If Rome Hadn't Fallen by Timothy Venning

Book Review by Ursus

One of the largest questions in European history has always been: "Why did Rome fall?" But surely right behind that question is another one: "What if Rome hadn't fallen?" Usually the second question is explored only in fiction (there was, for instance, a Star Trek episode where Captain Kirk visited an alternate earth where Rome survived into the 20th century, complete with institutionalized slavery and televised gladiatorial games). Timothy Venning attempts to view this question from the standpoint of academic plausibility, tracing the root of the Western Empire's collapse and how, if some things had gone differently, it might have continued.

Venning's introduction compels us to reflect on the Great Man theory of history. How much or how little do individual actions play in the grand drama of history? Forty years ago the trend was to view history through the prism of larger economic and cultural forces, assigning little merit to individual actions. But there has been (rightfully) a reaction against this in recent years, and history once again embraces the realm of individual merit and choice. Seemingly minute developments might have major consequences over a long term scenario (the so-called "Butterfly Effect" of Chaos Theory). All of this is meant to defy historical determinism. Nothing is written in stone. Therefore we are free to opine the what-ifs and might-have-beens of centuries past.

The first half of Venning's work outlines the fall of the Western Roman Empire from the late 2nd through late 5th centuries of the Common Era. In an effort to answer why Rome collapsed in the first place, the usual suspects are paraded before us: political instability and infighting, Germanic invasions, religious confusion and upheaval, and the effects of plague. All of these (except possibly the spread of plague) were not preordained and could have been avoided. The Western Empire fell due to a series of cascading crises; there was a mutual dynamic between Rome's propensity to fight civil wars and the ability of the barbarians to run roughshod over the borders, for instance.

But what if Rome had possessed better leaders, unlike the incompetent and corrupt string of emperors that culminated in the likes of Commodus? What if the political center had solved some of its succession problems and brought the Praetorian Guard to heel? What if Rome had come back from the Varus disaster and embarked on a decade’s long mission to gradually subdue and civilize the Germanic tribesmen beyond the Rhine? What if a substantial portion of the Germanic peoples had not forcibly settled into Roman territories as overlords, but instead filled the ranks of the Roman army as loyal allies?

The answer to these questions is that Rome would not have fallen. At least some rump state in the west would have survived. And here is where we get into the second part of Venning's work, the real meat of the book. How would this (at least partially) resurgent Western Roman Empire have shaped world history? Let me summarize some of Venning's key points.

Britain most likely would have slipped from direct Roman control, as it did historically. But instead of collapsing into anarchy, a central monarch backed by Roman mercenaries from the Continent would have kept relative order. A landed aristocracy based from villa estates would have survived under this king, and sold grain to Roman troops in the Rhine. Most large towns would have survived, and the Romano-British forces would have fought off pirates and Saxon hordes.

From a Britain that was Romanized, Catholicism would have penetrated easily into Ireland. There too a central monarch (an Irish High King) backed up by Roman power on the continent would have traded with the west.

Back on the continent, the empire pushes into Germania and takes over lower Denmark. The frontier is garrisoned with Germanic farmer-soldiers. In the East, supported by the western Empire, Byzantium survives the onslaught of the Arabs and the Turks, and perhaps even expands.

As an Emperor rules in the West, local bureaucrats appointed by the central monarch rule in place of historical feudal lords. The Church and the Papacy are likewise constrained and never become the unchecked power they were. Thus (among other things) The Inquisition never happens.

A united Europe defends itself in the second millennium of the Common Era from Viking attacks. The Northmen are no match against combined Roman forces. They have no choice but to look beyond the oceans for conquest, and rapidly colonize what is now Canada and New England.

Not to be out done, the Romans follow suit to the new world. The prevailing winds take them to the Caribbean. From there, they encounter and subdue the Aztecs before pushing northward. With their thirst for plunder and Christian missionary zeal, the Romans behave like the colonial Spanish, only with more power to bear against their rivals. A war between Romans and Vikings for the new world leaves Rome victorious, with Vikings banished to northern Canada to eke out a meager existence as fur traders.

Meanwhile, the colonial Romans in the new world, far from the center of Imperial politics, develop a self reliant culture. Wealthy assemblies of local merchants and landowners advise the imperial governors, and from here democracy develops. Perhaps even a form of "Protestantism" develops against the state version of Christianity. The colonists look to the independent Ancient Greek colonies and the democratic ideals of Athens for inspiration. Some even dare praise the atavistic Roman Republic and its idea of limited government and elected magistrates. Revolution follows ...

Venning gives us two maps of the late Roman Empire, 10 pages of footnotes, a bibliography and an index. His prose is clear if not terribly exciting. He is a logical and detailed thinker, and helps lead the reader from point A to points B and C in his thought process. The slim publication from Pen and Sword is sturdy and easy to tote around (a nice companion for a flight or train ride).

If Rome Hadn't Fallen was an interesting thought experiment in alternate history. The main problem with such a work is that every "what-if" leads to two or three more "what-ifs" with conclusions standing on increasingly untenable grounds. In my opening paragraph, I stated that alternate history is usually left to fiction -and I believe rightly so, for fiction has more leeway to stretch credulity. Still, if one comes to this work with an open mind and willing imagination, they can be rewarded by the speculative journey they take. Certainly, among all the dozens of books on Roman history currently on the market, this one takes a novel angle.

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