First off, thanks go out to Mike Flynn for recommending The Fall of Rome. Rarely have I enjoyed a book more, and suspect the stories and personalities in it will linger for years to come. Vivid hardly describes it.
Short & sweet: Stop what you’re doing, and read this book. Lafferty mentions in passing that the machinations of Olympius in the court of the Eastern Empire were far too complex for a modern mind to grasp. That passage pokes fun at the larger issue, that we are enslaved by our age unless we make the effort to learn about other ages. There are few more enlightening ages to learn about than that of the Roman Empire. It is a small, enslaved mind indeed that is not fired, humbled and saddened at the story of the Fall of Rome and the epics and, ultimately, tragedies of Alaric, Stilicho, Stairnon, Sarus, Singerich, Theodosius and the Empire itself.
Lafferty I knew of only from his unclassifiable SFF-ish short stories. Are they myth? Legend? Parody? They’ve been called tall tales, which seems about right, but hardly does them justice. The casual brilliance of stories such as the Narrow Valley make it clear we’re dealing with a really smart guy.
In the Fall of Rome, Lafferty applies his brilliant story telling talents to Roman history, which he clearly knows and loves deeply. Instead of a dry list of kings being born, fighting battles and dying only to hand power over to other kings who do the same ad infinitum, Lafferty starts with chapters dedicated to helping us learn who the Goths were and how they were ripe to produce so many tragic heroes. He disabuses us (well, me) from any lingering thoughts that the Goths were barbarians in the sense of uncivilized. True, there were more wild elements on the northern fringes largely outside the influence of Rome, but huge swaths of Goths, Vandals and Huns were members of highly sophisticated cultures with ancient traditions and technology as good or better than that of the Romans. (1) These ‘border peoples’ had been trading with and working in and for the Empire for centuries – and enriching it. The ideals of the Empire, especially in its post-Constantine form that embraced of Christianity, held a strong grip on their imaginations. Lafferty’s book is about the consequences of a lapse in that grip among a few key people, and how that brought about the End of the World.
Laferty also makes the point that we of European descent have inherited our foundational emotional relationship to the world from these border people, and not from the Romans. (2) He emphasizes the point in his telling of Alaric’s first invasion of Italy. While a battle raged, Stilicho – wiley doesn’t begin to describe him – sent a team to round up the women and families of the Gothic leadership who were, according to Gothic practice, accompanying the men at arms. Stilicho treated his hostages well – Alaric’s wife Stairnon was sent to live with Stilicho’s own family – but made it clear that the fighting needed to end and the Goths withdraw from Italy if the Gothic leaders ever wanted to see them again.
A true Roman would expect his wife and children to die noble deaths rather than be used as bargaining chips against the Res Romana, and carry on the fight. Stories, generally horrifying, of the sacrifices Romans were willing to make for the Republic and Empire make this assertion about their families easy to accept. But a Goth could not imagine a Gothic Thing that was fundamentally different from his family, making the very idea that you’d willingly sacrifice your family for an Empire, however conceived, incomprehensible. Thus, the Gothic leaders quickly retreated to Illyricum, and within a few months were reunited with their families. Alaric held out for a year, but even he eventually retreated and Stilicho sent his wife to him.
We understand Alaric and the Gothic leaders in a way we will never understand the Romans.
Aside: Before reading this, I would have argued that our emotional foundations were laid by Greek-flavored Hebrews via the New Testament and subsequent interpretation of the Old in light of the New. Much of the emotional landscape of the Pentateuch is very foreign, so that to get the emotional impact of many of the stories requires some effort, an effort we don’t generally have to make with, say, a Grimm’s fairytale. But once Greeks culture was sown by Alexander across the Levant, and once the Greek-speaking followers of Jesus converted the Greek-speaking world, the emotional landscape changed – gradually, imperfectly. The Romans – and the pre-Christian Greeks and nearly everybody else down to this day – would have expected the beggar Lazarus to crawl off and die, and would not have thought any less of Dives for having not cared for him. But the Jews got it. The Christians got it. And so now the world gets it, or pretends to. Likewise, Christians are troubled by Joshua putting conquered peoples under the ban – a notion that would have bothered no one previous, the only question being prudence.
Thus, 2000 years later, we are nearly as horrified by the cruel heroism of the Romans as by the treachery and casual bloodthirstiness sometimes evident among the border peoples. But now that Lafferty raises the issue, it clears up something I’ve often wondered about: the border peoples and other ‘barbarians’ were unable to set up anything like a Res Romana, but instead invented feudalism, which extends family obligations formally to what might be called the state. The problem is that the state is hardly distinguishable from the family, at least formally, so that lords are now fathers. A Roman could have fierce, self-sacrificing loyalty to a state he might not have any direct family interests in – he’s not related to any of the people in charge who might order him to his death. A feudal citizen? Subject? Family member? is sworn into a ‘family’ so that his lord is his ‘father’ – his ‘Sire’.
The Patriarchal structure of the Romans might appear to contradict this, but it seems more of an along-side rather than an in-place-of arrangement: the local patriarch might be the ‘Big Daddy’ locally, but a Roman would see his obligations to the Res Romana as something only accidentally effected by his local patriarch. I think, I’m a good bit in over my head here. End Aside.
But some just wanted to see the World burn. Olympius, a master at manipulation and court intrigue, finally managed to bring down Stilicho. Then, in an event that makes Olympius into a Joker-like madman, at the peak of his power, having defeated Stilicho and seized the reigns of the greatest Empire on earth, he orders, or encourages, or allows the slaughter of the families of the tens of thousands of Gothic soldiers in Italy, by a Roman is for Romans faction. 30,000 Gothic troops defect to Alaric and Athaulf – soldiers who would have died under Stilicho or Alaric to defend Rome are now hell-bent on sacking it. And when Rome the unifying, civilizing idea was no more, and the dust settled, the new Emperor Constantius had Olympius clubbed to death.
I can hardly recommend this book enough if you have any interest in history at all.
Final aside: while much of what I learned from this book fit passing well into what I thought I already knew, I think I either accepted much less flattering descriptions of Alaric (who, BTW, I’ve admired for years) or, perhaps, confounded his story with parts of Atilla’s. Either way, Lafferty’s portrayal of the Great King of the Goths as an ultimately tragic hero is dazzling and convincing.
- From years ago, I had the impression that Rome came to be technologically backward, at least comparatively, by the time of the Empire. They seemed uninterested in technology as a culture. But I had not realized they were surrounded by peoples who were not uninterested, and had largely passed them by.
- A glance at a map of the migrations and invasions of these border peoples shows that we also almost certainly ARE Goths, Vandals, etc. in large part. Europeans were the muttiest of mutts even before they got to America.