It's been far too long since I've written one of these. So, here goes - even if this really is just a rehashing, or, maybe, revisiting something that I wrote about earlier. Basically, the questions I have are how ought we approach late antiquity (fall, decline, etc.), can or should we apply this sort of interpretation to particular eras, and/or does this obscure our picture of the period (or sub-periods) as a whole?
I've finished reading the first set of assignments for my Topics in Ancient History Course here at the UofW entitled the "Fall of Rome". Said assignment was on just that topic: whether the empire fell, transformed, or something else, or at least what some scholars have had to say about this. I've really enjoyed reading their papers, and not surprisingly, even with such a small group of students, there are a range of views.
Some have highlighted the fact that the Roman Empire no longer exists; ergo there must have been a fall of some sort. Others have highlighted the success and vitality of Christianity and so taken the transformation approach. Others have argued that it's largely a question of perspective, and gone with something approximating the middle ground. Others still have argued that it's all rather futile, and that more energy should be devoted to the events and facts, and less to modern labels. Good cases have been made for each view.
Suffice to say, given that I've spent a good deal of time with Procopius, it should come as no surprise that my personal view has been that what we have in the late antique east is more akin to a transformation than a decline, at least up to a point, and at least for a number of people in the eastern Roman Empire. The empire was expanding, the population and the economy were growing, and its capital was in a state of monumentalization (if that's the right term).
But around about the time that the plague showed up in 541 or so things seem to have started to go in another direction. Many have commented on this, some saying it was as bad as some sixth century authors make it out to be, others saying that the effects were far less pronounced. Certainly, it had some sort of impact.
All in all, reading these assignments (and doing this course) has me thinking that I really do need to consider Justinian's role in all this a bit more. This has to be the next major project: Justinian, the Burden of Reconquest, and the Fall of the Roman Empire. We have texts that cover the good and the bad in considerable detail (Procopius, notably), there has been some work done on sixth century sites, and there are some suggestive sixth century inscriptions. But, with respect to the material evidence I fear we don't have the same quality of stuff that we have for the west, particularly for places like Italy (discussed by Ward-Perkins, and others). Does this make a balanced-analysis impossible? Is there a way to overcome these obstacles? I'm certainly of the mind that every last piece of evidence must be employed, as I've said before - and now in print! (LAA 8.1).
Is it suitable to make the premise of the project: "The Eastern Roman Empire declined in the second half of the sixth century as a result of the military actions and foreign policy of its most famous emperor, Justinian"? Does cornering myself into something like this from the get-go make my view necessarily narrow? Hmmm....