I picked up Peter Heather’s 2009 book simply because it was cheap on Kindle at one point. I’m now thinking I want to get a proper hard copy book. This is mostly a measure of how much I liked the book, but there are a number of good maps that I’d like a better look at too.

The primary purpose of this book is to re-examine Europe from the Roman to Dark/Early Middle Ages, and argue against the cultural continuity/no migration stance that has gained popularity from the 70s onward. The main new thing brought to the analysis is concepts from modern migration studies (it was highly appropriate that I started this book about the time the Syrian migration crisis started hitting the headlines). These have identified a lot of trends in how and why migration happens, and Heather then applies those concepts to Roman narratives and archaeological evidence.

Starting around 1 AD, he notes that the areas the Romans conquered were relatively prosperous and well developed; Roman expansion in Europe pretty much petered out when it reached (largely Germanic-speaking) areas that were less well developed with less intensive agricultural patterns. In fact, agriculture still relied on picking up and moving every couple of generations as the land was exhausted. Heather points out that migration studies show that people who have migrated once are likely to do it again, and that the next couple generations retain the habit. So, if there’s an entire cultural system that has to pack up and move every so often, it’s likely that migration will be a major answer to any new problems that come up.

One of major motivators of migration is economic disparity. More prosperous areas draw people from less prosperous areas. Not only was the Roman Empire the most developed part of Europe, but the Empire spent a fair amount of money and effort in promoting power structures on the frontier, and occasionally breaking them apart when they got too big. Heather shows that the fall of the Western Empire started when this system failed (and argues that this had to happen at some point, but the actual event was earlier than it had to be). Rome’s wars in the east drew off troops, and allowed the short-lived Hunnic Empire to form in central Europe, causing all sorts of groups to migrate to get out of the way, and then it came apart, causing all sorts of groups to migrate away from the resulting chaos.

After tracking how the late fourth and fifth centuries play out, Heather continues with the evolution of central and eastern Europe through the year 1000. This involves the Avar Empire, the spread of Slavic speakers through much of Eastern Europe, the Viking era of Scandinavian migration, and briefly the Magyars, and why they didn’t set off any noticeable migrations.

So, it is a study of the fall of the Roman Empire, from outside of the Empire, and a study of the demographic changes that happened across most of Europe over a thousand years. I think it does a lot to correct current scholarly wisdom (which, itself, was a much-needed correction), and I found it very informative and well argued.