The Roman Empire and the Renaissance loom large on the timeline of human history, two great epochs of accomplishment and achievement that demonstrate our ability to shape and exert control over our world. The Middle Ages, so titled because they exist between those two monumental pillars of civilization, are often seen as the inverse, when humankind languished in an uncertain, anarchic world.
Chris Wickham, professor of medieval history at Oxford, challenges this point-of-view, arguing that the Middle Ages must be considered not just as a speed bump on the path of progress but rather on its own merits, as a complex and intricate system that emerged in response to a changing environment. His book, The Inheritance of Rome, is a very meticulous, overwhelmingly detailed account of an era largely unfamiliar to modern readers. It is, at times, exhausting and cluttered, but also laden with interesting passages that shed light on this volatile period in history.
The depth of Wickham’s narrative relies entirely upon the available historical resources, which are often inconsistent and spotty. The most tedious chapters are those that deal with peoples for whom detailed record keeping was not a priority, particularly the cultures that managed to come together in the immediate aftermath of the fragmentation of the Roman Empire. The lack of surviving primary sources for the reign of Merovingian kings in France and Germany and the early Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain force Wickham to rely heavily on archeological evidence that, while occasionally insightful, is often dry and obtuse.
It seems as if little is known about the 250-year Merovingian era beyond the occupants of its revolving door kingships, and the reader is treated to a very comprehensive chronicle of ascensions and depositions as competing factions struggle for control. These passages are replete with names and dates, but utterly lacking in significant context, motivation, or revelation. What becomes clear in the examination of Western Europe between the years 500 and 750 is that ‘Dark Age’ is an appropriate term. It remains a shadowy, indeterminate period in the history of civilization, obscured by a dearth of reliable information.
Wickham finds greater success when exploring the more stable polities of the post-Roman world such as the Byzantine Empire and Abbasid Caliphate in the east, or the Carolingian Empire, which succeeded the Merovingians around 750 and stabilized Western Europe. Their deeper historical documentation allows him to present a fuller, more colorful depiction of their inner workings, and these chapters are much more enlightening.
Although they aren’t a European entity, the Abbasid Caliphate is an important factor in the development of Europe in this time period, and is, in many ways, the true inheritor of Roman hegemony. The original Caliphate originated under the Ummayads in Syria, formerly a Roman province, and as such was influenced by Roman organization before the Abbasids took control and moved the capital to Baghdad. Arab culture grew stronger and more powerful, dominating the Mediterranean and eclipsing its western, European peers. The activities on the Arabian Peninsula, though geographically isolated from Europe, were geopolitically important, and the history of the caliphate’s emergence and growth is a highlight of the book.
Ironically, his most engrossing writing is not on the medieval period, but rather on the crumbling Roman world of the 5th and 6th centuries. What Wickham shows is that although the Roman Empire entered a decline, it did not exactly fall, but rather responded to institutional strain and external pressure by devolving into smaller, more manageable segments. The Empire’s constituent parts separated and scaled back, seceding from the continental network of exchange and trade into locally-run dominions.
The city of Rome, which at one time could boast nearly a million inhabitants, shrank to a startlingly low population of 50,000 when its grain imports, necessary to support the largely non-agrarian Italian peoples, were disrupted by the Vandal conquest of North Africa in 439. Land became the primary marker of wealth and power, and the continent became increasingly militarized, run by generals and warrior-kings rather than aristocratic elites.
The Inheritance of Rome is a very dense book, and Wickham’s predominantly academic approach to the subject prevents him from weighing the relative value of his many topics. Everything is given equal consideration, be it the majestic architectural triumph of the Hagia Sofia or the scant remnants of the Anglo-Saxon villa at Yeavering, of which nothing is known for sure but the position of its post holes.
There’s no accounting for interest. Wickham intends for The Inheritance of Rome to be a comprehensive survey of the period, and is unwilling to condense when the interest is small and expand when the interest is greater. This can make for an occasionally frustrating reading experience, as the book see-saws between the fascinating and the insubstantial. Ultimately, the so-called Dark Ages are given as thorough an airing out as is humanly possible. Whether or not they’re truly illuminated, or if such a thing can ever be accomplished, is not entirely clear.