The first thing you need to know about the Roman Empire is that everyone didn’t run around with British accents like they do in the movies. Got that? Good. Now comes the hard part: Figuring out what on earth happened to the ancient superpower. The Roman Empire declined and fell, of course. This much we think we know, if only because of the title of a famous 18th-century book. Now, new theories are arriving on the scene courtesy of cocky British historian Adrian Goldsworthy, who has no qualms about knocking his colleagues off their pristine perches.
They haven’t gotten it all wrong, Goldsworthy writes, but they’ve missed a lot. He tries to set the record straight in How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower, a dense, academic and sometimes enlightening look at an empire that’s not nearly as remote as it seems.
As Goldsworthy says on the first page, “the fall of the Roman Empire remains one of the great mysteries of history.” The empire survived for 500 years after the death of Julius Caesar, managing to become amazingly modern with its aqueducts, bureaucracy, glass windows, and central heating. Many educated Romans even believed the world was round.
The Romans were smart and so is “How Rome Fell,” but it’s anything but a breezy read. Most of the time, it comes across as a history book, full of names and dates and events, rather than a tale woven by a storyteller. Things do get interesting, however, when Goldsworthy throws in zingers, complaining about the blind spots of his historian colleagues in a style that’s not likely to win him friends.
When he’s at his best, Goldsworthy steps away from the halls of power and looks at Roman society as a whole. While we may think of Rome’s tenure as nasty, brutish and long, “the famous Pax Romana, or Roman Peace, was a reality,” he writes. For many, life under the Romans was just fine. And Goldsworthy notes that conquered people often had expansionist dreams of their own, making it hard to turn them into innocent victims of Roman aggression.
The emperors didn’t stop being emperors, of course, even if they were more likely to die of murder than anything else. (Goldsworthy offers a light note, telling the story of the woman who stopped an emperor cold after he declared he didn’t have time to deal with her: “Then stop being emperor!”)
So what did kill Rome? Goldsworthy doesn’t point at a single culprit but finds a slow decline that began at the top. At a basic level, emperors and top officials “had forgotten what the empire was for,” he writes, as they became consumed by rivalries and the need to survive.
Goldsworthy warns against applying Roman history to the current day, especially considering that it took centuries to fall apart. But he does think trouble can come from within, a self-inflicted wound. He writes that an urbane American student put it best in a seminar at Oxford about schisms in the early Roman Catholic church: “You know, people are kinda stoopid.”
They certainly can be. But the Roman Empire did last and last, suggesting that someone, somewhere, was anything but dumb.
Randy Dotinga is a freelance writer in San Diego.