The collapse of empires has been a recurring theme throughout history, and the decline and fall of the Roman Empire is one of the most prominent examples. The topic has fascinated many historians, but two recent books stand out as noteworthy contributions to the discourse: The Fall of the Roman Empire by Peter Heather and The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization by Bryan Ward-Perkins.
Both books offer compelling arguments about the causes of Rome’s downfall, with Heather focusing on the role of barbarian invasions and Ward-Perkins emphasizing the impact of economic collapse. Victor Davis Hanson, a renowned military historian, evaluates and compares the two books in his article “Collapse of a ‘hyperpower’.”
Hanson first acknowledges the distinction between the two books, noting that Heather presents a thorough and detailed analysis of the Germanic migrations that led to Rome’s collapse in the West, while Ward-Perkins examines the material evidence of the Roman Empire’s economic decline and fall. Despite these differences, Hanson observes that both authors share a common theme – that Rome’s collapse was not inevitable but was the result of a series of decisions made by its leaders and citizens.
Hanson also agrees with Ward-Perkins that Rome’s collapse had a profound impact on Western civilization, erasing centuries of intellectual, artistic, and scientific progress. This sentiment is echoed in Ward-Perkins’ book, as he writes, “The city…fell, and with it fell the triumphs of classical civilization, and the ability to read and write, and much knowledge of science and engineering, were lost.”
However, while Ward-Perkins emphasizes the importance of Rome’s technological and economic decline, Hanson questions whether these were the primary factors responsible for its collapse. In contrast, Heather’s view is that the invasions of Germanic tribes were the immediate cause of the empire’s disintegration.
Hanson acknowledges the plausibility of Heather’s argument, but highlights a central weakness in Heather’s analysis: the role of internal decay and political corruption in weakening Rome’s ability to resist barbarian attacks. Nonetheless, Hanson applauds Heather’s emphasis on the significant impact of the Germanic tribes on Rome’s political and social cohesion, noting that “their arrival in the territories immediately needed to sustain the empire burst the thin membrane of Roman control.”
In conclusion, Hanson’s article is a thought-provoking exploration of two seminal books on the fall of the Roman Empire. Both Heather and Ward-Perkins provide valuable perspectives on the causes and consequences of Rome’s collapse, and their work invites readers to consider the relevance of this historical event for our contemporary world. As Hanson asserts, the collapse of Rome should remind us that the decline of an empire is not inevitable, but rather the outcome of choices made by leaders and citizens. The fate of Rome should encourage us to pay closer attention to our own society’s weaknesses and strengths, lest we too suffer the same fate.