Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Adrian Goldsworthy's "How Rome Fell"

Adrian Goldsworthy is the author of many books about the ancient world including Caesar, The Roman Army at War, and In the Name of Rome. He lectures widely and consults on historical documentaries produced by the History Channel, National Geographic, and the BBC.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower, and reported the following:
Pg. 99 of How Rome Fell describes how the previously sporadic and localized persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire became far more concerted when the Emperor Decius commanded all of his subjects to perform a public sacrifice. Up until this point:

Christianity remained illegal, but only rarely was the law enforced, and most of the time Christians went about their normal lives and even practised their religion in a semi-public way. Decius’ edict challenged this and Christians responded in various ways....

How Christianity changed from being a persecuted sect to the official religion of the Empire is one of the threads running through the story of the last centuries of the Roman Empire. There were probably far more people sympathetic to Christianity than is often suggested:

Many who were not Christians still revered Jesus as a holy man. …. It is easy to forget that the polytheistic mindset made it easy to accept new deities, even if Christians themselves insisted that worshipping Christ must mean a denial of other gods.

People often claim that Gibbon in his classic Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire saw this as a cause of decline, but in fact his attitude was a good deal more complex. How Rome Fell tells the story of this process, but argues that this religious change made very little difference to how the Empire functioned or its ideology of power.

The chapter has the deliberately ambiguous title ‘King of Kings’, and begins with the rise of the Sassanid dynasty in Persia and the victories they won over a succession of Roman emperors. It is often argued that the appearance of this aggressive neighbour forced the Roman Empire to adapt, changing into a far more centralized state to meet the new threat. How Rome Fell argues that this is to misunderstand the evidence, and that the Persian success had a lot more to do with the internal weaknesses of an Empire split by civil war. Even the Decian persecution must be put into this context.

It was the act of a nervous new ruler, and one worried by foreign invasions, by the probability that usurpers would challenge, and also the continued impact of outbreaks of plague.

The thesis of How Rome Fell is that the Roman Empire rotted from within, its institutions and strength sapped by usurpations and civil wars so that emperors became more concerned with their own survival than actually ruling well.
Read an excerpt from How Rome Fell, and learn more about the book and author at Adrian Goldsworthy's website.

--Marshal Zeringue