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Thursday, 18 December 2014

A Review of Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West

[I was recently sent this very kind review by Professor Hal Drake of Barbarian Migrations... Sadly this never made it into press as apparently the journal to which was sent went bankrupt.  I hope you will not mind me posting it here.  It means a lot to me, as someone trained essentially as an early  medievalist and who then drifted backwards into Late Roman history,* to receive these words of approval from a highly-respected specialist scholar of the late Roman Empire.

(*I think it is still true to say that most late antique specialistare trained as classicists and drift forwards.)]

Guy Halsall. Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568. NewYork: Cambridge, 2008. Pp.xvi, 591. $41.99 (US), paper.

Of the many debates that perennially swirl around the topic of the Fall of Rome, none is more enduring than the one between those who blame it on internal problems (corruption, decay) and those who cite external pressures (barbarian invasions). The latter view was memorably formulated by André Piganiol in the 1940s: 'Rome did not die a natural death; it was assassinated.' In this refreshing, detailed, and highly informative look at the period of Rome’s fall in the West, Guy Halsall comes down decidedly on the side of the internalists, but with a new twist. The depredations caused by the arrival of new peoples receive short shrift in his pages, but old-fashioned moralizing is replaced by a keen understanding of the role patronage networks, political structures, and social identity played in binding provincials to the imperial center By blending detailed local analysis with the traditional high politics, Halsall depicts the fall as the 'cumulative effect of myriad choices by countless people' who were 'frequently, if not always, trying to do the opposite' (168-9). Far from passive and dissolute, the empire did not die quietly: 'It went down kicking, gouging, and screaming' (281). The result is a Solomon-like contribution to this debate: 'The Roman Empire was not murdered and nor did it die a natural death; it accidentally committed suicide' (283).

Halsall divides his study into three major parts. The five chapters in Part I, 'Romans and barbarians in the imperial world,' bring readers up-to-date on the debates and issues surrounding this period, which saw the Roman empire in the west replaced by numerous successor kingdoms. The central part, 'A world renegotiated: Western Europe, 376-550,' covers the period frequently characterized by the 'barbarization' of the Roman army and the depredations of barbarian invaders. In these seven chapters, Halsall meticulously surveys changes in the provinces as well as the imperial center. Part III, 'Romans and barbarians in a post-imperial world,' moves beyond the immediate question of Rome's Fall to consider the means by which new states were formed out of territories formerly ruled by Rome. Overall, his aim is to show how Rome dominated the prestige market in the early centuries, and through patronage and gift-giving made barbarians as much as provincials eager to identify themselves with Roman government. This Roman monopoly broke up in later centuries, leaving the way open for new identities to form around the nascent kingships in the western territories.

If all of this sounds like simply another way of saying 'Rome fell,' it is because no summary can do justice to the richness of Halsall's presentation. He demonstrates complete mastery of issues old and new, and puts advances in archaeology to especially good use. Particularly important is his use of processes of identity formation that have been developed in recent decades to counter 19th century notions of a static ethnicity produced by inherent racial characteristics. He is withering in his critique of this outdated concept, which underlies most of the standard accounts of 'barbarian invasions' and 'Germanic kingdoms.' In his pages, ethnicity is an acquired, not a hereditary, trait, something that is continually changing and adapting to new circumstances. In line with much recent scholarship, Halsall also disputes long-held theories of Rome's military decline, arguing that 'barbarization' was actually the result of conscious decisions by Romans to adopt such a persona (90). Instead of focusing on population decline, Halsall points out that the empire continued to possess 'considerably greater resources of manpower than the barbarians' (144).

Halsall's gift for capturing dense issues through an apt analogy helps the reader grasp the import of his findings. At one point he likens the emperor to 'a small, and not especially powerful, light-bulb' (141) to explain the importance of patronage; at another, he conveys the political and permeable nature of the northern frontier by likening it to an 'Iron Curtain' (141). As these and the quotations in this review indicate, Halsall is a vigorous stylist. Although he uses the newest techniques, he is not a slave to them, and while he is judicious, he does not mince words. Migration theory, he points out, 'has yet to be employed to explain anything' (418), and a new fascination with DNA evidence reflects a 'current vogue for forcing modern archaeological science to yield answers to old-fashioned and crudely formulated historical questions' (452).

Efforts to minimize the impact of the invasions produce some tortured reasoning, such as his argument that the barbarians amounted to no more than 'a small percentage of Europe's population' and their movements no more disruptive than that produced by the transfer of a few Roman regiments (455-6), or his argument that the constant squandering of resources in internal disputes proves that Romans themselves did not think these incursions significant (chs. 7, 8). If there is a whiff of special pleading in such assertions, it is a small price to pay for a book that contains so many treasures. Halsall has pulled off the difficult trick of writing a textbook that can be read with profit by anyone interested in this large and enduring question.  
H.A. Drake University of California, Santa Barbara