Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation 1

The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation by Bryan Ward-Perkins is politically important to us now. It may seem strange that a study of (mostly) Western Europe between 400 and 800 should be 'topical'. The Roman Empire fell and things went dark, and that's it. Roman Empire, then Dark Ages. Right? Isn't that how everone sees it? Well, no, actually. That is not the view in Academe.

One of the most popular and flourishing areas of classical studies in recent decades has been what is termed Late Antiquity, applied to the years between 250 and 800. Historians of Late Antiquity prefer not to speak of 'decline', 'fall' or even 'crisis' with regard to Rome, but rather of 'transition', 'change' and 'transformation' and the rise of Christianity, Islam and Medieval civilisation. It is "a distinctive and quite decisive period of history that stands on its own" rather than "the unravelling of a once glorious and 'higher' state of civilisation". Not only that, but they downplay the idea of invasion and conquest on the part of the barbarian tribes. Instead they talk about the barbarian desire to be included in the Roman Empire and Rome's attempt to accommodate them, or even make use of them for defence of the Empire itself. Thus was Rome not destroyed but transformed into another type of civilisation, not inferior, only different. In the words of two American historians, this transition occurred in a "natural, organic and ierenic manner" and we should not "problematize the barbarian settlements". (Does that last verb sound a warning to you? Is this beginning to sound familiar?)

At the same time, the 'objects' under study have changed. Instead of political, economic and military developments, historians of Late Antiquity are more interested in the life of the mind and the spirit. Ward-Perkins notes that in the series published by the University of California Press, The Transformation of the Classical Heritage, 30 volumes discuss mind and spirit, 5 or 6 are about politics and administration while there are none on the details of material life. A cynic might put down this change of focus to the lack of material worthy of study, that in the absence of the sophisticated Roman Empire capable of producing and recording this type of history, there is little else that can be studied. However, practitioners prefer to speak of their subjects making a 'cultural choice' for other areas of life, such as the spiritual instead of the political, or clothes and jewelery instead of great buildings. It is not that they were incapable; it is just that they chose not to.

So we don't talk of the fall of a civilisation, but of the rise of a different culture. We don't talk of agression, victory or defeat, but of accommodation and transformation. Above all, we don't make value judgements and claim that this or that civilisation was 'better' than another. In fact, we don't talk about civilisation at all with its connotations of superiority and exclusion; we talk about cultures, and we start from the assumption that all cultures are equal, if different, and must be viewed from their own perspective. (I'm sure this is starting to sound very, very familiar.)

Think about the Romans, and you're thinking about now. Neil Faulkner in The Decline and Fall of Roman Britain likens the Roman influence on the island as comparable to the worst effects of imperialism and capitalism. He goes on to say that the period after the Roman evacuation in the early 400s was a "short golden age" of a people finally free of exploitation. In the popular realm, there's Terry Jones telling us that the much-maligned barbarians were so much more than "the Roman killing-machine that marched out to rob and ruin them". Julius Caesar "makes himself 'Protector of the Gauls'. And by the time he's finished protecting them, he's killed or enslaved two million and he owns the whole of Gaul." Of course, both Faulkner and Jones are really talking about something else: "It's the same as Bush and Blair saying that they're going to rescue the Iraqis from that dreadful leader and killing a quarter-million in the process."

For Faulkner, Jones and their ilk, the Romans are the real 'baddies', and the others by consequence are the 'goodies'. However, there's no need to indulge in this kind of childishness to end up in just as absurd a place. If you take the multi-cultural view propogated by scholars of Late Antiquity, and view what happened in the 5th Century as merely an accommodation and transition to one culture to another of equal status, then you are led into a sort of quietism. If nothing was really lost, what is there to regret? If it is just a smooth change of state, why not just go with the flow and adjust your tastes accordingly? If the first is not preferable to its successor, why bother defending it? It just doesn't matter because they're all equal anyway.

It is to oppose this view that Ward-Perkins wrote The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation.

Part 2 is here.
Part 3 is here.

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