The History of the Later Roman Empire

I am not sure whether I only received the first volume of a two-volume book. Despite the title, the book I read only related the history of the late Roman Empire from Arcadius to Phocas, that is, from around 400-600. I won’t complain, however. J. B. Bury’s history is still interesting to read even it only covered about half the period I expected. Actually, 600 seems to be a logical place for ending the story of the late Roman Empire. In the year AD 600, the Eastern Roman Empire was still recognizably the same state that had existed two centuries earlier. The western provinces had been lost, although Justinian made a great effort to recover them. The capital was no longer Rome, but New Rome or Constantinople. Still, all of the institutions of the late empire had survived.

In the following century, however, the Roman Empire of late antiquity had changed into the medieval Byzantine Empire. The invading armies of Islam, and Slavic migrations stripped away all but the core of the empire in Greece and Asia Minor. The empire was fighting for its life and every institution had to be changed to defend the empire from its enemies. Although they still called themselves Romans, right up to the end,  this was no longer the empire of Caesar or even Constantine. Even the official language of government was changed from Latin to Greek, by the Emperor Heraclius just after this book closes,  in recognition of the fact that there were few, if any, native Latin speakers left in the domains of the Roman Empire.

I should say, though, that this is not just a history of the Eastern or early Byzantine Empire.  Bury also covers the last decades of the Western Empire and the establishment of the Germanic kingdoms that succeeded it.  He made an important point that the conquest of the Western half of the Roman Empire was more a matter of slow demographic movements, than conquering armies. When the Germans were a small segment of the population, as the Ostrogoths in Italy or the Vandals in North Africa, their kingdoms did not last, while the Frankish kingdom in Gaul endured because there were already a large number of Germans who had emigrated there.

Despite a few flaws, I highly recommended A History of the Later Roman Empire, as a good guide to a period of history not often studied.

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