The political history of the western Roman empire was brought to a dramatic end in the fifth century, by the successful invasions of a number of Germanic peoples (Goths, Vandals, Franks, Anglo-Saxons, and others). These peoples set up their own states, ruled by their own kings. By AD 500, the western empire, a very powerful unified state only a century before, had broken up into a number of different kingdoms and was now ruled, not by men of Roman descent, but by ‘barbarians’. However, this political upheaval did not have a universal and identical effect across the whole west-Roman world. In some areas, Britain in particular, change was marked, and apparently sudden (in social structure, the economy, religion, even language); but in others the transformation was much more gradual, with a great deal persisting from earlier times. The Ostrogothic kings of Italy, for instance, ruled the peninsula with the help of the local aristocracy, and cultivated a studied air of Romanness, that was sometimes more Roman than that of the Romans themselves.
What happened as the empire disintegrated, and after its fall, is currently an area of lively scholarly debate. Everyone agrees that some structures, in particular the Christian religion and the organisation of the Church, were remarkably durable – during this period Christianity indeed began to spread northwards and eastwards, creating a new Europe beyond Rome’s frontiers. But there is little consensus at present over the extent and the rapidity of change in other areas, like the economy, patterns of urban life, or the political and social structures of society. Was the post-Roman West still ‘late antique’, despite the Germanic take-over of power – a society still recognisably rooted in the habits and ways of Antiquity? Or was it really a new society, perhaps better defined as ‘early medieval’?
Oxford is an ideal place to research and study these, and other closely related, issues. It has a powerful concentration of scholars working on the post-Roman West (both archaeologists, and historians of politics, religion and culture). Unsurprisingly, the greatest number of these are specialists on Britain (both Celtic and Anglo-Saxon); but there is also a strong tradition and presence of researchers into post-Roman continental Europe. These strengths in research are matched and sustained by the excellent library resources of the Bodleian and Sackler libraries (the latter for Archaeology), both of which attract scholars from all over the world; while the Ashmolean Museum has a substantial and distinguished collection of post-Roman material, above all Anglo-Saxon.