Friday, February 11, 2011
The Fall of the West: A Review
Anything by Goldsworthy about Roman history is worth reading and this book is no exception. My paperback weighed in at a hefty 531 pages. He starts with the death of Marcus Aurelius in A.D. 180 and finishes with the overrunning of much of the Eastern Empire by the Arabs in the 7th century.
In between he gives an economical narrative of events interspersed with discussions of the social, economic, political, military and religious threads that weave through the narrative. He approaches every theory about why Rome fell, examines the sources, the arguments and the evidence and then draws his conclusions.
Of course I think I like this book because it agrees with me. Goldsworthy argues that there was no one single cause for the fall of the Western Empire, but it did indeed fall (some argue for a more peaceful transition from the ancient to the medieval world). It was just a long, slow and painful process because the Empire was so darn big. It's bigness was both a strength and a weakness.
No barbarian group could hope to defeat the Empire and overthrow it because even in the 5th century it was just too big, but on the other hand the very size of the Empire made it very hard to control and react with any efficiency. Economic, demographic and military difficulties however all combined to eventually undermine the structure and leave it vulnerable. After the civil wars of the 3rd century the Roman Emperors were increasingly concerned with survival and defeating rivals for power. All of this exhausted Imperial resources and as barbarian groups were settled in the Empire to provide troops to support one faction or another they took Imperial land out of the tax base, further weakening the Empire in the long-term in exchange for a short term military advantage.
He also observes that the removal of the Emperors from Rome and increased reliance on barbarian warlords and equestrians rather than the senatorial class also caused long-term problems. The senators, being a small group were easier to know and control. But by elevating the equestrians and warlords the Emperors actually gave impetus to a larger pool of potential rivals, causing an increase in usurpers and civil war.
The barbarians may have murdered the Empire, but they found a victim already weakened by its own internal political, economic and social problems. Many of these problems seem to have been caused by inherent human short-sightedness and stupidity.
So if you only read one history of the later Empire, this is the one to get.