From Rome's fall to the rise of powerbroker popes

The mosaic of Theoderic's place, with figures removed, in Sant'Apollinare in Ravenna, Italy (Newscom/akg-images/Cameraphoto)

By Peter Heather
Published by Oxford University Press, $34.95

The Duke of Gloucester was dismissive. "Another damned square, thick book? Always scribble, scribble, scribble, eh, Mr. Gibbon," he is reported to have remarked on being presented in 1781 with the second volume of Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

There were, in the end, six volumes in the original edition, though the version on my shelves runs to eight, perhaps because it has pictures. Decline and Fall has a good claim to be the greatest work of history in the English language: For a history undergraduate in the early 1960s, it, or part of it, was a set book for the first term of the Oxford syllabus. To this day, no one studying the story of late antique and medieval Europe can ignore Gibbon's magnum opus. By writing of Rome's decline and blaming it mainly on the barbarians -- though he wasn't averse to accusing the Christians, too -- he set the agenda for future scholars.

Peter Heather, one of whose earlier books was titled The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians, certainly doesn't ignore Gibbon. The Restoration of Rome has an extensive quote from Gibbon's account of the battle of Poitiers in 732, when Charles Martel defeated Muslim forces at the farthest point of their penetration into Europe. Had the Merovingian ruler lost the battle (which Heather thinks more of a skirmish), wrote Gibbon, "perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet."

The theme of Heather's latest is not, however, the decline of Rome, but, as the title indicates, its restoration. For a while, this had me puzzled. Rome the city occurs but rarely in the first three-quarters of the text. Ravenna, capital of the Ostrogoth King Theoderic from 493 and later the seat of the exarch -- or representative of the emperor in distant Constantinople -- figures much more prominently. It is not the place that is being restored, but the idea -- and the idea not of a city, but of an empire.

Not that Theoderic called himself emperor. He had no wish to pick a fight with Constantinople. But he had lived for much of his youth in the imperial capital and understood the trappings of power. There is a mosaic of him in Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy, that restorers wrongly labelled Justinian. The Emperor Justinian would not have been amused. He had Theoderic and his entourage removed from the depiction of Theoderic's palace in Sant'Apollinare: only a single ghostly hand remains, clutching a pillar, a hand that presumably once belonged to a deleted Gothic dignitary.

One can understand the restorer's confusion. In the church of San Vitale there is a mosaic of Justinian and his court: the likeness between Theoderic and Justinian is striking, even down to the imperial diadem.

Theoderic's attempt to restore the Western Empire ran into the sand. Heather, a professor of medieval history at King's College, London, is an expert on the Goths, and it shows in his skillful handling of the endemic problems of succession among the barbarians. He makes them (almost) intelligible.

After the Gothic king, it was the turn of Justinian to attempt to return to the glories of the Roman Empire in the West. The capture of North Africa and Sicily were so easily done, he was encouraged to seize the whole of Italy, but the campaign dragged on for 27 years. It took so long, the emperor found himself faced with enemies on two fronts, barbarians to the west and a revitalized Persia to the east.

Fighting two enemies at once was something Justinian could not afford. Afford is the operative word. An undoubted strength of Heather's account is the great attention it pays to the financial impact of war. Taking territory could increase the tax base -- taxes being raised almost entirely on agriculture -- but the effort to capture them was expensive. Conversely, the loss of territory meant the loss of revenue, and the loss of revenue meant it became ever more problematic to feed and equip an army.

This analysis is a recurring theme, as true for Justinian as it was for the leader to whom Heather next turns, Charlemagne, the creator of Europe and the first of a long line of Holy Roman Emperors.

The crowning of Charlemagne by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day 800 was more for Leo's benefit than Charlemagne's. But the new emperor's extraordinary generosity to the papacy, argues Heather, changed the whole nature of the papal office, setting it on a trajectory culminating in 1198 with the election of one of the greatest, and most powerful, pontiffs of all time, Innocent III.

The final section of the book charts the emergence of the bishops of Rome as European powerbrokers. It is, unhappily, the least successful, as it appears rushed. Heather covers too many centuries for the space available. While the book is a tour de force, it is a challenge to recount the story of a thousand years in less than 500 pages.

My own Oxford tutor, Peter Brown, now at Princeton, published Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD at about the same time as Heather's book appeared. It is also about the alleged role of Christianity in the decline of Rome, but it deals with only 250 years in well over 600 pages.

Haste leads to errors. It is at least debatable that Constantine built St. Peter's. Most historians of the period would hesitate to describe Clement, who penned a letter to the church in Corinth toward the end of the first century, as a pope. The details of the papal election constitution of 1059 are not as outlined in The Restoration of Rome. And, while in critical mode, I wonder how Heather's racy writing style in a very British idiom will translate for U.S. readers: I was at first charmed, then increasingly irritated.

But I don't want to carp. This volume is both erudite and accessible, not an easy combination to achieve in a thoroughly scholarly book. The main characters, Theoderic, Justinian and Charlemagne, not to mention Justinian's far from loyal historian Procopius, come alive on the page. It is also a master class in how to read late antique and medieval texts, not least the Liber Pontificalis, or "Book of the Popes," often enough the only reasonably contemporary source for the history of a particular pontiff.

Heather begins his story with emperors and would-be emperors who even in ecclesiastical matters were more important than popes. The book ends, however, with a pope who is more powerful than any European monarch, whose law reached far beyond the boundaries of the ancient Roman Empire and whose administration was at least as efficient as the bureaucracy of ancient Rome. In Heather's view, it is the medieval papacy that constitutes the restoration of Rome, the second Roman Empire.

Which brings us back to Edward Gibbon. Gibbon claimed to have conceived Decline and Fall in 1764 while seated in Rome among the ruins of the capitol as the "barefoot friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter." The pope, he thought, was the ghost of the Roman emperor seated on the throne of St. Peter. As I have written elsewhere, perhaps he might have likened the current papal penchant for canonizing their predecessors to a revival of that ancient imperial practice of deifying one's ancestors.

[Michael Walsh is a church historian and Vatican commentator. A frequent contributor to The Tablet, he is a fellow at Heythrop College, London.]

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