The Fall of the Roman Empire by Peter Heather

Rome didn't really fall - it was pushed

William Napier
Sunday 03 July 2005 00:00 BST

Some historians, convinced that the drier they can make history sound, the higher their credentials in the world of academe, argue that the Roman Empire didn't really fall. Thanks to "change and continuity", it gently mutated into the kingdoms of early medieval Europe. Heather allows a modicum of truth in this, but also insists that 476 marked a calamitous end. The culture of Romanitas survived, tenuously, and still does to this day, despite the best efforts of loutish Education Secretaries; but Rome as an organising political force was finished.

"The Romans," as he puts it, "had central heating, a form of banking based on capitalist principles, weapons factories, even spin-doctors, whereas the barbarians were a simple people with a penchant for decorative safety-pins."

The Roman world could be extraordinarily brutal - a civilisation of army ants in togas - and long after conversion to Christianity were still enjoying spectacles such as some captured Sarmatian tribespeople simply being hacked to death by gladiators in the Colosseum. Nevertheless it was a civilisation, and catastrophe overtook it. One moment there was Rome with its central heating and street lighting, celebrity chefs and traffic regulations. A hundred years later, and much of its empire was plunged back into a world of petty chieftains and warring tribes, dark forests and mead-halls: the world of Beowulf rather than Horace. In places, history itself seems to have halted, and then collapsed back into myth. In Britain, from 450 to 600, we hardly know what happened at all; hence all that wonderful imaginative space for Arthur and his knights to ride around in.

Deftly covering the necessary economic and political realities of decline and fall, Heather also presents the stories and the characters of this tumultuous epoch, in a colourful and enthralling narrative. You'll meet the hilariously prissy Sidonius Apollinaris, poet and bishop, like an effete member of the Bloomsbury Group who had somehow got gruesomely stuck in the fifth century AD; Flavius Aetius, the "Last of the Romans", struggling desperately and tragically to save an Empire that was already lost; that extraordinary power-behind-several-thrones, Galla Placidia, both daughter, sister and mother of emperors, and her flighty daughter Honoria, who got herself pregnant by her chamberlain, Eugenius ("business manager" Heather calls him) at an embarrassingly young age, and later proposed clandestine marriage to a certain King of the Huns; and glowering balefully over it all, that king himself, Attila, perhaps history's most infamous and enigmatic villain.

One of the best contemporary sources for the period, Ammianus Marcellinus, wrote: "The seed-bed and origin of all this destruction and of the various calamities inflicted by the wrath of Mars, which raged everywhere with extraordinary fury, I find to be this: the people of the Huns." The other barbarian invaders - the Goths, the Vandals, the Burgundians - were Germanic, quickly Christianised, hungry for some of that Romanitas themselves, and, more or less, assimilable. The Huns were different: Turkic (we think), pagan, nomadic, and interested, as Hollywood would correctly have it, only in rape, pillage and awesome destruction.

The Battle of Chalôns or the Catalaunian Fields, in 451, finally brought Attila's European tour to a halt, somewhere south of Rheims. The Huns slouched back east, and upon Attila's death two years later (he over-exerted himself in the enjoyment of a fresh young Burgundian wife), his brief empire vanished without trace. But the cost to Rome had been terrible.

Exhausted by the Huns, it was unable to recapture the crucial grain-fields of North Africa from the Vandals. In 476, Italy itself fell to the Ostrogoths under Odoacer. The barbarian chieftain gently forced the abdication of the last emperor, whom irony had sublimely named Romulus Augustulus, and the boy went off to live with his relatives in Campania. Odoacer declared himself King of Italy, and the Imperial regalia were returned to the surviving half of the Empire in Constantinople. The End.

Any new historian of the Fall of Rome runs the risk of appearing like some footling little dinghy bobbing along in the wake of that magnificent 18th-century sailing ship, the Gibbon. But Heather acquits himself well, with an account full of enjoyably anachronistic flourishes, keen wit, and an infectious relish for the period. With its treacheries and betrayals, its sexual entanglements, battles, blood-lettings and epic set pieces, somebody should write a novel about it.

William Napier is writing a novel about it. 'Attila' is published by Orion on 15 September

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