- How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower
- Yale University Press, 560 pp.
Too Many Caesars
The Roman Empire was the greatest political state in the history of the Western world. In terms of its far-reaching frontiers, the power of its military and judicial institutions and its enduring cultural influence, it has no rivals. Rome’s eventual fall from power, consequently, has haunted the imagination of statesmen, philosophers and historians. Ever since St. Augustine reflected on the transience of earthly power in his City of God, written in the aftermath of the pillaging of Rome in 410 A.D. by a force of Germanic invaders, scholars have studied the factors leading to Rome’s collapse to find the reason why.
For British historian Adrian Goldsworthy, there are no simple answers to the question of why Rome fell. His careful analysis of the historical sources yielded no hidden causes or scapegoats to blame for what his illustrious predecessor, Edward Gibbon, described as the “awful revolution” that sent Rome into a downward spiral.
Goldsworthy, whose works include an acclaimed biography of Julius Caesar and a major study of the Roman legions, is a natural for the task of unraveling the cause and effect of Rome’s fall. Goldsworthy takes many of the reasons advanced by earlier scholars and shows them to be of far less significance than is often believed. In some cases, many of the old explanations are simply incorrect. Rome’s growing reliance upon “barbarian” troops, for instance, more often helped to safeguard its frontiers than to threaten them. Nor did rusty drain pipes, moral depravity or savage Hun raiders storming across the Eurasian steppes knock Rome off its pedestal.
The Germanic tribes, the hard-riding Huns and a revival of the Persian Empire certainly made life difficult for the Romans. From the last days of Marcus Aurelius in 180 A.D. to the end of Roman rule in Western Europe in 476, Rome’s enemies grew in strength and numbers. Singly or even in collaboration, however, these external enemies lacked the manpower and resources to overmatch the might of Rome.
The real danger lay within the walls of Rome. Goldsworthy maintains that the vicious cycle of political instability, civil war and the frequent assassination of Rome’s emperors and leading commanders created opportunities that the Goths, Vandals and Persians were swift to exploit. Rome declined, not from a lack of military prowess, but because it fought too many wars, Roman against Roman and then, as a consequence, further campaigns to restore its battered frontiers and ravaged provinces.
Goldsworthy, like all historians of antiquity, was faced by a major problem in trying to reach a balanced appraisal of Rome’s fall. Unlike earlier periods of Roman history, the historians during its age of decline were generally scholars of the second rank or worse. And much of what they wrote did not survive. Egypt, Rome’s source of grain for its “bread and circuses,” is the exception to this lack of source material, with great masses of documents from the period written on papyrus having been discovered. But Egypt was a relatively secure province, far from the battle lines. Vital to understanding the social history of the period, Egypt’s papyri archives have yielded little to the political and military record of Rome’s demise.
Goldsworthy’s refusal to accept earlier explanations for Rome’s fall without corroborating evidence makes for a book that is both provocative and unsettling. The accepted version of Roman history maintains that the empire nearly collapsed in the tumultuous years between the death of Septimius Severus, a capable emperor from North Africa, in 211 A.D. and the seizure of power in 284 by Diocletian, a tough, brilliant soldier who had risen from the ranks. After Diocletian’s reforms, the restructured Roman Empire, with a bigger army and bureaucracy, is generally held to have been a more effective state for much of the ensuing century.
Goldsworthy maintains that the “military anarchy” between the reigns of Severus and Diocletian was more a product of a restructuring of the class system in Rome than the sudden invasion of barbarian hordes or danger from the revived Persian Empire. Severus demoted members of the Senate of Rome from many high commands, replacing them with officers from the social rank below them, the equestrians. It seemed like a good idea at the time, since the equestrians often brought greater professionalism to their military and civil commands. However, the mystique of the emperors was badly damaged by this shift. If equestrian generals and governors knew their jobs better than the amateurish senators, they also had less to respect or fear in the person of the emperor. This was especially true when an increasing number of the successors of Augustus were equestrians themselves, having seized power through palace revolts and army coups.
This internal power struggle did not cease with Diocletian’s restructuring of the Roman government or with Constantine’s adoption of Christianity in 312. The Roman army might have been bigger under Diocletian, but the bloodletting of a renewed bout of civil wars depleted its ranks and undermined its morale. As for Constantine’s devotion to Christianity, his brutal murder of his own son and wife after his conversion shows how little of the message of Christian peace influenced the Pax Romana.
The “New Rome” of Diocletian and Constantine, in Goldsworthy’s estimation, was hardly an improved version of the old empire. Fortunately for Goldsworthy, and indeed all students of ancient history, a work by an historian of merit survives from the years after Constantine’s death, providing a perceptive account of what was going on.
This was the history of Ammianus Marcellinus, a military officer from Greek-speaking Syria, who amazingly chose to write in Latin. Unfortunately, the early books of his history, the Res Gestae, were lost over the centuries. The surviving books, covering the years 353 to 378, provide both a first person account of many of the battles and intrigues, as well an incisive analysis of social and economic factors. The Roman Empire that Ammianus depicts is a powerful autocracy whose vital institutions are slowly being consumed by greed, corruption and a willful disregard of reality.
No state, not even an immensely strong superpower like Rome, can evade forever the consequences of internal dissension and incompetence on such a magnitude. The concluding chapter of Ammianus’ history, recounting the disastrous Battle of Adrianople in 378, shows how costly was the price of this folly.
In 376, Gothic tribes living in the present day Ukraine and Romania were menaced by attack by the Huns. The Goths petitioned the Emperor Valens to settle within the borders of Rome, offering their military service in return. Faced with a new war against Persia, Valens agreed, seeing the Goths as a ready source of recruits. But, in a staggering display of stupidity, Valens failed to divide the Goths into manageable clan or tribal units, assigning them land or a ready supply of provisions. Treated by Roman border officials much as the Plains Indians were by the U.S. government during the 1870’s, the Goths were driven to revolt in less than two years. Compounding his earlier blunders, Valens rashly took the offensive without waiting for a relief army commanded by his nephew Gration, soon to arrive from Rome’s western provinces. The resulting battle, located in modern-day Turkey, not far from Istanbul, was a disaster for the Romans, costing Valens his life and the lives of thousands of his troops. The calamity was all the more appalling for being totally unnecessary.
In a postscript to his account of the battle of Adrianople, Ammianus commented rather optimistically that things were not as bad as they seemed. “For if you look at earlier times or those which have recently passed, these will show that such dire disturbances have often happened.”
Many historians have been puzzled by such a positive postmortem. Ammianus, despite his dislike of Germans, was a remarkably astute analyst of political and military affairs. With the frontiers breached and the massacre of the army guarding the Eastern provinces, the situation was surely graver than his reassuring remark warranted.
Goldsworthy breaks with convention by showing that Ammianus was not wide of the mark. Within a few years, the crisis occasioned by the arrival of the Goths within the Empire had been resolved. A skillful blend of diplomacy, bribes, displays of military force and the recruitment of some of the Goths to serve in the Roman Army had stabilized the situation to a remarkable degree. Such intelligent measures had long been Roman practice and, even at this late date, were capable of success, at least in the short term.
But the key point to note is that the Romans were unable or unwilling to implement such a judicious display of “the carrot and the stick” in the long term. Arrogant when they needed to be conciliatory, irresolute at moments of crisis, Rome’s leaders repeated the disaster of Adrianople over and over again.
The “Barbarian Invasions” of the Fifth Century are one of history’s greatest non-events. Most of the Germanic tribes came over the frontiers not to invade, but generally seeking accommodation and land. Many officers of German descent served loyally in the Roman Army or as leaders of allied contingents. Repeatedly these leaders were murdered by the emperors they served, as happened to Stilicho who had won a number of victories for the vacillating Emperor Honorius. Others were driven to revolt, as in the case of Alaric, the Gothic leader who led the sack of Rome in 410. This notorious event gained in terror with each retelling, though there were few fatalities. Actually, the Goths marched into Rome to get the pay they had been promised. Seizing loot in compensation, they marched out, Alaric having posted guards to prevent the pillage of churches. Compared with the Romans’ destruction of Carthage in 146 B.C., the sack of Rome by the “savage” Goths was a remarkably tame affair.
Goldsworthy provides a very convincing account of how the Roman Empire fell. In a concluding chapter and an epilogue, he reflects on the “why” of Rome’s fall, on the reasons why “the rot began at the top, and in time a similar attitude pervaded the entire government and army high command.” With great insight, he writes:
At a basic level the emperors and government officials of the Late Roman Empire had forgotten what the empire was for. The wider interests of the state – the Res Publica, or ‘public thing’, from which we get our word ‘Republic’ – were secondary to their own personal success and survival. This was not at root a moral failing. There had been plenty of selfish and corrupt individuals in earlier periods of Roman history, just as there have been in all other societies. The difference was that by the late empire it was difficult for them to behave in any other way.
In public discourse, Rome’s decline and fall is often invoked, frequently in moralistic terms having more to do with contemporary society than with Ancient Rome. On a more profound level, Goldsworthy has depicted the grim process by which the Res Publica, the common good of the Roman many, was sacrificed for the self-preservation of the Imperial few, leading in due course to the destruction of all.
Ed Voves is a freelance writer, based in Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife, the artist Anne Lloyd, and a swarm of cats who love curling up with good books.
Mr. Voves graduated with a B.A. in History from LaSalle University in 1976 and a Masters in Information Science from Drexel University in 1989. After teaching for several years with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, he worked in the news research department for “The Philadelphia Inquirer” and the “Philadelphia Daily News,” 1985 to 2003. It was with the “Daily News,” that he began his freelance writing, doing book reviews and author interviews with such notable figures as Umberto Eco, Maurice Sendak, and Peter O’Toole. For the “Inquirer,” he specialized in reviews of major historical works. Following his time with the newspapers, he worked as an independent researcher for Knowledge@Wharton, the online journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He joined the staff of the Free Library of Philadelphia in 2005 and is currently the branch manager of the Kingsessing Branch in southwest Philadelphia. In 2006, he began writing for the “California Literary Review.” History of Yoga