The Roman Empire: Rise and Fall

Author Rating:
Average User Rating:
  • Author:
    Stephen P Kershaw
    This account of the Roman Empire by Stephen P Kershaw, a Classics Tutor of Oxford University's Department for Continuing Education and Professor of History of Art at the University of the South, was first published in 2013. It is now available in paperback and as a Kindle book. It is the best available short history of the Empire. If you do not have the time and inclination to read Gibbon's "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" or to go to original sources like Tacitus, Livy or Cicero, this is the book for you. Kershaw's style is lively, readable and colloquial, marred only by occasional irritating mistakes like "right off" (write off) and a reference to "The Psalms of Solomon" (either the Song of Solomon or the Psalms of David is presumably meant).

    The book's title is slightly misleading, as it is only concerned with the Western Empire, which lasted officially from 27 BC to 476 AD; more than 500 years. The Eastern, later known as the Byzantine, Empire, ruled from Constantinople, lasted for a further millennium; until 1453, when the aggressive Islamic State of Ottoman Turkey finally destroyed that brilliant civilisation. But even the Western Empire, as Kershaw makes plain, had an afterlife. The elective Holy Roman Empire (800 - 1806 AD) was its ghostly successor, as arguably was the Papacy. Its influence continues to this day.

    The Roman Empire still matters, for many reasons. Most European legal systems are based on Roman Law, including the Code Napoleon and Scots Law; even the Law of the former Soviet Union. Roman architecture has often been revived and reinterpreted. The USA's Founding Fathers thought it appropriate to a Republic (unlike Gothic revival architecture, which gave out the wrong political message); hence the Roman temples that adorn Washington. Napoleon, Hitler and Mussolini also liked it, for quite different reasons. Latin, the Roman lingua franca, is the parent of modern Italian, French, Occitan, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, Romanian and other Romance languages, and has profoundly influenced some non-Romance languages, including English and German. It is only a slight exaggeration to write, as Kershaw does, that "culturally, Rome never fell; her history is our present and all roads lead from, rather than to, Rome".
    Kershaw takes pleasure in standing popular assumptions about the Empire - many of which date from the Victorian period - on their heads. For example, "we all know" that the failure of any imperial dynasty to last for very long was a serious weakness. Had the Romans established dynasties that lasted for centuries like the Sung or the Ming in China, runs this argument, the Empire might have lasted much longer. Some authors have added a moralising gloss; so many of the Emperors were unfortunately gay or bisexual, which did not help; the brilliant and cultured Soldier-Emperor Hadrian being a particularly flagrant example.

    Maybe; but, as Kershaw points out, the hereditary system could just as easily produce a monster like Caligula or Nero, who was guaranteed to provoke a revolution, as a statesman like Augustus. Under the "Five Good Emperors" (Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius), Rome enjoyed exceptionally good government at home and military success abroad. But the Five Good Emperors did not constitute a dynasty; they were not, or not closely, related. They nominated their heirs and the main qualification to become the heir was to be a successful general.

    Rome did not fall due to moral corruption or lack of a hereditary monarchy, but to mismanagement of the tax system and the economy; failure to maintain the Army and Navy at sufficient strength; failure to control and defend the Empire's borders and above all to failure to repel the barbarian invasions of the fifth century AD. The earliest barbarians had arrived as pathetic refugees fleeing from the Huns; fit subjects for the compassion of the now-Christian Empire. Soon however they were very numerous; too numerous to control. Many of them were serving in the Roman Army. When ever-larger numbers of barbarians fled westwards ahead of the Huns, they refused to keep their kinsfolk out. They flooded in and took over the Western Empire, which broke up into a number of barbarian-led kingdoms. The barbarians repaid their hosts by wrecking the Empire and sacking Rome in 476 AD. The Goths and Vandals were followed by the Huns, and the rest is history. It cannot be argued that these "migrants" enriched the life of the Empire in any respect.

    What is surprising is that so much survived in the event: not in Britain, where 400 years of civilisation vanished down the u-bend, but in other places, such as France and Italy. Towards the end of the Empire, Ausonius (circa 310 – 395 AD) was a Roman poet and teacher of rhetoric, living near modern Bordeaux. He was the tutor of the future emperor Gratian, who later made him Consul. He eventually retired to his country estate to write. It is still there, still producing the Chateau-Ausone wine.

    Four-and-a-half mushroom-heads

    by Metellus Cimber
You and singha61 like this.

User Comments

To post comments, simply sign up and become a member!
  1. metellus cimber
    Postscript: Although we always refer to the Five Good Emperors, they should arguably be six. Marcus Aurelius completely overshadowed his worthy co-Emperor, Lucius Verus. As a result, Verus tends to be forgotten. Ironically, although it proves Kershaw's point, the reign of the Five Good Emperors ended when Marcus Aurelius died and was succeeded in the "normal" way by his son Commodus, who was a disaster, on a par with Calgula.
  2. David Powell
    Read this book a while ago, but i do have a fascination for all things Rome.
    Very well written, easy to dip in and dip out of.
    Would also recommend the Roman Soldier by GR Watson which covers the day to day experiences and pay, structure and command of the basic Roman Grunt
  3. metellus cimber
    Spider 39, A lot depended on where you lived. Sewers and central heating continued in use in the Eastern Empire for centuries after 576 AD, and also in some Western places like Southern France and parts of Italy. A factor may have been the durability of the Roman infrastructure. In Italy and the provinces where the Romans had been present for centuries, sophisticated aqueducts and sewerage systems survived the Empire and went on working for a long time afterwards. The Cloaca Maxima of Rome is still working. In Britain and the other outlying provinces it was different. The Roman conquest of Britain was a gradual process, starting in 43 AD with Claudius' invasion. Roman cultural influence was less profound. There was not the same massive investment in infrastructure, although some impressive Roman roads and ruins have survived in Britain. The province was effectively abandoned to its fate in the early fifth century AD. The invading barbarians did not wish to live like Romans or to live in the former Roman towns. The civilised Romano-Britons were pushed westward and northward into the least-civilised parts of the island. You are right about another thing: famous Romans survive in the folk-memory. Julius Caesar, for example, is even now either a popular hero or a villain, but certainly not forgotten, in Southern France and Italy. Caesar's vast ghost is still with us.
  4. skid2
    Great timing. Been looking for something like this