The decline and fall of the Roman Empire, wrote Edward Gibbon in the conclusion to his historical masterpiece, was “the greatest, perhaps, and most awful scene, in the history of mankind”. Schoolchildren today know far less about the Romans and their successors than they used to, yet the empire still casts a long shadow. When we fret about barbarians at the gates, or argue about the hubris of the Pax Americana, we are following in the footsteps not only of Gibbon, but of the historical characters who inhabited his work: Alaric leading the Goths through the pillaged streets of Rome; Justinian gazing for the first time on the dome of Hagia Sophia; Mohammed bringing the new message of Islam to the warriors of Arabia; Charlemagne being crowned emperor by the Pope on Christmas Day, 800.
For grandiloquent rhetoric, savage wit and narrative drama there is still nobody to touch Gibbon. But the Oxford professor Chris Wickham’s new history of the last years of Rome and the rise of its successors, spanning an impressive six centuries of European history, is a worthy competitor. As a volume in the same series as Tim Blanning’s acclaimed history of Europe in the age of Louis XIV and Mozart, it has a lot to live up to (as if Gibbon’s shadow were not enough). But it is a tribute to Wickham’s awe-inspiring command of his sources, his stunning narrative sweep and his encyclopedic knowledge that it succeeds so masterfully.
The new year may be only a month old, but it is hard to believe that it will produce many more enduring and impressive history books than this.
Perhaps the most obvious difference between this book and Gibbon’s masterpiece is that Wickham almost immediately dismisses the idea of decline and fall. The late Roman world was, as he shows, a stable and sophisticated society, bound together by patronage, commerce and, above all, taxation, its citizens often living in bustling cities or country estates. But it did not suddenly fall apart when the Goths and Vandals showed up. Indeed, the people that we still call “barbarians” often adopted Roman models, whether of religion, coinage or language, and there was little sense of the end of an era. In North Africa, Wickham writes, the Vandals even “thought they were being very Roman”.
The end of the Western empire was a story of evolution, not overnight collapse – and the deposition of the last emperor, Romulus Augustulus, in 476 was one of history’s greatest non-events.
In the eastern Mediterranean, in any case, Roman rule continued for centuries. Gibbon had little time for the East Roman empire (which we call Byzantine, although nobody called it that at the time), but Wickham reminds us that for centuries it remained the most sophisticated and powerful state in the Eurasian world. He is a pithy and compelling guide through the narrative complexities of Constantinople politics, from the ruthless Justinian II, the emperor with the golden nose, to the grim Basil the Bulgar-Slayer, but he is happiest when exploring the subterranean shifts of social and economic history, showing how state power waxed and waned, how people made and spent their money, and how they worshipped and thought. Indeed, for anybody who has seen and admired the Byzantium exhibition at the Royal Academy, this book is the ideal companion.
But one of Wickham’s great strengths is his vast geographical and comparative range, so that we get a sense not just of one society, but of half a dozen or more. The only state that really compared with the Byzantine Empire for power and complexity was the gigantic Abbasid caliphate ruled from Baghdad, for a while the greatest city in the world. Unlike so many lazy post-September 11, 2001 popular histories, this book gives us little sense of a clash of civilisations; instead, Wickham shows how both empires were the heirs of Rome, and how they confronted strikingly similar economic and ideological dilemmas. And he is no less insightful when explaining the politics of the Merovingians, the “long-haired kings” of the Franks, with their love of feasting and fighting – or of the Anglo-Saxons, the Lombards, the Carolingians, and a host of other fascinating peoples.
Although it is the grand sweep that really marks this book, Wickham has a sharp eye for a revealing anecdote, illuminating even the murkiest corners of the so-called Dark Ages. I loved, for example, the Irish king’s timetable, which dictated that Sunday was for drinking ale, Monday for judgment, Tuesday for board games, Wednesday for hunting, Thursday for sex, and so on.
Almost every page is full of arresting details and insights; even specialists will learn a lot. No review, in fact, can really do this book justice: it is a superlative work of historical scholarship.
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