Decline and fall: new book examines how the Western Roman Empire collapsed

Posted by mjs76 at Oct 14, 2011 09:36 AM |
It wasn’t all Vandals and Visigoths – although they didn’t help matters…

The Fall of the Western Roman Empire: An Archaeological and Historical Perspective* is the latest book from Dr Neil Christie, Reader in Archaeology in our School of Archaeology and Ancient History.

The division of the vast Roman Empire can be traced chiefly to the 280s AD when the Empire, wracked by civil wars and external threats across the Third Century, was firmly brought back under control. Nonetheless, the separation remained somewhat fluid until 395 when Theodosius I, the last ruler of a united Roman Empire, died leaving the two halves to his sons Arcadius and Honorius.

The Eastern Roman Empire subsequently flourished, spreading around the Mediterranean with its capital at Constantinople (today's Istanbul). It peaked in the Sixth Century under the Emperor Justinian and persisted as the Byzantine Empire all the way through to the 15th century.

The division of the Roman Empire on the death of Theodosius I in 395. (image: Wikipedia)

But the Western Roman Empire fared less well and the Fifth Century is marked by a progressive fragmentation of power and a decentralisation. Barbarian tribes started to enter the Empire and, alongside civil war, the provinces progressively fell. Honorius’ reign saw, in 410, the sack of Rome itself by the Visigoths under their king Alaric, the first foreign invasion of the city in eight centuries.

Historical convention says that the Western Roman Empire formally ended on 4 September 476 when Romulus Augustulus was deposed by Odoacer, the first Barbarian King of Rome. Elsewhere, Vandals, Visigoths and Franks established their kingdoms in the old provinces of the West.

All of which sets the scene for Neil’s new book. He is by no means the first scholar to tackle the subject; Edward Gibbon got in there first but a great deal has been discovered in the intervening 235 years. In The Fall of the Western Roman Empire, Dr Christie takes an interdisciplinary approach to the subject, drawing on the latest archaeological and historical evidence and many years of study to challenge assumptions and long held beliefs.

The late Roman town walls of Carcassone in southwest France. (photo: Neil Christie)

Was the Empire destroyed from without or within? What effect did the spread of Christianity have on the Empire? How did the geography of the Empire change over time and what part did that play in its break-up?

What Neil's new book offers is an effort to identify the extent to which archaeology can add to our understanding of the decline of the west: observing modifications to the army on the frontiers, the creation of town walls, changes in town and countryside and in society, and the growth of the Church as a new unifying structure.

The book aims to offer a discussion guided more by the material and physical remains of the period than by texts alone. Drawing on examples from across the Western Empire, from Britain to North Africa, the archaeology is used to highlight how far the fabric of the Empire changed or was forced to change across the period AD 300-500. The study also explores some of the new powers that emerged in the wake of Rome's demise.

Published by Bloomsbury at £19.99 in paperback or £65.00 in hardback, the book is described as “a perfect introduction for newcomers to the subject, and essential reading for undergraduate students and specialists in archaeology and ancient history.”

*The book’s original subtitle, used on some early cover designs, was Archaeology, History and the Decline of Rome.

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