The historical model of Decline and Fall lives. Of course, it’s an endless problem in the historiography — we learn new things that confirm or undermine old things (especially from archaeology), scholarly fashions change, and people still keep writing books. There was some discussion at Marginal Revolution yesterday that reminded me of something I’m doing this fall in Art and Architecture of the First Christian Millennium* (ARTH 270).
Most of the students in this course will be majors in art history, studio art, or architectural studies, with a sprinkling of other humanities; they typically don’t have a very strong background in European history. I think most of them are sure that the Roman Empire fell, and I bet that a majority believe in barbarian invasions as the cause of that fall. I’m also fairly sure that they believe that this process was fairly swift (that’s what fall implies – an event). Whether they know anything about decline I am much less certain. The last time I polled folks in this course (3 years ago?) almost no one knew who Gibbon was or the title of his book. Me, I prefer changed slowly into two different things, one centered on Constantinople and one without a coherent center, but decline will do in a pinch.
So, I’ve tried using a history textbook as a supplement: Roger Collins’ Early Medieval Europe, 300-1000. It’s pretty good and it’s not unreadable – but it’s way too long for a resource book.
This year I’m using a popular history: William Rosen’s Justinian’s Flea: The First Great Plague and the End of the Roman Empire. I think this will have a number of advantages. It’s a third of the price of Collins, and available for Kindle and on Audible! Though the main focus is fairly narrow (early 6th Century), Rosen provides lots of background, and tells it in a fairly orthodox fashion that I won’t have to correct much. The comparative angle – Rosen is interested in how China was like and unlike the Roman and Persian Empires – is interesting. The most difficult part will be getting the students not to adopt Rosen’s fairly deterministic story — bubonic plague enabled the rise of Islam — but I’ll do my best.
Best of all, I think it’s a fairly good introduction to the later Empire in the West before its decline and to how the Empire in the East held on.
We’ll see – every iteration is a new adventure!
*Unfortunately, I created that course at a time when we were going in for evocative course titles. I’d be better off with Early Medieval Art & Architecture, but that would involve filling out paperwork.