Why the Empire Fell

Why do empires fall?  Nearly everyone has a theory.  Some focus on external challenges.  For example, the Soviet Union collapsed under the pressure of the arms race that Ronald Reagan heated up; the British were forced out of India by Gandhi and by the rising tide of Indian nationalism.  Others seek the cause in the changing character of the people: The tired and cynical Soviet and British elites had lost the will to rule.  Still others look at economic factors: The Soviet empire strangled itself with its economic inefficiency; the Brits were losing money maintaining their subcontinental fiefdom.

The fall of the Roman Empire in the West has been interpreted through every imaginable variety of theoretical approach, from Gibbon, who blamed the Christians; to A.H.M. Jones, who attributed the empire’s collapse to inflation, declining agriculture, and a general economic deterioration; to Walter Goffart, who imagined there was no real collapse but only a gentle transition.  Peter Heather, the most recent Roman historian to enter the lists, annihilates Gibbon’s argument, pointing out that the economic resources used to build churches were not transferred from the military budget but from monies used to build and refurbish pagan temples.  Gibbon’s other argument, that talented men devoted themselves to religion instead of the empire, would apply only to a tiny handful (who, in any case,...

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