Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of the West: The Death of the Roman Superpower (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2009) 531 pages Verdict?: 4/5 A compelling contribution in a closely-contested field.
Those of us interested in the fall of the Roman Empire have had a surfeit of riches over the last five years. In 2005 we had both Peter Heather's The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians and Bryan Ward-Perkins' The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization. Then last year we got James J. O'Donnell's The Ruin of the Roman Empire: A New History (reviewed here) and Christopher Kelly's The End of Empire: Attila the Hun and the Fall of Rome. So just when we could be forgiven for thinking that no more good books on the subject are likely to appear for a while, Roman history heavyweight Adrian Goldsworthy enters the ring with a 500+ page tome that goes the distance with all of the above.
Goldsworthy's book not only draws on the work of the other scholars mentioned, particularly Ward-Perkins, but it is also a counter and response to them as well, and he has Peter Heather in his sights in particular. Heather's book was the first major narrative history of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire seen for many years. The story he tells has all the elements of a ripping yarn - wars, court intrigues, barbarian invasions, battles, plots, assassinations - and, as an unabashed Germanicist myself, I could not help but be compelled by his emphasis on the centrality of the barbarian invasions in the whole affair even while never quite being convinced by his argument. Because Heather's version of the story, simply put, says the Empire did not crumble from within but was crushed from without. According to Heather, the Empire in the late Fourth Century was essentially strong, the Army large and highly effective and things were generally stable. But then the arrival of the Huns triggered a cascade of events that sent large, highly-militarised Germanic peoples crashing into the borders of the Empire. The Eastern half coped largely by diverting these people westward and so the West was eventually overwhelmed and collapsed.
Goldsworthy, however, is having none of this. Noting both Bryan Ward-Perkins and Heather's recent books he writes:
Each of these books is extremely good in its own way, but both are restricted in what was possible to cover. Neither makes much effort to link the empire of the fourth century to the earlier empire. Yet this connection needs to be made if we are to understand more fully what the Roman Empire was like and discern why it did eventually fall. (Goldsworthy, p.21)He then spends the best part of the first half of his book making precisely this connection and, in the process, calling into serious question the basis of Heather's argument: that the Empire of the Fourth Century was essentially stable, solid and secure.
The Calamitous Third Century or "Who's Emperor Now?"
One of the reasons Heather is able to present the Fourth Century as comparatively stable, solid and secure is that the Third Century was anything but. While Heather and Ward-Perkins both begin their accounts in the late Fourth Century, on the eve of the epoch-changing Battle of Adrianople, Goldsworthy takes his story all the way back to the death of Marcus Aurelius in AD 180. The accession of his feckless and, ultimately, disastrous son Commodus marked the end of the long period of peace and stability of the Antonine Dynasty and the beginning of almost one hundred years of civil war, usurpers, rebellions, fragmentation, and multiple emperors known as "the Crisis of the Third Century" or, more succinctly, "the Military Anarchy". Goldsworthy argues persuasively that what happened to the Western Empire in the Fifth Century can only be understood in the context of the turmoil of 200 years earlier.
And he tells the story of the turmoil well, while at the same time carefully laying the analytical foundations of the argument of the second half of his book. Things were already on a downward slide when Alexander Severus succeeded his bizarre, possibly insane and ultimately assassinated cousin Elagabalus in AD 222. But they went from bad to worse when he was challenged for the throne by Maximinus Thrax and then unceremoniously murdered in AD 235. What followed was pure chaos. In the next 20 years the Roman Empire was to have no less than 20 and possibly as many as 25 different emperors in rapid succession - often several at a time, which is why it is hard to pin down the actual number. In fact, this section of Goldsworthy's book becomes something of a bewildering succession of rising and falling emperors, with sometimes two or three succeeding to the purple only to be assassinated by the Praetorian Guard within a single paragraph.
By AD 258 the chaos had got to the point where the Roman Empire had broken into three independent pieces: the provinces of Gaul, Spain and Britain split from the Empire in the west while the provinces of Syria, Palestine and Egypt formed the "Palmyrene Kingdom" in the east, with the rump of Rome between the two. Aurelian managed to pull things back together during his five year reign before he too was assassinated. He was followed by no less than six more emperors in nine years before some measure of real stability was finally imposed by Diocletian.
As interesting as this rapid cavalcade of emperors, usurpers and assassinations is, Goldsworthy uses it to make pertinent points about the two centuries which followed and which led to the fall of the Empire. Firstly, he notes how barbarian invasions are a symptom of Roman weakness and instability, not a cause of it. Over and over again during the Third Century renewed bouts of Roman civil strife invited larger and deeper raids by barbarians over the Rhine and Danube. This culminated in the massive land and seaborne raids on the eastern Empire by large Gothic and Herulian warbands in the AD 260s that was only finally brought to an end by Claudius II Gothicus in AD 269. That this barbarian reaction to Roman weakness - the Empire was at the lowest ebb of the Third Century crisis at the time - is a clear prefigurement of the later barbarian incursions and settlements in the west in the Fifth Century is a point that Goldsworthy makes very clearly.
Secondly, he notes that the "reforms" which are often said to have stabilised the Empire and brought the "Military Anarchy" to an end actually weakened it in the long run. He points out that the Empire was and had always been a military dictatorship. Augustus had created it out of years of civil war by winning the struggle for military supremacy. But what he created was what Goldsworthy refers to as "a veiled monarchy". Though he was a military dictator who won control by force of arms, Augustus and his First and Second Century successors created a facade whereby they (and everyone else) pretended they ruled by consent, particularly by the consent of the Senate and the Senatorial class. In return, trusted Senators could receive relatively powerful (and rich) provincial governorships and other honours. The whole arrangement worked well and was in some ways inherently stable. The small number of Senators with any real power - ie ones who controlled rich provinces with large armies - could be carefully chosen and the remainder stayed in Rome where they could be carefully watched. The only major instability was the fact that while everyone was pretending that the emperors were not really kings, the whole idea of the succession to the throne-that-was-not-meant-to-be-a-throne was a murky one. Despite this, civil wars were rare in the first two centuries of the Empire and the whole system worked.
But when it broke down in the Third Century the veil was torn off and the Imperial system was exposed as the military dictatorship it had always been. So now it became clear that any Senator who could win the support of enough of the Army or, failing that, who could simply bribe the increasingly mercenary and predatory Praetorian Guard, could become emperor, albeit (in most cases) very briefly. All it took was a reverse in a foreign war against the resurgent Sassanid Persians or the increasingly bold Germanic barbarians and a usurper would appear or the Army or the Guard would mount an assassination and the whole process would repeat itself, seemingly on a shorter and shorter cycle of usurpation, civil war and anarchy.
This cycle became so intense that the primary goal of a Roman emperor was no longer wise rule and stability but mere survival. As the Third Century progressed changes were put in place - changes that were aimed solely at reducing the threat of usurpation. Senators were gradually excluded from military commands, since a Senator with a sizeable portion of the Army at his back was a usurper in waiting. But by giving more and more commands to the lower, equestrian order the emperors simply pushed the opportunity for usurpation down the Roman food chain and actually broadened the numbers of those who took it into their heads to jostle for the purple. The size, and therefore the garrisons, of the provinces were steadily reduced, since this left a governor of any given province with fewer troops with which to mount a challenge. But this in turn weakened the Empire militarily and strategically, since a governor no longer had the military force to deal with serious local threats himself. Incursions over the frontiers by barbarians increased in size and number and only the Emperor had the capacity to deal with them. Cities which had been unfortified for centuries began building walls for protection, both against barbarians and against the next cycle of civil wars.
So while these and similar changes - often called "reforms" - brought the Crisis to an end, Goldsworthy makes a strong case that in the longer run the Empire was weakened and that the seeds of the collapse of the Fifth Century were sown in the chaos of the Third.
The Fourth Century - Recovery?
Thus the greater stability of the Fourth Century, from the long reign of Diocletian onwards, is according to Goldsworthy, something of an illusion. The cycle of constant usurpation and assassination slowed, but it did not stop. The concentration of military power in the hands of the emperor meant civil wars were fewer, but the sheer size of the Empire meant there was always going to be a subordinate somewhere with sufficient troops to mount a challenge. Diocletian recognised that no emperor could protect himself by concentrating power in his hands and still rule a territory as large as Rome's effectively, so he created the tetrachy - four subordinate rulers to whom he could delegate authority and military power. While this seemed fine in theory, in practice the tetrarchs were soon at each others' throats and Diocletian had to come back from cultivating cabbages in retirement to restore order. Constantine solved that problem by eliminating his brother emperors and ruling alone, but his successors showed that it took a powerful and utterly ruthless individual to do this and before long the informal division of the Empire into eastern and western halves became increasingly formal and, eventually, permanent. By the end of the Fourth Century the Eastern and Western Empire were increasingly going their separate ways and this was always going to be bad news for the poorer and less populous West.
Goldsworthy is very cautious about making claims about things for which we have scanty evidence. Grandiose claims have been made about the economy of the later Roman Empire, for example. But he is careful to note that we simply do not have the data to draw any clear conclusions about the role of the economy in the collapse of the West because we simply do not have enough information. That said, it is clear that a divided Empire, however much more manageable it was in the short term, was always going to be less powerful and stable in the long run. And it was always likely that the less prosperous and less populated Western half was going to have the harder time bearing the burdens of a large army and expensive defences against external threats.
But Goldsworthy also makes it clear that the seeds of the final Fall were sown way back in the Third Century, took root in the supposed "recovery" of the less chaotic Fourth Century and bloomed into inevitable disaster in the calamitous Fifth Century. Because the reaction of the emperors of the Fourth Century to the upheaval of the previous era was to centre their rule around one thing: survival. The army was reorganised not simply to defend against invaders and to operate against the Persians, but also to do so without giving generals or provincial subordinates sufficient individual military power to mount a challenge for the purple. Likewise provinces became smaller not with a view to administrative efficiency (they vastly increased the local bureaucracies in fact), but to decrease the power of their administrators. So paranoid were Fourth Century emperors about usurpations that a mere hint of disloyalty could spark purges of whole families, informers and spies thrived on rumours and a good way to get rid of someone you disliked was to imply they had designs on the Imperial throne. Owning anything that so much as looked like Imperial regalia could get you killed, which led to some comical scenes where actual usurpers had to be robed in a cloak of patched-together purple military pennons or crowned with a lady's necklace because having the real items to hand would be too dangerous.
The other way the emperors insulated themselves from the threat of usurpation and assassination was by retreating physically. This not only meant emperors became increasingly remote figures in inaccessible courts, shielded by layers of courtiers, functionaries and court ceremonial and ritual, but also that by the early Fifth Century the Western Emperor had withdrawn to the well-defended but remote city of Ravenna and ran his dwindling Empire through powerful chamberlains and commanders-in-chief. It was only a matter of time before the Western Emperor increasingly became little more than a symbol and figurehead and the powers behind the throne became the real players.
Not with a Bang, But a Whimper
The final third of Goldsworthy's book tells the story of the end - the last 76 years of the Western Roman Empire when things began to unravel and then spiralled increasingly out of control until total collapse was inevitable. The narrative elements are familiar enough from other treatments of the story from Hodgkin to Heather - the irruption of the Vandals, Alans and Sueves over the frozen Rhine in the beginning of the century, the Visigoths and Burgundians going from settled federates to rebels to political players in their own right, the last desperate defence against Attila's raids, the abandonment of Britain and the loss of Africa and, finally, the deposition of little Romulus Augustulus. The strength of Goldsworthy's treatment lies in how he ties this accelerating spiral of loss of control to the trends that had their roots in the "Military Anarchy" of the Third Century.
With the Western Emperor now so insulated from potential usurpation that he was effectively politically marginalised, court functionaries and supreme commanders - the Magister Militae - battled for real power. That is, when they were not fending off the claims of a new wave of usurpers, who appeared to challenge for the dwindling power of a shrinking Western Empire. At several key points the West was too busy fighting civil wars to defend itself and all too often warbands of invaders - themselves usually fairly small - moved into territory unopposed. Some provinces were deliberately or effectively abandoned by the military, such as Britain and northern Gaul. In other cases warbands, such as that of Alaric, were preserved rather than crushed so as to use them as a cheap source of trained troops. Either way, the effect was slow but accelerating loss of territory which, once Africa was lost to a (small) band of Vandals, became impossible to reverse.
Goldsworthy also has some scorn for the idea that the later Western Roman Army was as large as some modern writers make out. He has little time for those who take the units listed in the famous Notitia Dignitatum at face value, arguing that this was simply an idealised listing of units that, by that stage, largely existed on paper. Here Goldsworthy the primarily military historian is worth paying some attention to:
He notes that territories which, according to the Notitia, should have been garrisoned with powerful elite units of comitatenses, such as Spain, are crossed and recrossed by barbarian warbands seemingly at will. The internal struggles of the Western Empire took up what real troops remained, as effective as they were, and the paper units of the Notitia could not defend Britain or retake Africa.At times, when reading descriptions by modern historians of warfare in this period, it is difficult to avoid the image of Hitler in his last days, planning grand offensives on a map with divisions that had long since ceased to exist. (Goldsworthy, pp. 289-90)
In the end the distractions of civil war and usurpation meant that an already weaker and poorer Western Empire was nibbled at its edges and then from within by barbarians, who had always taken advantage of Roman weakness. Finally the loss of territory meant there was no money and no army to hold even what was left together. The emperorship became so debased that the last puppets who held the title were barely worth deposing. Even the once coveted supreme military title of magister utriusquae militiae became not worth keeping - the Burgundian prince Gundobad rose to this rank, but gave it up to pursue royal power amongst his tribe instead. When the last emperor, the teenager Romulus Augustulus, was finally deposed he was considered so worthless and harmless that he was not even seen as worth killing. He was given a pension and sent to live with his relatives in the country. The once great Empire of the Romans no longer existed because no-one saw it as worth maintaining.
This is an excellent book and one, even though it comes after a succession of excellent books on the subject, that will be hard to top for some time to come. Leaving aside the fact that it is a fine narrative history, Goldworthy brings an outsider's eye to the period, coming to it without the assumptions of a Late Antiquity specialist. But as more of a specialist in the beginnings of the Empire, he brings an interesting perspective to its end. This book is both a reply and, at the same time an equal counterweight to Peter Heather's equally excellent work and I would encourage anyone who read, enjoyed and was convinced by either one to read the other. I think they would profit from the exercise.