Bryan Ward-Perkins on East and West

On Monday nights, St Andrews has its medieval research seminar. We have 11 (!) of these a semester (the most recent listing being here), with a broad variety of subjects covered by people from around the world. And last night Bryan Ward-Perkins came up from Oxford to finish the year off with a paper on the differences between East and West in the wake of invasions of the Roman World.

In many ways, Ward-Perkins is continuing to develop the argument he made in his provocative 2005 polemic The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation (Oxford, 2005). Quite simply, the end of the Roman Empire in the West was an unpleasant and disruptive thing – a fact highlighted in particular by the spectacular collapse of quality manufacturing, even allowing for Wickham’s arguments that aristocratic demand tailed off. Comparison with the East featured a little back then but it seems to be moving to the fore now, and it only serves to underline his point further.

His argument had two parts. In the first, he showed a series of sites from the early years of the Arab conquests and the high points under Abd al-Malik and his heirs (the Dome of the Rock and so on). These were beautiful and well-made. In the West after the ‘Germanic invasions’ there was at best small-scale building work and, say, the quality of mosaics was pretty poor. They even forgot how to make pottery with a wheel. So: Arabs good at continuity, Germans not so much.

In the second part, Ward-Perkins outlined a ‘paradox’: although the Arabs were good at maintaining Roman levels of high public culture, they self-consciously portrayed themselves as something different because they had a non-imperial langauge (Arabic) and a united sense of purpose (in Islam). In the West, meanwhile, the Germans strove to portray themselves as the heirs to Rome, speaking Latin, accepting Christianity, and often using a rhetoric of obedience towards Constantinople. So: Arabs rejected continuity, but Germans liked it.

There is much to Ward-Perkins’ account of things. Decline in the West does seem to be much more marked than in the East. And the different attitudes towards continuity seem fair enough. But where does this get us? By his own admission Ward-Perkins was more interested in the fact of difference than the why. So let’s highlight some issues:

(1) What does this reveal about power structures, markets and resources, comparatively speaking? The Caliphate in the late seventh and early eighth centuries was arguably bigger and more powerful than the smaller barbarian ‘successor states’ (even accepting that Visigothic Spain or Burgundy were quite big). Is difference so surprising then?

(2) How much can be explained by the different natures of ‘invasion’? The Arab conquests of the East in the seventh century marked a sudden, swift and successful campaign which annexed parts of the Roman Empire. Germanic groups, on the other hand, could point to a longer process of integration – eg Roman military service – long before migration, some of which led to conflict, and some of which led to the creation of new kingdoms as a response to the retreat of the Roman state. The processes are too different to compare as simple instances of ‘invasion’.

(3) What role did the Byzantine Empire play here? In the fifth century, when the West was in serious trouble, Constantinople was entering a Golden Age. In the seventh, when the Arabs attacked, the empire was in crisis and had only narrowly avoided defeat at the hands of the Persians. Would the ‘Germans’ have been so pro-Roman had Constantinople looked at weak in 450 as it did in 650?

(4) Does separating East and West cover-up other regional differences and processes? As was pointed out, in the West there were elements of ‘decline’ evident long before ‘invasion’ eg the virtual absence of monumental public building after the second century AD. And Britain was very, very different compared to Italy. I’m sure experts will also point out how Egypt was not very much like Syria too, but I don’t know the evidence.

(5) And, yes, one might query the use of ‘Germanic’ and ‘invaders’ to characterise the cultural unity of those aggressive sorts who attacked the civilised Romans in this period. But that’s part of the game.

I think what this boils down to is the need to be careful with the questions asked and the case studies used when doing comparative history. Chris Wickham has had lots to say on this subject. Ward-Perkins is surely right about many things in his analysis. But if we are to reframe the Merovingian world we are going to have to do more than acknowledge that it was weak and poor compared to the Arab world.

But later this month is the Seventh Century colloquium in Edinburgh, so we will come back to these issues there.

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2 responses to “Bryan Ward-Perkins on East and West

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