According to Professor Grumpy, the Historian on the Edge:
“Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come
And some of our men just in from the border say
There are no barbarians any longer.
Those people were a kind of solution.”
He was right; the bigger question, a hundred years on from Cavafy, is probably ‘a solution to what?’ As far as I can see, the problem which they solve cannot be ‘why did the Roman Empire fall?’ The barbarians’ role in any analysis of the Empire’s collapse must surely be sought under ‘consequences’ or ‘effects’ or – perhaps better – ‘components’, rather than under ‘causes’. If one looks at the matter in simple descriptive terms, the number of provinces or amount of territory actually conquered by barbarians during the fifth century is minimal.
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Why, then, are people so wedded to the barbarians as the major cause for any and all change in the late antique west? For they are.
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The barbarian can change the world; he can bring down empires; he can create kingdoms. The barbarian dominates history. ‘He’ is not like ‘us’, enmeshed in our laws, our little lives and petty responsibilities. The barbarians in the vision of Peter Heather, are peoples with ‘coherent aims', which they set out single-mindedly to achieve. No people in the whole of recorded human history have ever had single coherent sets of aims. Well – none other than the barbarians anyway.
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