The Inheritance of Rome, By Chris Wickham

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The Independent Culture

From its opening scene of everyday torture in Roman courts to its valedictory reminder that the Caliphs of Baghdad were for a century "the strongest power in the world", this epic of European history between 400 and 1000AD leaves no cliché unchallenged.

After Rome's fall the feuding patchwork or "bricolage" of states and lordships failed to grow into a stable pattern. The "dark ages" (another idea that bites the dust) seldom – even in the time of Charlemagne - set a steady course towards national identity, "European" civilisation or any other delusion of hindsight.

So, gripping as Wickham's narratives prove from Scotland to Byzantium, his impatience with myth for a time leaves us with history as one damn thing after another. Only at the end does this majestic panorama specify the the trends behind the tales.