Religious Violence and the Fall of Rome

Bryan Ward-Perkins has a new book out on The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization. I got it just before I came over from Denmark and finally had time to finish it last night.


He uses an empire-wide perspective to show that the 4th-6th centuries CE were indeed periods of decline that resulted in a return to pre-Iron Age living standards in certain parts of Europe. In this respect, the book is a reaction against the ‘new school’ view of late antiquity as a period of change, continuity and transformation more than a time of crisis. His argument is primarily based on archaeological evidence that shows a decline in degree of specialisation (e.g. in pottery production and agriculture), level of social complexity (e.g. urbanism, public literacy, trade and coinage) and general living standards as well as a fall in population numbers. The presence of “barbarians” inside the empire further stirred things up. All these negative aspects of ‘transformation’ have been downplayed in the last 20-30 years by scholars such as Peter Brown and Glen Bowersock, and Ward-Perkins takes on their ‘peaceful’ perception of late antiquity. Instead, he argues that Roman civilization did indeed meet a violent end.

Even though I don’t agree with everything in Ward-Perkins’ book, it has many good and provocative points. I especially like his very frank concluding chapter that takes on recent trends in the study of late antiquity, history and cultural studies in general. He takes issue with projects such as the ESF-funded Transformation of the Roman World that can be said to be part of a process that Simon James has called the ‘pacification of the past’. Alun comments on this too. The processes of globalization have made us see the meeting of cultures as something peaceful and positive, while clearly this has not always been the case.

So where does my work fit into all this? Well, religious violence will be a major theme in my thesis. The 4th and 5th centuries did see a great deal of religious tension between “pagans” and Christians, including iconoclasm. The empire was not Christianized over night, and there are still references to paganism at least into the 6th and 7th centuries. The question of whether the pagan empire met a violent end or not should be seen as part of a grander narrative of the end of Roman civilization. Edward Gibbon argued that the rise of Christianity was one of the main causes of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. This is, of course, not what I’m trying to do, but we would be foolish not to acknowledge that religion could (and can) be a destructive force, especially in these days.

On an entirely different note, I must also say that I continue to be amazed by Oxford University Press. This hardback, b/w illustrated, 200p book sells for £15, which is incredibly cheap compared to what other major publishers like Brill and “L’Erma” di Bretschneider usually charge. Even more specialized books from OUP are usually available in both (cheap) paperback and (modestly priced) hardback versions.

Simon James. 2001. “”Romanization” and the Peoples of Britain”, pp. 77-89, in: Simon Keay & Nicola Terrenato (eds.) Italy and the West: Comparative issues in Romanization. Oxford.
Bryan Ward-Perkins. 2005. The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization. Oxford.
James O’Donnell has done a witty review for BMCR along with a similar new book by Peter Heather, that I have yet to read.

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