I’ve made a bit more progress on this book by Adrian Goldsworthy, which like Gibbon starts with the Antonines in charting the decline and fall. His thesis is to be that the periodic civil wars were the determining factor, and not that the barbarians or Persians were stronger or more organized as recent works stress.
Replacing one theory that may be two simplistic with a second one that is equally simplistic is a tall order.
I am now at the end of the crisis of the third century, when the empire was spilt into three parts, the frontiers were overrun almost at will and emperors were deposed by unruly troops almost annually. Civil wars were virtually constant. Sadly for the thesis, the fall did not take place for another two hundred years, so he is forced to downplay this crisis as not such a big deal in order to form a continuum from the Antonines (Rome Strong) to the Fall (Rome Weak). If Rome was weak and got stronger, the theory that each war made a progressive and essentially unfixable hole in the fabric of the empire is unsustainable.
Lord knows that civil wars are a bad thing. But a generation or two away from this war, those that died and those that did not all will have passed away. Crops are replanted, populations recover, sacked cities are rebuilt. The wonderful Antonine empire he holds up was built on about a hundred years of civil strife and wars to create the empire, and a second civil war in 69 AD. So was Rome even stronger before that?
He also has to downplay the increase in the external threats – he claims there is no detectable improvement over this entire period. I don’t think this will be sustainable. Barbarians like the Goths went from mere border raids to far more substantial sea-going ones in this period. The growth of the confederations like the Alamanni and Franks has not happened, but this speaks to an increase in organization as well.
Personally, I think Rome was weaker – partly due to wars and partly due to the increasing tendency for East and West to be ruled without reference to each other, a tendency that was exacerbated by the weakness of the Emperors after 395 AD. But I think the Barbarian threat was also stronger and more organized – and instead of wanting to raid and go home they wanted to occupy portions of the West.
We will see. But in any event, the book is giving a good concise picture of the state of the empire in these centuries, so it’s worth reading.