In How Rome Fell, Adrian Goldsworthy addresses the enduring question memorably raised by Edward Gibbon in the first volume of his monumental The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776): How was it that the greatest power of its day succumbed to an invasion of barbarian tribesmen? The scholarly brilliance and majestic prose of Gibbon’s masterpiece helped focus attention on this epochal revolution, which demarcated the boundary between the classical and medieval eras, and, as Gibbon himself noted, laid the foundations for modern Europe. Continuing interest in the fall of the Roman Empire has transcended the appeal of Gibbon’s literary artistry, however.
The eighteenth century Enlightenment secularized Christianity’s belief in a teleological direction of history: Instead of a story of humankind’s fall into sin and ultimate redemption, history became a narrative of progress driven by scientific inquiry and technological innovation. Implicit in any vision of progress is the possibility of regression, or decline. The heyday of European expansionism and confidence was always haunted by fears that all could be lost. Gibbon himself was keenly conscious of the strength and accomplishments of European civilization in his day, yet he speculated on the possibility of nomadic barbarians riding once again into the European heartland.
A melancholic sense that all great ages must come to an end persisted into the bustling nineteenth century. The catastrophic events surrounding World Wars I and II and the Cold War in the twentieth century stimulated interest in the fall of empires. As Goldsworthy notes in his introduction, the first decade of the twenty-first century has seen intense speculation about the decline of the United States as the world’s remaining superpower. Inevitably, there have been comparisons of the United States and Rome, a parallelism that Goldsworthy wisely cautions against pursuing too literally. The ubiquity of contemporary evocations of ancient Rome demonstrates that people today are just as fascinated by the specter of decline and fall as were Gibbon’s first generation of readers, perhaps with better justification.
The scholarly literature inspired by Gibbon is enormous. Some of the greatest classicists of the past two hundred years have been drawn to the explanatory problem posed by the end of the Roman Empire. The result has been a string of histories that have offered compelling, and often conflicting, interpretations of Rome’s collapse. Gibbon famously ascribed the fall of Rome to the “triumph of barbarism and religion” and then, in a more dispassionate mood, wrote that the Empire sank under its own weight. Subsequent explanations have ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. Climate change, depopulation due to plagues, dysgenic breeding with captive peoples, and lead poisoning from Roman plumbing have all been put forward as causes of Roman decline. Some scholars have emphasized the external threats faced by the late empire. Others have concentrated on internal weaknesses of the Roman economy and imperial administration. Goldsworthy is firmly in the latter camp. In his view, the Romans had no one to look to but themselves for the loss of their Empire in the west.
Goldsworthy argues emphatically that the Roman Empire was a superpower without peer in the ancient world. It controlled all the lands girdling the Mediterranean Sea, constituting a vast realm that in many ways was a world unto itself. The Pax Romana, or Roman peace, endured for centuries, enabling the people of the empire to enjoy the benefits of security and trade. Goldsworthy notes that, when the crisis came for the Empire, there was no movement on the part of the component peoples of the Roman world to break free. Romans wanted to stay Roman. It is one of the ironies of the fall of the Roman Empire that the barbarians who broke through its defenses often only wanted to share in the good life that it offered. None of the peoples beyond the Roman frontier could hope to match Roman resources and military might.
Rome’s greatest neighbor lay to the east. For years, the Parthian empire had been a formidable but manageable foe. In the third century c.e., a dynamic and aggressive Persian state supplanted the Parthians. The Persians could cause the Romans serious problems but never posed a threat to the integrity of the empire. Still less of a threat were the evanescent confederations of Germanic barbarians rising and falling continually outside the Roman frontier along the Rhine and Danube rivers. Politically and technologically backward, the Germans could not hope to overcome the professionally proficient, well-armed, and well-supplied armies marshaled by Roman power. The Germans sometimes tried to raid Roman...
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