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The Roman Empire: Rise and Fall

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
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metellus cimber
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