The late Michael Grant was one of the greatest Roman scholars of the last century. He published several books on the ancient world on subjects as diverse as ‘The Jews of the Roman World’ to ‘Cleopatra’ and ‘The Severan Dynasty’. He brought subjects like these to the attention of the public and made ancient history accessible to all, instead of a subject discussed among a few scholars. The fall of the Roman Empire was Grant’s attempt to explain in a 200 paged book what Edward Gibbon took over a thousand pages to describe: How could a powerful Empire like Rome cease to exist?
It is a question that has been asked for centuries and historians have spent years writing about the subject, many of them coming up with conflicting evidence. Grant’s book is not in the same vein as Gibbon’s work, he decided not to write a narrative history of the last years of the Empire but a brief overiew of the factors that weakend it, Allowing it to be toppled by the barbarians.
Grant begins the book be giving a short overview of the barbarian incursions into the Empire and how after succesive attacks by Goths and Vandals, Rome finally surrendered to Odoacer. The barbarian invasions are well documented says Grant and it is important not to dwell on them too much, instead he tells us that there were several factors that left the Empire too weak to defend itself. These factors are broken up into sections in the book; the First being ‘The Failure of the Army’; ‘The Gulf between the Classes’; ‘The Credibility Gap’; ‘The Groups that opted out’ and finally the ‘The Undermining of Effort’. Within these sections are chapters that discuss how various groups or factions within the Empire helped bring about it’s downfall, whether it is Generals who turned their armies against the state to Christian monks encouraging others to join monasteries or become hermits.
According to Grant the Empire was responsible for it’s own destruction. The reforms that began with Diocletian helped turn the Empire into a huge bureaucracy that stifled people’s freedoms and rights and helped set various groups in society against each other. The large army that defended the Empire needed to be supplied and payed by the lower classes who were continually harassed by tax collectors, leaving many destitute. The middle class, who were traditionally merchants, were squeazed out of existance by the tax collectors leaving the Empire’s economy in tatters. The poor either turned against the state and became bandits and rebels or they turned to the upper class who gave them work on their estates, which lead to the beginnings of serfdom and the end of the last vestiages of freedom.
Like his predocessor, Gibbon, Grant also blames the Christians for undermining the Empire. He discusses how they put an emphasis on the afterlife, turning the attention of the people away from the real world and its responsibilities. When the religion had gained ground in society Grant tells us they became fanatical, attacking traditional Roman values and urging the Emperors to crack down on the pagan religion causing a divide between the two faiths.
Various other factors from decline of mathematics and science to racism and the breakdown of alliances between Rome and it’s German Foederati are discussed. Grant makes many interesting and valid points about these subjects but many of his ideas seem to be influenced by the modern world rather than ancient Rome. His ideas about Anti-barbarian racism is strange and the amount of evidence he has to back up this idea is lacking compared to other chapters. He makes more use of archaelogical finds in this chapter than the writings of the period, discussing a grave of a German found in Gaul who says he is not worthy of being a Roman. Whether racism is wide-spread through out the Empire or not is hard to tell.
One of the weakest chapters in the book discusses how the Romans lost faith in their Emperors. He mentions the coins of the era including one of Honorius which shows the Emperor defeating the barbarians in battle. He tells us that this would have been demoralizing or comical to the ordinary people who knew their Emperor was sitting in Ravenna surrounded by eunuchs and sycophants. The problem is we have no clue what they were thinking, this is just assumed by Grant, and considering that the tax collectors took away all their money there is little chance they would have had time to inspect the coins which were already going out of circulation.
Despite this very small criticism Grant’s book is one of the best available on this subject. His writing style is easy to understand and the chapters are relatively short. The book also contains an appendix listing the names of the various Emperors and historians of the age as well as maps to give a better understanding of the locations discussed in the text. Unfortunately the book does not contain any photographs or illustrations.
Although it was first published in 1976 it’s arguments are still valid and it remains one of the most readable and interesting discussions on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, one that deserves to be read by everyone from beginners to the most dedicated Romanophiles.
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