BMCR 2022.07.14

The “Falls” of Rome: crises, resilience, and resurgence in late antiquity

, The "Falls" of Rome: crises, resilience, and resurgence in late antiquity. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021. Pp. 462. ISBN 9781107111424. £29.99.


“How many times has the very city of cities and the great capital of the whole world been demolished by civil wars, and after they have ceased, risen again as if from the ground!”[1] Writing in the late sixth century to a Merovingian audience riven by internal strife, Gregory of Tours thus held forth Rome as a symbol of communal reconciliation and recovery. Like other cultural critics of his era, Gregory could be loud about the moral decay he saw spreading through his post-imperial world. But when it came to the city of Rome, the story was not yet one of “decline and fall.” A full century after “the last Western emperor” was deposed, Rome remained the caput mundi in the imaginations of people like Gregory. More than that, it retained its reputation as a city where disaster and defeat had always been—and might always be—followed by miraculous resurgence.

Michele Renee Salzman’s The Falls of Rome teaches us a similar lesson about the same city in Late Antiquity. In place of Gregory’s breathless exclamation, however, Salzman’s book provides a masterful and meticulous study of the ways Rome’s elites rose to answer the diverse crises that shook their city from the late third through the early seventh centuries. For Salzman, the key word to Rome’s history in this period is “resilience.” Borrowing from social scientific theory, Salzman deploys the term to describe the capacity of Rome’s citizenry—and particularly its most powerful members—to make meaning of emergency and response, and to marshal resources to “reorganize and restore social formations even in the face of fractures” (18). Students of environmental history will be familiar with “resilience” as a concept used to assess how societies rebound from climatic and epidemiological calamities. Here, though, Salzman brings the model to bear on what she sees as the five major political and military crises of Rome’s last three-hundred years: Constantine’s victory over Maxentius in 312; the sack of Alaric’s Goths in 410; the sack of the Vandals in 455; civil war between Anthemius and Ricimer in 472; and the Gothic War from 535 to 554. Using prosopographic, archaeological, and historiographic techniques, Salzman evaluates the recovery of the city and its inhabitants in the decades following these events. Overall, The Falls of Rome seeks to show how “processes of competition for influence” compelled elites to return repeatedly to Rome and refurbish it—“materially, ideologically, and institutionally”—in the aftermath of violent conflict (25).

In Chapter 1 (“Approaches to the Fate of the Late Antique City”), Salzman outlines her work’s scope and methodology, and positions her intervention against three historiographic paradigms for “the Fall of Rome.” Her conviction in the endurance of the city’s infrastructure and institutions, upheld by repeated reinvestments from its leading citizens, prevents Salzman from aligning with so-called “neo-Gibbonian catastrophists.” Yet recognition of “harsh breaks created by certain crises” (20), and the suffering involved for late antique Romans, precludes her from adopting any “transformationalist” view that would over-emphasize placid continuity. Salzman, for instance, does not dispute steep declines in the city’s population, from as many as one million people in the year 300 to as few as twenty-five thousand in 600. And she is perfectly comfortable with using “demise” to describe the ultimate fate of the Senate of Rome. Finally, the book eschews globalist frameworks that would locate Rome within a world-historical context. Such macroscopic perspectives do not serve this investigation, Salzman claims, because they “cannot explain the resilience of the city in terms of individuals and groups” (21). By contrast, her analysis stresses “the contingencies, choices, and resourcefulness” (16) that lie behind specific efforts by specific Romans to rebuild their city after crises.

Again, the stars of Salzman’s “alternative paradigm” are the wealthy and well-connected leaders of Rome: emperors, military commanders, bishops, and most significantly, senatorial aristocrats. Each chapter explores how the dynamics among these ruling elements shifted in the wake of destabilizing conflicts as they conspired and vied against one another for footholds of authority. This story begins in Chapter 2 (“The Constantinian Compromise”) with a reexamination of Constantine’s reforms to senatorial membership and imperial administration following his victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. Salzman argues against those who see Constantine as aiming to weaken the power of western senators by inflating their numbers with newcomers, forming a competing capital, and/or challenging their pagan traditions. Close consideration of the emperor’s appointments to high civic offices like the consulship and urban prefecture, as well as his expansions to the remit of some of these roles, reveals persistent cooperation between the imperial regime and the Italo-Roman senatorial aristocracy. Constantine’s reign thus emerges as an inflection point in the “rise in the real political power and prestige of senators” (90).

The book’s later sections mainly follow the patterns of structure and analysis developed in the second chapter, and track many of the same subplots. Salzman typically opens by presenting a lucid historical narrative of a crisis that precipitates the civic reclamation projects in which she is interested. So Chapter 3 (“Responses to the Sack of Rome in 410”) begins with a careful recounting of a complex chain of events: the negotiations between Alaric’s Goths and Honorius’ court, the Goths’ attacks on Rome, and their subsequent move into Gaul. This account then sets up incisive argumentation. For Salzman, the Western Empire’s desperate need of military leadership at this moment, met by the rise of the general Flavius Constantius, lowered confidence in the emperor and unsettled the dynamics of power among elites. At Rome, she contends, senatorial aristocrats responded by asserting themselves competitively in efforts to restore their jostled city. Here Salzman digs into the activity of urban and praetorian prefects appointed from the senatorial aristocracy—a recurrent theme across several chapters. Her analysis indicates how these prefects, like the future emperor Petronius Maximus, gained in power and visibility by taking on larger roles in Rome’s reconstruction: from repairing public monuments, to fostering a “statuary habit” that supported senatorial authority, to managing the distribution of food in the post-410 decades.

Another major plotline centers on how the bishops of Rome engaged in the city’s recovery, and thereby competed for influence with secular elites. At stake in this story are the facts behind Rome’s evolution from an ancient city governed by civic-minded aristocrats into a medieval seat of papal power. Salzman argues vigorously against scholars who would place the culmination of this transition before the seventh century. The book’s main body chapters each contain sections that explore the limitations of episcopal authority in civic emergencies. Whether in negotiating the politics of theological disputes during moments of crisis, or in ransoming captives after war, the bishops of Rome remained “beholden to secular elites – senatorial, imperial, and military – for patronage, rebuilding, and security” (147). While Salzman downplays the autonomy of Rome’s episcopacy, she brilliantly elucidates its creative interventions in areas like liturgy and pastoral care. Readers are led to appreciate seemingly perfunctory decisions, such as those to replenish liturgical silver after conflict, as symbolic “acts of refoundation,” performed by different bishops all seeking to forge meaning and clout out of recovery from crisis (187-90). In Salzman’s estimation, it was not until the Byzantine reoccupation of Italy amid the Gothic War that the bishops of Rome rose to preeminence in civic society. Only then do we meet the first of Rome’s senatorial aristocratic bishops—like Vigilius and Gregory—who collaborated with imperial officials in the city’s maintenance and defense much more closely than with earlier regimes (324-29).

But this is to jump too quickly to the end of Salzman’s expansive study. At the heart of the book are chapters dedicated to some of the trickiest history of the collapse of the Western Empire. In Chapter 4 (“Rome after the 455 Vandal Occupation”) and Chapter 5 (“Why Gibbon Was Wrong”), Salzman dexterously handles sparse and difficult sources to bring readers through the tortuous last decades of imperial presence in Italy, covering from the murder of Valentinian III in 455 to the end of Odoacer’s reign in 490 and the nine emperors in between. Her retellings of these convoluted events are some of the most cogent I have encountered in modern scholarship. Even more compelling is the thesis that Salzman works out in these chapters. In the face of constant turnover in imperial leadership, damage to Rome’s infrastructure, and shocks to its food supply, Salzman argues—against prevalent scholarly opinion—that the city’s aristocrats did not permanently abandon their stations. Instead, senatorial elites returned to Rome to legitimate authority, sustain the city’s supplies, and maintain its public spaces. Individual pieces of evidence for their resilience—an imperial statute demanding senatorial action here, an inscription boasting of a repair there—can sometimes appear trifling when read in isolation. However, Salzman’s expert aggregation, analysis, and arrangement of data yields a surprisingly full and convincing picture of the resurgence of the senatorial aristocracy in the late fifth century.

According to Salzman, this resurgence owed more to the political flexibility of senators than to any stubborn sense of tradition. In Italy, the waning of imperial power was correlated with the growing influence of upstart military elites, represented prominently by the generals Ricimer and Odoacer. Yet as Salzman vividly demonstrates, the end of the Western emperor did not mean the end of the Empire or Rome for senatorial elites. In fact, the centripetal attraction of the city continued to pull in high-ranking aristocrats; for at Rome, power was again up for grabs. In these conditions, the city became a fruitful site for the creation of new political partnerships and models of rule. The cooperation between senatorial aristocrats and Germanic generals in this period resulted repeatedly in the elevation of the former to the imperial throne under the protection of the latter.

Here I would put Salzman’s reconstruction of senatorial resilience into conversation with certain recent and persuasive explanations of the Fall of Rome. A handful of historians have lately singled out processes of civic reorganization, as well as collaboration between Roman elites and barbarian rulers, as keys to the diminishment of imperial power in the West—a phenomenon they call “the destruction of Central Romanness.”[2] Across fifth-century Africa, Gaul, and Spain, the formation of power blocs among local Roman nobilities and barbarian armies weakened the grip of the Empire on outlying provinces and prompted the making of “little, regional Romes.” Salzman’s history, I suggest, sheds new light on these developments from a paradoxical angle. It illuminates how the “destruction of Central Romanness” unfolded at Rome’s proverbial center. It reveals how the city’s resilient aristocracy enhanced their local authority by reshaping the urbs urbium into a vibrant, but littler Rome where they could thrive after crisis.

Chapter 6 (“The Fall of Ostrogthic Rome and Justinianic Reconstruction”) and Chapter 7 (“The Demise of the Senate”) tell of the undoing of these efforts. Following the dismantling of the Ostrogothic Kingdom in the Gothic War—when Rome was besieged five times—Eastern imperial interventions changed the networks of power and incentives of governance in Italy. Salzman argues that Justinian’s post-war reforms to tax collection, local administration, and maintenance of property deflated the pressures of competition that had long driven senators to undertake civic office and public projects at Rome. Those who had left the city during the war stayed away. Rome’s most famous senatorial families petered out of the imperial record in the seventh century. Even the Senate House became a church. For Salzman, this is the period that marks the demise of the Senate, which itself marks “the final fall of Rome as an ancient city” (301).

As comprehensive as The Falls of Rome is, much remains to explore: How exactly did non-elites facilitate (or resist) the recovery efforts of senatorial aristocrats? Can we productively integrate investigations into environmental and political resilience? Did local nobilities of barbarian kingdoms respond to crises in their new little Romes with the same resilience as their senatorial forerunners? We are fortunate to have in The Falls of Rome a study that raises so many questions even as it answers far many more. I look forward to the scholarly conversations and elaborations it should stimulate.


[1] History of the Franks, Book 5, preface. Translation is my own.

[2]  P. Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire: a New History of Rome and the Barbarians (Oxford, 2006), 432-43; and P. Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD (Princeton, 2012), 392-94.