Adrian Goldsworthy | How Rome Fell
October 5, 2009
Dr. Kent: Welcome to the show. It’s Sound Authors with me, Dr. Kent, and I’m excited about the four guests that I’ve got on today. As always, three authors and one musician. At the end of the show, musician Victoria Vox is going to be on with me. She’s got an incredible sound, and I actually first saw her music on Twitter, believe it or not. I’m an avid Twitterer, and she was one of the folks that I discovered there, great musician. And three authors on the show today, Michelle Karen, and I’m excited about all of them. Michelle Karen wrote the book Astrology for Enlightenment. Now, I wouldn’t necessarily be in on that, but she sent a copy of the book, and it’s fascinating, I think. And before that, I have on the show Lynne Serafinn, and she’s the author of a wonderful book, and it’s called The Garden of the Soul: Lessons From Four Flowers That Unearth the Self. And that’s, she’s a bestseller in the UK with that book. And without further ado, my first guest on the show is Adrian Goldsworthy, an incredible book that he’s written called How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower. And it’s such a fascinating thing, to think about Rome and the long reign of that empire. Welcome to the show, Adrian Goldsworthy.
Adrian Goldsworthy: Thank you, it’s nice to be invited.
Dr. Kent: Well, tell me, you’ve written several books that are all these long, sort of, epic stories of the fall of the West, and In the Name of Rome. What’s you’re newest book, How Rome Fell, what’s it all about?
Adrian Goldsworthy: Well, it’s really about the, perhaps the biggest question of Roman history because you can look (inaudible) the Empire that conquered this vast area, last for several centuries, but in the end it folds. And when it folds, the world gets a lot more primitive, a lot more basic, a lot more violent than it had been in the Roman period. So it’s explaining how you can have an advanced civilization, you know, it wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty sophisticated, and that (inaudible). So it’s trying to understand that, but what caused that.
Dr. Kent: And tell me a little about the Roman Empire. For folks that sort of say, “Well, you know, I know what that was, but I’m not sure exactly, you know, I don’t know all the specifics of it.” Personally, I’ve been, I’ve seen some of the ruins, and I’ve read some of the history, but what is the Roman Empire?
Adrian Goldsworthy: It’s, I mean, it’s a cultural thing as well as a political thing. When you think the basis for the law systems of a large part of the planet are based upon Roman law, which, and certainly all of the European systems, not necessarily England or America, are those that are influenced by it. So you’ve got that basis, you’ve got a lot of cultural ideas. Physically it was this huge empire that stretched from the north of Britain to the Sahara, out to the Euphrates, to the Atlantic. It’s a very big area in a time when communications was much slower. You know, this is before anyone couldn’t move any faster than a horse could gallop or a ship could sail. So distance has become bigger. So it’s not just huge, it’s important culturally, but it’s there for a very long time, for centuries Rome dominated the known world, and modified Greek culture, you know, Greek and Roman culture along with the Judeo-Christian tradition. Those are really the two main pillars of Western culture. So it’s got a profound influence on us even up to today.
Dr. Kent: Well this book is called The Fall of the West in Britain, and it’s called How Rome Fell Here. How do you go about navigating a book with two different titles?
Adrian Goldsworthy: Well, blame my publisher is all I can say. (laughter) I wanted it to be called the same thing in both, but once they get an idea, and once they printed the cover, you can’t really do anything. Everyone tends to do a parallel, can we learn something for the modern world. The question you asked, time and time again it’s, you know, America with the one dominant super power in the world, if you (inaudible) you get the same in Rome. So I thought well, I know people ask those questions, and while, as a historian, I think it’s vital that you understand the history first before you try and draw any lessons from it, so talking about the fall of the west, talking about super powers, we then need modern parallels. The other thing is that if you’re looking at the fall of the empire, it really is two questions. Because although the western half of the empire falls, so Italy, Spain, France, North Africa, all of that goes, the eastern half, the empire that’s based on Constantinople, modern day Istanbul, survives for another thousand years, up until the 15th Century. So in a sense it’s two questions. It’s why did a large part of the empire fall, but also why did one bit of it stay on with basically the same culture, basically the same political system, military system. So it’s kind of put a lot into the title, both the modern relevance (inaudible), the problems actually begin in the past.
Dr. Kent: And one thing I’ve never really understood about Rome, now, they wanted to acquire more land. Explain that. I mean, that is one thing I feel like the United States does sort of have an empire mentality, but are we still doing the same thing with acquiring countries and expanding our reach?
Adrian Goldsworthy: Not in the same way. You’ve got to remember that in Latin imperium, the word we get empire from, literally means “power.” It wasn’t at it roots about physically occupying and having a province, although the Romans do end up conquering this huge empire. But what they always thought they were expanding was their power. And it wasn’t so much an active thing, it wasn’t really that you wanted other people to do what you wanted, it was more that you didn’t want them to do anything you didn’t want. So in that sense there’s a similarity in that, you know, you can see, obviously you can look at the whole problem of rogue states, and listen to their (inaudible) proliferation, that sort of thing. So in a sense the Romans would have (inaudible) in that you’re not, you don’t want to physically go and occupy North Korea, but you don’t want North Korea to go and do anything really stupid. So there’s another mental, not just having power, but being able to use it and stop things from happening as much as make them happen. So there’s similarities, but the Romans absorbed people. And you have Roman citizens from all over the world. You know, if you look at the New Testament, you’ve got say Paul, who’s a Jew from Tarsus in modern day Turkey, as far as we can tell doesn’t speak a word of Latin, but is a Roman citizen, and his family are Roman citizens who get all the legal rights. So the Romans, they don’t just conquer but they turn the world Roman. They make the people who live in the provinces Romans like themselves, at least some of them. So that’s a very different thing. And almost no state in history has done that quite so well as the Romans. I mean, most empires very much have the rulers under the conquered people, and the two don’t mix so much. The Romans just absorbed everybody.
Dr. Kent: And what got you interested in the beginning in doing, in studying Roman history and digging into the past, and you’ve been doing this for quite a while now. What started you off on that?
Adrian Goldsworthy: I’ve always found history fascinating, and I find almost any period, if I visit anywhere, I can get interested in the local history of a small village and 50 years ago as well as anything of hundreds or thousands of years past. I think it helped growing up in the western Britain, about 20 miles from where I lived there’s a Roman amphitheater, or its remains, there’s a Roman legionary fortress, so as a child I could imagine my parents, when they took me to these things and I crawled all over these monuments, it made it very much my history. You know, these were real people who’d been to where I lived. It wasn’t like the ancient Egyptians or the Greeks who’d stayed a long, long, long way away. There was something very immediate, very personal about it, and I think that stayed with me until the present day.
Dr. Kent: And when I spent some time in the Middle East I was just fascinated by things like the water systems, and such expansive structures that the Romans put in place in so many places in the world, what have you found most fascinating about the Romans through the years?
Adrian Goldsworthy: It’s often the most basic of human details, and there’s something about the Romans that tells you the level of the communism in their society, but they devoted so much effort to things like bath houses, you know, in which you have under floor heating, you have flues in the walls so you’ve got central heating actually into the walls of the building itself. And it’s one of the most advanced pieces of engineering, advanced piece of technology the Romans came out with, but it is essentially there to make life more pleasant and comfortable. You know, it isn’t an essential. It’s not about producing food or anything in it. It tells you about a society that’s got to that stage, where they’re able to devote some of their best and brightest minds to making life more pleasant. Which again makes it very modern. So there’s an element of that that you, you know, you see things about Roman society that does seem familiar, very human, but they are also then the startling differences. It’s that mixture of how people could (inaudible). It’s just a normal thing, but nobody ever really challenged. For a century this just goes on, it’s normal. That’s so very alien to us. So it’s that odd mixture of the very immediate, the very natural, the things that, you know, you could read a private lesson written by (inaudible) in the first century, or discovered on a bit of papyrus Egypt. And you can identify with the emotions, say look, this is a real human being talking. And yet there’s these other things that are very strange. So it’s trying to understand both sides of that, I think it’s still just fascinating.
Dr. Kent: And Rome was geographically really huge. Were they simply not able to, tell us how, I guess, let the cat out of the bag. How did Rome fall?
Adrian Goldsworthy: Well, in the end it drops from the top. The problem is that from about 218 A.D. onward right the way until the end of the 5th Century when the Western empire falls, there are only three decades in that two and a half centuries where they don’t fight a civil war. So generation after generation you keep (inaudible). So more Roman soldiers get killed fighting over Roman soldiers than they do foreign enemies. Nearly all emperors die violently, and almost all those at the hands of other rogue men. So you end up with a system of government that’s all about survival. It’s all about emperors trying to stay alive and in power, and it filters all the way down. If you’re a general, if you’re a civil servant, a bureaucrat, you can’t trust anybody. Because the best way to prove your loyalty to the emperor is to rat on somebody else, to report them for disloyalty, whether true or false. So you end up, it’s a system that, it doesn’t encourage anybody to do anything well. It doesn’t encourage the emperor to rule well, his servants to be efficient, because if you’re a general and you’re too good, then you’re immediately popular, which means you’re a rival, which means they have to probably treat you with suspicion and have you killed. So it’s a system that is so huge, it’s so successful, so wealthy that it can’t fall quickly. And it can afford these generations of instability, of in-fighting. It steadily rots and decays from the top and from the very center, and in the end it sort of (inaudible). Somebody comes along and attacks them, there’s a crisis, a bit of the empire goes, and they lurch along again for another few decades. But it’s quite a depressing story of just how human beings can mess things up really.
Dr. Kent: And what I find, I always discuss with friends that live elsewhere how different the American democracy is than say the British democracy or the German democracy. And we do have this sitting head of state, even though he has checked powers, he has a whole lot of powers and we see that in the Bush administration. What is the parallel you draw with modern history in Rome?
Adrian Goldsworthy: I think the dangers, I mean the reassuring thing is that all this, the whole problem, this fascination and civil roaring is not one yet that has come back to haunt democracy in the same way it did with the Romans. So that you know, Presidential candidate leaves with an election. He doesn’t go and raise an army and march on Washington. By the third century A.D., (inaudible). It is different. I mean, with any system that, there’s always the crisis where it’ll be that the tension between centralizing power, the idea that the man in the center if you give supreme authority to someone they can solve any problem. And the danger of that actually making things worse and making them more distant from where the problem is. But the striking lesson with the Romans in that in about the second century A.D. when you had emperors like Adrian, like Marcus Aurelius, you had the good emperor at the start of the movie Gladiator, you have maybe a thousand bureaucrat in the entire empire, and that’s a very generous estimate. By the end of the third century you’ve got over thirty, thirty-five thousand of them. And that’s a very low estimate. Central government gets more and more power and played more and more people, but it becomes less efficient at the same time because very different government departments forget why they’re there. And I think this is a danger where we can see a parallel with Rome, and you can end up with, whether it’s Washington, whether it’s Parliament in London, an isolated group where you simply have (inaudible) lobby groups, increasingly large bureaucracies that see their own interests and their own needs and their own budget as a priority rather than actually achieving anything because they, what they see is such a distant, hard to measure thing. It makes it harder and harder to get things done. And I think that’s the danger, that’s where we could follow the Roman experience, but I hope we don’t go too far down that path.
Dr. Kent: Wow. Well, and we don’t refer to one another as barbarians these days very often. What does that term mean, just for my pure curiosity?
Adrian Goldsworthy: It’s originally from the Greek. It’s the Greek term for everybody who wasn’t a Greek and didn’t speak the Greek language, and it’s the simple root, is that the words of these people just sounded like the noises sheep made. So it was baa, baa, baa, that was very plain for them, and the Romans took the world on, but some, they never quite had the same level of arrogance as they Greeks. The Greeks basically assumed they were at the top of the pyramid, that everyone else was inferior. (inaudible) like Persia, but in many ways were more sophisticated than Greece. But the Greeks produced better ideas, better philosophers, and who affected our culture far more. So the word has stayed. With the Romans, I believe it’s the difference that they felt they could turn that word into Romans, which at least means you feel somebody can become like you. It’s still rather a patronizing view, but nevertheless it’s a possibility. But no, it was originally a Greek term, but the Romans took over, and it just stayed within the language.
Dr. Kent: So what do you think about the Iran conflict? Is that a little more like what was happening in Rome, in modern times? When I look at this President’s being the puppet of the religious leader, and you know, it seems like quite a drama over there.
Adrian Goldsworthy: Yes, I mean, by the time you get to the Roman Empire, well, the Romans were battling beating the pretensive electrons, so you know, it’s blatantly another dictatorship from the start. (inaudible) is much, much weaker. I mean, with the Iranian situation you’ve got this façade of the free and fair election, and yet everybody seems to know that it hasn’t been, but you do have that problem when somebody controls all that power, when the religious leaders in the end half of the Iranian is done at the public, if they want to support the government, they want to support the President. It is extremely difficult choice of violence to do anything about that, unless you can pull (inaudible) back down. So there is the danger of the Roman situation, but the establishment is much more powerful, and as long as it keeps significant forces at its control, which seems to be the case, there doesn’t seem to be that much weakening, although some of the protests have come from people inside the system. So you know, you can see the grim side of the sort of internal problems that plagued the Romans time and again. So it’s very grim to watch. And there’s a big difference, I’m sorry.
Dr. Kent: And now you’re working on your next book, which is a little less, well, in some ways a little bit less massive and less national. It’s the story of Antony and Cleopatra, is that right?
Adrian Goldsworthy: Yes, that’s right, because before I came to this one I did a biography of Julius Caesar, so it seemed the logical thing to go on to them. Again, it’s a remarkable story, it’s one of those things that tells itself. And the advantage with Antony and Cleopatra is because they killed themselves relatively young, the book doesn’t have to be quite so long. But it’s interesting because Cleopatra in particular still fascinates. But I think we misunderstand her a lot, and we always want to make her Egyptian when she wasn’t really in any meaningful way. She still is essentially a Greek and particular Macedonian, that’s the family, that’s the language, that’s the culture. And her family had controlled Egypt for 300 years, but they are still very much a foreign entity that has come in and seized power and remains (inaudible). In fact, she was the first member of her family in all that time to learn to speak Egyptian. So you know, we misunderstand that because of the glamour, the romance of ancient Egypt and the pyramids, but if you think about it, the great pyramids at Giza, Cleopatra’s actually closer to us in time than she was to the building of the pyramids. You know, our image of an ancient Egypt is of a much, much older, much earlier Egypt that had very little to do with her. And yet, it’s what Hollywood tends to give us because it is such a rich-minded, iconic set of images that played in all of this. You know, it screams out for something different, and there’s been a fascination with it really since the late 18th century. But it’s, if you want to understand the real Cleopatra you have to get past that.
Dr. Kent: Well it sounds fascinating, as is the present book. I only cracked it open and I’m excited to keep reading. There’s many books that you’ve worked on, and I think people eagerly anticipate every new one that you write. I’ve been speaking to Adrian Goldsworthy, and his book is called How Rome Fell, that’s in the United States, of course, from Yale University Press, just came out in May. And then of course the British edition is The Fall of the West. Thank you so much for talking with me, I could talk all day.
Adrian Goldsworthy: Thanks very much for inviting me. It’s been fun.
Dr. Kent: And my next guest on the show is going to be a very interesting guest, she’s the author of Garden of the Soul: Lessons From Four Flowers That Unearth the Self. And she is a best seller in the UK as well, and I’m excited to talk to her in a minute. Come on back for that.