As of about AD 200, the Roman Empire was by far the most powerful state within its known world, and had been for over two hundred years. Three hundred years later, the western half of the Empire had ceased to exist, and the remaining part, while still powerful, no longer held the clear advantage over its neighbors that the earlier empire had. Adrian Goldworthy’s How Rome Fell is technically a re-examination of how this came about.

However, while this thesis is talked about at the beginning of the book, and then discussed at the end of the book, there’s no real reference to it during the book. Instead, it is just a general history of those three hundred plus years. However, it is a very good history of the period, and I think this would be a great place to start for someone wanting to study Late Antiquity. Not only is it generally well-written, but it spends a fair amount of time showing how little we truly know (about the population, economy, actual size of the Roman army in many periods…), and exploding old certainties.

The concluding chapter is also short on certainties, but long on thoughtful commentary about the various ills of the Empire. The main conclusion is that the Empire weakened itself through interminable civil wars. Worse, the reaction to these civil wars was to attempt to remodel the Empire to protect emperors from assassination and rivals, and fail. One of the points that Goldsworthy proposes as key, is the removal of the vestiges of political power and importance from the Senate. When senators stopped being the primary pool to get new emperors from (when the chancy business of dynastic succession fails), the pool of candidates actually became larger, more dispersed, and impossible to control.

His thoughts on the separate fates of the Western and Eastern Empires mostly come down to geography. Among other effects, the various tribal leaders to cross the frontiers had nowhere else to go than the Western Empire. There were no comparable threats to most of the Eastern frontier, and that part that did have power tribal confederations was the Danube. Thrace and Greece were not places they could get very far in, they couldn’t cross the Bosphorus to Asia Minor, and that left… the Western Empire. In addition, most of the rebellions and usurpers came from the western provinces, why is not clear, but it may just be success breeding more attempts.

And then there is the quasi-subtitle (only seen on the title page): Death of a Superpower. Goldsworthy equates Rome as a superpower in that there was no other entity that could come close to matching it’s size, wealth, manpower, or ability to project power. (Well, China would be an exception, but since it had no way of getting at the Empire, or any of its neighbors, it is ignored.) The final epilogue (and much of the introduction) talks about the inevitable parallels people try to draw between the Roman Empire and the United States, and dismisses many of them. But he does meditate a bit on the problems of bureaucracy, and the dangers of any institution forgetting what its primary purpose is.

Circling back to the content of the bulk of the book, it is a well done survey of the period, and an excellent place to start if you are not well aware of the history of those three to four hundred years. It is less useful to those who have studied the period (I found most of the book familiar ground), but it is still a good single reference book, and there will be some new touches for most people.