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A slow decline

The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000, by Chris Wickham

11 February 2009

12:00 AM

11 February 2009

12:00 AM

The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000 Chris Wickham

Allen Lane, pp.622, 35

The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000, by Chris Wickham

This outstanding book covers what used to be called the ‘dark ages’. Publishers rarely speak of the dark ages now. It does not sell copies. But the title still encapsulates the conventional view of the period: a civilised empire destroyed by barbarians and replaced by a world of anarchy and superstition, a universal monarchy superseded by a mosaic of statelets ruled by men with unpronounceable names, long hair and uncouth habits, an age of grim ignorance with few literary or administrative sources and those reflecting the enclosed prejudices of monks and priests. Geoffrey of Monmouth and Edward Burne-Jones are the only people who ever injected a touch of romance into this bleak picture.


Professor Wickham is no romantic. But he has set out to address some of the largest and most compelling questions about Europe’s early history. Did the barbarian invasions really destroy the civilisation of Rome in the west? How far did the old conventions and social bonds, which marked the communities of the ancient world, persist into the new political world of the middle ages? Was Charlemagne really a late Roman ruler grappling with the problems of a poorer and less stable continent? Or was the elegant Latin of his documents and the ambitious classicism of his buildings just a pretentious veneer?

These are old questions. Some of Wickham’s insights are shared with Edward Gibbon, who first asked them more than two centuries ago. But no one else has combined the same chronological and geographical sweep with Wickham’s broad range of source material and unlimited curiosity. Letters, chronicles, poetry, saints’ lives and miracle stories, inscriptions and images are all pressed into service. Above all Wickham has made excellent use of the mass of information that has been made available in the last half century by archaeologists. The result is a convincing picture of an arcane world.

Wickham is by instinct a gradualist, and in this he is surely right. Short of genocide and total physical destruction, such as the Romans inflicted on Carthage, great civilisations are never rooted out in one go. But if the culture and values of Rome survived the barbarian invasions, the Empire’s economic foundations were shattered. The prosperity of the late Roman world had depended mainly on the Empire’s control over the whole of the Mediterranean basin. Its economic powerhouse was Egypt, and its main sources of grain and oil were the African provinces roughly corresponding to modern Libya, Tunisia and Algeria. The conquest of the western Mediterranean by the Vandals in the fifth century, and then of the whole north African shore by the Arabs two centuries later was an economic catastrophe for the Empire’s European provinces. The huge tax payments of the African provinces, generally paid in grain and used to feed the swollen cities of Europe, came to an abrupt end. The populations of Rome and Constant- inople fell to a fraction of their former numbers. The same phenomenon must have been experienced, on a less dramatic scale, by most of the major European cities of the Empire.

The impact of these events would be felt for many centuries. Roman civilisation had above all been urban civilisation. But the world cities of the new order would be Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, Islamic Cordova and Christian Constantinople. Latin Europe was an essentially rural and palace-based civilisation, which had no cities to challenge these places until the rise of Paris in the 13th century.

The government of the Roman Empire had been supported by a large civil service, and an even larger army, both sustained by a pervasive system of taxation. With the withering of the cross-Mediterranean trade, the surpluses on which all this had depended vanished. In the new order, governments would be supported not by taxation but by services rendered in return for grants of land, a system which weakened Europe’s rulers and rapidly fragmented their territories. It is true that these rulers spoke Latin, or at least employed secretaries who did; and that most of the great figures of the Latin Church saw themselves as Roman noblemen for generations after the last Roman Emperor in the west was deposed. But their Roman-ness would have seemed skin-deep to Augustus or Cicero. The change may have been gradual, but it was fundamental.

Wickham covers these momentous changes with great skill, deftly mixing narrative and analysis, and explaining much that is difficult or unapproachable in this fascinating period. This is a serious book, a long book, and at times a dense one. But it is also intensely rewarding. The author has a broad vision, an easy wit and an engaging style. He rarely loses the reader’s attention, and then only in the sections about outlying areas (such as the British Isles) which I suspect he felt obliged to add in order to maintain the comprehensive coverage required by the ‘Penguin History of Europe’, of which it forms part. In his introduction, he makes a plea for us to forget our Whiggish obsession with progress and study the period for its own intrinsic interest, not just as the prelude to Europe’s later, greater fortunes. This is asking a lot. Most of us are covert Whigs. But it is hard to imagine the job being done better.


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