3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Not quite a Gibbon for our Time,
This review is from: The Fall Of The West: The Death Of The Roman Superpower: The Long, Slow Death of the Roman Superpower (Hardcover)
Adrian Goldsworthy's ambiguously titled history of the decline of the Roman Empire is a fine chronicle of the four centuries from Rome's zenith at the death of Marcus Aurelius, when it was the known world's sole and overwhelming superpower, to its collapse in the West and its diminution in the East to a mere rump state in the Balkans and Asia Minor, at the mercy of more powerful neighbours.
The 'West' in question is the Western Empire, which fell both politically and culturally, and fell absolutely. By the end of the sixth century there was little recognisably Roman of the inhabitants of its former lands. However, in the introduction and conclusion there's an explicit parallel with the current relative decline of the West, with particular reference to the US and UK, set against the rise of countries like China and India.
The big question underlying the book is 'why?', although most of the time the one being asked is 'how'. Only infrequently does Goldsworthy step back to consider the big picture: the great tide of events and the forces moving them. This is primarily a narrative of what happened.
It's a ferociously ambitious undertaking to fit it all into barely more than 400 pages, excluding appendices. That inevitably requires omissions. The Roman culture, lifestyle and economy are referenced but only briefly; the primary focus is on politics and the secondary is military - though these two frequently interlink. Even the main narrative can become confusing, particularly during periods of extreme instability when emperors and would-be emperors come and go with bewildering regularity, or when there are several at any one time.
Even so, Goldsworthy is at his strongest telling the story. He has to be because this is history with a purpose: to re-popularise the 'decline from within' theory as the principle cause of Rome's death and hence to refute the notion that it was pressure from outside that brought it about. He does so impressively, drawing on such evidence as we have or can reasonably deduce, while acknowledging that at times this is scarce or partial (in both senses).
Above all, he demonstrates the extent to which the threats of usurption, civil war and assassination forced emperors onto the defensive and made it far harder to govern effectively, to appoint capable administrators or to trust others with power; how the Roman army became first the prime focus of the state and then seemed to fight itself out of existence in internal conflict, to be replaced by hired (and unreliable) mercenary tribal warriors; how the sheer size of the empire made it close to invulnerable to external threats at a fundamental level but how that very invulnerability masked the growing weakness and rot in the army and bureaucracy; and how the justified paranoia of emperors and commanders ensured that external threats were always a secondary consideration to internal rivals, real or imagined.
Either as a single read or a reference source, it's a well-written history. I could make some quibbles - one family tree contradicts the text it refers to, Goldsworthy's repeated comments about his going against the grain of much academic opinion becomes a little grating, it's probably a bit too short - but overall a very good book within the context of what it tries to do in the space allowed. A Gibbon for our time? Not quite, but that's setting the bar very high. It's still a highly recommended read.
The Fall Of The West: The Death Of The Roman Superpower: The Long, Slow Death of the Roman Superpower(13 customer reviews)
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