BMCR 2010.03.63

How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower

, How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009. x, 531; 16 p. of plates. ISBN 9780300137194. $32.50.

I often tell my students that I don’t know why Rome fell, but I can talk about it for a long time. Adrian Goldsworthy, however, does know why Rome fell, and describes the process in over 500 pages. Like all of his work, it reads well, but I suspect that the majority of BMCR readers are not the target audience who instead would seem to be the (almost mythical) general reader. Opening and closing sections discussing Rome in relation to the US and to modern Britain, as well as regular analogies throughout to the modern period, give the work topicality, though mean it will not age well.

Like Gibbon, Goldsworthy starts with the death of Marcus Aurelius. He then proceeds reign by reign as far as Justinian. There is an admirable attempt, as the narrative becomes more complex in the fourth century, to maintain the story of a single political body. This is not easy, and Goldsworthy does as well as can be done. Once the middle of the fifth century is reached, the treatment of events becomes thinner, especially in the east, and after 476 there is a very swift progression to the reign of Justinian, treated very much as an epilogue to Roman history, rather than a part of it.

The viewpoint is a very traditional one, focussing on politics and military history (so strongly that neither Athanasius nor John Chrysostom are mentioned, while the Council of Chalcedon occurs only once, and that in the reign of Justinian). I’ve great sympathy with this as an approach, but am reluctant to accept that this is all there is to the collapse of the Late Roman Empire. The major culprit for Goldsworthy is civil war, which he sets out as being mostly absent in the first two centuries, but prevalent in the third, fourth, and fifth centuries. While it is true that there was a lot of civil war, this doesn’t seem satisfying as an explanation in itself. Similarly, talking about Rome as a body ‘made vulnerable by prolonged decay’ (415) is true enough, but I’m not sure how much Goldsworthy’s approach really explains the fall of the western Roman Empire or the continuity of the eastern. Goldsworthy argues that: ‘The Roman Empire did not fall quickly, but to use this as proof that its institutions were essentially sound is deeply misguided’ (413). I disagree, but in the sort of work that Goldsworthy is writing, I’m inevitably going to be disappointed.

Goldsworthy’s approach is very different from the more nuanced debate involving scholars like Liebeschuetz and Ward-Perkins who take issue with the perspectives of positivistic scholars on the way in which the Late Empire changed or declined. Goldsworthy knows about this work (18-20), but never actively engages with it, choosing to keep his work at a more general level. Although the introduction mentions that different scholars have different opinions, these are consciously kept out of the narrative as ‘deathly dull’ to those who are not professional historians (8). Allusions to scholarship are sparse in the text but can be followed up by those in the field through the endnotes (which, like the bibliography, are well-read and up to date). Thus the sections on Goths for example, give no sense of the depths of divided opinions between many scholars. Endnotes, as opposed to footnotes, don’t help here.

This is not a book that I could use in the classroom—too thick, too well-written, and perhaps most dangerously, too clear. Portraying history in such simplistic terms, however, fails to explain that governing the Late Roman Empire was a complex business. But since this is not what Goldsworthy set out to do, such criticism is unfair. By design, this is the sort of book that politicians, school teachers, and my colleagues in the Department of Physics will read, sucked in by the blurb on the dust jacket. The full title, How Rome Fell: The Death of a Superpower (US) or Fall of the West: The Long Slow Death of the Roman Superpower (UK) encourages this sort of audience and here, I think, it will be successful.