INTRODUCTION: HISTORY AND IRONY
People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don't know is what what they do does.
The central part of this book is a narrative history from the Gothic crossing of the Danube in 376 to the deposition of the western emperor, Romulus, in 476 and then on to the mid-sixth century. A general political history is important for several reasons. We must place the social, economic and ideological changes analysed in chapters 11–14 in their specific historical context. They resulted from choices influenced by, and often responses to, those political happenings. The narrative also highlights the conjunctures between high political events in different parts of the Empire, perhaps allowing a greater understanding of the circumstances that produced the changes visible in local society. Recasting the narrative of the ‘long fifth century’ also helps us to move away from seeing these developments as inevitable. It is difficult to find a point at which the end of the western Roman Empire was inescapable, certainly before 471; our narrative must reflect this.
Writing a narrative means imposing a linear and coherent structure upon the protean mass of past happenings: in selecting and shaping the material of history into a story. This self-reflexivity about the process of history writing, is often associated with the linguistic turn and the ideas usually lumped together as ‘post-modernism’.