Reviewed by: Peter Jones Author: Peter Heather Publisher: Macmillan Price (RRP): £30
The demise of the Roman empire in the west is traditionally dated to AD 476, when Odovacar, a follower of Attila the Hun, deposed the last Roman emperor, Augustulus, and made himself king of Italy. Anglo-Saxons now ruled much of Britain, the Franks north-eastern and eastern Gaul, Visigoths south- western Gaul and Spain, Burgundians the Rhone valley and Vandals north Africa. Shortly after this, Slavic groups moved into central and eastern Europe.
But Christianity survived and, with it, much of the Roman way of doing things – and with that the temptation to try to restore that lost world. In this brilliant account of what happened next, Peter Heather explains how and why efforts to reconstruct the Roman empire ultimately failed, and how they unwittingly laid the foundations for a new sort of Roman empire that lasts to this day.
Theodoric ‘the Great’, leader of the Pannonian Ostrogoths, was the first to try. He made his peace with the eastern Roman emperor in Constantinople, personally murdered Odovacar and established an Ostrogothic kingdom based in Ravenna. He forged alliances with many of the new kingdoms, but it all quickly fell apart at his death. Heather argues that Theodoric was not able to lay foundations for the sort of all-absorbing military base that Rome’s superb armies had provided for its 500-year empire.
The eastern emperor, Justinian, was next up. His brilliant general, Belisarius, conquered the Vandals in north Africa and Ostrogoths in Dalmatia, Italy, Sicily and Rome, and southern Spain was taken. Again, it did not last. Heather argues that this was not so much Justinian’s fault as the result of debilitating conflict against Persia on Rome’s eastern borders and the rising threat of Islam after his death, with Constantinople never fully recovering from the consequent loss of vital tax revenue in the near and Middle East.
Enter Charlemagne, the first ‘Holy Roman Emperor’, crowned as such in 800 and by then controlling most of western Europe. Again, Heather argues, it was finances that brought it all down. Since the small medieval state did not have the tax base or bureaucracy to maintain revenue flow, the only way to increase revenue was to expand. But doing so cost money, and the cost came to outweigh the benefits.
However, as Heather goes on to say, Charlemagne had in fact achieved something of far greater significance than his own empire. His educational and religious reforms had created a powerfully reinvigorated Latin church with a strong enough identity and institutional base to survive whatever was happening politically, which turned to a new source of authority: the pope, with a mandate to serve not just toffs (as the Roman empire had done) but the whole laity. Rome, in other words, restored – an ‘empire’ that lasts to this day.
This is a beautifully written book that combines sprightly narrative with detailed analysis, but never loses the big picture.
Peter Jones is the author of Veni, Vidi, Vici (Atlantic Books, 2013)