‘It was at Rome’, Edward Gibbon tells us, ‘on the 15th of October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.’ Quite when Peter Heather took the decision to write his latest book, The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders, is one thing he does not share with the reader, but as with many of his other publications (most notably his 2005 volume The Fall of Rome: A New History) it is a work that is clearly intended to stand in dialogue with Gibbon, transforming the inherited vision of a Roman Empire brought low amid the ‘triumph of barbarism and religion’. Heather’s argument is, in a sense, disarmingly simple. Following the dismantling of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century AD, many rulers sought to resurrect a semblance of Roman order, but it was only through the agency of the medieval papacy that the authority of Rome was finally restored, albeit in the form of an ‘ideological empire’ rather than a bureaucratic or political one. In that sense, the chanting of Gibbon’s friars was not, as it must have seemed to him on that autumn day in 1764, an echo of Rome’s fall, so much as a reminder of how, and by whose efforts, the Eternal City and its imperial legacy had eventually been revived.
Heather begins his study by delineating Rome’s imperial expansion in the first and second centuries AD. Europe in antiquity, he argues, was characterised by major imbalances of demography and development, which facilitated the Mediterranean-based empire’s takeover of the less populous and economically sophisticated territories to the north and west. By