The decline and fall of the Roman Empire began to haunt the West’s imagination many centuries before Gibbon’s masterpiece immortalized the phrase.  Indeed, it is hard not to agree with Fried­rich Heer’s judgment that every European empire since Char­le­magne’s time—the Holy Roman Empire, Czarist Russia, Napoleonic France, Hitler’s and Stalin’s failed experiments—was a conscious attempt to recreate the empire that to this day symbolizes a Western unity that not only subsumes the national quarrels between France and England and Spain but even links Rome with Athens and Moscow.

By a well-known “irony” Gibbon published the first volume of his work in 1776, the year in which the Americans’ declaration of independence supposedly signified the first real liberation from the heritage of ancient Rome.  This notion—put forth by Noah Webster among other democratists—was utter nonsense.  Most of the so-called founders were classically trained, and Jefferson went to his grave convinced that only ancient poetry was worth reading.  Jefferson, Adams, and Madison, to name only three, thought a great deal about the lessons taught by democratic Athens and imperial Rome.  It did not take even a century for Lincoln to imagine he was great Caesar’s ghost, and it took only a bit more than two centuries for Latin-less neoconservatives to begin prating of the new imperium, without even understanding the meaning of the word, much less the thing.

Gibbon is still read by everyone with the slightest pretension to understanding history—both ancient and modern—and in the 20th century, J.B. Bury provided his text with notes correcting and amplifying the original, and Bury’s edition has itself received further editorial amplification.  Bury also wrote a readable History of the Later Roman Empire, and in 1964 A.H.M. Jones produced a comprehensive study, The Later Roman Empire, 284-602, aimed more at professional than at common readers.  One might have thought the need for such a book had been fulfilled and the market saturated, but useful scholarly studies of the past several decades have kept the subject alive, if only by the proliferation of controversies—both the old controversy over why Rome fell and newer controversies over the consequences.  Some historians (e.g., Walter Goffart) have argued famously, if not convincingly, that the period from roughly a.d. 450 to 700 was more of a gradual transition than a violent rupture, and some Catholic medievalists have written in a chipper fashion about the glories of the early Middle Ages, which they can thank their God they did not have to endure.  Ask Martin of Tours about the Franks and Paul the Deacon about the Lombards, and their answers will make your flesh creep.

There has been so much recent and interesting work that I took up Adrian Golds­worthy’s The Fall of Rome with pleasant anticipation, hoping to find that combination of narrative clarity and scholarly depth that is so often attributed to him in the popular press—though, having read some of his previous works, including his superficial hagiography of Julius Caesar, there was almost as much trepidation as pleasure in the anticipation.  In the event, this new book proved to be neither as good as I hoped nor as bad as I feared, which makes it a useful addition to the library of anyone interested in ancient history.

Goldsworthy’s specialty is military history, and, while I am not really competent to judge, his exposition of the changes in the Roman military system is lucid and helpful.  For the rest, he provides a coherent and often brisk account of the later Roman Empire, though he has little to add to what interested readers already know, if they have read Gibbon and Jones.

In some respects, Goldsworthy is inferior to his predecessors.  He seems to have little grasp of or even interest in the literature of late antiquity, and where he does bring up a text, such as the life of Saint Severinus, it is almost always one that has been thoroughly milked by predecessors—in this case, by Peter Heather.  His failure to understand Augustine and Ambrose, Claudian and Symmachus, Libanius and Julian—to mention only six out of perhaps a hundred names—deprives his work of the richness and depth that can only be reached by a firsthand grappling with ancient minds.

Literature is not the only gap in Golds­worthy’s interest.  He appears to know next to nothing of the religious and intellectual movement that took over the empire: Christianity.  In the modern writer, Gibbon’s hatred of the Faith has cooled down to a mildly contemptuous indifference, which in itself would not matter much, if he had taken the trouble to understand what Christians believed and why they argued over the nature of the Trinity or the limits of penitence.  If Cyril of Alexandria were nothing more than a scheming troublemaker, his influence on his own and subsequent generations is hard to understand.  Goldsworthy is no better, alas, on the pagans.  In his brief description of Julian’s attempted restoration of paganism, he fails even to hint at how Neoplatonism, one of the most splendid intellectual achievements of late antiquity, was corrupted and hijacked by theurgists (magical operators) envious of the Christian success.  Far from being the personal faith that Golds­worthy describes, Julian’s religion was only a stage in a development of magical Neoplatonism that stretches from Iamblichus to Plethon and beyond.

Though reviewers have praised Goldsworthy repeatedly for his effective narrative style, the praise is grossly exaggerated.  How Rome Fell is puffed out with needless repetitions and pedestrian generalizations that contribute little to the entertainment or edification of the reader.  The style itself is flaccid and sloppy, and the weary reader will find himself longing for Jones’ pedantic clarity, to say nothing of the sensuous, almost Proustian beauty of Gibbon.  Yale needs to hire a competent editor.

Picking up a book entitled How Rome Fell, I expected to read, in its 560 pages, a detailed account of the Roman West from the time of Theodosius to the effortless coup staged by Odovacer in 476.  Instead, I found a rather hurried survey of late antiquity, sketched out from the point of view of the West.  This meant not only that scant attention was paid to the careers of major figures like Stilicho, Aëtius, and Majorian, but that the Eastern Empire, where real power was exercised, almost disappears from view.

Why, then, did Rome fall?  To his credit, Goldsworthy pays little attention to Gibbon’s crank theory that Christianity is to blame.  To other, more reasonable explanations, such as Germanic population growth or the overcentralization of the empire in response to crisis, he gives more credit, but the subject does not seem to interest him much.  Racing over the two centuries from the death of Marcus Aurelius to the deposition of Rom­ulus Augustulus, he gets to the end and says, in essence, That’s all, folks.  No empire lasts forever, not the Roman and not the American—a curious ending for a work that began with a disclaimer about such misleading historical parallels.

How Rome Fell is not at all a bad book by the standards of the 21st century, but the superficial analysis, slapdash composition, and shoddy editing reveal, unintentionally, how far into our own Dark Age we have already gone.


[How Rome Fell, by Adrian Goldsworthy (New Haven: Yale University Press) 560 pp., $32.50]