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

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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 of Roman provinces) and ceded taxable land in return for military support. Some generals had a special relationship with the Huns, others with the Goths, still others with groups along the Rhine. The first loyalty of warriors was to the generals who paid them, and not to the Roman state. And the generals kept at it for some fifty years, until there was no empire left to fight about. As Kulikowski presents it, the end of the Roman Empire in the West was mean and dirty—and thoroughly Roman.

Kulikowski is trenchant on this issue. He rejects “the search for external bad guys” that was built into the rhetoric of contemporaries, who regularly contrasted “Romans” with “barbarians”: the Romans were responsible for their downfall, and they enlisted the barbarians, as they had long done, to do the dirty work for them. What is remarkable is the speed with which a highly centralized empire, fed by a sophisticated tax system, unraveled: “In less than a generation, provinces had become kingdoms.” This situation speaks to the localism of the Roman West beneath its imperial carapace. Like any large state in the premodern world, the Roman Empire was a giant perched on stilts.

Kulikowski knows his barbarians as well as he knows his Romans. He describes the changing face of Rome’s great enemy, Sasanian Iran, as its priorities swung in a huge arc between Afghanistan and Mesopotamia. He follows the development of Hunnish society on both sides of the distant Pamir Mountains in Central Asia. In a brilliant tour d’horizon of the West from Ireland to the Black Sea, he measures the effect of the fall of Rome on the world beyond Rome. No longer sucked into the maw of a still rich but flailing empire, many societies (such as the inland Saxons) slumped: warriors had been their cash crop. The fall of Rome was the fall, also, of Old Germany.

And all for the better, Walter Scheidel would say. Escape from Rome is a remarkable book. It is based on a determination to study the rise and fall of empires throughout history and across the globe without privileging Rome. This is comparative history at its most austere. Scheidel gives short shrift to the Eurocentric narcissism that regards the fall of Rome as the only memorable disaster in world history. Instead, Scheidel analyzes the mechanisms of “imperiogenesis” across the globe. He studies the way in which certain states gained control of large proportions of the population of the ancient world, maintained this control, lost it, and (just as often) regained it with the passing of time. The book contains mind-stretching maps and many graphs. The solid plateaus, sudden drops, and slow upticks shown on these graphs—like the patterns on an EKG monitor—enable us to follow the amassment and dispersion of immense efforts on the part of human beings to dominate their fellows. It leaves us with the overall impression of a view of the earth seen for the first time from the surface of the moon.


And what does Scheidel see? Mainly, he sees Rome and China. These two “behemoths” sat at each end of Eurasia. Between them, they controlled two thirds of the entire population of Africa and Eurasia. In 395 Rome still dominated up to four fifths of the inhabitants of what is now called Europe. A century later, in 500, the scene changed dramatically. The western end of Eurasia was a blank. Empire vanished from Europe, never to return on such a scale. By contrast, despite periods of disintegration, China remained a behemoth. Europe became the odd man out (one might almost say, the truant) in a world where hegemonic empire proved to be the default position in every other area with substantial settled populations (which included not only China but the Middle East and South and Southeast Asia).

A formidable historian of Roman society, Scheidel also knows China.1 He brings Escape from Rome to a startling conclusion. Seen in a global perspective, the fall of Rome requires no grand explanations. Empires have often disappeared. The really interesting question was why, unlike China, Europe did not produce another empire. Rome was a “one-off empire.” That is what the historian needs to explain.

And here Scheidel springs his great surprise. Nothing better could have happened to Europe than this break in the cycle of “serial imperial state formation.” The “enduring absence of hegemonic empire” in Europe eventually fostered the growth of mighty midgets—the small states, thriving cities, and fragmented social structures (kings against nobles, knights against commoners, laity against clergy, and, later, Catholics against Protestants) that characterized medieval and early modern Europe. By the year 1240 the mighty midgets had won: northwestern Europe “boasted the largest cluster of similarly organized polities anywhere in the world,” and they were thriving.

In the spring of 1241, Mongol armies from the other end of Eurasia came within striking distance of that privileged conglomerate. Could they have gone further, and, if so, would they have succeeded? At this gripping moment, Scheidel resorts to one of his favorite tools of analysis: the exploration of counterfactuals. One should savor these, if only with the enthusiasm of a small boy imagining world battles while reading military histories. For in this way, Scheidel hammers out the horizons of the possible.

What if the Mongols, who had left Kiev as an empty bone-field, had gone on to Paris? His answer is reassuring but not necessarily flattering: Europe was too fragmented to be conquered by the Mongols. Their way would have been blocked by castles and town walls, each originally thrown up by one group in conflict with others—by a fractious nobility against its kings and against its own peasants, and by townsmen against them all. Above all, “there was no central government to offer surrender.” By contrast, the Mongols swallowed all of China north of the Yangtse in one gulp, thereby illustrating the old Chinese axiom that i and chi—the disciplined behavior of imperial subjects—are no more than ropes for burglars: they serve only to help robbers carry away the loot.

Altogether, this is a provocative book. Not only is it a singularly dry-eyed farewell to Rome; it also faces a grisly irony. By the nineteenth century, Europe was on the “path toward contemporary levels of prosperity, knowledge, and human flourishing.” Scheidel fully identifies with those achievements. But he is well aware that they happened because Europeans had been so utterly beastly to one another for so many centuries. There was hardly a single advance in technology, finance, or political organization that had not been the result of intra-European conflict. The most notable of these expedients was the development of representative assemblies, such as the English Parliament and the Corts of Catalonia, that were created so as to gain consent for the taxes necessary to meet the rising cost of war.


The exceptional technical, financial, and political development of Europe rested on “the wasteful and blood-soaked nexus of ceaseless war.” For example, in the early modern period, Europeans were at war with one another one and a half times a year. It was only when that state of perpetual war was engulfed by a truly off-scale conflict, World War I, that Europe lost the lead that had been based, ultimately, on technological and institutional gains honed by the constant practice of interstate violence.

Not everyone looks this snake in the eyes. But Scheidel does so because he also believes strongly in the virtues set loose—though at a “staggering price”—by the persistent polycentrism made possible by the disappearance of Rome. By the time of the Reformation, the “competitive fragmentation of power” ensured that Europe was studded with safety zones that protected beleaguered dissidents. One need only think of the Protestant countries, each with its printing presses, that ranged from Amsterdam to Geneva on the very edge of the spreading, baleful tree of the Catholic autocracy of Louis XIV of France. In the 1770s it was in large part from the printing presses of the Protestant Enlightenment that Gibbon gained the erudition and acuity that he needed to write his monumental Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He knew he was lucky. The subjects of Rome had no Lausanne to which to retire. As Gibbon wrote, “The empire of the Romans filled the world, and when that empire fell into the hands of a single person, the world became a safe and dreary prison for his enemies.” The Chinese literati were not as fortunate. In the 1770s in China, a state-sponsored proscription led to a loss of four fifths of 2,665 targeted books. In the light of such a loss of freedom, Scheidel stands firm. The best thing that Rome ever did for Europe was to die and not return.

So what happened next? Janet Nelson’s King and Emperor brings alive the age of Charlemagne (748–814), the ruler usually associated with the first effort after the fall of Rome to unite Europe under a single rule. This “new life” is a bold book. Nelson admits that to write a biography of Charles “takes some nerve.” Indeed, it has become almost a mantra among scholars that biographies of medieval persons cannot be written: they are too distant from us, and the texts in which they appear are too much the creation of ideology and authorial cunning to give access to the “real” person. Nelson will have none of this: “Difficult is not impossible.” She succeeds in a manner calculated to instruct and hearten us all.

In the first place, Nelson is resolute in her emphasis on the essential strangeness of Charles and his world. “Strangeness,” she writes, “is often precisely what draws people nowadays to remote periods of the past.” In the case of Charles, it is a peculiar sort of strangeness. While the emperors of Rome are usually present to us as bright and weight-free figures from the distant past of Europe, Charles has often been brought too close to us. He is “family.” For centuries he has been claimed as the ancestor of opposing nation-states (France and Germany), and, since 1950, of the European Community. He is seen as a father-figure pointing toward a glorious future, but from the shadows of a darker age.

In fact, we know far more about him than any Roman emperor. We know, for instance, that he was over six feet three inches tall, for his skeleton is still there, in his tomb in Aachen, Germany. His first wife, Himiltrud, was nearly six feet (as befitted a Frankish noblewoman); her body can be seen in the crypt of the convent of Nivelles, Belgium. Seven thousand charters enable Nelson to trace, with rare adroitness, Charlemagne’s movements and the flow of gifts and favorable judgments with which he rewarded his supporters. We can even catch his own words, recorded in shorthand in the margins of a treatise on the worship of icons: after many grunts of royal approval (bene, good; valde bene, jolly good), the phrase “God is to His creation as a lord is to his servants” elicits an optime—“excellent idea.” Roman historians rarely have so much and such diverse evidence to go on. In the days of Charles, at least, the so-called Dark Ages are as lit up as a Christmas tree.

Nelson handles this material with great skill. Each chapter is a masterclass in tracing specific bodies of evidence back to the persons or incidents from which they arose. Many of these memories were preserved by women: stray sentences in chronicles reflect the recollections of sisters, wives, and pious aunts who acted as the memory banks of an entire dynasty. In King and Emperor, the female relatives and successive wives of Charles emerge as tenacious presences. Nelson explains the mechanisms of their power. In a world of dynastic marriages, queens and their entourages functioned as centers of information and discreet influence, much like the embassies of great powers in modern countries. A queen was “a boundary-crosser and…a consensus-builder at court,” linking the diverse regions of Charles’s ever-expanding hegemony. Whatever the terrible cost to themselves—Charles’s third wife, Hildegard, had nine babies in eleven years and then died—women held the future of the dynasty. When Charles visited Rome in 781, special mention was made of the cortège of wet nurses, nannies, and even the royal strollers. This was no scene of cozy domesticity. It was a display of the determination and resources of a “holy family” to survive the blast of warfare and disease.

Charles had brought his children to Rome in order to seek the blessing of Saint Peter. This would have involved no distant gesture of esteem. The family would have been led down into the candlelit crypt to make direct, hands-on contact with the tomb of the apostle, soaking in supernatural protection as if, Nelson writes, from “a battery on permanent charge.” Precious documents—treaties, donations, and major papal letters—would be left overnight on the tomb as if to be cooked in “a numinous oven.” It was above this tomb that Charles was acclaimed emperor on Christmas Day, 800.

The sheer materiality of these rituals and their central role in the politics of the age point to a profound change in the centuries between the years 500 and 800. It was a religious change quite as profound as the unraveling of the Western Empire. This was not a change of creed: Christianity had been the official religion of the empire since the days of Constantine. Rather, it was a mutation within Christianity itself, which echoed the restructuring of Western society after the fall of Rome. By 800, the triumphant but somewhat distant Christianity of the later empire—the Christianity of great writers and preachers in spacious basilicas as large as any imperial judgment hall—had worked its way into the very fabric of society as a whole, like ivy into an old wall. This meant that the sacred and the profane lived cheek by jowl—intimately connected and yet incommensurable with each other. Heaven and earth were brought together through rituals that covered everything from the anointing of rulers to the blessing of spoons at the table.

At the same time, throughout the West, what has been called, by the historian Walter Goffart, the great “process of simplification” took place: upper-class society came to be starkly divided between warriors and clergy (monks included)—men of the sword and men of prayer.2 Between the two lay the cliff face of the sacred. It is hardly necessary to point out that this was a notional and not a real divide between two groups: the clergy did not come from outer space, and not even all of them lived in monasteries. Most were the brothers and sisters, uncles, aunts, and cousins of the men of the sword.

The chasm between the sacred and the profane could be bridged only by gifts, for gifts have the quality of connecting antithetical groups while maintaining a distance between them. Men of war—often men with real blood on their hands—would not give themselves wholly to the rigors of a clerical life; one thinks of the exuberant sex life of Charles himself, with his serial marriages and many mistresses, and of the dogged bloodshed of his wars. But men of war could, nonetheless, give tokens of themselves in the form of gifts to monasteries and churches. These gifts had come to include not only jewelry and gold and silver coins, but also land—often soaked with ancestral memories—given to monasteries and churches in exchange for the invisible protection of God and the saints. By the time of Charles, it seems that one third of the land of Europe was in the hands of the Church. In a groundbreaking recent study, Ian Wood has shown that, by that time, large tracts of modern France, Italy, and Germany had been “entrusted to God.” Complex temple-economies, like those of Tamil Nadu and Angkor Wat, had grown up around great churches and monasteries. Wood shows that this long-term development, and not the ignominious state failure of the fifth century, marked the real and irreversible transformation of the Roman West.3 Western society had become polarized between the sacred and the profane in a manner that would not change until modern times.

This was what made the world in which Charlemagne moved so very different from that of 500 CE. It was a world of high rituals in which the sacred struck sparks on contact with the profane. Nelson understands these moments extremely well. She also knows that the profane often went its own way, undeterred by its looming neighbor. One of the most vivid and homely anecdotes in her book is the story of how Charles, at the age of seven, lost a tooth on a great ritual occasion—the installation of the splendid new tomb of Saint Germanus of Paris (in what is now the church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés). Inside the church, there was a deep trench into which the marble sarcophagus containing the relics of Germanus was to be lowered. At one end, clergy and laity alike edged forward carrying the great block of stone with reverent heaving so intense, and with such reverent slow motion, that it was believed that angels moved it. At the opposite end of the trench, however, Charles and the other young princes were playing around, unaffected by the ritual. Charles fell into the trench and dislodged his front milk-tooth.

But it was also a world in constant need of protection. In more dangerous regions, it was good to have the saints to hand. In 720 the pope had sent to Prince Eudo of Aquitaine three sponges from his own table. Following Byzantine patterns of refined eating, these sponges were the equivalent of finger bowls, to be used at solemn banquets. But for Eudo and his men they were something else—they were charged isotopes of the sacred, brought straight from the shrine of Saint Peter. When news came that Muslim raiders had once again crossed the Pyrenees, the prince gave the sponges to his armed band “to consume in small amounts,” and it was noted triumphantly that “of those who had shared in them not one had been injured or killed.”

Nelson rightly concludes, “I have made a journey towards the Other.” She catches the essential strangeness of Charles and his age. She has made an almost too well known figure in the history of Europe unfamiliar again, and, for that reason, much more real to us. King and Emperor is a masterpiece of historical writing and a robust step toward filling the gap in our historical imagination left by the passing of Rome.