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Interview with Adrian Goldsworthy

Interviewed by Jeremy J. Baer, aka Ursus

Adrian Goldsworthy is a British historian and military writer. Goldsworthy went to college in Westbourne School, Penarth. Later, after studying ancient and modern history at St John's College, Oxford, he completed a D.Phil in ancient military history from Oxford University. Goldsworthy is the author of such works as The Complete Roman Army and In The Name of Rome.

Jeremy Baer, aka "Ursus": :
Before we discuss your latest book, a question about the previous one. How would you respond to a certain criticism that your Caesar biography, while detailed and enjoyable, offered really no fresh assessments of the man and his times?
Adrian Goldsworthy, aka "Adrian":
That response rather misses the point. The book was aimed at a general reader, many of whom have next to no prior knowledge of the subject. There are some small bits and pieces which I hope would interest someone more familiar with the period, but the aim was to tell Caesar’s story, explaining not just what we know, but how we know it. I would also say that it has been a very long time since anyone has tried to cover both the military and political aspects of Caesar’s life in the same volume. You will never please everyone when in comes to Caesar, as so many people have such strong views about him, and you will be blamed if you do not tell them what they want to hear.

Ursus: In The Fall of the West you do offer a new assessment, or at least refute a recent trend of assessments regarding the decline of Rome. Do you think your work will reverse those trends?
Adrian:It would be nice to think that it will make people think again. However, specialists in the field are used to believing that the fourth century empire was inherently strong – or at least no less inefficient and corrupt than the Principate – and it takes time before deep seated assumptions are challenged. I think people will eventually do this, but it usually takes a while for this sort of thing to happen. Heather and Ward Perkins had already pointed out that the fall of Rome was real and catastrophic, but the orthodox view remains one of transformation.

Ursus: You state in your book you can find no firm archaeological evidence for the theory that the late empire was a vibrant and prosperous place. What would you say to those scholars who based their theories of the late empire on supposed evidence of prosperity and strength?
Adrian: I would remind them that some evidence of prosperity does not mean that this was general. Archaeological work is inevitably very limited in scale, because it takes time and is costly. So our picture of most regions in most periods is based on a very small numbers of sites. Some areas do seem to have been booming in Late Antiquity, but others were not. Overall, I still think the picture is one of decline. It just wasn’t universal, but then you would not expect it to be.

Ursus: Have you ever met Peter Heather? What do you think of his work?
Adrian: Sadly no, but I have a great admiration for his work – I think anyone who studies the period would say the same. More than anyone else he has altered the way we think about the Goths, but really has come up with so many other important ideas. We disagree on some points. He is inclined to see most of the flaws of the fourth century system as inherent to the ancient world and Mediterranean society. I am simply not convinced. The Principate was far from perfect, but it does seem to have made a better job of using its resources. He reviews my book in the current issue of BBC History Magazine if you would like to read his reaction. I suspect for the moment the two of us will have to agree to differ.

Ursus: You state in your work the gradual exclusion of the Senatorial class from military command backfired insofar as they were a smaller and more manageable rival to the emperor than what followed them. How would you respond to a counter argument that the old landowning class simply were ill suited to deal with the post Crisis threats to the empire?
Adrian: It is common to characterise the senators as amateurs and the generals and bureaucrats of the later third and fourth centuries as professionals, and hence more capable. The basic problem with this is that the latter did not receive any training, and do not appear to have been selected and promoted primarily on the basis of talent. They really did not behave that differently to the senators they supplanted. I cannot see any sign that fourth century Roman commanders were on average more competent than those of the first century. They were a lot more prone to rebellion. Earlier on, the empire was commanded and controlled in a way mirroring its social structure. This was a force for stability. When almost anyone could command an army, then almost anyone could become emperor.

Ursus:Much has been made of the alleged strength of Germanic supertribes and Sassanid Persia, whereas you downplay those opponents' abilities. Is there really no evidence that the new threats were bigger, meaner, more aggressive than they were in the early empire?
Adrian: Again, this is one of those things people have simply repeated so often that they don’t bother to challenge it. If you look at how Germanic tribes behaved politically and militarily in the fourth century – the size of armies they fielded, equipment, tactics and strategy – then there is no significant difference to Caesar’s day. The names of the tribes may be different, but that really is about it. The Persians were a sophisticated civilization with an effective and disciplined army – the recent archaeological work on their northern frontier barriers has emphasised the kingdom’s capacity for undertaking large scale projects. On the other hand, it is less clear that they were so fundamentally different in these respects to the Parthians, about whom we know far less. At times, especially when their own kings were insecure, the Persians were aggressive, but although they could raid deep into Roman territory, they could not permanently occupy anything beyond the border areas. Not until the sixth century is it fair to see the eastern empire and Persia as effectively equal when it came to strength and resources. A defeat can come because the enemy is more dangerous than in the past. Equally it can be the result of a decline in your own military efficiency. The big Roman defeats generally followed periods of internal unrest and civil war. Confidence was also important. The more often you get defeated, then the more likely you are to expect defeat in future.

Ursus: You claim the increasing subdivisions of the military and civil administrations into smaller units made it harder to marshall resources effectively, giving the defeat at Adrianople as an example. How do you respond to critics who say the Diocletian-Constantine reforms gave the empire more strategic flexibility and greater control of revenue?
Adrian: It just doesn’t stack up. The work of Peter Heather and others has in recent years suggested that the numbers of Goths were relatively small – maybe 20,000 warriors at Adrianople and quite possibly less. Yet it took the Romans six years to defeat them, even though at times they were able to draw on resources from both halves of the empire. In the process they fought four battles and lost three of them, managing a draw in the fourth. Compare that to Caesar and the Helvetii in 58 BC – or to the many other cases were tribal groups were either settled in a controlled way by a provincial governor or destroyed/driven off by force, and even to the Cimbri where a string of defeats still culminated in overwhelming Roman victory. The fourth century empire is supposed to have had a massive army and a more flexibility, and yet it did not function well. Most of the theories about field armies make no practical sense whatsoever.

Ursus: If the later emperors were more about mere survival rather than far sighted imperial welfare, what could they have done differently to better organize and lead the empire?
Adrian: Delegate far more power and trust their subordinates. An emperor – even several emperors - simply could not be everywhere and once and could not deal with every problem. Communications were too slow to permit running everything on a day-to-day basis from the centre. There needed to be someone with power equivalent to the old provincial legates who could do this for the emperors. It did not necessarily have to be the senatorial class, but whoever it was needed to be given enough incentives to make loyalty and doing the job well both attractive

Ursus: I noted in your narrative, you give Constantine the Great a fairly sympathetic treatment whereas you invest Julian the Apostate with more cynicism. Most recent commentaries take the opposite approach. Is this another deliberate revision of recent trends on your part, or is your personal opinion simply more favorable to Constantine than Julian?
Adrian: Constantine does not come across as a very nice man, and achieved most of his great victories over other Romans. On the other hand, he was more successful and survived for longer than almost anyone else in the third and fourth centuries. So he was effective, at least up to a point and in a book looking at the reasons for Rome’s fall then this has to be acknowledged. People tend to like Julian because it is much easier to get a sense of his personality through his many writings, and Ammianus encourages our sympathy. Some people probably like the idea of his rejection of Christianity, although really the pagan religion he tried to create was effectively the church under a different guise. He was not a very good emperor, and there is a strong impression of play acting in so much he did. On the simple basis of success, he did far less well than Constantine. Still, I doubt anyone would want either of them living next door!

Ursus: Who were the best and worst emperors of the later period, and why?
Adrian: That’s hard to say. Elagabalus must be high up on the list of people completely unsuited to ruling a world empire, at least at the age he was elevated to its rule. Some of the hard men like Aurelian and Diocletian command a degree of respect, for doing better than most of their predecessors. It is hard not to warm to the long surviving Anastasius, especially since he must have seemed such an unlikely choice.

Ursus: What got you interested in Roman, and specifically military, history?
Adrian: Really it was a combination of things, from watching the old Hollywood epics on the TV to reading Asterix books! One of the advantages of living in Britain is that there are so many Roman sites – I grew up not too far from the remains of the legionary fortress at Caerleon. That made the Romans somehow more immediate than say the Greeks or Egyptians. History fascinates me, especially military history, but there is just something about the Romans that fired my imagination, and still does all these years later.

Ursus: What has been your favorite book to write and research thus far?
Adrian:Hard to say, as I have enjoyed all of them. By the end, you are usually very ready to move on, and as an author you hope that you keep learning and that the next book will be better. So each new project is always exciting.

Ursus: What is your next project?
Adrian:A paired biography of Antony and Cleopatra. The idea is to tell the story and use them to illustrate Hellenistic and Roman culture and the political realities of the first century BC. I also think that Antony has been badly misunderstood in several ways. It should be out late in 2010.

Ursus: As Philip Matyszak graciously reviewed your book for UNRV, will you return the favor by reviewing one of his next works for our website?
Adrian:Certainly.

Ursus: Thank you for your time!

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Interview with Adrian Goldsworthy - Related Topic: Roman Military


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