How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower – Book Review
How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower. By Adrian Goldsworthy. Yale University Press, 2009. 544 pages. Hardback. US $32.50
Goldsworthy deems the frequent occurrence of civil war during the last three centuries of the Roman Empire as the single greatest cause of Rome’s decline and fall.
Note: All quotations taken from the advanced uncorrected page proof copy of How Rome Fell. Please consult the final bound copy of the book for the final version of these sections.
“If people today know anything about the Roman Empire, it is that it fell.”
With this stark-yet-true statement, acclaimed historian Adrian Goldsworthy begins his new book, How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower. Goldsworthy is far from a newcomer to the field of Roman history: his book Caesar was the recent recipient of the Society of Military History’s Distinguished Book Award for biography. Not surprisingly, then, How Rome Fell is an excellent work, one in which he addresses what is very arguably the most colossal of all historical questions—how did Rome fall?
The purpose of How Rome Fell is, in Goldsworthy’s own words, “to look more closely at both the internal and external problems faced by the Roman Empire.” In his opinion, it is the internal problems Rome faced, more than the external threats, that are the key to understanding the decline and fall of Rome.
The book follows a chronological arrangement, beginning in 180 A.D. with the death of Emperor Marcus Aurelius and ending with the reign of the Emperor Justinian (527-565 A.D.), the ruler of the Eastern half of the Roman Empire, which eventually became the Byzantine Empire. Goldsworthy chooses to begin and end with these respective dates for good reasons. The death of Marcus Aurelius marked the end of the reign of the “Five Good Emperors,” and the beginnings of the Western Roman Empire’s descent into civil war and internal instability. Similarly, the reign of Justinian was the last time that most of the Roman Empire would be united under a single, distinctly Roman emperor.
Goldsworthy deems the frequent occurrence of civil war during the last three centuries of the Roman Empire as the single greatest cause of Rome’s decline and fall. “It is worth once again emphasising [sic] that from 217 down to the collapse of the Western Empire there were only a handful of periods as long as ten years when a civil war did not break out … Each civil war cost the Empire. Anything gained by the winning side had to be taken from other Romans, and a prolonged campaign was likely to involve widespread destruction within the provinces where fighting occurred.”
He puts forth many explanations for this willingness of the Romans to fight each other, foremost of which was the trend of creating emperors out of generals and the simultaneous marginalization of the Senate. As he puts it, “In the past Rome’s emperors had to be wary of only a small number of senators, men who were known to them personally … Now a rival could be almost anyone. They did not need political connections or family reputation, simply the ability to persuade some troops to back them. Many emperors were equestrians, and almost all were army officers or imperial officials.” Indeed, from the death of Commodus in 193 A.D. until the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 A.D., the death of an emperor usually resulted in an explosion of civil war, with numerous generals jockeying for the throne in a spirit of militaristic pragmatism.
While Goldsworthy may consider civil war and other internal problems to be the main cause of Rome’s fall, foreign threats cannot be ignored. How Rome Fell gives due attention to Rome’s foreign enemies, from the Vandals to the Parthians. However, Goldsworthy strives to disprove certain fallacies regarding Rome’s enemies—for example, the notion that the Sassanid Persian state was the equal of the Roman Empire. He states that the Persians were never even remotely comparable to the Roman Empire in terms of sheer size, wealth, and military power: “The [Roman] empire was huge and faced no serious competitors. Persia was the strongest neighbor, but there was never a prospect of a Persian army reaching the Tiber.”
He also debunks the still-persistent myth that the western barbarian peoples systematically attacked the Western Roman Empire in waves, deliberately seeking to destroy it. Instead, he shows that the barbarian attacks of the second, third, and even fourth centuries, far from being organized invasions, were rather along the lines of large-scale raids. He cautions that one must always take care not to portray the barbarians as too organized, too effective, and too bent on destroying Rome. Pragmatism, rather than a grand desire to topple the Roman Empire, was more often than not the cause of their actions, even in the cases of great barbarian leaders such as Alaric and Attila the Hun. Though the situation changed in the fifth century—with the repeated incursions of the Huns and Goths into Italy, and the loss of Spain and North Africa to the Vandals—even in these cases the barbarians were not necessarily out to eradicate Rome or Roman culture. In most cases the barbarians, despite the fact that they were fighting against Rome, still thought of themselves as Romans.
Like the story it tells, How Rome Fell is a grand and sweeping work. At times, however, it can be a bit too sweeping. In his attempt to cover such a vast era of history, Goldsworthy sometimes fails to fully and clearly introduce certain important characters and concepts. His eagerness to hammer home important points sometimes causes him to repeat himself, which makes some portions of How Rome Fell seem redundant. Readers are urged to constantly take a step back from the book, in order to see the “big picture” and discern Goldsworthy’s key points.
Furthermore, his sections on early Christianity contain a few misconceptions and errors. For example, he states that, even as late as 400 A.D., “The pope … was still one of a number of senior bishops,” and that he had no particular or peculiar authority. Yet he ignores the fact that as early as 96 A.D. Pope Clement was writing authoritatively to the church in Corinth, where the Catholic community had especially deferred to his judgment, rather than that of another “senior bishop” in an important religious dispute.
This is not to say that How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower is not an excellent book—quite the contrary. Goldsworthy’s work provides a fresh, much-needed look at how and why the Roman Empire fell, and, in doing so, proffers a few lessons about what causes great nations to decline and collapse. Goldsworthy warns that internal weakness—the result of overinflated bureaucracy, selfish political grappling, and civil war—has always been the most dangerous foe of superpowers, from ancient Rome to modern-day America. As Goldsworthy summarizes it, “Long decline was the fate of the Roman Empire. In the end, it may well have been ‘murdered’ by barbarian invaders, but these struck at a body made vulnerable by prolonged decay.”
Alexander Wilson has been an avid student of history and military history since he was eight. He especially enjoys ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, and World War II, as well as the American Civil War. When not doing schoolwork, reading, working, or writing, he can usually be found building models, gardening, or playing Axis and Allies Miniatures. He is also a very active member of the Armchair General and HistoryNet Forums, under the username “CatholicCrusade.”