the east. This slowed down some forms of communication between the emperor and administrators, but not so as to cause serious problems.
The Empire continued to ‘Romanise’ until very late. That is, more and more members of local elites emerged who were educated in Latin language and literature to the same level as the most educated Romans. ‘Barbarians’ entering the Empire were Romanised, partly through military service.
Parts of Germany which were not in the Empire were very Romanised and were effectively satellite states. There was no proto-German nation, but shifting tribes with shifting coalitions and geographical locations. The Germanic areas were mostly very poor until late in the Empire.
The Germans who extended into what is now Romania became more economically sophisticated in the late Fourth century, which allowed them to pose more of a military threat.
The movement of Huns into Roman territory and other parts of Europe, created new movements of people and new incursions into Roman territory with very destabilising effects on the Empire.
Defeat by Parthians in Persia put some strain on the Empire at a very bad moment, because the unprecedented movement of tribes began soon afterwards.
There was some decline of tax revenue, and of spending from the centre in the late Fourth Century. This made local elites more autonomous but did not have a major effect on the Empire, Local elites stayed loyal until barbarian incursions tested loyalty to the Empire too much.
The weakening to the Empire set in during the last decade of the Fourth century, producing an accelerating disintegration with some variations until the overthrow of the last Emperor in the west in 476. So there was less than 100 years of the kind of decline often attributed to the Empire after 180, which create 300 years of decline.
Diocletian’s changes killed of the Republican residues still lingering earlier in the Empire, and the later emperors were God-Kings never challenged in the Senate, or any other political arena. This did not harm the cohesion of the Empire. Local elites and the bureaucracy had good reasons to be loyal to the Emperor who financed them, gave them jobs and enforced the strong property rights of Roman law.
The Roman Empire continued in the Byzantine Empire of the east, but only until the Seventh century Muslim conquests deprived Constantinople of large amounts of land, and most of its revenues, The Byzantines continued to identify themselves as Romans, but after this point, their state had become a Hellenic fragment of the Empire, rather than a continuation.