Book Review: The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders


by Peter Heather

New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. xviii, 470. Illus., maps, stemma, notes, biblio., index. $34.95. ISBN: 0199368511

Trying to Restore the Roman World Order

In his latest book, Prof. Heather (King’s College London), who has been exploring the period from the end of the Roman Empire in the West through the rise of the European Medieval order in works such as The Fall of the Roman Empire and Empires and Barbarians, examines three unsuccessful efforts to “restore” European unity on the Roman model during the so-called “Dark Ages”.

Heather divides the book into three sections, each focused on one of the three potential restorers of “Roman” unity: King Theoderic of the Ostrogoths, the Emperor Justinian, and King Charlemagne of the Franks, with some little help from Pope Leo III. Each attained some success in uniting major portions of western Europe under a more or less “Roman” model, which failed fairly quickly after their deaths. Heather ends his account with a short epilogue covering events more than a century after Charlemagne’s passing, when a more stable “restoration” of western European unity emerged as the “Holy Roman Empire.”

While covering the efforts of these men (and at times their women), Heather often delves into complex questions of genealogy, taxation, military operations, finance, religious doctrine, diplomacy, and more, and he often illustrates his points with references to other events across the ages, at times even using analogies to current events and popular culture (e.g., Asterisk, The Godfather, Star Trek), which will certainly amuse some and probably annoy those who believe scholarly works have to be dull.

Heather offers a good deal of analysis. There are interesting discussions of the failure of the Huns to establish a permanent state, in contrast to later steppe peoples such as the Turks or Mongols, and on the rise of the Arabs under the influence of Islam. In discussing Justinian’s reconquest of much of the old Western Empire in the mid-sixth century, Heather directly addresses and refutes the frequent claim that the effort “exhausted” the Eastern Empire’s resources in manpower and treasure, leading to its collapse a century later, citing evidence of increased trade and tax revenue, more stable frontiers, and so forth.

While a serious work, Heather’s writing style and informality makes this book a good read not only for scholars, but also for the reasonably educated layman.

Note: The Restoration of Rome is also available in paperback, $19.95, ISBN 978-0-19061-177-4, and in several e-editions.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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