*The Inheritance of Rome*

by on August 22, 2009 at 5:54 am in Books, History | Permalink

What can I say?  I have to count this tome as one of the best history books I have read, ever.  The author is Chris Wickham and the subtitle is A History of Europe from 400 to 1000.  The author states that this is a book written “without hindsight” so the focus is not on how early medieval times were a precursor of this, that, or the other.  In addition to its all-around stunningness, it has the following:

1. Extensive use of Egyptian archives, which it turns out are extensive from this period.  Egypt may have been the most advanced part of the world at that time.

2. Fluid integration of historical and archeological sources.

3. An emphasis on “localization” as the fundamental change following the fall of the Roman Empire, and numerous micro-studies of exactly how that localization occurred.  Cities shrank, trade networks dried up, etc.

4. An illuminating discussion of how family control made it incentive-compatible to invest so much wealth in monasteries.

5. An interesting hypothesis as to why so many Islamic cities ended up with such narrow streets (I may blog this separately).

6. How the peasantry ended up so downtrodden in England.

7. How the fall of the Roman Empire really happened (more or less).

8. How the Carolingian, Byzantine, and Abbasid empires all drew upon their Roman heritage in varying ways.

And more.  If a while ago I defined the category “a book after which you don’t want to read any other book,” I’ll try a new designation: “a book which makes you want to spend a month or more reading follow-up works in the same area.”

Here is one very good review.  I got a kick out of one of the Amazon reviews:

This is a challenging book to read. There is so much information
crammed into every page that you have to read slowly or you’ll miss
something. And there are 550 pages of this.

Content!  Heaven forbid! 

1 Steve Reilly August 22, 2009 at 6:47 am

Thanks for the review. I’ve noticed this at the library and was considering getting it out. I’ll grab it Monday.

2 liberalarts August 22, 2009 at 9:50 am

Are there actual Marxists outside of sociology departments these days?

3 dearieme August 22, 2009 at 10:20 am

Recently I’ve tended to judge historians partly by the frequency with which they get important economic facts right, under the influence of Oliver Rackham’s wonderful “History of the Countryside” in which he shows that many historians of Britain have copied from each other ludicrously inaccurate – and indeed implausible – errors about the countryside: stuff such as the forests being destroyed by shipbuilders, or by iron smelters, for example, or the landscape tumbling down to ruin after the Roman legions departed. If you’re writing about an age when most of the population made its living from agriculture, you can’t get the economics right unless you get the countryside right. Since Rackham has also written about the countryside of the Mediterranean area (http://www.longitudebooks.com/find/p/52878/mcms.html,I immediately wonder whether Wickham’s writings are consistent with Rackham’s. Does anyone here know?

4 Scoop August 22, 2009 at 11:37 am

Any recommendations for best book on Byzantium? I’m not so much interested in the political history as the cultural history. How did Christianity develop there? How did Roman technology advance and decline — and how did it decline in a reasonably stable society? Why didn’t Byzantium’s existence keep knowledge of Roman technology alive in Europe? What was it like to live there?

5 anon August 22, 2009 at 12:28 pm

Tyler, if you liked the book so much you should reproduce this as a 5 star review on Amazon and help the author out.

6 An Onyx Mousse August 22, 2009 at 12:53 pm

In response to Scoop above:
“A Short History of Byzantium” by John Julius Norwich is a wonderfully readable overview of the history of the Byzantine empire, from the end of the Western Roman empire to the fall of Constantinople in the 15th century. It is the condensation of a longer trilogy by the same author if you want more information than can fit in a single volume. He covers the major events of military, political, religious, and cultural history for this fascinating epoch.

7 razib August 23, 2009 at 3:11 am

re: norwich, from what i have heard you might as well just read wikipedia. i read that series back in the day, but A History of the Byzantine State and Society is much better. re: wickham, this sounds good, but i liked Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800, though i only got halfway through before i had to go on a trip and never got back to it (it’s 1,000 pages or so).

8 razib August 23, 2009 at 5:58 pm

roy, i agree with the fall of rome bit, but it’s easy to just ignore that interpretation. though thanks for warning about cherry-picking (though that seemed likely when i read his introduction where he made the case for leaving out certain regions, etc.)

9 Ken August 23, 2009 at 9:00 pm

When I was in grad school at UCLA, I dreaded having to take an undoubtedly boring class on “the economic history of Europe,” which would offer yet another view of the period from the industrial revolution to the 20th century. Fortunately Axel Leijonhufvud was teaching the course that semester and had similar feelings about the subject. His class covered a roughly similar period, from the fall of Rome to the beginning of the Renaissance. I’ll have to grab a copy of this book to see how it compares with my notes from his class.

10 Ed August 24, 2009 at 1:51 pm

My understanding is that recent books on the fall of the Roman Empire have tended to emphasize just how long it took, and also tended to exculpate the barbarians, who except for the Vandals tended to try to shore things up.

There was a decline of living standards and urbanization in the eastern half of the empire, where the government was successful in maintaining its authority. It appears the economic and demographic collapse happened before the political collapse.

Also, about half of Gibbon’s book about the decline and fall of the Roman Empire is actually about the Byzantine Empire, though Gibbon didn’t like the Byzantines that much. It appears they were too religious for him.

11 Anderson August 26, 2009 at 11:56 am

The Amazon reviewer says that Wickham doesn’t even mention the battle of Poitiers (aka Tours), which is pretty amazingly bad if true. Being a Marxist is one thing, writing dumb history is another.

12 Boing747 December 1, 2009 at 12:25 pm

“@scoop; there was a general tendancy not to learn greek, either from a political plot (papacy), trade routes or difficulty. It is greek to me.”

There was a “general tendency not to learn Greek” in a society that included Greek-speaking inhabitants and whose educated classes read Homer?

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: