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Adrian Goldworthy is one of our great popular historians. His narrative histories of ancient Rome are immensely readable for the layman, but detailed enough and sufficiently referenced for even professionals to have to reckon with. So if Edward Gibbon's was once the authoritative account of the "Decline and Fall", this new book will likely serve as a new standard.

As Gibbon, Mr. Goldsworthy begins with the death of Marcus Aurelius (180 AD), when the Empire is considered to have reached its high tide. He then marches us through centuries fraught with assassinations, civil war, "barbarian" invasions, wars with Persia, the rise of Islam, a splitting of the Empire into East and West, and so on, until there's a brief period of productive stability under Justinian and then the Western Empire is unofficially declared dead when a German warlord, Odoacer, is crowned King of Italy by his troops (476 A.D.). The Eastern Empire, Byzantium, would linger on for centuries longer and always identify itself as Roman, but for purposes of analysis, the Roman Empire as a recognizable entity had passed

It perhaps tells us all we need to know that it becomes impossible to keep track of all the emperors of this period and of the enemies they faced. This despite the fact that Mr. Goldsworthy relates the history as lucidly as anyone could. As one professor said :
This is not a book that I could use in the classroom--too thick, too well-written, and perhaps most dangerously, too clear.

Nonetheless the overwhelming sense that one gets is of the near daily instability at the top of the Empire. There's plenty of analysis here of the trends that other historians have identified as causing the decline and fall : moral lassitude; the emasculating quality of Christianity; immigration; overextension of the Empire; fearsome new opponents; etc. But Mr. Goldsworthy diminishes or dismisses them all. In the end, he identifies one simple explanation--the one that emerges from reciting the history in the first place--that the Empire had become nothing but a stage for acting out petty personal ambition. The point of all the murders and wars was not to advance ideas, but to advance the men behind them.

From Augustus to Marcus Aurelius there had been some effort made to pretend that the emperor still ruled jointly with the Senate. This not only limited the number of potential rival claimants to the throne--to members of the Senate--but also tied the Empire back to the Republic to some degree.
At a basic level the emperors and government officials of the Late Roman Empire had forgotten what the empire was for. The wider interests of the state--the Res Publica, or "public thing", from which we get our word "Republic"--were secondary to their personal success and survival.
Having just finished reading Dictator by Robert Harris and Rubicon by Tom Holland, I am struck by how well Cicero and Cato come off, with their warnings that betraying the Republic would prove disastrous for Rome. Sure, the state was powerful enough to hang on for some time, but what did it do, what did the myriad emperors do, during those long death throes that is worthy of our regard? Ultimately, what did Rome hand on but--as Rodney Stark says--concrete, Christianity and Republicanism?

For my money, the fall of Rome occurred closer to 49 B.C than to 476 A.D..


Grade: (A)


See also:

Adrian Goldsworthy (3 books reviewed)
Adrian Goldsworthy Links:

    -Adrian GoldsworthyWikipedia)
    -BOOK SITE: Caesar: Life of a Colossus by Adrian Goldsworthy (Yale University Press)
    -BOOK SITE: How Rome Fell (Yale University Press)
    -GOOGLE BOOK : How Rome Fell
    -AUDIO LECTURE: Adrian Goldsworthy: How Rome Fell (Adrian Goldsworthy, October 15, 2009, at the Central Library, 14 W. 10th Street, Kansas City, MO.
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Adrian Goldsworthy interview, "How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower" (Marshall Poe, University of Iowa, 5-1-2009, New Books Network)
-ESSAY: Brutus says he was ambitious: On Caesar, Cato & the fall of the Roman Republic. (Adrian Goldsworthy, February 2023, New Criterion)
    -ESSAY: An Empire of the Mediterranean: There was more to Carthage than her defeat by Rome (ADRIAN GOLDSWORTHY, 7/23/11, WSJ)
    -ESSAY: Caesar: Diplomacy and power: How would four of the greatest war leaders in history have handled Iraq? (Adrian Goldsworthy, December 29, 2006, LA Times)
    -REVIEW: of THE CLASSICAL WORLD: An Epic History From Homer to Hadrian by Robin Lane Fox (Adrian Goldsworthy, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Jonathan P. Roth, The Logistics of the Roman Army at War (264 BC - AD 235) (Adrian Goldsworthy, Bryn Mawr Classical Review)
    -REVIEW: of Greg Woolf, Rome: An Empire‚Äôs Story (Adrian Goldsworthy, National Interest)
    -VIDEO INTERVIEW: Adrian Goldsworthy (Book TV, 12/16/06)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: with Adrian Goldsworthy (Tom Ashbrook, 9/15/06, On Point)
    -PODCAST: with Adrian Goldsworthy (Yale University Press)
    -ESSAY: Decline and Fall. And Hope. (Dr. Edmund J. Mazza, February 03, 2013, Catholic World Report)
    -ESSAY: Why Rome Fell (Richard A. Gabriel, 7/3/2013, HistoryNet)
    -ESSAY: Gibbon, the Muses, and the Decline of Rome (Michael Auslin, National Review)
    -ARCHIVES: "adrian goldsworthy (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower by Adrian Goldsworthy (Diana Preston, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of How Rome Fell (Bruce S. Thornton, New Criterion)
    -REVIEW: of How Rome Fell (Hugh Elton, Trent University , Bryn Mawr Classical Review)
This is not a book that I could use in the classroom--too thick, too well-written, and perhaps most dangerously, too clear.

    -REVIEW: of How Rome Fell (Brandon Crocker, American Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of How Rome Fell (Marc Tracy, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of How Rome Fell (Peter Stothard, Times Literary Supplement)
    -REVIEW: of How Rome Fell (Dr. Philip Matyszak, UNRV History)
    -REVIEW: of How Rome Fell (About Ancient History)
    -REVIEW: of How Rome Fell (Ilya Somin, Volokh Conspiracy)
    -REVIEW: of How Rome Fell (Alexander Wilson, Armchair General)
    -REVIEW: of Caesar: Life of a Colossus by Adrian Goldsworthy (Tom Holland, The Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of Caesar (Adam Kirsch, NY Sun)
    -REVIEW: of Caesar (Anthony Everitt, Independent)
    -REVIEW: of Caesar (Christopher Hart, Independent)
    -REVIEW: of Caesar (Steve Coates, International Herald Tribune)
    -REVIEW: of Caesar (Dave Gagon, Deseret Morning News)
    -REVIEW: of Caesar (David Walton, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)
    -REVIEW: of Caesar (A.A. Nofi, Strategy Page)
    -REVIEW: of Caesar (The Week)
    -REVIEW: of Caesar (N.S. Gill,
    -REVIEW: of Caesar (Irene Hahn,
    -REVIEW: of Caesar (Blake D. Dvorak, Washington Times)
    -REVIEW: of Caesar (Pete Stothard, Globe & Mail)
    -REVIEW: of Caesar (Noonie Minogue, The Tablet)
    -REVIEW: of Caesar (Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Caesar (Tara Pepper, Newsweek)
    -REVIEW: of Caesar (Tracy Lee Simmons, Washin gton Post)
    -REVIEW: of How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower By Adrian Goldsworthy (Brandon Crocker , American Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of (
    -REVIEW: of IN THE NAME OF ROME by Adrian Goldsworthy (Allan Massie, The Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of The Roman Army at War 100 BC-AD 200 by Adrian K. Goldsworthy (Dr. Randall S. Howarth, Bryn Mawr Classical Review)
    -REVIEW: of Roman Warfare by Adrian Goldsworthy (Ashton Boone, Encompass: A Journal of Military History)
    -REVIEW: of Phillip & Alexander by Adrian Goldsworthy (NB)

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