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Lessons of the Fall

When it comes to "How Rome Fell," no comparisons with Emperor George W. Bush's America are necessary.

By 10.28.09

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How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower
By Adrian Goldsworthy
(Yale University Press, 560 pages, $32.50)

Adrian Goldsworthy is a great name for a classicist, and, fortunately, Adrian Goldsworthy is a classicist of the first order. He earned his doctorate at Oxford, and is the author of several books, including the critically acclaimed biography, Caesar, published in 2008. With How Rome Fell, he takes on a subject much debated since Gibbon, and comes up with a compelling answer.

Many recent analyses of the collapse of Roman power have made a point to draw parallels with modern day America, and to disparage American foreign policy in general, and that of George W. Bush in particular. Goldsworthy makes clear in his preface that such comparisons are of little value simply because the United States and Rome, and the context of their times, are so vastly different. He is far too diplomatic to level heavy criticism on his colleagues who have chosen, nonetheless, to do so. He even extends such professional courtesy to Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame) whose book and miniseries Barbarians takes pains to make such comparisons and to criticize the Iraq war. Goldsworthy merely comments that it is "highly entertaining stuff, even if the message is somewhat strained." Aside from being cool towards trying to make serious comparisons of ancient states with modern ones, Goldsworthy is a European scholar who believes that the decline and fall of American power would be a bad thing -- and that is refreshing.

Like Gibbon, Goldsworthy begins his narrative in the late second century, with the reign of Marcus Aurelius. He then takes the reader on the journey through Rome's ups and downs, innovations, and adaptations through to the final collapse of the Western Empire, making use of the latest research and archeological discoveries. He also includes a brief discussion of the continuation of the empire in the east, the short-lived reconquest of Italy and North Africa during the reign of Justinian, and the emergence of Muslim power that would topple the Persian Empire, and ultimately put an end to the remains of a shriveled Eastern "Roman" Empire in 1453.

Though the text is usefully footnoted, it is written with the general reader in mind. Goldsworthy does not overwhelm the reader with the names of many minor figures (doing so to a fault when he mentions one of Aurelian's generals in Egypt, but neglects to point out that the general was the future emperor Probus). He does write the occasional tantalizingly unclear sentence, but for the most part, Goldsworthy's prose is lucid and engaging.

Goldsworthy does not put the blame of the fall of the Western Empire on overwhelming military pressure from the various Germanic tribes (or the Huns) that eventually broke through the Rhine-Danube frontier, or the rise of Persian power in the east. The Goths, Vandals, Franks, and other tribes that eventually toppled the Western Empire were neither more powerful nor more united than they were in the second or third centuries. Their attacks may have been more frequent, but probably only as a result of inviting Roman weakness. Likewise, Persia, though a strong adversary, never posed a serious threat to Rome's survival. Depopulation may have played a role in Rome's weakness in the fourth and fifth centuries, but population estimates are too sketchy for Goldsworthy to base any theory on that. But it certainly was a fact that the Roman Empire was subject to extensive internal warfare from the end of the second century on, that took a heavy toll on treasure and manpower.

Though many have argued that the lack of a clear succession mechanism in the imperial system was inherently destabilizing, Goldsworthy argues that it is not a coincidence that it worked so well for nearly two centuries (at least in comparison to the later empire) before murder and civil war became the usual manner of deciding emperors. The problem, as Goldsworthy views it, was that by the end of the second century, the façade of republican government, which Augustus so carefully endeavored to preserve, had largely been stripped away (entirely so, by the time of Diocletian at the end of the third century). Though the Senate never had much power during the early empire, emperors knew that any challengers they may face would likely come from the senatorial class. Based in Rome, and in constant contact with the Senate, emperors understood the issues of state, and could keep tabs on potential dissent. By distancing themselves from the Senate and Rome, setting up new imperial residences in places like Trier, Milan, and Ravenna, creating vast bureaucracies of court officials, for the purpose of protecting themselves from imperial rivals, and constantly conducting military campaigns in person so as to keep military commanders from gaining too much popularity and favor with the army, the result was, in fact, a system that guaranteed incessant plotting, purges, warfare, and inefficiency.

The apparatus of government evolved into a means to protect the emperor and enrich and the bureaucracy. Goldsworthy writes:

At a basic level the emperors and government officials of the Late Roman Empire  had forgotten what the empire was for. The wider interests of the state […] were  secondary to their own personal success and survival. […] There had been plenty of selfish and corrupt individuals in earlier periods of Roman history, just as there have been in all other societies. The difference was that by the late empire it was difficult for them to behave in any other way.

This is what led to the empire not being able to deal effectively with problems that it had successfully dealt with in the past, eventually leading to its collapse.

The empire survived in the east largely, argues Goldsworthy, because of the luck of geography, its richest provinces shielded from the Germanic invasions by the Bosphorus and the walls of Constantinople. The Persian Empire on its eastern border was formidable, but easier to deal with than the multitude of forces facing the West. It also benefited from the emergence of some strong leaders such as Anastasius and Justinian. But the surviving Eastern Empire never regained the status of a dominant power.

Though Goldsworthy does not believe in trying to equate Rome with modern societies, there are general lessons from history that he thinks are instructive. In the case of Rome, he believes the cautionary tale is the uncontrolled growth of bureaucracy. He warns, "Bureaucracies are stubborn, they tend to expand on their own and develop their own agendas." This leads to its members losing touch with the original and wider goals, and instead becoming focused on preserving, expanding, and using the system for their own benefit. Interestingly, as an example of this, he brings up nationalized health care. "Thus in Britain we have a National Health Service in which the number of administrators has increased as the number of beds for patients has fallen. Seemingly incapable of such basic tasks as keeping wards clean, as an institution its attitude at times seems ambivalent to the fate of patients, concerned only with numbers passing through the system."

How Rome Fell is an interesting and compelling analysis. It is definitely worth the price to obtain and the time to digest, even if you are not a student of classical history. Rome may not be America, but Roman history still provides valuable lessons.


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About the Author
Brandon Crocker is the chief financial officer of a commercial real estate development and management company in San Diego.