Saturday, September 18, 2010

AD 410 The Year That Shook Rome

This is another of Clare's reviews of an Amazon Vine book. This one she liked and gave four stars.

--- Not the Rome beloved of history teachers ---

What a page-turner this is! My immediate reaction on finishing was that I needed to read it again in order to really anchor the central characters and to order my impressions. However my second thought was that these impressions, as imprecise as they were, should be savoured for their remarkable vividness.

The action is set during the implosion of the Roman Empire in AD 410 with barbarian invaders camped outside the city of Rome. The description of the stranglehold the Goths were able to maintain by the single act of cutting off food supplies is chilling with accounts of disease, starvation and even cannibalism. The Roman influence in Britain as portrayed at school omitted this Achilles' heel of urbanisation, focussing on the positive aspects such as rule of law, road building, the amenities of a rationally laid-out town and the luxuries of villa life.

The Empire’s problems stemmed from its very success: its expansion. Rule from Rome became infeasible and a single authority was replaced with two emperors and two assistants,(who would in theory ultimately replace the emperors) establishing bases in the east and the west. Divided authority within the empire however invited ambitious generals to test the strength of their own claims and gave rise to internal strife.

This fracturing of the power structure opened the way to all manner of barbarian invasions and the eventual invasion of Italy itself. In AD 410 the absent emperor Honorius, based in Ravenna, could have saved Rome with a treaty providing a homeland for the Goths had he been more insightful and respectful of the motivations of his enemy. Instead he vacillated and finally goaded Alaric, the leader of the Goths, into sacking Rome.

The other strand of the book was the establishment and survival of the Catholic Church during these turbulent years. Despite the fall of the city occurring under the auspices of Christianity rather than paganism, the faith and the church retained its place in the Vatican. This was in no small part due to the scholarly expositions on the misfortunes of the empire as a part of God’s plan by Saint Augustine (The City of God).

In conclusion this is a dense but delightful read which would benefit from a leisurely revisit if time allows.