Eugenia C. Kiesling
Review of Adrian
Goldsworthy, How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower. New Haven: Yale Univ.
Press, 2009. Pp. x, 531. ISBN 978-0-300-13719-4.
Anyone with time to kill and a desire to read an elegant and
complete narrative of the fate of the Roman Empire will naturally
turn to Gibbon's Decline and Fall. For the rest of us, there
is now Adrian Goldsworthy's immensely readable single-volume
"How did Rome fall?" is a difficult
question further complicated by incautious historians who indulge in
dubious contemporary parallels, but this historian is worthy of his
task. Goldsworthy's first book, The Roman
Army at War, 100 BC-AD 200, is a fine work of scholarship. Since then, he has produced
a remarkable array of books bringing intelligent
analysis to bear on Roman warfare
for a much wider public. How Rome Fell satisfies
the scholar's thirst for endnotes without daunting the dilettante.
No familiarity with Latin or Greek languages is required, and Goldsworthy
is careful in using the technical vocabulary of Roman government and
administration. The inevitable comparisons with present-day United
States are generally suggestions and adumbrations rather than
homilies or exercises in Schadenfreude.
Goldsworthy treats Rome's fall as the culmination of a long process
beginning with the death of Marcus Aurelius in A.D. 180 and ending
in the early seventh century with the reign of Justin II and the
appearance of Mohammad. In telling this complex story, he shapes
detailed accounts of emperors, pretenders, and their supporting
casts according to a few organizing themes.
One such theme is the place of contingency. Unlike Gibbon, who
famously saw the empire's fall as a natural consequence of its own
weight, Goldsworthy emphasizes contingent events and human choices,
not inexorable historical forces. For example, if the size of the
empire led to problems, it was also a source of strength. The Roman
Empire, at least in the East, was for many centuries too big to fail
(414). That no one wanted it to fail--a point worth further
reflection--was less a matter of chance than of effective Roman cultural expansion (35) in the fortunate absence of genuinely
Unsurprisingly, given Goldsworthy's expertise as a Roman military
historian, a second narrative thread is
constant warfare. Reading him makes one reconsider the notion of a
Pax Romana. Although the period examined saw long stretches
without serious foreign threats, few decades were free of civil war
(22). Emperors acquired their dominance by force and then devoted
their energies—and state resources—to often futile efforts to stave
off rivals. Each violent change of reign instilled greater
selfishness and deeper paranoia. Roman politics lost any pretence of
aiming at the public good rather than personal power: "At a basic
level the emperors and government officials of the Late Roman Empire
had forgotten what the empire was for. The wider interests of the
state—the Res Publica, or 'public thing', from which we get
our word 'Republic'—were secondary to their own personal success and
This tale of violence makes one wonder about the popularity of Roman
rule. Goldsworthy's remit does not encompass the experience of those
living in the cockpits of the struggle for dominance.
His laconic "many suffered; a few probably profited" (142) refers
apparently to the financial consequences of civil war. But the
inimitable question posed in Monty Python's Life of Brian,
the Romans ever done for us?" takes on new resonance in a context
not of peace but of civil wars that spent revenues that might
have gone toward the "sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public
order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health"
often seen as compensating for Roman rule. There is an unexplored
tension between Goldsworthy's description of the increasing
self-interest of the late empire and his insistence on that empire's
popularity. Constant war may have left the empire ungoverned, yet
"people wanted to be Roman and associated freedom with belonging to
the empire and not independence from it" (16). But what price did
imperial citizens pay for the privilege of being fought over? Did they
think that price reasonable or could they simply not imagine
a different world? Was the government less defective than
Goldsworthy asserts? He draws no comparisons here between Roman and
modern societies, but the reader's mind wanders in that direction.
Besides contingency and civil war, a third theme is a healthy
skepticism concerning (especially, single-theory) explanations of
the fall of Rome. We do not, Goldsworthy claims, have compelling
evidence that the Sassanid Persians posed a more dangerous threat
than their Parthian predecessors (406). The barbarians of the fifth
century were conquerors, not raiders. Speculations about
Roman economic decline draw on thin and ambiguous evidence (408).
Lead poisoning in the Roman elite goes unmentioned, and Goldsworthy
does not follow Gibbon in blaming Christianity for eroding Rome's
traditional political virtues.
Instead of theorizing about the fall, Goldsworthy simply offers an intelligently crafted narrative history. Central, of course, is the
chronicle of the careers of emperors, but in each chapter
he avoids a monotonous litany of
civil wars by exploring pertinent aspects of the larger story. Thus,
the chapter on Commodus and Septimius Severus is also a handy
briefing on the Roman army. One meets Caracalla and Geta in a
chapter, appropriately titled "Roman Women," examining the power of
mothers and grandmothers over boy emperors. Later chapters treat,
among other subjects, Rome's relations with the Parthians, changes
in the Roman economy, the absorption of barbarians into Roman
territory, and the impact of Christianity.
Those who have read Goldsworthy's earlier work may be surprised that
he says so little about actual fighting in this book, but he gives as much operational detail as the sources and the
balance of the narrative allow. Many will be relieved that lack of
evidence precludes a blow-by-blow account of a hundred or so civil
Although the story of repeated civil war is only occasionally
varied by an emperor dying in bed, Goldsworthy's prose keeps
one's attention. In a lesser writer, a single brief paragraph moving
from the ornate nature of imperial dress through the size of the
imperial bureaucracy to official depredations against the populace
might seem a collection of non-sequiturs, but here it suggests
craftsmanship. In short, How Rome Fell is a pleasure to read.
True to its origin as a paper delivered at a symposium on
grand strategy sponsored by U.S. Office of Net Assessment, the book concludes with a few thoughts about contemporary
America in an "Epilogue--An Even Simpler Moral." While
Goldsworthy asserts that
Rome and the United States are very different places and
eschews simplistic parallels and bleak predictions, one cannot read his observations about
Americans' expanding national institutions and diminishing sense of
public commitment without recalling ancient Rome and shuddering.
U.S. Military Academy, West Point
 Oxford: Clarendon Pr, 1996--based on his 1994
Oxford D.Phil. thesis.
 Orion Pictures 1979, dir. Terry Jones.