As the title of the book suggests, and as the author makes plain within, this book tries not only to find the causes of the fall of the Roman empire in the west - itself no easy task - but also to discover if there are any lessons relevant to today which can be drawn from this fall.
Thus, in attempting this book, Goldsworthy attempts an epic task. Firstly the sheer time-scale of the fall of the western empire is impressive. Goldsworthy starts with the death of the emperor Marcus Aurelius in AD 180 and finishes well into the sixth century with a rough sketch of the campaigns of Belisarius, which means that over four action-packed centuries have to be compressed into little more than a year per page. If this book were simply an accurate description of the events of those four centuries, this, given the sometimes violent bias of the scanty sources available, would still be a challenging job. Yet Goldsworthy has set himself the further task of describing not only what happened but also why. In so doing, he places himself squarely on the shadow of the great work of Edward Gibbon whose 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire' remains even today in the public mind the definitive work on the subject.
In fact Goldsworthy frequently acknowledges his debt to Gibbon, but also makes it clear that Gibbon viewed the events which he was describing from the perspective of his own times, just as in fact Goldsworthy is re-interpreting the story of the fall of Rome from a 21st century viewpoint - that is what historians do. However the 21st century viewpoint of Goldsworthy is consciously at odds with many contemporary academic studies of the later Roman empire. These studies prefer to call the 'fall' a 'transition' or 'a period of far-reaching changes', whilst the 'decline' part is generally refuted with claims that in reality the empire of the fourth century was as strong and dynamic as that of the first century.
To some extent 'The Fall of the West' can be read as a gentle polemic refuting such views. Goldsworthy is polite but firm in pointing out that there was decline, and that the 'transitions' were sufficiently violent in terms of change and dislocation to count as a fall. He points out that studies of aspects of the fourth century such as bureaucratic organization and social structure have tended to overlook the narrative which expressly shows that something was going horribly and fatally wrong. For example, official contemporary documents show six large army units present in Spain at the time of a Gothic invasion. For all the effect that these six army units had in opposing the Goths they might as well not have been there at all. Which leads inevitably to the conclusion that perhaps they weren't. Continuity can only be taken to mean so much. After all, many post-colonial states have maintained the legal and political structures of their imperialist masters, but Mugabe's Zimbabwe is a very different state to colonial Rhodesia, for all that the police wear the same uniforms.
Goldsworthy is also good at looking at many of the myths surrounding the fall of Rome and pointing out where they do not match with the established evidence. He treats the phenomenon of Christianity with judicious impartiality, and argues that the Roman army remained a highly competent fighting force almost to the end. Nor, he maintains, were the Sassanian Persians a much more potent military power than the Parthians whom they succeeded.
So why, according to this book, did Rome fall in the west? And why did it not fall in the east? Goldsworthy does not treat all the existing hypotheses in detail, which is hardly surprising as there are apparently over 200 of them. He points out that the evidence we have is at best inconclusive and at worst contradictory. Instead he sticks to what he knows. Namely that there was a breakdown of trust in Roman society. Any general or governor who excelled became a threat to the emperor, and Roman emperors were necessarily paranoid. Therefore any elite Roman who gained a position of power and did well in that position had to go on to try for supreme power almost in self-defence. The result was near continuous civil war. The author points out that after Commodus, it was a rare decade without at least one major usurpation attempt, and even the least of these was immensely damaging. Not only did Roman armies fight and destroy each other, but they left borders unguarded whilst they did so.
Any region that hosted a war took major damage to its economic, political and social structures during the fighting. Southern Italy, for example, never really recovered from the eighteen-year long war fought against Hannibal on the premises. So during its repeated wars, the Roman state consumed itself from within. Furthermore, the Roman executive suffered badly through large-scale informer-led purges after each coup attempt whether it succeeded or not. The Roman state functioned best under a single dynasty, as soldiers tended to be loyal to the dynasty. But as the family of Constantine demonstrates, later Roman imperial families slaughtered their own kin with enthusiasm, and seldom lasted for long. Rome became increasingly dysfunctional, and the attempts of emperors to re-jig the administrative machinery to ensure their own survival were often inimical to a well-functioning state.
By this argument, for which Goldsworthy has expertly marshalled and presented the evidence, Rome was not so much killed off as euthanized by the Germanic hordes that were not so different, in either weapons or numbers, from similar hordes which the Romans of the first century BC had held off with minimal damage. The east survived because it was harder to get at. Egypt, Greece and Asia Minor are hard to approach with an invading army and the eastern flank was secured by Persia which was unaggressive through having its own problems at the critical juncture. Furthermore, the eastern empire had the unexpected advantage of a short series of long-ruling and competent emperors to stabilize matters. When these advantages did not apply, as they did not during the seventh century uprising of Muhammed, the east proved itself as easily knocked over as the west had been.
This book is not a comfortable read. Self-interested and short-sighted politicians and a rampart bureaucracy growing like a cancer on the society it is supposed to serve are not phenomena unique to the late Roman empire. However one feels about Rome, Roman civilization was vastly preferable to the barbarism which followed its fall in the west. That a society with so much good and so much potential could be extinguished by folly, venality and cynicism is a depressing story, but Goldsworthy tells it well. Both as a narrative history of the western empire's last years and as an analysis of events this book is an invaluable read for anyone interested in later Roman history.
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