Reviewed by: Matthew Innes Author: Chris Wickham Publisher: Allen Lane Price (RRP): £35
For many, Europe’s post-Roman centuries remain an obscure and unfortunate period. As the wealth of scholarship which oozes through every page of Chris Wickham’s book demonstrates, the powerful stereotypes of ‘decline and fall’ followed by an ‘age of tribal migrations’ have long outlived their usefulness. That this is the case is due in no little part to Wickham’s own generation, who have done so much to establish the history of the early medieval period as a legitimate specialism.
A few years ago, it was possible to bemoan the lack of syntheses pulling together the wealth of research in the period, but that is no longer so, and The Inheritance of Rome occupies an important place among recent overviews in its emphasis on economic and social change. Indeed, in many ways this book stands as a companion to Wickham’s earlier Framing the Early Middle Ages (Oxford, 2005), communicating to a wider readership.
Wickham’s socio-economic emphasis allows him to move beyond increasingly tired debates about continuity versus change. The case for continuity – which has been so influential in the rethinking of the period – got much of its impetus from histories of Christianisation, which gave political and institutional historians the confidence to locate early medieval practices against their Roman background. Subsequently other scholars have gone on to challenge the essential otherness of those groups labelled ‘barbarians’ by Roman authors, and question the biological and genetic basis of the barbarian ‘tribes’.
Wickham introduces his readers to all of this in succinct and sensible tones that counterpoint the bad-tempered grandstanding of much recent controversy. He argues that the end of Roman rule, and with it Roman tax, led to a dramatic shallowing of the social hierarchy in the west.
Western rulers and churchmen may have continuously adapted Roman precedents, but in the context of an economy and society whose underpinnings had been utterly transformed. This marked a fundamental difference between the societies of the west, based on landownership and warriorship, and the Byzantine and Islamic states, whose fiscal systems continued to structure economy and society.
Because Wickham has an essentially negative view of the ever deepening social hierarchy of the Roman world – characterised at the outset in terms of violence, injustice and corruption – his analysis counterpoints the cataclysmic views advanced by the likes of Brian Ward-Perkins, for whom the trickle down of the benefits of Roman rule to the masses meant that the post-Roman period witnessed “the end of civilisation”. Wickham’s more nuanced picture is able to draw on continuist political and cultural histories within a broader context of social and economic transformation, and is showing signs of becoming something approaching a new orthodoxy.
Like Peter Brown’s Rise of Western Christendom, each chapter begins with an anecdote, most often focused on the career of a single individual, a device that successfully gives the reader a feel for the period; it also reinforces Wickham’s warnings about the dangers of writing with hindsight or unconsciously adopting teleologies which legitimise the present rather than helping us understand the past.
This book’s dedication is to the students on the ancient and medieval history degree at the University of Birmingham, where Wickham taught for over 25 years, and in many of the best sections there is a feel of a committed teacher, passionate about his subject. Every good lecturer knows the importance of visual stimuli, and it is a shame, given how much the book relies on archaeological evidence and is alive to visual culture, that there are no illustrations.
Tone, moreover, is in part a matter of taste: professorial musings on how early medieval people were not at all “just like us” have always left this reviewer slightly embarrassed on either side of the lectern. But throughout, there is a refreshing directness, a sense that readers are seeing the leading historian of this topic arguing his case direct, rather than hiding behind postures about historiography and interpretation that can only be decoded by the initiated.