Peter Heather’s study of Western Europe after the fall of Rome comes in four parts, with the first three being similar, and the fourth different. Each one is about a separate attempt to restore ‘imperial’ rule to the Western Roman Empire.

Part one starts with the background of Theoderic, specifically his time as a hostage in Constantinople, and his exposure to Roman civilization. It moves onto Gothic politics, and does a good job looking at them, and how through a series of gambles, and deals, he ended up as the leader of a reduced, but cohesive group of Goths, and took on the job of expelling Odoacer from Italy. The resulting Ostrogothic Kingdom is shown as an attempted restoration of the Empire to Western territories. Despite later disagreements, Theoderic had started with orders from Constantinople, and his later effective control over Visigothic Kingdom in Gaul and Spain allowed him to dominate most of the Western Empire’s former territories, and the intent was purely to be seen as the Western Emperor.

The problem was the conjoined Gothic states did not stay so after Theoderic’s death, which leads to the second part, Justinian’s reconquest of substantial part of the Western Empire. Heather shows that Justinian attempted to legitimize his reign with a couple gambles, law reform and war with Persia, which did not work out. The expedition to Africa and invasion of Sicily were very opportunistic schemes to restore legitimacy. The eventual Justinian law code only went forward based on the political capital gained from success in the west, and the section ends with analysis of the idea that Justinian’s wars crippled the Eastern Empire in the long run, and generally comes up negative. I think he didn’t consider the impacts on manpower nearly enough, but economically, he’s on reasonably solid ground.

The third section is about Charlemagne’s crowning as Emperor in 800, and the subsequent collapse of the state over the next few generations. There’s some very good analysis in here about how the need to reward followers both allow a moderate sized state to grow quickly (when there’s plenty of rewards to give out), and forces it to come apart once that growth slows or stops. Each change in rulers requires a new round of payments to make sure of loyalties, and a few years to ‘feel out’ which members of the court are the most competent and loyal.

The common thread through the book is the idea how the Romans saw divine approval and power as intertwined. In Christian terms, if God wanted you to be Emperor, then no force on Earth could stop it, and if you were the Emperor, then obviously God wanted you to be so. And since the Emperor was chosen by God, then he had authority over the Church. The fourth section shows this being turned on its head.

Charlemagne’s administration produced a set of standard texts for education inside the Christian Church. There is a good discussion of the forgery of the Donation of Constantine, which claims the Western Empire was effectively handed over to the Pope in Rome. The idea presented here is that this was not a Roman (or Papal) forgery, but actually came out of the Carolingian churches. Until this point, the archbishops were the main authority, but if the (distant) Pope was the real head of things, then the bishops didn’t need to listen to the (nearby) archbishops. Then, a generation or two later, officials brought up in this tradition end up installed in Rome by German Emperors, and they worked to reform the Papacy into what they thought it should be, an ultimate source of ecclesiastical and temporal authority.

Trying to see this last as an ‘imperial’ project (so that it fits in with the rest of Heather’s theme) hurts this last part of the book. But overall, it is, like the other parts, an interesting look at the post-Roman/early Medieval West. Each part of the book interleaves with the rest, and while it is by no means a complete history of the period, it does a lot to examine just how the Western Empire did not manage to get reestablished.