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March/April 2006 • Historically Speaking 31

AN INTERVIEW WITH
BRYAN WARD-PERKINS ON THE FALL OF ROME
Conducted by Donald A. Yerxa

“AT THE HOUR OF MIDNIGHT THE SALERIAN GATE WAS ship has drastically transformed the subject that fascinated stu-
silently opened, and the inhabitants were awakened by the dents of history for centuries, and Oxford historian Bryan Ward-
tremendous sound of the Gothic trumpet. Eleven hundred and Perkins fears that something important is being lost. Historically
sixty-three years after the foundation of Rome, the Imperial city, Speaking editor Donald Yerxa asked Ward-Perkins to speak to
which had subdued and civilized so considerable a part of some of his concerns, developed more fully in Ward-Perkins’s
mankind, was delivered to the licentious fury of the tribes of The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (Oxford University
Germany and Scythia.” The emotion and drama that flowed so Press, 2005), winner of the 2006 Hessell-Tiltman Prize for
eloquently from Edward Gibbons’s pen has been largely drained History.
from our contemporary historical imagination. Recent scholar-

Donald Yerxa: In your book you mention through to the 8th century and even beyond.
that there has been a “sea change in the lan- This periodization, which is now widely fol-
guage used to describe post-Roman times.” lowed, deliberately ignores the 5th-century
How has the language changed? collapse of Roman power in the West and the
7th-century loss of most of the Eastern (or
Bryan Ward-Perkins: There has been a very Byzantine) Empire to the Arabs, events that
strong tendency recently—particularly, but conventionally were seen as heralding “dark
not exclusively, among scholars working in ages” in both areas. Rather than viewing the
the U.S—to play down any unpleasantness at 5th to 7th centuries as a time of crisis and rup-
the end of the Roman Empire and any nega- ture, historians of “Late Antiquity” see it as a
tive effects of the end of Roman power. Until period of continuous cultural growth.
quite recently scholars were happy that the
settlement of the Germanic peoples in the 5th- Yerxa: In what ways do you believe that the
century West was the result of violent invasion current view is flawed?
and viewed the next few centuries as a “Dark
Age” marked by the collapse of Roman civi- Ward-Perkins: The 5th century is portrayed
lization. Currently the use of such negative as a time of peaceful accommodation. It is true
language is seen as very old-fashioned: that the Germanic invaders wanted reasonable
“decline,” “crisis,” and “Dark Age” have dis- relations with their Roman subjects (who were
appeared from the titles of academic books, always in a massive numerical majority) and
conferences, and university courses. They with the remnants of independent Roman
have been replaced by neutral words like power. Consequently, they were very happy to
“transformation” and “transition.” For enter treaty arrangements with the empire, and
instance, a recent, massive European research generally treated their own Roman subjects
project on the 4th to 9th centuries A.D. was barians, and decided to let many of them into reasonably well. But the evidence is unequiv-
entitled “The Transformation of the Roman the empire, in order to use them to defend it ocal that most of the empire’s territory was
World,” as if Rome never really came to an against further invaders. The former poachers taken over by Germanic rulers, either by force,
end, but just changed into something different became the gamekeepers. or, at best, through the threat of force. This
but entirely equal. was not one of those fortunate periods in
Yerxa: How has the new periodization which to be alive.
Yerxa: What has happened to the Roman scheme of “Late Antiquity” changed histo-
Empire’s dissolution by “hostile ‘waves’ of rians’ thinking about the fall of Rome? Yerxa: You contend that treatments of the
Germanic peoples,” dare I say “barbar- cultural accommodation between invader
ians”? Ward-Perkins: A groundbreaking book pub- and invaded often read like accounts of “a
lished in 1971, Peter Brown’s The World of tea party at a Roman vicarage.”
Ward-Perkins: Nowadays, what was once Late Antiquity, identified a cultural period
seen as invasion is often interpreted as a (characterized primarily by the rise of two Ward-Perkins: While Germanic invaders and
process of “accommodation,” entered into new monotheistic religions, Christianity and native Roman could sit down together and
willingly by Roman hosts. The argument runs Islam, and the codification of a third, coexist, much recent scholarship makes the
that the Romans got tired of fighting the bar- Judaism), stretching from the 3rd century right whole process far too genteel, as if the new
32 Historically Speaking • March/April 2006

settlers knocked politely at the door and were the later 6th- and 7th-century West, in places reconstruct with considerable accuracy chang-
shown to an empty chair. The reality is that the like Rome and Visigothic Spain, are tiny in ing patterns of production, distribution, and
invaders seized most of the power and much comparison to those of the 4th century or of consumption of pottery vessels. The picture
of the land of the empire. Roman landed fam- the later Middle Ages. that emerges shows that in the Roman period
ilies remained, and many Romans rose high in I also believe—and this seems obvious potting was highly sophisticated, and that
the service of the new masters. But the from modern experience—that sophistication good-quality pots reached deep into society. It
unavoidable truth is that by the end of the 5th in intellectual life generally requires solid eco- was, for instance, quite usual for a 3rd-centu-
century an entirely new Germanic aristocracy nomic underpinning. In my book I attempt to ry peasant in upland central Italy to eat off a
had been established, whose raison d’être was show this by focusing on the evidence of graf- fine pottery bowl manufactured in North
its military might. This establishment was Africa. Virtually all this remarkable sophisti-
achieved by the dispossession on a massive cation disappeared in the post-Roman period.
scale of Roman landowners. Other products do not survive as well in
the soil as potsherds or cannot be attributed
Yerxa: Is there evidence that a civilization with such confidence to particular places or
collapsed when Rome fell? centuries of manufacture. But it is, I believe,
obvious that the picture provided by pottery—
Ward-Perkins: This is an area where histori- of Roman sophistication, followed by almost
ans seem to be decidedly myopic. In looking total collapse—can be extended to other
closely at their texts, they have failed to notice goods, where the evidence survives much less
that in every single area of the empire (except well, such as textiles, metal tools, and special-
perhaps the Levantine provinces conquered by ized food products. Pottery offers a detailed
the Arabs) there was an extraordinary fall in snapshot of the wider economy.
what archaeologists term “material culture.”
The scale and quality of buildings, even of Yerxa: What is fueling the revisionist views
churches, shrank dramatically—so that, for of the Late Antiquity school?
instance, tiled roofs, which were common in
Roman times even in a peasant context, Ward-Perkins: There are probably a number
became a great rarity and luxury. In the 6th- of different forces at work. Scholarship does
and 7th-century West the vast majority of peo- tend to progress by a process of revision and
ple lived in tiny houses with beaten earth counter-revision. It was probably time that
floors, drafty wooden walls, and insect-infest- gloomy views of the end of Rome were tested;
ed thatch roofs; whereas, in Roman times, and now, perhaps, it is time to return to them.
people from the same level of society might This game of scholarly Ping-Pong might seem
well have enjoyed the comfort of solid brick a little pointless, but I don’t think so, because
View of Rome’s skyline near the Tiber River, ca.
or stone floors, mortared walls, and tiled 1900. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs each time the ball is lobbed back over the net
roofs. This was a change that affected not only Division [reproduction number, LC-USZ62-123704]. it lands in a slightly different place and has
the aristocracy, but also huge numbers of peo- always acquired some of its flight from the
ple in the middling and lower levels of socie- preceding debate. For instance, although I
ty who in Roman times had had ready access fiti (which were very common in Roman could be termed a counter-revisionist (or a
to high-quality goods. times, but virtually disappeared thereafter) in “neo-con” as one reviewer put it), I have no
order to demonstrate that basic intellectual problem in recognizing that Late Antiquity has
Yerxa: You discuss evidence from graffiti, skills—reading and writing—suffered as dra- opened up an extraordinarily fertile field of
coins, roof tiles, and especially pottery, matic a downturn with the fall of Rome as did debate, and that, without it, my own thinking
whereas scholars from the Late Antiquity the availability of high-quality material goods. would never have gone in the directions it has.
school point to religious texts. Why is it A central underlying reason for the current
important to pay attention to material cul- Yerxa: Why is Roman pottery such a revisionist view must be the fact that both
ture and economic history? revealing source? “empires” and “civilizations” have gone out of
fashion, undermining earlier assumptions that
Ward-Perkins: However elevated our Ward-Perkins: The study of pottery isn’t to the Roman Empire was a high point of “civi-
thoughts, we all live in a sophisticated materi- everybody’s taste, but (as a couple of review- lization.” In the modern postcolonial world
al world, supported by a complex economy, ers have independently said of my book) it the very concept of “civilizations” has virtual-
and we all enjoy the convenience and comfort reveals “surprisingly interesting” results. ly disappeared and been replaced by that of
of high-quality goods (whether clothes, wash- Pottery was a basic item that played a central “cultures,” which are seen as being all on a
ing machines, or the latest laptop and Internet role in the storage, distribution, preparation, level. In this perspective, post-Roman “cul-
connection). So it seems very obvious to me and consumption of food. And broken pot- ture” is necessarily the equal of Roman “cul-
that material change (and there was dramatic sherds, which can often be both dated and ture.”
material change at the end of the Roman provenanced, survive remarkably well in the Furthermore, some Europeans seem to
Empire) is well worthy of our attention. Even soil. (They are discovered in the hundreds of have found the idea of the Germanic peoples
the saints were affected by material changes in thousands on archaeological sites in the being “accommodated” into the Roman world
this period: the new churches constructed in Mediterranean.) This means that we can attractive—it provides a happier vision of
March/April 2006 • Historically Speaking 33

Europe’s troubled past. It replaces a story of ty. My complaint is that a very long Late fall? Could its decline have been reversed?
strife between Germanic and Latin peoples Antiquity, which can fit the Levant, is also And might we draw any lessons from the
with one of peaceful coexistence and common being exported westward, where it really collapse of the Roman Empire?
enterprise, which is much more in keeping doesn’t fit. The 5th-century West and the 7th-
with the current ideals of the European Union. century Byzantine worlds were characterized Ward-Perkins: I believe the Western Empire
Finally, I suspect that my own very mate- by political, military, and economic crises on a was brought down by a specific military cri-
rialistic and economic focus went out of fash- scale that cannot, and should not, be ignored. sis—Germanic invasion, made more serious
ion toward the end of the 20th century, in part by the arrival in the West of an Asiatic people,
because of the demise of communism, and Yerxa: Have the newer interpretations cor- the Huns, and exacerbated by civil wars with-
with it Marxist theory. In the 1960s economic rected the naive view that the fall of Rome in the empire—rather than by any irreversible
history enjoyed a central position in historical was an affair between two great forces— internal decline. The Eastern Empire was then
study because it was so central to Marxist Rome and the barbarians? very nearly destroyed some two centuries later
thinking. But, unfortunately, this meant it by the rise of Arab Islamic power. Probably
went down with the ship of communism. In Ward-Perkins: As I have said, I have little with a bit of good luck and perhaps some bet-
my opinion, for the reasons I have given patience with the view that the barbarians ter leadership both crises could have been
above, I think it is high time for economic his- were peacefully “accommodated” into the reversed (as had happened in the 3rd century,
tory once again to be a central topic of histor- West, and this same point has recently also when the whole empire was saved from a
ical debate and of university curricula. been argued, with considerably more expert- seemingly fatal spiral of invasion and civil
ise, by Peter Heather in his Fall of the Roman war). But all great powers (so far) have at
Yerxa: Is there a case to be made that the Empire (also published by Oxford University some point or another declined, or been
currently popular view of a Late Antiquity Press). But it is true that the view prevalent brought low, so it is reasonable to assume that
“transition” presents something of a cor- immediately after the Second World War— Roman power would not have gone on forev-
rective to earlier views? that all Germanic invaders were solely er!
destructive and brutal—needed some adjust- What is so striking about the fall of Rome
Ward-Perkins: There is no doubt at all that ment. Romans were as often at war among is the collapse of material sophistication that
Late Antiquity has opened up new and very themselves as they were with the Germanic ensued. This happened, I believe, precisely
interesting areas of research, both geographi- invaders. And the latter were often happy to because the Roman world was not entirely dis-
cally and thematically. Downplaying the cen- ally with Roman forces against other similar to our own: complex economies are
trality of the Roman Empire and of Greco- Germanic tribes. This was not a titanic battle very fragile because they rely on hugely
Roman culture, has allowed local cultures between rival and monolithic ideologies, but a sophisticated networks of production and dis-
(expressed in languages like Syriac, Coptic, very messy and confused affair, which left tribution. If these are seriously disrupted,
Armenian, and Irish) to take center stage and considerable scope for alliances between widely and over a long period of time, the
has brought to the fore some very “unclassi- Romans and “barbarians.” Indeed, much of entire house of cards can collapse. Although I
cal,” but fascinating, heroes of the past, like the personnel of the Roman army, including have a great deal of respect for the new Late
the Stylite saints of 5th- and 6th-century Syria. its high command, consisted of Germanic Antiquity, it does seriously worry me that it
tribesmen. smoothes over the very real crisis that hap-
Yerxa: What do you think of the project of pened at the end of the Roman world. The
relocating the center of the 4th-8th-century Yerxa: What brought you to this subject? Romans, like us, enjoyed the fruits of a com-
Mediterranean world eastward to Egypt, plex economy, both material and intellectual.
the Levant, and Persia? Ward-Perkins: I was born in Rome, and my And like us, they assumed their world would
father was a classical archaeologist with a par- go on forever. They were wrong, and we
Ward-Perkins: I am a historian of the West, ticular interest in the technological skill that would be wise to remember this. The main les-
and I don’t have the linguistic knowledge to the Romans deployed in their buildings. For son I think we should learn from the collapse
get seriously involved in the East. But I do some fifteen years, I worked every summer as of the Roman Empire and of ancient civiliza-
teach Eastern history at an undergraduate level a field archaeologist in Italy, with a special tion is not some specific panacea that can pre-
and find it absorbing. The entire Byzantine interest in the post-Roman period (which I serve our civilization forever (since modern
world was a flourishing region into at least the was also researching from written sources). It circumstances and the threats to our well
6th century; and the 7th century, of course, was blindingly obvious to me, working on an being are ever-changing), but a realization of
spawned Islam and the civilization of the archaeological site like ancient Luna—where how insecure, and probably transient, our own
Umayyads. For Egypt, the Levant, and Persia, all the great Roman buildings were abandoned achievements are—and, from this, a degree of
a long Late Antiquity probably works well— and torn down in the 4th and 5th centuries, to humility.
for instance, the Great Mosque at Damascus, be replaced by very simple wooden houses—
with its considerable size, basilical plan, and that something very dramatic happened at the
marble decoration and mosaics, can quite rea- end of the Roman world, something which can
sonably be seen as a “late antique” building. It reasonably be called the “end of a civiliza-
is very important—for modern-day reasons— tion.”
that we seriously consider the possibility that
it was the Islamic Levant, and not the West or Yerxa: We cannot have a conversation
Byzantium, that was the true heir to the about the fall of Rome without my posing
sophisticated economy and culture of antiqui- the classic questions to you: Why did Rome