Falling and Failing: Edward Watts’ The Eternal Decline and Fall of Rome

Watts, Edward J. The Eternal Decline and Fall of Rome: The History of a Dangerous Idea. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021.

Comparing the United States to Ancient Rome has become something of a cliché in recent decades. Moving beyond Rome’s influences on our Founding Fathers, it is tempting to see all manner of parallels between the decline of Roman Republicanism and American democracy or Roman imperium and American global influence. And yet, this rhetoric is not itself anything new; it seems like every time a Western great power begins experiencing problems, the comparisons to that most famous of fallen empires come crawling out of the woodwork. In fact, the pedigree of such narratives of decline date back all the way to ancient Roman politicians themselves, and Edward J. Watt’s The Eternal Decline and Fall of Rome seeks to illuminate not only how that rhetoric developed across the lifespan of the empire but how it had a real effect on Rome’s actual decline and eventual fall. An ambitious project, to be sure, and one that intrigued me both for its historical promise and its relevance to modern political discourse. If only Watts had been up to the task.

One can tell from Watts’ subtitle that he does not just intend to trace the history of the rhetoric of Roman decline and renewal, but to say something about it. He is clear about this approach from his introduction: that such narratives, often tied to the ghost of Rome, are often used by authoritarian leaders to justify their own ends and scapegoat minorities; in other words, sell the solution to a problem of your own creation. In order to demonstrate the danger of this idea, then, Watts conducts his readers through almost the entirety of Roman history from the third century BC to the fifteenth century AD (and beyond), showing how the persecution of internal “enemies” in pursuit of some ineffable idea of returning Rome to past glory led inexorably to periods of oppression, political fragmentation, and ultimately annihilation. 

A dangerous idea indeed, but one that rests on Watts’ similarly perilous logical fallacy: if this rhetoric is only the justification for these leaders’ actions, it is not the rhetoric that caused them, only sold them to the public. Such a history should really focus on one of two things, then: either the myriad ancient theologies and political ideologies that underpinned Rome’s theocratic autocracy or the human appeal of imitating or returning to a better past. Unfortunately for Watts, both of these topics have already been admirably covered in the past decade by such esteemed Classical historians as Peter Heather and J. E. Lendon–a reality that makes these authors’ complete absence from Watts’ work highly problematic. In fact, Watts seems uninterested in providing any kind of cultural, societal, or political context for his chosen rhetorical tradition, despite the basic fact that the power of any rhetoric is due to precisely the ways it can play upon such deeply-held traditions. The only discussion approaching this kind of reasoning can be found in the final five pages, where he reduces what might have been the backbone of his narrative into a brief summary of why the specter of Rome still holds so much power in modern society. Neither is Watts interested in actually differentiating empty rhetoric from lucid problem-solving; identifying and persecuting internal enemies is not always a bad thing, and saying “Black people are the cause of our troubles, attack the black people” is very different than saying “Fascists are the cause of our troubles, attack the fascists.” All these failings combined result in The Eternal Decline and Fall of Rome’s central argument and analysis being essentially meaningless, incoherent white noise that flits in and out of a fairly straightforward narrative summary of Roman history.

I might have only been somewhat disappointed with Watts’ deficiencies of analysis, then, if not for The Eternal Decline and Fall of Rome’s simultaneous failure as a work of history. I have never before encountered so many radical reappraisals of a subject’s historiography offhandedly tossed out as supporting evidence for a monograph’s main argument. To hear Watts tell it, the Gracchi were populists in the vein of Donald Trump yet the Roman officials who killed them were wrong for introducing violence into the Republic (an interpretation that sounds right at home in the court of an 18th century absolutist monarch), Constantine was a true champion of Christianity that only passed pro-polytheist legislation to allow his more traditional subjects to pretend that he was on their side (highly debatable, and on the wrong side of the debate at that), the Eastern Emperor Justinian’s landmark revision of Roman law was just a vanity project that discarded valid old laws and made up bogus new ones (factually incorrect), and the idea that Western Rome fell in AD 476 was simply a propaganda fiat of the Emperor Justinian who sought to justify his invasion of former Western Imperial territory, which is what actually ended the Western Empire and devastated its lands (categorically disproved on every level by Peter Heather in works almost a decade old from the same academic press). As I searched in vain for any intellectual thread or school to support these contrarian hypotheses in Watts’ notes (no bibliography was provided), I was shocked to find virtually no engagement with any historiography at all; indeed, it seems that most of the works’ flaws might be traced to an over-reliance on primary sources and an ignorance of any academic signposts for interpreting them.

Lest I be misunderstood as a Roman apologist, make no mistake: I positively love revisionist histories of the ancient world, especially ones that tear down all the myths modern (Western) society clings to concerning the first great European empire. For all its potential to challenge any number of conceptions, from the supposedly greater tolerance of polytheist ancient societies to the reliability of essentially any ancient court author, The Eternal Decline and Fall of Rome falls into the unfortunate pattern of nearly all ideologically-motivated histories: too busy ramming home its argument to pay attention to responsible, accurate history. It’s a shame, too; Watts is generally an eloquent writer, and I can sympathize with his desire to (ironically) contextualize the present partisan political moment, in which neo-Nazis advocate for a revival of a white nationalist Roman Empire and con men politicians whip crowds into a frenzy promising to “Make America Great Again” while conveniently providing scapegoats instead of real solutions. Unfortunately, readers looking for real historical answers must look elsewhere, perhaps to the underlying themes of American history and human psychology that has driven this rhetoric for centuries.

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