Scholarly Writing and “The Fall of Rome”

Fenster writes:

Though I have a doctorate I am not a scholar.  That’s partly because I got a doctorate late in life, well past the time I might have developed good, or at least acceptable, scholarly habits.  It is also a matter of character.  I just can’t rouse myself to care about, much less to write in, high scholarly style.

When I was defending my dissertation my dissertation chair (who was, in good academic fashion, my champion) went on the offense in committee on my behalf, remarking that my dissertation was not written in scholarly style but in clear and plain English, and that he found that a good thing.  That was enough to ward off another committee member or two, who liked the work but were probably privately concerned I was not writing in the opaque manner that had guaranteed their own success in the academy.

I suppose you could argue that had the other committee members expressed any concerns that they would only have been looking out for me since the ability to produce such prose is indeed correlated with long term success in the academy.  Thankfully my chair prevailed, as I am too professional by background to qualify for tenure and too old to give a damn about longevity.

Nonetheless, one of the other committee members took me aside to warn me about certain tonal aspects of my work.  I did not burrow down in my work to look at a tiny aspect of the field but opted to take a broad view of it.  And I had been critical –diplomatically but directly–of the seminal work in my area of inquiry,  and the committee member, whose own research interest was in that field, felt that such criticism would not go down well with the people active in that field.  That included the author of the work I had criticized, who was now the editor-in-chief of the field’s main scholarly journal.  Did I hope to have my dissertation condensed and published there as an article?  Probably not, he opined, not if I was opting to critique in the manner I had done.

You play the game by accepting the conventions of the field that pays your way.  Too much direct criticism as a newly minted doctorate and you end up with one of those “you’ll never work in this town again” situations.  Or so I was advised.

I mention this because I am always on the lookout for works that are clearly written, academically rigorous and willing to be diplomatically and directly critical when it counts.  I like reading them and they help reduce any remaining impostor syndrome residue brought on by too many years in school capped by a doctoral degree.

Which brings me to one such book: The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, by Bryan Ward-Perkins.

Close readers of UR will have noted an interest on the part of some of our contributors in ancient Rome, and even in Ward-Perkins’s book.

Reading about Rome seems to be the thing to do nowadays, at least in the faintly reprobate circles I travel in.  And since UR has book club qualities and since I have lemming qualities I thought I would give it a go.

Really good book.

I am not the one to deliver a scholarly review, not being a scholar and all.  But I can comment on the writing issue, and in that regard Ward-Perkins’ book is exemplary.

For one, he goes right at big issues.  A lot of scholarship consists of mining the minutiae.  This is allegedly to help move knowledge forward tiny step by tiny step.  In fact, most scholarship is afraid of big issues and the mining of tiny seams of ore is the only reasonable way to gain tenure, whether or not the scholarship is read or whether it actually advances “knowledge”.

What is interesting about The Fall of Rome is that while accessible to a broad audience and while dealing with big questions, it is clearly informed by a lot of work of the step by tiny step variety.  No doubt Ward-Perkins has had to read and write his share of heavy tracts in his main area of archaeology.  And no doubt I would be a goner if I had to tackle them.  But here he shows how to use high-level treatments of a difficult science to ask large questions that are of immediate interest to, and accessible to, a larger public.  He doesn’t just say “not enough is known” at the beginning and “more research is needed” at the end; he connects the dots between the small scale and the large scale.  He uses the details of scholarship in pursuit of significant hypotheses.

The large questions here have to do with the nature of Rome’s fall.  Was it, the way many generations have had it for a long time, a relatively brutal fall of an advanced civilization, followed by a true dark age characterized by the loss of the physical and cultural aspects of a higher civilization?  Or was it, the way more modern historians would have it, a gradual thing, and not all that brutal, and not leading to a terribly dark period?

Ward-Perkins is with the first camp and his argument is a fairly straightforward one: the older, darker story is what the archaeological record plainly tells us.  So without having to become an expert in pottery–though a little of that helps–you feel as though you are partaking of a pretty significant debate.

While he respects the contributions of those with whom he takes issue, he is capable of a fair critique as well.  For instance, he theorizes–but does not aim to prove–that the move away from the hard fall theory has something to do with the subsequent rise of Northern Europe as a center of Western Civilization, and the consequent needs for myths, even draped as scholarship, that suggest that northerners were not barbarians but willing recipients of all the good things Rome had to offer.  It’s a human impulse to want to tilt scholarship in the direction of underlying culture–witness the Black Athena dust-up–but Ward-Perkins would prefer to take bitter pills if they are better pills.

Additionally, he critiques the move away from economic history in favor of the study of ideas and religion as though they are unmoored from the actual circumstances of life.  Despite his materialist methodology (if the evidence is pot shards you work with material objects by necessity), that doesn’t make him a dialectical materialist in the Marxist mode.  In fact, he suggests in a way that the decline of classic Marxist economic analysis left Marxists with a choice: rethink one’s economics or hang on to Marx without economics.  And that they preferred the latter.  Certainly this is of a piece with many other trends over the past several decades, as the Old Left’s concerns with class and power gave way to the New Left’s concerns with participatory democracy and as that in turn gave way to the loonier identity politics of today.  I don’t even want to give that one a name.

As Ward-Perkins goes he avoids highfalutin’ prose and makes gentle fun of those who use it to obfuscate rather than clarify.  For instance, near the beginning he makes mention of two current historians who are concerned about the more traditional view as one that would (in the words of the two historians) “demonize the barbarians and problematize the barbarian settlements.”  He feels the need to clarify what this piece of prose means, and notes wryly that it means, more simply, that the two historians don’t like those who “still believe in violent and unpleasant invasion.”

A few pages later he gently pokes at verbiage again.  He points out that the invaders have sometimes been “maligned” but then adds in parentheses “(or problematized, to use the modern jargon.)”

You do not find Ward-Perkins using such jargon, except in gentle jest.  If you want to know the meaning of his prose, read the words.

Stepping back from the in-house argument aspects of the book, the manner of Rome’s fall is not only a large issue in the profession.  It is a large issue for the modern world to consider.

Where is the line between gentle migrants looking for a better life and an invasion?  How fragile is our advanced civilization and are we in our own way vulnerable in a deep and systemic way a quick descent if patterns of habit and thought are interrupted, and if the complex chains of material civilization are disrupted in major ways?

Ward-Perkins is no fan of the Romans and, left to his own devices in his study at Oxford, he is doubtless a decent man holding a set of mainly universal values.  These are the values that we in the West have employed to claw our way back to an advanced civilization.  But the set of values one holds sometimes requires one to have a healthy respect for values in opposition.

About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
This entry was posted in Books Publishing and Writing, History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Scholarly Writing and “The Fall of Rome”

  1. Mary Scriver says:

    On a gloomy Sunday morning in small town Montana with sky just turning pink in the East, I cannot tell you how much your writing and the thought/experience behind it are appreciated. I got so impatient with irrelevance and trivia that I cancelled the newspaper. It was for high school kids. Even the newer professors these days sound like high school kids.

    Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Fenster says:

    the ladder


  3. Ace says:

    That book sounds quite interesting. I assume he is talking about the Western Roman empire. Of course the East continued on for 1,000 more years. It seems like the mere fact that the West was abandoned more or less to the Germans would support the “hard fall” theory. At the same time, Henri Pirenne argues that commerce between East and West continued on until the Islamic invasions took away Mare Nostrum. It is possible that it is both?


    • Fenster says:

      Yes, the main argument about decline concerns the Western Roman Empire, and is fundamentally built on what the archaeological record suggests about material conditions. I don’t know Pirenne other than that he argued for a much later decline in both East and West, as you suggest.


  4. Pingback: Daniel Dennett on Scholarly Writing | Uncouth Reflections

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