Monday, October 10, 2005

The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization

Review by John Sledge (abstract)

"...revisionists have emerged to suggest that the fall [of the Roman Empire] was less a scenario of invasion than one of peaceful transition to Germanic rule, which had its own distinctive culture and traditions worthy of study and respect.

Bryan Ward-Perkins, a British archaeologist, believes this is going too far, and in his new book, "The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization" (Oxford, $28), he demolishes the revisionists' assertions in detail. "Some of the recent literature on the Germanic settlements reads like an account of a tea party at the Roman vicarage," he huffs. "A shy newcomer to the village ... is invited in. There is a brief moment of awkwardness, while the host finds an empty chair and pours a fresh cup of tea; but the conversation, and village life, soon flow on." The reality, he counters, was that "the process of mutual accommodation was painful for the natives, was to take a very long time, and ... left the vicarage in very poor shape." According to Ward-Perkins, Rome's fall was a catastrophe and in its wake economies were wrecked, standards of living plummeted, and theretofore sophisticated institutions destroyed. Furthermore and not least, individuals suffered unspeakable horrors.

He begins with a liberal sprinkling of eyewitness narratives that leave little doubt to the disruption and difficulty the empire's citizens endured. One observer wrote, "There was Death, Misery, Destruction, Burning, and Mourning. The whole of Gaul smoked on a single funeral pyre." While Ward-Perkins admits that some of these accounts were likely exaggerated, the totality of descriptions, he insists, suggest "the experience of invasion was terrible."

He examines the archaeological record for evidence that the fall led to poorer living conditions, and he finds it in everything from pottery to roofing tiles. Before the fall, complicated trade networks delivered well-made goods to the farthest reaches of the empire. Even the ordinary inhabitants of distant Britain enjoyed nicely fashioned dinnerware and amphorae, and their barns were roofed with quality clay tile. Conversely, after the fall, crude, locally made pots replaced the fine imports, and barns were roofed with thatch.

There is other evidence as well. Declining crop yields and agricultural capacity are reflected in the diminished sizes of cow bones, and the near-disappearance of literacy is demonstrated by the absence of graffiti and business signs, once common in even small Roman towns of the late empire.
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