Sunday, May 03, 2009

Goldsworthy interview: How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower

New Books in History interviewed author Adrian Goldsworthy about his new book, "How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower. Goldsworthy essentially said that analysts have been so busy sifting through the minutia of Late Antiquity to formulate yet another theory (according to Goldsworthy there are already 210) that they have overlooked the obvious.

"The late Roman Empire was ill, but it was hardly on its death bed in the third and fourth centuries. Moreover, even at its weakest moments, the Empire was hugely more powerful than any of its competitors. In order to understand how the Romans managed to pull defeat out of the jaws of victory (or at least survival) Goldsworthy says we need to look at Roman politics, or what I would call Roman “political culture.” In Goldsworthy’s telling, the Roman political elite forgot what the empire was for, that is, to serve the interests of the Romans (the “Res publica”). Instead, up-and-coming Roman leaders were primarily interested in making it to the top and staying there. That meant staying alive, and since many failed do so for very long, long-term political instability ensued." - More: New Books In History

Goldsworthy expresses his opinion that a tendency for emperors to ignore the Senate and turn to the far more numerous equestrian order for bureaucratic and military leadership positions, especially after the assassination of the Emperor Caracalla, meant an increase in potential competitors for the job of emperor. This highly competitive environment, a sharp contrast from the dynastic successions of the earlier Empire, bred civil wars that eventually fatally weakened the empire from within.

He made an interesting point that if you examine the social structure and behaviors of the German "barbarians" in the 4th century CE, that you really don't see that much difference with the behaviors of their ancestors in the 1st century BCE. He said that the Germans, like their Persian counterparts in the East, were not successful against the Romans until Roman troops were drawn away into civil wars.

Goldsworthy also doesn't see much parallel between the decline of the Roman Empire and the modern trajectory of the United States. He points out that the context of the two civilizations is totally different.

The hour long podcast is well worth a listen!

Goldsworthy says his next book will be a followup to his biography of Julius Caesar - an examination of the lives and motivations of Antony and Cleopatra. He said it should be available by the end of the year. It will be interesting to compare his analysis with the personifications in Colleen McCullough's Antony and Cleopatra: A Novel (Masters of Rome)
that I liked very much!