The Bottom Line
Could there really be something new to say about why Rome fell? Does it really take more than 400 pages of prose, plus 100 of notes and index to add to the already hefty corpus from just the 21st century? The answer is resoundingly yes, provided the writer is Adrian Goldsworthy.
Should your interest be in the fate of modern superpowers or the late Roman Empire, you should make some time to read and digest How Rome Fell.
- Convincing arguments
- Thorough and wonderfully detailed
- Easy to read
- Doesn't assume reader will remember details
- Perhaps it could use more maps or charts
- Adrian Goldsworthy: How Rome Fell. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.
- Policies dealing with one problem generally create problems elsewhere. Leaders need to value the state over personal safety.
- Barbarians were mostly opportunists who couldn't press home an advantage. Rome could afford small defeats.
- Foreign wars were frequent. They provided glory, and limited threat, but dissipated limited resources.
- Most emperors of the Late Empire were killed by rivals. Rarely did emperors die of natural causes.
- The Principate worked because of the reliance on non-professional aristocrats in the Senate.
- As the Empire grew large and unmanageable, emperors could delegate to their known friends/relatives in the Senate.
- With the end of the Principate came reorganization, increased specialization, and bureaucracy. Results weren't good.
- The Church was able to fill in the power vacuum created by declining central authority.
- Late Empire was like an old body that could no longer fight off infection.
Guide Review - Adrian Goldsworthy's 'How Rome Fell'
Goldsworthy had a pre-9/11 opportunity to address American policy makers on the topic of ancient Rome, so the question of why the fall of Rome would be relevant for modern superpowers is always at least dimly in the background. Goldsworthy reviews the literature on the fall of Rome, with special concern for the historical context of the writing. Gibbon, for instance, began his work optimistically when there seemed little chance the colonies would break away from Britain, but his tone changed with American independence. The modern world affects our vision of Rome, enabling us to look at events anew, but with our own set of warped lenses. We are now more interested in late Antiquity, so it is this period, starting with Marcus Aurelius, that Goldsworthy covers.
Goldsworthy does not believe that barbarians or the Persians at the border caused the fall of Rome. Instead he demonstrates that civil wars, usurpations, and other civil unrest, coupled with chance led to a change in Roman fortunes. A lesson to be drawn from the history is that when a leader steps up security in one area, he may well be creating an equal and opposite reaction elsewhere. In Roman terms, enhancing the civil service to deprive the military of their ability to usurp and crown one of their own, led to conspiring civilian ministers. Persia was sometimes Rome's equal, but it never tried to take over Rome -- just recapture contested border lands.
What I absolutely love about How Rome Fell is that the first part contains a fast-paced, anecdote-heavy series of biographies of the emperors at the end of the Principate, from Marcus Aurelius on. Think: All Shakespeare's plays in 60 seconds. I was also thrilled not to have to keep searching the index for references, since Goldsworthy has mastered the art of knowing when to refresh the reader's memory.