Monday, March 16, 2009

The Fall of the Roman Empire: The Military Explanation by Arther Ferrill

Arther Ferrill, Fall of the Roman Empire: The Military Explanation
(Thames & Hudson Ltd: 1986) 192 Pages

Verdict?: A failed thesis. 1/5

On the whole Ferrill's book is a useful resource as a summary of the major events in the collapse of the Western Empire, but the central thesis of Ferrill's work and his final conclusion are both very weak. Ferrill dismisses the longer term economic and administrative failings of the Western Empire, but does so without actually discussing them. He says that to see the later Empire "as a troubled giant .... a decaying Empire .... is to miss the point." (p.164) but he doesn't explain why. In fact, the long term problems of inflation, a declining population and a shrinking tax base, along with a widening gap between rich and poor in the West and a spiralling trend towards ruralisation of the population all combined and accelerated slowly over a long period between the reign of Diocletian and 476 AD.

What we conspicuously don't see in this period is any major military defeats of the Roman army by barbarian invaders. When the weakening, fragmenting and economically anaemic Western Empire is confronted by a military threat in this period it usually defeats it - at least for as long as the failing economy and collapsing administration is still able to organise armed resistance.

The fall of the West was an economic and administrative failing - battles and tactics had virtually nothing to do with it.

But Ferrill simply dismisses all this as "missing the point" without a word of explanation as to why all these highly significant factors are completely irrelevant. He simply tells us they are - end of story.

He writes:

"Many historians have argued .... that the fall of Rome was not primarily a military phenomenon. In fact, it was exactly that. After 410 the emperor in the West could no longer project military power to the frontiers."
(p. 164)

This is quite true, but what Ferrill skips lightly over is the reason for this - the depopulated and cash-strapped Western Empire, having fought five civil wars in the last century and wracked by political instability, was simply in no position to field the armies it needed to protect the border provinces. It's not as though outdated Roman armies were being tackled and beaten by superior barbarian forces. The armies weren't withdrawing after being routed on battlefields by overwhelming or tactically superior Germanic troops. The Empire simply couldn't maintain its centralised military infrastructure any more because it didn't have the manpower or the cash to do so.

Ferrill acknowledges that this so-called "military" collapse, strangely enough, didn't actually involved many battles or any major defeats, but he's not deterred:

"One need not produce a string of decisive battles in order to demonstrate a military collapse. The shrinkage of the imperial frontiers from 410 to 440 was directly as a result of military conquests by barbarian forces."
(p. 164)

Though these "military conquests by barbarian forces" occurred, strangely enough, without any decisive battles. The truth is the barbarians moved, usually without major opposition, into areas that the dwindling and economically starved Roman army had already abandoned or which it could no longer defend in strength. Their "invasions" - actually very small in number - were a symptom of the decline of the Roman army and the economic and administrative decline of the West, not its cause.

Ferrill asserts otherwise, with great boldness. But, again, he doesn't tell us why - he just tell us.

"To be sure, the loss of strategic resources, money, material and manpower compounded the mere loss of territory and made military defence of the rest of the Empire even more difficult. It is simply perverse, however, to argue that Rome's strategic problems in the 440s, 50s and 60s were primarily the result of financial and political difficulties or of long term trends such as depopulation."
(pp. 164-65)

Why is this quite reasonable and sensible conclusion "simply perverse"? Ferrill doesn't tell us, he just says it is.

He goes on to argue that any explanation of the fall of the West has to take into account the survival of the East - which is very true - and seems to believe that this is an argument against the "simply perverse" idea that systemic and economic problems were the real causes. In fact, the East always had a far greater population and a massive concentration of the whole Empire's wealth. The division of 395 made this disparity worse, giving the West more to defend and far less resources with which to do it. Further weakened by civil wars, local warlords and a string of weak or shortsighted rulers, it's actually amazing the West struggled on for as long as it did. So it's very clear why the East survived while the West fell.

Ferrill continually acknowledges key points in the real reasons for the fall of the West without acknowledging (or grasping) their significance. In discussing what the West did wrong while the East got right, he says the East "was better able to afford the heavy subsidies barbarian leaders demanded in the years after Adrianople" (p 166). But he fails to see why this is the case - because the East was far wealthier than the West. This was not a military factor, and it certainly had nothing to do with equipment, training or tactics - it is purely economic. The East was able to pay Attila off for years and then, when he became too much of a nuisance, refuse to pay him anymore. The Hunnic king then decided to make up for his lost revenue by attacking the West, since the more impoverished half of the Empire made an easier target than the still relatively rich and strong East.

Similarly, the East were able to pay off and deflect a succession of potential barbarian problems, usually getting them to afflict the increasingly weak and fragmented West. Ferrill briefly acknowledges the East's significant economic strength, but then ignores it to pursue his ghostly theory of military explanations.

Without giving any good reasons for setting aside significant and relevant factors in the decline of the West such as economics and depopulation, Ferrill blithely declares that they can, indeed, be set aside. But not before lumping them in with "race mixture .... lead poisoning and other fashionable theories" (p. 166), which is a pretty shoddy piece of rhetorical trickery.

He goes on to argue that the real reasons for the fall of the West was a deterioration of the Western Roman Army - not the decline in the infrastructure and recruitment which sustained the army, as I've argued above, but a decline in the tactics, training and quality of the troops.

For the decline in training he relies almost entirely on Vegetius' problematic manual and on a highly dubious report from Jordanes of a pre-battle speech by Attila about the quality of Roman troops. And for the decline in the quality of the troops he simply points to the "barbarisation" of the army and takes it as given that this meant the troops were therefore of low quality. Again, Hugh Elton shows the flaws in this idea. As he argues, the use of barbarian troops had been going on in the Roman army for centuries and continued in both the East and the West in this period. So why did this practice suddenly cause a decline in quality in the West in the Fifth Century?

Secondly, most of the barbarian troops used in the West weren't part of the regular units anyway - they were federate bands hired for specific campaigns or to defend particular territories. Their use and significance certainly did increase as the Fifth Century progressed, but largely for the very economic and administrative problems that Ferrill is so keen to dismiss. So, once again, we aren't seeing a "military explanation" - we're seeing the result of longer term, systemic economic and social weakness.

Ferrill's final sentence reads: "As the western army became barbarised, it lost its tactical superiority, and Rome fell to the onrush of barbarism". This is nonsense. There was no loss of "tactical superiority" - whenever the ailing Western Empire could field a decent sized army it won hands down. In fact the military history of the fall of the Western Empire is a string of Roman victories and barbarian defeats. It's the economic and administrative history of the West in this period which is the tale of woe and its the weaknesses here which robbed the Empire of its ability to field and maintain those armies and led, eventually, to its economic and administrative fragmentation and its eventual political collapse.

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