Review of ‘How Rome Fell’ – Adrian Goldsworthy

In a way, much of this book is miscast as an explanation of why the Western Roman Empire fell in the 400s.  In order to give deep background, he starts very early in the process, with the Antonines, like Gibbon did. But since Gibbon had several large volumes to fill and his subject was the decline as well as the fall, this wasn’t a problem for him.  And since Goldsworthy actually passes the fall and spends a chapter on the actions of the Eastern Emperors up to Justinian, the his theory of the causes of the fall gets lost in the narrative.

As a survey of the mid to late Western Empire, this book is first-rate. He has distilled the thin sources into a nice narrative package with rather more detail than a similar books.  To me the book was worth reading for that alone.

But as a presentation of a new theory, or a new emphasis on the cause of Rome’s fall the book is lacking.  Goldsworthy’s thesis is that the periodic Civil Wars progressively weakened Rome so that the external threats, which were essentially no stronger than in Julius Caesar’s time, could take the empire down.

There are a couple of problems with this analysis. The first is relative timing – the most chaotic and civil strife filled period was not near the end of the Empire’s life, but in the 235-284 AD period, two full centuries before the fall!  At the height of the crisis, the empire had split into three sections, Gaul/Spain/England governing itself and the East was ruled by Palmyra.  While Goldsworthy is correct in saying that these entities were self-help governments set up because of Rome’s inability to send aid rather than a true secessionist movement, his dismissing of their seriousness is unconvincing. If Rome had not quickly recovered under Aurelian to reclaim the areas, this division could have become permanent.

A similar thing happened in the 400s when Britannia and then Northern Gaul set up similar local defense zones when the power of the Empire ebbed. In this case, Rome never returned and the locals were eventually overwhelmed.

It is also questionable how much damage a civil war does in the long-term unless the diversion of effort allows external enemies to devastate or conquer territory. After all, in 50 years all the soldiers in the ancient army would be dead, be it in battle or of old age.  Roman Civil Wars tended to avoid massive sieges or sacks of cities.

And his other main support, that external threats were unchanged I also find dubious and his arguments unconvincing. In the early empire, Arminius the great Hero who destroyed three legions was killed by his own people for wanting to become a king. In the 400s, there were several hegemonic German groups under a fairly powerful king on the Rhine alone – Franks, Vandals, Alamanni, and Burgundians.  Each of these was organized enough to hold and possess portions of Roman land rather than dissipating into component groups. The Vandals remained a distinct entity for a century while occupying parts of Gaul, Spain, and finally North Africa.  This certainly seems like a substantial difference in organization to me.

Goldsworthy does not really try and back up his assertions in any depth, so even as a defense of a theory I don’t follow, the book is disappointing.

If you want a good overview of the middle to late Roman Empire this is a great book. As a study of the cause of the fall of the West, it is only of marginal use.

Notable Historical Trials II – Titus Oates

The updates have been slow of late – I’m on the point of finishing a few, and am not reading as much.  I did finish another chapter in the Folio Society set on Historical Trials – working on Volume II.

This chapter is on a man called Titus Oates, who , being pretty much a failure, decided to parlay his skills at fast talking with the current English fear of Catholics into power, influence and money.

While it had been a while since the Reformation and the Wars of Religion right after, England still was opposed by France and other Catholic Powers in Europe, so there was an understandable nervousness. Coupled with this was the heir to the throne, James II, was pretty unlikeable and was a not-so-closeted Catholic himself.  There was a growing fear  of what a Catholic King would mean.

So when Oates started claiming that he had been involved in secret Jesuit plots to kill the KIng, he was believed no matter how poor his evidence was. And as a result a number of prominent Catholics were put to death. After years of this and many victims, he began to fall out of fashion. When the climate had finally turned completely, he was tried himself and sentenced to be lashed.  The relatives of his victims were said to have gotten to the lasher, since he did it full bore the entire walk to the place of punishments, so that it was said that Oates took 3000 lashes (!).  He was also sentenced to be pilloried for an hour once a year in several places about the country each year.

Despite this, he lived for some years after, which is more than you can say for those he lied into their grave.

Notable Historical Trials II – The Marquise de Brinvilliers

This was a particularly interesting chapter in the compilation book published by the Folio Society, because I had just recently read ‘The Sun King’ by Nancy Mitford on Louis XIV and this event and its sequel figured prominently.  The bulk of the chapter was written by Alexandre Dumas in his book “Celebrated Crimes”.

The crime itself was a pretty spectacular one. The Marquise, having a spendthrift husband needed to increase her income.  Since you can’t go work at the 7-11 if you are in the aristocracy, you have to fall back on inheritance.  Sadly, her father wasn’t dying at the moment.

At this time there was a supply of poison experts around, but the Marquise wasn’t going to take their advice on faith. So she went to the city hospitals and brought poisoned treats to some of the poor patients and later inquired as to how they had passed away.

With the right poison in hand, she dosed her father and ‘nursed’ his way into a coffin. To her embarassment, however, she didn’t inherit much at all! So she had to also poison her brothers, and attempted to do in a sister as well.

Eventually, her poison supplier gave up her name to the authorities and she came under investigation. She had written a confession of her crimes and kept it in a box, which was found. So the trial itself was something of an anti-climax.

She was arrested, questioned, tortured after the conviction to smoke out any accomplices, and executed.  Her body was burned outside of Notre Dame in Paris.  There was a current joke that breathing in her ashes put an itch for poisoning in the air in the city, and in fact there was a rash of poisonings and rumors of poisonings leading up to “The Affair of the Poisons” in which members of the court of Louis XIV were implicated , supposedly even his mistress.

Notable Historical Trials II – The Suffolk Witches

I recently finished this chapter in the Folio Society compilation of historical trials.  This one is from the mid 17th Century and apparenly is one of the last ones that ended up with a conviction and execution.

The evidence seems to have been mostly a few girls who were going into states of insensibility and producing pins and nails from their mouths at intervals. Since they got worse in the presence of the witches, there you have it. Of course, when they were not able to see they got worse at the touch of a court spokesman, but this was dismissed. There was also a droll matter where when it was found that the ‘insensible’ girls could remember what went on when they were out, somehow this was considered a credit rather than a sign the girls were faking.

It all seems very familiar to one who has read about the Salem trials later, and nobody who has a sister will be shocked that they might get a charge out of getting somebody into trouble.

Knight’s Cross – update

I’ve made quite a bit of progress in this life of General Erwin Rommel.  World War II has started, and after spending the Polish campaign in 1939 shepherding Hitler around the fringe of the battlefield, he was given a Panzer Division to lead in the campaign in France.

Rommel was an old infantryman, but he took to armored warfare without missing a beat. His 7th Panzer Division advanced rapidly, disrupting the attempts of the French and English to block the advance across the Meuse. He kept the pressure on as fit his command style, outrunning his own supply and losing touch with this superior command. Nobody seemed to know where he was, and his command gained the nickname “The Ghost Division”.  He held off a minor English counterattack at Arras and stood down until after Dunkirk.

In early June, his division was one of the spearheads of the advance into the rest of France. The French in their prepared defenses resisted stubbornly, but when the panzers broke through they lacked the mobility to form a new line and began to scatter and give up.  Rommel again advanced extremely rapidly, reaching Cherbourg in Normandy by the time the French called for an armistice.

In the winter of 1940, the disaster suffered by the Italians in Africa prompted the Germans to send a force to try to restore the balance and defend Tripoli. Rommel was chosen to lead the German contingent, called the “Africa Corps” (in German Deutsch Afrika Korps, or DAK).  Characteristically, his idea of the best way to defend was to look for a chance to attack!

The book itself is a good one so far. The usual hero-worship is kept within some bounds. Rommel’s tendency to slip the leash and outrun his supply is at least mentioned as a possible issue, although to this point it is compensated for by his ultimate success in keeping the enemy off-balance.  On the issue of his support for Nazism, the tack seems to be to put it to a bit of political innocence rooted in the army’s tradition of being outside of politics and a dash of good cop/bad cop blaming of excesses on underlings and assuming Hitler’s essential uninvolvement, with a dash of “Rommel didn’t know”.

To a point, that’s fair enough. Certainly soldiers have an ingrained loyalty to the commander-in-chief, and Germans probably more than most.  We will see how this balance shifts later in the war and how the author handles it.