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Pay Attention, Cynewulf

Empires and Barbarians:
The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Modern Europe

By Peter Heather
Oxford University Press, 2010

The standard paradigm of the fall of ancient Rome used to run something like this: the empire is widespread and militarily fortified, but it’s rotting from within with decadence, slavery-labor, and even lead poisoning, and it’s being increasingly hammered from without by wave after wave of barbarian incursions into neighboring territories and outlying provinces, where each new wave of barbarians occupies those territories by wiping out all the previous occupants. According to this familiar scenario, the combination of internal and external assaults splinters the empire, curtails its power, and goes a long way toward establishing the shape earliest Europe was to take in the fifth and sixth centuries. Mentioning the inter-tribal slaughter among the Germans, first century historian Tacitus wryly comments, “Long, I pray, may foreign nations persist, if not in loving us, at least in hating each other.” And sixteen centuries later, Edward Gibbon complacently mentions Rome’s increasing indolence, the “slow and secret poison” in the vitals of the empire. And virtually every historian in between these two has been comfortable enough with the basic tenets of this story, what Peter Heather in his dense and gripping new book Empires and Barbarians calls the Grand Narrative, to place it in the background of their books as a matter of assumption.

Perhaps inevitably, the querulous 20th century brought this scenario under attack – in fact, most historians, bolstered by the burgeoning field of archaeology, have done more than attack: they’ve bayoneted, burned, and blotted the whole notion of successive barbarian invasions (with the concomitant ‘ethnic cleansing’), and Heather gamely charts the change:

There is a beautiful symmetry here. The old Grand Narrative subdued archaeology to the demands of history, with archaeological cultures that were understood as ‘peoples’ and a migration model derived from first-millennium historical sources which ordered the progression of these cultures into a historical narrative punctuated by episodes of large-scale migration and ethnic cleansing. Now, the credibility of these same historical sources has been undermined by a reaction against migration which started with the archaeologists’ ferocious rejection of culture history and the invasion hypothesis that was its natural corollary. History used to lead archaeology; now archaeology is leading history.

On the face of it, this academic turf-squabbling must seem silly to the non-professional. Isn’t it, after all, just a trifle absurd to ‘react against’ the theory of mass migrations, as though it were a disagreeable new flavor at Starbucks? Surely either such migrations happened or they didn’t, and the rest is just historiographical window-dressing?

The key is evidence, of course, and it’s certainly the vulnerable soft underbelly of Heather’s massive, formidably researched book. On the one hand, he presents a clear view of the old Grand Narrative and a clear rejection of it:

Under the old view of unchanging closed group identities, if group X was suddenly encountered in place B rather than in place A, it was only natural to conclude the whole group had moved. Once it is accepted that group identities can be malleable, then in principle only a few – maybe even a very few – of group X need have moved to provide a core around whom a population from disparate sources then gathered. The billiard-ball view has thus come to be replaced by the snowball.

But on the other hand, his book is littered with phrase like “lack of evidence,” “the evidence is not everything you would like it to be,” “we have no explicit evidence,” “This is not a story that can be told directly,” etc. Some variation on this refrain crops up on virtually every page – a distinct handicap in a book seeking to alter received opinion.

typical map of barbarian invasions

Some alteration is no doubt called for; the billiard-ball view of successive migration-and-genocide has always seemed too black and white, too alluringly apocalyptic. 20th century archaeological finds support the idea that the waves of Goths, Vandals, Franks, Carpathians, Gepids, Heruli, Taifali, Alamanni, Iuthungi, Rugi and so on, all sweeping south and westward in the wake of Rome’s diminished power in the West, didn’t simply murder and displace each other – the process was generally slower and fuzzier, much more akin to the gradual accretion of Heather’s snowball. This conception meshes well with Heather’s self-evident analysis of just exactly what Europe is in the first place:

For Europe is fundamentally not so much a geographic as a cultural, economic and political phenomenon. In geographical terms, it is just the western portion of the great Eurasian landmass. What gives Europe its real historical identity is the generation of societies that were all interacting with one another in political, economic and cultural terms on a large enough scale to have certain significant similarities in common, and the first emergence of real similarity was one direct consequence of the transformation of barbarian Europe in the first millennium.

Nevertheless, Heather isn’t advocating a total overhaul. Although he admits the “nature of mass migrations is understood differently from era to era,” he ultimately wants a variation of the old ‘genocide and open wide’ Grand Narrative to remain in place, but shaded and nuanced to reflect archaeological findings that argue for a more gradual assimilation. “Screaming out from the comparative literature,” he steadfastly asserts, is that “the mass migration model, modified, has a place alongside social, economic, and political models.”

The main problem with this modified model isn’t the aforementioned shaky evidence in its favor – it’s the far more substantial evidence against. Some of these contradictions, as noted, come from the historical record itself; men writing accounts at or very near the periods Heather treats characterized the ‘model’ he’s seeking to modify, but their terms are hardly moderate – can they all be dismissed as simply mistaken? I have as much respect for trained historians as anybody else, but what am I to tell the multi-lingual fifty-year-old clerical annalist of the tenth century who writes simply, “This is what happened in my lifetime”? Pay attention, Cynewulf, and get it right next time? After all, it’s from contemporary writers, not later theorists, that we learn of, for one instance among many, the warfare of Genghis Khan, whose warriors annihilated everyone in the territories they conquered. Even allowing for hyperbole (or simple error), and even factoring in those archeological sites where a slower, more ‘snowball’ assimilation took place, there’s still ample historical evidence that genocide has always been mankind’s weapon of choice.

A further complication arises from Heather’s own summaries of his stance. “Migrations in mass numbers,” he tells us, support two key observations: first, they always happen from less-developed economies to richer ones, and second, they’ll happen for a complex variety of reasons: “In the vast majority of cases, the precise motivation of any individual migrant will be a complex mixture of free-will and constraint, of economic and political motives.”

But how complex can the variety of reasons be, if such migrations always happen for economical – as opposed to, say, social or military – reasons? “A complex mixture of free will and constraint” is all well and good, but if you’re moving, migrating, for economic reasons, your overall complexity thins out a bit, doesn’t it? And if a group of two thousand of you crest a ridge and look down upon a valley of rich farmland that’s inhabited and worked by four hundred natives who won’t leave under any circumstances – and if it’s locusts and tumbleweeds back home – your complex variety of reasons might snowball into ethnic cleansing in the course of a quick afternoon. Tacitus says so, and Ammianus Marcellinus, and Gibbon – reading this immense and companionable book, you get the impression the main reason Heather isn’t fully joining their ranks has less to do with massaged evidence and more to do with his perhaps rosier view of human nature.

Which isn’t to say he flinches from relaying the iniquities of that nature when his narrative takes him down its darkest alleys – he’s perfectly aware that a story as enormous and complex as the one he’s telling encompasses an untellable load of human misery, and he’s been aware of it since he was a callow youth:

I remember as an undergraduate picking up a standard textbook on medieval slavery and glancing through it in an idle way because it was written in French and the subject was not absolutely central to that week’s work. But my attention was attracted by a map that appeared to have a series of battle sites marked by the usual crossed-swords symbol. This seemed odd. On closer inspection, the symbols were not crossed swords, but scissors, and the legend read ‘points de castration’. This does not need translation. Nor did women fare much better. The Arab geographers certainly enjoyed the barbarous nature of the northern societies they were describing and deliberately underlined the total ghastliness of Rus slave traders. Ibn Fadlan describes them as the filthiest of God’s creatures, emphasizing the unpleasantness of their personal hygiene habits. He also refers only to females and children among the slaves being sold down the Volga, taking a voyeur’s delight, too, in how much sex went on between the slavers and their victims.

In fact, the surging large-scale stories of Empires and Barbarians admit little room for the tales of the women involved, except in slave-accounts – and the comparatively new science of DNA analysis, which can sometimes prompt Heather to an almost laddish joshing:

Modern DNA patterns suggest that only one-third of immigrant women to Iceland came all the way – directly or indirectly – from Scandinavia, with the rest moving a shorter distance from the British Isles. This may reflect the fact that it was too expensive for more than a minority of warriors to bring their Scandinavian sweethearts with them. On the other hand, given that the men involved were relatively wealthy, and that they were pagan and polygamous, it may be that women outnumbered men early on, with each Scandinavian male bringing with him not only his Scandinavian sweetheart but a couple of British or Irish babes besides.

But the real enjoyment of this book is the unabashed thinking that so exuberantly takes place throughout its length. This period of Western history – especially the handful of centuries immediately following what’s still too conveniently called the ‘fall’ of Rome – is heavily brambled with ambiguous documentation, and readers should always be grateful when a historian of Heather’s power and discernment takes it on. To help organize what he’s seeing, he formulates a kind of Newton’s Third Law of Empires: “The exercise of imperial power generates an opposite and equal reaction among those affected by it, until they so reorganize themselves as to blunt the imperial edge” (to which he puckishly adds, “Whether you find that comforting or frightening, I guess, will depend on whether you live in an imperial or peripheral society, and what stage of the dance has currently been reached.”)

This kind of lively theorizing can only bring much-needed new life to the Grand Narrative, even though, as stated, it’s consistently hampered by the lack of hard evidence. At one point in his narrative, after the death of Attila, when the Goths under Valamar are sweeping through the Middle Danube region, Heather writes with audible exasperation, “As to the total number of migrants involved, it is impossible to say. We have few figures for this, and anyway could make only a wild guess at the size of the various indigenous populations affected by the Macromannic War and third-century Germanic expansions.” Too much of this valuable book is valuable despite the fact that it doesn’t overcome such limitations.

Heather states his convictions outright. “The invasion hypothesis is dead and buried,” he tells us:

No longer would we even want to litter prehistoric and first-millennium Europe with a succession of large-scale movement and ethnic cleansing. Arguably, such a cocktail should never have existed. At least the ethnic cleansing element of the old Grand Narrative finds little support that I know of in the sources.

By which he almost certainly means archaeological sources, and that may be true, and they may conflict with some of our historical traditions, and those traditions may be wrong. Right or wrong, they should always be strenuously re-examined, and such a necessary task could hardly be done better than this book. Empires and Barbarians should be in the library of every serious student of history.

Lazaro Lopez is a high school Latin professor in Miami, Florida, and assures all his crestfallen students that he has nothing to do with the Latin House DJ of the same name.