Why did the Roman Empire in the West fall apart in the fifth century? The argument started even before Odovacar forced the German puppet Romulus Augustulus, whimpering, off the stage in 476. When, in 410, Alaric and his Visigoths sacked Rome, old-fashioned pagans immediately blamed Christianity and the neglect of the old rituals for the catastrophe. Gibbon gave the pagan interpretation new life about the time of the American Revolution, and academic pagans ever since have either publicly or secretly endorsed at least part of his interpretation. Christianity, they whisper, is an Asian superstition that corrupted a healthy society. (What they are afraid to say but really mean is the equally false belief that Christianity is a Jewish cult.)

Christians were equally appalled by barbarian violence. The empire, so they believed, represented a natural and divine political order that had been corrupted by paganism. Purified since Constantine’s time, the empire was now a bulwark of the Church. What did it mean when a horde of hoodlum savages could invade and sack the Eternal City?

In response to the sack, Saint Jerome lamented, “The human race is included in the ruins,” and a shocked Saint Augustine wrote his masterpiece, The City of God. In what became one of the most influential Christian books of all time, Augustine explained that Christians, in abandoning the pagan gods, had not caused the destruction of Rome. Rome, the city (or commonwealth) of man, had been flawed and sinful. In turning away from the truth and toward idolatry, the city of man (Rome) had condemned itself by its criminal misdeeds.

Augustine was never one for moderation. Whatever argument he was making, usually in opposition to heretics or pagans, he pushed to the extreme. He could appear to advocate both free will and predestination with equal gusto, and, in combating the pagan remnant, he seemed to forget all that he owed to Cicero and Vergil (to say nothing of his selective and rosy reading of Old Testament crimes, by comparison with which Rome’s legendary acts of violence absolutely pale). It has been comforting, however, to many Christians, to convince themselves that the Romans got what they deserved and, to the descendants of barbarians, to believe that the infusion of fresh Germanic blood into the aging empire was basically a good thing.

In recent years, this argument has been refined by historians such as Peter Brown and Walter Goffart, who emphasize the gradualness of the transition from late antiquity to the early Middle Ages, As Goffart puts it in “a memorable sound bite” (as Bryan Ward-Perkins says), “What we call the Fall of the Western Roman empire was an imaginative experiment that got a little out of hand.” Of course, there is some merit to an analysis that illuminates some of the virtues of the early Middle Ages, and equally, historians are all too prone to divide the world up into neat compartments among which there is no communication. Having conceded this much, I have to say that Ward-Perkins’ little study comes like spring rain on what is becoming a parched desert of late-imperial studies.

Anyone with a clear head might have written the parts of The Fall of Rome that are based on documentary and literary studies. Anyone who has, with an open mind, read Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks or Paul the Deacon’s History of the Lombards has confronted a period of appalling nastiness. It took roughly four to five centuries before Frankish kings could submit to the most ordinary rules of decency. (I take Pope Nicholas’ success in preventing Lothar II from divorcing his wife to marry his mistress as a convenient symbolic episode.) And these chronicles of Frankish and Lombard violence are matched and exceeded by countless contemporary documents. Ward-Perkins has gone through some of the more stunning and cautiously evaluated their validity without taking every hysterical jotting as unvarnished truth. Unlike too many scholars, he does not pick and choose the most extreme cases, give them the most extreme interpretation, and then take that interpretation for a norm.

It is in his analysis of the material culture that Ward-Perkins excels. The son of a well-known Roman archaeologist, he grew up in Rome, and the fruits of his own research on this period can be read in his superb volume From Classical Antiquity to the Middle Ages: Public Buildings in Northern and Central Italy, AD 300-850. The author’s detailed studies show a massive economic and technological decline: Roof tiles are no longer made; decent bourgeois pottery turned on the wheel is replaced by crude and brittle handmade junk unworthy of Dark Age Greece; stone buildings virtually disappear; standards of hygiene collapse; a thriving international economy based on specialized skills and money decays into a system of local barter for poorly made junk.

How did this happen, and why in the West rather than in the East? Ward-Perkins’ answer is that the West entered a vicious cycle in which massive barbarian raids disrupted the Roman bureaucracy and disturbed the collection of taxes that made the huge Roman military establishment possible. The East got a few lucky breaks: The barbarian pressure was somewhat stronger in the West; the East was saved several times by vigorous leaders; the ancient Eastern economy was more robust; and the Eastern capital, Constantinople, was built on a more defensible location than Rome or Ravenna.

Whatever the causes, the West did succumb to barbarian invaders, and, for most civilized people, a terrible nightmare began. There were bright spots, such as the papacy of Gregory the Great at the end of the sixth century or the false dawn of the Carolingian Renaissance that began 200 years later. Our wild ancestors were eventually captivated by the Church they had previously plundered and, under Byzantine influence and with the inspiration of Roman ruins, the arts of sculpture, painting, and architecture recovered as part of the civilization of the High Middle Ages, whose brilliance we can only admire without hoping to emulate. But, even in the 12th century, much of the people — our people—were little better than pious savages, whose level of health and length of life was vastly exceeded by provincials living in the late empire.

The Fall of Rome, though written in a lively polemical style, might have benefited from a more severe editing; some of the later parts seem more than a little repetitive. Nonetheless, it is a book that is as entertaining to read as it is terrifying to consider. Glib generalizations about gradual transition or “fresh blood in a decadent Empire”e; are an insult to the decent people of the fifth and sixth centuries, and they encourage us to adopt a Pollyannish attitude to the growing barbarity of our own day.

Make no mistake about it: Things can always get worse. We Americans could, indeed, afford to eat less bad food and live in houses less vast and tasteless than we do; we might even do without petroleum or electricity or open-heart surgery, but, in our own time, the rule of law, coherent prose, handsome public architecture, and melodious verse are disappearing, along with monogamous marriage and good manners, as rapidly as they disappeared in northern Gaul under the Franks. We spent the 20th century destroying all the cultural institutions that elevated us above our apish barbarian ancestors, and our children, if we do nothing, will live in a world that more resembles the world of Alboin and Chilperich than the world of Thomas and Dante.


[The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, by Bryan Ward-Perkins (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 351 pp., $28.00]