Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Peter Heather's The Fall of the Roman Empire

I remarked on this book when it was issued at the same time as Bryan Ward-Perkins' The Fall of Rome (see this earlier post and this one, too). Now I'm actually reading it. I don't know what I think of it's argument (I'm not quite sure what the argument is, yet), but already on page 18 I can see that it may attract a wide non-specialist readership by retailing in clear prose things that specialists already know. On p. 18, for instance, Heather in talking about the aims of Roman elite education says this:

They...saw their literary texts as a kind of accumulated moral database of human behaviour -- both good and bad -- from which with guidance, one could learn what to do and what not to do. On a simple level, from the fate of Alexander the Great you could learn not to get drunk at dinner and throw spears at your best friend.

Well, it made me laugh. Simple things for simple minds, I guess.

A friend of mine has already criticized this book for precisely this kind of thing, but I think that more scholars should reach out in this way. Of course, that presumes they have something worthwhile to say. But if you do have something worthwhile, why not express it with wit and grace? Recently I almost didn't get through a good study of Hezbollah because it was slow and wordy, while I'm stalled at the beginning of a book on Wahhabism, an important subject I should know more about, because the author can't resist extraneous travelogue material. As a result my eyes went wandering until they rested on Heather's book.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

i just read this. i'm reading your blog because i've read and reread your awesome 'Overview of late Antiquity'.

I'm also unclear exactly what the author's argument is. He seems to be saying that the late Roman Empire was in great shape until they let some barbarians in who pretty much trashed everything, escept that didn't matter because the centre of power had already moved to Constantinople.

There is much evidence to contradict the author's view, particularly the widespread degradation of the environment, particularly deforestation, which must have inevitably weakened the later Empire, not to mention plague, malaria etc.

4:56 PM  

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