This review was also posted on Amazon.co.uk on 3 January 2011
This superb book tells the very well-written story of "the Fall of the West" (that is the Western part of the Roman Empire) by adopting a somewhat "Gibbonesque" view of history. It therefore start the narrative of what is the modern version of Gibbon's "Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire" at the end of Marcu Aurelius' reign (AD 180) or, if you prefer, it concentrates on the "Fall piece".
The BIG question is, and has been at least since Gibbon (and in fact well before him), to explain WHY the West fell. There has traditionnally been two main camps (or schools of thought) among historians: there are those that believe that the West fell because of the Barbarian Invasions (or, as somebody put it even more bluntly, that the Empire was murdered by the Barbarians) and there are those that believe that it fell because its own growing contradictions and weaknesses made it less and less able to survive and withstand successive shocks. The first school is currently represented by Peter Heather whereas the second underpins this book from Adrian Goldsworthy (which, in part, is written to rebute Peter Heather's "Fall of the Roman Empire").
Both authors were educated at Oxford and are too knowledgeable and too suttle to entirely dismiss the "other explanation" which they attempt to minimize because they cannot fully dismiss it. What is at issue here is to identify the most important factors (internal weaknesses or external shocks) that explain the Fall of the West and, as Goldsworthy mentions, the "Death of the Roman Superpower". To do this, Goldsworthy emphasizes the Superpower's growing contradictions and weaknesses while minimizing the impact of the Barbarians. I found that the first part of the case he makes is mostly convincing, despite a few exceptions, although I found the second item (minimizing the impact of Barbarian attacks) much less convincing.
Goldsworthy's book is very carefully structured and drafted. Being presented as a continuous and superbely written narrative makes the whole very exciting story come to life to the extent that it even gives you the impression of reading a novel at times. In other words, the book, although definitely a piece of scholarship, is designed in such a way as to be as accessible as possible to the general reader. It also gives you the impression of an unavoidable and slow motion "Fall" over a long period (the Gibbon long-term perspective), which is precisely the point that the author is trying to sell you. Even the last chapter, with the now usual (but somewhat superficial) comparisons between the decline and ultimate Fall of Rome (and the West, but ONLY of the West) and the declines of more modern Empires (Victorian Britain, colonial Empires and the United States being the most obvious examples) can be seen as adding credibility to the author's thesis.
Goldsworthy makes a strong case when demonstrating that the threats of usurpation, assassination and civil wars combined to make it harder and harder, overtime, to govern the Empire effectively. He goes one step further by emphasizing that the main purpose of the Empire's reorganizations (under Diocletian and Constantin, in particular) was not to govern the Empire or defend it more effectively but rather to ensure the Emperor's survival and his control over the provinces and the army, even if it meant breaking both up into much smaller units which, on their own, would be unable to cope with major threats (but also unable to become major threats to the Emperor himself!).
However, even there, the case is not as straighforward as the excellent narrative story makes it out to be and, at some times, different parts of the analysis tend to contradict each other while in other cases, some elements are played down or even omitted. A case in point is the crucial and multiple evolutions that the Roman army underwent between AD 180 and AD 600 (or AD 700 if you want to include the Arab onslaught).
To minimize the Barbarian threats, Goldsworthy tends to play down the numbers of Roman and Barbarian armies. However, in doing so, he largely dismisses the existing sources out of hand. For the Notitia Dignatum (a somewhat inconsistent record of military units "existing", at least for administrative purposes, in the East around 395 and updated to the 420s for the Western part), he mentions that it has been over used by historians to demonstrate that the Roman army in the 4th century was an efficient and a larger organization than under Marcus Aurelius.
He does have a good case, but only up to a point. It has been over-used in the past, but this is no reason from dismissing it nowadays. Besides, dismissing a source, however flawed it may be, when this source does not help in proving the points one wants to make always tends to make rather suspicious. Moreover, Goldsworthy does not use (or minimizes) other sources (one of which only appears in the notes while the other is not even mentioned). These are comparisons between the Empire's total armed forces in the past and at the time these 6th century byzantine authors were writting.
Attempts to determine the size of each component of the Roman army by attributing average sizes to army units, such as AH Jones in the 1960s or of Warren Treadgold 30 years latter have done (and just to mention these two) are no more than educated guesses. This was in fact recognized by Jones himself (and by Treadgold and by dozens of other historians) who went one to explain in detail why such numbers were, at best, only paper strengths. Their main (and perhaps only) value was to be able to assess the overall "official" size of the Empire armies (and perhaps the proportion of cavalry to infantry) and therefore get an idea of the associated financial burden and even if officers were pocketing the pay of "ghost" soldiers that only existed on the records or if units are always, even nowadays, somewhat below theoretical strength for a wide range of reasons of which battle casualties are only one. The bottom line here is that many historians agree that the Empire's army strength increased and may even have roughtly doubled (300000 to 600000 being the maximum range) within 150 years between the death of Marcus Aurelius (AD 180) and the death of Constantine (AD 337).
Goldsworthy, however, rejects the proportion and even questions whether there was any increase in numbers at all. Since he cannot entirely deny that the barbarian threats were greater - although he also minimizes both the threats and the Barbarian numbers - the conclusion would be that the Roman army may have become less and less effective against Barbarians since AD 180, largely because it spent so much of its energy fighting against itself, including during the 4th century when it had supposedly become more efficient when dealing with Barbarians. Here again, Adrian Goldsworthy makes a very valid point. Time and again, civil wars bled the army dry. However, the main differences between, say, the civil wars at the time of Julius Caesar, Vespasian or Septimius Severus, and those of Constantius or Theodosius was that, in the first cases, the Barbarians were NOT in a position to take advantage of any weaknesses (whether temporary or not). In the second case, they very much were...
This is where Adrian Goldsworthy very valuable book reaches its limits. He makes a good case in showing the growing weaknesses of the Western part of the Empire and concludes by stating that it was perhaps killed by the Barbarian but was already decrepid and in terminal decline by that time. However, he cannot make the same point about the Eastern part (the Rome which did not Fall, a title he has borrowed from another book for one of his sections). This is where the subtext "The Death of the Roman Superpower" comes into play because, by broadening the topic, he shifts the discussion to the notion of "Superpower" which the Eastern Roman Empire was increasingly unable to retain, despite Justinian's attempts. Here again, however, the case, even when well made, is rather biaised in several respects:
- one is that he does not, in my view, get to what is certainly one of the core issues: the emperor's legitimacy and the transmission of his power. This issues was permanent throughout the whole of Roman history and it continued to plague the Byzantine Empire almost to the end. This had largely to do with a mixture of ambition and a very Roman ideology (which was then christianized) according to which you were legitimate because you were victorious, with victory showing that you enjoyed the favor of the Gods (or God).
- the second point is that, although he mentions some elements, Goldsworthy does not fully discusses WHY the East DID NOT FALL, whereas the West did. The elements he tends to put foward are those that back his story on internal weaknesses: the East was more populated and more prosperous (largely thanks to Egypt) and, after 400, had solved the problem of army "barbarization". However, he does not mention or tends to minimize other elements that he may not agree with. One is that Barbarians, when having a choice, might have had a tendency to go for the easiest prey, and that was the West. Another was that, unlike the West where a few hundred families had accumulated huge wealth and managed to avoid most tax burdens and make the State protect their interests and work for their own benefit, wealth in the East was, by and large, spread out more evenly. There was more of it to begin with and the divide between the two grew over time and the Western State grew poorer and poorer. This is very presented in the book titled "The Rome that Did Not Fall", from which Goldworthy has borrowed quite a bit.
- the last point about the ongoing and decades old debate on the causes of the "Fall of the Roman Empire" between historians favoring the "internal" explanations (the growing weaknesses and inefficiencies) as opposed to those favoring the "external shocks" is that, to some extent, the approaches are "two sides of the same coin". Both sides are needed and just as important to make the coin valuable. If you want to see a list of all the factors (or at least the 16 most important ones, if I remember correctly) that historians have put forward to explain the "Decline and Fall", then you should take a look Michael Grant's little book on the Fall of the Roman Empire: it's also extremely readable and has aged rather well, unlike quite a few other books on "the Fall".