John Bagnell Bury’s Invasion of Europe by the Barbarians takes the story of the fall of the Roman Empire and tells it from the barbarian point of view. This is not the normal perspective on the story, but it is a more positive way to look at it. After all, when the empire fell a lot of new states were created and each of them has its own story. So from this point of view Alaric, the first man to sack Rome, is seen as an ambitious and capable ruler who was just trying to get his share of the action. But this doesn’t detract from the drama of the story.
The city is under siege by Alaric’s Goths, but has also been largely abandoned by the authorities. Thrown on their own resources the population of the city looks for radical solutions. The pope, who unlike the emperor had stuck with the city, collaborated with the pagan leadership. Was the problem the failure to carry out the sacrifices to the old gods of the city? When you are in trouble anything is worth investigating and the pope authorised the revival of the antique practice. But in the event nobody dared to actually do it. Sacrifices were illegal and the penalty was death.
It is unlikely they would have saved the day anyway. It was a desperate idea for a desperate situation. In the end, the defences were broken and the Goths poured in to sack the city.
Alaric’s triumph was short lived, he died shortly afterwards, and the empire managed to pull itself together but was soon faced with an even bigger threat. The name of the Huns’ leader Attila has still not been forgotten in Europe even today. Attila was able to raid through the Balkans to the walls of Constantinople, but could not overcome such a well fortified city. But there was no city so strong in the western half of the empire. He also had a romantic interest in it. The emperor’s sister had tried to get out of a forced marriage by sending her engagement ring to Attila and asking for his help.Attila’s interpretation was that this was a proposal of marriage to himself. He instantly accepted and claimed half the western empire as a dowry. His prospective brother in law tried to explain that it wasn’t really meant to be taken that way, to which the response was war. The Huns penetrated Gaul in force. The Goths and the Romans pulled together what forces they could and miraculously managed to turn the Huns back at Chalons. This has long been considered as one of the decisive battles of history. Well it might be, but Attila was only diverted not defeated. He would be back again and his threat was only removed when he himself died – from a burst blood vessel brought on by the excitement of a new bride. For a bloodthirsty barbarian leader he does seem to have had a romantic streak in the mix somewhere.
The culmination of the book is the foundation of the kingdom of Clovis in what is now France, and a key event in the creation of France. This is told as both a straight forward bit of politics, but also probes the psychology and introduces us to the characters. Clovis emerges as a very characteristic man of his time. He is uneducated but intelligent, ruthless but pragmatic and has a clear idea of what he wants. His aim is to found a dynasty. It was a common enough ambition among the men that wrecked the empire, and not a particularly visionary or forward thinking one. But it was there actions that gave us the Europe we now live in. His adoption of Catholicism set the scene for the Catholics to ultimately wipe out both paganism and Arian christianity. There must have been some pretty convincing advantages to following this course of action, and I dare say we could work them out with a bit of study. One surprising one was keeping his Catholic wife happy. Clovis was a hard man who thought nothing of advancing his empire but killing rival kings or securing his position inside his empire by killing relatives. The idea that he was henpecked at home doesn’t really stack up. But it is amusing to think of it, and that is what one of the chroniclers says happened.
It is an enjoyable story. It was written in the twenties and has the flavour of its time. A lot of the ideas about the constitution of the barbarian tribes and their economics has a very dated feel to it. I don’t have time to follow the literature in this area but I would be very surprised if modern scholars still stick to the idea that the Germans underwent an agricultural revolution at the time the emperors were ruling in Rome, and that it was this that led them to start their migrations. On the other hand, I don’t imagine there is much more to be said on the way the Lombards managed their new conquests in Italy, and I am sure that must explain why that part of Italy even today has a rather different outlook than the rest of the country. The example of the Lombards is one that other barbarian conquerors followed. They installed themselves as an aristocratic elite governed by their own laws. Their new subjects continued with Roman laws. That aristocrats are governed by a different code to others survived as a concept and as a practice for centuries. Indeed in Britain it is still theoretically possible for a member of the aristocracy to insist on trial by the House of Lords rather than a standard court.
For an introduction to the confusing goings on in the Dark Ages it is a pretty good starting point, with one rather strange caveat. For some reason, Britain is neglected. I am guessing that it is covered by another of the author’s works, but it does make this account a bit unbalanced. For a British reader this is not too big a problem as we are very familiar with the story of how the Anglo Saxons overran Roman Britain, but it might put off someone who wants the whole story. But this aside, it covers that period where the classical world was subsumed and the shape of modern countries begins to emerge. From now on the names begin to sound like the names we still use and institutions that are still around have their origins.
I consumed this book in audio form. The narrator does a good job, but keeps up a very dramatic tone throughout the whole thing. This is a bit wearing after a while and forced me to split up my listening more than I would have chosen to. But all in all a good read or listen, in retrospect probably a better read. If nothing else, it provides yet another reason to explain Rome fell. It was in the way of some people with other plans and who laid the groundwork for modern Europe.