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Customer Review

on November 1, 2009
I take issue with and agree with some of the other reviews in about equal measure. I agree with a previous reviewer that calling this book the Fall of the West is somewhat misleading - and I suspect that the editors are to blame for this, because when one reads Goldsworthy's introduction is is quite clear that he is not purporting to cover just the fall of the West (likewise misleading - as a second reviewer notes - is the title's reference to "superpower", inviting a parallel with the US which the introduction expressly disavows). The point re "Fall of the West" links with a third reviewer's comment: "Why not just read Peter Heather?". Again the answer is to be found in the introduction - and actually again and again throughout the text - Heather starts later and really does deal with the fall per se; what Goldsworthy is aiming to do is something quite different. Indeed this book is in part designed as a riposte to Heather who starts his story in 376 and posits as his starting point a strong Empire which falls from that date. Goldsworthy's central point (which I think he makes very well indeed) is that the academic retreat from the picture given by Gibbon of a long decline predating the fall of the Roman Empire has been overdone. Yes, the Empire was strong in the C4 compared to most of the individual threats, but it was not the same empire that it had been 2 centuries earlier (and in fact if it had been a number of those threats might not have emerged). So if (like me) you read Heather and thought "Oh, so Gibbon was all wrong then?", do read this!!
Goldsworthy of course really is a military historian, and his strength in making his point lies in the military assessments - from the changes in locations and types of towns (from fortified pre Rome, to open in the apogee back to fortified as the decline progresses- through the organisation of the forces, the assessment of individual battles and what one can infer from the results, and indeed the troop deployments; through to (my personal favourite) his rubbishing of the paper strength of the Roman army in the "Notitia Dignitatum" - which is rounded off with a devastating parallel to Hitler's notional divisions towards the end of WWII.
As with previous books Goldsworthy really does write well - a very good engaging style, with no excessive stylistic tricks, and maintains a very strong narrative flow - which when one deals with the declining years of the Eastern and Western Empires is no mean feat!
It is not faultless however. Aside from the overbroad promise implied by the title, the linking passages (which are quasi Gibbon, quasi Norwich) are not really incisive, nor do they convey any real sense of analysis or commitment. It may be for this reason that the only howlers I have found are in the linking/chronological sections (NB readers - and if it is not too late editors of the paperback edn!) (1) the family tree of Valentinian/Theodosius is wrong: Theodosius II is the brother of Pulcheria and son of Arcadius (not the grandson of Galla Placidia!!) and (2) in the index the Eudoxia at p 293 is the mother of Theodosius II, and should not appear in the same entry as Eudoxia the wife of Theodosius II. (I know, I know, I should get a life!)
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