This post is part of a series in which I’m dedicating a month to learning about periods in history this year. The full schedule can be found here. This is month two. (tl;dr at the bottom of this post)
Let’s get one thing out of the way, first. It seems like the phrase “The Dark Ages” has fallen out of style. I, having finished high school in the long ago, was unaware of this. I won’t be using it the rest of this post.
This time period covers an ENORMOUS length of time. It’s almost unfathomable. Still – the Roman Empire managed to hold on in various forms throughout this period. It seems like a long time ago, but the staying power is almost too big to comprehend.
I’m grateful to readers who suggested I not just focus on Western Europe for this month. While the empire seemed to collapse into chaos and barbarians more quickly in the West, forming totally new countries, things were very different in the East.
The first book I read was The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians by Peter Heather. A variety of theories exist as to who the Roman Empire collapsed. Some think that corruption took it apart from within. Others think that it became too big to be sustainable. Heather argues it was the barbarians. He shows how the Huns started interfering with the somewhat fragile balance of power in Western Rome, which forced many goths to move into the Empire as refugees. It wasn’t easy to absorb them. The Romans tried to regain control, and it didn’t go well. They lost to the Goths at Hadrianople (something almost unthinkable at the time), and they were sacking Rome thirty years later. The Vandals went after western Europe, and then North Africa. This was critically important (and something I never understood). The Western Roman Empire was hugely dependent on Northern Africa for its food. It’s like the United States’s Midwest. It was the farmland, and in the mid-fifth century, the Romans lost it.
The Huns used a different battle tactic than any others the Romans faced before. They fought on horseback, with a whole different type of bow, and they were perfectly suited to destroy an otherwise unbeatable Roman army. Why they came out of the Steppes of Eastern Europe isn’t totally understood, but they did, and they crushed everyone. By the time Atilla arrived, they were destroying armies from France all the way back to Eastern Rome. Ironically, when Atilla died, it likely hastened the collapse of the Roman Empire. Everyone took advantage of the situation, and the Vandals wound up defeating the Byzantine Armada in a tragic battle that pretty much ended the Western Empire. The Eastern Empire, on the other hand, went on for a long, long time.
As a contrast, consider How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower by Adrian Goldsworthy. He argues that Rome collapsed from within. His book begins with Marcus Aurelius (who is basically the Emperor who dies at the beginning of the movie Gladiator). At that time, the Emperor ruled, but still relied pretty heavily on the Senate to back him up and implement his will (and army). But the system had a big flaw – the Emperor chose his successor, often from his family, and always with the military behind him.
His son Commodus (the bad guy played by Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator) wasn’t so good, and things went South. He was assassinated, and the military sort of took over. Over the next century or so, most Emperors only made it a few years before being assassinated, overthrown, or killed. Emperors were popping up all over, wherever an army chose a new one, and they’d fight with each other. Eventually, things quieted down; but it was too late.
The new Emperors had to rely on a growing bureaucracy to rule the empire. Corruption was inevitable. The smaller Senate might have been able to hold together a national sense of purpose, but local rulers in the far reaches of the Empire didn’t share this feeling. Mistrust became common, as did fear of losing power. Emperors began to travel extensively to control the Empire, and, of course, they could not.
Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century was completely different. She followed the life of a reasonable high level French noble to give a flavor of how life and politics changed for France in the 1300’s. That time was pretty much a disaster. We begin with the plague, which killed like a quarter of all people. So… not a good start. Then, we see how chivalry ruined everything further. A desire to achieve valor on the battlefield led to a number of unbelievable military disasters (including Crecy, which I was aware of thanks to Warren Ellis’s Crecy, a brilliant graphic novel that covered the battle from the English side.) The Hundred Years War was as much the fault of the French nobility as anything else.
Her main character – Enguerrand de Coucy serves as sort of a “Forrest Gump” to be there for all the momentous occurances. It works. The book is well written, and it makes me glad I wasn’t there. Lots of treason and lots of popes. Utter chaos. It seemed like half the rules were mad, likely from inbreeding.
Finally, The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire by Kyle Harper has a whole other hypothesis: climate change. I kid you not. Using all kinds of bone records and such, he makes a case that the Empire really did well in the first two centuries because it was warm, wet, and there were few pandemics. Things changed after that. Disease, in the form of plagues, had a huge impact. So did the temperature in general. People have wondered for a long time what brought the Huns out of the Steppes, and this is as good an argument as any. It’s also possible that there’s a dual cause things going on. Perhaps Rome at its peak was more able to withstand external climate change, but once it was weakened, these changes pushed it over the edge. He notes four main turns: (1) Pandemics during the age of Marcus Aurelius, (2) Drought, pestilence, and political change in the middle of the third century, (3) The Huns coming out of the Steppes, and (4) Bubonic plague coupled with a small ice age.
Harper writes well, and I thought his book was constructed a bit more for the lay reader. Take that or leave it.
All of this was fascinating, but I’m ready for something completely different. Bring on the American Revolution!
tl;dr: If you want to read three different theories on why Rome fell, there are three books you can try. The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians argues it was external forces, How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower argues it died from within, and The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire argues it was climate change. All are good.