Why do empires fall?  Nearly everyone has a theory.  Some focus on external challenges.  For example, the Soviet Union collapsed under the pressure of the arms race that Ronald Reagan heated up; the British were forced out of India by Gandhi and by the rising tide of Indian nationalism.  Others seek the cause in the changing character of the people: The tired and cynical Soviet and British elites had lost the will to rule.  Still others look at economic factors: The Soviet empire strangled itself with its economic inefficiency; the Brits were losing money maintaining their subcontinental fiefdom.

The fall of the Roman Empire in the West has been interpreted through every imaginable variety of theoretical approach, from Gibbon, who blamed the Christians; to A.H.M. Jones, who attributed the empire’s collapse to inflation, declining agriculture, and a general economic deterioration; to Walter Goffart, who imagined there was no real collapse but only a gentle transition.  Peter Heather, the most recent Roman historian to enter the lists, annihilates Gibbon’s argument, pointing out that the economic resources used to build churches were not transferred from the military budget but from monies used to build and refurbish pagan temples.  Gibbon’s other argument, that talented men devoted themselves to religion instead of the empire, would apply only to a tiny handful (who, in any case, might have entered the bureaucracy and not the army).  He is almost equally dismissive of the fashionable attempt to portray the collapse as a benign transition, and, although he takes Jones’ economic analysis very seriously, he sees it only as one of several causes.

The primary cause, Heather argues, is simply the barbarians themselves.  The revived Persian Empire under the Sassanian dynasty put tremendous pressure on the empire to defend its eastern frontier.  At virtually the same time, German improvements in agriculture enabled them to increase their population—as well as their pressure upon the frontier—and encouraged the formation of larger and more formidable confederations such as the Allemani, the Visigoths, and the Franks.  To make matters worse, the Huns succeeded in uniting their divided tribes while coopting the fighting forces of the Germanic and Iranian peoples they subjugated.

As the Romans lost North Africa to the Vandals and Spain to the Visigoths and Burgundians, the decline in tax revenues limited the size of their field armies and the effectiveness of their military response to each barbarian invasion.  Some provincial Roman landowners were willing to strike bargains with the invaders so long as they could secure at least a good chunk of their holdings, while even the most patriotic Roman generals had to make deals with the enemy, hiring the Huns as mercenaries (as Aetius, the last of the Romans, did) or acknowledging the political pretensions of barbarian commanders who came to play a key role in settling the western empire.  Ricimer had been more or less a Roman, but Odovacar, a prince of the Sciri, eventually grew tired of playing games with Roman puppets and, with the backing of the Roman senate, had himself acknowledged patrician by Constantinople and sent poor Romulus Augustulus packing.

Heather makes effective use of sources to clinch his argument, though his book suffers from a good deal of unnecessary repetition and beating about the bush.  He tries very hard to persuade the reader that he really does not think the Romans were better than the barbarians, though I (to his credit) am not convinced by his protestations.  His book, which is aimed at a popular audience, is never dull, though not every reader will be charmed by his breezy style or by his ungainly sentences studded with clichés lifted from pop culture.  A corruption crisis in Lepcis Magna becomes, inevitably, Lepcisgate, and nearly every page has some bit of irreverent slang that verges on malapropism.  Oh, for the days when ancient historians were fuddy-duddies who had at least glanced at The King’s English.

These quibbles aside, I strongly recommend The Fall of the Roman Empire.  As the author of books on both Goths and Huns, Heather knows his barbarians as well as he knows the empire they toppled.  He has a deft way of handling the evidence without pushing a thesis beyond credibility, and he shows a fairness and insight into characters as diverse as Attila and Geiseric, Valens and Flavius Constantius that betray the instincts of a novelist.

One caveat: Readers should avoid the conclusion, which argues—quite out of the blue—that the Romans, with their policy of constant aggression against the Germans, brought it all on themselves.  “By virtue of its unbounded aggression, Roman imperialism was ultimately responsible for its own destruction.”  This conclusion, although it is cited inevitably by blurb writers and reviewers, has a modicum of truth in it.  All empires, including our own, sow the seeds of their own destruction.  However, the Roman Empire was not especially aggressive.  It grew partly in response to threats and challenges and partly (especially during the late republic) as the result of wars initiated by commanders in search of glory, booty, and power.  Like all imperial powers, Rome engaged in wars of conquest, the worst of which was Caesar’s rampage through Gaul.  However, most of the empire’s campaigns against the Germans were in response to aggression.  In the reign of Augustus, Varus and Drusus (Tiberius’ brother) both tried to play a major role on the Rhine frontier, and Varus, deluded into thinking he could play a decisive diplomatic one, was lured to his doom.  Tiberius, however, recognizing the worthlessness of Germany to the empire, pulled back and removed Drusus’ reckless son Germanicus.

It is not that the empire was the commonwealth of God or that Roman commanders did not go in for plundering expeditions.  Imperial commanders were ruthless in dealing with the barbarian threat, frequently luring the poor devils into a friendly dinner only to assassinate them.  But Roman conflicts with the Germans had far more to do with the barbarians’ desire for gold, plunder, and a life of ease than with Roman aggression.  Marcus Aurelius was wise enough to realize that conquering Germania and turning it into a province was the most sensible, albeit a costly, solution to German hooliganism.  He died, however, on the eve of accomplishing his project, which his worthless son Commodus abandoned, so eager was he to get back to Rome to begin enjoying the fruits of imperial power.  This was too bad for the empire and too bad for the Germans, most of whom remained beyond the Roman limes, the pale of civilization.


[The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians, by Peter Heather (New York: Oxford University Press) 572 pp., $40.00]