The Fall of Rome,
and the End of Civilization

by Bryan Ward-Perkins

Oxford University Press, 2005, 2006

What do you think of the state of Romania?
Does it stand as from the beginning,
or has it been diminished?

Doctrina Jacobi nuper baptizati, 634 AD, A.H.M. Jones, The Later Roman Empire, 284-602 [The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986, p. 316]

This good book by Bryan Ward-Perkins stands as a case study for some of the issues discussed in the essay, "Decadence, Rome and Romania, and the Emperors Who Weren't." Specifically, we must investigate the way in which the title is deceptive. The "Fall of Rome" here simply refers to the events of 476 AD, and the end of the Western Empire, which no one at the time would have regarded as the "Fall of Rome," but which have taken on that form in modern historiography, from which Ward-Perkins does not depart. Similarly, the subtitle referring to the "End of Civilization" only means the end of civilization, or its serious degradation, in Western Europe, or the former Western Empire, not in Europe as a whole or in the Eastern Roman Empire, which in 476 became the entire and only Roman Empire, with the regalia of the Western Emperors duely returned to the Roman Emperor in Constantinople. Retaining the characterization of the Eastern Empire as the "Eastern Empire," and not the whole Empire, after 476, is a usage designed to distance the surviving Empire from its identity and is common in modern historians. It is a way-station to the full alienation of the East as the "Byzantine Empire," which enables us to disparage (as, for example, a "pretense") or forget its Roman origin and identity. Ward-Perkins conforms to this approach, with its evident goals.

Yet, unlike some less scholarly writers, Ward-Perkins is aware of what was going on in the East, and how it survived, and one of the early illustrations in the book is actually of the formidable Land Walls of Constantinople [p.35], whose cross-section we see below right in a treatment adapted for this site. These walls stood unbreached for more than a thousand years, until 1453. They had not been designed to withstand cannon balls.

What is going on with Ward-Perkins perhaps is best introduced with an example:

The early Germanic Kings of Italy, and elsewhere, even minted their gold coins in the name of the reigning emperor in the East, as though the Roman empire was still in existence. [p.68]

Here we see the implicit assertion that the Roman Empire is not "still in existence," and that there is something bizarre about the German Kings putting the Emperor on their coins. However, the presence of the Emperor on the coins is the surest indication that the Germans themselves knew that the Empire was "still in existence" and that at its head there was an Emperor in Constantinople -- a city often called Nova Roma, , "New Rome," or even just , "Rome." If Ward-Perkins is going to say something like this, he has some explaining to do. But he doesn't do it -- which, unlike the Germans using the image of the Empeor, is the peculiar thing here.

Ward-Perkins even allows:

By contrast, the eastern Roman empire (which we often call the 'Byzantine empire') did not fall, despite pressure from the Goths, and later from the Huns... Only in 1453 did the Byzantine empire finally disappear, when its capital and last bastion, Constantinople, fell to the Turkish army of Mehmed 'the Conqueror'. [p.2]

So it is not ignorance that induces Ward-Perkins to see 476 as the "Fall of Rome" as a whole -- although the "last bastion" was actually the Morea -- and he even uses the term "Byzantine" sparingly, with its introduction even qualified by a "we often call" it that, as though we "often" call it something else. Actually, Ward-Perkins often does call it something else, namely the "eastern Roman empire." What he does not call it is Romania, or , thus joining the ranks of Classicists and Byzantinists who scrupulously avoid letting us know the proper name of the Roman Empire, which is the country they are writing about, and is the name used in the era he is considering.

Despite his awareness of the East and its history, with some caution about its identity, Ward-Perkins nevertheless holds firmly to 476 as the "Fall of Rome" in general. Thus, he says,

Brittany and the Basque country were only ever half pacified by the invaders, while north Wales can lay claim to being the very last part of the Rome empire to fall to the barbarians -- when it fell to the English under Edward I in 1282. [p.49]

This can have been true only if the "Byzantine empire" was no longer the Roman Empire, or the "very last part of the Roman empire" would have been the Roman fortress of Monembasia, which was ceded by Thomas, the last Despot of Morea, to the Papacy in 1461. Yet just a few pages earlier, Ward-Perkins mentioned the fall of Constantinople in 1453. He never does say, "The eastern Roman empire, which we, properly and righteously, come to call the (miserable) 'Byzantine empire,' was not really the Roman empire anymore, which is why I say that the 'fall of Rome' was in 476." Ward-Perkins never says this, nor does he favor us with the slightly bit of discussion about the issue -- which involves the thorny question that, if Byzantium is not Rome, then when does it begin? This is all avoided just by ignoring it, which really is a grave oversight and even a lapse of responsibility in a book about the "Fall of Rome" in 476, which nevertheless contains enough information for us to know that this version and this date are problematic. It's like he hopes we don't notice.

Elsewhere, we see a casual reflection of Ward-Perkins' view that the fall was in 476, but there are also moments of ambiguity, or where he specifies the fall as in the "West." Thus, we get, "In the 1930s, the English mediaevalist Eileen Power wrote an essay about the late Roman empire and its fall" [p.173], where we can only take this to mean that the "late Roman empire," as a whole, fell. On the same page, however, we get a reference to André Paganiol and Pierre Courcelle as writing "in the post-war period" about "the fall of the West," but ending with a quote from Paganiol that, "Roman civilization did not pass peacefully away. It was assassinated" (i.e. by the Germans, like in 1940). There we seem to be given to understand that Roman civilization as a whole came to an end. Ward-Perkins' book ends with the qualification and the ambiguity, where he says:

The end of the Roman West witnessed horrors and dislocation of a kind I sincerely hope never to have to live through; and it destroyed a complex civilization, throwing the inhabitants of the West back to a standard of living typical of prehistoric times. [p.183]

Here we see the "horrors" and the "inhabitants" specified for the West, but with the ambiguity that the "complex civilization" as been destroyed, what? Just in the West? Or entirely? Nothing "complex" left in Constantinople, was it?

The source of the ambiguities or evasions in the treatment of Ward-Perkins is the confusion of two different issues. One issue is whether the Germanic invasions were some sort of peaceful transition in which not very terrible things happened and we have some sort of transformation in which everyone ends up reasonably happy.
Peter Brown?Bryan Ward-
the Truth
Germans, peaceful transitionGermans, no peaceful transitionGermans, no peaceful transition
Romans, political & cultural continuityRomans, no political & cultural continuityRomans, political & cultural continuity
The other issue is whether there was continuity of Roman civilization and the Roman state, as we find it in the East and in Constantinople. Ward-Perkins never distinguishes these issues and always treats them as one. But they are not one. We can easily affirm the thesis about the Germans and deny the thesis about the Romans, or the opposite. Ward-Perkins himself denies the "peaceful transition" view of the Germans and also denies, at least implicity, the "continuity" thesis about the Romans (which he does not openly identify or discuss, allowing the confusion to persist). The straw man he sets up, with Peter Brown offered to exemplify the position (it is not obvious that this is correct, although it certainly is for others), is the affirmation of both "peaceful transition" with the Germans and "continuity" with the Romans. Since the truth of the matter is the denial of "peaceful transition" and the affirmation of "continuity," the truth is actually not to be found in this book by Bryan Ward-Perkins -- which, nevertheless, is valuable for the information and argument against the "peaceful transition" thesis.

Indeed, Ward-Perkins has a bit of fun with that thesis:

Some of the recent literature on the Germanic settlements reads like an account of a tea party at the Roman vicarage. A shy newcomer to the village, who is a useful prospect for the cricket team, is invited in. There is a brief moment of awkwardness, while the host finds an empty chair and pours a fresh cup on tea; but the conversation, and village life, soon flow on. The accommodation that was reached between invaders and invaded in the fifth- and sixth-century West was very much more difficult, and more intresting, than this. The new arrival had not been invited, and he brought with him a large family; they ignored the bread and butter, and headed straight for the cake stand. Invader and invaded did eventually settle down together, and did adjust to each other's ways -- but the process of mutual accommodation was painful for the natives, was to take a very long time, and, as we shall see in Part Two, left the vicarage in very poor shape. [pp.82-83]

This is not unfair. And Ward-Perkins marshalls impressive evidence against the idea of peaceful and friendly "accommodation." The Romans are conquered, and the Germans are not reluctant to let them know it. The material culture collapses, which Ward-Perkins illustrates most dramatically with the loss of quantity and quality of pottery, both as kitchen-wares and shipping containers -- as ancient liquids (oil and wine especially) and grains were moved in jars, not barrels or boxes. This indicates a loss of sophistication in consumer products, and the disappearance of commerce, which no longer exists in quantity. The disappearance of coinage, like that of shipping jars, also indicates the disappearance of commerce; and Ward-Perkins provides some nice graphs on the presence of coinage [pp.113-114], where what I have called a "rolling blackout" of trade crosses Europe all the way, by the mid-7th century, to the Aegean. It was in truth a "Dark Age," with literacy itself vanishing in Britain.

The economic loss in the West is contrasted with that of the East:

If we measure 'Golden Ages' in terms of material remains, the fifth and sixth centuries were certainly golden for most of the eastern Mediterranean, in many areas leaving archaeological traces that are more numerous and more impressive than those of the earlier Roman empire. [p.124]

But the Dark Ages catch up even to the East:

In the Aegean, this prosperity came to a sudden and very dramatic end in the years around AD 600. Great cities such as Corinth, Athens, Ephesus, and Aphrodisias, which had dominated the region since long before the arrival of the Romans, shrank to a fraction of their former size -- the recent excavations at Aphrodisias suggest that the greater part of the city became in the early seventh century an abandoned ghost town, peopled only by its marble statues." [pp.124-126]

However, we notice that a cash economy remains in Constantinople, where a paid, professional military first is liquidated (c.668) and then revived (c.743). If a cash economy continues, this probably indicates a better experience in the hinterland of Anatolia, despite Arab raiding that makes life there more difficult, if not quite intolerable. Ward-Perkins says, "The imperial capital, Constantinople, may have been the only exception to the generally bleak picture" [p.126]. However, Constantinople could not have done it alone, and Ward-Perkins provides no information from the interior of Anatolia. With the Balkans and Greece overrun by Slavs, the day would soon approach, especially under Nicephorus I, when colonies from Anatolia will be moved and settled to repopulate Greece -- part of what Warren Treadgold calls "the Byzantine Revival." If the Empire can "revive" after 800, Anatolia must have been a reasonably healthy place to live in the 8th century. Anatolia remained a heartland of the Empire until the Turkish invasion after Manzikert in 1071.

While the contrast between the Empire in the East and the successor states in the West has its ups and downs, Ward-Perkins also shows us continuous economic activity at Antioch, which falls to Islam. Indeed, the failure of the German successor states to maintain the levels of Roman civilization contrasts dramatically with the success of the Arabs. At first:

In many respects the Arab and Germanic conquests look similar -- both were carried out predominately by fierce tribesmen, and both took over the territory of ancient and sophisticated empires. At first Arab rule also resembled that of the post-Roman Germanic states in the West -- with a small military elite lording it over a large population that continued to live very much as before. [p.81]

However, this impression did not last. The Arabs, tribal as they may have been, were literate as the Germans really were not. Also, Islam came from centers of commercial culture. The Prophet himself had been a merchant, as no German king would be. Indeed, the German disdain for trade and money would persist in the aristocratic culture of Mediaeval Europe, where feudalism itself was a political and economic system based on the absence of a cash economy, trade, literacy, and cities. There is really no explanation for this except for the culture, with its adverse consequences, imposed by the Germans. Arab culture, however, fostered trade, a cash economy, and the development of large urban centers. This seems odd today, when Arab and Islamic countries seem to lag in economic development, but it is undeniable in the Middle Ages. Also, the aristocratic character of the Arabs, in which the conquerors remained distinct from the conquered, as in the German states, pretty must vanished with the Abbasid Revolution in 750. Converts to Islam became the equal of Arabs, and the Caliphs themselves soon were the children of Persian or Turkish concubines. In the German states, the problem was getting the Germans to conform to the religion of the conquered (whether that meant orthodox Catholicism or Christianity at all); but when this happened, it established no equality, and, generally, there was no intermarriage between aristocrats (i.e. Germans) and commoners (i.e. Romans).

The development of Islam reinforces the thesis that the German states represented a serious degradation of civilization. But the persistence of a cash economy in Romania also reinforces the truth that the survival of the Roman State also represented the survival of a more sophisticated level of civilization than the German states were capable of sustaining. And it does leave unexplained, and, in terms of the book by Ward-Perkins, even undiscussed, the identity of "Byzantium" as the Roman Empire. That is where the treatment by Ward-Perkins falls off the table.

A good indication of the evasion practiced by Ward-Perkins comes with what we see of Ravenna in the book. Which is, not much. We find Ravenna just four times in the index, with two other, unindexed occurrences that I have noticed:

  1. On page 59, we get a reference to the church of S. Vitale in Ravenna, without any explanation what distinguishes this church or why it should be singled out as an example.

  2. On page 69 we get a reference to Ravenna in the caption on an image of a gold coin of Theodoric the Ostrogoth, since the coin has a Ravenna mintmark. We are never told why an Ostrogothic coin would have been minted at Ravenna.

  3. Next, on page 78, we are told about the epitaph of a German, Droctultft, who was born among the Suevi, grew up among the Lombards, and then fought for the Romans ("Byzantines") against the Lombards. In the end, "he considered Ravenna to be his homeland" [p.78]. We are not told why Ravenna might be regarded as the "homeland" of his Germanic soldier of Romania.

  4. On page 103 we are simply told that at Ravenna linen goods were manufactured for the Roman state.

  5. On page 113 Ward-Perkins says that copper coins were minted in the 7th century in places in West ruled by the "East Romans," such as Ravenna, Rome, and Sicily. We are not told why, apart from Rome itself, the minting of coins would be done at these places. And finally,

  6. On page 135 we are reminded how the remaining, stranded garrison in Noricum, at Batavis, previously discussed (p.19), had to send a detachment over the mountains to Ravenna to collect their pay. We are told that, when this detachment was finally slaughtered by the Germans, no more pay ever reached Batavis; but we are not told why the solidiers would make their way to Ravenna in particular for their pay. The previous reference to this (p.19) had simply said that the detachment was sent "into Italy," which could leave us with the impression that Rome, or Milan, or Aquileia, was the distination.

Except for the manufacture of linen, Ravenna figures in the other references for one simple, objective reason:  between 402 AD and 751, the city of Ravenna was the administrative capital of Italy and, until 476, for the Western Empire. This is even why we would find the church of S. Vitale there, with its remarkable mosaics of Justinian and Theodora. It would not be very difficult for Ward-Perkins to mention this, especially when he does mention that the Emperor Honorius "never felt strong enough to engage the Goths in open battle during their four years in Italy" [p.44]. Since Honorius isn't mentioned in relation to the sack of Rome by the Goths in 410, we might begin to wonder, "Where was he?" Well, of course, Honorius was hold up in Ravenna, where he himself had moved the capitol, not from Rome, but from Milan. While Ward-Perkins tells us that the deposition of Romulus Augustulus in 476 "caused remarkably little stir" [p.31], he never does get around mentioning where this took place, which was in Ravenna.

So why this lack of simple information, which results, where they occur at all, in unexplained and opaque references to Ravenna? Well, it must be bound up in the issue of Roman identity that Ward-Perkins fails to discuss. When the identity of being "Roman" is cut loose from the City of Rome, which seems to have happened in the Third Century, we enter into a situation where it will be difficult to deny that those "East Romans" or "Byzantines" are properly Roman and that the Roman Empire did not Fall with the West. And with the "Fall of Rome," which is the topic and title of the book, there is a lingering assumption and preference that something as important as, indeed, the "Fall of Rome" should have happened at, well, Rome. That it didn't is awkward and, apparently, an embarrassment. Ward-Perkins seems evasive enough about it that we might say that it makes him uncomfortable. And this is of a piece with how he avoids the issue of Roman political and cultural continuity.

But there is nothing unusual about this, whether the context is popular culture, popularizing history, or formal scholarly history. Everybody has the same problem. They don't want Christian Romans in Constantinople to be Romans, regardless of their actual history, their own self-identification, or the view of their contemporaries -- for instance that they are , "the Rom(ans)," in the Qur'ân. While Ward-Perkins actually says, "I have never much liked the ancient Romans" [p.3], he falls more in the camp of, "Those Byzantines weren't Romans because we are." While he worries about the political incorrectness of using the term "civilization," he fails to worry about denying to the their own "voice" and their own identity, which is a grave sin to the bien pensants of the modern academy, but which is a failing all but universal among Classicists and Byzantines both. So Ward-Perkins gives us half a book. A good and honest treatment of the West, but with a certain mental and ideological blockage when it comes to the East and the whole Mediaeval future of Romania.

Decadence, Rome and Romania, and the Emperors Who Weren't


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