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The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians

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A leading authority on the late Roman Empire and on the barbarians, Heather relates the extraordinary story of how Europe's barbarians, transformed by centuries of contact with Rome on every possible level, eventually pulled the empire apart. He shows first how the Huns overtuned the existing strategic balance of power on Rome's European frontiers to force the Goths and others to seek refuge inside the empire. This prompted two generations of struggle, during which new barbarian coalitions, formed in response to Roman hostility, brought the Roman west to its knees. The Goths first destroyed a Roman army at the battle of Hadrianople in 378 and went on to sack Rome in 410. The Vandals spread devastation in Gaul and Spain befor conquering North Africa, the breadbasket of the western empire, in 439. We then meet Attila the Hun, whose reign of terror swept from Constantinople to Paris, but whose death in 453 ironically precipitated a final desperate phase of Roman collapse, culminating in the Vandals' defeat of the massive Byzantine Armada, the west's last change for survival.

Peter Heather convincingly argues that the Roman Empire was not on the brink of social or moral collapse. What brought it to an end were the barbarians.

572 pages, Paperback

First published December 1, 2005

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About the author

Peter Heather

28 books166 followers
Peter Heather is currently Professor of Medieval History at King's College London. He has held appointments at University College London and Yale University and was Fellow and Tutor in Medieval History at Worcester College, Oxford until December 2007.

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Profile Image for Matt.
919 reviews28.3k followers
April 26, 2016
Admittedly, I have very little knowledge about the Roman Empire. This has not stopped me from creating a construct in my mind about how Rome fell. The image I’ve created is actually very simple, subtle, and elegant.

First, picture a room the Coliseum. Now imagine the Coliseum filled with men, women, and goats. Everyone is naked, including the goats. Men are having sex with women. Men are having sex with men. Women are having sex with women. The goats are having sex with everyone. There is an elephant in the corner, watching.

Besides the sex, there is food. Long tables groaning with suckling pigs, racks of lamb, and skewered chicken. And the booze! There are flagons of wine and barrels of beer, and it flows like the Tiber.

Also, the Coliseum is on fire.

There you have it. The fall of Rome as it plays out in my head. Just imagine every porn movie ever made, combined with the binge drinking of The Real World, the overeating of Man vs. Food, and the fires from Backdraft.

I came up with this construct because at one time or another, I read somewhere that Rome fell due to its moral decay. And to me, nothing symbolizes moral decay better than a bunch of people having sex with goats, eating turkey legs, and getting drunk while on fire.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the story told in Peter Heather’s The Fall of the Roman Empire is quite a bit different than the scenario I just described.

More importantly, Heather has a different take than that of Edward Gibbon, the author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. According to Gibbon (so I’m told), Rome collapsed because of civic decay, a loss of manliness, the outsourcing of soldiery, and the effects of Christianity. Heather, on the other hand, blames the barbarians.

The bulk of Heather’s story (excluding an introductory chapter) starts in the 300s and ends in the 400s. Thus, if you know most of your Roman history from watching movies – like me – you can place The Fall of the Roman Empire sometime after the period covered by Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus and before William Wyler’s Roman Holiday.

According to Heather, the fall of Rome was precipitated by waves of migration, brought about by invasion, and not by invasion alone. It began in the north, with the rise of the Huns. The Huns forced other barbarian groups, including the Goths, to flee into Roman territory. Unable to keep the Goths out, Rome reached a tenuous détente with these groups, allowing them to seek refuge within their borders. This worked out fine, until various barbarian coalitions decided to become, you know, barbaric. The lesson: never trust anyone calling him or herself a barbarian.

In 378, a Gothic army defeated the Romans at Hadrianople; in 410, they sacked Rome itself. Later, the Vandals vandalized Gaul and Spain and, more importantly, conquered the resource-rich territory of North Africa. As Heather explains, these were not simply military crises; rather, they precipitated political and economic catastrophe that spread to the Empire at large:

Every temporary, as well as permanent, loss of territory brought a decline in imperial revenues, the lifeblood of the state, and reduced the western Empire’s capacity to maintain its armed forces…As the Roman state lost power, and was perceived to be doing so, provincial Roman landowning elites, at different times in different places, faced an uncomfortable new reality. The sapping of the state’s vitality threatened everything that made them what they were. Defined by the land they stood on, even the dimmest, or most loyal, could not help but realize eventually that their interests would be best served by making an accommodation with the new dominant force in their locality.

In the 440s, the Huns – which had heretofore had an indirect effect on the Empire – rampaged across Europe, and towards Rome itself, under the leadership of Attila. Though Attila’s Huns defeated several imperial armies, Heather downplays Attila’s achievements. Indeed, according to Heather, Rome was hurt worse by Attila’s death than by his conquering armies.

Following Attila, the Hunnic Empire fragmented. Suddenly, Rome lacked a stable power with which they could barter, bargain, and sometimes rely on for military assistance. Instead, the Western Empire was forced to expend precious assets attempting to form coalitions with various immigrant groups. Despite great expenditures, Rome was never able to achieve stability.

The final gasp of the Western Empire was the disastrous attempt of the Byzantine Armada to recapture Carthage from the Vandals. When this failed, “it doomed one half of the Roman world to extinction.” To be sure, though, this extinction did not occur amidst an orgy of goat sex, gluttony, and flames. On the contrary, it occurred more gradually, as a dawning realization, a new state of affairs. It is also important to note that Heather’s book covers the fall of the Western Empire; Rome itself has not crumbled by the final pages.

When I evaluate history books, I look at two things: scholarliness and accessibility. Unfortunately, quite often, these two things do not go hand in hand. A great writer is not necessarily a great historian, and vice versa. Here, a good balance is struck.

First, Heather is a renowned historian of the barbarians (I assume there are very few openings for this position). You see evidence of this not only in his amply annotated notes section, but in his analysis of the evidence he presents. It is readily apparent that he is not simply regurgitating the ideas of others. Instead, he presents his own theories and ideas, based on his own extensive research in the field. This wealth of knowledge and experience is especially important when dealing with ancient history, which requires a great deal of extrapolation to cover the gaps in the historical record.

Second, Heather writes for the general reader, the common man, a person such as myself who knows only as much about Rome as a two-hour guided tour of the Coliseum and repeated viewings of Gladiator can offer.

The book is arranged into three sections. In the first, Heather gives a helpful overview of the Roman Empire before things started going to hell. He devotes a chapter to the Romans, a chapter to the barbarians, and a chapter to the logistical difficulties of running a vast empire when information moved at the speed of a horse over uncertain roads. In the middle section, Heather recounts the wars on the frontier, the devastating loss of the North African breadbasket, and the rise of Attila. Finally, the last section covers the breakup of the Huns and its calamitous effect on the Romans. There are also several helpful addendums, including a dramatis personae (if you, like me, keep confusing Valentinian I and Valentinian III), a glossary, and perhaps most obliging of all, a timeline.

In short, Heather does not treat Roman history as a Member’s Only Club, where reading all six volumes of Gibbon is a prerequisite to entry.

This is not to say that he is a master prose stylist or that he has crafted a seamless narrative. In fact, I’m not sure that’s possible. The trouble with ancient history is that we have to extract a lot from a little. Entire stories must be spun from surviving fragments of some guy’s diary. Thus, any account of Rome must be constantly interrupted by disclaimers, by hemming and hawing, and by the admittance that, for certain events, no one really knows. I found it hard to really get into a rhythm when Heather kept pausing to examine a shard of pottery or a sword found in a swamp.

Heather also has a tendency, which seemed to grow, towards lame humor. He makes the kind of sad, weak jokes that a hopelessly out-of-touch father might make to his teenage daughter’s friends. I suspect that many readers might find this annoying. Frankly, it didn't bother me all that much. There’s no need to be starchy in the presentation of this subject, because it’s starchy enough. We should take a lot of things seriously. The history of Rome is not one of these things. Moreover, the fall of Rome happened so long ago that it’s hard to believe it occurred on the same planet we now inhabit. We are left with ruins, only, to note its existence. The injection of humor, however pale it might seem, is a welcome bit of humanity, a reminder that we are all fellow travelers.

As much as I love history, I will never be a student of Rome. It has never truly appealed to me, even after I visited Italy, walked the streets of the Eternal City, and consumed vast quantities of their cheapest wines. At this point, I suppose it will never be more than a passing fancy, something I pick up and put down like a fussy baby. I guess that makes me an honest dilettante. And that is the basis upon which I recommend this book.
Profile Image for Bettie.
9,989 reviews14 followers
September 8, 2015

Narrated by: Allan Robertson
Length: 21 hrs and 42 mins

Description: The death of the Roman Empire is one of the perennial mysteries of world history. Now, in this groundbreaking book, Peter Heather proposes a stunning new solution: Centuries of imperialism turned the neighbors Rome called barbarians into an enemy capable of dismantling an Empire that had dominated their lives for so long. A leading authority on the late Roman Empire and on the barbarians, Heather relates the extraordinary story of how Europe's barbarians, transformed by centuries of contact with Rome on every possible level, eventually pulled the empire apart. He shows first how the Huns overturned the existing strategic balance of power on Rome's European frontiers, to force the Goths and others to seek refuge inside the Empire. This prompted two generations of struggle, during which new barbarian coalitions, formed in response to Roman hostility, brought the Roman west to its knees.

The Goths first destroyed a Roman army at the battle of Hadrianople in 378, and went on to sack Rome in 410. The Vandals spread devastation in Gaul and Spain, before conquering North Africa, the breadbasket of the Western Empire, in 439. We then meet Attila the Hun, whose reign of terror swept from Constantinople to Paris, but whose death in 453 ironically precipitated a final desperate phase of Roman collapse, culminating in the Vandals' defeat of the massive Byzantine Armada: the west's last chance for survival.

Peter Heather convincingly argues that the Roman Empire was not on the brink of social or moral collapse. What brought it to an end were the barbarians.

Always enjoyable to romp through the roman civilisation and see where renditions differ according to author spin. I wouldn't call this tome revisionist, yet I would say that it was probably a culmination of everything that finally did for the empire.

Profile Image for Bookwraiths.
698 reviews1,045 followers
June 26, 2013
This is hands down one of the best written, most entertaining and easily digested books I have ever read regarding the fall of the Roman Empire. Mr. Heather gives a reader enough back story regarding Rome and its neighbors to understand the strategic situation before he then outlines his theory of just what happened to destroy the Western Roman Empire and how it was more a gradual process than we have been led to believe. His reasoning for each point is well-thought-out and explained with just enough statistical information to educate the reader but not so much as to overwhelm him.

For anyone who has one iota of interest in the fall of the Roman Empire, this should be a must read. Whether you agree with the author's premise or not, you will find yourself amazed that history can be this readable.

Profile Image for Szplug.
467 reviews1,229 followers
July 1, 2011
I'm trashing the majority of what I have previously written here, along with opting to round up my three-and-a-half rating to a fulsome and fully merited four; scrubbing the slate clean and making an effort to do this book some justice. Prior allusions to the Mighty Gibbon and his masterpiece are inherently unfair to Heather—he's certainly no Gibbon, but then again, who is? The fact of the matter is that the British author is a pleasant and engaging writer who suffers from spells of dryness—but now that I've had a chance to revisit this thick and thoughtful book from the perch of a couple of day's distance, it dawns upon me that the pleasure and engagement of his style are fuller, and his aridity less sere, than I had originally stated. Whilst Gibbon is, indeed, an Olympian Nectar, it does Mr. Heather a grave disservice to label his labor as aught but an anodyne draft of Tang™. With that said, I did find myself proceeding at an irregular rhythm—at times the minutiae of the data Heather was detailing slowed things to an absolute crawl, only to once again break into a bantering canter as he wove into the tapestry the fascinating characters and ethnicities who performed on the stage during the tumultuous final century of the Roman Empire as it was originally constituted. Beyond doubt this gentleman knows his stuff—his analysis (at least on the surface) is sound, his depictions of Roman and Barbarian life convincing and strongly-etched, and he has crafted a well-ordered and sensible progression for the setting down of his persuasive argument.

In a nutshell, Heather's stance is that neither the adoption of an enervating Christianity nor a withering of the citizenry's moral fiber is what constituted the principal element of the (Western) Empire's fall, but rather an exploding and more structured Barbarian population that, on the heels of an enduring and perilous threat from Sassanid Persia, took advantage of favorable circumstances to migrate into a Roman Empire that was markedly different from that of the first century, lay waste to populated and prosperous regions, and both cripple the tax revenues required by the imperial bureaucracy as well as fatally dividing the latter into factions who contributed to the instability around the throne. This nutshell is packed to the brim with tasty and nutritious bits, however. The foundation is laid with Heather's survey of the Roman Empire just after the collapse of Diocletian's Tetrarchy, with a focus on the differences between what existed moving through the Fourth Century, and how things operated back when Augustus set forth the initial institutions: the evolution of the sense of Romanness developed within the twin societal structures of the centralized Imperial administration and legal system and the localized civic and rural cultures of the various provincial constituencies, along with the requirement—indeed, the demand—for more than a single Caesar, not merely for a better functioning and quicker reaction across a vast, seventy-million-plus souled domain, but to allow for a richer and more extensive allocation of rewards, promotions, titles, and wealth to the appreciably larger number of important imperial officials who demanded to be regularly mollified if their potentiality for mischief was to be kept dormant.

Why was this the case? Because, as Heather puts forth, the emergence of a serious superpower rival in the Sassanid brand of a revivified Persia spurred her Roman neighbor—after a series of humiliating and regicidal defeats suffered at the hands of the Shah-in-Shah's forces—to vastly expand and reorganize its standing military. The separation into regular border armies under a dux and elite field armies under a comes more than doubled the size of the military, as well as bloating the imperial bureaucracy into a cast of thousands serving the separate courts of the joint emperors. Heather also set forth how the Empire dealt with the necessity for a considerable influx of revenue, ranging from debasing the currency, overhauling the tax plan—including various flavors of hitting up the powerful landowning class, and the further rearranging of an imperial system that saw municipal and provincial development driven by the needs and designs of the localities, with the imperial hand weighing lightly upon the decisions. Thus, while the emperors assumed full control of the defense of the realm, the myriad dioceses, provinces, and cities—lead by an educated and relatively compact landowning class with extensive privileges—handled an increasing amount of responsibilities in other fields: centralizing and centrifugal forces at work upon each other at the same time. Astride this theme rides another examining the role of Christianity after its adoption by the state under Constantine I the Great—contra Gibbon, Heather posits that since the Christian religion took at least two or three generations to fully inveigle its way into the culture of localized societies, and was as affected by Romanization as the empire was by its new religion; and since it meshed so well with the prior pagan idealization of the Emperor and the Empire as favored—and thus destined—for greatness under the gods; and since those who abandoned the material world for isolated hermeticism were but a miniscule fraction of the total number of Christians—many of whom long continued to mix into their Christianity a healthy amount of pagan practice whilst their priests strained it through the rational philosophies of the Greeks—it never had a chance to enervate or enfeeble its practitioners to any appreciable degree before the devastating inroads of the barbarians in the late fourth and early fifth centuries.

And it is with these barbarians that Heather sees the fatal element in the circumstances leading to the Fall of Rome. Taking advantage of the depth of new understandings about the life of these Central and Eastern European tribes that has been achieved through archeology and science, Heather dismisses those who claimed a mythological unity and purpose to the Germans or Aryans, instead placing them as they likely existed when the Empire was formed—a myriad of politically chaotic and devolutionary tribes—and tracing their development into the fourth century—one that, particularly as regarded their agricultural practices and expanded freeman class, had been such as to generate a dramatic increase in their populations and political complexity right at a most propitious time. The single most important catalyst was the thunderous arrival upon the Ukrainian steppe of the Huns, that mysterious conglomeration of bow-savvy nomads whose origins are still the source of much speculation and argument (for a good laugh, check out the Wikipedia discussions about such as the Hunnic Empire or the Origin of the Goths: tempers flare like an erupting solar storm). After Heather produces some fascinating details about this group—leaving the hint that he personally considers them the first Turkic presence at the eastern edge of Europe—he details how their violent irruption onto the plains drove the Iranian and German tribes who currently occupied that land westwards. In 376 the Tervingi and Greuthungi, two divisions of the Germanic Goths, sought to migrate into the Roman Empire, a decision that, once granted by the Eastern Emperor Valens, lead to the Gothic Wars and initiated a chain reaction that reverberated across the next seventy years.

Since, as Heather points out, it was standard operating practice for the Roman administrations to denigrate the barbarians as, well, barbarous, ignorant, flea-riddled, and bedraggled hordes awaiting the fulgent illumination of Roman enlightenment and civilization, certain attitudes were required when dealing with them that often abraded reality. A generation after the Gothic wars had uneasily fizzled to an end, and as the Persian threat kept a sizable amount of the Roman military permanently occupied in the near east, several tribes such as the Goths under the chieftain Radagaisus, the Alamanni, and the powerful supergroup comprised of the Germanic Vandals and Suebi allied with the Iranian Alans, broke into the Empire after 405 and spread devastation whilst emperors engaged in internecine scheming or sent armies against them that suffered a series of setbacks. Eventually the Vandal-Alan group made its way to Spain before—under heavy pressure from Roman field armies augmented by mercenary coalitions of Gothic, Burgundian, and Hunnic warbands—crossing into North Africa and capturing the series of rich and economically vibrant provinces centered around Carthage in 439. After taking the reader upon a fascinating tour of North African development throughout the course of the empire's lifetime, in which it became the breadbasket of Rome and a dynamic economic engine for the western half of the empire, he describes the massive military armada assembled by the Western and Eastern emperors in 441 to retake this vital geographical region and salvage the injured imperial revenues. Alas, at that very moment Attila, unifier and bicep-flexing military overlord of the newly constituted Hunnic Empire, opted to make his first devastating incursion across the Danube, bringing fire and steel to the luxuriant roman villas and farms in the Balkan valleys and well-earning the title of Scourge of God.

Heather's excursion into the world of Attila is one of the best parts of the book. At this point the Huns occupied the Great Hungarian Plain and, with a comparatively small core of ethnic Hunnic warriors, dominated a vast and tightly controlled conglomeration of Germanic—Goths, Sciri, Heruli, Gepids, Burgundians, Rugi, Suebi— and Iranian—Sarmatian, Iazyges, Alans, Massagetae—tribes that had been pushed westwards and abutted the riverine frontiers of the Roman Empire. Prior to Attila the Huns had been ruled by a coterie of petty kings, and had contributed mercenary troops to the Western Empire during their battles with the Radagaisusian Goths and the Vandal-Alan horde; but Attila welded his neighbors into a mobile and ruthless marauding army that made several lengthy and destructive inroad campaigns into the Eastern and Western Empires during the the years of his rule—441 to 453. Heather paints the Hunnic Empire as being of a predatory nomadism, one in which the constant promise of battle and booty was necessary to maintain control over such a disparate assemblage of tribes. His tributary demands upon the Romans brought huge quantities of gold into the lands of Germania for the first time, while his marauding raids left a terrible trail of destruction across some of the Empire's richest territories. However, Attila was checked for the first time by the Roman general Aetius, who had augmented his forces with sizable contingents from the Franks and the Visigoths, the supergroup composed of the remnant population of the Tervingi and Greuthungi Goths and the surviving followers of the defeated Radagaisus; and this victory only confirmed the Visigoths in their possession, outside of direct imperial control, of the fertile lands of Aquitania in southwest Gaul.

Attila's sudden death—attributed to too much drinking and dinking with his umpteenth new bride—was viewed by contemporaries as a salvational happening; however, in Heather's opinion, it was the death of Attila that directly lead to the rapid crumbling and fall of the Western Empire. Whilst Attila was king he maintained a strict and iron grip upon his undergroups, and emigration from the Rhine-Danubian frontier into the empire was virtually nonexistent. Upon his death, however, the Hunnic Empire was plunged into a fratricidal civil war, one in which, within the span of a mere decade, it ceased to exist in any unitary form. Freed from the merciless control of their Hunnic overlords, confined and congested by their proximity to each other, and aware of the weakness of the Empire after years of battle with the nomadic hordes, several large groupings of Germanic tribes—the Burgundians, the Franks, a confederation of the Goths who had served under Attila—crossed the river barriers and installed themselves upon Roman territory. The Roman field armies were still of a size that, concentrated in force, they could have seriously tested any of these migratory barbarian groupings—but they could never achieve such a concentration without leaving the empire open to the predations of the others; and the instability around the imperial throne, and the wastage of troops in internecine fighting between factions, contributed to this unsettled and revenue-sapping state of affairs.

With the decision made by the Eastern Emperor Leo—and acceded to by Ricimer, the Patrician kingmaker of the Western Empire and a man descended from Visigothic and Sciric royalty—to elevate a competent eastern general, one Anthemius, to the Italian capital, the Western half was once again in the hands of a formidable and determined ruler. Both halves literally drained the treasury in a one-shot-takes-all effort to reclaim North Africa from the Vandals and recapture the vitally necessary agricultural and economic riches of these provinces for the bleeding Western Roman body; alas, a combination of bad luck, uncooperative winds, and highly skilled Vandal sailors combined to inflict a terrible defeat upon the assembled armada, a painful and devastating reversal that, in Heather's opinion, removed the last lifeline from the grasp of Rome. Within a short span of years Anthemius was murdered, the Burgundians had setup a kingdom around the Rhone and Saone river valleys, and the Visigothic King, Euric, embarked upon a massive expansionary project that saw the Visigoths regnant and unopposed from the Straits of Gibraltar to the Loire River. With England long lost to Rome, and Northern Gaul divided between bandit-infested Brittany and the slowly-but-surely expanding Frankish tribes, the Western Empire was reduced to the Italian peninsula and a rump of the southern Gallic coast. All that remained to end the farce was the final, pragmatic withdrawal of support from the Eastern Roman emperor—and this was done in 476; Odoacer, the Sciri-born general who had wielded the power once held by Ricimer, and whose father had served as one of Attila's lieutenants, deposed the puppet Romulus Augustulus and ruled on his own as Patrician. The Western Empire was officially dead.

It just might be that Heather's summation of these final years is the single best part of this lengthy tome. He uses modern archeological finds to dispel the theory that a dissipated Rome was suffering from a dramatic decline in population, and lays out how the Roman landowners, the educated provincials who had promoted Romanness at the local levels, were tied by the very land they owned—the source of all their wealth—from abandoning it in the face of invasion; and so these landowners were forced to make accommodations with the barbarian kings who had overrun the territory on which they were situated. Heather is also very good at bringing out the numbers to trace the deleterious effect—upon the field armies above all else—of the drastic drop in tax revenues when some of the richest, most arable lands in the western empire were occupied by the migrant Germans. Factor in the endemic instability around the Imperial throne and the inability of the eastern emperors to wield a free hand in the west, and you have a recipe for exactly what happened. Though the newly constituted barbarian kingdoms adopted Christianity and sought to maintain as many Roman forms as were feasible, their very composition—a mostly illiterate aristocracy of warrior chieftains and freeman who brought their own retainers into battle in lieu of a professional army—worked against it; and, depending on the region and the level of integration with imperial cultural and societal memes that it had achieved by the fifth century, the long-enduring binds of Roman citizenship soon began to transmute into something altogether different and new.

As Heather read from many of the same sources as did Gibbon, he doesn't offer much that is new to the general narrative of the fall, but rather to the details behind the events that occurred, and to establishing a chain of reasoning—both evidentiary and speculative in nature—for why things proceeded as they did, and what steps might perhaps have been taken to remedy this crisis of the fourth and fifth centuries; and it has to be said that his effort is impressive and convincing in the extreme. I have read that other Roman history luminaries like Adrian Goldsworthy don't hold with Heather's assessment, with the former believing that at no time were the barbarians beyond Rome's ability to control were she served by less venal, more capable men; but, with my own limited knowledge and understanding of this period, Heather can currently count me amongst those swayed by his theme. Whilst it is never the case for aught than absolutists—of which the field of history seems to possess a surprising and disturbing quantity—that to one single factor can be attributed the cause of such a reverberant historical watershed, Heather has convinced me that the barbarian element—the evidence for their seriously increased population level and political sophistication, their importation of Roman customs, arms, rules, and discipline used in expanding their own power bases within the empire—in essence, Rome providing the lessons and material for inflicting its own defeat—the principal ingredient of the predatory Huns driving these German tribes westwards and into conflict with their Roman neighbor—was of paramount importance in setting the stage for the failure of the fifth century Roman Imperial structure. It just all rings true and seems well-supported by the current level of evidence and knowledge, at least as presented by the author. Although parts might be a bit too academic for the casual history buff, this is a solid, well-written, enlightening, and, ultimately, convincing assemblage of historical revisionism; hell, I'll wager the Mighty Gibbon Himself would be proud.
Profile Image for Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer.
1,779 reviews1,268 followers
May 15, 2021
Overly long although relatively easy to read account.

The author’s first central thesis is that:

Shortly before its fall the Roman Empire was actually in a healthy state (contrary to classical analysis);

Although the rise of the Persian empire formed a huge military (and hence monetary) challenge to the Empire that the Empire managed to adapt organically to this new reality although this did lead to both the replacement of self governing towns with an Imperial Bureaucracy and (also due simply to the enormous distances involved in communication and command) the permanent splitting of the Empire into (two with four Imperial capitals none of which were Rome) – leading to tension and civil war;

At that time many areas of rural economy were flourishing; and finally that (contrary to Gibbon’s analysis) Empire and Christianity quickly reached symbiosis.

One of his key arguments is that many of the reasons posited for the fall of the West also apply to the East which survived for many centuries as the Byzantine Empire.

Instead he posits the fall of Rome as due to external influences – principally the large scale unplanned immigration/invasion of and occupation by a significant number of large barbarian groups.

Although he admits that many of the classical factors weakened the West to the point where it couldn’t cope with these pressures or resist the incursions, in his concluding analysis he claims that it was only due to the Roman influence on the neighbouring Barbarian areas (which as per Faulkner he says were dictated by areas of land where sustainable arable farming was not possible) and tribes eventually leading to them coalescing into large groups which were then big enough to force their way over the frontiers and to occupy large tracts of land.

These occupations ,and in particular the Vandal seizure of Africa, deprived the centre of large slices of revenue and eventually led to its implosion as local landowners (whose only asset was their land made accommodation with the barbarians instead).

Finally he identifies the Huns as playing a key role but not in their invasions (which ultimately failed) in three non-obvious ways:

Firstly in precipitating the migration of the barbarian tribes;

Secondly by diverting the Eastern Empire’s flotilla sailing to the rescue of Africa;

Thirdly by their collapse after Attila’s death in depriving the Romans of a force they were using to control the very barbarians they had pushed into Roman territory.
Profile Image for Daniel Threlfall.
122 reviews23 followers
June 29, 2015
Unless you're some sort of history nerd, the title sounds absolutely boring. I'm not a history nerd, so that's what I thought — boring! — when a friend let me borrow this book.

The book was not boring. Not in the least.

The book is, obviously, about how the Roman Empire "fell." The thing that makes it interesting, however, is the fact that the author, Peter Heather, takes issue with the near unanimity of historians on the causes and contributing factors of the Empire's decline.

Sorry, Gibbon, but you were only partly correct .

Rome's decline wasn't just their addiction to gluttony and the circus, nor a raging invasion of long-haired barbarians (i.e., decadence, corruption, loss of values). Rome's decline had more to do with a gradual and sequential process by which European barbarians became entangled with the Roman empire on every level, eventually dismantling the vast structure from within.

Here's the thing about Heather. He doesn't just tell you about history. He tells you how to do history. For example, he explains how to interpret the pollen records of the 4th century, and the implications were for Hunnic nomadic migration across the Eurasian steppes. He also argues with other historians, explaining why they are wrong. Who doesn't love a good bench-brawling historical scholars' free-for-all?

As he mixes argument with analysis with didactic historiography, he creates a memorable and powerful way of proving his point. It sticks.

I've spent some time studying Christianity and the history of Christianity. While reading Heather, it occurred to me that I had a huge blind spot in my historical understanding of Christianity. I'm still trying to grasp, not just how Christianity shaped civilization and the Roman Empire, but conversely how Christianity was shaped by the Roman Empire. Heather deals capably with this subject. The few pages in which he discusses Augustine are outstanding.
Profile Image for Louise.
1,649 reviews291 followers
September 6, 2016
Heather tells the complex story of the Fall of the Roman Empire in a writing style so accessible that you feel like he is talking to you.

He clearly presents his thesis (oversimplification: there was no "decline". There was a loss in revenue when North Africa was lost. Barbarians eroded the western empire and a disastrous armada to get Africa back nailed the coffin) so that lay people can understand it. When he presents evidence he also notes what is missing from the evidence, or how reliable/unreliable it might be. This way, we know how he came to his conclusion, leaving the door open for future discoveries.

Heather, the editor and publisher (Oxford University Press) have done their team work. The maps are excellent and they are placed with the text they illustrate. There are referrals to a previous pages, something you rarely see since books are routinely published in such haste that this is not possible. The biographies (of people and peoples) in the back help you keep the players straight.

Heather says a full study of what happened in the provinces is worth another book. I hope Heather writes it!

Profile Image for Ton.
98 reviews27 followers
July 14, 2019
Not a new book anymore (published originally in 2005), this book attempts to give an explanation for the collapse of the western part of the Roman Empire. Heather goes about building his narrative, after first establishing what “Romanness” and “barbarianism” mean, from the late fourth century. Heather suggests the structural flaws in the empire (troublesome succession was ingrained) combined with diminishing tax-revenues are the root causes. The author also defies numerous theories on the way and gives a lot of corroborating examples for his own positions. Very readable, with an eye for the non-academics, though sometimes a tad populistic, for example characterizing the empire’s financial situation as “skint”.

Profile Image for WarpDrive.
272 reviews388 followers
January 18, 2013
Outstanding and detailed book created by an expert and a real authority in this field. I have been following this author for the last few years - not just his books, but also his articles in various specialist publications clearly demonstrate a mastery of this historical period. His well balanced and detailed analysis make this book a pleasure to read.
Profile Image for Paul.
96 reviews
May 19, 2008
The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians, by Peter Heather

This new book by a professor at Worcester College, University of Oxford is a true gem among books covering historical subject matter. The past when covered by most books attempting to educate the reader on historical subject matter covering several hundred years often results in text book like reading without the inspirational individual efforts of the everyday citizen being included or explained.
In this case I am happy to report that not only are many individual citizens brought to life through recovered letters and such, but many connecting aspects of interpersonal rivalries and ambitions supported by empirical evidence are interspaced with the big picture events surrounding those people and their lives. This book makes the reader more aware of the issues and subject matter from the view of the small group or individual than any other book on Rome which I am familiar with. The writing is also easy to follow for the average reader who is not a scholar.
If you are interested in finding out just how similar our world events today are to ancient Rome and the issues they faced, read this book! Rome faced many of the same issue as we see today. Examples of these issues include inflation of coinage by deflating the value of the raw metal content in the coins, gorilla warfare on its boarders, political intrigue through spies by rival super powers, citizens who were forced to deal with changing events rapidly if they wanted to start a business or venture into government work, among many other examples.
Heather argues, in my opinion very successfully that it was the barbarians who brought down the Empire rather than any social or moral collapse. However the real value of this book is for the average reader to dive into something, which reads like a fiction narrative trying to persuade the reader to a point of view. In my opinion it succeeds. However, the average reader can learn so much on this subject matter without subjecting themselves to the many long and boring textbooks, which are so abundant for any topic related to Rome and its downfall.
At 459 pages just for the story and persuasive argument for his theme Heather adds a timeline and other sources as well, making the total page count 572. In my experience this book reads like a page turner and should engage any history buff as well as those who shun history for its boring nature or lack of inspired stories to engage in and root for. The characters that Heather has pass in and out of Rome’s history in this detailed book seem real and alive.
Books on Rome are abundant, but few engage the average reader in a way that compels and engages the imagination while failing to debase the story in the usual folly of solely telling everything from the view of the top person looking down on the minions. Rome had entrepreneurs and businessmen between the gladiators and slaves and emperors. Who knew that so many parallels to our modern western civilization would be seen through one book? Read this book for the entertainment as well as the educational value relating to a civilization, which still reaches forward in time to spread its influence on today’s world events.
Whether you are interested in the development of the Germanic peoples influencing Rome and how they continue to influence us up to today or your interests lie with an early cult of Judaism as it emerged from a leadership dominated by martyrs to become the dominant religion of the empire despite its founder being publicly executed by the same empire, this book will put into perspective all of the issues of that time period in a way that is engaging and relevant to digest for the modern westerner.
This book was fun, entertaining and engaging. I highly recommend it.

Profile Image for Mal Warwick.
Author 29 books403 followers
April 6, 2017
Roman generals, barbarians, and a compulsive historian to tell the tale

Remember having to memorize all those dates when you were back in school? 1066, 1776, and all that? Right? So, what epochal events do you associate with the years 376, 405, 410, and 476? Give up? No, I’m not going to give you the answers. If you really want them, you can immerse yourself in the pages of Peter Heather’s The Fall of the Roman Empire. By the time you’re finished — assuming you have the stomach to get through the whole ordeal — you’ll know not only what significance those dates hold but also the names of godknowshowmany inconsequential Roman emperors, generals, and barbarian kings. Frankly, I can’t believe I read the whole thing.

Here, dates and battles and names aside, is the message that British historian Peter Heather was attempting to get across:

Gibbon got it all wrong. The Roman Empire didn’t fall because of its internal weaknesses.
What actually happened, according to the latest findings by archaeologists and historians, is that the barbarians ganged up on the Romans.
OK, it was a little more complicated than that. Around the middle of the 4th Century, the Huns — those nomadic horsemen from the Central Asian steppes — began pushing westward. They didn’t get as far as the Roman frontier, but their relentless drive pushed hordes of Germanic tribes (the original barbarians, from the Roman perspective) further west, and the Germani began crowding the borders that Rome had so carefully kept sparsely populated. In fact, about 100,000 of them actually managed to cross into Roman territory in the Balkans — and that started the ball rolling. They had permission from the Eastern Roman Emperor in Constantinople — you remember, of course, that the Empire was then divided in two? — but the hapless fellow later had occasion to regret the decision, because the Germani started raising all manner of hell very shortly. (For good reason, too. The Roman generals and provincial officials assigned to their settlement took them to the cleaners.)

Later, when the Huns, eventually under the gifted leadership of Attila, moved all the way westward toward the Romans’ Rhine frontier in what is now Germany, the Germanic tribes living there decided the time was convenient to actually invade Roman territory, namely Gaul (now France), Spain, and later North Africa. Though Roman generals began hiring Huns as mercenaries to help them fight the other barbarians, and they actually had some success from time to time, it was a losing battle. Soon enough, Germanic armies managed to sack Rome, not once but twice within the space of a half-dozen years. For several more decades, the Romans tried to pretend nothing had happened while the territory under their control steadily shrank. After all, Rome had ruled the world (well, the Mediterranean, anyway) for nearly half a Millennium, so how could it possibly all end? Eventually, though, before the end of the 5th Century, all the last of the Western Emperors had left was Italy. Being able to read the writing on the wall, he turned out the lamps in Rome and retired to his summer villa.

Why did all this happen? Peter Heather says it was the Romans’ own fault. Their unnecessarily harsh imperial policies drove the Germani to attack them. I would add that Rome had simply bitten off more than it could chew. The Empire had overreached.

Now, why couldn’t he just have said that?
Profile Image for Ivan.
357 reviews53 followers
December 27, 2017
Un gran ben libro! La fine dell'impero romano d'occidente è descritta magistralmente, con una narrazione avvincente, vivace, mai noiosa (qualità rara in un saggio di storiografia) una lettura che mi ha accompagnato durante le ferie estive, facendomi dimenticare caldo e zanzare, lontano dal mare e dalla sua "caciara". Nelle lunghe e silenziose ore d'agosto sono sfilati personaggi e figuri a volte gravi e imponenti, a volte meschini e ridicoli, sanguinari e feroci di imperatori, generali, burocrati, eunuchi ed usurpatori insieme a filosofi, storici (Ammiano Marcellino, Olimpiodoro di Tebe, Prisco, Giordane etc.) e letterati (Ausonio, Sidonio) del basso impero. Amplissimo spazio è dato anche agli antagonisti dell'impero, un caleidoscopio di re barbari, di popolazioni germaniche che dimoravano nell'Est europeo tra Polonia e Ucraina, e poi sarmati, alani, unni e Sasanidi della Persia, indugiando a descriverne la storia, gli usi, la cultura materiale e spirituale. Il grande impero romano è descritto nelle sue strutture politiche e amministrative, tanto centrali quanto provinciali e locali, con i tutti i limiti e storture, ma anche nella sua cultura fatta di lingua latina, letteratura e retorica, diritto, acquedotti e terme. Sono elencate e dibattute le varie tesi, da quelle sull'ineluttabilità della caduta dell'impero (una fine per collasso interno inevitabile, iscritta nel dna di ogni impero), alla eventualità invece che la crisi innescata dalle invasioni barbariche poteva essere gestita in altro modo e superata, consentendo alla parte occidentale del mondo romano di riprendersi e assimilare gli invasori. In fondo, dice Heather, se la crisi dell'impero era già insita inevitabilmente nella sua struttura (politica, economica, sociale), perché la parte orientale dell'impero, in tutto simile a quella occidentale, è sopravvissuta egregiamente per altri mille anni?
Profile Image for Steve.
804 reviews226 followers
August 22, 2009
Heather covers Gibbon's old stomping grounds, but backed up w/ recent archeological finds. Heather is an expert when it comes to the various “barbarian” groups that hammered the Roman Empire. He’s probably one of best when it comes to the mysterious Huns (historians still don’t know where they came from – just educated guesses). However, Heather parts with Gibbon on the cause of Rome’s fall, seeing not so much decadence (he feels that Rome, as an Empire, was running probably as well as ever, making adjustments to changing times, etc.), but an incredible string of barbarian incursions that simply swamped the frontiers. The big havoc engine for all of this is the Huns, pushing (before their own Big Arrival) these other violent bands into Roman territory. This is a fine history, but marred somewhat by Heather’s flippant style of writing. Heather is actually a very good writer, but around page 200 or so, he starts cracking wise a bit too much for my tastes. I don’t mind humor being interjected, but a little goes a long way with something like this.
Profile Image for Ming Wei.
Author 8 books266 followers
July 23, 2019
A very in-depth detail about the gradual dissolve, fall of the Roma Empire over many years, a very good historical guide upon a era were Rome was constantly bombarded by many tribes hell-bent on destroying them, raiding their lands, taking spoils, This book is quite impressive in the huge amount of historic data and references that it includes within its pages. The book is easy to follow, well written, It is an history book, and a very good one, if you are interested in the Roman Empire well worth reading. No editorial errors, maybe the book does not include every detail about the fall of Roma, but it covers enough, Good book. Not a complete guide to the fall of Rome, but very close to being one
Profile Image for Simon.
Author 5 books140 followers
June 11, 2012
I thought this was excellent. The author's view is that the Western empire fell because the Germanic tribes had had gained greater and greater cohesion and sophistication through three hundred years of interaction with the Romans. So when they were pushed west, and into the empire itself, by the movement of the Huns towards the end of the 4th century, they were able to profit at the expense of the central Roman tax base to such a degree that the empire could no longer contain them effectively.
Profile Image for Bryan Alexander.
Author 4 books278 followers
February 16, 2014
A fine history of the Roman empire during the 300s and 400s. Heather offers a clear, engaging narrative account of the western empire's defeat and the east's success.

Arguing about the fall of (western!) Rome is an old historical chestnut, and Heather makes a passionate case for one school of thought. You see, there are two broad interpretations. Either Rome died a natural death, due to internal problems and decay, or it was murdered by outside forces, notably barbarians from central Europe and the Asian steppe.

Heather belongs to the latter group, and specifically blames the Huns for directly and indirectly bringing down the western Roman empire. To make this case he first builds a convincing argument for the west's strength and resilience right into the 400s, then extensively documents the sheer destruction wrought by Huns and Goths. On the one hand Rome appeared quite able to maintain itself (for nearly five centuries!) in its imperial mode, and dealt with many threats up to the existential level. Its economy was working well, at least in terms of producing enough to support a far-flung military and political apparatus. Taxes kept flowing, and population wasn't declining (the opposite of what I learned at university, back in the 1980s).

On the other, the barbarians were much more effective than previous over-the-Rhine and -Danube challengers. Earlier invaders, like the ones who famously took the eagles of Varus, were local, not well organized, and ultimately quashed - Heather has a devastating line about the early Germans' main point being not military strength, but poverty (58). Later on, successor tribes and nations evolved, partly in response to Roman pressures. Each of their 4th and 5th century successes - installing themselves as mini-nations within the empire, wresting provinces for themselves - tore off crucial chunks of Rome's ability to keep itself going.
[T]he western empire broke up because too many outside groups established themselves n its territories and expanded themselves by warfare (436).

Heather focuses on the loss of North Africa, in particular, which interested me.

The book is especially focused on the Huns. Their direct impact under Attila tore up imperial resources, even though the Hunnic empire didn't ultimately succeed in winning territories. Their indirect impacts were powerful, as they drove other nations into more successful invasions of the west (and east, too, although not as much): Goths, in particular. The break-up of the Hun state also caused the Romans to expend precious resources in chasing down every subgroup and splinter tribe as they careened across Europe.

The book is well laid out, overall. Maps are clearly designed, consistently referred to, and generally useful. A glossary and timeline help. Above all, Heather's prose is clear, always engaging, and frequently funny (on Attila's death: "finally the scourge of God went to meet his employer", 342). He offers characters to anchor the broad story, from underappreciated generals (notably Flavius Constantius) to ignored emperors and very creative spin doctors. He does his best to relate major, signal events like the battle of Hadrianople (378) and the 468 defeat of a major trans-imperial naval expedition, which Heather sees as finally dooming the west (427).

In short, I strongly recommend Fall of the Roman Empire for anyone interested in the Roman world, and for readers generally.
Profile Image for Andy.
421 reviews68 followers
July 23, 2016
So its been a decade since ive read this & though a re-read was in order.....

In a nutshell.... as the title is fairly self-explanatory.....

You get an overview of the main players, the Romans themselves (of course), the barbarians which is basically anyone on their frontiers be it the Germanic tribes or the Persians, the Empires expansion & the impact that had on maintaining it’s borders & effective communications/orders over such vast distances (they estimated that in modern terms it would be something like 10x the current land area of the EU), the Huns get a big mention (As if!), the Goths too (who pegged it from the Huns) the Roman politics & squabbles, the impact of the loss of North Africa (huge revenues which supported the empire & more importantly its armies) the petty rivalries amongst the Romans themselves as the empire floundered under the mass of barbarian migration into its territories (Note: is Europe witnessing a similar situation currently? I only mention it as its strikingly similar in respect.....)....... and that pretty much covers the narrative, there follows then a 100 pages of dramatis personae, timeline, glossary & notes to round of a very complete & detailed book.

So all-in-all what was the final conclusion...... its really imo a cumulative effect AND they (Damn Romans) had it coming......

Its more a 3.5 this time around as it did get a bit boggy in places (for a summer read)
Profile Image for Justin Evans.
1,553 reviews792 followers
January 23, 2016
My rating is unfair: this is a very good book, that will appeal to all kinds of readers. Heather's sentences are very readable, he tells a good story, he takes into account pretty much every factor you possibly could to explain the "fall" of the Empire (including the possibility that it wasn't a fall etc...), and he addresses major scholarly debates. His case is well laid out and convincing: the fall of Rome in the west can only be understood in the context of profound changes in other parts of Eurasia, which forced populations to move, alliances to change, and so on.

But honestly, this is far too long. It turns out that taking account of pretty much every factor, and telling a good story about each of them in clear sentences can make a really dull book. Sometimes you don't need a story, you know? Sometimes you don't need to repeat every single fact about the Huns to make the argument that the Huns are important for understanding the fall of Rome.

So I got bored. But if you care about the subject matter, and have a higher tolerance for blow by blow military history than I do (you know what matters about a battle? Who won, and maybe why. Otherwise, please don't tell me about it. It's like describing a football game between two teams the reader doesn't care about), you'll love it. And if you have my very low tolerance, you should still read it, because there are great tales and great arguments. And every dull battle report is followed by something interesting.
Profile Image for Olethros.
2,617 reviews429 followers
May 11, 2013
-Siguiendo las tendencias más actuales sobre el asunto y con ganas de refutar a sus mayores.-

Género. Ensayo.

Lo que nos cuenta. Con un pequeño vistazo atrás para situar al lector mediante la comparación, relato del crepúsculo y caída del Imperio Romano (occidental) desde el siglo IV que revisa muchos eventos y razones que pudieron contribuir pero principalmente centrado en las causas puramente exógenas.

¿Quiere saber más de este libro, sin spoilers? Visite:

Profile Image for Jan.
93 reviews16 followers
September 4, 2008
A true paragon among history books. Lively and engaging, Peter Heather takes into account the whole picture of life in the Later Roman Empire to support all of his reasoning (much in contrast to Gibbons, say). He balances an extraordinary feel for the sweeping trends of history and the importance of the actions of particular leaders.

Another one of the attractions that only sweetens the deal is the author's ability to engage in (restrained) counterfactuals. He has a great enough grasp of the material where he can point out how history might have turned out differently (such as with the Vandals' invasion of Africa), but he is never liable to stray from the available evidence.
Profile Image for Alex E.
1,250 reviews6 followers
April 14, 2022
It's almost inconceivable at the height of the Roman Empire to even think of it's demise. Even in modern times, when looking back at the ruins and records, and realizing their vast infrastructure, government, and defense system, the thought of what was quite literally the most advanced society in the world at that time, going away was truly unthinkable.

But Peter Heather takes a thorough and in depth look at the circumstances that allowed, or caused the fall. I really enjoyed not only the subject matter of this book, but Heather's writing style. It is very informative, yet lively and full of expression. He manages to keep the story dynamic and engaging, even when discussing the not so action heavy segments such as political circumstances and inventory counting.

Ultimately, the book posits that the empire's massive imperialism eventually proved their demise. The size of the empire meant that it was split in half, eastern empire and western empire, and having enough defenses to protect both was both costly in terms of money, and of populace. More so, the push of the empire to gain more territory caused an effect on those outside of it. After years of pent up aggression and anger towards the empire, and the coming of the Huns, a lot of "outsiders" sought refuge within the empire, where that aggression and anger only grew. This lead to revolts, and multiple wars on multiple fronts, losses that resulted in massive amounts of money to be paid just to not be invaded - and consequently weakened the economy - and constant inter-political turmoil.

Of course, this is a completely over simplification of events, and if you really want to read the full story, you've got to check out this book. It is thought provoking, engaging, and informative. What else can you ask for in a history book? Highly recommended for history buffs.
Profile Image for Aurélien.
12 reviews10 followers
April 22, 2020
Stimulating history of the fall of Rome.
I learned that the main ennemy of Rome was in fact Persia (a few Roman emperors were killed campaigning against them, one was apparently skinned alive by the Persians) for much of its history and that Germanic tribes were only an afterthought until the 4th century.
At the time of Caesar, Rome could not be bothered to conquer the regions occupied by these Germanic tribes because it was so poor and underdevelopped, so Rome just built a prosperous frontier region that through commerce and imitation allowed the Germanic tribes to developp and their population grew a lot between 0 and the 4th century. Their fragmented political structure consolidated when some groups coalesced to appropriate the new sources of revenues coming from the Roman empire and what had been many smallish and unstable tribes became kingdoms. So, what the Huns displaced was not some small and divided warbands but large relatively well-organized groups that crossed the Danube and stayed.
Thus, Rome contributed to the development of the foe that would end it.
When the Huns appeared in Europe, coming from the Central Asian steppes, they pushed the Germanic tribes across the Danube and their conflict with Rome crystallized the few barbarian kingdoms into a superpower that could compete with the Roman empire.
The Roman empire could compete with one superpower (Persia) but two proved too much especially as it gradually lost territory which eroded its tax base (the Balkans, Spain) and diminished its capacity to react (although it fought until the end). Furthermore, Rome could not guarantee the loyalty of its local elites who were land-owning elites and thus attached to the land which meant that they were incentivized to deal with whoever was in power in the region. Rome apparently never recovered from the loss of North Africa (to the Vandals) which was the bread basket of the Western Roman empire. The story of the failure of the joint (Eastern+Western empires) to reconquer it is one of the many parts of the essay that reads like a novel.
Profile Image for MasterSal.
2,000 reviews18 followers
Want to read
March 18, 2023
Recommended by the Guardian … plus I know little of this period Vs the early Empire
489 reviews36 followers
July 6, 2017
Peter Heather rescues this much-discussed topic from received opinion by taking advantage of new perspectives from such fields as archeology. His prose is also refreshingly modern, if at times a bit too chatty, in a field that too often sinks under the weight of dates, maps of barbarian "invasion", and lists of emperors. The portrait he sketches is of an empire with increasing difficulty defending its borders but always prone to transform a loss or a draw into a victory through propaganda. His treatment of the demographics of the "barbarians" is illuminating--in his view, most of the names of groups that have come down to us, especially Goths, are inventions, and the armies were made up of often shifting coalitions of disparate peoples. Heather has a cogent explanation why the most feared of them all, the Huns, failed to develop a lasting state. And he makes Roman fifth century, with its machinations (like the imperial princess who evidently offered herself in marriage to Attila) and its half-barbarian statesman propping up Roman emperors, intelligible. In a sense, the transfer of power from the boy emperor Augustulus to Odoacer and then Theodoric as nominal vassals of Constantinople is less a radical break than a normalization of what was already happening in Italy. Above all, Heather has a sense of the arresting scene, of which perhaps the most vivid is the account of a Roman trip to negotiate with the Huns, which diplomat later realized was cover for a failed plot to assassinate Attila.
Profile Image for Miltiadis Michalopoulos.
Author 1 book41 followers
December 11, 2020
After a long thought I give it 3 stars. Two stars because it is a very thorough essay and one more star because it is very well written. Many reviewers complaint that the writing style is not "scholarly". Actually, I do like the author's style. He manages to keep his narrative vivid and attractive, despite all this bulk of information he has to deal with. On the other hand this is by no means "a New History of Rome and the Barbarians" as it claims to be on the subtitle. It is rather a "traditional" narrative of all the invasions of the numerous barbarians who finally won and destructed the Roman Empire. Of course this is what we might expect from a "leading authority on the barbarians".

So, what is this book about? It is a detailed history of the last 200 years of the Roman Empire. And why did Rome fell after all? Unfortunately professor Heather does not give us a direct answer. But he does give us a number of reasons that did NOT cause its fall: The Roman Empire did not fall because it was militarily weak. Its fall was not a result of moral decline either. Neither were the Christians responsible for its downfall. Do we have a "transformation" of the "Late Roman Empire" as Peter Brown and the "revisionist school" suggests? No, Heather does not share this view. But since he does not state his own view clearly, the reader is left alone to make his own guess. After having read 560 pages of a detailed History I concluded that according to Heather the Fall of Rome was rather coincidental and might have been avoided. Too many barbarian invasions at the same time absorbed the vital forces of the Empire. Most terrible was the challenge by the Huns. Rome responded successfully; she formed coalitions with the Germanic tribes and finally she prevailed. Unfortunately the Germanic tribes became too powerful and finally subdued the empire. To quote Heather: "the west Roman state fell not because of the weight of its own "stupendous fabric" but because its Germanic neighbours had responded to its power in ways that the Romans could never have foreseen".

Do I share this view? Well, not really. Nor do I like the conclusive sentence of the book where the author expresses-out of the blue- his satisfaction on the fall of the Roman Empire... So (no more than) 3 stars for a very interesting and thorough essay that I did enjoy reading.
August 1, 2015
"The Fall of The Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians" is an excellent work of non-fiction about the collapse of arguably the greatest empire of the ancient world. Peter Heather details events from the first century BC until the final dissolution of the Western Empire in 476 with great detail and reverence, focusing primarily on the last 250 years or so. He explains how, in his view, internal factors contributed to the vulnerability of Rome, but that it was the various barbarian groups from outside the empire that were primarily responsible for the collapse. The last hundred years in particular are astounding, with one group of outsiders or another wreaking havoc in various parts of the empire, from the Balkans to Gaul to Spain to Africa to Rome itself. However Rome persevered probably longer than it should have been able to due to a strong army and a largely stable system (up until the Hunnic Empire collapse after Attila’s death). He is persuasive, though he does explore the other side that claims that internal factors were more at fault. There are just a few parts that meander in this largely fascinating book.

If you’re interested in the subject matter this is a must buy. If you’re not particularly interested in Rome but like history I also urge you to give it a read. A word of warning: in the Kindle version a few of the maps are all but unreadable. It’s unfortunate, but still most of the maps on the Kindle version are fine and it didn’t detract from the experience too much.
Profile Image for Tariq Mahmood.
Author 2 books1,026 followers
April 5, 2017
A book by a historian for the historian which made it a bit tough for aficionados like me. But I am glad I persevered as slowly a complete image of the fall of Rome developed over the pages. Rome fell slowly over a prolonged period of time because its martial strength eroded as the barbarians took over control of its tax generating colonies. But I was more intrigued how the battered and bruised elite landed class families were able to sustain their power for such a long time. Their weapons for choice was trained army aided by diplomacy, marital alliances, and an efficient bureaucratic establishment which helped them time and time again to counter charismatic barbaric leaders like Attila the Hun. For there was little difference between the so-called Barbarians and the Romans. How could the Romans claim to be 'civilized' if they routinely fed live people to wild animals in their colosseums. Its a bit like Americans claiming to be civilized when illegally killing anyone with drones anywhere they like in the world isn't it? So here we have the perfect recipe for a powerful state, army, diplomats, culture and efficient government. The state also desperately needs 'friends' who can support it when things go wrong like losing wars etc. Friends are a critical ingredient in order to keep up the false pretenses even for the most powerful states.
114 reviews9 followers
October 11, 2012
Heather does a good job at putting order to the significant chaos that is the last 150 years of western Roman history. Illuminating in places, providing some excellent analysis and is a worthy exemplar of historical scholarship that can be both engaging and informative.

I'm not informed enough to debate the historiography present, but for someone who knew nothing about the collapse of the (western) Roman Empire, this book is a godsend.

Bloody immigrants. Nick Griffin would love the idea that western civilisation collapsed to barbarism because of a series of population movements from the Steppes to easter Europe...
Profile Image for Romulus.
729 reviews38 followers
October 27, 2016
Jasny, doskonale uargumentowany i napisany wywód o przyczynach upadku zachodniego Imperium Rzymskiego. Heather stoi w opozycji do teorii, że Imperium upadło pod wpływem czynników wewnętrznych. Przekonał mnie, że przyczyną upadku były przede wszystkim czynniki zewnętrzne (najazdy "barbarzyńców głównie). Ale przede wszystkim była to dla mnie okazja, aby pozbyć się luk w wiedzy na temat tej części historii Europy.
Profile Image for David.
Author 26 books170 followers
May 31, 2018
Another of the Leftist academics that sees the Barbarians that brought down the Roman Empire as 'immigrants'.

Meandering and unfocused, but Cultural Marxists will enjoy it.

Rating: 2 out of 5 Stars.
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