The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization

by Bryan Ward-Perkins

Hardcover, 2005



Call number




Oxford University Press (2005), Hardcover


Bryan Ward-Perkins encourages the reader to think again on the fall of Rome by reclaiming the drama and violence, and reinstating the very real horrors of barbarian occupation and the disintegration of the Roman world. He examines how and why successive generations have understood this period differently.

User reviews

LibraryThing member c.egan
This book covers, over little space, the end of Rome in all parts of its Empire and the impact of that on all classes of its society. It explores the organization of the Emipre as a whole and sundry details of daily life.

'The Fall of Rome' is thoroughly researched and thought through, and presented
Show More
in a lively way, with humour and outstanding clarity. There are also useful maps, photographs and drawings. Apt for the expert and non-expert alike, and a really good read.

The author discusses different theories about the 'Fall of Rome'and the 'Dark Ages' - moral decline combined with ruthless conquest or peaceful transition and transformation? He also shows how they are informed by the spirit of their own time (for instance, racism).

The scholar is fair and balanced in his evaluation of theories and evidence, but concludes confidently that the transition was "traumatic" and threw life back to "prehistoric" standards. Two striking examples from post-Roman Britain: For several centuries, no one built in stone any more. No one wrote.

If you have liked this book, you might want to read "Catastrophe" by David Keys, exploring a possible reason for the decline of civilization in the 6th century - although Bryan Ward-Perkins does not refer to it at all.

Christina Egan
Show Less
LibraryThing member flmcgough
Another excellent book on the Late Antique world, with a completely different thesis from the ubiquitous Peter Brown. Ward-Perkins gives good, clear, concrete evidence to prove his point: that the transition from Rome to the medieval world was a destructive one. He writes clearly and concisely, and
Show More
relies on archaeological records to prove his point. Overall, I highly suggest this book for anyone interested in the 5th-6th century Roman world.
Show Less
LibraryThing member cemanuel
With this volume Bryan Ward-Perkins seeks to dispel the myth that the end of the Roman Empire and the subsequent rise to prominence in Western Europe of the Barbarians was a relatively peaceful transition, without a large level of violence, or even major disruption. In this area he is successful,
Show More
however this does not change my opinion that this book is, overall, mediocre at best.

Ward-Perkins begins by discussing how recent works discussing the Fall of Rome and the Rise of the Barbarian West have dispelled the notion that this transformation was violent, or largely disruptive. IMO this is one of his weakest arguments. I have read dozens of books depicting this era and in none of these have I seen anything to support his claim that this is the current trend in the field. All works I have read speak of death, enslavement, destruction, the sack of cities, the displacement of thousands of people, etc. These works have taken differing views on whether this was a good or bad thing, or whether it was necessary, or, above all, just what it was that caused the end of the Western Empire, but in none of these have I read an argument put forward that the period was relatively painless. One text which he specifically takes exception to is Peter Brown's "The World of Late Antiquity" (1971). While I have not read this, I do have Brown's "The Rise of Western Christendom" (1996). In it, I do not see an argument for a peaceful transformation. While one may argue over his characterization of conflicts as being generally small and localized rather than large-scale in nature, Brown refers to the "end of Roman Peace" p 56 and the "grim glimpse of the human cost" p 78.

In addition, Ward-Perkins is given to over-exaggeration. Nowhere is this more evident than in his assertion that the Post-Roman West had fallen to a level of economic prosperity "back to a standard of living typical of prehistoric times." p183 or that "It took centuries for people in the former empire to reacquire the skills and the regional networks that would take them back to these pre-Roman levels of sophistication." p137

I certainly have no argument with anyone who says that overall standards of living, levels of trade, cultural sophistication and complexity, etc., fell and fell radically following the ending of the Roman Empire in the West. But to argue that these fell to below prehistoric levels over anything close to the entire region is beyond belief, particularly when these assertions are not supported. Ward-Perkins appears to ignore the Visigothic taxation system established by Euric in Spain and Southern Gaul immediately following its secession from the Empire, or that evidence exists for a vigorous (if less extensive than during the height of the Empire) maritime trade continuing throughout the Mediterranean. He himself states that "Once the violence was over, in large parts of the former western empire a great deal of the social structure, and much of the administrative and cultural framework of imperial times, re-emerged and flourished." p63 I do not see how this statement can be reconciled with an argument for society to have fallen below pre-Roman standards. Certainly this may be argued for small areas, or for brief periods of time, and I would hesitate even to argue against him for the whole of Britain. But overall, this outlook is insupportable.

I will not say that this book is without worth. For much of it, I found myself agreeing with Ward-Perkins, only to revert back to the thought, "Who is arguing anything else?" In particular, his discussion of pottery and what archaeological evidence can reveal is very instructive. The problem here is not his evidence. The problems are his base premise of historians advocating that the end of the Roman Empire was painless and his consistent overstating of just how far the level of civilization dropped in subsequent centuries.

To his credit, Ward-Perkins admits to being "conditioned by a very 'Roman' upbringing and early experience" p169. I believe that while much of what he says is supportable, much is overblown. If there are works extant that argue for a relatively pain-free ending to the Roman Empire (rather than simply utilizing terminology which Ward-Perkins disagrees with), these are certainly misrepresentations of the evidence, however this is no reason to provide a work which misrepresents matters in the opposite direction.

Ultimately, this reads more as a 200-page editorial than a scholarly historical work. I would not argue against someone purchasing it, but if you do, please purchase another companion volume or volumes covering the same period to help provide a more balanced view.
Show Less
LibraryThing member Shrike58
Back in the day I used to play this board game called "Republic of Rome" with some of my friends. Dealing with the late republic, the joke was how that while you were busy trying to conquer the world the whole lot of us could be undone by "paper and dice," as one bad roll of the die and one bad
Show More
event card too many could collapse the game. Why bring up this personal anecdote? It's that to a large degree that the author is dealing with the concatenation of events that tore apart the Western Roman Empire, between political strife, bad harvests, plague, and, most of all, the great barbarian invasions. This is in opposition to the new conventional wisdom that the changes of the 400s were more transformative than destructive. Ward-Perkins is not buying this concept; he's seen too much hard evidence to the contrary. It took the empire to uphold a sophisticated economic system and without that socio-political armature the whole structure could not be maintained. Besides talking about how the need for a usable past for the European Community helped lead to the current academic orthodoxy of Late Antiquity, Ward-Perkins takes the fate of the Western Roman Empire as a warning about the dangers of too much economic complexity and specialization.
Show Less
LibraryThing member nmele
This short book interested me not so much for its argument against a revisionist consensus that Rome did not fall as for the evidence Ward-Perkins introduces to argue for the fall of the western Roman Empire as a result of barbarian invasions. He argues from bits of pottery, graffiti and coins that
Show More
economic complexity dropped drastically in the fifth century of the common era, and along the way portrays the late western Empire as a society of literate, prosperous and sophisticated people.
Show Less
LibraryThing member kateashenden
Offers an argument opposed to Peter Brown's view that the Fall of ROme was not so cataclysmic as is popularly thought. Wittily presents a great deal of evidence that it was indeed disastrous, and set bat living standards significantly for 1000 years.
LibraryThing member nandadevi
The author appears to be quite at ease (and persuasive) arguing against the notion that the end of the Western Roman Empire was a gentle affair. He uses quite specific examples from every part of that Empire, and over a period of hundreds of years, to show that the decline was in many cases
Show More
violent, and in all cases catastrophic. But the reader's impression of events surrounding the fall of the Western Roman Empire is consequently fragmented. There is no full context, beyond a bare chronology at the end of the book. We are asked to consider an event involving millions of people over the breadth of European and hundreds of years of history and culture coming together. But Ward-Perkins only opens that book at a few pages in order to make his case, and leaves the reader in the dark as to the rest of it. In some senses it's an argument that is addressed to those in the field of Late Roman scholarship, which Ward-Perkins has perhaps brought to the general public at the behest of an editor. But in the end it's neither good scholarship, or good general history. At best it makes the reader wish for more, and in doing that much at least it could be called a stimulating book. It does, however, have this virtue - it's short and it has pictures.
Show Less
LibraryThing member jerry-book
Does the absence of pottery, roof tiles, coinage, and the lack of literacy prove the fall of Rome was also the fall of civilization. This author makes a convincing case that the Dark Ages were in fact a miserable time to be alive. It was not a simple bucolic existence that some have claimed.
LibraryThing member dhmontgomery
A brief (I read it in one sitting) but thorough book making the focused point that the end of the Western Roman Empire was, in fact, violent and calamitous, a once-orthodox position now increasingly challenged by a view emphasizing the peaceful and negotiated transition from Roman to Germanic rule
Show More
and settlement. Ward-Perkins makes a compelling argument for the narrow version of his thesis, and he's careful to note instances where the end of Rome was less violent or calamitous than others. In particular, his arguments about economic history — the collapse of post-Roman economies to, in some cases, more simple and impoverished versions than even pre-Roman civilizations — are compelling. His arguments for the violence of the fall of Rome are more rooted in interpretations of a scanty literary record, though from my own biases it's also an easier anecdotal case to make that bands of armed men moving into a new territory, even when officially welcomed, might have been violent and disruptive.
Show Less


PEN Hessell-Tiltman Prize (Shortlist — 2006)


Original publication date


Physical description

248 p.; 9.21 inches


0192805649 / 9780192805645

Similar in this library

Page: 0.786 seconds