In this book first published in 1986, Arther Ferrill looks mainly at the military causes for the Fall of the Roman Empire, while acknowledging that there were other causes as well, in particular economis causes such as the loss of Africa. While some of this books points and conclusions have been disputed and need to be qualified - the impact of "Germanisation" of the "Roman" army in particular - this book is still a fascinating read which is regularly cited in more recent works because it has many strong points.
To begin with, it was one of the first books to look for the causes of the Fall over a long period, beyond and before the disaster of Hadrianople. The book starts with the aftermath of the III century crisis and with Diocletian and his reforms. This is probably what inspired Heather to start his own story of the Fall of Rome around AD 300.
Second, at the end of most chapters, the author has a very interesting section summarizing the state of the army at the end of the period - in other words, the changes, decline or recovery and morale of the armed forces are tracked across the period.
Third, while Ferrill does mention the crises and defeats on the frontiers with Julian's catastrophic Persian War and the disaster of Hadrianople, and their impact on the army's morale and performances, he also shows that by the death of Theodosius I in 395, the Army of the West had been seriously weakened after having suffered 3 defeats from the Army of East within a short period of 7 years, although it had been the strongest during most of the fourth century. This is probably the most important contribution of the whole book, although it may need to be qualified a bit.
Ferrill's view about Stilicho may be a bit controversial. He presents the general as responsible for massively "barbarizing" the army, that is recruiting large numbers of barbarian warriors that fought in their own style and under their own chiefs rather than being incorporated into the regular army, trained as roman soldiers and serving under roman (or at least romanized) officers. In fairness, and as shown by Ian Hughes more recent biography od Stilicho, he hardly had the choice.
This is where the book has somewhat aged and needs to be completed by a political analysis. To be able to rebuilt the strength in numbers through recruiting and quality through training of the troops, Stilicho essentially needed time. Since he needed the support of the Senate and these "super-rich" landlords were unwilling to let him conscript Romans from their lands and almost as unwilling to pay for the defense of the Empire, his choices were rather limited. He needed to hire Germanic soldiers and he needed time to train them and convert them into "roman" soldiers. Even there, however, at least some in the Senate opposed his "barbarization" of the army.
More generally, he hardly ever was given the time and the financial resources he needed to thoroughly reform and upgrade the army. He had to rush to address one crisis after another with dwindling resources. Every time a crisis came up, he had to strip some of the frontier zones of troops to address the emergency. Also, and because of manpower shortages, he simply could not afford a defeat so that pitched battles had to avoided as much as possible and less decisive guerilla warfare, raids and blockades used instead.
Two other strong points of this excellent book:
- even after the death of Stilicho, all was not lost, and the Western Empire recovered somewhat under Constantius and then under Aetius
- a major - and financially fatal - blow to the Empire was the loss of Africa. This point is also taken up and explained in more detail in "The Rome that did not Fall" as one of the main elements explaining why the West fell, but the East endured.
All in all, still a superb read...
on 3 February 2004
Some may know that the fall of the Roman Empire was not a very simple or short event, but this book covers every event in extremely useful detail for one studying the Roman Empire. The books covers the involvement of the barbarians from the crossing of the Danube, to the time where the Ostrogoth King Odovacer sat on the throne in Rome.
The auther also points out the other factors involved in the fall of the Empire, such as the economic problems the government was going through, the degeneration of the Roman military forces, the corruption and rebellion of Roman Generals, the negative and positive affects of leadership and relationships within the empire. It also covers the minor role that religion played during the fall.
All in all this book is devoted to the fall of one of the greatest empires that was ever created, by discussing all of the factors related to the fall, this book must be read by those who are interested in the Roman Empire.
on 11 December 2004
This is a useful book, the author puts forward his idea that the Germans were recruited in such large numbers by the Western empire that they in fact changed it from a Roman to a German outlook. For example the field army units would not use their helmets, the pilum was replaced, and the standard of drill declined. The author strongly holds to the view that Stilicho only called on his German units, with the result that the the more Roman units went to seed!
Get this book.
on 1 March 2012
I read a book in the 70s (the excellent "Unless Peace Comes") in which the author reminded us that when a civilisation ends, an empire falls or a man loses everything then for that civilisation, empire or man it literally is the end of the world. For the Poles I grew up around, the Poland they knew ceased to exist on September 17th when the Soviets invaded a Poland engaged in a struggle for survival with the Nazis. The Poland that came into existence after the war was a totally different one without its Jewish element, with its borders moved westwards so that for those from the East there was no longer a Polish home, and freedoms were curtailed. I grew up in a world where we lived constantly in fear of nuclear holocaust (the Cuban Missile Crisis and Reagan's administration were real lows) and today we have the economic disaster and the threat of Peak Oil, energy resources running out and climate change!
Small wonder I love Apocalyptic and dystopic fiction - they're like primers for the world to come!
Arther Ferrill reminds us, right at the beginning of this book, that the fall of the Roman Empire was the end of civilisation: "...there was one respect in which they excelled without question... That was in the creation of a basic standard of living that remains a marvel in the history of western civilisation. Unlike most living before or since, until very recent times, the inhabitants of the Roman Empire had ample supplies of fresh water for drinking and bathing, often transported hundreds of miles in the famous systems of aqueducts.... The fact is that Romans did bathe, in elaborate, publicly supported, heated baths, found all over the Roman Empire from Hadrian's Wall to the Greek East. That alone makes them nearly unique in western history..." You would struggle to find another empire that lasted as long!
Ferrill then goes on to analyse the causes of the fall. He reminds us of the various theories from Gibbons' "Decline and Fall" through to modern analysis. He points out that many theories, about economic collapse, bureaucracy, decadence and political inadequacy, of an Empire tottering "into its grave from senile decay, impelled by a gentle push from the barbarians" are not sufficient. The Roman world spread from the North of England to the deserts of Syria, from the Danube to the Atlas Mountains. The flaws and faults historians have identified apply to the totality of this world, yet it is the West that fell (in less than a lifetime!) - the East continued to thrive and survive for almost another thousand years!
In the end, Ferrill points out, the West fell because it was invaded by the barbarians and could not adequately defend itself. It fell because of the destruction of Roman military power. Ferrill goes on to analyse this decline in the Roman military machine - the most powerful fighting force until the Napoleonic era. And what a fascinating tale unfolds. Ferrill loves his subject and covers it in an interesting and, most of the time, very clear fashion. We watch enthralled as decisions are made and revealed as stepping-stones to doom - politicians and generals, seeking power, turn on themselves and, in the process, destroy everything. Decisions are made whose ramifications will, in the distant future, prove disastrous.
This is good stuff. Short, succinct, informed. It rings alarm bells! Power-seeking politicians always make short-term decisions. The sheep are herded into the slaughterhouse unaware of the fate that awaits them. And who can blame them? The Polish Jews and Christians walked in the streets of Warsaw, Krakow and Lwow on the 31st of August, 1939, without a real care in the world.... just as we walk ours