David's Book Club: Empires and Barbarians

Empires undo themselves, and they induce barbarians beyond their borders to combine in new ways, says David Frum.

A half-dozen years ago, I visited in a European art gallery an exhibition of artifacts from the first decades after the end of the Roman empire. The exhibition and its catalogue were organized to argue a point: that the end of the Roman empire was not a cataclysm but a "transition." The barbarians were not "invaders" but "migrants." Indeed, the barbarians were not "barbaric" at all, but carriers of their own rich cultural traditions, not inferior to those of Rome.

There's a famous jibe at Winston Churchill's history of the First World War: "Winston has written a great, big book about himself and called it 'The World Crisis.'" In the same way, that museum exhibition was a big polemical attack on Pim Fortuyn mislabeled as a study of the fall of Rome.

When we talk about Rome, it's hard to avoid talking about ourselves. The subject of the barbarian invasions offers an especially agitating inkblot test: an intellectual battleground for theories of nationalism and peoplehood.

Peter Heather accepts this challenge in his engaging new history of the seven centuries from the first barbarian incursions into the Roman empire in the 300s to the last of the Viking raids. He cheerfully draws lessons from contemporary migration studies and is not embarrassed to compare and contrast the Goths of old to the Third World peoples who press upon developed world today.

Heather's big idea is this:

Rich societies will always invite migration from poor societies. In the year 300, the richest societies in Europe were those closest to the Mediterranean; the poorest were those furthest away. Italy was richer than southern Gaul; southern Gaul was richer than northern Gaul; northern Gaul was richer than western Germany; western Germany richer than eastern Germany; eastern Germany richer than the Baltic lands. Instead of thinking of a sharp distinction between "Roman" and "barbarian," we should think in terms of economic zones. Beyond the Roman frontier, groupings of peoples jostled and competed to get closer to the empire and its beguiling attractions of trade and subsidy.

Subsidy is especially important. The Romans paid for frontier peace. Chieftains who could get hands on some of this money could elevate themselves over other chieftains. They could reward their followers and build stronger forces. In fact, they had no choice. In one direction were new would-be chiefs eager to displace them; in the other was a Roman empire that periodically launched pre-emptive raids against former allies.

Just as Rome had a history, so too did the barbarians on Rome's borders. Whereas the early emperors encountered across the border only the scattered villages of innumerable tribes, the later emperors confronted large and growing confederacies boasting substantial military power.

These confederacies did not want to destroy Rome. They wanted a piece of what Rome had to offer.

But whereas modern advanced societies offer migrants niches at the economic bottom, the opportunities of classical antiquity were located at the economic top. If you wanted work as a slave in a Roman salt mine, there was no need to move to Rome. Rome would come to you: burning your village, killing your parents, hauling you away, and working you to death. The way for an aspiring barbarian to better his condition inside the empire was to confederate outside the empire and then claim lands by force, replacing former Roman landlords and exploiting the old Roman workforce as slaves, serfs, and tenants.

The fundamental cause of the barbarian invasions, in Heather's story, was the differentials in wealth between center and periphery in Europe. The invasions ended as those differentials ended, and when the European center shifted away from the Mediterranean to the north.

Empires, in Heather's telling, undo themselves. They induce adversaries beyond their borders to combine in new ways, and they entice those adversaries to penetrate empires in whatever way makes sense under the political and technological possibilities of the time. Heather does not hesitate to invite modern readers to draw contemporary conclusions from this observation - one of the many, many thought-provoking ideas that pulse through this excellent, profoundly researched, and importantly original studies of the end of one Europe and the birth of another.