Empires and Barbarians

Tom Holland admires a book that examines the role of migration in shaping a continent

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Reviewed by: Tom Holland
Author: Peter Heather
Publisher: PanMacmillan
Price (RRP): £25

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As in politics, so in the infinitely more rarefied field of ancient history: mass immigration is a subject that has long been regarded as off limits. The 19th-century presumption held that antiquity had been fashioned by wave after wave of ethnically distinct peoples, breaking across Europe at regular intervals, and climaxing in a flood tide so prodigious that it ended up drowning the Roman empire altogether; but Nazi racial science served to discredit that particular model forever. Accordingly, since the Second World War, historians and archaeologists have preferred to emphasise continuity rather than change, and to discount the very notion of there having been mass population movements during the period of late antiquity. “Migration,” as Peter Heather wittily puts it, “has become the great Satan of archaeological explanation”.

Like the early Christian theologian Origen, however, who held that even Satan might be saved, Heather is unafraid to press a taboo-hedged case. Barbarian groupings may not have constituted the closed and autonomous Völker of 19th-century nationalist fantasy, he argues, but they did exist, they did roam across Europe, and they did play a crucial, perhaps even the crucial, role in the fall of the Roman empire. Four years ago, Heather published a brilliant narrative explication of this thesis, which took as its focus the fourth and fifth centuries AD; now, with his new book, he widens his spotlight massively. Empires and Barbarians is an awesomely ambitious work: an attempt, in the heroic tradition of Pirenne, to make sense of nothing less than the reshaping of antiquity, and the origins of modern Europe.

The result is a book that, while it may be harder going than The Fall of the Roman Empire, is even more rewarding. When Heather confesses, in the very opening sentence of his preface, that it took him “an extremely long time to write”, the reader can well believe him. It is not only the panache of the argument that impresses, ranging as it does from the Bronze Age to the Norman Conquest, but the exhaustive display of scholarship that underpins it as well. There’s not a corner of the rubble-strewn landscape that is the first millennium that Heather hasn’t visited, it seems, panning for fragments of evidence – and making sense of them, what is more.

Nor, it should be emphasised, though his arguments are inevitably complex and often dense, are they presented in an inaccessible manner. Heather is a wonderfully fluent writer, with a consistent ability to grab hold of his reader’s attention. Sometimes he is chatty: we learn, for instance, over the course of his book, that he has a son who has just finished GCSEs, and that he likes cricket and the Godfather films.

Sometimes, however, he will jolt us with something altogether more sobering: a reminder that his theme has a relevance for more than ancient historians alone. Certainly, his core thesis, that many of the most convulsive events of the first millennium can be explained by reference to the massive inequalities that existed between the more and less developed parts of the ancient world, is one not uninformed by the geopolitics of today. The result is a book which richly merits reading by those interested in the future of Europe as well as its past.

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Tom Holland’s Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom is now out in paperback (Abacus, 2009)