I recently finished Peter Heather’s (2006) The Fall of the Roman Empire. This popular, though no less rigorous, history is widely praised. The narrative is engaging and I appreciate the glossary, dramatis personae, and timeline; these help given the scope of the book spans 150 years, dozens of emperors (East and West), generals, and barbarian Kings. What most impressed me was Heather’s treatment of sources. Many histories, particularly of ancient societies, are written in the third person objective. Yet, as I learned in my historical methods course, the practice of history is more than a recounting of events, but a substantiated argument about people and events in time. Heather presents his arguments as such: identifying when he agrees or disagrees with others or scholarly consensus, and addressing the circumstances of his sources. Rather than being simply a footnote, sources come to the foreground and become part of the story. A history of the source, such as Pullodius’ commentary on Ambrose written in the margins of De Fide, or the listing of fourth century military and civilian offices, the Notitia Dignitatum, are interesting in themselves and contribute to a much deeper understanding of the ground on which Heather’s arguments rest. While a popular history might present a more accessible or exciting version of an old tale, it is rare for it to communicate the challenges and excitement within the discipline – because popular history often obscures its scholarship. But Heather brings it forward and what I thought might be a rather staid field – don’t we already know all we can do about the ancients? – is shown as alive with new archaeological finds, textual fragments, analysis, and argument.
I know this will influence the next revision of one of my historical chapters with respect to how I speak about some of the primary sources I found.