The Inheritance of Rome

Chris Wickham challenges the idea, inherited from Edward Gibbon, that Rome went into a ‘decline and fall’. The late Roman world was, as he shows, a stable and sophisticated society, bound together by patronage, commerce and, above all, taxation. Many of its citizens lived in bustling cities or country estates. It did not suddenly fall apart when the Goths and Vandals showed up. Indeed, the people that we still call ‘barbarians’ had largely adopted Roman models, whether of religion, coinage or language, and there was little sense of the end of an era. In North Africa, Wickham writes, the Vandals even ‘thought they were being very Roman’. The end of the Western empire was a story of evolution, not overnight collapse – and the deposition of the last emperor, Romulus Augustulus, in 476 was one of history’s greatest non-events.

In the eastern Mediterranean Roman rule continued for centuries. Gibbon had little time for the East Roman empire (which we call Byzantium, although nobody called it that at the time), but Wickham reminds us that for centuries it remained the most sophisticated and powerful state in the Eurasian world. He offers us an expert guide through the complexities of Constantinople politics, from the ruthless Justinian II, the emperor with the golden nose, to the grim Basil the Bulgar-Slayer. Wickham is just as sure footed when exploring the subterranean shifts of social and economic history, showing how state power waxed and waned, how people made and spent their money, how they worshipped and thought.

Wickham’s great strength is his vast geographical and comparative range, so that we get a sense of half a dozen or more societies. The only state that really compared with the Byzantine Empire for power and complexity was the gigantic Abbasid caliphate ruled from Baghdad, for a while the greatest city in the world. Wickham shows how both empires were the heirs of Rome, and how they confronted strikingly similar economic and ideological dilemmas. And he is no less insightful when explaining the politics of the Merovingians, the ‘long-haired kings’ of the Franks, with their love of feasting and fighting – or of the Anglo-Saxons, the Lombards, the Carolingians, and a host of other fascinating peoples.

Although it is the grand sweep that really marks this book, Wickham has a sharp eye for a revealing anecdote, illuminating even the murkiest corners of the so-called Dark Ages. You’ll enjoy, for example, one Irish king’s timetable, which dictated that Sunday was for drinking ale, Monday for judgment, Tuesday for board games, Wednesday for hunting, Thursday for sex, and so on.

Almost every page is full of arresting detail and insight. This is a superb work of historical scholarship, well worth the immersion. Get illuminated about the ‘Dark Ages’.


Christopher John Wickham ( is Emeritus Chichele Professor of Medieval History at Oxford and Fellow of All Souls. He was Professor of Early Medieval History at Birmingham from 1997 to 2005.


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688 pages in Penguin

First published 2009

ISBN  978-0140290141


Professor Chris Wickham

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