Book Review – How Rome Fell by Adrian Goldsworthy

Given the success my Time of Crisis review, the game about the critical period from 235 – 284 AD when the Roman Empire was in chaos, I thought I would explore one of the best books I’ve ever read on the subject, How Rome Fell by Adrian Goldsworthy.

This book covers not just the Time of Crisis period, but all the way up to 476 and what’s widely considered the fall of the Western Empire.

How Rome Fell

Thankfully, I’ve already written a review of it for Curled Up With a Good Book, and I think it’s a review I’d like to share here as well. I used to write book reviews for Curled Up, and it’s still a great site for book reviews. Please check them out.

This review was written in 2009. I’ve modified it for “modern” audiences (mainly edits about how I “just” got the book, etc).

After the review, I’ll talk a little bit more about the game and the book and how they fit together.

Review

Widely acclaimed for his biography of Caesar which I have not read, Adrian Goldsworthy has a stellar reputation in the ancient history world. Thus, when I had a chance to pick up his book, How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower, I had to jump at it. While I have read many books on the Roman Republic and its fall, I didn’t know much about the end of the Roman Empire. Goldsworthy’s very readable history of the last three centuries of the Empire gives an overview of how Rome eventually split into two separate empires, with the western empire completely collapsing over the span of 100 years.

Goldsworthy begins with the most important question: just how did Rome fall? Was it barbarian invasions? Societal decay and corruption? Opinions are divided on this issue, but Goldsworthy seems to see it as a combination of these things. Ostensibly, the Empire fell in 476 A.D., when the last Roman emperor who ruled from Italy was deposed by a Germanic invader. However, some see the Empire as having already fallen even before this date, with pretenders to the throne ruling before this. The Roman emperors since Marcus Aurelius died in 180 were much weaker for the most part than those who had preceded him. Throughout a period of 60 years or so in the third century, there were 65 claimants to the Roman throne, some lasting only days. Some say this internal strife is essentially what eventually killed the Empire, with the barbarians just being the executioners, and Goldsworthy seems to agree with that viewpoint.

“Long decline was the fate of the Roman Empire. In the end, it may well have been ‘murdered’ by barbarian invaders, but these struck a body made vulnerable by prolonged decay.” (pg 415)

Goldsworthy begins the book in his introduction by discussing not only this question, but also how this question has been addressed in the past and is being examined now. Historians who have tried to answer this question often brought their own prejudices with them. Gibbon, who wrote The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in the 18th century, refused to cite one single reason, mentioning all of the possibilities and also claiming that the advent of Christianity (Gibbon had an inherent dislike of the Papacy) weakened the Empire irreparably.

Once past the introduction, Goldsworthy gives a fairly detailed history from the death of Aurelius to 476 and beyond, going emperor by emperor, describing how the Senate’s power waned as more and more emperors assumed absolute power, and how the military became the source of political power. Soldiers would rise up, kill their emperor, and declare one of their own. Sometimes, if they were in far off provinces, they simply declared their intentions to become emperor and civil war would develop. In this time period, the Empire was weakened by the fact that much of the fighting the army did was against other Roman soldiers. Yes, there was the occasional powerful emperor, like Constantine and Diocletian, but they were the rarities, even after the seemingly non-stop wave of emperors ended. There were still many challengers to be put down.

Goldsworthy’s prose is excellent, rarely boring, and always informative. He acknowledges in the introduction that sources for a large part of the late Roman Empire either don’t exist or at best can’t be trusted. Even for periods where there are many existing documents, much of the information can be exaggerated. This is especially true when it comes to battles and how many men participated or were killed, but it is also true regarding how the Roman economic system worked. Goldsworthy pieces together a lot of information but isn’t afraid to tell the reader when he’s surmising something, and he gives valid reasons for his hypotheses.

In covering this long period of time leading up to the Fall, Goldsworthy also imparts some good information about the Germanic tribes themselves. He covers the Goths, Huns, Burgundians, and many others, as well as the Persians, who were a large part of the conflict in this time period in the East. For hundreds of years – throughout most of the span of this book – the Persians were either invading the eastern part of the Empire or the Romans were invading them. Peace did not last long between these peoples. I found especially interesting how the Huns suddenly appear on the scene under Attila, but when he dies it’s almost like they fade away.

In the Introduction, Goldsworthy mentions how many people try to use the fall of the Roman Empire in modern context, either talking about the British Empire in the 1800s or the United States now. Toward the end of the book, he says that this comparison is never perfect and doesn’t really apply to the modern era except in certain parts. As long as the defeated presidential candidate doesn’t rally armed forces and declare himself President anyway, the modern era doesn’t really fit the mold. Roman emperors toward the end of the Empire began to see their own power as more important than the survival of their people, their culture. They became increasingly removed from Rome, not only physically (for a large number of years during this period, Rome really wasn’t the center of government) but also culturally. They saw themselves as Romans, of course, but it didn’t really mean anything.

The end of How Rome Fell contains the standard bibliography and notes (while I prefer footnotes at the bottom of the page, at least Goldsworthy’s endnotes are numbered so they’re easy to reference if desired). It also includes a full timeline of the period covered in the book. “Legitimate” emperors are in capitals and “usurpers” are in italics, which makes things a lot easier to understand. There is also a glossary of terms, which is very helpful as well.

How Rome Fell is a fascinating book that will never bore you (unless history itself bores you, in which case you won’t be reading this anyway). Goldsworthy’s readable style makes the book enjoyable, with tons of information to process as well. Whole books could probably be written just about certain time periods covered in this book (or perhaps not, depending on the availability of sources), but this overview is a must-read for anyone with an interest in the Roman Empire.

Analysis

Re-reading this review so I could post it here, it just strikes me even harder how wonderfully Time of Crisis gives you the feel of that rough and tumble period.

The never-ending barbarian invasions taking advantage of Roman chaos, soldiers rising up and killing the emperor and installing one of their generals, or even generals in far-flung provinces deciding to just declare themselves Emperor and use their armies as support.

The following quote from my review just really hit me: “In this time period, the Empire was weakened by the fact that much of the fighting the army did was against other Roman soldiers.”

The game captures this perfectly, with players forming their armies both to take on the barbarian hordes but to also help take over provinces or to install themselves in Rome.

It’s not uncommon in the game for a player’s large army to go into Rome and thus help them take Italia politically. You can do a lot when your army controls the populace.

Of course, the book covers a lot more than this critical period, going all the way to the end of the Empire. While Diocletian was one of the few strong emperors up until the fall, his random event will actually end the game immediately (something I didn’t point out in the review of the game, as it happens so rarely). Burgundians and Huns were a problem much later than the game’s time period, but Goths, Franks, and other barbarian tribes feature heavily in the game.

I highly recommend the book, but even if you just want to read up on the game’s time period, it’s well worth checking out.

2 Comments on “Book Review – How Rome Fell by Adrian Goldsworthy

    • This was a combination of a couple of things: inspiration because of my Time of Crisis review and not wanting to just have a repost with no new content. 🙂 Thanks for the kind words!

      I totally agree with you about board games and history. That’s why I love your blog. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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