No Barbarians Necessary

A relief showing battles between Roman soldiers and barbarians, from the sarcophagus of a Roman general, circa 180–190
Leemage/Corbis/Getty Images
A relief showing battles between Roman soldiers and barbarians, from the sarcophagus of a Roman general, circa 180–190

Ever since the Renaissance, the fall of the Roman Empire has remained the cherished nightmare of the West. Here are three books calculated to chase this nightmare away. The first, Michael Kulikowski’s The Tragedy of Empire, sets out to tell what actually happened. The second, Walter Scheidel’s Escape from Rome, argues that this fall was, in the long run, the best thing that could have happened to Europe. The third, Janet Nelson’s King and Emperor, is a deeply learned and humane portrait of Charlemagne, a man who wielded supreme power in much of Europe three centuries after the fall of Rome.

Given the charged nature of the topic, Kulikowski’s narrative works like an open window in a smoke-filled room. He explains several crucial points: first, that the Roman Empire did, indeed, fall, but only in its western parts, leaving the eastern empire to enjoy a “later late antiquity” of remarkable creativity. Second, that the Western Empire succumbed to no grand waves of destruction set in motion by irresistible forces. There was no murderous onslaught of barbarian tribes and no landslide of refugees escaping the arrival of the Huns from Central Asia. Nor had there been any dramatic economic recession: for certain areas, such as Sicily and the dry plains of the Alentejo in southern Portugal, the fourth century CE was “one of the richest and most prosperous moments in history.”

Moreover, as Kulikowski sees it, the Western Empire was trashed by its own top brass. Civil war alone caused its fall. In the words of the proverb, “the fish rots from the head downward.” During the fourth century, competing emperors fought each other in murderous civil wars. More Romans died in the killing fields of the Danube, where the armies of East and West clashed on behalf of rival emperors, than were ever killed in the course of the so-called barbarian invasions. In the fifth century, civil war slipped easily into warlordism, as leading Roman generals and their armies clashed for the control of provinces rather than entire continents. A winner-take-all mentality led competing generals to inflict local violence (with surgical cruelty) in order to gain or to retain a foothold at the very top of the empire. Warlordism, not any great movement of peoples, was the political virus that brought down the Roman empire in the West.

Throughout this feeding frenzy, the barbarians stood, as it were, on the sidelines. Kulikowski insists that they should not be seen as immigrants pressing against the fences of the empire. Rather, they were lured ever deeper into the empire by rivalrous emperors and generals, who disbursed treasure (often gained from the plunder…

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