- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 10, 2009

By Adrian Goldsworthy
Yale University Press, $32.50, 560 pages

America need not be Rome in its decline and fall. Many historians, beginning with Edward Gibbon in his “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” have tried to apply the lessons of Rome to their own time. If Adrian Goldsworthy is right in his new book, “Why Rome Fell,” the United States does not immediately face Rome’s fate. The author believes that the most critical cause of Rome’s ultimate downfall was the devastating series of civil wars that accompanied the birth of the empire until her ultimate demise in the west in 476 A.D. The eastern, or Byzantine, Roman Empire survived for another 1,000 years, but the western half was the real cradle of modern western civilization, and it is the Rome most of us are familiar with in literature and movies. In the United States, our Constitution determines succession. In Rome, it was all too often determined by military strength.

Mr. Goldsworthy argues that no one of the myriad civil wars that permeated the empire of after the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 A.D. was fatal by itself, but that their cumulative corrosive effect sapped the Roman army of energy and wasted manpower, allowing barbarian security threats that should have been immediately suppressed to fester and grow until major efforts were made to check them.

While an emperor was thwarting one of those threats, he in turn, would be challenged for the purple by another army commander somewhere else on the marches of the empire. These distractions, no doubt, hurt Rome badly in her later years as ever more powerful threats such as the Huns had to be either defeated or temporarily bought off while the sitting emperor was swatting down rivals.

Mr. Goldsworthy gives good examples to prove his theory. During the third and fourth centuries, the periods when Rome seemed most in decline coincided with civil wars for the Imperial throne. These wars diverted attention from the barbarians at the gate while leaders still had to deal with the demons within. Even the great rulers of the late empire, such as Diocletian, had to fear such threats.

Aetius, “the last Roman” who defeated Attila the Hun, was constantly undermined by petty struggles for the throne as he fought at the front and he was not even the emperor. A quarter-century after Aetius’ great victory over the Huns, classical Rome was dead, survived by her eastern sister that was a Roman Empire only in name.

Mr. Goldsworthy’s theory, of course has rivals. The classic culprit has always been decadence, but the eastern empire was far more decadent than its western sister and, as noted, lasted far longer. In the 1970s, economic theories were popular explanations for Rome’s fall. The argument was that unregulated markets and high taxes that unfairly burdened the working class drove more and more people into serfdom, ultimately destroying the tax base that the supported the whole system. Given, today’s financial crisis, that theory may regain popularity.

In the early 1990s, one school of thought argued that Rome was not overrun by barbarians, but that it absorbed so many barbarians into its armies on their own terms that traditional Roman discipline eventually evaporated and the army merely became another barbarian levy, no more capable than any of its opponents.

The reality is that none of these theories is ultimately wrong and all of them were likely contributing causes rather than sole sources of collapse. The army that beat Attila the Hun in concert with other barbarian allies likely resembled the legions of Caesar and Augustus only in the standards it carried.

Mr. Goldsworthy is a rising young star in the area of Roman history with a well regarded biography of Julius Caesar under his belt. The book moves quickly and weaves a compelling narrative that has enough new research to keep even well seasoned “Romaphiles” satisfied.

The primary difference between Rome and the United States is that both achieved true world-spanning superpower status after a civil war. The difference was that the American Civil War established the primacy of our Constitution and a tradition of peaceful transfer of power, while the great civil war that brought Augustus to the purple established a tradition of ascendency to power based on military capacity. Mr. Goldsworthy makes a good case that the road to ruin for the empire started at its birth, not where he begins his story of decline with the death of Marcus Aurelius at the dawn of the third century.

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps Officer. He is on a sabbatical from his teaching position at George Washington University and is now with the State Department serving with a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Iraq.

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