Today, we often hear America’s political and economic difficulties analogized to those of the late Roman Empire. Anyone who really wants to know the extent to which our problems are similar to those of the Romans should read British historian Adrian Goldsworthy’s recent book How Rome Fell. Goldsworthy shows that the main cause of Rome’s collapse had little or no parallel in the modern United States. That cause was constant civil war. Over the last 250 years of the Western Roman Empire, more emperors were killed by rivals for the throne than died of natural causes. Even more importantly, Goldsworthy argues that more Roman soldiers were killed in civil conflict than by foreign enemies such as the Huns and Persians. Given the constant threat of a coup, most emperors had to focus their efforts on survival, often at the expense of defense against external threats. For example, military commanders and provincial governors were chosen on the basis of personal loyalty to the emperor rather than ability. In a fine application of public choice theory, Goldsworthy notes that late Roman emperors often were afraid to allow subordinates to win victories against barbarian enemies, because the successful general might then use his victories create a power base which he could use to overthrow his master. Obviously, the massive loss of life and economic resources caused by civil war undermined Rome as well. Goldsworthy is not the first scholar to point out that late imperial Rome suffered from massive civil conflict. But he makes an important contribution in emphasizing the ways in which this was the most important cause of the empire’s collapse.
Goldsworthy also considers other possible causes of Rome’s decline. For example, he effectively rebuts the traditional view that it was caused by the rise of Christianity, pointing out that Christian emperors pursued policies that were similar to those of their pagan predecessors, except on the issue of religion itself. Some of the causes that he does give credence to do have modern parallels. Thus, he notes the growth of an increasingly expensive and inefficient government bureaucracy, and burdensome taxation. Roman taxes and government bureaucracy were not onerous by modern standards; but they were a major burden on the far more limited resources of an ancient state. However, Goldsworthy stresses that these factors were far less important than the massive civil wars. Moreover, a large part of the taxation was imposed because of the need to finance civil wars, and pay for the loyalty of key generals and military units that might otherwise support usurpers.
Although I’m not an expert on the subject by any means, I have a longstanding interest in ancient Greek and Roman political history and try to keep up with the literature to the extent I can. Goldsworthy’s book is the best in this field that I have read in some time. I’m also a big fan of his earlier book on the Punic Wars, which gives the best explanation I have seen of why Rome defeated Carthage and became the dominant power in the Mediterranean.