Rome Near the End

I am half way through the book The End of Empire: Attila the Hun and the Fall of Rome by Christopher Kelly.   It is a fascinating look both at the rise of the Huns and Attila, as well as the fall of the Roman Empire.   In the late 300s and early 400 its fascinating to see how the Roman Empire — it’s western center by then in Ravenna, while the eastern empire was more secure in Constantinople (now Istanbul) — was dealing with the geopolitics of the era.

The empire at 400 AD, the West is red, the Eastern Empire light blue

At this point in time Rome appears to be every bit an empire as ever, albeit dividing administrative functions between two capitals.    Yet in many ways Rome had already fallen.   Even as the Emperors and Generals of East and West tried to deal with various attacks by the “Barbarians” – Goths, Vandels, and of course Huns – they did so with the idea that they were protecting civilization from something dark and foreboding.

The book begins in 370, long before Attila, when the Huns first came upon the European scene.   They probably were from the steppes of Kazakhstan, moving westward and encountering Gothic tribes first.    Early on they seemed loosely organized, and often were willing mercenaries for the Goths and even the Romans.   In 376 a Goth leader of the Tervingi named Fritigern headed to the Danube river fleeing the Huns and asking the Romans for asylum.   They received it, but later rebelled in response to Roman mistreatment — with the help of Hun mercenaries.   The Roman borders had been breached, and soon the Emperors were making more deals, allowing outside tribes to have land in the Empire as long as they converted to Christianity.

The Empire was not what it used to be.   It was Christian, and the late Roman Emperors saw themselves in a pious role as defending Christianity.   Rome had been the most successful experiment in multiculturalism in human history, absorbing numerous ideas and cultures.   Now defining itself as Christian the goal was not just to defend the empire, but also support the faith.  Yet beyond that Rome was a shadow of its former self.    Once honor and virtue defined Roman life.  It was brutal; we’d call it inhumane.   What today would count as atrocities were everyday occurrences.   But such was the stuff of the people who conquered Europe, northern Africa and much of the Mideast bordering on Persia.

In 400 Roman citizens were used to the good life; wars were distant campaigns waged by professional soldiers.  Moreover, the good life was no longer defined by advances in science, technology, philosophy and architecture —  by 400 the great works had been completed, save the Theodosian Walls of Constantinople, built in the early 400s by Theodosius II.   But this exception tells the story — the great architectural triumph of the 400s was a defensive fortress of the capital of the Eastern Empire!

Still, emperors like Theodosius II in the East, and Valentinian (and his mother Galla Placidia) in the West managed to do a fairly competent job of keeping the peace through negotiated deals with the various tribes of the Goths, Huns and Vandels.  When necessary they fought, and constantly had to worry about conflicts with more than one front (and, of course, their enemies would see opportunity when that occurred).    Rome was still the great power, but it was buckling, trying to hang on to territory and control.    Slowly the tribes settled in land that had been part of the empire, usually negotiating deals with the Romans.  The Huns began their own empire, centered in the steppes of Hungary getting payments from the Goths (what Kelly describes as more a large protection racket than an empire of the Roman sort).

At this stage in the book — after Attila’s forces attack into the territory of the Eastern Empire but retreat before threatening Constantinople in 442, I want to reflect on what to think of this look at the late Roman Empire (recognizing, of course, that the eastern empire would persist for nearly another 1000 years in some form).

In hindsight, of course, it was in its last days.  The deals and maneuvers to protect personal and imperial power were doomed to failure as the “barbarian” tribes grew in number and strength.   Rome’s internal strength was depleted, the empire was stagnating from within.  Yet while it was happening the idea that the western empire was doomed was not a foregone conclusion.

Within a century of the defeat in 378 of Eastern Emperor Valens’ forces at Adrianople (where he died as well), the once mighty empire would crack.  The Western empire would be besieged from all sides and the various barbarian forces would claim the land.   Constantinople and the eastern Empire would survive, but as a shadow of the once mighty Rome.

Some people wonder if we’re facing a crisis like that of Rome.   Early in the 400s, it was still plausible to posit Rome as the dominant world power, needing to protect civilization from the barbarians.  For us, despite debt ceiling crises, recession, and difficult and strength draining wars in the Mideast, the US still appears the dominant power.   And for all the fear people have of Muslims coming and “imposing Shiria law” (eyes rolling) or Mexicans taking over, it’s a pretty safe bet that Washington DC isn’t going to be sacked and New York won’t fall to invading hordes.

Our problem is economic rather than military threats.   We are still the economic power house, but our economy is weakened by debt, over consumption and a lack of competitiveness.  Among the newcomers are China, India, and Brazil, slowly gaining wealth, market share and status.   Even the EU looks to mount a comeback most dismissed when Europe was seen as “yesterday’s empire” a few years ago.   To be sure, terrorism remains an uncertain military aspect of all this, but economic decline isn’t as horrible as sacks and conquests.   It’s also probably easier to turn around.

What strikes me so far in this book is that great power decline isn’t so obvious while it’s happening — both the East and West Empires were still the bastions of civilization and had powerful armies.   They knew they had vulnerabilities, but worked reasonably competently to deal with them.   I’ll reflect more on the Huns and the “fall of empire” after I finish the book (likely tomorrow!)

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