The Fall of the West: the Death of the Roman Superpower
Peter Heather admires a compelling narrative of Rome’s western imperial collapse – but doubts that the empire really was in charge of its own destiny
Reviewed by: Peter Heather
Author: Adrian Goldsworthy
Publisher: Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price (RRP): £25
In The Fall of the West, Adrian Goldsworthy offers us his take on one of history’s perennials. From Gibbon onwards, the subject has exercised fascination, not least when the populations of more recent empires have felt that the roof was coming down around their ears. Hence books on the subject are currently selling well in America, a point of which Goldsworthy is entirely aware, offering some comments on potential lessons, especially for an American audience in his final chapters.
As you would expect from the writer of the highly successful biography of Julius Caesar, this is a well-crafted and well-written work. He tells his story of western imperial collapse through a narrative of emperors and their reigns, from Marcus Aurelius’s much reviled son Commodus in the late second century, down to Justinian in the sixth.
For Goldsworthy, Commodus’s reign marked the beginning of the in-fighting which would lead to imperial disaster, and Justinian’s failed attempts at reconquest demonstrate that the Roman imperial era was over. He also emphasises that imperial collapse marked a major watershed in European history, not a minor transformation as some revisionist views suggest.
It’s a clear vision and Goldsworthy tells it well, although his chosen genre does present a major problem. For the vast majority of this period, the density of narrative sources is very thin compared to the era of Caesar and Cicero. Sometimes you don’t really know what went on, and, even where you do, thin Roman chronicles reduce their protagonists to two-dimensional caricatures: brave or corrupt by turn. Nonetheless, Goldsworthy does as good a job as anyone might in generating a compelling narrative out of such unpromising materials.
He has a good eye for the best tales in the ancient stories and weaves these seamlessly into his narrative. He also takes every opportunity to add changes of pace.
I was very happy to learn that modern investigation of Dura Europus began with British troops digging in a machine gun. Equally skilful are his introductions of – necessary – analytical sections on cultural, governmental, and military developments in the Roman world of the period.
As a piece of writing all this is well done, but as historical analysis I don’t find it totally convincing. I am with him on the fall of empire marking a revolutionary change in European history. I’m also happy enough that late Roman politicians were corrupt, and that their empire was slow and inefficient. But for me all of this had been true of the early empire too.
Where I really part company with Goldsworthy is in his implicit proposition that Rome was in charge of its own destiny, and, had its politicians acted otherwise, things could have gone on indefinitely. To my mind this pays insufficient attention to broader contexts.
The Roman Empire was a Mediterranean-based state created when large parts of northern Europe had tiny populations organised in very small social units. By AD 1000, new agricultural regimes had generated massive population growth and accompanying socio-political transformation in the north, and – not surprisingly – Mediterranean domination of the European landmass has never proved possible since.
Against this background, the fall of Rome was a long-term inevitability, powered by economic developments entirely beyond the capacity of Roman politicians to control. Their actions had some influence on the when and the how of imperial collapse, but, even if I would be broadly more sympathetic towards them than Goldsworthy, all this is no more than a question of detail. Fundamentally, Rome’s fall from uniquely dominant superpower was dictated by forces beyond its control.