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Renegotiating Rome: Western Europe in the Fifth Century

Tutor: Guy Halsall

Module type: MA Option

Module code: HIS00028M

This course takes a multi-disciplinary approach to one of the most important and dramatic, not to say traumatic, eras of western European history: the 'long fifth century', c.375-c.525. In this period the Roman Empire disintegrated in a bewildering series of wars and faction fights usually(misleadingly) referred to as 'The Barbarian Migrations'. In the fourth century, every politically important family in western Europe regarded itself as Roman; by the second quarter of the sixth, the ruling strata in the former imperial provinces defined themselves by reference to one of a congeries of non-Roman peoples, and the local aristocracies were rapidly coming to adopt these new identities.

Rome as a political reality had dominated all aspects of society in c.375, whether one was looking at issues of legitimate governance and authority or at gender. How was it that within a little more than a century people throughout the West had found means of abandoning this all-pervasive identity? This course examines how the people of Western Europe navigated their way through the collapse of the most extensive cohesive state the West has ever seen. After a historiographical orientation, it will look at the fate of rural and urban settlements in the different areas of the West. The responses of local societies to the crisis will be investigated through examination of burial practices, through the writing of history and through the literary output of the era. Finally we will examine how different dimensions of social structure– gender, ethnicity and political authority – had changed in the period. Had Rome been rejected or redefined?

Occasionally we will stray a little way beyond the fifth century into the early sixth. In many ways the first part of the sixth century can be seen as continuing the trends of the fifth.

Students will be expected to show a willingness to read widely and deal with the full range of documentary historical, literary, archaeological and artistic material to acquire a rounded view of the period. This course will be challenging; you will have to rethink much of what you think you know about 'the Fall of the Roman Empire'. This will require hard work but the results will be correspondingly satisfying and enjoyable.

The likely seminar programme will be as follows:

    • Writing the Fifth Century (1): Modern Approaches - Terrible Catastrophe or Peaceful Transformation?
    • Defining a Crisis (1): Burial and Society
    • Responses to Crisis (1): Burial and Society
    • Writing the Fifth Century (2): Historical Writing in the Last Century of the Western Empire
    • Responses to Crisis (2): Literary Production in the Fifth-Century West
    • Responses to Crisis (3): Art and Decorative Style
    • New Identities, New Peoples... Ethnicity and the Redefinition of Political Legitimacy
    • ... New Men? The Redefinition of Social Categories
    • Political Authority: Kings and Aristocrats

Preliminary reading

  • Drinkwater, J. F. and H. Elton, eds. Fifth-Century Gaul: A Crisis of Identity? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
  • Halsall, Guy. Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Harries, Jill. Sidonius Apollinaris and the Fall of Rome. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.
  • Heather, Paul. The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Mathisen, Ralph. Roman Aristocrats in Barbarian Gaul: Strategies for Survival in an Age of Transition. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993.
  • Mathisen, Ralph and Danuta Shanzer, eds. Society and Culture in Late Roman Gaul: Revisiting the Sources. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001.
  • Ward-Perkins, Bryan. The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.