The Decline and Fall Industry

Could anxiety over the future of the West be behind the publication of so many books on the fall of the Roman Empire?

Seven learned authors, seven substantial books and more than 3,000 pages packed with information on the collapse of Roman power in the West, all published inside four years. Even enthusiasts in this field, like myself, find such an outpouring excessive — a flood of similar titles invoking Fall, Barbarians and Ruin. While these books are subtly different in style and register, ranging from the academic prose and dense end notes of Walter Goffart’s Barbarian Tides to the cavalier folksiness of James O’Donnell’s The Ruin of the Roman Empire, five of them are aimed at, and priced for, a broad audience and will sell in their thousands (rather than the few hundreds that an academic monograph will attain). Why have so many scholars been busy writing books on essentially the same subject, and why have most of them chosen to pitch their wares at a wider public?

On one level, there is no need to be surprised. The disintegration of a huge empire, which had lasted for 400 years, reached from the Euphrates and the Nile to Hadrian’s Wall and turned the Mediterranean for the only time in its history into an inland lake, is always going to be of wide interest. Barbarians and invasions, meanwhile, seem to hold a fascination for boys of all ages — it is surely not a coincidence that all seven books considered here are by male historians. Furthermore, the how and why of the fall of Rome will always be contentious and open to new interpretations, not just because crucial bits of evidence are missing, but also because major historical turning points, however well-documented, are always susceptible to rival explanations. However many archives are opened up and however many documents are made available on the internet, there will, for instance, always be debate over the underlying reasons, and the precise concatenation of events, that brought down the British or Soviet empires — if this were not the case, historians might as well shut up their laptops and retire.

The books we are considering here certainly exemplify the wide range of explanations for the fall of the Western empire which are currently fashionable, and which go far beyond the traditional view that it was overwhelmed by barbarians from beyond the Rhine and Danube, because of internal decline. At one end of the spectrum stands Walter Goffart who, fearful of modern German nationalism, has for decades fought a dogged campaign against any “Germanic” influence in early European history, including any significant role for barbarian invasion in the fifth century. His latest book is entirely true to form. For Goffart, the “Germanic invasions” of the Western empire never really happened, and the barbarian peoples who did settle in Roman territory during the fifth century were largely there at the invitation of the Romans, and then very rapidly adopted Roman ways. Important changes happened, but Germanic settlers played little part in bringing these about — and anyway we should never call these peoples “Germanic”, lest this gives modern Germans dangerous ideas about their importance in history. In the early 21st century, this blanket fear of Germanism is perhaps a little obsessive, and more appropriate for an immediately post-war audience — though Goffart has a large and very loyal following among scholars and students in the US and Canada (where he has taught for many years). But whatever one thinks of his conclusions (and I am not a fan), Goffart’s ideas are certainly radical: the defeat of Rome and the Germanic invasions do not need to be explained, because they never really happened. 

At the other end of the interpretative spectrum, Peter Heather’s The Fall of the Roman Empire sticks firmly to successful invasion and the settlement of Germanic tribes within the empire as the cause of the collapse of the West, compounded by some bad luck and bad management on the part of the Romans. His is the book to read if you are looking for a detailed but clear narrative of the political and military events of the later-fourth and fifth centuries. For Heather, two key factors in the fall of the West were an increase in the size and strength of the Germanic tribes, as they coalesced during the fourth century in order to respond more effectively to the power and blandishments of their Roman neighbours, and the appearance in the 370s on the south Russian steppes of a terrifying new people, the Huns. Barbarian tribes, prodded in the rear by the Huns, and Roman errors of judgment were what brought down the empire, not underlying, let alone increasing, internal weakness.  This belief in continued Roman power is representative of a broad change in historical fashion: almost none of the authors we are considering here believes that Rome’s strength had declined significantly before it fell, whereas for Gibbon and most authors of the 19th and earlier 20th centuries, this was axiomatic — it was indeed built into Gibbon’s famous title The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  Gibbon blamed Christianity, while later historians often chose whatever was the fashionable crisis of their day (such as racial miscegenation, or class struggle). Rightly or wrongly, belief in grandiose structural weaknesses seems to be frowned on by present-day historians, who instead like to blame historical disasters on human error or simple bad luck.

The other five books sit somewhere in between the two poles of interpretation represented by Goffart and Heather — that Germanic invasion was decisive in the fall of the West (Heather), or that it played little part in provoking the changes of the day (Goffart). Guy Halsall’s Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West 376-568, for instance, is a serious student textbook which accepts that invasion played a very significant part in the dissolution of the empire, but also sees much fourth- and fifth-century change as coming from within Roman society. While very clear, and with the huge advantage of engaging seriously with archaeological evidence, this is not a book aimed at the general reader, since it engages in detail with directions in past and present scholarship. Adrian Goldsworthy’s The Fall of the West, by contrast, is the only work by a professional author, rather than a university-based academic. It is aimed (in the manner of Tom Holland) at a reading public that enjoys ancient history. I was disappointed by it, and I don’t think this is just because I am a supercilious academic anxious to maintain a closed shop. It has a well-researched and readable narrative of events, starting at the end of the second century, and it ends with a “Simple Answer” to why the empire failed, and an “Even Simpler Moral” for our times — Rome fell because Romans lost their sense of purpose and came to hold power for its own sake, rather than for the greater good of the state. But these strong conclusions are only spelled out in any detail in two short final chapters of about ten pages each. 

Christopher Kelly’s Attila the Hun and James O’Donnell’s The Ruin of the Roman Empire both illustrate perfectly how changing one’s perspective can radically change one’s view of this period. Both authors turn the tables on the usual “victims” of the dissolution of the empire, the Romans. Christopher Kelly tells the story of one of the West’s great bogeymen, Attila the Hun, presenting him as a thoughtful and effective political and military leader, quite capable of outmanoeuvring his Roman adversaries — partly because they held a mistaken faith in their innate superiority over barbarians like him. The reputation of Attila is indeed interesting. As with Richard III, for most of us, no amount of scholarly ink can ever wash him and his Huns entirely clean of mythic horror. But there are other points of view. Among the Hungarians, whose language and identity derive from a similar group of nomadic invaders, the Huns are seen (with some justification) as very distant cousins, and Attila is viewed as a great ruler. A student of mine, who spent part of a gap year helping in a Budapest primary school, was amused to find three little boys named Attila among her charges. James O’Donnell’s barbarian perspective is even stronger, though the group he chooses to defend is not the Huns, but one of the best-documented Germanic peoples, the Ostrogoths. In its US edition, his Ruin of the Roman Empire bears the subtitle: “The emperor who brought it down, the barbarians who could have saved it.” For O’Donnell it was a Roman emperor, Justinian, who definitively destroyed the Roman empire. By invading the Ostrogoths’ successor kingdom in Italy, he crushed a potential ally and destroyed the possibility of the world continuing to live in peace and prosperity.  Here the defenders of civilization are the barbarian Ostrogoths and the destructive invaders are Romans — east Romans (from Constantinople) under Justinian. 

Of my own The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization I can hardly provide a dispassionate judgment: its most original and contentious chapters are those that argue for an “end of civilization” (defined as a dramatic drop in living standards) as a result of the disintegration of the empire. Some serious reviewers have liked the book, others have found it (with some cause) over-egged, or (with less cause) over-interested in the material things of life. The only way I believed I could confidently, and objectively, judge my book to have triumphed over the other six we are considering was in its brevity. But closer research leads me to question even this. The next shortest book, Christopher Kelly’s Attila the Hun, is 50 pages longer and is almost twice as thick — but, when one opens it up, the print is generous and the paper bulky. It is one of those books that the publishers have decided to pad out, to make it look more substantial than it really is. Why they think we appreciate this unnecessary overloading of our bookcases, I do not know. 

The influence of publishers, seeking to attract the market, is certainly present in the dramatic titles and lurid covers of almost all these books — Guy Halsall’s Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West 376-568 is the only honourable exception, with its descriptive title and a low-key cover, presumably because, as a textbook, it is actually meant to look serious. I am definitely guilty of allowing my publisher (the highly reputable Oxford University Press) to influence the packaging of my book. I had intended the second half of my title to read “and the End of a Civilization”, but somehow, somewhere along the line, the “a” dropped out when the book was being edited, and the all-engulfing “The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization” was proposed. I was all too easily persuaded that this was more striking (rather than less honest), and at the same time my own suggestion for a cover illustration for the hard-back edition, a mournful and lyrical Fuseli drawing of the artist despairing over the ruin of the Roman past, was replaced by an apocalyptic 19th-century image of the sack of a city, with large-scale massacre under way and a strong suggestion of rape to come. Publishers know their trade and, I presume, are right in thinking that potential readers need to be hit firmly in the eye, but it is striking how easily sober academics can be seduced down a populist path. 

A wish to court the wider public also manifests itself in other ways. The five authors (myself included) who aspire to be bought and read by the intelligent, and all-too-elusive, “wider reading public”, all open their books with intriguing, and supposedly well-written, little stories, designed to tempt the reader into the heart of the book. Some (and again I am guilty) even open individual chapters in the same way.  Has this become an over-used cliché of “popular” history (though I have to admit I can’t think of a better way of hooking a reader)? Some of these authors also have a fondness, even a weakness, for throwing in allusions and parallels from contemporary history and from literature. James O’Donnell particularly likes this style: on one single page (227), in discussing the emperor Justinian, he works in references to Huck Finn, Hollywood, Hamlet, Gertrude and Ophelia, and Kurt Vonnegut. Does this shed revealing light on Justinian, or is it primarily meant to tell us how cultured and aware the author is? Christopher Kelly has a similar propensity to display his knowledge of the modern world and modern culture, this time through his chapter titles: “Axis of Evil”, “Shock and Awe”, “Mission Impossible” and “Close Encounters”, as well as one dreadful pun, “A Backward Steppe” (which discusses Hunnic society north of the Black and Caspian Seas). I find all this a bit cheap, but am I just being curmudgeonly?

“Axis of Evil” and “Shock and Awe” (which O’Donnell also uses, in a subtitle) are of course meant to make us consider parallels with contemporary events, and raise the question of whether these books are intended to transmit lessons from the past to us in the present.  In the case of three of these books — Adrian Goldsworthy’s, James O’Donnell’s and my own — a moral for the present is explicit. In my case it is a very general one — that material well-being (and with it high culture) are dependent on economic complexity, which is fragile; when an economy collapses (as I believe happened at the end of the Roman empire), the consequences are dire. 

I don’t advocate any solutions, but I do suggest a degree of caution and humility. (In the case of Goldsworthy’s book, the moral is much more precise: that great powers which lose a sense of common purpose and cease to value public service are in severe danger of decline, and that the present-day United States should look to this lesson. O’Donnell is worried by the recent propensity of the US to impose its military will with very little regard to the long-term consequences, and seeks to steer opinion towards a much more cautious and irenic strategy. 

The aggressive Justinian is roundly condemned, and presented, implicitly but unambiguously, as a sixth-century George W. Bush: “He [Justinian] was a man of limited talents from the provinces, surrounded by gifted men who knew only too well how to reshape their world in the image of delusion about the position of the city [Constantinople] and its emperors in this world…We may choose to call them Justinian’s best and brightest or, if you prefer, his neoconservatives” (p.216). 

Explicit and implicit comparisons between old and new Romes have a long and very distinguished history, reaching back to Gibbon and beyond, though learning lessons from Rome’s past, as with all lessons from history, has proved problematic — lessons are easy to see with the advantage of hindsight, much less easy to spot in the heat of the moment. The genre of explicit comparison is most thoroughly represented in another recent work, Cullen Murphy’s Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America (Houghton Mifflin 2007), which I have only excluded from consideration alongside our seven books because it is very different in style and approach. It is not a conventional history book and does not focus specifically on the late empire; rather it is a detailed (and intelligent) exploration of different aspects of ancient Roman and modern American society, drawing out the contrasts between the two as much as, if not more than, the parallels. 

Murphy, Goldsworthy, O’Donnell and I are very obviously and openly worried that things could go terribly wrong for the modern West, and explicitly explore comparisons with the history of Rome.  In the case of Goffart, Heather and Halsall this is not so, though Goffart does reveal some modern anxieties of his own (over German nationalism). But it is hard not to conclude that a widespread anxiety over a modern “decline of the West” underlies the presence of all these books on the disintegration of the Roman empire, and of a reading public prepared to buy them. It is certainly very striking that so many books have recently appeared on the dissolution of Rome’s power, and so very few chart its rise and apogee. Europeans, and their descendents the North Americans, have had it very good for four or five centuries, thanks to their dominance (military, political, economic, cultural, even religious) over the globe. Romans had it very good for about the same number of centuries. Then things got a lot more “complicated” for the Romans. Are we in the modern West headed in the same direction? 

It is interesting to explore a notable absence from these books.  They are primarily, for the most part exclusively, about the fall of Roman power in the Western half of the empire — they do not explore in any detail the survival of the empire based in Constantinople, which considered itself “Roman” throughout its existence and which only disappeared in 1453. In the English-speaking world (in Greece and the Balkans, obviously, things are different) this empire is essentially viewed as part of the oriental “other”, and given a suitably exotic name, “Byzantine” — full of Ys and Zs, difficult to pronounce with confidence, and redolent of incense and mosaics. We do not identify with the Romans of Constantinople in the same way as we identify with the Romans of Rome. This also means that we, and all these books, can largely ignore the great crisis that faced the East Roman empire two centuries after the fall of the West — the rise of the Arabs and of Islam. This was something that happened not to “our” Roman empire, but to an alien “Byzantine” empire. This is very convenient, because it means we Europeans, and peoples of European descent, while getting deeply preoccupied by our own barbarians and their role in history (as all these books testify), can ignore the much more important, but also much more sensitive, issue of the role of Arab and Muslim invasions in overturning the world order during the seventh century.

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