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The End of the Roman Empire: Decline or Transformation? 3rd Edition (Problems in European Civilization) Paperback – April, 1992
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Top customer reviews
I was impressed by the collective essays in Kagan's book because they came from the best authorities, both ancient and modern, on Roman history. The book gave an excellent overview of opinions ranging from military explanations to barbarian invasions. The essays were concise and easy to read, and the chronological table helped pinpoint the events discussed in each essay. I will definitely keep this book and use it for my final paper.
It offer different ideas and explanations for the decline; it also include the point of view of other authors and explain them to us.
Pretty concise, to the point and the author stays as objective as he cans while giving his personal opinion without diminishing others.
A good book to get familiar with the topic but definitely not an advanced or in depth research.
I used it for my school research but only to get familiar enough so I could read more advanced books.
I picked up this compendium edited by Donald Kagan primarily because I have so much respect for the Yale historian I had faith that anything he put together would be worthwhile. My instincts were correct. This is an amazing volume that collects and classifies the main explanations for collapse of Rome by some of the leading historians of the past several centuries. It is a graduate level seminar in less than 200 pages.
What I found really helpful was Kagan's use of a simple metaphor as a framework for understanding the competing theories. He notes that the one indisputable fact about Rome is that it fell. And much like a corpse that is wheeled into the county morgue, it is up to the historians, acting as the medical examiner, to determine the time and method of death. Kagan notes that while even the time of death is a matter of dispute, the arguments over the cause of death are more varied and challenging. In short, Kagan says that there are four basic explanations: 1) accidental death; 2) natural causes; 3) murder; and 4) suicide. In my opinion, a few of the theories fall on the line between explanations, such as distinguishing between "natural causes" and "suicide," but overall the analogy is both accurate and constructive.
Kagan writes that only one distinguished scholar really argues for accidental death, the Irish historian J.B. Bury (1861-1927), who attributed the fall of Rome in the fifth century to a "series of contingent events." Namely, the Huns pushing the Goths across the Danube; the mistakes of Valens that lead to the Roman defeat at Adrianople; the misguided Roman policy reaction to that disaster of allowing the Goths to settle permanently on Roman territory; and the untimely death of Theodosius and the lengthy reign of his incompetent successor, Honorius, along with the pernicious influence of his barbarian advisor/general Stilicho.
Many prominent historians, however, have supported the "natural causes" explanation. Among them, the doyen of contemporary Roman history, Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), who saw the empire as so vast, complex and unwieldy that the real question to ask is, "How did it last so long?" Others in this school include the British scholar Frank Walbank (1909-2008), who attributed the weakness of Roman institutions to its foundation of a slave economy (He concludes: To avoid the fate of the Romans, we must "plan the resources of our society for the whole of our peoples...to rid ourselves of the menace of underconsumption...to effect a more equitable distribution of wealth...and to give full scope for the employment of the new technical forces man already controls"); Canadian historian Arthur Boak (1888-1962) who argued that inexorable population decline doomed the empire, forcing new policies around taxation and collection that only served to accelerate the pace of decline; and another Brit, William Heitland (1847-1935), sees the Roman political system as structurally and fatally flawed, fundamentally incapable of necessary, nonviolent reform - and he writes with an ease and grace that is almost Gibbon-esque (e.g. "That the Roman empire did not as a whole succumb under the pressure of its manifold burdens, is a marvel... A tranquil diagnosis, and a patient endeavor to remove the deep seated causes of trouble, were impossible."). And he concludes: "To improve your citizens, and to interest them in their own real welfare, is the only course that offers a possible means of avoiding the Roman fate."
A few celebrated academics see the fall of Rome essentially as self-inflicted, the result of either poor policy or the willingness to fall on their sword. First, the Russian émigré Mikhail Rostovtzeff (1870-1952) posits, indirectly, that the Roman empire committed the same collective national self-immolation as his native Russia, destroyed by the 1917 Soviet Revolution that he was personally forced to flee, an unnatural alliance, in the Roman case, of the army and peasantry against the urban elite, motivated by envy and hatred, yet ending in nothing but devastation for everyone. He concludes: "Our civilization will not last unless it be a civilization not of one class, but of the masses...[but] is it possible to extend a higher civilization to the lower classes without debasing its standard and diluting it quality to the vanishing point?".
Michael Grant (1914-2004), a more "popular" and modern writer than the rest in this volume, is grouped with the "suicide" crowd, perhaps a bit too conveniently given his "thirteen sources of disunity" thesis argued in various sources, because of his work highlighting the enervating effects of the Christian faith in the late empire - namely the Augustine principles calling for loyalty only to God, combined with an innate pacifism that even Augustine shrinks from fully endorsing. He concludes: "Failure in the face of the foe need never have occurred had it not been for internal disunities within the empire itself."
Finally, the Yale classist, Ramsey MacMullen (1928- ), writes that the late empire suffered from two seemingly contradictory impulses wrought by the militarization of the leadership caste, both deleterious. First, the Roman army became ever more "odd job" men along the frontier, losing their professional edge and discipline. Second, the broader civil service adopted the military penchant for uniforms, ranks, and distinction, along with the conservative martial mindset of hierarchy and bureaucracy. All to the detriment of good government and (if you believe MacMullen segment cited here) to the ultimate collapse of Rome.
It is easy to resist the temptation to believe that Rome fell simply because that the barbarians were stronger, but Kagan groups a couple of credible historians into that camp. A.H.M. Jones (1904-1970), one of the most influential twentieth century Roman scholars, presents the compelling framework of comparing and contrasting the western from the eastern empire to determine why the latter lasted nearly a millennium longer than the former. For Jones, the answer is simple: a longer and more vulnerable frontier along the Rhine and Danube, without as deep a reserve of population and wealth, caused the West to implode in the face of relentless barbarian pressure. Norman Baynes (1877-1961), in the text quoted in this volume, takes a similar approach, only arguing that the inherent strength of the empire was built up from the cultural foundation that depended on secure and reliable intercommunication across the empire, something that was retained in the East and not the West.
In sum, this learned compilation is a fantastic introduction to the leading authorities on one of the most fascinating historical topics. It is a great place to begin your journey of deeper study - or a quick way to acquire "cocktail hour" expertise. Highly recommended in either case.