Turn the Page Thursday: The Empire Comes Back

Restoration of Rome Cover
Cover design by Caroline McDonnell

The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders, by Peter Heather

Dr. Heather is one of the most intelligent people currently exploring history, and The Restoration of Rome is a reflection of his knowledge. The book is a great example of how sound research can offer a new perspective on the past, and while it’s a bit more difficult than many other history texts, it provides an excellent examination of Europe after the fall of Rome.

The Restoration of Rome tells the story of the four dynasties that, in some fashion, “reconstructed” a type of Western Roman Empire after its fall in 476 A.D./C.E. It begins with Theoderic, a Roman-educated leader of the Amal barbarian tribe in eastern Europe. Dr. Heather traces his rise to power, invasion of the Eastern Roman Empire, and later takeover of Italy and the West. The focus then shifts to Emperor Justinian of Constantinople, as he attempted to reconquer Italy and north Africa in the name of the Roman Empire. After explaining how the Eastern Roman Empire lost most of its power, the narrative follows Charlemagne’s conquest and his coronation as “[Holy Roman] Emperor” in 800 A.D./C.E. Yet it becomes obvious that none of these empires can claim to be a lasting restoration of Rome, so Dr. Heather concludes by exploring the rise of the Pope and the Catholic Church, arguing that really only that institution can claim to be a true restoration of Roman imperial power and influence.

Clearly, this covers a massive amount of subject matter (between 600 and 800 years, depending on how it’s counted), but thankfully Dr. Heather doesn’t let readers stumble along by themselves, instead providing generous amounts of background information. In fact, a significant portion of the book is history instead of argument. Readers may find that they need to do other light background reading to understand everything, but the narrative handles most of it for them by starting at the fall of Rome and explaining the timeline as needed. Although the topic is somewhat academic, Dr. Heather tries to help less-academic readers feel more comfortable in the tangled historical mess of the early Middle Ages.

The book also benefits from the strength of its argument. Dr. Heather asserts, among other things, that

“Theoderic, Justinian and Charlemagne can be thought of as ‘Roman’ in one or more of three separate [ways:] . . . the character of [their] state . . . (Theoderic and Justinian), or . . . the coincidence between the geographical extent of their power and the . . . old Western Empire (Theoderic and Charlemagne), or because [their] state . . . was the overwhelming dominant force in the Christian European landscape . . . (Justinian and Charlemagne).” (282)

That’s a tremendous claim to support, but Dr. Heather excellently explains how it’s plausible. Even as he supplies background information, he builds evidence in support of his argument, showing the likely reasons why things happened the way they did (barbarian invasions and migrations, imperial decline, etc.) and how that enabled attempts to restore Roman imperial glory. It might not be a claim with which everyone agrees, but it’s well-executed nonetheless.

Of course, Dr. Heather’s argument also succeeds because of the way it approaches its sources. Because the book often refers to documents that are over 1,000 years old, Dr. Heather confronts the many possible issues with them, ranging from factual inaccuracies to incomplete information to downright falsifications. As pointed out in the review of The Plantagenets, this technique is a must in solid historical research and further establishes the credibility of the author. By acknowledging the weaknesses in his sources and working around them, Dr. Heather presents a stronger claim, and The Restoration of Rome presents a sturdier historical examination.

While this book is a great scholarly look at post-Roman Europe, its few weak points are highly troublesome. Unfortunately, it’s inconsistently written, sounding like a textbook one moment and a friendly chat the next. This is probably meant to ease the academic feel, but it’s fairly distracting and makes it hard to become immersed in the book. The subject matter can similarly be difficult to follow at times, since the narrative jumps back and forth between background history and argumentative analysis. Granted, this book covers a massive period of time, so a little disorientation is to be expected. Finally, a series of maps and diagrams are included but are also problematic. Sometimes they can be hard to understand, and other times they are placed fairly far from the text that references them (although those issues really should be attributed to the editor).

Despite its shortcomings, The Restoration of Rome is a decent book that does a great job of supporting its claims. It’s enjoyable but challenging, and readers with an academic background will feel comfortable with it; however, readers looking to expand their horizons to a more in-depth look at history will also enjoy this book. Overall, Dr. Heather successfully tackles an ambitious task and offers new thoughts on an important historical period, making his book worth reading.

The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders

By Peter Heather, Ph.D.

488 pp. Oxford University Press, March 2014. $24.89

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