It’s the classic historical question: Why did the Roman Empire fall? There are doubtless lots of reasons. One historian has noted 210 of them. No wonder Gibbon said that we should stop “inquiring why the Roman Empire was destroyed,” but rather “be surprised that it lasted so long.” Indeed. But 210 reasons do not amount to a satisfying explanation. Historical events are complex, but historical writing must be parsimonious if it is to achieve its primary aim, that is, to make the past clear to us. Happily, Adrian Goldsworthy‘s How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower (Yale UP, 2009) does a marvelous job of boiling it all down. He proposes that structural explanations–governmental inefficiency, economic decline, imperial overstretch and the 207 others–are fine, but they really won’t do the job in this case. The late Roman Empire was ill, but it was hardly on its death bed in the third and fourth centuries. Moreover, even at its weakest moments, the Empire was hugely more powerful than any of its competitors. In order to understand how the Romans managed to pull defeat out of the jaws of victory (or at least survival) Goldsworthy says we need to look at Roman politics, or what I would call Roman “political culture.” In Goldsworthy’s telling, the Roman political elite forgot what the empire was for, that is, to serve the interests of the Romans (the “Res publica”). Instead, up-and-coming Roman leaders were primarily interested in making it to the top and staying there. That meant staying alive, and since many failed do so for very long long-term political instability ensued. Too often the Romans were busy fighting each other instead of fending off their many though relatively weak enemies. It was only a matter of time before they fought each other one too many times and those enemies defeated them.
Goldsworthy also has some interesting things to say about comparisons between the late Roman Empire and the contemporary United States. I won’t give away what he says, but I will tell you he doesn’t like them very much and for what I think are excellent reasons.
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