Book Review: 'How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower' by Adrian Goldsworthy

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By Diana Preston
Sunday, August 23, 2009


Death of a Superpower

By Adrian Goldsworthy

Yale Univ. 531 pp. $32.50

In his monumental "History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," Edward Gibbon wrote that the reasons for Rome's debacle were "simple and obvious." He blamed the empire's "immoderate greatness," by which he meant that "the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight." Gibbon looked for messages in the Roman experience for late 18th-century Britain, faced with the revolt of its American colonies. Subsequent generations have been equally eager to seek analogies with their own times. In "How Rome Fell," Adrian Goldsworthy suggests that this is because Rome's fate seems to carry a warning that "strength and success will always prove transitory in the end, and that civilisation will not automatically triumph."

In these present troublous times, thoughts of decline and fall strike an obvious chord, and, as Goldsworthy notes, the power now most often compared with Rome is the United States. However, a comforting suggestion from Goldsworthy's meticulously researched, complex and thought-provoking book is that, whatever its causes, the end of the Roman Empire was a long time coming. His starting point is the death of the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius in 180 A.D. when the Roman Empire was at its height. He traces the events that led to the Empire's division in 395 into western and eastern halves and describes how the Western Empire fell -- the last emperor was toppled in a coup in 476 -- while the eastern part lasted another 1,000 years, evolving into the Byzantine Empire.

Goldsworthy argues that the problems besetting Rome were neither simple nor obvious and that what ultimately made Rome vulnerable to the ambitions of such "barbarian" tribes as the Goths, Huns and Vandals was its own internal weakness, especially its continual civil wars. He shows that from 235 until the fall of the Western Empire, very few decades were free from major civil conflict. Between the years 235 and 285, over 60 men claimed imperial power -- more than one per year. For successive emperors the priority became simple survival, with no time to consider their real responsibilities. Though the following century saw a period of greater stability, the price was such a centralization of power that one orator moaned that imperial bureaucrats had grown "more numerous than flies on sheep in springtime." This relative calm proved only a temporary break in the cycle of internal rivalries leading to civil wars, in turn further weakening the empire's structures -- a cycle that the empire's adoption of Christianity did nothing to mitigate.

The cumulative effect, Goldsworthy believes, was a fatal corruption and erosion of the institutions of government. With usurpations, murders, executions, betrayals and general incompetence as the norm, the Roman Empire dissipated so much of its strength and resources in fighting itself that it became incapable of withstanding external pressures it could otherwise have resisted. When, in 476, the Western Empire ceased to exist, it might well have been "murdered" by barbarian invaders, according to Goldsworthy, but they "struck at a body made vulnerable by prolonged decay."

In making a case that Rome rotted from within, Goldsworthy presents a memorable parade of claimants and counter-claimants to the imperial throne, from pathetic boy emperors manipulated by others to eccentrics like the Emperor Elagabalus, who, when making appointments, chose men with the largest penises, and psychopaths like Marcus Aurelius's son Commodus, familiar from the film "Gladiator," who astonished his senators by decapitating an ostrich in the arena, brandishing its bloodied head and threatening them with the same fate. Strong emperors capable of holding things together -- Diocletian and Constantine, for example -- were the exception.

Goldsworthy's argument is persuasive, though in such a long and intricate span of history where scarcity and sparseness of sources make it particularly hard to distinguish cause from effect, questions inevitably remain. For example, even with more effective government, could the empire have long resisted the unprecedented external pressures upon it? Perhaps it was all just a matter of time.

Analyzing the lessons of the collapse of the ancient world's superpower for today, Goldsworthy rightly avoids simplistic comparisons, pointing out how profoundly different the Roman Empire was from any modern state, culturally, institutionally, politically. The speed of communications is but one obvious example. Nevertheless, he finds some disturbing messages about inefficiency and corruption, about what happens when the selfish desire for personal advancement overrides thoughts of the common good, when bureaucracies become so swollen that they lose touch with their overall purpose and when institutions grow so large and powerful that their sheer size conceals their errors and inefficiencies.

Goldsworthy completed his book before the real extent of the world's current financial crisis was known, but he quotes a complaint by the Emperor Diocletian that seems especially relevant and shows that human nature may not have changed much since Roman times: "There burns a raging greed, which hastens to its own growth and increase without respect for human kind." Goldsworthy sensibly concludes there's nothing to suggest the United States must inevitably decline, but that it's up to those at the top -- our 21st-century emperors -- to ensure it doesn't.

Diana Preston is the author of "Cleopatra and Antony: Power, Love and Politics in the Ancient World."

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