Books History

Who Inherited Rome? Peter Heather’s “The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders”

The Restoration of Rome is Peter Heather’s loose conclusion of a trilogy of works covering Late Antiquity starting with the decline and fall of the Roman Empire to the coronation of Charlemagne and the rise of the formal Catholic Church in Western Europe as the spiritual successor to the institutions and embodiment of the Roman Empire. Heather’s earlier two works:  The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians  and  Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe  are all loosely interconnected with one another, but this work is more in sync with his more famous book on the final century of the Roman Empire in the West.

In this book, Heather tackles four competing factions or persons that attempted to maintain the Roman legacy after the deposition of Romulus Augustulus. First, is Theodoric, who is perhaps the most successful of the three kings/emperors who attempted to preserve, or re-create, the old Roman Empire. This composes the first of four parts in Heather’s book, and one comes to an understanding that, despite the “fall of the Roman Empire,” Italy under Theodoric is still relatively flourishing and there is much cultural and educational/philosophical “renaissance” in this interregnum period. In particular, the philosopher Boethius is a much forgotten (unfortunately) figure who was one of the first philosophers of the Scholastic tradition that would come to dominate Medieval philosophy and proto-science (Saint Thomas Aquinas is probably the most famous scholastic philosopher), but who factors in Heather’s account of the reality of high learning still occurring in Ostrogothic Italy. However, for personal reasons, Theodoric will have Boethius imprisoned and killed. But for Theodoric, his attempt to restore Roman glory lay in his bid to restore Pax Romana; ultimately, Theodoric is unable to achieve external stability and Ostrogothic Italy is in a dire position after his death.

Enter Justinian, often hailed by popular authors of the Byzantine Empire (Lars Brownworth, or John Julius Norwich) as being one of the greatest, if not the greatest of the Byzantine emperors. This view is less common among scholars of Late Antiquity and the Byzantine Empire. As Heather highlights, Justinian’s egotistical view of himself as the rightful heir, or continuer, of the Roman tradition leads him into a series of deadly conflicts in the west. His initial destruction (not really his, but that of his general Belisarius) of the Vandals gives him overconfidence that reaches an apex when he orders the invasion of the Ostrogoths in Italy. The war in Italy will last 20 years and lead to the real destruction of the remnant prosperity forged by the successor kingdom, and the war decimated the city of Rome which wouldn’t be able to recover until the onset of the early Renaissance. Furthermore, Heather draws connections between Justinian’s foreign policy and that of neoconservative thinking. Justinian, despite his ‘success,’ actually sets the Byzantine Empire up for failure and decline in the coming two centuries. The success is superficial, and the creation of the Avars, a future war with Persia, will lead to a weakened Byzantine Empire unable to defend itself from the Avars, the Persians, and the Arabs and start a long period of decline before the stabilization of the empire under the Macedonian Dynasty. Heather even goes as far as to call Justinian, “An autocratic bastard.”

The third figure to factor prominently among the imperial pretenders is Charlemagne (covered in Part 3). Charlemagne’s coronation as Holy Roman Emperor and a theoretically unified empire in his attempt to restore the splendor and authority of the Roman Empire qualifies him as among the most serious of the imperial prtenders but soon after his death, logistical, infrastructural, and political problems allow all to realize that Charlemagne is the third of the failed pretenders to the Crown of Augustus. Theodoric, Justinian, and Charlemagne, despite their claims and stewardship, war and success, legitimacy and illegitimacy, all failed to restore Rome.

However, the forgotten restoration of the Roman Empire is with the Latin Church, which we know today as the Roman Catholic Church. The Latin Church inherited many of the responsibilities of governance, management, and education with the collapse of the Roman polity in 476. As Heather attempts to show, and I think somewhat convincingly, the Latin Church already had preserved aspects of the Roman tradition and with the aftermath of Charlemagne’s failed attempt at restoration, while he, personally, failed, Charlemagne laid the foundation for the future success of the Latin Church to become the Catholic Church that remains with the world today with its roots going back to the very empire that persecuted the faith in its infancy (oh the ironies of history!). Thus, the Latin (Catholic) Church achieved a symbolic and spiritual restoration of the Roman Empire and the Roman tradition (Roman law formed the basis for Roman Catholic Law, the Roman political and religious titles were inherited by the Church, the system of Roman political governance was inherited by the Church, the classics preserved by the Church, etc. etc.).

However, from this–and this is where Heather’s analysis, while unique and insightful, might prove to be controversial and sailing against the prevailing waves of Late Antiquity scholarship–is Heather’s thesis that this spiritual restoration provided the foundation for a new imperial restoration under the Roman Papacy. As Heather calls it, “the Papal Roman Empire” which held universal sway over Christendom is much more the real restoration of Rome than any of the political polities (hint: Heather sees the Papacy as a political entity that grew out of its spiritual and religious authority). Herein lies the controversy at the heart of Heather’s thesis: while the Church had extensive influence over the lands of the nobility of Europe during this period, it is a bit of a stretch (in my opinion) to assert that the Latin (Roman Catholic) Church had also become a quasi-imperial entity. It is true that the Pope was nominally recognized as head but the real daily political power remained in the hands of feudal lords and the many kings and emperors claiming Roman inheritance and not the faraway Bishop of Rome in his papal palace.

Personally, the commentary on Justinian is very intriguing, especially when one notices the possible parallels with American foreign policy and that of Justinian’s. Heather is not the only scholar of Late Antiquity or the Early Middle Ages to make the connection between Justinian’s foreign policy and that of American Neoconservative thinking. In the end, Heather’s work is important and insightful and offers new ideas and commentaries about the world of Late Antiquity but fails to do justice to the sincere religious and theological beliefs held in this period, rather seeing these as fronts for the new Roman imperial project undertaken by the Papacy. Nonetheless, Heather’s conclusion to his loose trilogy is a must-read for students of Late Antiquity. And the thesis that the Latin (Catholic) Church is, or was, one of the primary inheritors of the Roman legacy is largely accepted throughout academia. To the extent, however, that it can claim to have been the grand restorer of the Roman legacy ahead of polities ruled by Theodoric, Justinian, or Charlemagne, remains somewhat unconvincing and a lingering inheritance of the Protestant Whig disposition that Peter Heather somewhat subconsciously still peddles.

The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders
By Peter Heather
New York: Oxford University Press, 2014; 488pp.

*This review is adapted from my Amazon review.

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Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.

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