Sharp Blue: The Pirenne Thesis and the End of Antiquity, Part I: Prelude


About This Article

comments feed

Tips Jar

Paypal Pixel

Related Products

Related Products


Between about the eras of Theodosius I and Charlemagne - let us say for the sake of definiteness between AD400 and AD800 - the condition of Europe was utterly transformed. In the fourth century, the Roman Empire was at perhaps its most prosperous, but by the end of the fifth century the Roman state in western Europe had dissolved and by the seventh or eighth century little trace of it remained. The transformation of Europe in this period went deeper than merely the dissolution of an empire that had endured for centuries. As well as political fragmentation, western Europe suffered from the nearly total unraveling of its complex economy, accompanied by a vertiginous fall in standards of living. It was not merely a state that had vanished nor even a civilisation but very nearly civilisation itself.

The traditional explanation for this collapse is that the defences on the Rhine and Danube borders gave way, vast hordes of fierce tribal warriors poured out of Germania, and first the Roman army, then the Roman state and finally Roman civilisation were swept away by fire and the sword. Indeed, as early as the eighth century this explanation was already the conventional wisdom. Even as great a scholar as the English monk Alcuin, who lived in the later eighth century and was a key figure in the “Carolingian Renaissance”, believed that during the fifth century the armies of the Goths and Huns had almost entirely devastated and depopulated the former Roman Empire. This fact alone shows the depths to which European civilisation in the west had so rapidly fallen. Even in more modern times, some variation of this theme has been a common explanation and the debate has often been framed in terms of why the Roman Empire was weakened sufficiently that it could be overthrown by peoples from beyond the frontiers, rather than whether the arrival of those peoples was the ultimate cause for the end of Roman civilisation.


However, I think that the causes of the transformation of Europe in the centuries in question is not to be found across the Rhine and Danube but far away in the east. In this I follow Henri Pirenne, who argued that antiquity ended not with the invasions not of the Germans but of the Arabs. Unlike Pirenne, I think that the key changes underlying the final disappearance of the Roman world in the west happened not in North Africa but far away in Persia. In the course of this essay, I will attempt to expose some small part of the complex process by which the classical world passed away and outline the reasons why I consider Persia so important to its passing. To do so, we will have to range far away in time and space from western Europe in the fifth century. In this first part, I will examine the circumstances of the Empire in the centuries before the collapse of the West. The second part will take the story as far as the end of Western Empire. The third part will examine the condition of European civilisation between the dissolution of the Western Roman state and the Arab invasions. The fourth part will examine the effects of those invasions in detail. Finally, I will draw some conclusions.

The Crisis of the Third Century

The empire of Theodosius was much changed from that of the the dynasties between Augustus and the Severans. The earlier empire, the Principate, was characterised by the continuation of the forms (although not the spirit) of the Republic. It was run by an extremely small number of officials and maintained only a modest, professional army compared with those raised by the military dynasts of the last years of the Republic. The empire of the fourth century, the Dominate, was very different: it was extremely bureaucratic and highly militarised. (If Augustus and his successors had for all their military autocracy styled themselves merely the first citizen, the architect of the new order, Diocletian, and those emperors who followed were open in their dictatorship.) The reason for this dramatic change was the famous “Crisis of the Third Century”, and the Romans brought it upon themselves.

If any one man was responsible for the turmoil of the third century, it was Septimius Severus, who became emperor after a civil war towards the end of the second century. At the time, Rome’s nearest rival was the Parthian Empire. Parthia was a major regional power that had sometimes bloodied Rome’s nose - for example, when it had defeated and killed the triumvir Marcus Licinius Crassus in 53BC - but it was no real threat to Roman dominance. Severus was a strong emperor and one of the theatres in which he demonstrated his power was the frontier with Parthia. Indeed, so successful were the Roman legions in the 190s that Severus sacked the Parthian capital, Ctesiphon, and annexed large parts of Mesopotamia to the Empire. The position of the Parthian monarchy was fatally weakened, and in AD226 it was overthrown by Ardashir I, first of the dynamic Sassanid kings. Suddenly, Rome found itself faced with a reinvigorated Persian Empire, the first true peer it had faced since the Second Punic War against Carthage, four hundred years earlier.

The consequences for the Roman Empire were catastrophic and almost terminal. To counter the new threat from Persia, the Romans were forced to build their strategy around the defence of the eastern frontier but this in turn weakened the other frontiers. A clash between Alexander Severus and Ardashir was inconclusive, but under Ardashir’s son Shapur I fortune turned against the Romans. Developments then became so confused that it is almost impossible to give a simple narrative sketch of what happened. The half century between the death of Alexander Severus in AD235 and the accession of Diocletian in AD284 saw several dozen emperors variously die in battle or be murdered by their associates. As well as the serious strategic crisis on the eastern front, the Roman Empire was beset by irruptions of tribal armies across the Rhine and Danube frontiers, the secession of the Gallic provinces and Syria, Palestine and Egypt, and a series of civil wars.

In the east, the emperor Gordian III at first achieved some successes against Persia, but eventually his forces suffered a major defeat at Fallujah in AD244 and he was probably killed by his own Praetorian Prefect, Marcus Julius Phillipus, who became emperor. Antioch fell to the Persians in AD253, by which time Phillip had been killed in a civil war with Decius and Decius had been slain by the Goths who crossed the weakened Danubian border (Decius was a Roman worthy of the glory days of the Republic; he was the first emperor to die in battle). Worse was to come. In AD259, the emperor Valerian I was defeated, captured and humiliated by Shapur. The reign of Valerian’s son, Gallienus, was perhaps the nadir of Roman fortunes, but Gallienus himself instituted the first of the reforms that eventually led to the restoration of the Roman world, most notably the strategic innovation of a cavalry army. His successor, Claudius II Gothicus defeated a huge Gothic army at Naissus. Then Aurelian, in four whirlwind years reunified the empire and drove the barbarian armies back across its borders, reformed the administration, but was killed by his own Praetorians before he could turn his attention to Persia. Carus conducted a successful campaign in the east before dying of an illness. Finally, Diocletian came to power in AD284 and began two decades of sweeping reform of the administration, military and economy that effectively refounded the Empire.

The Dominate

To reduce the risk of usurpation, Diocletian reduced the size of provinces, but he also introduced structures larger than provinces. Groups of provinces were collected into dioceses, each governed by a vicarius, and the imperial power itself was divided amongst four colleagues. Although the details varied, the division of imperial power was, except for short periods, a permanent feature of the later Empire. Later, there were most often two emperors, of East and West, but there were also four Praetorian Prefectures (of Gaul, Italy and Africa, Illyricum and the East). Power permanently moved away from Rome, at first towards a series of capitals commanding the strategic frontiers of the Empire, and then gradually towards Constantinople, the new capital founded by Constantine I, and Ravenna.

The army, too, was restructured to reflect the new importance of frontier defence. Under the Dominate, it swelled in size to more than 450,000 men, about twice its size during the relatively peaceful years of the Principate. It became more specialised too, becoming divided into light garrison troops or limitanei at the frontiers and the more heavily armed field armies of comitatenses as a strategic reserve. The frontiers were strengthened with fortresses, ditches, walls and other fortifications. At least a third of the Roman army was kept permanently deployed and ready for battle along the frontier with Persia. To support the army, the economy was restructured so the majority of surplus production was redirected towards the frontier zones for the use of the military. The bureaucracy swelled to organise the newly mobilised Empire: it had taken only 150 bureaucrats for Marcus Aurelius to run the central administration in the second century but under the Dominate there were tens of thousands of bureaucrats in the imperial service. Energies that during the Principate would have been used running largely autonomous cities were during the Dominate absorbed by the central civil service.

Through these innovations, Diocletian and Constantine successfully contained the strategic threat of Persia and largely stabilised the borders elsewhere. The fourth century was to be much more peaceful than the third, despite continued bouts of civil war and incursions across the border (especially, late in the century, of the Goths into the Balkans). Against the odds, the Empire not just survived the crisis of the third century but once more flourished. The eastern provinces, especially, prospered as never before, and the new capital, Constantinople, grew into a powerful and sophisticated metropolis. But the Empire had mobilised all its vast resources to weather the Persian storm, and it had no additional reserves to draw upon to manage a second, and largely unexpected, strategic crisis: the arrival in Europe of the Huns. In the next part, I will describe this crisis and its aftermath.

The tribal control of the military arm of the state was the first step in the transformation the Roman state into independent duchies. As Rome lost control of the periphery the tribal armies took control of sections of the Western empire operating independently. The Muslim armies in Spain filled that vacuum. It was the Franks operating independently that stopped the Muslim advance.

Leave a comment