Book Reviews: Late Antiquity in Four Books

Guest blogger Joshua Boeyen takes us on a historical journey, through the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Christian Church and Islam, in four books by popular historians Peter Heather, Adrian Goldsworthy and Tom Holland.

By Guest Blogger Joshua Boeyen

I have been taking a chronological approach to reading my way through (mainly Western) history that has been pretty straightforward so far. The rise of Greek city-states was a good place to start. The Greco-Persian Wars were followed by a Golden Age in Athens (think Socrates, Aristophanes and the Parthenon). Athens’ dominance was brought crashing down by the Peloponnesian War. Not long after, Alexander the Great was doing his thing.

So far, so good. The obvious place to jump to next was Carthage and its wars with Rome. The Punic Wars forged Rome into what it was, just as they destroyed Carthage. It also makes for great reading and there’s no shortage of popular history books about Hannibal.

Then the fun really begins with the vicious and relatively well-documented collapse of the Roman Republic. Again, there’s a wealth of books about the subject, though in my considered opinion Adrian Goldsworthy’s Caesar: Life of a Colossus is still definitive.

Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars takes us to the reign of Domitian, but here the trail of popular histories seems to dry up. Goldsworthy provides comprehensive coverage of the Roman Republic and the early days of the Empire. Peter Heather is the author to turn to for Late Antiquity. Between the two, however, there’s a substantial gap. I don’t know if this is because there’s more money in writing about the well-known historical figures, or that a lack of reliable sources makes it hard to hammer out anything but a tentative overview.

There’s still more to read on the Roman Republic and the rise of Empire. I haven’t yet read Adrian Goldsworthy’s book on the fall of Carthage, plus he has a biography on Augustus coming out in August. Caesar’s own account of the Gallic Wars is on my list, as is a nice Penguin Classic of Tacitus’ works. I am, however, going to completely ignore the elephant in the room: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. As much as I would love to read it, life is too short.

In any case, this brings us to the first of four books I want to discuss:

The Fall of the Roman Empire, by Peter Heather

Cover Fall of the Empire

I’m constantly drawing a distinction between two styles of popular history writing. I favour the academic approach; let the story speak for itself and leave personal anecdotes and modern references out of it. In the other corner is the author who tries to buddy-up to the reader, writing in a casual, colloquial style in an attempt to connect to the reader. Heather belongs to the second camp. Author Tom Holland (more on him later) describes his writing style as “chatty”. What impresses me, though, is that Peter Heather makes this style work. I’d like to suggest a couple of reasons why I think Heather successfully manages to pull this off while other authors come across as condescending. Right up front, Heather disarmingly apologises for his fondness for bad puns. More importantly, Heather treats the reader not as an uninterested tourist who needs encouragement to find wonder in the past, but as a detective, and invites us to take a critical look with him at the fragmentary clues left over from the long vanished empire.

By now it’s obvious to me that nailing down what led to the collapse of the western half of the Roman Empire is not as easy as I supposed. Sure there’s archaeological evidence here and there, plus a scattering of written sources, but these can be interpreted any number of ways. This has lead to a multitude of books on the subject, with a multitude of different conclusions being drawn. Naturally, Heather has his own ideas, but he’s very careful to take the reader through the process that led him there. Typically he would roll out a view that was once widely accepted, examine the assumptions or evidence it was founded on, and then take a fresh look in the light of more recent evidence or scholarship which tells a different story. He’s also refreshingly honest about admitting what we simply don’t know.

His book covers the hundred years from the arrival of the Tervingi on Rome’s border in 376 CE to the deposition of the last western emperor in 476. Keeping in mind the devil is in the details, here’s Heather’s take on the fall of the Western Empire in a nutshell:

Far to the north, the Huns were causing trouble for the Goths. A massive group of Goths, the Tervingi, appeared on the banks of the Danube asking for asylum in Roman territory. The emperor, busy dealing with the Persian threat on his eastern front, figured he could use the added manpower and agreed. Accepting large-scale immigration such as this was nothing new – but it has always been on Roman terms and closely supervised. This time was different. The resources to manage the resettlement were not there, and the Roman officials responsible did a fair job of botching the effort. The result was violence that eventually saw the emperor killed at the battle of Adrianople.

This was the first of many barbarian influxes into the Empire. The Germanic tribes had grown into formidable opponents thanks to their long association with Rome, as well as the availability of Roman subsidies paid to keep them at bay.

As for the Romans, their resources were stretched thin from a constant barrage of civil war, famine and plague. Each bout of civil war presented an opportunity for barbarian tribes wanting wealth and influence within the Roman sphere. And each time a chuck of territory came under the control of these barbarians, it meant less revenue for the Romans with which to respond to their incursions.

That said, Rome wasn’t doing too bad a job of keeping it all together. That is until the Vandals got all the way to North Africa and captured the rich Roman provinces there. The Western Empire was heavily reliant on the income and grain from these provinces and their loss put Rome on the back foot. This proved to be a very difficult situation to come back from.

Attempts to recapture these provinces were either diverted to fight the Huns that were now screaming in from the east, or were met with disastrous failure.

By 476 the barbarian war leader Odoacer was in control of Italy. He sent the reigning western emperor, a boy in his teens, off to an early retirement, thus bringing to a close a chapter in the history of the West. Here, too, is where Heather’s book comes to a close.

I have a few more things to add. The maps could be better. They weren’t bad, but didn’t always include places mentioned in the text. And another common complaint of mine: Heather still uses the outdated Wade-Giles method to Romanise Chinese names. He calls the Xiongnu tribes “Hsiung-Nu”. *facepalm!* People with fewer grey hairs than I should have no excuse not to use pinyin.

All told, Heather delivers a worthwhile book. There’s a nice balance of narrative and analysis. Above all, he encourages us to think critically about anything else we may read on the subject.

The Restoration of Rome, by Peter Heather

Cover Restoration of Rome

The Restoration of Rome picks up right where The Fall of the Roman Empire left off: with the deposition of Romulus Augustus – the last Roman emperor in the West.

Heather continues his fine approach to dissecting the past, and once again demonstrates his superb ability to read between the lines of ancient texts. This time he looks at attempts to appropriate the tradition of the Roman Empire. Specifically, he looks at the spectacular careers of Theoderic, Justinian and Charlemagne.

Theoderic’s rise to power makes for a good read, but is often overlooked because his compelling and extremely violent contemporary, Clovis, gets all the attention. Clovis was the first king of the Franks, and his line, the Merovingians, ruled for a few hundred years before being supplanted by the Carolingians. Theoderic’s legacy might not have been as enduring, but he did have a successful reign and for a time held Italy amid all the chaos.

The emperor Justinian and his formidable wife Theodora were colourful characters indeed, but what I found intriguing was Justinian’s historian, Procopius. He left three works. The first was an officially sanctioned account of Justinian’s wars, written in line with conventions of the day. The second was a catalogue of construction works initiated by his emperor. These two compositions pour lavish praise on Justinian; they were exemplary pieces of propaganda. The third work, however, is anything but flattering. Procopius’ Secret History was discovered in Vatican archives and published in 1623. In it he delivered a seriously damaging tirade against Justinian, going so far as to suggest he was a demonic monster; literally:

“And another person said that he stood beside [Justinian], sat and suddenly saw that his face had become like featureless flesh, for neither eyebrows nor eyes were in their proper place.”

The empress Theodora isn’t spared, either:

“As soon as she came of age and was at last mature, she joined the women of the stage and straightaway became a prostitute of the sort whom men of ancient times used to call ‘the infantry’.”

Procopius then goes on to indulge us in the outrageous, scandalous details of her sexual exploits. The Secret History is usually regarded as the outpouring of a disillusioned and bitter author, but Heather is inclined to regard it as something meant to be taken tongue-in-cheek. Satire, if you will.

Charlemagne needs no introduction, so instead I’ll move on to Heather’s last piece: the rise to dominance of the Catholic Church.

The establishment of the Catholic Church as a homologous institution spread over many kingdoms with an infallible Pope as its head was not something that happened overnight. That much is obvious, but I admit it’s not something I’d thought too much about. In the earliest days of the Church, the Pope in Rome was just one of many theological authorities. He had prestige, sure, but not so much in the way of power or influence. Rival bishops in places like Alexandria and Constantinople, and not least the emperor himself, had just as much claim to interpreting the will of God. The Pope’s leading role in stamping Catholic orthodoxy over all Christianity was not something that was assured from the start.

The way it came to be is fascinating. Initially such aspirations weren’t deliberate on the part of the papacy in Italy. In fact, the first step towards consolidation of power came from much further north and involved forged documents. Essentially a false history was concocted lending weight to papal authority which Frankish bishops then used for their own ends (overriding micromanaging archbishops for starters). Successive popes were quick to capitalise on this recognition of their authority, and this started the ball rolling. Heather ends his book with the Roman Catholic Church in firm in control of the structures left vacant by imperial bureaucracy; the true successor of the Roman Empire.

The Fall of the West, by Adrian Goldsworthy

Cover Fall of the West

I would be remiss if I didn’t follow up the review of Heather’s books with Adrian Goldsworthy’s take on the fall of the Western Roman Empire. After all, Goldsworthy did write it in response to the recent flurry of books on the topic, including Heather’s and also one by Brian Ward-Perkins. Goldsworthy describes these two books as “extremely good in their own way, but both are restricted in what it was possible to cover”. The fall of the West, Goldsworthy argues, has its roots much earlier on.

So Goldsworthy increases the scope. Instead of starting with the arrival of the Tervingi on the banks of the Danube, he takes as his starting point the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 CE. For this I am grateful; this goes some way to plug the gap between the Early Roman Empire and Late Antiquity. The downside is that by covering such a long time-span, there’s an inevitable loss of juicy detail. But not too much – it’s still a very thick book.

Goldsworthy and Heather’s opinions differ with regards to the role external factors played in the collapse of the West versus internal factors. Goldsworthy sees no evidence that the Germanic tribes had any more military clout in Late Antiquity than they did in Julius Caesar’s time. The Empire’s downfall could be adequately explained in terms of political instability. Rome’s preoccupation with civil war drained resources and manpower away from border defences. Usurpers were much more of an immediate threat than the barbarians when it came to holding onto power. Far from being more organised and united, the barbarians simply had more opportunities to exploit Rome’s weaknesses.

Now I confess to being a fan of the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate. He’s a controversial character and I’m particularly interested to see the various takes on him offered by different historians. It’s clear Goldsworthy is exasperated by all the unwarranted admiration for Julian. Julian is often viewed favourably by those who identify with his years as a student, or with his opposition to Christianity.

“For some,” writes Goldsworthy, “his hostility to Christianity also strikes a chord, although usually this is only if they ignore his passion for his own beliefs and addiction to animal sacrifice.”

Goldsworthy points out that the ill-fated ‘philosopher’ emperor could be just as ruthless as any, and was a product of his time. He was certainly a product of his traumatic upbringing. His father, uncle and six cousins were put to death by the ‘Christian’ emperor Constantius II. Julian himself was raised as a virtual captive in the court, where he took a great interest in philosophy and Greek literature. Who knows if he would’ve accomplished anything had he not been killed in the war he initiated against the Persians?

Though I can almost feel Goldsworthy’s look of disapproval, I still have a soft-spot for Julian. It may be worthwhile tracking down the account by his chronicler Ammianus Marcellinus. In the long-run, though, his reign had no real impact, other than to put the Empire in a very awkward military position after his failed Persian campaign.

What else do you need to know about The Fall of the West? The maps aren’t useful. They seem to have been added as an afterthought and were just lifted from other sources. This is apparent when “Adrianople” in the text becomes “Hadrianople” in one map and “Adrianopolis” in another. And which Chinese transliteration system does he use? Well, he sidesteps the issue: “In the eighteenth century it was suggested that the Huns were the same people as the Hsuing-Nu – Xiongnu is the modern spelling…” Huh. Aside from misspelling Hsiung-Nu, I guess that’s a pass.

Where to from here? I’ve been following the path of Classical History as it weaves its way around the Mediterranean, but now the narrative fragments. I can stick with the Roman Empire as it morphs into the Byzantine Empire. I can jump across to the barbarian kingdoms built on the ruins of the Western Roman Empire and watch as they develop into the nations of Europe. Or I can take a look at the rise of Islam.

In the Shadow of the Sword, by Tom Holland

Cover In the Shadow

Islam it is.

Decent books on the subject are hard to come by. Islam is a touchy subject for secular historians and I can understand why most would rather not go there. When confronted with the appearance of Islam, popular history writers tend to tiptoe around the issue, or pad it with a lot of disclaimers for fear of offending their Muslim readers. Tom Holland plunged right into the minefield and wrote a whole book about it, so straight off I applaud him for having balls.

Tom Holland’s book Rubicon was well-received and garnered critical acclaim. I thought it was good, but got annoyed with Holland’s incessant use of the term “No wonder, then…” Better was Holland’s commentary of the Greco-Persian wars, Persian Fire. Better still is In the Shadow of the Sword. It’s a brilliant book, but a strange one.

Strange, because I feel like the rug has been pulled from under me. Holland’s book isn’t what I was expecting. To get the most from it, it’s worth bearing in mind exactly what it is, and what it is not. The subtitle on my US edition, The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire, is somewhat misleading. This book is not a straightforward account of Muhammad’s life and the subsequent Arab conquests. In fact, Muhammad and the rapid Islamic expansion don’t feature until the very end of the book.

My assumption was that, unlike Jesus or Zoroaster, Muhammad’s life was pretty well-documented by contemporaries. There is considerable Muslim tradition which details what he did, what he said, and how he received his revelations through Gabriel. This is based on hadiths, anecdotes which were collected after his death, and supported by isnads, lines of evidence that connect the hadiths back to Muhammad.

Holland set out to write this book confident he would have a wealth of information to draw from. What he found instead was smoke and mirrors. He discovered that the isnads were very flimsy indeed, and the traditional narrative accepted by Muslims is a product of a re-writing of the past by biographers who lived 200 years after Muhammad’s death. They had conjured up tens of thousands of hadiths, then set about arbitrarily deciding which to use to fashion what would become the accepted account of Muhammad’s life and sayings. Isnads were retro-fitted to support their conclusions. No doubt they were sincere in their efforts to standardise the story. If Muhammad comes across as a charismatic figure ahead of his time, that’s because ninth century Muslim scholars thought he should be; it would be sacrilegious to consider anything else. I shouldn’t be surprised by all this. The historicity of traditional accounts of Muhammad’s life is no better than that of Jesus and Zoroaster after all.

There are many books that credulously retell the traditional narrative of Islam’s origins. In the notes, Holland points to Karen Armstrong’s biography of Muhammad as an example. “Remarkably, for a book written by someone who has written extensively about the grand tradition of biblical scholarship, it does not so much mention the problematic nature of the sources for the life of Muhammad.”

What is unsettling is that once the hadiths have been stripped away, there is little left to go on. There are vague hints: the odd obscure contemporary reference, a smattering of archaeological finds, and subtle clues in the Quran itself.

What In the Shadow of the Sword is, then, is an attempt to recreate a narrative of the origins of Islam, however speculative, after recognising that the Muslim tradition of its history is as much a matter of faith as the belief that Muhammad was divinely inspired. Holland admits that questioning the very foundation of Islam is asking for trouble, and I can’t say enough how much I admire his bravery for taking the road of uncompromising scepticism. The book was thoroughly researched and I’d believe Holland’s speculation over credulous tradition any day.

The bulk of the book tracks the decline of the two superpowers of that time, Rome and Persia. They had exhausted their resources through repeated conflicts with each other. Both were slow to recover in the wake of a devastating outbreak of bubonic plague. This left the two empires vulnerable to attack from ambitious Arab war-bands. Holland also looks at the myriad of religious schools of thought which were prevalent at the time. As the great empires became increasingly orthodox, many practitioners, their beliefs now considered heretical, fled to outlying regions to escape persecution. Many of their ideas and practices later found their way into Islam, such as the Zoroastrian custom of praying five times daily.

No wonder, then, that this book has received a whole spectrum of reviews, from favourable to scornful (especially by those who cannot fathom Holland’s dismissal of Muslim scholarship). Holland has been accused of Islamophobia, though personally I found his tone to be nothing but respectful. He acknowledges that the universal presumption of Late Antiquity was that everything derived from God.

“The beliefs of the period must therefore be treated with both seriousness and empathy. Yet this does not mean that their claims should be taken wholly at face value.”

This book is magnificent. I don’t think there is a single popular history book out there that deals with this subject with such diligence and honesty. For his courage, I can easily overlook his overuse of “No wonder, then…” I’m glad I read it before anything else on this subject. It has done more than any other book on this list to provide the tools for sorting out what we know from what we don’t.

One more note of praise, and this is true of all Tom Holland’s books. He makes sure that any place name to appear in the text can be located in a corresponding map. Thank you.

By the way, Tom Holland’s latest contribution to the history section of bookstores is a new translation of Herodotus for Penguin Classics.

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