The Magazine

Why Rome Fell

The Empire was weak, the Barbarians were strong.

Sep 18, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 01 • By J.E. LENDON
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But there are fine epigrams, too--"finally the scourge of God went to meet his employer"--and the whole is an unusual pleasure to read for a book about antiquity, a field where the rhetorical bombast of the ancient authors seems so often to have stunned modern students into pallid stylelessness. There are wonders here that might stump even Martha Stewart: Once one has captured a Roman emperor (as the Persian King Shapur did in the third century A.D.) and skinned him and tanned his hide, should one use him as a rug or a wall-hanging?

Heather's rampaging barbarians trample the fantasy of a happy and sharing Late Antiquity: Their coming was not a celebratory weenie roast after a naturalization ceremony, but a cataclysm. But why could the rampage occur? Rome had always faced barbarians across its northern frontiers. Why, after centuries of holding the barbarians off--even crossing the rivers to thrash them when their misdeeds or Roman politics demanded--did the borders suddenly collapse in the decade after A.D. 400? Either the Romans became weaker or the barbarians stronger.

Ever since Gibbon, who sought in Christianity the cause of the empire's moral decay, the great weight of opinion has been on the side of domestic decline. Mostly of that nature were the 210 causes proposed for the fall of Rome--including lead-poisoning and that dangerous luxury, bathing--which had piled up by the time a hard-working German collected them in 1984. But Heather, refreshingly, argues instead for stronger barbarians. Centuries of fighting the Romans compelled Rome's neighbors to become stronger for their own defense; and when a yet stronger power (the Huns) pushed them west, they were ultimately strong enough to break into the empire.

The Spartans were said to have an ancient law that forbade them from fighting the same enemies too often, lest those foes become better warriors than the Spartans. Peter Heather draws the same fearful lesson from the fall of Rome.

J.E. Lendon, associate professor of history at the University of Virginia, is the author of Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity.