Saturday, July 14, 2007

Peter Heather

Peter Heather, author of The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Roman and the Barbarians, fielded a few questions at the OUP blog, including:

OUP: Have you always been interested in Roman history? What inspired you to write this book about the fall of Rome, rather than tackle an easier Roman period?

Peter Heather: My interest in Roman history is all my mother’s fault. She was a frustrated historian, I think, and we were always going to Roman forts and villas, of which there are plenty in Britain. She’d visited Pompeii when young, but we never left Britain when I was a kid; my parents both found ‘abroad’ rather threatening I think.

The whole point of the fall of Rome is that it is difficult and therefore interesting. Trundling one more time through Caesar, Augustus, or Caligula would hold no pleasure for me. Fundamentally, I like complicated puzzles, where the answer slowly emerges from lots of interlocking lines of inquiry, and the late Roman period entirely suits that mentality.

OUP: Why is there so much controversy over the fall of Rome? Why don’t we know what happened?

Heather: There’s a huge amount of controversy because, in a sense, there’s just the right amount of surviving information to stimulate it. The fourth and fifth centuries are very well documented in relative terms for Ancient History both in terms of texts and - now - archeology, so there’s lots to get your teeth into, but not so well documented that final answers can be read off from the sources. Add to that the fact that its such an iconic event in European history. For classicists, who’ve dominated European educational thinking from the Renaissance until very recently, it was a huge disaster: the end of the ancient world of philosophy and rationality. In the era of nationalism, from the nineteenth century, on the other hand, Rome’s fall seemed to give birth to the direct ancestors of modern nation states and this could only be a good thing. What we’ve got, therefore, is an explosive cocktail of vested interests quarreling over a very big event.