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Stimulating big picture history of the rise and fall of empire
on 2 December 2012
If you want a highly readable and erudite race through the history of Rome, with thoughtful analysis of the main issues, then this is your book. The focus is on how Roman political and social institutions - the imperial project, the aristocracy, slavery, the city and family - adapted and interacted through the centuries. The Emperors and famous names are there, but Woolf concentrates on the big picture, with a refreshing confidence and a consistent engagement with the major problems of each era. He shows how radically different the empire was by late antiquity (the fourth and fifth centuries), due to long term changes, largely unplanned, both internally and externally.
As to why the Western Empire collapsed in the fifth century, Woolf's answer is fundamentally similar to that of Gibbon, who blamed the rise of Christianity for sapping the Roman imperial will to rule, though with a sophisticated twist. He sees 'Rome's genius - or good fortune - [being its] ability to recover from crisis after crisis' until the last one. He dismisses modish theories of some sort of epidemiological or climactic disaster, and claims that the external environment was broadly unchanged. This is at odds with those such as Peter Heather who put Rome's fall down to the rise of much more powerful and united barbarian 'super-groups' such as the Goths, Vandals and the Huns. Woolf also argues strongly against those who claim that there was no fall, only a transformation, with Roman leaders being replaced by Germanic ones. While rural lifestyles may not have been as radically affected by the end of empire as urban lifestyles (which all but disappeared in the west), life expectancy and the quality of consumer goods for all classes dropped dramatically from 400. City, elite, artistic, military and fiscal systems changed utterly and fairly rapidly in the fifth century. Indeed, Roman levels of sophistication and material ease in all of these areas - for the poor as well as the rich - were not surpassed in Europe until the Renaissance or later.
Woolf looks to the lack of unity in the empire as the key cause of collapse. This was certainly pervasive, as each region started to go its separate way, while the gap between classes and the state opened up calamitously. Behind this Woolf sees a failure of a common ideology, caused by the rise of Christianity, which dared to ask the question, 'why should the good of the Empire be our ultimate common purpose?' This new universal religion undermined the unifying ethos and moral authority of the Western Empire, destroying the basis of loyalty to a remote Imperial centre - which was in any case failing to provide sufficient military protection against barbarian raids. This argument is convincing, except for the fact that the Eastern Empire, remoulded around Christianity (and assisted by better natural defences), persisted for a further thousand years.