How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower

There’s been a steady stream of books about the fall of the Roman Empire these last few years. Publishers’ interest reflects a popular perception that there is something to be learned about contemporary America from studying Roman decline. (“Are We Rome?” asked one of the more egregious examples — exemplifying the old adage that if a title is a question it’s because the answer is no.) It’s a perception that runs to the very highest levels of government. Adrian Goldsworthy’s new How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower had its origin in his being invited to lecture U.S. policymakers at a two-day conference devoted to the historical strategies and decline of great powers. Goldsworthy was intrigued by the parallels encouraged at the conference, and his publishers saw an opening for the historian to figure in the wider debate on America in the 21st century.

What’s ironic about the heavy marketing of this specious parallel is that many of the books are important studies of the collapse of Roman power in West in the fourth and fifth centuries. These are reactions not to politics or contemporary events but to one of the greatest scholarly achievements of the postwar era: the acceptance of the idea of Late Antiquity. This concept — essentially established by a single great historian, Peter Brown — was that the centuries between A.D. 300 and 800 were a period of continuity more than of decline. Rome didn’t collapse so much as the old classical Roman order give way to a new Mediterranean world.

This reflects the fact that something every schoolboy once knew — that the Roman Empire fell in 476 — is not necessarily true. Odoacer, a Germanic general in Roman service, deposed the last of the Western Roman emperors — Romulus Augustulus — in that year. But this was merely one in a long series of Roman debacles in Italy, the culmination of which was a five-year war between Odoacer and the Ostrogoths under Theodoric, which ended in 493 with the establishment of a Gothic kingdom in Italy. Thus 493 was a more important year than 476, as were 410 (the Visigoths sacked Rome over three days), 452 (Attila and the Huns devastated northern Italy), and 455 (the Vandals spent a full two weeks looting everything portable from Rome).

Theodoric’s kingdom, like the Visigothic one that ruled a large swathe of Spain and Gaul, was Roman in institution and ideal. They were essentially client states of the Eastern Roman emperor Constantinople and can be seen as perpetuating the system of subdividing Roman rule between junior and senior emperors inaugurated by Diocletian in the 290s. In 536, the Eastern emperor — and it is important to note that while we may call them Byzantines, they thought of themselves as nothing but Romans — launched a war to regain direct control of Italy. It raged for 20 years and proved more devastating to the classical Roman culture than the barbarian invasions had been. There were three major sieges of Rome, the first lasting more than a year. The Gothic leader, Vitiges, ordered the destruction of Rome’s great aqueduct system, and it would be 1,000 years before the citizens of Rome did not have to draw their water from the foul Tiber. The baths that had been such a conspicuous part of everyday Roman life and business passed away, a greater symbol of the end of classical Rome than the deposition of Romulus Augustulus. The heart of the West was again in Roman hands, but only temporarily. The Lombards would shortly replace the Romans as Italy’s major power, and Constantinople would begin its long struggle with expansionist Islam. This is Late Antiquity: a world still dominated by Roman institutions and ideas, but no longer a Roman world.

How the Roman Empire, which was at its apex in 300, declined is a story that has attracted innumerable historians. (In 1984, the German historian Alexander Demandt estimated that 210 reasons for the collapse of the Roman Empire had been hazarded over the centuries — gluttony, lead poisoning, and egotism are my favorites.) It’s a crowded field with more monuments than just Gibbon: Mikhail Rostovtzeff’s Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire (1926) revolutionized the historical study of the classical world by drawing in archaeological and economic evidence to fill out Gibbon’s portrait of uncheckable decay, while A.H.M. Jones’s still-incomparable survey The Later Roman Empire, 284-602 (1964) stressed the economic crises attendant to constant warfare.

The number of serious work in the recent surge of “Roman decline” books is attributable to the generation of scholars who came of age after Peter Brown’s pioneering work — his World of Late Antiquity was published in 1971 — offering mature thoughts on Late Antiquity. One of the most individual is Bryan Ward-Perkins’s essayistic The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, which considers the horrific realities of this age of “continuity” — technology and learning basically vanished in the West thanks to the collapse of civil society. Almost all reviewers paired Ward-Perkins’s book with another 2005 book, Peter Heather’s full and dynamic portrait of the age, The Fall of the Roman Empire. Heather, the author of major works on the barbarians’ ways of warring against Rome, has no doubts about the cause: It was the Huns that did it. Attila’s empire may have collapsed within a decade of its founding, but it undid all of the careful layers of civil and military organization that held Rome and the barbarian groups in balance.

Heather seemed likely to hold the field for a generation, but this year has seen several new contenders. James O’Donnell’s The Ruin of the Roman Empire is a fine synthesis of Late Antiquity scholarship. Focused more on the Eastern Empire and the fifth and sixth centuries, O’Donnell makes a compelling defense of the Gothic kingdoms and a hero of Theodoric, who tried to maintain Roman-style order in Italy. Christopher Kelly’s The End of Empire: Attila the Hun and the Fall of Rome is marvelous account of the rise and fall of Hunnic power (and a superb narrative supplement to Heather).

Receiving the most attention is Goldsworthy’s How Rome Fell, and expectedly so: the author’s last book, Caesar: Life of a Colossus, took serious classical history to a broad international audience. Here, though, Goldsworthy is troubled by the sheer scope of the material — he is covering the four centuries from the reign of Marcus Aurelius to that of Justinian, far different from the focused Caesar — and his narrative comes across as workmanlike in a field where elegance is much prized. Goldsworthy, moreover, favors political reasons for Rome’s collapse. (Rome-Washington parallelists like to cite the vast increase in the Roman bureaucracy in the wake of Diocletian and the attendant loss of efficiency.) The Roman state did evolve into an institution concentrated on protecting the emperor from usurpation and enriching an inner circle. But as compelling as this argument seems in detail, it is utterly undone by even a cursory comparison with the Eastern Empire, which lasted another thousand years with a bureaucracy even more inefficient and calcified than that in the West. It survived because its borders were defensible and were defended.

The West collapsed for many reasons, but the catalyst was the barbarian invasions. As Peter Heather, rejecting Gibbon, so clearly notes in his conclusion: “Without the barbarians there is not the slightest evidence that the Western Empire would have ceased to exist in the fifth century.” Goldsworthy’s is a steady survey, well aimed at a general audience that his books are doing much to establish, but the vastness of the material requires an impeccable guide. In a field dominated by figures like Gibbon and A.H.M. Jones, Heather is a worthy heir.