Wednesday, January 25, 2006

I'm starting a new history book, Peter Heather's "The Fall of the Roman Empire." Basically an overview with an eye to arguing that the classic view of the Empire's fall being based on internal contradictions (of economy and morals gathering to weakness in the face of the vitality of the barbarians) is no more than a good story; rather, that the border state German tribes, adopting enough of the Roman economy over the centuries (specifically agriculture technologies which allowed a large population increase along with the usual concentrations of wealth and disparaties attendant on such things), were strengthened and capable of what they did despite continued Roman military and cultural vitality. I'm only 1/4 of the way in, we'll see how it goes.

Here's a relevant little passage (relevant not so much to the summary I gave above as to our country, our time--their military difficulties not even so far away from ours, geographically speaking):

"What did divine favour mean, if not security against defeat at the hands of those lacking that divine favour? The supreme imperial virtue -- again often represented pictorially on coinage as a diety awarding a crown of laurel leaves as this suggests, was one of victory. And any failure to deliver it could be taken as a sign that the current incumbent of the purple was not the right man for the job.

"Imperial spokesmen faced the task, therefore, of angling their accounts of events on the frontier to maintain the required image of imperial invincibility. In early 363, for instance, the emperor Julian took a huge military gamble, leading his army 500 kilometres on to Persian soil right up to the outskirts of the capital, Ctesiphon. The Persian King of Kings, Chosroes, had let him advance, then sprung a trap. The Romans were forced into a fighting retreat all the way back to home territory. By the end of June, when Julian was killed in a skirmish, the situation was hopeless. The Roman army still had 250 kilometres to go, had more or less run out of supplies, and was managing to retreat only about five kilometres a day because of Persian harassment. Julian's successor Jovian -- elected on the campaign -- had no choice but to negotiate a humiliating peace. The Roman army was allowed to depart, but surrendered to the Persians two major cities, Nisibis and Sangara, a host of strongpoints and five border provinces (map 3). But so pressing was the expectation of victory, especially at the start of a reign when the seal of divine approval needed to be particularly evident, that Jovian could not afford to acknowledge defeat. His coinage proclaimed the Persian peace a victory and Themistius [an orator] was trundled out to reinforce the point. The spin-doctor's discomfort is only too evident. The best he could come up with was this: 'The Persians showed that they were voting for [Jovian as emperor] no less than the Romans by throwing aside their weapons as soon as they became aware of the proclamation, and shortly after were wary of the same men of whom before they had no fear.' He followed up with the quip, based on a famous story about the election of the Achaemenid King of Kings Darius in 522 BC, that the -- obviously irrational -- Persians chose their rulers according to the neighing of horses.

" Not a bad effort at a brave front, perhaps, but this was one spin that no one was buying." and so on. [pages 70-71]

This book reads very much like a survey course; a very good one, but it doesn't have the depth of --style? personality? spirit? -- that the Diarmaid MacCulloch did. This one I've had for a day and I'm a hundred pages in, digesting it as I go-- the MacCulloch, usually I could only read 15, or even 5-6, pages, before I had what to digest and ruminate on; had to before I could continue, even for days. His style allowed for more complex association throughout the text. Not that either man is the less apparently learned, and it may be the nature of each discipline--the Romanist I suppose has to reconstruct a whole culture and world out of scattered documents and stories, is more an archaeologist in his/her analysis and less an in-depth commentator than the Renaissance scholar, who shares languages, social structures, Religions, national borders (largely), etc, with her/his subject -- the latter's subject is, more immediately, familiar, so more can be understood as a matter of personality. That said, I think the MacCulloch probably is a rare book in the depth its author managed to achieve an a casual, sentence-by-sentence basis. He also managed to seem very warm and humane, almost familial, which in retrospect is no mean quality for a historian, or at least for them to bring to their text. Comfortably and staggeringly erudite, the very fantasy of what an Oxford prof. would be.

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