The Fall of Rome And the End of Civilization by Bryan Ward-Perkins

Book Review by Skarr

The author addresses a simple question throughout this gem of a book, "Why did Rome fall?" Although only two hundred pages long, at the end of the book, I felt as if I had read the entire series of books on the fall of the Roman Empire by Gibbon. The author is a scholar and has done an extraordinary amount of research and as he says in his preface, the book took an "unconscionably" long time to research, write and get published. I can certainly imagine that, as each sentence in this book is a mine of information and is backed by historical references, which are often scant, fragmentary or even non-existent for many years in those crucial centuries that led to the fall of the Empire from the 4th century AD to the end of the 5th.

While this book is certainly not a page turner, it should be fascinating for anyone interested in this simple question and as the author quickly points out, there is no one single reason that can be pinpointed and which can be said to have caused the collapse of the Roman empire in the west. The thesis in this book exclusively covers the western part of the empire, although there are paragraphs which compare both east and west.

The arguments that the author offers are simple on the surface but reveal a much more complex picture of the period and much of it is speculative as the existing historical evidence is so scant and even where it exists, so laconic, as to be practically meaningless, when compared to contemporary accounts of an historical event. The main argument that is proposed in the book is that the transition and peaceful settlement of barbarians within the western empire, as some historians have argued, based on treaties and other documents, was in fact, neither a transition of sorts and far from peaceful. The Visigoths, the Vandals and numerous other tribes that crossed the Rhine in the 5th century simply 'took' what they wanted and used force or the threat of force, to get what they wanted.

There are numerous examples of the atrocities committed on both sides. First, in the 4th century, when the most common coin was a copper coin showing a Roman soldier (at that time fighting as a Christian soldier, for a new religion that was organized and successfully spread throughout the empire, using a combination of force, persuasion and money) spearing a barbarian on a horse, there were a number of high-handed acts by the Romans against barbarian tribes that were probably seeking to share in some of the material success that the Romans had. Killing, rape and mass slaughter were pretty common, as well as forcible conversion, abolition of all pagan religions etc. etc. Phrases like "the only good barbarian is a dead barbarian" were popular and it was common to paint them as vulgar, promiscuous and unclean, especially as regards their clothes and the stench that emanated from their unwashed bodies. There seems to have been a deliberate attempt to 'demonize' the barbarians, associating all things 'pagan' as unholy and unseemly even to behold. Second, there was a huge resentment among various tribes about this high-handed treatment and the spreading of the church via huge land settlements to a new idle class of priests, who consumed resources and did little but pray all day, weakening the already denuded tax base with the loss of Africa to the Vandals, forcing money away from military and defense. The severe tax relief measures proposed are cited as an example of how fiscally weak the Empire had become.

In one instance, the author recounts of how soldiers on the frontier had to get their pay from Rome instead of local towns, as they were centrally paid from Rome, and would send emissaries to collect this and the barbarian tribes, knowing this, simply killed the emissaries. No money, no pay meant the soldiers had to switch sides quickly, if they were to live. There were also the endless migrations of the tribes, especially the Visigoths, who were driven away from their lands by hordes of Huns (Attila the Hun), plus the weakening of the tax base and internal civil wars, all contributing to the collapse of the empire. Religion was not the main reason but a combination of various factors that led to the collapse. However, religion certainly played a major role, as it weakened the military strength that Rome once had by diverting resources from the military to pay for all the churches and the new priest class - bishops, monks etc. The emperor himself was seen in statues and coins dressed as a soldier in the name of Christ but it was unlikely he ever sat on a horse or even went anywhere near the field. This was quite different from the old days, when leaders emerged from the field. No one respected the Emperor Honorius after the sack of Rome in 410 AD and there were many usurpers like Constantine III from Britain who claimed the throne. Instead of dealing with the barbarians, the Emperor was more concerned with the civil wars as it would have meant his head as opposed to the barbarians, who were looking to sack, loot and pillage but were not interested in deposing the emperor.

Personally, I found the book extremely fascinating and it is definitely worth reading, especially if you are interested in Roman history and want to know why the empire collapsed without going through Gibbon's series of books. Gibbon was a little different in his view and his books, although they are well written and scholarly in their own way, miss out some of the key points that this author makes in his much shorter, but very scholarly work. I'm sure historians will question his overall thesis but I would tend to agree with the author and Rome's decline was certainly not a peaceful one but extremely violent and filled with numerous horrors - rapes, murders, genocide, cannibalism, etc. etc. It was a horribly violent century and must have been terrible for its citizens. Surprisingly, the aristocracy was not that much affected and although they did lose a lot of land and money, many of them found good positions under their new masters.

It just goes to show that the privileged always manage to protect themselves and it's the poor that always pay the price. The author is harsh on the Christian apologists of the time, who sought to excuse Christians and exposes them as pathetic attempts to watercolor the role the Church itself played in the decline and fall. They sacrificed whole towns to protect the richer towns, a kind of game where you protect the towns that pay you taxes and let the poorer towns be pillaged by the barbarians. When nuns were raped in Africa, the bishop's primary concern is their status - should they be above virgins or below widows who have taken the vows? It is amazing to see how shallow those men were and how stupid and blind the Church was to everything, especially in the 4th century AD.

The best part which I liked was the Christian apologist citing the sack of Rome in 390 BC by the Gauls as an example of how pagan times were far worse than Christian times. Pathetic, is all I can say. All in all, a good book to read if you can devote some time and have the concentration to absorb everything that the author proposes in this book.

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