For the first time in more than a decade, the pleasure of teaching ancient history is mine. Review is necessary to avoid accusations of teaching malpractice, and my colleagues have offered to bolster my rusty skills with advice, information and help. Our classics teacher, Dr. David Mehl, handed me a copy of the "Atlas of the Roman World" by Tim Cornell and John Matthews, and advised me that the book was scholarly and thorough without being pedantic or ponderous. That was a tactful way of saying it wouldn't be too hard for me to handle.
The issue of the decline and ultimate fall of the western portion of the Roman Empire has fascinated scholars for generations, but reasons or answers for such a complicated and multifaceted historic phenomenon resist large- scale or simple interpretation. Complexity resists clarity. My students and occasionally my readers sometimes ask me, "Why don't you give us a few conclusions instead of simply asking questions?" and I respond with the observation that plenty of people seem to know all the answers, while I spend more time wondering if we are even asking the right questions. I prefer to leave certainty to those who are certain.
That is why I like the approach to the decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire adapted by Cornell and Matthews.
They acknowledge the human impulse to accept one clear answer, recognizing but not elaborating upon the suspect fall of Rome theories of climate change and blood poisoning from lead pipes. They recognize the analogy between the Roman Empire and a biological organism with its inevitable decline and death, even giving a nod to Voltaire who said simply that the empire ended because all things must end.
On a more serious note, they consider the widely-held contention that the empire declined because leadership morality declined but observe that the late emperors were quite solid and morally earnest fellows. It was the Judio-Claudian emperors and the leaders of the late republic who were famous for their immorality and decadence, and the empire survived long after they were distant memories.
The great British historian Gibbon cannot be dismissed lightly, and he argued that the decline of the Western Roman Empire was a consequence of its structure. Such extraordinary physical coercion was required to sustain the sheer immensity of the empire that citizens lost their sense of liberty and the concomitant interest in its preservation when the invasion came. The military classes had lost the spirit of collective courage and were overindulged by the emperors.
In addition, Gibbon theorized that Christianity diverted men's minds from civic duty to other-worldly concerns. Cornell and Matthews find this unpersuasive because the Eastern Roman Empire was equally Christian and survived for many years after the fall of the West.
Cornell and Matthews consider a few specifics in examining the West's fall: loss of two-thirds of its Eastern field army at the battle of Hadrianople (378), the appalling waste of Julian's Persian campaign, the civil wars of Constantius, the battle of Mursa (351) which depleted manpower, the agreement in 376 to admit Goths to the empire to fight for Rome, thereby eroding Rome internally. All of this together suggests a cause of the decline and fall related to reach exceeding grasp. The Roman Empire did not have the manpower to sustain itself. It lost its soldier/citizens in unnecessary and wasteful military operations.
Another distinct problem that Cornell and Matthews emphasize is the refusal of the senatorial landed class to carry its share of financial obligations. Put another way, the senators put self-interest ahead of the country's interest. They were the richest and most powerful class, but they were unwilling to sacrifice for the benefit of their country. Others could pay or sacrifice, but not the wealthiest. The people who benefited most from the privileges of citizenship were least willing to contribute.
Every history teacher knows better than to impose the lessons of the past on the circumstances of the present. New twists, new circumstances, make the fit of old lessons on new problems a poor one. Nonetheless, and with the purpose of infuriating my students, a question (not an answer) occurs to me: To what extent do the lessons Cornell and Matthews draw from the Western Roman Empire's fall apply to us today?