Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Sack of Rome, AD 410: what do historians and archaeologists think now?

Some of them got together in Rome earlier this month to talk about the subject.  I wasn't there, but Guy Halsall was, and he reports at length

Some excerpts I liked:

After these preliminaries, Arnaldo Marcone gave a lengthy run-down of the symbolic importance of Rome in imperial sources from the Battle of Adrianople onwards and then, more interestingly, Carlos Machado spoke on 'The Roman Aristocracy Before and after the Sack'.  What Machado showed quite graphically was a dramatic shrinking of horizons in the interests and indeed the geographical make-up of the Roman senatorial aristocracy after 410.  He also, very interestingly, pointed up the factional divides within the senate and highlighted their absolutely central involvement in the events of 408-410, making clear the complicity of some of the most powerful noble families in events such as the raising up of the usurper Attalus.  What I thought was interesting, from a personal point of view, was just how little connection there was between the Roman aristocracy (in its composition and in the areas it served in) and Gaul (especially) and Spain.  Links with North Africa were extensive, perhaps unsurprisingly, but so too were links with the East.

After coffee it was the turn of the revisionist 'terrible twins', which is to say Michael Kulikowski and me.  I spoke on the subject of 'Goths and Romans'.  I'll post the whole text anon.  For now, suffice it to say that most of it was a distillation of the relevant bits of Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West but with some revisions and developments.  These can be summarised thus:
1: The Gothicness of Alaric's forces may have stemmed largely from continued widespread recruitment north of the Danube, rather than from Goths settled in the Empire after 376
2: The nature of the foederati was new but not unprecedented but in the precise circumstances of the period 395-410 (the heated - and sometimes bloody - debate on the presence of barbarian troops inside the Empire) meant a closer bond between commander and soldiers
3: The title rex has a more specific resonance and particular appropriateness to a commander of foederati in rebellion
4: Kingdoms, far from being an objective, are the default option if nothing better can be obtained.  'Kingdoms are for losers'
5: Honorius' role is much more decisive than people give it credit for being

Michael's paper likewise drew on his body of work to critique the notions of barbarian migration, especially in its recent manifestations, and to show (in similar but far from identical ways to my paper) how the specific circumstances of the period led to a tense and dangerous focus on the commanders of armies of barbarian recruits and their relationships with the court.  Michael built on this a discussion of the traditional Roman means of defending Italy and how these were quite irrelevant to the situation in 408-10.  He then used post-colonial theory to reconstruct Alaric's career in terms of a subaltern mimicking of the dominant culture but one where sudden changes in the situation and the lack of precedent for his position meant that in some points of crisis, unable to obtain what he wanted from the inside, he had to fall back on 'playing the part' assigned to him within the ideological order - that of rampaging barbarian - and to attacking the system from the outside, with dramatic results.  I hope this is not too crude a synopsis.  It was very interesting and I agreed with most of it, even if I had some problems with some elements (I think that Michael would probably say the same about my paper).
The conference's last session was I think set up to be something of a play-off between Peter Heather and Walter Pohl, representing the schools of 'Fall of Rome' and of 'Transformation of the Roman World' respectively.  I didn't hear most of Peter Heather's presentation but from what I did hear and from what emerged in questions, it was exactly the same line that he has been arguing since 1991, without modification or any real reflexion.  The Roman Empire was brought down by the exogenous pressure of barbarian incursions produced by the Huns (an idea first expressed by St Ambrose of Milan in the 380s, incidentally).  From what heard it was clear that Heather hasn't had anything new to say on the subject of Goths and Romans for twenty years.  In questions he declared that the world was irreparably changed by 420; if he meant that and it wasn't a slip of the tongue, then I think that that is just empirically wrong.  In 420 I would say that the West was on the verge of complete restoration under Constantius III and that had the emperor not dropped dead of pleurisy then next year things would probably have been very different indeed (see, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, p.).  What brought down the Roman Empire?  Pleurisy.  ... As I always, not entirely jokingly, tell my first-years. 

Walter refused to play the part scripted for him and instead presented a useful summing up, and a view that pointed out how Heather and Ward-Perkins had essentially misconstrued the position of those who don't believe that barbarians conquered the Roman Empire, by claiming that they don't believe there was any violence. ('Transformation' is not the same as 'continuity', said Andrea Giardina in discussion afterwards.)  The process - and the debate - was more subtle and more complex than that.  That apart he did a very fine job of conciliation, and so the whole event drew to a close.
Plenty more, not easily re-summarized, where that came from!

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