|Romulus Augustus was deposed as Western Roman Emperor in 476 while still young. However, Julius Nepos continued to claim the title of Western Emperor after his deposition. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
Of course, the intriguing question of how Rome fell--which the book blurb calls "perhaps the greatest of all historical questions"--is the main draw. We cannot help but make comparisons to our own United States as other generations made to the Spanish and British Empires. We all know that we cannot make one-to-one connections between nations and eras so different in so many ways. Yet, we can consider the insights of the historian and then see how they apply in our own different circumstances. In other words, the insight about Rome can be metamorphosed into an insight about America--I say "metamorphosed" because we cannot, as noted, make a facile, simplistic transference from Rome to the modern West.
The last two chapters of Goldsworthy's book seek to answer the question of the book title in a more general way than the detailed historical account of the previous chapters. Reading the last two chapters (a conclusion and a separate epilogue) is worthwhile in itself even if you do not read the other chapters.
This is the Goldsworthy insight that I found most striking based on my own observations about America and other Western societies today:
It is only human nature to lose sight of the wider issues and focus on immediate concerns and personal aims. In the Late Roman Empire this was so often all about personal survival and advancement--the latter bringing wealth and influence, which helped to increase security in some ways, but also rendered the individual more prominent and thus a greater target to others. . . . Performing a job well was only ever a secondary concern. . . . Officials and commanders needed only to avoid making a spectacular mess of their job--and even then enough influence could conceal the facts or pass the blame onto someone else. . . . When 'everyone' acted in the same way there was no real encouragement to honesty or even competence. The game was about personal success and this often had little connection to the wider needs of the empire.
Adrian Goldsworthy, How Rome Fell (Yale University Press, 2009), Epilogue, p. 418 (bold added).
In academia, we have some state university presidents who have received or still receive outlandish compensation. Some private university presidents do the same. Such compensation tells us that personal enrichment is primary (we are not even mentioning the coaches of big time athletic programs that are money machines).
In government, we have politicians (whether in the executive, legislative, or judicial branches) who pursue enrichment, sometimes illegally, sometimes by every imaginable legal loophole or arcane legal trick in the book. The public looks the other way and reelects them, just as college alumni look the other way at money-hungry college presidents and coaches. There is an unstated cultural understanding that life is about personal success, which means personal enrichment. How can we not understand and not excuse those who plunder us "legally"?
In business, chief executives receive gargantuan compensation packages, with severance pay-outs, that ensure they are personally enriched regardless of the long-term health of the company or its workers. The gyrations of the stock market mesmerize many in their quest for self-enrichment. Even in unions, officials have enriched themselves, legally and illegally.
In the Church, Pope Francis repeatedly warns against careerism and self-aggrandizement in the clergy. The same, of course, occurs in many other religious groups.
And then you will hear the self-serving mantra that you must pay a lot to get talent and experience. Those with character will serve without the lure of excessive self-enrichment. When we prostitute our institutions, we end up poorly served; and so this phenomenon is a plausible factor in the decline of Rome and also of decline in our own communities. Greed and avarice, socially celebrated as "personal success," corrode everything: colleges; athletics; businesses; legislatures, courts, and the executive branch at all levels of government; corporations; unions; churches. So, in spite of the great distance of time, circumstance, and culture, Rome can still teach us something relevant today.