The best books on Barbarian Europe

Who am I?

In my novels, I aim to present a different vision of early Post-Roman Britain than the one usually imagined in fiction – especially in the future Kingdom of Kent, where my books are set. To show these connections, and to present the greater background for the events in the novels, I first needed to gain knowledge of what Europe itself looked like in this period: a Gaul divided between Gothic, Frankish, and Roman administration, a complex interplay of Romans and Barbarians, a world in transition from Antiquity to the Middle Ages. The story gleaned from the pages of these books proved as fascinating and intriguing as any I’ve ever read.

I wrote...

The Saxon Spears: An Epic of the Dark Age

By James Calbraith,

Book cover of The Saxon Spears: An Epic of the Dark Age

What is my book about?

The old world is burning and a hero will rise from its ash. Ash is a Seaborn, a Saxon child found on the beach with nothing but a precious stone at his neck and a memory of a distant war from which his people have fled. Raised on the estate of a Briton nobleman, trained in warfare and ancient knowledge, he soon becomes embroiled in the machinations and intrigues at the court of Wortigern, the Dux of Londinium, a struggle that is about to determine the future of all Britannia.

A child of Saxon blood, an heir to Roman family, his is a destiny like no other: to join the two races and forge a new world from the ruins of the old.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe

Why did I love this book?

Peter Heather’s work is one of the broadest in scope on the topic of the European ‘Barbarians’, while still retaining enough detail to keep the reader’s attention pinned. A great starter for this period of history, encompassing the entire first millennium AD, the time when the heart of European civilization gradually moved from the Mediterranean South to the cold Barbarian North. It reads like a novel – but is supported by years of painstaking research. If you can only read one book on Barbarian Europe, this is the book.

By Peter Heather,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Empires and Barbarians as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

At the start of the first millennium AD, southern and western Europe formed part of the Mediterranean-based Roman Empire, the largest state western Eurasia has ever known, and was set firmly on a trajectory towards towns, writing, mosaics, and central heating. Central, northern and eastern Europe was home to subsistence farmers, living in wooden houses with mud floors, whose largest political units weighed in at no more than a few thousand people. By the year 1000, Mediterranean domination of the European landscape had been destroyed. Instead of one huge Empire facing loosely organised subsistence farmers, Europe - from the Atlantic…

The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples

By Herwig Wolfram, Thomas Dunlap (translator),

Book cover of The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples

Why did I love this book?

Herwig Wolfram is the Grand Master of Germanic history. His mighty History of the Goths is a work cited perhaps more than any other by any author writing about this period, and its influence of study of Early Middle Ages is unparalleled. But History of the Goths is a heavy, dense, scholarly work, and not easy to find these days. The Roman Empire is a more popular synthesis, focusing not just on Goths, but on all Late Antiquity Germanic tribes – Franks, Burgundians, Saxons, and others – providing a rich view of the barbarians from the perspective of their Roman neighbours. 

By Herwig Wolfram, Thomas Dunlap (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The names of early Germanic warrior tribes and leaders resound in songs and legends; the real story of the part they played in reshaping the ancient world is no less gripping. Herwig Wolfram's panoramic history spans the great migrations of the Germanic peoples and the rise and fall of their kingdoms between the third and eighth centuries, as they invaded, settled in, and ultimately transformed the Roman Empire. As Germanic military kings and their fighting bands created kingdoms, and won political and military recognition from imperial governments through alternating confrontation and accommodation, the 'tribes' lost their shared culture and social…

Book cover of The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages, 400-1000

Why did I love this book?

Another synthesis of the ‘Dark Ages’ Europe, this one from the Penguin History series. An easy, but thorough read, painting a broad canvas from Ireland to Byzantium, and from the last days of Rome to the last days of Anglo-Saxon England, shines the light on the centuries that, while still seen as shrouded in the darkness of violence and barbarism, are in fact the true cradle of the European civilization as we know it today.

By Chris Wickham,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Inheritance of Rome as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"The breath  of reading is astounding, the knowledge displayed is awe-inspiring and the attention quietly given to critical theory and the postmodern questioning of evidence is both careful and sincere."--The Daily Telegraph (UK)

"A superlative work of historical scholarship."--Literary Review (UK)

A unique and enlightening look at Europe's so-called Dark Ages; the second volume in the Penguin History of Europe

Defying the conventional Dark Ages view of European history between A.D. 400 and 1000, award-winning historian Chris Wickham presents The Inheritance of Rome, a work of remarkable scope and rigorous yet accessible scholarship. Drawing on a wealth of new material…

Book cover of The Merovingian Kingdoms 450 - 751

Why did I love this book?

The Merovingians – the Frankish royal family – were the closest, and most powerful, neighbour to the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of the Early Middle Ages. They influenced trade, culture, and religion of early England, at times as partners, at times as hegemons of the island. At the same time, they built the foundation on which the Carolingians built their empire, the New Rome that would control the great swathes of Europe for centuries to come. Ian Wood’s excellent book is possibly the most detailed account of their rule ever written. 

By Ian Wood,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Merovingian Kingdoms 450 - 751 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A comprehensive survey which begins with the rise of the Franks, then examines the Merovingians.

Book cover of The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World

Why did I love this book?

You can’t overstate the impact of religion on this tumultuous period. The transition from paganism to Christianity not only coincided with, but greatly impacted everything that happened in early medieval Europe. Catherine Nixey’s controversial book focuses on that transition and shows it in full, gory detail – the violence it spurned, and the destruction it caused to the ancient culture that preceded the onset of Christianity. A necessary read for understanding the full picture of the 4th and 5th centuries in Europe.

By Catherine Nixey,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Darkening Age as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In The Darkening Age, Catherine Nixey tells the little-known - and deeply shocking - story of how a militant religion deliberately tried to extinguish the teachings of the Classical world, ushering in unquestioning adherence to the 'one true faith'.

The Roman Empire had been generous in embracing and absorbing new creeds. But with the coming of Christianity, everything changed. This new faith, despite preaching peace, was violent, ruthless and intolerant. And once it became the religion of empire, its zealous adherents set about the destruction of the old gods. Their altars were upturned, their temples demolished and their statues hacked…

5 book lists we think you will like!

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