Tuesday, September 11, 2018

How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower, by Adrian Goldsworthy

Today I'm looking at a book which does exactly what it says on the tin, looks at how the Roman Empire fell. In the first century CE the Pax Romana had reached every corner of the Mediterranean and for centuries it seemed Rome could weather any challenge, face down any enemy. However by 476 the Western half of the Empire had been occupied by Goths, Franks, Vandals, and other Germanic tribes and Rome itself was sacked. Romulus Augustulus, the last Western Emperor, was deposed and nobody bothered to replace him. The Eastern Empire continued for another millennium, but the power of Rome in Western Europe and Africa had forever been curtailed.

Even as the Empire itself fell, people were debating what caused the Empire to collapse. In the classical era people tended to attribute it to the displeasure of the gods. Pagan writers said the old gods were displeased by the empire's conversion to Christianity while Christina writers blamed backsliding to pagan rituals losing Jesus's favor. Later writers, including Edward Gibbon, blamed the collapse on the Roman Empire on the invasion of Germanic barbarians. As Goldsworthy explains, the underlying assumption is that the institutions of the Roman Empire were fundamentally sound, but the external pressures were simply too much for the empire to bear. Goldsworthy argues that instead it was internal issues that sapped the strength of the Roman Empire and made it susceptible to invasion by the Germanic tribes.

Goldsworthy illustrates this problem through centuries of evidence, showing that through the third and fourth centuries CE the Roman Empire was plagued by civil wars and usurper emperors, as a result much of the empire's strength was spent fighting itself rather than its enemies. Over time the empire's institutions including its military and civil bureaucracy were reformed in an attempt to keep the emperor safe from usurpation or assassination, dividing authority and reducing the power that any one individual subordinate might hold. Ironically this did nothing to stop the civil wars and for most of those centuries strong, long-reigning emperors such as Diocletian, Constantine, or Theodosius, were the exception rather than the rule.

Ultimately Goldsworthy's argument is that the Roman Empire managed to survive through ontological inertia rather than because it was an efficient and united regime. The Empire was simply too big, too rich, and too powerful for it to fall overnight despite the rot within the structure. The Germanic tribes, and even the feared Huns, were able to raid and bloody the empire, but almost never had the numbers to truly overthrow or replace it for most of its history. The only closest rival in terms of strength and money was Sassanid Persia and due to geography they would not have been able to strike at the cores of the Roman Empire.

Goldsworthy's methodology is well thought out and he makes excellent use of the available sources to make an argument that internal, rather than external, pressures made the Roman Empire collapse. What bothers me, though, is when Goldsworthy makes the comparisons to other nations and the inevitable comparison to the United States. As he explains, the United States has been comparing itself to Rome (albeit the Roman Republic) since 1776, so the comparison to the Roman Empire is equally apt. However, Goldsworthy argues first that the United States, much like Rome, had no serious challengers. When this was written in 2008 that was clearly not the case as our ongoing ''war on terror'' continues to quagmire in the Middle East with no real goal or end in sight. While the nature of asymmetric warfare means it's unlikely a terrorist army could invade Washington, D.C., the challenges that they pose are no less frustrating. And even in 2008 the rise of China and ambitions of Putin were plainly obvious as future security concerns.

Goldsworthy also, albeit not by name, makes a reference to the Roman Empire being ''too big to fail''. Although definitely not being tossed around at the time he finished writing (well before the publication date of 2008) the words ''too big to fail'' have come back to haunt us in a serious way. To members of the left wing, myself included, the notion itself that a financial institution can become so large that its collapse can threaten the world economy suggests that something has become seriously wrong with the system and is in desperate need of reform. And it does raise the question, if Rome was too big to fail and still failed, what does that mean about the banks?

Despite these concerns about Goldsworthy's attempts to compare Rome to the modern era (a difficult proposition even in the best of times), I think this book is well worth taking the time to check out. Goldsworthy makes a compelling argument that in the end, Rome's greatest enemy was itself.

- Kalpar

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