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How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower Paperback – September 28, 2010
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Amazon Best of the Month, May 2009: Adrian Goldsworthy's Caesar: Life of a Colossus was a masterly fusion of vivid historical biography and scholarly detail, an impeccably researched work that also succeeded as a compelling read. With How Rome Fell, Goldsworthy's eye turns to the forces that ultimately destroyed the Roman Empire, challenging the traditional assumption that Rome was sacked by ultimately irrepressible foreign armies. Goldsworthy asserts that Rome's foes in the death throes of empire weren't any more formidable than those at its peak, but that the cutthroat nature of its political system fractured and diverted forces better spent maintaining the integrity of provincial borders--it was civil war and paranoia that destroyed the empire from within. Drawing parallels to modern societies might be tempting, but Goldsworthy is interested in Rome and resists foreboding or moralistic tones--even making a point of acknowledging the different dynamics that drive the rise and fall current powers. In just over 400 pages, How Rome Fell speeds the both the casual and Rome-savvy reader through 400 years of tumultuous and world-changing history--it's a worthy successor to the triumph of Caesar.--Jon Foro --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. At only 40 years of age, British historian Goldsworthy's (Caesar) ninth Roman history offers the same high level of scholarship, analysis and lucid prose as the previous eight. After a superb survey of Roman politics and civilization, Goldsworthy begins with the death in A.D. 180 of emperor Marcus Aurelius, whose reign is traditionally viewed as the apex of Roman power. During the disastrous century that followed, emperors rarely ruled more than a few years; most were murdered, and civil wars raged, though there was some stability during the reigns of Diocletian and Constantine. Invasions slowly chipped away at the empire until it vanished in A.D. 476 with the abdication of the last Western emperor. Goldsworthy makes sense of 300 years of poorly documented wars, murders and political scheming. Highly opinionated, he presents surviving documents and archeological evidence to back his views such as that Constantine became Christian because Roman leaders traditionally believed that divine help won battles, and the Christian god seemed to Constantine like the front-runner. This richly rewarding work will serve as an introduction to Roman history, but will also provide plenty of depth to satisfy the educated reader. Illus., maps. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
Goldsworthy starts with Marcus Aurelius, the last great Emperor of the Roman Empire's golden age. This system, the Principate, was set up by Augustus 200 years before. It was essentially a military dictatorship that maintained the appearance of the Institutions of the Republic. While supreme power rested in a single individual, it relied on the Senate to debate and ratify his decisions as well as to supply leadership in both military and administrative functions. Based around Rome, this elite group was small and hence, everyone more or less knew and understood each other, with similar education, background, and upbringing. At times amateurish, they could be relied upon to more or less keep the good of the nation - the "res publica" - in mind as they pursued their own agendas. The great flaw in this arrangement, according to Goldsworthy, was the lack of a settled institutional mechanism for succession; the emperor "named" his successor, often a member of the imperial family by birth or adoption, though with the indispensable backing of the military.
With the accession of Marcus Aurelius' natural born son, the notorious Commodus, a period of terrible instability followed. Once Commodus was assassinated, the power shifted to the military as the ultimate arbiter of who would be anointed Emperor. For the next 80 years, only a few Emperors reigned for more than 5 years before being deposed by assassination or civil war and execution. Somewhere in the Empire, it seems, the army was always acclaiming a new Emperor, who would then fight for the right of supreme leadership. It was only with the emergence of Diocletion, a strong and brilliant general, that this perpetual civil warfare became once again a rare occurrence.
It is here that Goldsworthy develops an interesting thesis. Out of an effort to shore up their strength and access new talent, the Emperors widened the scope of their leadership appointments beyond the Senate, relying on Equestrians (originally those rich enough to equip themselves with horses for their military duty). This occurred when the bureaucracy was growing to unprecedented proportions; in addition, the Empire was spread so expansively that it was broken into smaller and smaller administrative units, multiplying the need for competent administrators. Unfortunately, these developments opened the floodgates to ambitious men who did not share the sense of common purpose that Senators supposedly did. As as result, the Emperor became more isolated, trusting no one and in constant fear of losing his power or, all too often, his life. Rather than delegate tasks, Emperors felt obligated to undertake them personally, flitting about the Empire on mission after mission. It was simply too much for one man to accomplish. As time went on, Goldsworthy argues, things only got worse in spite of experiments in joint rule and the like. What saved the Empire was in a sense sheer momentum: it was bigger than everyone else, enjoyed access to vast resources, and faced no single power that could seriously challenge it. Nonetheless, the Empire's institutions were deteriorating from within.
In my opinion, this is a convincing argument. Many other issues are covered in the narrative, such as the rise of Christianity, the nature of the Parthian and Sassanid Empires, and the evolution of the barbarian challengers. Goldsworthy sees none of these as fundamentally different than anything that threatened Rome from its early days.
It is important to contrast this interpretation with the other great recent Fall book by Peter Heather. That book argues that the fall occurred due to converging geopolitical pressures. As the Vandals took over the wheat fields of N Africa, depriving Rome of food imports and tax revenues, Gothic barbarians (newly re-organized to resemble the Roman military) attacked an Empire weakened by a long fight with Attila the Hun. In my opinion, Goldsworthy takes these as contributing factors to the fall, but in themselves not sufficient - the weakened institutions were the principal factor, hence these simultaneous calamities were the conjunction that finally threw everything into a downward spiral. Goldsworthy does not believe they could have toppled a more functional state. For anyone seeking further intellectual adventure in this area, I would recommend Heather's masterpiece as both complementary and necessary adjunct to Goldsworthy's.
If I have a criticism of the book, it is that the argument occasionally gets lost in the narrative. However, as he doesn't state his thesis up front, it was clear to me that the institutions were what he chose to focus upon. I also find the assertion weak that Senators were better attuned to the "res publica" than the Equestrians ever could be. Finally, Goldsworthy has a serious bias towards moderation and skepticism - he rarely makes provocative assertions or goes out on a limb. While this stems in part from his mastery of scholarly arguments, it sometimes drains the narrative of spicy flavor.
Highest recommendation. This book is a must for any lover of history and any student of Rome. The narrative is also written with exceptional clarity, in luminous prose.
Operating within these confines, this is a good book. To answer another commentator, this book is intended for the serious amateur or armchair historian and provides a great narrative of the last centuries of the glory that was Rome and a convincing explanation for the primary cause of its collapse. This book is also clearly meant to refute Peter Heather's work, which claims that Rome fell not because of internal weakness, but because of the superiority of newly formed barbarian supergroups.
What I find fascinating is that both authors use the same evidence to reach drastically different conclusions. For instance, a cache of weapons found in a lake in Northern Europe is used by Heather to demonstrate that the Germanic tribes had achieved a new level of sophistication and material wealth, as well as weapons equal to that of Rome. Goldsworthy uses the same find to conclude that only the top echelon of Germanic tribes had access to such weapons.
Although I believe the truth lies somewhere in the middle, I believe Goldsworthy has the better argument. Although I do not find Goldworthy's assessment that the Germanic tribes were no different than those facing Caesar to be persuasive (on this point Heather wins), at the same time I cannot accept Heather's conclusion that Rome post-3rd century crises was as vibrant and stable as before.
Here is where Goldsworthy really shines. To me, it seems a matter of common sense that the main contributing factor to the demise of the Roman Empire was the almost constant civil wars from the beginning of the third century. Almost everything else--debased currency, changed social order, new religious beliefs--all flows from the fact that beginning in the 3rd century, the Roman Empire was operated essentially as a logistics base for the army. The wealth of Rome was based on looting and demolishing of other societies and civilizations. Once Rome stopped expanding, the wealth stopped coming in and the enemies of Rome were no longer worth conquering. However, the army still needs to be paid, and the generals still needed to find glory.
As such, Rome went from conquering other peoples to conquering itself. Unlike past civil wars, these conflicts were not about ideology or social issues--the were purely about money and power. Whereas the troops in Caesar's time were fighting for land grants and citizenship, by the time of Diocletian, citizenship was universal, money was worthless, and land ownership on a small scale was cost-prohibitive due to high taxation. In every civil war more and more Roman troops were killed, more cities were looted, more land was devastated, more "ordinary" people began to see the imperial power as oppressive and turned to new religion. The coinage was debased because emperors needed to pay (bribe) the troops to pay for wars against contenders for the throne; the senatorial order was destroyed to prevent usurpations; resources previously used to build civic monuments and facilities were instead used to build walls and fortify cities; the middle class was destroyed by oppressive taxation, etc. In the end all of Roman society was reorganized for a singular purpose: to provide resources for emperors to fight each other.
Here is where Goldsworthy could have offered more detail and analysis and really thrown a knock-out punch so-to-speak. However, the narrative takes up so much space, that there is little time left for analysis and empirical study. Also, while Goldsworthy should be praised for indicating areas where the historical and archeological records are incomplete (or not known at all), I would have liked Goldsworthy to attempt to fill-in-the blanks using available sources and logical deduction.
However, Goldsworthy's thesis is ultimately sound: For three centuries emperors and so-called usurpers fought over the same pie of resources. After each civil war the pie got smaller and smaller and yet the fighting continued. "Barbarians" were only dealt with once the new Augustus had secured his place (usually by wiping out a significant portion of Rome's available manpower). Eventually, Rome became too weak fighting itself to fight others.
I give this book four stars instead of five because Goldsworthy should have shortened the narrative and expanded his discussion and analysis of the real economic and social effects of constant civil warfare. Also, the "modern analysis" at the end was quite unnecessary and felt like a scrap thrown to the table to appease fellow academics.
What I would really like to see is a book that combines Goldsworthy's narrative and thesis with an economic and sociological analysis of the effects of the three centuries of constant warfare both internally and how this affected Rome's foreign policy. Maybe Goldsworthy, Heather and Brian Ward-Perkins can team up to write such a book.
Long story short (too late, I know)--this is a good book that provides a compelling narrative, but falls short of greatness.