Book Review by Ursus
Goldsworthy's book already having been reviewed by someone with actual scholarly credentials, I will not attempt to replicate, much less surpass, said review. What I intend to offer is a complimentary review written by a general reader with the interests of other general readers in mind. With that being said, The Fall of the West is a thought provoking book on the latter stages of Roman history.
The introduction and conclusion alone are priceless, wherein the author takes to task the penchant of some commentators, particularly on the European side of the Atlantic, to compare contemporary American hegemony with Roman imperialism. It is further always implied by these comparisons that as the latter eventually collapsed, so must the former. It is further still implied that this would somehow be of great benefit to all noble and enlightened peoples. Despite the post-colonial predilection for eschewing all means of power as inherently exploitive, Goldsworthy points out that:
American influence and Roman imperialism are different animals
Despite some pressing problems, American power is not destined to collapse in the same manner as the Roman West
Roman subjects were not appreciably better for the collapse of the central imperial authority (quite the opposite), and the world should not be so quick to cheer a hypothetical collapse of American leadership given the dubious alternatives that await to fill the vacuum
That a noted British scholar finally has the courage to say this is compelling, and I hope helps to suppress the common occurrences of such cliched comparisons at the various cocktail parties (and also, it must be said, on UNRV's very own discussion fora) where they transpire with annoying frequency.
Aside from the introduction and its related epilogue, the work is divided into three parts. Part 1 traces the reign of Marcus Aurelius through the Crisis of the Third century to the rise of Diocletian. In many ways the reign of Marcus Aurelius was the height of the empire left by Augustus, but the generations that followed witnessed a painful transformative process. Part II begins with Diocletian's attempts to rebuild from the rubble, reorganizing the empire into a new entity. It ends with the political split of the empire between East and West. Part III then details the sordid legacy of the Western Empire as emperors fought rivals, and barbarian warlords fought Roman generalissimos who were themselves often of barbarian extraction. The West increasingly loses ground until it is a patchwork of barbarian kingdoms loosely carrying on Roman traditions. Part III ends with the rise of the Islamic invaders who in turn dismember the outer realms of the surviving Eastern empire.
Goldsworthy's book is largely in response to the most recent scholars, such as Peter Heather, who paint a picture of a vibrant later empire only torn apart by Germanic supertribes and a reborn Persian superpower. Goldsworthy disagrees on both fronts. He claims there is no sufficient evidence to paint the later empire as being as prosperous or as strong as Augustus' Principate. Nor does he see the Persians or various barbarian tribes as being especially larger or more organized opponents than what confronted the earlier emperors. Instead Rome's greatest enemy was itself. The constant civil wars fought after Marcus Aurelius destabilized Roman society and weakened the borders, allowing otherwise weak enemies to exploit Roman instability.
The later emperors cared more about mere survival than about imperial welfare at large, which led to deleterious reforms. Senators were excluded from military command so as to no longer threaten the emperor, but ironically this opened the power struggle to a much wider and far less predictable strata of society below them, namely Equestrian officers and bureaucrats. Furthermore, the split between the civil bureaucracy and the military forces, and the increasing division of both into smaller units, was designed to prevent any one official from having the resources to overthrow the emperor. But this also had the effect of reducing the empire's ability to quickly marshal the necessary resources to oppose foreign invasion. The result was of course an increasing trickle of foreign foes who were allowed to occupy the land, thus depriving the West of needed tax revenue, which in turn weakened the army and bureaucracy, and so encouraging more infiltration and forced settlement.
The tale of western Roman collapse is a long and depressing epic, but Goldsworthy tells it expertly. The prose is enchanting: intelligent but direct and always engaging. Where some saw his Caesar biography as rather needlessly verbose, the author manages in this work to condense about four hundred years of Roman history into as many pages. The books also contains various maps and illustrations, charts and tables, and several pages of photographs. The last hundred pages is populated by a chronology, glossary, bibliography, end notes and an index. This is an excellent narrative for the general reader interested in late antiquity, whether or not one fully agrees with the author's conclusions.
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