Book Review: The Eternal Decline and Fall of Rome: The History of a Dangerous Idea


by Edward J. Watts

Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2021. Pp. xiv, 301. Map, notes, index.. $ 30.00. ISBN: 0190076712

 The “Fall of Rome” as Recurring Political Meme

More than any other event in Western history the so-called “Decline and Fall of Rome” has been weaponized for centuries to promote a variety of social, religious, or ideological agendas. British historian Edward Gibbon (1737 - 1794) was not the first writer to popularize the concept of Rome’s “decline and fall,” but he was such a gifted stylist and diligent scholar that his influence has strongly shaped academic discourse for the past two centuries. As a good Englishman, Gibbon basically blamed the Church of Rome:

“The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity; the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of military spirit were buried in the cloister. A large portion of public and private wealth were consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion, and the soldiers' pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity. Faith, zeal, curiosity, and more earthly passions of malice and ambition kindled the flame of theological factions, whose conflicts were sometimes bloody and always implacable; the attention of the emperors was diverted from camps to synods; the Roman world was oppressed by a new species of tyranny, and the persecuted sects became the secret enemies of the country.” – Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, volume IV (1788)

Edward Watts, professor of History at the University of California, San Diego, revisits this long controversy in this learned and highly readable book that should be of interest to policy analysts as well as classicists.

One of this book’s many good features is the author’s careful use of coin inscriptions to support his argument. Many boastful emperors had themselves acclaimed as RESTITVTOR ORBIS (Restorer of the World.) For Roman rulers, the coinage was an important medium of public information, particularly to communicate official ideology to the literate elite (by some estimates, about 15% of the urban population could read Latin.)

Beginning with the Roman republic in the second century BCE, Watts traces how notions of decline, decadence, and renewal shaped Rome’s bitter internal conflicts.

Most of the middle chapters (Ch. 9 - 16) are a narrative history of the Eastern Roman (“Byzantine”) empire that non-specialist readers may find tedious, but the last two chapters, “A Dangerous Idea,” and “Conclusion: Roman Decline and Fall in Contemporary America” fully live up to the book’s ambitious title.


Our Reviewer: Mike Markowitz is an historian and wargame designer. He writes a monthly column for CoinWeek.Com and is a member of the ADBC (Association of Dedicated Byzantine Collectors). His previous reviews include, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, The Age of the Dromon: The Byzantine Navy, ca. 500-1204, Military Saints in Byzantium and Rus, 900-1200, Heroes and Romans in Twelfth-Century Byzantium: The Material for History of Nikephoros Bryennios, The Power Game in Byzantium: Antonina and the Empress Theodora, Siege Warfare and Military Organization in the Successor States (400-800 AD), Constantine XI Dragaš Palaeologus, Romanland: Ethnicity and Empire in Byzantium, The Emperor in the Byzantine World, The Politics of Roman Memory: From the Fall of the Western Empire to the Age of Justinian, Theodosius and the Limits of Empire, Byzantium Triumphant: The Military History of the Byzantines, 959–1025, Rome Resurgent: War and Empire in the Age of Justinian, Bohemond of Taranto, The Last Viking: The True Story of King Harald Hardrada, Ancient Rome: Infographics, Byzantium and the Crusades, A Short History of the Byzantine Empire, Theoderic the Great, The New Roman Empire: A History of Byzantium, Battle for the Island Kingdom, and Vandal Heaven.





Note: The Eternal Decline and Fall of Rome is also available in e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Mike Markowitz    

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