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Book Review 326: How Rome Fell
July 27, 2014 - Harry Eagar
HOW ROME FELL: Death of a Superpower, by Adrian Goldsworthy. 531 pages, illustrated.Yale paperback
Adrian Goldsworthy felt obliged to spend the first and last pages of “How Rome Fell” explaining that the answer, whatever it is, cannot be copied over as a cautionary admonition to the United States today.
Not that he does not draw conclusions. Some historians claim history does not teach lessons -- a silly idea equivalent to saying that you cannot learn from experience -- but Goldsworthy does not do so. He claims that superpowers, when they fall, fall from within.
When I was a boy in the South, the fall of Rome was a favorite theme of holy roller preachers, although these men were so ignorant they could not have found Rome on an Esso map of Italy. They were persuaded that it was the moral depravity of the Romans. They were too stupid to note that the decline leading to the fall coincided with the Christianization of the empire.
Edward Gibbon thought the fall was the result of religion and barbarism. A German historian counted at least 200 proposed causes.
Goldsworthy is cautious. For one thing, the decline can be fairly precisely started in the third century, and he notes that we know so little about that time that if we were equally ignorant about the 20th century, we would know there had been a Great Depression and two world wars but would not understand how serious they were.
Still, he dates the beginning of the end to the murder of Emperor Commodus and the civil wars that followed. Surprisingly, he offers no discussion about why the murder -- not the first of an emperor -- was so dire.
The reason was that Augustus, 200 years earlier, had not devised a rule for succession in the constitution of the empire. There was a vague feeling that sons should follow fathers, but Roman emperors did not have many sons, or if they had one, tended to die (or be murdered) when he was an infant. There was no plan for the death of an emperor without an heir.
The empire was basically the army, so the strongest, best-placed general grabbed for the diadem. And others, too, often enough.
Goldsworthy identifies a structural change that this system of musical chairs began: the later emperors stopped using senators as legates to command armies or undertake other crucial tasks. They were afraid of creating a viable rival.
But if senators could not be trusted, the emperor had to do everything himself, which meant leading the army. If campaigns were necessary at opposite ends of the empire, one would be left unattempted.
Although he says relying on a small aristocracy -- around 600 men -- “may seem odd in this day and age,” especially since they were “amateurs in the modern sense,” the method worked well in the Roman context.
By keeping the ruling class wieldy, it allowed emperors to judge whom to trust and whom to keep away from temptation. And until the breakdown in the third century, senators did not think of themselves as potential emperors, which helped keep them contented as subordinate servitors of the state.
Expanding the upper leadership to the class of equestrians -- perhaps as many as 10,000 men -- meant an emperor lost intimate knowledge of whom to rely on and whom to fear.
This is a more subtle argument than barbarism and religion, and Goldsworthy is at pains to show that the barbarians were never numerous enough, skilled enough or united enough to do critical damage to such a strong empire. He has much less to say about religion.
No empire ever lasted so long. The western empire lasted around 1,300 years (though much of that period as a republic), the eastern portion much longer.
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