By Chris Wickham
Allen Lane, 2009
Publisher’s Synopsis: The idea that with the decline of the Roman Empire Europe entered into some immense ‘dark age’ has long been viewed as inadequate by many historians. How could a world still so profoundly shaped by Rome and which encompassed such remarkable societies as the Byzantine, Carolingian and Ottonian empires, be anything other than central to the development of European history? How could a world of so many peoples, whether expanding, moving or stable, of Goths, Franks, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, whose genetic and linguistic inheritors we all are, not lie at the heart of how we understand ourselves?
The Inheritance of Rome is a work of remarkable scope and ambition. Drawing on a wealth of new material, it is a book which will transform its many readers’ ideas about the crucible in which Europe would in the end be created. From the collapse of the Roman imperial system to the establishment of the new European dynastic states, perhaps this book’s most striking achievement is to make sense of an immensely long period of time, experienced by many generations of Europeans, and which, while it certainly included catastrophic invasions and turbulence, also contained long periods of continuity and achievement.
From Ireland to Constantinople, from the Baltic to the Mediterranean, this is a genuinely Europe-wide history of a new kind, with something surprising or arresting on every page.
Our Video Review
“Early medieval Europe has, over and over, been misunderstood.” With these words, Chris Wickham begins his book The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000. The Professor of Medieval History at University of Oxford is here offering his views on how Europe itself changed with the break-up of the Roman Empire, and the emergence of kings and kingdoms in western Europe and empires in the East.
Professor Wickham sees two major problems with the way historians have portrayed the early Middle Ages — the first is that many books have claimed this period saw the emergence of national identities and an overall European one too — that if you searched hard enough you could find the beginning of France, Spain or Belgium. Wickham calls this “bad history” which is the result of the people seeing signs of evidence where none really exist.
The other problem he notes is the one where historians have traditionally seen the early Middle Ages as a kind of “storyline of failure” – the result of the collapse the Western Roman Empire, where Europe needed hundreds of years to recover. Wickham writes that he finds this to be ridiculous and notes that “every period in history has its own identity and legitimacy, which must be seen without hindsight.”
Wickham finds that these two historical notions are now fading, as more medievalists start working on the early Middle Ages and cover a wider range of its history. So he sets out to write a history of this time, trying to make sure he is not comparing periods or places. His book is divided into four parts: The Roman Empire and its Break-up, 400-550; The Post-Roman West, 550-750, The Empires of the East, 550-1000; and The Carolingian and Post-Carolingian West, 750-1000. Wickham covers various topics, including the changing political fortunes and the economic development that took place during this period.
For a book that is supposed to deal with the history of Europe, Wickham pays much attention to the Middle East. This is because of the rise of Islam, the influence of Roman ideals on its society and government, and how Muslims played an important role throughout the Mediterranean.
Wickham said he wrote this book “to be comprehensible to people who know nothing about the period,” but this work is so rich in detail and analysis that even specialists in this field will want to have a copy. For many this will be a great starting point for understanding the Early Middle Ages, where they will find a fascinating story of many different places and peoples.
The Sunday Times review by Tom Holland – “what this book does serve to demonstrate is not merely that a history can be fashioned out of a period when “Europe” was little more than a term of geography, but that the telling of it can be made accessible, compelling and humane.”
The New Scotsman review by Allan Massie – “the wealth of detail he deploys is astonishing. This can make tedious reading for non-specialists, yet the general outline of the argument is fascinating. Many hoary myths are dispelled. There is an abundance of good sense as well as fine scholarship.”
Literary Review review by Christopher Kelly – “The test of the historian is to capture the foreignness of the past without resorting to ridicule, disapproval or dislike. The challenge is to engage the interest of the reader without compromising the disorienting sense of the strangely unfamiliar. This is the outstanding achievement of The Inheritance of Rome.”
BBC History Magazine review by Matthew Innes – “As the wealth of scholarship which oozes through every page of Chris Wickham’s book demonstrates, the powerful stereotypes of ‘decline and fall’ followed by an ‘age of tribal migrations’ have long outlived their usefulness.”