Schoolchildren today know far less about the Romans and their successors than they used to, yet the empire still casts a long shadow. When we fret about barbarians at the gates, or argue about the hubris of the Pax Americana, we are following in the footsteps not only of Gibbon, but of the historical characters who inhabited his work: Alaric leading the Goths through the pillaged streets of Rome; Justinian gazing for the first time on the dome of Hagia Sophia; Mohammed bringing the new message of Islam to the warriors of Arabia; Charlemagne being crowned emperor by the Pope on Christmas Day, For grandiloquent rhetoric, savage wit and narrative drama there is still nobody to touch Gibbon. The new year may be only a month old, but it is hard to believe that it will produce many more enduring and impressive history books than this. The late Roman world was, as he shows, a stable and sophisticated society, bound together by patronage, commerce and, above all, taxation, its citizens often living in bustling cities or country estates.
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In part I, Wickham exposes many features of Roman society and economy while also evaluating the impacts of the Christianization of the Empire and of its collapse in the western provinces in the 5th century. In part II, the early medieval West from to is investigated and unraveled wonderfully before the reader, from the "shadowy" regions of Britain and Ireland to the Lombard and Visigothic kingdoms.
I also loved his emphasis on the study of the peasantry "in opposition" to the aristocracy of all those medieval societies namely the Frankish , when the book could have easily have become just a history of the elites and the church. I also loved his ponderation of the "continuity vs. Moreover, the Visigothic kingdom was also starting to disagregate by the late 7th century the duchies are one of the greatest signs of this , with royal authority not being respected in practice in several regions, namely on the northern mountains.
Part III was probably the hardest to write for the author, since it dealt with areas almost completely out of his area of expertise early and high medieval Italy , but he suceeds anyway in making a good introduction.
Part IV is one of the best and worst of the book, depending on the chapter. Carolingian Francia, England and post-Carolingian Latin Christendom are very well explored in the period between the years and on both political, cultural, religious and socioeconomic histories, yet the chapters on "Outer Europe" should have been better explored. I hope that a Penguin History of Europe written by a great scholar the author is clearly one should try to leave the typical bias of writing mainly about western Europe often accompanied by teleological history.
Cultures like those of the Slavs, the Northmen I refrain from the term "Viking" , the Huns, the Khazars,the Magyars, the Avars and also the peoples of pre-Frankish Germany not in any chronological order, of course should be much better covered given their overall interest to the History of the period and the fact they covered most of the continent. I admit a single small chapter is already good for histories of this period, yet more is demanded of a brilliant work. Four solid stars.
Speeding through the centuries
Share via Email According to Chris Wickham, two grand narratives have distorted our view of the period from to AD. The first is that "the middle ages" - ie the 10 centuries between Roman civilisation and the Renaissance - had some otherness or distinct character which set them apart from Rome and the modern world, resulting in presumptions that the earlier centuries were uncivilised and "dark". The second distortion results from the notion that the period was chiefly important for "the birth of nations". For example, there was no political state of England in but there was in , so the main story of the age is that of how England or France, or Castile, and so on came into being. Wickham is undoubtedly right to point out these problems. The very idea of a thousand years of cultural darkness before the Renaissance is ludicrous just think of the Sutton Hoo hoard and the Lindisfarne Gospels.
The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages, 400-1000
The Inheritance of Rome
The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000