Comparisons between the Roman Empire and America’s began almost as soon as America acceded to the various empires left abandoned by the European states in the wake of the destruction wrought by the World Wars of the twentieth century. (Incidentally “World Wars” is a misnomer attributable to the then and now reigning Eurocentrism—the “world wars” were mainly just European wars.) Which is somewhat ironic, in that it was the barbarian predecessors of the European nations which lost their empires to America that, according to Peter Heather, caused the demise of the Roman Empire, or at least that of its western portion. What better example could be offered in support of the argument that history is cyclical, rather than linear, except the reappearance on the world stage of an empire dedicated, at least in part, to taming the savage breasts of Continental barbarians, a little over a millennia after the fall of the first one?
The history of Rome is compelling, especially for Americans, because its fall stands as stark evidence of the temporal and contingent nature of imperial reach and world hegemony. Rome accreted power and empire for five hundred years, and having expanded so far as the economics of empire made feasible, ruled with relative ease over its possessions for almost another five hundred more. Then, in the West, it all fell apart. But why? A question that no doubt seared the minds of imperial subjects, as the Goths sacked Rome in 410 ad, the Vandals captured the imperial bread basket of North Africa in 439 ad and the last Roman Emperor in the West was deposed in 476, who was ironically, if only fortuitously, named Romulus, after Rome’s mythical founder. The sacking of Rome compelled Saint Augustine spend ten years of his life writing a twenty-two volume apologia of Christianity, The City of God, explaining why Rome’s fall was not the fault of its relatively newly-adopted Christianity. The question of why Rome fell reverberates in the mind of the American public today, wondering whether Rome’s fate might foreshadow America’s own. Americans want to know: Is America today like Rome circa 400 ad, before the fall?
To understand Rome’s fall requires understanding its rise, and what it had become, before everything started unraveling. In many respects, Rome was a successor state to the original trans-Mediterranean empire of Ancient Greece that experienced its fullest expression with Alexander the Great. Greece arose as something of an economic and protective cooperative among the city-states in the Grecian peninsula, Attica. In turn, the city-states themselves, the polis, were economic and protective cooperatives of farmers and shepherds that arose out of the ongoing transformation of human economy from nomadic wandering to sedentary agriculture. Greece (and a great many other empires arising with the advent of agriculture) could be considered a human attempt to project order onto the chaos of nature and of human relations, and an extension of the process of turning from hunting and gathering to agriculture. Rome originated with the same ends in mind—as an economic and protective cooperative aimed at imposing order on the chaos and wildness of man and nature such that the needs of survival could be better met and the fruits of agriculture better exploited. Instead of city-states, Rome had prominent land-owning families that came together over the advantages of cooperation and uniformity in trading, and the lowered costs and enhanced benefits promised by a pooled defensive posture. In the case of both Rome and Ancient Greece, the advantages of coalescence into unified states proved so powerful and cumulative that expansion was virtually inevitable.
For Americans wishing to draw parallels between Rome and America, American capitalists could be considered the modern-day corollary of the Roman families that founded the republic for purposing of enhancing the value of their capital (i.e., land) through economic and defensive cooperation, identical to the abiding reason (after piety was quickly discarded) for the founding and expansion of the American republic. But the comparison necessarily leaves out a great deal in order to conjure a common ground. There are parallels, but also a great many differences.
Heather starts his detailed analysis of the Roman Empire in the latter half of the fourth century, but does a fine job explicating its history up to then in the initial chapters, describing the extent of empire at the start of the age, and the way of imperial life, both in the provinces and in the major cities. Of course by the latter half of the fourth century, Rome had not been a republic for some three hundred and fifty years, having suffered a long succession of emperors, some good (e.g., Trajan, Hadrian, Constantine, etc.) and some outrageously bad (Nero, Caligula, etc). It had by then reached its furthest extent through conquest and assimilation, imposing order and uniformity and particularly, Roman-ness, upon an empire stretching across the Mediterranean, as far North as the Rhine and Danube in central Europe; as far west as Gaul, the Iberian peninsula and Northern Africa, even to southern Britain; as far east as Syria and Persia, and as far south as the lower Nile. Its rigorously disciplined legions, stationed mainly in the provinces outside of Italy, kept the peace and defended the empire against usurpers, employing a network of laboriously constructed roads that served as economic, political and military communication channels, carrying Roman culture and values (the primary value being loyalty to the Empire), throughout its vast extent. The Empire had by then adopted Christianity, and conflated its greatness, just as America does today, with God’s benevolence arising from his favor and approval of the Empire. (Believing in a special God-favored “chosen-ness” is hardly an attribute unique to the ancient Hebrews.) To the average Roman citizen, the limits of the Empire marked the demarcation line between light and darkness, the civilized and the barbarian; good and evil.
And there was some truth to the Roman perceptions. The Empire facilitated the accumulation of great wealth, as stability and uniformity of governance translated into real economic prosperity that barbarian nations could only wistfully wish for, peering across the ramparts that excluded them. The benefits of inclusion in the Empire were vast, so a great many peoples sought admittance. Heather points out that when Rome let in a group of outsiders, the terms would typically be severe—indentured servitude or peasantry for at least the first generation of admittees; conscription for some measure of the eligible males; dispersion among the provinces so as not to allow any concentration of culture and political power that might prove capable of fomenting insurgency or rebellion, and a closely-stationed few legions to enforce the requirements of assimilation, should there be trouble. In the early fourth century, gaining admission to the Empire as even just a peasant held the possibility of untold riches, or at least the possibility of profoundly improved material prosperity, so Rome set the terms, and often harshly, governing whom it would graciously allow entry. For quite some time there was never a shortage of people willing to trade the freedom of savagery for the comforts of imperial citizenship, no matter how onerous were the dictated terms of trade.
But something had changed by 376 when two groups of Goths gathered on the northern banks of the Danube seeking admittance to the Empire. The Goths were fleeing marauding Hun cavalry that had apparently arisen on the Eurasian steppe and migrated west, pressing them into the banks of the Danube, at the edge of imperial domain.
When the Emperor Valens agreed to allow one group of the Goths, the Tervingi, into the Empire, the terms allowing entry were profoundly less severe than was customary. The admittance agreement specified that the Tervingi were allowed to collectively settle in a place (Thrace) of their own choosing, leaving their culture and political infrastructure intact, essentially admitting them as an imperial subunit. What had happened? Valens, and the bulk of the Roman army that may have otherwise been available to police the actions of barbarians, was preoccupied with events further east, having been forced to counterbalance the rise of a new superpower in Persia. The Romans could not force their ordinary conditions on the Goth Tervingi, so allowed them in on more generous terms, a point driven home by the failure of the Roman strategy of dividing and conquering (or at least controlling) the two groups by allowing only one in, evident when the remaining group of Goths, the Greuthungi, slipped across the Danube sometime the following year to reunite with the Tervingi. Which is when all hell broke loose.
When the Roman commander Lupicinus attempted to move the Tervingi down from their crossing point on the Danube to his headquarters at Marcianople after they had rioted at the rude treatment received at the Empire’s hand, particularly in the denial, once admitted, of food on the pain of slavery, the Tervingi, aware that the Greuthungi had slipped across the river, slowed their march to allow them to catch up. Lupicinus, sensing danger, invited the leaders of the two Goth groups to a feast, where he planned to kidnap them. Instead, he failed to execute his plan, and the leaders were freed, while the Goth forces in Marcianople, having gotten word of the plot, overwhelmed the relatively meager Roman forces under Lupicinus’ command, the remainder left available in the region to maintain order. The Goths were now loose inside the Empire, ranging free over the Balkans, looting, foraging, plundering and stealing at whim. It took Emperor Valens a year to grant the Persians a most charitable peace agreement and return his Persian forces to the Balkans in sufficient number that they might restore order, but by that time, the Goths had gained in strength and made allies with the Huns and Alans. At Hadrianople, Valens underestimated the power of the combined barbarian forces and met total defeat, and his own death, in the battle that ensued. The Army of the Eastern Empire was destroyed; nothing lay between the barbarians and Constantinople. According to the historian Ammianus, writing in roughly 390, whose chronicle of the battle is the main, and considered most reliable source for its details, the Romans had not so devastatingly been defeated since the battle of Cannae in 216 bc.
But the Goths and their allies, powerful though they had grown, were hardly capable of taking Constantinople, let alone the whole of the Eastern Empire. After rampaging through the Balkans for another four years, mainly exacting tribute in lieu of pillage and plunder, Rome declared victory and granted them asylum within the Empire in 382, with the unheard-of assimilative terms of provisioning land for their use, and allowing they draw and command their own forces when the Empire requested military assistance. The Goths entered the Empire, but did so mainly on their own terms. They became Goth-Romans, not Romans, to employ the hyphenated vernacular in widespread use in America today.
Though the Goth invasion took place in the Eastern Empire, it would prove the beginning of the end of the Western Empire. In rapid succession, Alaric would lead a Gothic sack of Rome itself in 410, in a vain attempt to get an even more generous treaty from the Empire than was provided in 382. The rise of the Huns, particularly under Attila, would press the Empire from all sides, as the lesser tribes of barbarians were continually forced to choose between casting their lot with Rome or the Huns. But the fatal blow for the West, as Heather points out, had to be the loss of North Africa to the Vandals in 439. Nothing of empire is feasible without food, and the Italian cities grown up with the Empire depended for their existence on the steady flow of agricultural produce from the provinces, of which, in the West, the most verdant were in North Africa. In the span of just over a hundred years from the appearance of the Goths on the Danube, the Western Empire saw its last emperor and the western Roman world disintegrated into a miasma of barbarian nations and petite empires. All that would remain of Rome would be its ruins, its religion and its legacy. But why?
The basic thesis of The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians is that the rise of Barbarian power, not the decline of Roman power, dealt the fatal blow. This seems correct. At the arrival of the Goths on the Danube, the Empire was fundamentally as strong as ever it had been.
Was the Empire also decadent and corrupt, as a great many historian moralists (e.g., Edward Gibbon) like to point out, particularly in the service of distinguishing or equating extant empires with the Romans? Of course, but decadence and corruption are endemic to all successful, yet tightly organized, entities. Decadence arises from so successfully gaining command of nature that securing the necessaries of life seems almost incidental to living. Corruption arises from the agency costs that inhere with any large and unwieldy bureaucracy necessary for the administration of large organizations, be they religious, political or business in nature. Indeed corruption and decadence flourished in Rome, from at least when the successful razing of Carthage eliminated for several centuries any real challenge to Roman power in the Mediterranean, carrying on unabated until the time the last emperor was deposed. Success is the soil in which the seeds of corruption and decadence gain purchase and thrive, and Rome was far and away the most successful of all empires in the western world. The decadence and corruption that was endemic throughout most of its history seemed to contribute heavily to its demise in the end because a people grown undisciplined and lazy in the lap of luxury lose the hunger and verve to combat enemies willful and hardened through struggle. But decadent and corrupt Romans had successfully defended the Empire for over half a millennia, until the passage of time sufficiently quickened the strength of their enemies. Before the Goths arrived on the Danube with the Huns close at heel, no amount of decadence and corruption could have destroyed them. After the Goths, no amount of resolve and discipline could have saved them.
It is a very hard question why the Western Empire fell where the Eastern Empire survived more or less intact for another three hundred, or by some reckonings, another thousand years (depending on whether the ascendancy of the Muslims in the eighth century, or the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans in the fifteenth, mark the end of empire). There is no one good answer, just what appears to be a confluence of factors. First is that, though the Eastern Empire suffered first by the direct threat posed by barbarians, the Western Empire was surrounded by a fluid and chaotic ocean of them. The lines of communication in the West were lengthier and the territory more extensive, thereby making its defense costlier and less predictable. The West’s North African bread basket was more vulnerable to raids originating from land or sea than was the East’s agricultural hub of Egypt, which was relatively immune.
But in the end, the rise of Persia in the East precipitated the decline of the West. Persia was a clear and present danger that necessarily drew forces, including Western forces, away from all other engagements. The amorphous danger posed by an agile, constantly changing cast of a powerfully growing group of barbarians, stateless and ranging wild and free over the countryside, was a threat neither of the Empire’s halves was well-suited to contain. The legions were designed to fight, and the Empire to overwhelm, similarly designed states fighting conventionally. It keenly felt the threat posed by rising conventional powers like Persia. It had little experience at fighting relatively unconventionally arrayed barbarians that had reached a critical mass capable of taking on the Roman war machine, because in the main, at least until the Goths, and later the Huns and Vandals and others, there had never been any such thing. In that regard, the massacre of three Roman legions in Teutoburg Wald in 9 ad by a coalition of Germanic tribes was even the more remarkable for it being a rare, even solitary instance, of barbarian tactics and strength overwhelming Roman military might. The Huns, particularly with their mastery of horseback archery, and Attila’s organizational genius, presented an especially potent challenge, for the Empire, let alone fellow barbarians, by the mid fifth century.
Heather makes the point that the rapid demise of the Huns after Attila’s death in 453 ad resulted in the almost as rapid disintegration of the Western Empire. This too, makes sense. So long as Attila lived and the Huns remained relatively organized and coherent, there was the possibility of dealing with the threat as against a more conventional state. When the Huns disintegrated, the condition in the West, where already Gaul, Germania, Burgundy, Spain and the North African provinces were controlled or threatened by Barbarian forces, resolved to chaos and anarchy so far as imperial imperatives were concerned. Once the Empire could no longer control enough agriculturally-productive land to keep remits to the treasury flowing, the ability to field a Roman army and impose Roman order and discipline on the provinces disintegrated. The process of plowing agricultural revenues into the legions, that then provided the order and stability needed to make such revenues possible, reversed, as more and more productive territory was lost to the barbarians. Remaining revenues were no longer sufficient to support the legions and the (as always) corrupt and decadent state bureaucracy that resisted contraction, as all organizations will, as the territories being administered contracted. The essential imperial premise of order and stability supporting continued order and stability failed when bureaucratic ossification rendered the legions and the state unable to nimbly respond to rapidly changing situations on the ground.
There are any number of metaphors that can be employed to explain what happened to the Roman Empire during the West’s last century. The Empire could be imagined as a leviathan in the sea, wounded by an encounter with a predator driven to desperation and hunger (the Goths) by an even more formidable predator (the Huns). The wound inflicted by the Goths, while not fatal in itself, nonetheless scented the water with its blood, attracting a host of similar predators that finally, piece by piece, tore the leviathan apart, devouring its Western carcass.
It could likewise be imagined that the barbarian nations were like viruses or bacteria infecting the host Empire, or lurking just outside, awaiting the moment to arise and attack when the host let down its guard. And just as happens in an immune-compromised human body, the pathogen barbarians, ever watchful of the Roman sentries on the vanguards of Empire, the T cells and B cells of the Roman immune system, sensed when they had either abandoned their posts, or had been rendered ineffective for lack of critical mass. The rise of the Persian superpower in the east, like a gangrenous infection in a limb, drew the sentries away from their posts, or left them thinly guarded, signaling vulnerability to the pathogens. Once the signal tripped the latent infections into high gear, the host body, its executive apparatus having grown fat and indolent through centuries of decadent opulence, could neither shed its accumulated weight quickly enough to free up resources to aid in fighting the infections, nor convert its excesses to infection-fighting usefulness.
Whatever metaphor one chooses (Heather just told the story as it happened, without the flourish of metaphor), it is clear that the rise again in the East of Persia threatened the Empire at a time when the barbarians surrounding it had grown increasingly well-organized and powerful. Dealing with Persia left the Empire vulnerable in all quarters to barbarian hostility, but the most vulnerable of those were the extensive territories of the West.
Thus contrary to Gibbon, et al, decadence and corruption, endemic to the Empire since its early successes, did not cause its fall. The Empire had been decadent and corrupt for the better part of its history by the time it fell. Likewise, the rise of Persia alone could not have caused its fall, as Persia’s power had cyclically waxed and waned throughout the Empire’s long history. Heather is correct. The Empire fell because the barbarians surrounding it, particularly in the West, slowly accreted power, mainly outside of the Empire’s watchful gaze, until they grew strong enough to challenge the mighty Roman war machine on the battlefield.
Are there lessons here for the extant successor to the Roman Empire, i.e., America? Perhaps, but history is rarely so kind as to hew to identical repetition. To fathom what Roman experience with empire might mean for America’s would require knowing where in the cycle of empire America is relative to Rome. A glaring difference between America now and Rome at the time of its fall is that America hasn’t yet completely forsaken republican rule. Though the American Presidency has steadily accreted power since at least the days of Roosevelt, and rapidly so over the course of the last four years, America is still not yet ruled by an emperor. Is America decadent and corrupt? Of course it is. Decadence and corruption are the fruits of economic and political success, and America has enjoyed success rivaled by only the greatest of history’s empires. Is there a rising power that has averted America’s gaze, allowing closer threats to fester and boil? Though it may superficially appear that Iran is again today playing Persia’s ancient role in diverting resources and attention from the administration of empire, instead it seems Iran is to America as the Goths were to Rome, initially at least not much more than a surprisingly frustrating nuisance. The real threat to global American hegemony lies much further east than the Roman’s deigned to tarry, in the rising Indian, and especially Chinese, empires. Notwithstanding the present imbroglio over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, America seems to be coming around to the realization that its real challenges lie further east. But like Rome, if its attention is directed to the main and obvious threats, it runs the risk of allowing closer-in, but apparently less-substantial threats to strengthen.
America’s Empire seems young compared to the Romans, but not if one marks time from what is perhaps its true inception, during the days of the Renaissance and Enlightenment and early Industrial Revolution in Europe, when populations began pouring across the Atlantic, and an empire began to coalesce in North America. Or, if the duration of America’s Empire is tacked to her predecessor, the British Empire, which began even earlier than North America’s incipient colonization. Either way would mark America’s empire at almost half a millennia old, in an age when nearly instantaneous communications has compressed human perceptions of space and time, and perhaps accelerated the speed at which history unfolds.
The relentless comparing of America’s Empire with Rome’s is in many cases an attempt to distinguish America’s Empire, which it is hoped should reign eternal, with Rome’s, that fell. But the one thing we know for sure about every last thing, big or small, animate or inanimate, is that no discrete thing, such as is an economic and political empire, lasts forever. Empires rise, and empires fall. America’s has assuredly reached its apex, standing now at the rough limits of its expansive capability. The question is how long it might stay there. When will it fall, and in what manner? Knowing a bit of how Rome fell might provide some clues as to the fate awaiting America, but history only rhymes, it does not repeat. What is also certain is that it is exceedingly difficult to detect the clues to demise until the collapse is well under way. Heather correctly points out that surely no Roman citizen would have imagined that the Empire’s disintegration lay only a century hence once the Goths crossed the Danube and sacked and pillaged the Balkans.
Heather’s book is a well-written, deeply-researched exegesis on the events that transpired to extinguish the Western half of the Roman Empire, an empire that had existed in one configuration or another for nearly a thousand years. It draws from what we have of original resources to cast a dispassionate, objective eye on the series of events culminating in the Empire’s demise, with Heather’s flair for narrative and personal detail conspiring to make the story as entertaining as it is educational. While The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians requires some basic knowledge of Roman history to fully appreciate, I would highly recommend it to any student, formal or informal, of political and economic history, and particularly to anyone focused on the Roman or early Christian era. As any regular reader of TCA knows, I love history, but of the analytic, not jingoistic, variety. This is an excellent expression of the former with no hint of the latter. Enjoy.