Monday, September 28, 2009

Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire: Chapter 5, "The City of God"

After a little scene-setting account of the sack of Rome, and a brief note on original sources (Olympiodorus' history is the best narrative, but it is mostly preserved only in partially garbled extracts by later historians), Heather plunges into describing the new wave of barbarian invasions from 405-410: Radagaisus' Goths over the Danube bend and into Italy in 405/406, the Vandals, Alans, and Suevi across the Rhine into Gaul in 406, Uldin's Huns across the middle Danube in 408, and the Burgundians just across the Rhine around 411. Literary sources arguably suggest that all of these peoples can be placed in Central Europe in the period immediately before the invasion. They also report that these invasions were movements of large numbers of people, including many who were not warriors. Archaeological evidence shows a contemporaneous disappearance of the existing barbarian material culture in these regions. The invasion routes, the barbarian groups involved, the size of the movements, and the disappearance of existing cultures together points to a thoroughgoing displacement of the peoples of the Central European plain as the source of the invasion.

Heather admits that the motive for such a huge, rapid displacement can only be speculative, but he comes down on the side that they were pushed out rather than attacking of their own accord. Invading the empire was a huge risk. Roman hostility could be counted on, and success was far from certain -- a point which could only have been reinforced by the defeat of the first of these invasions, led by Radagaisus, in 406. Moreover, we have a plausible propelling force in the Huns, who had caused large scale movements before, and who are known to have occupied the lands of Central Europe from a time fairly shortly after the invasions.

The Vandals, Alans, and Suevi looted their way across Gaul for three years before moving on to Spain, where they finally settled down and replaced Roman rule with their own. During these barbarian peregrinations, the armies of Britain and Gaul revolted against central rule and settled on Constantine III as their schismatic emperor -- a development which was likely related to the failure of the hard-pressed Roman government under Stilicho to come to their aid.

Stilicho's hands were full not just because of Radagaisus, but even more because the Goths in the empire's Balkan provinces had revolted in 395. These Goths were now united under a single leader, Alaric. Their core concern was extracting a more binding guarantee of their permanent status in the empire. Having failed to extract such an agreement from the Eastern Empire, Alaric turned west, invading Italy in 401-402. But Stilicho was no more amenable to a settlement, and succeeded in fending the incursion off.
But in 406 Stilicho changed his tack, and sought out an agreement with Alaric for an alliance against the Eastern Empire. This would seem to be adding another course to an already overfull plate, but Heather argues that Stilicho's plans show that the real interest was a permanent alliance which would supplement the Roman army in the West with Gothic warriors to deal with the emerging threats to Gaul. The key point for Heather is that Stilicho's aims were limited to bringing all of Illyricum under Western control. This was a scaling back from his previous ambition to rule in the East, but it makes sense in terms of coming to a permanent disposition of the Gothic problem in the Balkans, since it would give him the authority to settle the Goths there.

In the event, the crisis erupted in Gaul before Stilicho could deliver on his promise to send Roman legions to join Alaric in the Balkans. Once barbarians were rampaging across Gaul and Constantine was in revolt, the legions could no longer be spared. Alaric, left in the lurch, moved his Goths to the Alpine passes to extort payment from Stilicho. He got it, but the Roman bureaucrat Olympius' conspiracy overthrew Stilicho soon after, and Rome adopted a policy of open hostility to the Alaric.

The extension of that hostility to Goths within the Roman army, however, led many to defect to Alaric. Supplemented by these forces and (probably Gothic) revolted slaves, Alaric invaded Italy again, laying siege to Rome itself in order to secure a deal. In the end, no deal was forthcoming, and Alaric's Goths finally (albeit respectfully) sacked Rome.

Following up on his description of the sack, Heather notes its profound ideological consequences. It led to a vigorous debate between Christians and pagans -- pagans claiming that the sack happened because Christian Rome had been abandoned by the Gods, while Christians argued that pagan Rome, too, had suffered sack and defeat in its history. Augustine followed through with this argument quite radically in The City of God, arguing essentially that there was nothing special, permanent, or divine about the Roman Empire -- that it was just one state among many others.

In contrast to Augustine's indifference, Heather leads into his account of the recovery of the Western Empire over the next decade with Gallo-Roman writers, Christian and pagan, who held fast to the Roman ideal.

The Roman recovery started with the supply-starved Goths departure from Italy to Gaul in 411, under Alaric's successor Athaulf. This freed the new Roman military commander in the West, Constantius, from concerns about leaving Italy uncovered, so he was finally able to take on the rebel emperor Constantine and his successors in Gaul. Against the last of these successors, Jovinus, Constantius had the assistance of Athaulf's Goths. But Athaulf had larger ambitions of his own -- he even married the Western emperor Honorius' captive sister Galla Placidia -- which got in the way of a more permanent settlement with the Goths. Constantius applied pressure by blockading supplies to the Goths in southern Gaul. By 415, the Goths had had enough: they overthrew Athaulf and came to terms with the Romans. In 416-418, Constantius marched into Spain with his new allies and put paid to the Alans and Siling Vandals (leaving just the Hasding Vandals and Suevi in the northwest to survive) before settling the Goths across the Pyrenees in Aquitaine.

As impressive as Constantius' successes were, the Western Empire was still substantially weaker than it had been fifteen years earlier. Britain and parts of Spain had never been recovered, and the tax revenue from much of Italy and Gaul must have plummeted due to the ravages of the invasions. A contemporary army register shows that half of the first-line units of the Western army had been lost, and only about half of the lost units were replaced with new first-line formations. Events of the last two decades had also shown the political fragility of the empire -- local landed elites were quick to cut deals with barbarian invaders to preserve their status.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Peter Heather,The Fall of the Roman Empire: Chapter 4, "War on the Danube"

The Huns disrupted the 4th century order of barbarian kingdoms in southeastern Europe. Their attacks seem to have persuaded many of the Goths to try their luck at gaining entrance to the Roman empire. The Huns' key weapon was the very long, asymmetric, composite bow. The bow's asymmetry was the real innovation -- it allowed a longer bow, and thus one with more range and power, to be used from horseback.

Goths -- Tervingi and Greuthungi -- arrived on the Danube en masse in 376, and crossed into the empire. Contemporary sources make it out that this was welcomed, at least initially. Heather decides that this calls for extensive source criticism. In the first place, he notes, contemporaries' accounts tended to reflect imperial ideology, which could not accept the idea of barbarians having the advantage over Romans. But in this case there are reasons to think that the Romans were unsettled. The emperor Valens had committed most of his forces to an Eastern campaign, so the Romans did not have the military superiority at the frontier which had been a prerequisite for previous voluntary receptions of barbarians into the empire. The decision to admit only the Tervingi (the Greuthingi crossed the Danube later when the defenses were stripped) and the apparently rapid appeal for military assistance from the Western emperor shows there was a high level of concern. The precautionary securing of food supplies in fortified cities similarly demonstrates that the emperor thought things might go wrong. The apparent terms agreed for the settlement of the Tervingi (which allowed them to settle only in Thrace rather than in a more scattered way) shows that the situation had given them an unusual amount of leverage.

In any case, neither the Tervingi nor the Romans trusted the other side, and both apparently double-crossed the other -- the Goths by joining up with the Greuthungi, the Romans by attempting an assassination of the barbarian leadership. Things turned out badly for the Romans first with a scratch force at Marcianople in 377 and then with a full imperial army at Hadrianople in 378, where Valens attacked the Goths before additional forces from the Western emperor Gratian could arrive. Heather devotes a few pages to explaining the pressures behind Valens impetuousness. The apparent sophistication of the barbarians appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses of the Roman army seems just as notable, however. They understood that the summer heat would take a greater toll on the heavily armored Romans, and maximized their advantage by setting large wildfires too boot.

The Romans proved unable to subdue the Goths in the field, but wore them into a peace by attrition. Still, the terms left large intact settlements of Goths within the boundary of the empire -- an unfavorable situation for the Romans, but one they could hope to erode through the pull of Romanization over time.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire: Chapter 3, "The Limits of Empire"

Heather starts with the story of a corruption scandal in Lepcis Magna in the late 4th century -- a Roman general refuses to protect the town without bribes, an imperial delegate sent to investigate is suborned, with his own corruption used as leverage against him. This sort of thing, Heather says, is often taken as evidence of late Roman decline. But he casts doubt on this interpretation, citing sources which show that self-aggrandizement and advancement through connections were endemic and even expected in Roman government going back at least to the late Republic.

He draws another lesson from the story: because of the scale of the empire and the limits it imposed on communication, imperial rule was always episodic and superficial. Most of the empire was always several weeks journey away from an imperial court, so the emperor would have few points of contact with or sources of information from distant provinces (and even if more information had been available, the filing system of Roman officials wasn't up to the task of making it usable). Heather reiterates this point with documents from the journey of the early 4th century Roman bureaucrat Theophrastes from Egypt to Antioch demonstrating the slow pace of travel and the limits in regular contact between officials in different provinces.

Heather then takes up the question of whether late Roman society was overburdened by the costs of the 3rd century military buildup. Until a few decades ago, this was the settled view, supported by a broad collection of evidence: decline in inscriptions, decreased willingness to serve in local offices (flight of the curials), laws binding agricultural workers to estates, appearance of references to empty lands in texts.

Heather says this conflicts with recent archaeological evidence (starting with George Tchalenko's investigations of Antioch's hinterlands in the 1950s) that show rural settlement reaching or sustaining its peak level throughout most of the empire in the 4th century (with Italy being the most significant exception). He proceeds to explain away the evidence for a decline: the empty lands cited in documents may never have been settled, restrictions on the mobility of agricultural workers were only enforceable when population density was high, and the fall off in inscriptions and local political participation reflect a shift in the location of interesting positions to the imperial bureaucracy.

After this, Heather looks at the case, put forward most famously by Gibbon, that Christianity diverted resources from productive use and sapped allegiance to the empire. He notes that pre-Christian religious cults also absorbed a lot of resources, so that it isn't clear that this issue was any more significant in a Christianized empire. Moreover, Christianity quickly adapted to ideologically supporting the legitimacy (and even the divine blessing) of imperial rule. The state's ability to entice elites to Christianize in order to advance in official posts shows that the influence of the center had not, in fact, been diminished.

Heather concludes with a discussion of some limitations of imperial Roman government (riffing off the Senate's reception of the Theodosian code). Foremost among these is the added instability and tension from the logistical and administrative requirement for two relatively equal emperors, especially since no firm system of succession was ever worked out. Heather points to ideological conformity as another weakness, although it is not clear why he thinks this is an actual source of weakness of the state rather than just something unpleasant. Finally, he points to the effective restriction of political engagement to a small landed elite and the concomitant focus of the state in serving the needs of that elite. He suggests that this left the vast laboring agricultural majority indifferent to the Roman state, and the allegiance of the landowning elite up for grabs when the state failed to offer protection for their property.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire: Chapter 2, "Barbarians"

Heather starts with the story of the massacre of Varus' legions by the Germans under Arminius in 15 AD. This incident became the focus of nationalistic German scholarship in the 19th century, which saw in it a key moment in the struggle for German unity and independence. Heather points out that it would be an anachronism to attribute a sense of national unity to the Germanic tribes of this period -- they were just as prone to fight each other as the Romans. Heather also argues that this kind of German resistance did not keep ancient Germania out of the Roman empire. Rather, he argues, the low level of development made the conquest unattractive (although the logistical convenience of the Rhine barrier for garrison resupply was also a factor in favor of using it as the frontier). I think Heather overargues the case here -- the fierceness of German resistance, after all, also affected the balance between the costs and benefits of conquest.

Heather goes on to argue that the main pressure on the Roman frontier in the 3rd and 4th centuries came from the Sasanid Empire in Persia, which he calls a second superpower of the ancient world. A series of defeats at the hands of the Sasanids in the 3rd century pushed Roman emperors to reform the army and increase its size by at least a third. They needed to raise taxes to pay for a larger army, and they also expanded central administration to better manage the increased revenue.

Heather moves on to a discussion of Roman ideology concerning barbarians, introduced by a few anecdotes concerning the Romans relish for slaughtering them. A remark by the 4th century Roman orator Themistius leads in to what Heather sees as the key Roman view about barbarians -- that they were completely driven by desire, and thus irrational. Civilized Romans, on the other hand, were supposed to exercise rational control of their desires. This led Roman intellectuals to view their society as totally distinct from and superior to the barbarians, and even divinely favored.

The earlier anecdotes, however, suggest that loathing for barbarians was a mass phenomenon, too, and that in fact seems a requirement of mobilizing the resources of Roman society to resist barbarian incursions. But Heather's discussion of ideology doesn't explain how this popular disdain was was generated -- I wouldn't expect that the elitist ideology could simply carry over, since in some way it was also involved in justifying elite rule over common Romans.

This expectation of total superiority over the barbarians created difficulties for official propaganda, however, since the results of conflicts were often not so clear cut (or even favorable at all). Heather returns to Themistius throughout the chapter to show the problems he had providing the official spin on a number of different encounters with barbarian adversaries.

Heather brings up Athanaric, the Gothic chief, and Ulfilas, the Gothic Christian religious leader, to demonstrate that the Gothic world was not, in fact, sharply divided from the Roman one. Athanaric understood the Romans well enough to play off factions against one another in attempt to improve the conditions of his relationship with Rome. Ulfilas, a Gothic Christian leader who was actually the son of Roman captives, weighed in on the controversies besetting Christian doctrine as it was officially specified in the Nicene era.

Heather extends his discussion of Roman-barbarian interdependence with a discussion of the alternating aggression and clientage of Germanic kingdoms along the Roman border in the late imperial era. He takes this high degree of interdependence as a jumping off point into a discussion the revolutionary changes in barbarian society.

Heather notes that the Germanic tribal names appearing in Roman texts both changed and diminished in number in the 3rd and 4th centuries. He cites this as evidence of political consolidation. He uses the archaeological findings from German settlements and industrial sites to argue that German agricultural and economic production exploded from the 1st to the 4th century. He adduces archaeological evidence of increasing stratification in burials to argue that Germanic society was becoming similarly stratified. He takes the evidence of large-scale consumption at palace centers to show that political leaders were able to support increasingly large retinues, and he suggests that the power conferred by large collections of armed followers would explain the ability to consolidate larger political units and extract a larger proportion of the economic surplus for a social and political elite. Heather believes that Germanic society was still far short of feudal society in its stratification, however, because even the legal documents from the successor kingdoms show the existence of a very significant class of freemen.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire: Chapter 1, "Romans"

Heather starts with the story of a massacre of one and a half second-line Roman legions by the Germanic Eburones in 54 BC. Despite being ambushed in a terrible position by a larger force, the Romans held out all day and fought to the death. This illustration of toughness and prowess, even in defeat, leads into a discussion of the characteristics -- training, cohesion, morale, engineering -- that made the Roman army so formidable. Heather notes that the Romans supplemented military might with prudent diplomacy, and these built and sustained one of the most extensive states in history for half a millennium.

Given the duration of the empire, it is not surprising that Roman society and political institutions changed a great deal. Heather dissents from the scholars who conclude that these changes significantly weakened the empire and led to its fall.

Heather's discussion of the nature of the empire begins with the late imperial rhetorician Symmachus. His relentless networking -- some 900 of his letters survive -- illustrates the workings of an elite Senatorial class. This class was distinguished by a canonical literary education which they believed made them mentally and morally fit to lead -- an outlook which stretched back to the Republican era.

Heather uses the story of Symmachus' embassy to the imperial court in Trier to elucidate some further points. First, as the very existence of such a mission shows, Rome was no longer the political and administrative center of the empire. Military exigency required rule from bases nearer the frontier. (Just one base generally did not suffice because of the length of the frontier, and Heather argues this is the key factor behind the emergence of joint imperial rule.) Nor were Roman senators any longer the pre-eminent political class. This role had been taken over by military commanders and bureaucrats.

Furthermore, Heather uses the city of Trier as an example of the thoroughgoing Romanization of the empire. He points out that the archaeological remains of Trier and other towns of the imperial hinterland show that they had adopted Roman building models and acquired the full panoply of Roman public buildings. Heather argues that this amounts to more than a mere imitation of style; it points, he says, to a wholesale adoption of Roman customs that gave point and purpose to the kinds of private and public buildings they constructed. Heather points to Ausonias, a rhetorician of Gallic birth who rose to the summit of both the scholarly and political world, as an example of the breadth and depth of cultural Romanization.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire: Introduction

Heather suggests that he will explain the fall more in terms of external than internal causes. In other words, Rome did not simply fall: it was conquered.

He's not a historian who sees no use in poststructuralism. He points to two salutary contributions of contemporary critical approaches: (1) challenging the stereotype of unsophisticated and unchanging barbarians and (2) understanding the source texts as laden with agendas (although I might have expected historians to understand that already).