The Eternal Decline and Fall of Rome: The history of a dangerous idea


Edward J Watts, Professor of History at San Diego University, is not a fan of politicians who claim that society is rotten and only they can make it better. This claim, however, is nothing new: the Romans were doing it all the time. In his stimulating new book The Eternal Decline and Fall of Rome, Professor Watts sets out to delineate what he calls ‘the history of a dangerous idea’.

He begins in Rome in the 2nd century BC. Hannibal had been finally defeated, Rome was expanding, winning all its wars, and money, loot, and slaves were pouring in; Italy was being transformed. Cato did not approve. Cato was an old-fashioned curmudgeon who denounced modern behaviour and said that society must get back to old-fashioned morality. His attack stirred up opposition, notably from Scipio, the dynamic young general who had finally led the defeat of Hannibal and the Carthaginians. But Cato’s attacks led to disunity and Scipio’s grandson, Tiberius Gracchus, was appalled by the gulf between the rich and the poor, famously complaining that the small farmers had been displaced and that the countryside was full of big estates.

Professor Watts points out that archaeology does not altogether back this up: this was a period when Italian agriculture was surging ahead, and the countryside appears to have been full of thriving middle-sized farms. But the propaganda on both sides led to fear, fear led to violence, and Gracchus was assassinated in a violent brawl. This in turn contributed to the downfall of Roman politics in the 1st century BC, when Marius and Sulla aroused the masses, and Julius Caesar, who tried to make himself dictator, was murdered.

Augustus eventually restored harmony, but the scenario now changed: it was no longer safe to decry the modern world – it was safer to condemn decline in the immediate past, which is why so many former emperors ended up with bad reputations. Professor Watts continues his subversive rewriting of Roman history with a chapter on ‘Manufacturing the Golden Age of Trajan’. Trajan is traditionally the first of the ‘good’ emperors of the 2nd century AD, in whose reign the group of historians were thriving – Tacitus, Pliny, Suetonius, and Plutarch – and they all praised the glories of Trajan, but damned the reign of terror under his predecessor Domitian.

But how bad was Domitian? He was an excellent administrator, the only emperor who actually increased the amount of silver in the coinage and left his successors with a surplus in the treasury. He widened the Senate by bringing in Greeks and Spaniards as new senators, and thereby antagonised the old Italian aristocracy. Was this really a bad thing? Domitian should perhaps be seen as the most accomplished of the Flavian emperors, unjustly maligned by Tacitus.

The next challenge came with the advent of Christianity, which was followed by the increasing failures of the traditional Roman state. Surely the decline of Rome was due to the abandonment of the old gods? The Christian writers soon found an answer: the decaying Roman state was being replaced by the new, forward-looking City of God. This was enthusiastically proclaimed by St Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo in North Africa. But Professor Watts looks at the dates: St Augustine’s great work, The City of God, was published in AD 426, at a time when North Africa had not yet been invaded, and instead had enjoyed the Roman peace for 500 years. However, just three years later, the Vandals invaded: in AD 430, Hippo was besieged and captured, and Carthage itself was captured in AD 439. Would Augustine have proclaimed the City of God quite so confidently if he had been writing just ten years later?

The book continues through the history of the Byzantine Empire – Professor Watts is professor of Byzantine history. He has a fascinating treatment of Justinian, who in the early 6th century briefly reunited the two halves of the Roman Empire for the last time. Justinian tends to be remembered not only for the building of the Hagia Sophia, but also for the codification of Roman law. However, this is not what it appears to be: it is in fact the Christianisation of Roman law and ‘conspicuously destroyed centuries of Roman legal tradition’.

Even after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Roman Empire remained as a magic source of inspiration, notably in the Holy Roman Empire, founded by Charlemagne and continued by the Hapsburgs with a most remarkable success. The book has a fine final chapter on Charles V, the greatest of the Hapsburg emperors, who ruled the Hapsburg Roman Empire from Spain to the Netherlands to Austria, and indeed eventually to the New World.

Professor Watts writes well and this is an alluring story as he marches through Roman history, trashing idols, showing that the bad emperors are not always as bad as they are made out to be, and the good emperors are not always quite as good. Whether this is the history of a dangerous idea, I am not always convinced; but it is an enjoyable ride.

The Eternal Decline and Fall of Rome: The history of a dangerous idea
By Edward J Watts
Oxford University Press, £21.99 (hbk)
ISBN 978-0190076719