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The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages Review


The very name "Middle Ages" is a neologism for the period between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire, between 476 and 1453AD. It isn't as cruel to it as the other term which is used, the dark ages, but it conveys a similar ideal: that it was a time of waiting, after the end of the glories of Rome and before the Renaissance brought back its light and led to the modern world. Furthermore, this thousand year period is dimly understood in popular culture, and most of our thoughts upon it hinge upon events which occurred either at the very beginning, with the toppling of the Roman Empire, or at the end, with the crusades, the Hundred Years War, and high feudalism in Western Europe. The early middle ages are lost in a haze, obscured between the end of classic civilization and the feudal order.

Chris Wickham's monumentally lengthy work (at nearly 800 pages, of which a good fourth is just the bibliography and sources section, and part of a larger series on the history of Europe) The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages is a history of this period, its structures, and evolutions. It's fair to say that Wickham's work is for the most part a synthesis of research on the period, rather than being an original piece of research, although sometimes Wickham's personal tone comes through, particularly on what seems to be his main area of research (since it includes more personal and potentially shaky observations), that of European villages, village life, and peasant society. But his work is an excellent synthesis: he engages in a discussion of various historiographic developments over time and what contemporary research has to say upon the subject - a good example would be the Mediterranean commercial world, where an influential view, by Henri Pirenne in 1937 posited that the classical world's commercial economy had mostly remained intact and linkages continued to work, up until the Muslim invasions of the Eastern Mediterranean which caused a permanent schism in the Mediterranean trade world. Wickham shows how archeological research since then has enabled this view to be rejected, since trade clearly did fall in volume from the 5th century onwards, before the involvement of the Muslim invasions, and Muslim rule in of itself didn't cut off good exports to Europe. The same goes for other subjects, such as village structures which were traditionally assumed to be more dominated by lords and rulers due to a focus on the Paris basin, which turned out to be unusual by European standards, and by contrast most peasant villages were significantly more autonomous. This is instructive to both understand the period, but also to know about the historiography concerning it.

For a neophyte to the subject, the book manages to convey an excellent global picture of the period, one which is often revisionist to general popular cultural thinking. The Fall of the Western Roman Empire is attributed in popular mindset to the decadence of the empire, its corruption, its barbarization, to economic decline, and its collapse is assumed as inevitable. But as Wickham points out, the East and West of the Empire were not structurally dramatically different, and the East survived and entered into a period of renaissance, including commercially, in the 6th century, while the West collapsed. As French writer Andre Piganiol wrote soon after the Second World War "The Roman Empire did not die a natural death, it was assassinated." Roman civilization was not slated to inevitable destruction, but rather the West made some critical errors in its handling of the barbarian invasions, particularly with allowing the Vandals to reach North Africa, which was the vital productive base of the Western Empire's economy: the fall of North Africa and breaking the Roman tax base and the spine of the commercial economy is what destroyed the empire, rather than inherent problems in management. The empire did have some greater problems compared to the East, such as the longer length of frontier zones to police and greater vulnerability, but fundamentally it was tactical errors which doomed it.

Europe in the 6th century prior to Justinian's reconquest

Europe in the 6th century prior to Justinian's reconquest

Beyond the collapse of the empire, it also shows an excellent portrait of the Romano-Germanic kingdoms, pointing for the most part to relative continuity: that while there was a definite decline of economic life and complexity, in most regards the governmental structures of the old Roman empire stayed intact to some extent, leadership did its best to follow good Roman traditions, and ethnic changes were muted and slow. There was not a sudden reversion to feudalism: political life continued to be carried out on a regional level, in Gaul under the Franks, Spain and southern France under the Goths, the Vandals in North Africa, and the Ostrogoths in Italy: horizons did not suddenly shrink to just the miniscule local level. The main change was the collapse of the Roman tax system, and the shift to an economy based upon land ownership. But in any case, particularly in regards to the church, there was a great degree of continuity between Rome and the subsequent kingdoms, to the extent that successor intellectuals had much trouble dating when it ended and many considered it still being extant in the 6th century.

Linked to this is its focus upon trying to see things as they were at the time, to take them for their own sake instead of anticipating what was to ultimately come. This includes the macro sense, such as not trying to read the future France and Gemany into West and East Francia respectively, or the Low Countries and Italy as part of the inevitable succession of economic dynamism from the Arab world to ultimately the modern Netherlands over the course of the

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Middle Ages, but it also extends to the Roman Empire above, and the Visigoth kingdom, seen as decadent because they collapsed instead of being taken for their own merits during the 5th and 7th centuries respectively. There is a very wide varieties of different aspects of history covered: while political history (both evenmentelle and longue duree) does predominate, there is also a good amount of economic history, and social history as related to this has a decent coverage of the period. Religious history, vital to this age where religion played such an important role in the development of European society, also has a good coverage, linked to the intellectual history of the time. It makes for a reasonably holistic general history of the period in its different aspects, although it of course is mostly general and more specific books are required for precise subjects.

One part which I found disappointing was the lack of secular literature or cultural notes for continental Europe. This isn't to say that they are ignored completely: for example, Beowulf and other stories are mentioned to show the values of the aristocracy, with the heavy focus on honor, loyalty, feuds, and war. And there is some mention of the Arabian Nights, which provide some cultural context of the world of the caliphs in Iraq. But what of the birth of the literature of what would become France, with the Chansons de Geste and the Chant de Roland? These get brushed over and don't receive any analysis, and the same goes as a whole for most continental literature. It seems like some discussion of the birth of what would become the culture of the troubadours and courtly literature of the later Middle Ages would be in order, or if it even existed to any extent in the period.

The Inheritance of Rome manages to show how Rome continued to structure and shape polities deeply for centuries afterwards, and still inspire states long after that: Rome's legacy defined the dark ages, in how different states interacted with the long tern collapse of its institutions. It provides a readable and comprehensive (certainly so in light of its length) history of the early Middle Ages stretching from Iraq to Britain which helps to overturn many of the casual assumptions which are present about this period and the confusion between it and the later Middle Ages. Excellent as a general history.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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