A masterclass on how not to do history

A recent opinion piece from Niall Ferguson has been making its round on the internet. Its choice of title, ‘Like the Roman empire, Europe has let its defences crumble’, just after the horrendous terrorist attacks on Paris speaks volumes not only of his political views, but also his lack of historical awareness. I’ve been told that Ferguson was a good historian when dealing with his specialty, but the things he’s written in recent years definitely seem to be more tinged by ideology than any historical rigour. The same is true here: in his own words, he does ‘not know enough about the fifth century’ and yet he still wrote with a confidence that can only mislead the reader. After all, what can go wrong with an author who boldly proclaims that he is ‘going to tell you that this is exactly how civilisations fall’?

Oh, and what authority did he rely on? Edward Gibbon of course, that famous bogeyman for anyone studying this period. His scholarship is excellent for his time and his rhetoric still resonates today, but my god it should not be the starting point of a discussion on such a complex topic as the ‘fall’ of the Roman empire. Gibbon wrote in the eighteenth century, so literally more than two hundred years’ worth of scholarship has built upon and overturned parts of his thesis. Ferguson of course didn’t begin with any of that, instead he opened dramatically with Gibbon’s description of the Sack of Rome in 410:

Here is how Edward Gibbon described the Goths’ sack of Rome in August 410AD: “… In the hour of savage licence, when every ­passion was inflamed, and every restraint was removed … a cruel slaughter was made of the ­Romans; and … the streets of the city were filled with dead bodies … Whenever the Barbarians were provoked by opposition, they ­extended the promiscuous massacre to the feeble, the innocent, and the helpless …”


Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), the bane of late antique scholars

Very brutal stuff I’m sure you’ll all agree, but I fail to see the relevance of this moment in Roman history to the tragic events of this week. For the Goths, the Sack was the culmination of years of conflict with the Roman state after their demands had been repeatedly rebuffed. They literally had been besieging Rome on and off for the past year and had even raised a puppet emperor to strengthen their position whilst imperial leaders vacillated over what to do. Far from a ‘barbarian’ recklessly sacking Rome, Alaric, king of the Goths, can also be seen as a disgruntled Roman general trying to make a political statement against his enemies. To compare this therefore to the events in Paris on Friday is therefore incredibly inappropriate. Far from the result of a long drawn-out conflict, the recent attacks were unprovoked and unjustified, most importantly because it targeted innocent civilians.

Civilians certainly suffered in the past and contemporaries of Rome’s sack most definitely bewailed their empire’s impending doom, both St Augustine in North Africa and St Jerome in far-away Palestine wrote down their shocked reactions for example, but to make such a comparison is surely incredibly crass. In a matter of weeks, Augustine was already preaching to his congregation that this was in fact not the end of the world. He was of course right, since the western Roman empire officially existed until 476 and it can be pushed even further if we think about how Romanness continued to matter for rulers across western Europe. Augustine’s friend, Orosius, also composed his History against the pagans shortly afterwards and his reaction is perhaps representative of what many Romans felt after 410:

And so 1,164 years after the foundation of the City, the City was breached by Alaric. Although this deed is of recent memory, if anyone were to see the great numbers of Rome’s population and listen to them, he would think, as they themselves say, that ‘nothing had happened’, unless he were to learn of it by chance from the few ruins which still remain from the fire.

Ferguson would perhaps attribute this to the Romans’ ‘complacency’, a trait that they allegedly shared with the Parisians. This is of course nonsense. No culture can ever be uniformly condemned as anything, simply because each individual behaves differently. Some pagans ruefully wished for the return of their glorious past and the end of Christianity’s hold on the empire in the Sack’s aftermath, others left the city and tried to build a new life elsewhere, particularly in North Africa for the super-rich fleeing from Rome. There were however also people who sought to find a way out of this mess. Gaul was controlled by an usurper who perhaps had rebelled against the ineffectual court at Ravenna to deal with the ‘barbarian’ incursions across the Rhine, whilst a new loyal generalissimo, Constantius, quickly sprang into action after 410 as well, defeating both the usurpers and the ‘barbarians’ threatening the stability of his empire. As for the Goths, they ended up as occasional allies of the Roman state, most prominently in clearing out other ‘barbarian’ groups in Spain and in the campaign against the biggest ‘barbarian’ of them all, Attila the Hun. The past was alive and full of enterprising figures, even in Rome’s last allegedly ‘decadent’ century, and the Romans and their contemporaries were anything but complacent.


This is what ‘complacency’ leads to apparently. Modern historians of the fifth century of course have a very different view.

Indeed, this period was perhaps far more colourful than Ferguson gave it credit for. Though he briefly mentioned the scholars who emphasise how Roman culture was gradually transformed into something different, he talks of them in fairly dismissive terms and instead focuses on those who emphasise the catastrophic nature of Rome’s collapse. Both views have their merits, but I think it would be fair to say that the field as a whole is still profoundly influenced by those studying the cultural transformations of this period. I myself look at how ‘barbarian’ kings and Roman emperors, as well as their many underlings, interacted in the sixth and seventh centuries, so all I read about is of ‘barbarians’ eager to be proclaimed as new Constantines, of pious monks doing their best to imitate Rome, and of men proud to show off their new fancy titles granted by Constantinople. Whatever happened to Rome in 476, and I have profound doubt that we should even call it a ‘fall’, it was not sudden nor was it the end of the era. Instead, its legacy lived on, shaping western Europe for the next century and half.

From my perspective, it is therefore difficult, if not impossible, to justify Ferguson’s theory that cultures clashed or that religion played a critical role. Indeed, both of the authors Ferguson cited extensively, Bryan Ward-Perkins and Peter Heather, barely mentioned Christianity at all. Gibbon had overstated the role of faith in Rome’s decline and it is a lesson that has been absorbed by pretty much everyone in recent decades, yet Ferguson seems to have missed that, instead pushing for a comparison that is painfully inadequate. For one thing, Christian Rome was actually sacked by their fellow Christians, and there is little evidence that the Goths’ faith play a role in their decision to sack Rome – they after all venerated St Peter as well, even if they were ‘Arian’ heretics. Most importantly, the equally Christian empire based at Constantinople lived on for another millennium; not too shabby for a state allegedly beset by the grave threat of ‘convinced monotheists’! Religious faith was incredibly important in this period, but it has to be interpreted carefully. Ferguson evidently did not, as amply demonstrated in his description of the empire as ‘secular’, which wasn’t true at any point in its long history, whether before or after the empire was beset by ranting monotheists hell-bent on bringing down civilisation. It seems at this point that he is just grasping at straws.

There are parallels we can draw between the world of late antiquity and the present day, and some of the stories from the past do allow us to gain an insight into the human condition. More often, I find that I relate to the struggles experienced by the people I read about – grief over a death in the family, a friendship that turned into a bitter rivalry, or the end of a relationship, to name just a few examples. The same applies on a bigger scale too. An army with logistical problems will have a tough time making war regardless of the equipment they have, whilst the state budget will always to find the balance between financial prudence and being miserly, or between reckless spending and necessary investments. I firmly believe that the past, even the obscure monks and ‘barbarian’ kings that I study, is and always will remain relevant when we discuss events in the modern day, but I’m afraid Ferguson has taken the wrong approach. The past should not be used as an ideological weapon, but more as a mirror. It helps us to think about many things, but in no way, shape, or form should it be used to drive home a political point, particularly at a time when sensitivity and thoughtfulness, not brash words, would have been more productive for everyone involved.

For a more academic perspective, please check out Mark Humphries’ far more learned response to Niall Ferguson here.


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