Sunday, July 05, 2009

Book Review: The Fall of the Roman Empire

Why did the Western Roman Empire fall? The rise of Christianity, corruption, the decadence of the ruling classes, over taxation, changes in military policy? Or was it simply the Barbarian invasions?

The Fall of Rome: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians

Peter Heather
Oxford University Press, 2007

Peter Heather attributes the primary cause to exogenous shock caused by the barbarian migrations into the Empire in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. If these shocks had occurred earlier the Empire would have fallen and if they had not come the Empire would have lasted several more centuries. The Empire was a stable entity, with internal problems, as has any political entity, but they were within the outer limits of what it could manage and still function. The rise of the Persian Empire in the East in the third century had created a superpower challenge that required heavily reinforcing the eastern borders. This was successfully done, but doing so greatly stretched the resources of the Empire so that it had little surplus resources to handle a new crisis. The migration and invasion of the barbarians provided that crisis.

Heather sees the Empire as a symbiotic relation of several components:

The Landowners were Roman citizens who had a common education and culture that provided a homogeneous “Romanness”. They, more than the residents of the City, were the Romans. Whether they were of the old Roman families or provincials from cities that had obtained Latin rights they spoke and wrote common “Classical Latin”, shared common values provided the civil and military officers that staffed the empire, and provided leadership at the middle levels of society.

The Central Government taxed trade and land and used the revenues to pay and equip the Army. The Army protected trade and agricultural activities against outside threats and internal disorder. With an assurance of safety against outside threat and internal disorder agricultural activities and trade could produce enough wealth to provide higher standards of living and pay the taxes to support the Army. While the system primarily benefited the landowners there it must have also produced enough safety and income to be preferable to the alternative for most of the population.

The Army saw (as did most every one else) it’s first job was to defend the Empire against the Persia. During the fourth century 20 to 25 percent of the Army was directly deployed opposite Persia. The rest of the Army was either in border garrisons defending the long frontier or in the field armies that constituted a reserve to reinforce against attacks on the border or counter attack. While the total army was probably about 600,000 men the maximum field army that was available west of Constantinople to deal with the invasion on the Rhine-Danube line was about 80,000 spread among several field armies belonging to both parts of the empire. When matched against the nations migrating with their full strength, as opposed to raiding and border skirmishes, the numbers available to both sides were similar, and until reinforcements could arrive, could favor the invaders.

The Exogenous Shock.

The Germanic Tribes in the 1st Centuries BC and AD that the Romans came in contact with were economically hunters and “slash and burn” farmers. Every ten or twenty years a village would exhaust its fields and move. Heather thinks that the real reason for the Romans stopped at the Rhine was not the defeat of Varus in 9 AD at Tueutonburger Wald but that the region could not produce enough taxes to support the Army. Though not conquered the Germans learned from the Romans. They developed a stable agriculture, which supported a much larger population than slash and burn farming, and permitted the development of trade and manufacturing. This improved economy allowed them to field larger and better equipped armies. The service of many Germans in the Army had taught them the military skills to use the larger force. In the Late 4th Century the Huns started to invade the homelands of these nations forcing them to migrate and the only place they could go was into the Empire.

The Huns were a warlike tribe of nomads that came off the steppes and invaded the area of the German tribes forcing them to migrate. The Hunic economy and political structure did not allow them to settle in one location; they kept attacking westward forcing more dislocations until they were fighting the Romans themselves, though eventually defeated by the Romans the damage had been done.

The Migrations of the Germanic tribes into the Empire to escape the Huns in the 376 and 402-10 started the unraveling of the relationships that held the Empire together. War and invasion would put farms out of production temporarily or permanently depriving the Government of the taxes to support the Army. This made it harder for a reduced/weakened Army to recover lost lands or protect those that were left. Which would result in more land going out of production. The loss of this protection made it expedient for landowners to support the invaders to keep their lands rather than support the central government. Slowly over about 100 years the Western Empire unraveled.

The result

A controversy in recent years asks was The Fall really a fall or just a change in the political arrangements with life going on pretty much as before. Some point out that many institutions survived, there was a definite Roman characteristic in the successor states and there were people who called themselves Romans for a long time after the fall. Heather argues, I think successfully, that while it was a process over time with important survivals, The Fall was really a fall and a hard fall. While for most any one other than poor Romulus Augustus, the last emperor, who was removed on September 4, 476, September Fifth was not much different than September Third; but the Western Europe of 576 was vastly different from the Western Europe of 376 when the migrations started. While some people must have come out ahead the vast majority of the reduced population was much impoverished with far less physical and economic security.


This is a well written book explains the story of the Fall of The Roman Empire in a way that treats both the available data and the persons involved with respect and reaches conclusions without forcing the data. While he gives a varied review of the different explanations for the Fall of Rome many support his explanation as part of the reason the Empire was overstretched. Unlike most commentators he believes the economy was able to support the Empire so long as it did not have to deal with extraordinary events. He tells the story of people with ordinary ability trying to control and reverse events that were to large for them to control. One thing I liked was his account ties together the different parts of my limited knowledge of the Roman Empire into a coherent whole.

It will certainly not end the debate over the causes of the Fall of Rome but it is a major contribution to the discussion, whether future historians agree with him or not this is an explanation that cannot be ignored. The book has good pictures and maps that support the text. Strongly recommended.

Related: Eagle in the Snow by Wallace Breem. Review of a fictional account of the Barbarian invasion across the Rhine in 406/407

Topic: All my Rome posts


El Jefe Maximo said...

I have recently acquired this book, as well as Adrian Goldsworthy's book on the same subject, and will be curious to read them both.

On this same subject, hunt down a copy of Edward Luttwak's The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire from the 1st Century A.D. to the Third.

Having read a little on the subject before, I agree about the "the Exogenous Shock" at least in part. The relatively greater problem of the Germans from 350 or so forward was magnified by the problems the Empire had on the Persian frontier, at more or less the same time. The Sassanid Persians proved to be a lot tougher than Rome's old Parthian adversary, and I don't think the Roman military was equal to the task of holding them in check and the Germans too. It wasn't big enough, and the distance of the threats from the Med. cut into the sea based strategic mobility the Republic had always enjoyed.

More particularly, I think the late Republic made a real error after the Mithridatic Wars of the 1st Century BC -- that is going into the eastern Med in a big way. That was too much for the Empire to hold later.

But more importantly, for much of the Empire, the biggest enemy of Rome was. . .Rome. All those civil wars over the Imperial sucession really cost them, and probably debilitated the military.

My own interest recently has been Caesar and the late Republic/Early Empire (from the Gracchi through the end of the wars establishing the Empire). But I'll get to these soon enough.

hank_F_M said...

El Jefe

Yes, Luttwak’s Grand Strategy is great, the best, in my opinion, of what he has written.

The biggest failure of Julius and Agustus Ceasar was not providing a means of succession without involving the Army.

This is a very different Rome than the late Republic/early Empire. In many ways it was the overstretch that makes the difference. I’m just not sure how Rome could have avoided being drawn in the Eastern Med. Once they had expended enough to be part of the situation they had to control it or it would control them. But you are right it was to much to control in the face of an Exogenous Shock

El Jefe Maximo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
El Jefe Maximo said...

(deleted this by accident, the first draft was possibly better)

I don't really see Gaius Julius Caesar as part of the story of the Empire. Rather, I see his rule as a last attempt to preserve the old Republic, in a modified form, with the traditional ruling elite and system grafted on to Caesar's autocracy.

The late Republic was not very Republican. The system worked well for a city state, and then a city state that ruled Italy. But when Rome acquired foreign provinces, and control of their vast wealth, all that money hopelessly destablized the system, and the Republic turned into (even more than it was) a plaything for the nobles to enrich themselves and play power games, all fueled by the wealth of the provinces. Meanwhile, the state was not getting the work done.

I think Caesar saw this, and tried to rectify it with a more autocratic system, with Republican aspects. But the oligarchs wouldn't put up with it, and killed him -- and finished off what was left of the Republic, and destroyed their own class in the bargain. The murder of Caesar, far from restoring the traditional Republic, unleashed another 30 years of chaos and war.

Augustus took up where Gaius Julius left off, but he did not repeat the mistake of trying to co-opt the traditional ruling class. The Emperors never did get the succession issue quite right...although the Julio-Claudians went a fair way towards establishing the principle of hereditary succession by descent or by adoption.

Part of the trouble early on was the system's design as a faux Republic that was actually a monarchy. But the main issue was always bad Emperors...that idiot Nero finished the Julio-Claudians, Dominition did the same for the Flavians, Commodius for the line of Five Good Emperors.

The worse the ruler, the more the temptation to appeal to force. Once you start using the Army to resolve succession questions, you've made a huge mistake, because every Colonel who can make a speech thinks he has a crown in his knapsack.

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