>I’ve just finished a ‘spare time reading book’, Empires and Barbarians: Migration, Development, and Birth of Europe by Peter Heather (Pan Books, 2009). I read another book by Heather a year ago, The Fall of the Roman Empire (Macmillan, 2006). Both books aim to present a relatively popular version of work of the last few decades, even going back to World War Two, particularly that which might contradict continuing popular assumptions.
(Hat tip to Tyler Cowen from about a year ago, see Margin Revolution politics blog roll on the right)
I’m not competent to judge the scholarly worth of these books, but Heather evidently has a had a good academic career in this field, though more in Late Antiquity than the Early Middle Ages (traditionally known as the Dark Age). He has written very readable syntheses of relevant scholarship including his own, and I certainly felt a lot better informed after reading them.
I’ll list the main points in Heather’s work which either changed my preconceptions, or were completely new to me.
1. The Roman Empire was not in constant decline from an early peak. The borders of the Empire stayed very stable until the 5th century, and the structure worked in defending itself and financing itself over centuries, even through political crises and civil wars regarding who the Emperor was.
2. Hostile barbarian tribes only started to enter Roman territory, in a substantial way, towards the end of the 4th century.
3. The collapse of the Roman Empire in the west was just as much caused by Parthian attacks on the Empire in the east, as by barbarian incursions in the west. Or at least, Parthian attacks stretched the common resources and the solidarity of the west and the east to breaking point.
4. The famous destruction of 3 Roman legions in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 CE was not the reason that the Empire did not incorporate Germany. The thickly forested land, and other geographical conditions, made it economically unviable, the conquest of this land would not have brought financial benefits to the Empire. A large part of what is now western Germany was Romanised in elite culture, trading and political ties.
5. The Barbarian incursions into the Roman Empire, and occupation of the whole of the Empire in the west, were not a mass migration of peoples. It was a movement of elites, hangers on and dependents which amounted to something between the migration of a whole people, and a pure replacement of the royal and aristocratic elite.
6. The tribes of non-Roman Europe were predominantly Germanic from what is now Belgium to the Don River. That is a large part of what is now Slavic Europe was Germanic, and the Slavs only started to emerge as a distinct people at the end of the Empire in the west.
7. The first Slavic tribes to be identified were Croats and Serbs. The resemblance of these words to words in Persian makes it possible that Slavs were led by tribesman of Persian origin in the Balkans for a time.
7. The Empire in the east, which became the Byzantine Empire could claim to be the inheritor of Roman Imperial power until the 7th century which Arabo-Muslim conquests deprived Byantium of its richest provinces in northern Africa and the Middle East. The Arabo-Muslim conquests where themselves preceded by a Parthian expansion, which was only partly turned back by Byzantium.
8. The richest provinces of the Roman Empire were in northern Africa, west of what is now Egypt.
9. Remaining Romanised aristocrats in Gaul/France referred to themselves as senators into the 7th century.