Before I begin, I wish to make two comments. Firstly, I had not intended to write anything. Professor Digeser and Professor Humphries had done an excellent job answering Ferguson’s destructive opinions. An article in the Australian journal The Business Insider, entitled “This is exactly how civilisations fall,” calls Dr. Ferguson an eminent historian. Which he might be for his field, but not for mine. I attempt will attempt here to show how misguided his version is based on his admitted “cursory” research.
Secondly, since I wrote this article, there has been more senseless violence around the globe. Just fifteen hours ago, a explosion at the Yola Market killed 32 people. This is a stark reminder that the violence is experienced on a global scale.
|A scene from what looks to be some video game.|
In a recent opinion’s piece written for the Boston Globe, Niall Ferguson compares the Paris attacks of Friday to the fall of the Roman Empire. Opening up one’s doors to migrants caused Rome’s mighty empire to collapse. Scholars of the Fall of Rome—unlike Professor Ferguson—have taken to Facebook to write notes. Two in particular, one written by Mark Humphries, the other by my undergraduate mentor Elizabeth Digeser, deserve attention.
Ferguson cites Edward Gibbon, who wrote a magisterial study called the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (the last volume was published in 1788), as a main source of information. Gibbon had argued that Rome fell due to external pressures and Christianity. Humphries displays his erudition on the work of Gibbon. A series of notes (meant to be turned into a book), written by Gibbon after the French revolution, shows that he had underestimated the importance of internal forces and civil war. This last volume, Humphries states, was never published.
Digeser’s criticism falls on two points. First, Ferguson did not understand Gibbon. The equation “Rome is the West” (much less Rome is the European Union) is not in Gibbon, who took his study to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Second, Ferguson believes that the Western Empire was ethnically pure. Not so, the cultural mosaic that is Rome means that there was no unified Roman culture. The one element of culture that unified the empire (paideia) was an elite phenomenon. The diversity of cults and cultures precludes any sort of “roman culture” writ large. A couple monumental examples: the tomb of Augustus can be differenced from the Palmyrene tombs.
|The Mausoleum of Augustus|
|The Palmyrene Tower Tombs|
Outside of Gibbon, Ferguson uses two monographs, Peter Heather’s The Fall of the Roman Empire and Ward-Perkins’ The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization. Both monographs, and especially the latter, attempt to demonstrate that the Roman Empire fell quickly under the pressures of the barbarians. Both works are important historiographical comments—that is, they are addressing intellectual trends—in that they respond to Late Antiquity.
Late Antiquity is an answer to a largely modern, intellectual problem. Until Peter Brown published The World of Late Antiquity in 1971, the period between Diocletian’s accession in 283 and the conquest of the Levant by Islam in the early seventh century was dominated by two dates, 410 and 476. In 410, the barbarian Visigoths sacked Rome, and in 476, the barbarian king Odoacer proclaimed himself king (a title that had not been used in Rome since the expulsion of Tarquin in 509 BC, and had been famously used to frame Julius Caesar). The world of Antiquity ended with a single word “rex”: gone were the days of Cicero, of the peace during the great emperors Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius. The Dark Ages announced itself with the sound of ringing church bells!
Late Antiquity, as a historical period, fell into two discreet areas of study. The Early Middle Ages, characterized by decay, and Byzantine history, centered of Byzantium. Either of these two histories were dominated not by narratives of grandeur, but putrescence. The west was dead. To quote (my translation) Ernst Stein’s introduction, one of the characteristic of the Later Roman Empire was “the definitive loss of the quasi-totality of the western world” (Stein, Histoire du Bas-Empire, 1). The east endured, but with great difficulty. As J.B. Bury states, “the diminished Roman Empire, now centering entirely in Constantinople, lasted for a thousand years, surrounded by enemies and frequently engaged in a struggle for life or death” (Bury, The Later Roman Empire, 3).
While both of these studies are, in fact, important precursors to Late Antiquity, they show that the unity of the Roman Empire was compromised by the territorial separation of the west. Late Antiquity addresses this. Peter Brown focuses mostly on the issue of decline of culture by pointing out the vivacious developments of Christianity around ancient tropes. Others, following Henri Pirenne (most notably Michael McCormick) have shown that the unity of the Mediterranean did not end in the fifth century. Perhaps most importantly, the biggest shift between ancient and medieval occurred at some point in the seventh century (as Wickham, Halsall).
The studies of Heather and Ward-Perkins respond to this trend. All of the studies mentioned above minimize the role of barbarians. Heather himself acknowledges in the first chapter of The Fall of the Roman Empire. The battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD, or the Marcommani wars made famous in the movie Gladiator (they were famous for other reasons… also), provide examples of earlier problems faced by great emperors (Augustus, Marcus Aurelius) in which the Romans did prevail, but at great costs. Heather focuses on the newcomer, the Huns. These barbarians migrated slowly into the Austro-Hungarian plains, creating a large, powerful confederation of barbarians, and pushing the other barbarians west into the Roman Empire.
Ward-Perkins focuses on violence (he calls Brown’s Late Antiquity “a much more comfortable vision of the end of empire). Vandals raped nuns, and burned cities, ransacked the countryside. Agricultural yield was smaller and cows were not as fat. Hunger led to riots. The world of Late Antiquity was a world tottering on the edge of systemic disasters.
Ward-Perkins is the son John Bryan Ward-Perkins, the former director of the British school at Rome. Bryan Ward-Perkins says himself in the introduction to his work that the world presented in Late Antiquity was different than the one he grew up in. The magnificence of the buildings of the emperors stood in sharp contrast with the world of the early middle ages. And certainly we are discussing different worlds whether we are considering Gaul in AD 100 and Gaul in AD 800.
All that to say two things about Niall Ferguson’s comments. Firstly he uses two polemical works that have engineered great criticism from the academic community. Neither Heather’s nor Ward-Perkins’ works are canon. In fact, Ward-Perkins’ Fall of Rome is clearly an invective, not just a scholarly work. He aims to recover the violent past at the expense of the more peaceful experiences. The historiography that bred these two works must be understood, something Dr. Ferguson clearly has not done.
Secondly, as a corollary, Niall Ferguson is absolutely and unequivocally wrong when he characterizes the fall of the Roman Empire using three works that represent only part of the story. Gibbon wrote in the eighteenth century, and the Decline and Fall is the product of the enlightenment. Heather’s the Fall of Rome focuses on the barbarians. Ward-Perkins’ The Fall of the Roman Empire shows how violent is was. Each serves a purpose in Ferguson’s methodology. The first states the problem of the barbarians, the second describes it, and the third displays glimpses of a dark future for Europe.
The problem for my field is that amateur and experts alike are asked to discuss the issue of the Syrian refugees (for make no mistakes, Ferguson is really making a point about refugees). An article in Le Point (in French) uses Gibbon like Ferguson does. The great historian of Antiquity Alexander Demandt in Die Welt (in German) also expresses strong reservations about the influx of Syrians, even if he is unwilling to explicitly draw the comparison. Niall Ferguson is just another individual.
But the trend is pernicious. Historians and amateurs (the author of the Le Point article is at best called a dilettante) alike are attempting to predict a gloomy future to promote an agenda. It is pernicious because these opinions divorce history from the work historians do. Historians are not meant to make predictions precisely because, as Paul Veyne has eloquently demonstrated, historical inquiry focuses on the specificity of events. The Fall of Rome is interesting because it is specific. The writing of historical laws, he continues, is impossible: history could become “nomographic (the writing of laws- like theoretical physics) if the diversity of the events should not render impossible this mutation” (Paul Veyne, Comment on écrit l’histoire, 89).
This trend is pernicious also because historians cannot or should not make predictions. The processes we study often times stretch over hundreds of years. My own dissertation on the vicarii allegedly covers the period 283-395, but incorporates elements that date back to the first century BCE and forward to Justinian (d.565). In this chronological space, thousands of micro-elements influenced the historical narrative: it would be wrong to assume that the processes undertaken under Cicero found themselves realized under Justinian. In other words, even in 283, it was not evident a) that Rome would fall, b) that Rome would fall in the way that it did. In fact, when Diocletian took power, the east was recovering from Persian invasions that disabled commerce with the eastern world, had undergone a series of usurpations (Eliagabalus, Decius, Philip the Arab), at engineered least one major side-empire (Palmyra) and saw the disappearance of Egypt twice, once under Palmyrene rule, and once following the usurpation of Domitius Domitianus. If you had asked where the Roman Empire would fall, the east was a prime candidate. Yet it is in the east that it the Empire will endure. So when the prominent Niall Ferguson is proven wrong in the next ten years (which doesn’t mean he will be proven wrong in the long run, and this is also problematic), what will the backlash against historians be?
|A much more Accurate Rendition|
Jean Julien's Eiffel Tower
That is not to say that we cannot notice parallels between historical times, or that these parallels are inherently misleading (though I think they are, but that’s hardly the pint). But Alexander Demandt described 210 reasons for the fall of Rome only seven of which touch on the barbarians. Before we jump to conclusions, perhaps we can consider the other 203.
Lastly, and this is more personal. Niall Ferguson stated that Paris was killed by complacency. Should we forget about London in 2005, or Madrid in 2004, or New York in 2001? Or the myriad of attacks in the Middle East, the latest iteration of which was Beirut just last week? Or Kenya—again, last week? Is Paris the new Rome that an attack on Paris is an attack on the western world? Is Paris a symbol of something it has stopped representing a long time ago (if it ever did)? And here I thought France didn’t have an empire.