Empires and Barbarians: Migration, Development, and the Birth of Europe Hardcover – Apr 3 2010
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"An awesomely ambitious work: an attempt, in the heroic tradition of Pirenne, to make sense of nothing less than the reshaping of antiquity, and the origins of modern Europe.... Heather is a wonderfully fluent writer, with a consistent ability to grab hold of his readers attention. The result
is a book which richly merits reading by those interested in the future of Europe as well as its past."
--Tom Holland, BBC History Magazine
About the Author
Peter Heather is Professor of Medieval History at King's College London. He is the author of The Fall of the Roman Empire, Goths and Romans, 332-489, The Goths, and The Visigoths in the Migration Period.
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In "The Fall of the Roman Empire," Heather presented what was to me a new and original explanation for the dissolution of the empire, one of history's great questions. Heather believes that technological developments and wealth leached out from the Roman borders to allow the Germanic tribes living in northern and eastern Europe to develop a greater level of material and political sophistication and more efficient agricultural methods. This increase in sophistication led to a population rise among the Germanic tribes, and in turn an increase in political and military heft, which allowed the tribes to encroach on an overextended Roman empire, teetering from civil war and war on its Persian front. In a fascinating passage in "Empires & Barbarians," Heather speculates that the Hunnic invasion form the steppes led by Attila was a crucial precipitating cause in the collapse of the empire, as the increasingly powerful Germanic tribes would probably have done no more than annex certain Roman provinces, letting the Empire continue on. Heather supports his theory principally through a review of recent archaeological research from Germany and eastern Europe with less emphasis placed on Roman historical writings.
"Empires & Barbarians" advances Heather's case by describing current thinking of human migrations, examines issues and controversies currently preoccupying ancient & medieval scholars, making in-depth analysis of events such as the Anglo-Saxon takeover of Britain and the expansion of the Frankish empire in the 5th & 6th centuries, and careful reviews of the archaeological digs undertaken by Warsaw Pact scientists to unravel the mysteries of the Slavic ascendance. The analysis is penetrating, subtle and not pedantic.
A measure of the excellence of this book can be seen in the account of middle medieval Byzantium. I have read quite a few books about Byzantine history yet nothing has clarified for me the shape and crucial developments in Byzantium's empire after the fall of the west like the few pages Heather devotes to it. Heather summarizes the brutal wars Byzantium successfully engaged in during the earlier part of the 7th century, with a dramatic and draining success on both the European and Persian fronts "turning to ashes" as the Islamic wave swept across the world, expropriating several of the eastern empire's most important provinces, which rendered Byzantium into an appendage of the Islamic empire after about 650. Such clarifying overviews are frequently found in "Empires & Barbarians".
I mentioned some flaws: The chief among them is a stilted, academic style. There is a reliance on jargon and euphemism that detracts from Heather's message and analysis. Phrases like "political identity" and "variegated patterns of participation" abound. Heather would have been better served by writing crisply and clearly. Writing of the Frankish takeover of Roman territories in northern Gaul, he writes: "the process was stressful for the indigenous population, who found themselves invaded by an intrusive new elite and incorporated into a new kingdom that was imposing on them new duties based on the alternative conception of a triple-tier social order." I'm translating that to mean that the Franks slaughtered the remaining Roman landowners, stole everything they could and reduced their new subjects to quaking fear.
Another criticism is more conceptual. Many theories of Rome's fall have emphasized internal weaknesses leading to its dissolution. Heather takes the original tack of stressing the growing strength of Rome's enemies as the key determinant. I would have appreciated more description and analysis of Rome's internal issues, which of course also played a role in the Empire's fall.
I also think Heather ignores salient issues that highlight the catastrophic nature of the fall of the Roman empire. One of the many things I learned from "Empires & Barbarians" is that the estimated population of England in the late empire (late 4th century) was 3-7 million and that this population probably dropped to 1 million by the early 6th century. Obviously that is a disaster, but Heather doesn't spend any time pondering such a tragic devolution. Heather also ignores the plunge in literacy at all levels. He perhaps would answer that he couldn't cover all topics, and had to emphasize other subjects such as migration and material culture finds at archeological digs, but I think the book would have benefited from admitting that the overall cultural and economic impact of the middle ages was very, very negative. (See "The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization" by Ward Perkins, which Heather singles out for praise.) These criticisms don't eliminate the book's strengths or its value, though.
Heather in his foreword writes that he spent sixteen years working on this book. The richness of research, careful and deep thought and intellectual sophistication of "Empires and Barbarians" makes it obvious he spent this time well.
Heather begins with an extremely terse discussion of the sociology of migration. In the past, he argues, scholars (often backed by iffy primary sources) promoted a "billiard ball approach", in which migrating groups knocked others out of the way, perhaps eliminating them by ethnic cleansing or forced absorption as slaves or serfs. Archaeological findings, however, belay this view, indicating instead that groups were far more amorphous, like coalitions with a charismatic leader at their center that grew like a snowball as it gained politico-military momentum. Language and ethnicity were more fluid than assumed, Heather argues, adopting that of the military/economic elite or later perhaps that of the occupied territory. This paragraph cannot do justice to the subtlety and cogency of Heather's arguments, which are assessed against primary sources, archaelogical evidence, and socio-historic examples such as the experience of the Boars as they migrated North to avoid British colonial rule. (From a motley crew, the boars united into highly organized military force and quickly beat the Zulus into submission.)
At the fall of the western Roman empire to germanic tribes (i.e. Goths) in the 5th C CE, migration patterns were changing. From disorganized bands that were seeking to exploit Roman wealth - via border raids, trade, mercenary wages, and diplomatic subsidies as part of Roman foreign policy - they had become very large political entities that included women and children (increasing their numbers vis-a-via warriors by 4x). The earlier groups had been living at subsistence levels as itinerant farmers perpetually in search of fertile ground, beginning their movements with trickle of early explorers (in 2C CE) that became a torrent by 5C. But they were also fleeing the Huns, and later the Turkic Avars, who established powerful military empires in central Europe that were based in pillage and charismatic leaders such as Attila. The new entities were far more organized in their command structures, were learning superior agricultural techniques (to replenish soil nitrogen via turning over rotten plants and crop rotation), and adopting cutting-edge military technologies and tactics.
Similar tribes (i.e. Angles and Saxons) invaded Britain in large enough groups that they displaced the local elites and destroyed their economic systems; eventually, they instilled their language into the local populace, as women could teach the children their original languages, they replaced local languages, including Latin and Celtic. This was a pattern that was often repeated in Europe until 1000 CE, when the principal language patterns that survive with few exceptions (Turkish in Anatolia being a rather big one) to this day.
As western Roman economic structures declined, new power centers arose in northern Europe for the first time, in 7 C CE. Though the level of socio-economic and political sophistication were far below those of the Romans, the new entities were proto-modern states nonetheless. They learned to create military organizational structures, monopolizing the means of force in order to maintain the elites that eventually became entrenched in land ownership and hence became the grand royal and aristocratic families that ruled for the next 1500 years. Heather also covers the Vikings and Slavs; the origins of the latter remain murky and unknowable from the archaeological record. The Slavs, interestingly, conquered much of central Europe because elite Germans seem to have migrated West, leaving poorly armed and disorganized Germanic peasants, who were then absorbed into the newly dominant Slavic elites and tended to adopt their languages. Due to their lack of ability to tax and build viable cities, these semi-nomadic groups faced inherent limits: once they expanded to large size based on pillage and forced tribute, they could no longer pay their forces enough to keep them together and so these mini-empires disintegrated; so the Carolingians, Merovingians, Ottonians, and scores of others succeeded each other a few generations after the charismatic founder disappeared.
It was only later, around 1000 CE, when the empires became more sedentary with larger surpluses of wealth (due to their adoption of more productive agricultural techniques), which paid for the construction of the massive fortified castles that still dot the European landscape; standing armies that could better protect subjects; and more diversified economies, that empires were able to grow more stable. It was also at that time that the various linguistic groups had come to occupy the places that they occupy today - thus, the basis of what became European nation states was more or less set. Invaders later only rarely dislodged these language groups, but rather were absorbed in their turn. There were also extremely sophisticated trading networks that sprung up, bringing northern goods such as furs to the most sophisticated civilizations of the time, the Islamic states, whose silver financed a great deal of the economic expansions in the North.
If this sounds rather abstract, so is the book. It is often not fun to read. However, there is absolutely no question that this is a masterpiece of scholarship that will define the field for a generation. Heather is brilliant, writes beautifully, and often with wonderfully playful humor. (He refers with frustration, for example, to the fact that his students no longer know what he means when referring to black and white television. It got me to laugh.)
I recommend this book for those with the personal interest to persevere through very difficult scholarly arguments. It is the natural follow-on to Heather's equally brilliant (and far more fun) Fall of the Roman Empire. If you wish to understand what made up the extraordinarily diverse language in all of their modalities from 400 to 1000 bce, this is a book for you. I am glad I read it, but it was, well, very challenging and often failed to keep my attention.