The Fall of Rome, the Fall of Europe

The Fall of the Roman West, ca. A.D. 500/6000 A.M.

“…an imaginative experiment that got a little out of hand…”

Thus says Walter Goffart about the “fall” of the Roman Empire in the West, a process he prefers to see as a cultural and political transformation fueled more by accommodation rather than violent invasion and political extortion. Goffart represents a school of historians who, pointing to the survival of Roman remnants — administrative structures, prominent families, social structures — argue that Rome went out with a whimper rather than a bang, if one could even say that it went out at all. Some medievalists actually argue that Europe is still Roman until the late 10th century.

Nor is this argument merely a seminar-room battle: the new revised view is for public consumption. Here is the introductory text to a large public exhibit in 1997 co-sponsored by the German and French governments, and worked on by prominent medievalists from both countries:

What will remain of our images of invasions and violence, of Barbarians plunging the Roman Empire and its institutions in the night of decadence? The Franks, were they really these devastators and the Merovingians, rois fenéants (lazy kings — what every schoolchild learns in France)?

This is the question [sic] this exposition on The Franks, Precursors of Europe intends to answer, proposing an ample vision of the Frankish world from the 3-8th centuries.

Archeology, throwing new light on these “barbaric” years, reveals to us today a culture and an art the inscribe themselves as a hinge between Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages.

This passage, far from being brusk, was the result of a long, slow process during which the Franks would confer a common identity, based on Roman structures to a complex geopolitical map: Wisigoths, Burgunds, Alamans, Thuringians [NB: no mention of Gallo-Romans].

And Europe will constitute itself, not from serious ruptures, but from a long mutation, just as Gaul will become later, France under the sign of the continuity, whether it is a question of power and adminstration, of law and language, of society, of economy, of religion.

In a word, it is a process of immigration which became a successful integration that it pleases us to present in these 13 rooms of the Petit Palais.

Tout se passe dans le calme. (I later found out that the dominant school of medieval French historiography takes it for granted that the historian’s job is to “de-dramatize.”)

What I actually found most astonishing about the exhibit was that there was so little change in Germanic culture during over five hundred years of contact with the Roman Empire during which, about mid-way in that half-millennium, these Germanic tribal warriors took over Roman territory in a process the exhibit and so many other historians present as a transformation. The grave goods were very similar in style and content at the end to what they were at the beginning: swords and broaches. This was not a culture given to rapid assimilation of elements of a more sophisticated culture, and having these fellows at the top of the political hierarchy could not possibly have been the same as having an educated Roman administrator with a sense of the res publica (public affairs).

A recently posted interview with two authors of books on the fall of the Western empire challenge this “the tea party at the Roman vicarage” school of thought, and go back to an earlier interpretation that saw the process as “violent and unpleasant.” Ward-Perkins notes:

I argue what is currently an unfashionable view (though, in my opinion, it is blindingly obvious) – that the Roman world brought remarkable levels of sophistication and comfort, and spread them widely in society (and not just to a tiny elite) [by pre-modern standards, that is — RL]; and that the fall of Rome saw the dismantling of this complexity, and a return to what can reasonably be termed ‘prehistoric’ levels of material comfort. Furthermore, I believe that this change was not just at the level of pots and pans, important though these are, but also affected sophisticated skills like reading and writing. Pompeii, with its ubiquitous inscriptions, painted signs, and graffiti, was a city that revolved around writing – after the fall of the empire, the same cannot be said for any settlement in the West for many centuries to come.


How could this have happened without the host culture, with its vastly superior resources and military might, reacting against it, defending itself? Peter Heather notes:

Once inside the Empire, the barbarian immigrant groups continued to unify, producing still larger and yet more powerful entities that the Empire could not hope to dismantle. The result was a reversal of the strategic power advantage that had brought the Empire into being, so that these new, and more powerful, barbarian groups were able to carve out kingdoms for themselves from the Empire’s living body politic. This was no peaceful process, even if, in its aftermath, some local Roman elites came to terms with the new powers in the land, and hence made it possible for these kingdoms to show some Roman features.

The existence of odd Roman elements must not, however, mislead us into thinking that we are looking at anything other than a revolution. The new states that emerged were not mini-Roman Empires. Key institutional differences – the absence of professional armies funded by large-scale taxation amongst others – as well as entirely different cultural patterns in areas such as elite literacy – the Classics – mark them out as entirely different kinds of entity from the Empire which preceded them. This was a highly violent process which both marked the culmination of long-term patterns of development in the periphery of the Empire and set European history off on a new course.

The Fall of Europe in the 21st Century?

Substitute Muslim immigrants and Islamism for Germanic warrior tribes and one gets an interesting subject for historical and contemporary meditation. The parallels seem too numerous to ignore; the differences well worth considering (e.g., Islam, unlike the Germanic religions, is monotheist and missionizing, and the missionizing variant tends towards apocalyptic). Is this a preview of the “Eurabian process” that some, like Bat Ye’or, and Bernard Lewis think is already too far gone to stop?

Nor do the authors shy away from what might strike some of us as the obvious lesson for the present:

I recommend caution in praising ‘Civilizations’ (whether Roman, or our own), and I do emphasize that ‘civilizations’ have their downsides. But, equally, I think the current fashion for treating all cultures as essentially the same – and all dramatic changes (like the end of the Roman world) as mere ‘transformations’ from one system, to another equally valid one – is not only wrong, but also dangerous. It evens out the dramatic ups and downs of human history, into a smooth trajectory. This risks blinding us to the fact that things have often gone terribly wrong in the past, and to the near certainty that, in time, our own ‘civilization’, and the comforts we enjoy from it, will also collapse.

[Note that the authors are careful not to get too specific on the time and place of this collapse; and they do so with a certain fatalism — “our own civilization will also collapse.” Not Bat-Yeor warning a culture to respond and defend itself, but Arnold Toybee, contemplating the patterns of civilization from the olympian heights of modern scholarship, and predicting an inevitable worst.]

I heartily agree with the caution about assuming civilizations don’t have their downsides (what Freud called their “discontents,” and what Marxists make the core of their moral outrage). As far as I can make out the late (Christian) Roman empire was something of a proto-totalitarian nightmare, with a heavy hand from a centralized bureaucratic elite pressing down, fixing from above prices, professions, even movement of populations. The Russian economic historian Michael Rostovtzeff called it “a vast prison.” As one Christian contemporary, Salvian, revealed in the early 5th century, some people would prefer to live under Germanic rule than deal with the rapacious Roman [Christian] tax collectors. And some,like William Carrol Bark, argue that its collapse was, in the long run, a boon to the emergence of freedom in the West, as opposed to the enduringly hierarchical patterns of Eastern Christendom where the empire survived (Byzantium).

But that’s a very long run — five centuries at least, during which, at least some of us medievalists argue, western Europe went from the frying pan to the fire. And just because the barbarians seemed better masters than the Romans does not mean that a well administered civic culture isn’t far superior to the rule of the warrior’s honor. To squint so that it all seems like one long homogenous process, a process in which no one really expressed outrage and horror at events — both at the violence of the barbarians and the corruption of the Roman Christians — does violence, it seems to me, to the experience of those who went through this process of collapse and its consequences for centuries. It certainly sets aside any screen on which we might delineate how a massive failure to produce a demotic reform (i.e., rulers attentive to the needs of their people), led to the victory of a far more primitive form of social organization and productivity.

So how do historians argue for this kind of homogenizing process? Heather here gives us a key component of this loss of perception. Take a strict cultural relativism — all cultures are equal; import it into ancient and medieval history — there is no real difference between late Roman culture and that of its barbarian successor kingdoms; stir a bit, and you come up with a mild and unalarming reading of what may be the single greatest cultural regression in recorded history.

After baking this recipe for a generation (in which post-colonial paradigms dominated much scholarly attention), what do we have? Several pearls of wisdom: Nothing dramatic happening, no threatening collapse, just a smooth transition. So either we have nothing to learn from the “fall of Rome” about our current conditions or, still better, we have nothing to fear from the challenge of Islamism to Europe. If this sounds like the kind of thinking that dominated French public discourse at the time of the Ramadan 2005 intifada, it’s because it is.

“Those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” wrote George Santayana. The hardest question is: “what lessons should we be learning?”

This is not an easy matter. Compare and contrast… mutatis mutandis [i.e., those things (historical variables, conditions, the “contrast” between any two periods) needing to be changed (adjusted to make good historical comparisons with other periods) having been changed]…. But at least, let’s do the work without short-circuiting it by declaring there’s nothing there.

And let’s do it with a sense for the dramatic. Because whether or not later historians judge retrospectively that events were not so dramatic, to the people who lived through them — and to us who live through this early 21st century — they can and perhaps should seem dramatic.

14 Responses to The Fall of Rome, the Fall of Europe

  1. Kip Watson says:

    (Sorry for the long-winded comment, but this is an area where I think well-meaning people are making some serious mistakes.)

    I enjoy your site. Your Pallywood and Al-Durah videos in particular are two extremely insightful and intelligent pieces of journalism. However, I must take issue with one or two of the implications of this post.

    It’s a widespread ‘meme’ on the Right to regard Muslims as invaders, but 19th Century inequalities in Islamic societies notwithstanding (the Dhimmi concept and such), it’s quite unfair to characterise Muslims as barbarians, even by implication, and the vast majority came here legally, in some cases after having been specifically invited (eg. via targeted advertising – Australia did this). There are serious problems in the Arab world with particular (though complex) causes. The drift towards towards regarding Islam as the source of the problem, despite all the evidence to the contrary (the brave people of Iraq for example) is not worthy of clear thinkers.

    My in-laws are Japanese and although it’s not my view, I see nothing racist or immoral about wanting to maintain cultural or racial homogeneity in a country, although like most Australians I support our well regulated immigration system. My wife and some of my dearest friends who are Asians who migrated here, but I find people-smuggling and illegal immigration utterly unacceptable. And, although personally I consider accepting legitimate refugees is worthwhile from a moral perspective, it’s a simple fact that (with a few exceptions) refugees, coming as they do from troubled and brutalised societies, impose a far higher burden on the community than normal migrants. Citizens should have a say in numbers of migrant numbers, refugees and otherwise.

    Australia accepted a lot of Vietnamese after the war, which was a worthwhile thing to do, but there was a lot of crime associated with that too. Charity is not without cost. However, just as the crime these people brought with them is not a product of their Vietnamese ethnicity, likewise revolutionary terrorist activity is not a necessary side effect of being Muslim. I explain this in rambling detail here.

    Finally, however they came to reside in their host societies, an invited guest (which is what a legal migrant is, whether or not you like the law that allowed them to immigrate) should not be criticised for having accepted the invitation. Arabs and Muslims understand the meaning of hospitality – here is one thing we can learn from them. I hate terrorists, gangsters and fascists as much as anyone, but, like George Bush has repeatedly said, it really isn’t caused by their religion.

    Fascism, refugee problems, crime, none of these things are exclusive to, or caused by, being Muslim. If we waste our efforts fruitlessly, we impair out ability to deal with the real problems.

  2. From Robinson Jeffers’ “I Hall Laugh Purely”:

    Be assured, this is not the world’s end

    Or even the end of a civilization:

    Give nature time.

    That was written during the Second World War, but it’s
    still true, despite the current unpleasantness. In any case, I gather that the point of the post was not to forecast that the EU will inevitably suffer the fate of the Imperium Romanum, but that a fashion in the historiography of late antiquity has robbed us of the very notion of historical discontinuity on the scale of civilizations.

    In other words: “If Rome did not fall, then civilizations never fall, so the downside to our present predicament is limited.” I fully agree that anyone who believes this is lethally misguided.

    As for what is going on now, the fact that the situation facing Europe today is not on all fours with Europe in the fifth century does not mean that there are no dangers of comparable dimensions.

    What we have now looks less like the establishment of the Germanic kingdoms than like an attempt to transfer the millet system to European soil. This would not be altogether a novelty: the Jewish communities of pre-modern Europe were essentially self-governing millets. They stood out only because, unlike in the Ottoman Empire, there were not Arminian and Shia and Druze millets next door.

    The attempt to form millets in Europe (and Canada, appearently) is self-limiting, for reasons that I think are already clear. As for the future, one could imagine a scenario in which the millets fade into the West, as happened in some regions with the ghettos. More likely, though, would be a policy that not just ended immigration, but positively encouraged emigration.

    If you have not seen it already, I commend to your attention Tony Blankley’s
    The
    West’s Last Chance
    (published in 2005). He has thought through most of these issues, though his conclusions can be quarreled with.

    A note about that book: my review neglects the speculative story with which the book begins. That presents a near-future scenario im which European Muslims rise to protest some minor piece of public art, and the European Union responds by essentially adopting elements of the Sharia.

    That has already become unimaginable.

  3. […] reens off the mountainside, last overheard repeating in his sleep the received wisdom that the Roman Empire never really fell. Were France to careen off th […]

  4. […] ine the possibility that he might have been the dupe of demopaths… a phenomenon that Europe can ill afford these days. God’s chosen people J […]

  5. Justin says:

    This racial theory for the fall of nations is absurd to say the least. If you look at the history of nations one thing is constanit and tends to bring them all low. That is that the government of the particular nation due to abundance usually brought about as a result of liberty (The Roman Empire, was born from a Republic while not as free as ours, as free as the world had ever seen at that time.)

    Now, when the people of this nation are fat and happy they tend to become apathetic to economics and politics in general – at that time the green light for the government to spend their people in to perpetual debt is given.

    Of course there is not enough space to explain all here, but the idea that new cultures break down a nation is beyond stupid. – Every nation has come down as a result of government spending gone wild. In fact there is not one example where this did not happen.

  6. […] ’ auxiliary mujahideen. This trait links the fate of Europe in the 21st century to the fate of Europe in the 5th century. When the Goths sacked Rom […]

  7. Abu Nudnik says:

    Fat, lazy, apathetic. Yes, this is the fate of wealthy nations unless they set their sites to great feats and challenges. There are lots of those around, from space travel to new physics and biology. We need not to lose heart but throw ourselves fully into those things which we believe will propel our societies to a great challenge.

  8. […] supported in their “reinterpretation” of the fall of Rome, in which, as one major exhibition on the Franks in 1996-7 argued that rather than “barbarian invasions,” the 5th and 6th centuries represented a […]

  9. […] this sense, it’s similar to the fall of the Roman Empire: tribal honor-shame, gang behavior coarsens the cultural scene and eventually brings down the rule […]

  10. […] off (which is what most français de souche are doing).   In this sense, it’s similar to the fall of the Roman Empire: tribal honor-shame, gang behavior coarsens the cultural scene and eventually brings down the rule […]

  11. […] no-go zones, and, in places like England, Sweden, and Holland, Sharia zones. To paraphrase a historian of the fall of Rome, “the new, and more powerful, Islamist groups were able to carve out autonomous zones for […]

  12. […] in der Lage waren, sich Königreiche aus dem bestehenden Reich herauszuschneiden. Peter Heather über das Ende des Römischen Reiches, zitiert von Richard Landes in einem Artikel über die Ignorierung der Islamisierung Europas durch […]

  13. […] Jak to się stało? Jak doszło do tak złej sytuacji zanim ją zauważyliśmy? Czy widzimy zmiany o wymiarze cywilizacyjnym? […]

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