How Rome Fell

May 19th, 2009 at 9:37 am David Frum | 4 Comments |

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Over the past three years, three excellent and important new books have been published on the end of the Roman Empire – and by amazing happy coincidence the order in which they were published corresponds exactly to the order in which they should be read.

In 2005, the British archaeologist and historian Bryan Ward-Perkins published a short, accessible and well-illustrated monograph with the dramatic title: The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization.

Of the three books in the sequence, Ward-Perkins’ is the one to read if you are reading only one. It is the shortest, the most accessible, and the most direct and dramatic answer to the question lurking in the general reader’s mind: what does it mean for a civilization to fall?

The prevailing soft multiculturalism of our times has made the phrase “the fall of Rome” a surprisingly controversial one. It’s much preferred to talk about “transformation” rather than “decline and fall.” In this “transformationist” view, the High Classical period of 200 BCE-250 CE subsides gradually, almost imperceptibly into the “Late Antiquity” of CE 350-700. The barbarians did not invade; they migrated. Rome did not fall; it experienced a “fusion” with the new migrants in a “cross-cultural exchange.” (I am quoting here from the catalogue copy of a recent museum exhibition on the arts of Late Antiquity.)

The thought that a statue like this might be considered less finely wrought than this was not to be entertained. What we have here is a “transition” from one culture to another, both cultures equally excellent in their own way. If anyone catches echoes of current clichés about Third World migration into Europe and America, your ears are not deceiving you.

Against this sanguine view, Ward-Perkins marshals the archaeological evidence. Fossils of cattle bones show that livestock withered in size between the peak of the Roman empire in 200 CE and the early medieval period. Not until the 1300s would cattle recover their Roman heft.

The ice of the Greenland glaciers preserves frozen air from different historical periods. Air from the first and second centuries of the Common Era contains byproducts of smelting and other industrial activity. Such activity then disappears from the air for 17 centuries, not to reappear until the Industrial Revolution.

Even very ordinary Roman houses and buildings were roofed with tile. With the fall of Rome, tile manufacture ceases – and for the next thousand years, rulers and prelates were roofed by timber, everybody else by insect-infested thatch. The Romans made pottery by the tens of millions of units; to this day, one of Rome’s hills is a garbage dump filled with the broken shards of an estimated 50 million pots. Trade and manufacturing slows after 200, vanishes after 400. The dwindled population of Europe has to make do with crude, misshapen local handiwork. Coins and ironwork vanish. Not until the Victorian era did Europe recover Roman plumbing and road-building skills. Not until the 20th century did human beings improve on Roman concrete.

From the point of view of every aspect of material culture that can be measured and recorded, the overthrow of the Roman empire was a catastrophe that annihilated a millennium of material progress. North of the Alps especially, Europe in CE 700 looked much more like the Europe of 1500 years before than like the Europe of 500 years before.

Ward-Perkins argues all this so definitively that it’s amazing that the “Late Antiquity” school still shows its face. But Ward-Perkins only has the evidence on his side; the “Late Antiquity” school has all our modern prejudices – and in a fight between evidence and prejudice, prejudice wins every time.

The second book in the sequence, published the following year, is Peter Heather’s The Fall of the Roman Empire.

Heather’s book is long where Ward-Perkins’ is short. Ward-Perkins’ writing is direct and lucid; Heather’s gorgeous and entertaining.

Heather agrees with Ward-Perkins that the fall of the Roman empire was a shocking and catastrophic event. As a political historian rather than an archaeologist of material culture, Heather takes a less benign view of Rome. Here, he says, is a society of savage aggressiveness, that grew not through productivity improvement but by waging war on its neighbors to enslave their populations.

Probably no classicist has ever drawn a less appealing picture of late imperial Rome than Peter Heather. Its political culture reminds him of a totalitarian state: senators chanting accolades upon the emperor, over and over – orators asserting perfect unity and agreement where obviously none existed – the fusion of political and religious authority – the absolute vulnerability of any person, no matter how highly placed, to sudden death at the emperor’s whim… upper-class Rome of the 5th century sounds in Heather’s telling a lot like a house party at the Kremlin in 1935.

Rome’s ferocious aggressiveness and radical untrustworthiness forced its barbarian neighbors to organize in self-defense. The non-urban and fragmented culture of 3rd century Germany evolves into larger-unit societies. Villages grew into towns, clans into tribes, tribes into something close to nations. The barbarians gained military effectiveness and hurled themselves upon the aggressor and enslaver. The balance abruptly tilted against Rome – very abruptly.

Heather strongly argues against the idea of a “decline” of the Roman empire. After the civil wars and upheavals of the period 235-280, the empire had re-established itself more grimly powerful and centralized than ever. The army and bureaucracy grew, taxation became heavier, agriculturalists were enserfed, but Roman authority continued supreme. It might have continued supreme for much longer still, but for the accident of contingent events. The newly organized barbarian confederacies attacked with unprecedented ferocity in the years after 405 and gained a series of grand victories. Then came catastrophe for Rome: one of the barbarian confederacies, the Vandals, penetrated the previously untouched province of Spain, improvised a navy and invaded North Africa.

Since its seizure by Rome 550 years before, North Africa had been one of the most secure and prosperous of all the imperial domains. Its grandest estates were owned outright by the emperor and its huge agricultural surplus supported the cost of the imperial armies – armies that a low-productivity pre-modern society could only sustain through the ruthless exploitation of slave labor. The loss of North Africa in the 430s wrecked the finances of the western Roman empire, extinguishing the empire’s power to sustain its military forces. Desperate attempts to regain the province were easily repulsed – and the western Roman state collapsed, victim of a shattering military defeat.

Heather’s version of events is supremely engaging, and his close microstudy of 5th century Roman politics will come with the freshness of revelation even to those who believe they know the subject matter well.

In one respect, however, Heather’s fascinating and entertaining revisionism does subscribe to another contemporary academic orthodoxy.

The same happy-talk instincts that lead the “Late Antiquity” school to deny the cataclysmic character of the barbarian invasions also lead it to deny the idea of Roman “decline.” All phases of the Roman empire are excellent, each in its own way (just as all student papers deserve an A). The post-285 “Dominate” may have indulged in more obsequious court ceremonial than the pre-235 “Principate.” But it still fielded effective armies – and indeed larger armies than its predecessor. Heather may dissent from orthodoxy in disliking this refounded state, but if anything he emphatically affirms orthodoxy in endorsing the state’s effectiveness.

Here is where the third book in the sequence joins the discussion, Adrian Goldsworthy’s How Rome Fell. Goldsworthy is a military historian, author of a definitive work on the Roman empire (discussed by me here) and an outstanding biography of Julius Caesar (which I assessed here).

How Rome Fell is Goldsworthy’s most ambitious work yet, an attempt to fuse a narrative history of the period 235 – 535 with monographic studies of the historiographical issues involved in Rome’s fall.

As the title declares (or warns), Goldsworthy pays much more attention to the mechanics of the fall – the “how” – than to the causes or the “why.” For most readers, this decision will likely be an unwelcome one. How Rome Fell is not a book for the casual reader or one with only glancing interest in the period. Between 235 and 400, more than 50 men got themselves recognized in the historical roll as emperors or reasonably plausible usurpers. Almost all led short lives terminating in violent death. The political history of the time records a dismal, bewildering, and ultimately grimly repetitive series of border warfare, coups, and assassinations. (From the early 400s until the formal extinguishment of the empire in the West in 476, emperors gained greater job security in exchange for reduced power: Their new Germanic generalissimos preferred to rule from behind the throne of an established dynasty rather than seize the title for themselves. That stylistic shift does not however help very much to clarify matters – especially since by then there emerges a line of eastern emperors whose names have to be kept in mind at the same time.)

For that reason, it’s the monographic part of Goldsworthy’s work, not the narrative, that is probably the most accessible to the less obsessive reader. Goldsworthy can be read as a rebuttal to Heather. If the late Roman army was really so expensively huge as Heather and other scholars of late antiquity argue – why did it always seem to be absent when barbarians invaded?

Historians from Gibbon onward have analyzed the military reforms of Constantine in the 320s: the division of the old legionary structure between a new border police, the limatantei, and reserve strike forces of heavily mounted cavalry known as the comitatenses, the whole supposedly numbering some 600,000 troops. The exorbitant cost of this large new military establishment demanded crushing new taxes, leading ultimately to the enserfment of much of the rural population and the evolution of the urban elites of the High Classical period into a shrinking class of ruralized and militarized landowners. If so, however, why were the emperors always so desperate to recruit German warriors into their armies?

Claims for the existence of a large army of striking units into the late empire rest very largely on a single order of battle from the 5th century preserved by medieval monks. It’s quite an assumption that this order of battle corresponded to anything in reality rather than, say, to memories of units that had existed at various points over the previous century or centuries.

Likewise, Goldsworthy casts doubt on the thesis that Rome’s enemies had grown any stronger in the 4th and 5th centuries than they had been in the 1st and 2nd. The only reason to think this, he points out, is that the Romans now lost much more often than they had formerly done. These defeats could as well be said to evidence Roman weakness as the mounting strength of Rome’s enemies.

The late empire feels a strangely empty place. Not only did emperors welcome Germanic warriors, they settled entire Germanic tribes in Gaul and Thrace – and yet we hear no mention of displacement in literary sources. Some scholars have speculated that the empire was depopulated by plague after 200. (William McNeill wrote a fascinating history of the global effects of disease, Plagues and Peoples, that argues for disease as a principal cause of Roman decline.

This could well be true. On the other hand, of the emperors and would-be emperors who contested power in the turbulent 3rd century, only one Claudius II Gothicus, died of plague. At least 17 were assassinated or executed, and four more died under unknown circumstances. Four died in battle, one in captivity after battle – but only two of those five met their end at the hands of foreign enemies. The other three died fighting Roman rivals.

It was not the barbarians who brought down Rome, argues Goldsworthy. It was the Romans themselves – the instability of their state and its tendency to erupt into civil wars. It was civil war that had felled the old Roman republic – destroying its institutions in an accelerating cycle of internecine violence from the 80s BCE onward and enhancing the appeal of one-man rule. The same internecine violence erupted as one-man rule faltered after 235. The Roman armies destroyed each other in the struggle for power, exposing the Roman state as a tempting victim to the enemies against whom the armies were supposed to defend.

All this however raises a chicken-and-egg question. Was Rome weakened by instability? Or did instability perhaps result from weakness? That is – as Rome did a worse and worse job protecting its borders from invaders, did local army groups grow frustrated, and seize the imperium for their own commander in hope that if promoted to supreme rule, he might somehow obtain from the rest of the empire the resources needed to protect the sector in which those troops and their families lived?

That answer, like so much else about the classical world, lies beyond reach.

Rome will always fascinate. For Americans, Rome has always carried special fascination and special poignancy. America is both a great power and a great republic. Rome failed as a republic just as it ascended to the supremacy of its power – and enjoyed the zenith of its power under autocracy. That autocracy in turn failed, and the power failed alongside. Or – if Goldsworthy is correct, first the autocracy failed, and then the power. Either way, the history of the mortality of Rome carries with it the unmistakable intimations and foreshadowings of the possible mortality of the American republic and the American state.

America has sustained its national unity remarkably – even amazingly – successfully through many traumas and tumults since 1865. But if it ever faltered, well, for all our modern technological progress, we’d rapidly discover that the old Roman maxims of statecraft and warcraft still obtained even after all these centuries.

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4 Comments so far ↓

  • Johnnnymac66

    I’ve lived all of my 51 years in Chicago. I learned world politics by reading Gigi Geyer, Evans & Novak, George Will, and many, many others. I learned Chicago politics by reading Mike Royko, Studs Terkel, and many others.
    For me, the tipping point with Evans came when he “outted” Valerie Plame, a crime I believe was treasonous. I wrote him and told him exactly that, and was not surprised when I received no response.
    From that point on, I’d glance at his columns, but never again believed anything in them.
    When Hunter Thompson would inject himself into the stories he was writing, it was funny. Outting an undercover CIA operative because of a personal grudge wasn’t at all funny.
    I still believe Robert Evans committed treason against the United States.

  • WaStateUrbanGOPer

    Novak comes off as a sort of American, Jewish-cum-Catholic verson of Evelyn Waugh: nasty, vindictive and palpably self loathing. But he wasn’t unpatriotic. Moreover, he was correct about the War on Terror and Iraq. Compare his foreign policy views to David Frum’s, and then tell me: who comes out looking better on the geopolitics of the past decade?

  • WaStateUrbanGOPer

    Oh, and by the way Frum, you’d fail your mother-in-law’s course, too: it’s ABC 20/20, not “NBC 20/20.”

  • lolapowers

    Mr Frum, I so wholeheartedly agree with you, Novak was indeed a dark soul !

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