Book Review: R. A. Lafferty’s The Fall of Rome

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.

IMG_3834Lafferty 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

16 thoughts on “Book Review: R. A. Lafferty’s The Fall of Rome”

    1. Most of the way through Europe and the Faith – I don’t think it matters much which you start with. Fall of Rome is a 300 page rip-roaring set of tragic stories peppered with Lafferty’s inimitable wit; Belloc writes a polemic as subtle as a sledgehammer, but valuable and true, and only 100 pages long.

      They’re both bracing tonics to modern nonsense.

    1. Sounds fabulous. I also have a nice collection of unread Mike Flynn, and about 1-2 hours a day to read. Even a 300 page book takes almost a week to read. Forest of Time has been sitting the almost a month now.

      I need to retire so I can catch up on my reading. But that’s still a few years off…

      1. Thank you for this excellent review!

        I have to second the recommendation from theofloinn. Okla Hannali is perhaps the best novel written in the English Language. It is simultaneously the story of one man, Hannali Inominee, a larger than life buffalo bull of a man and a leader, and the story of the Choctaw people from roughly 1800 to 1900. It starts in the civilized south of the Five Nations, brings us through the relocation and the Jacksonian genocides, through the Civil War, and to the building of the modern world. If you do not finish this book both chuckling and crying, you may be less than human. (or so was my impression).

  1. Sold! Thanks for the recommendation.

    “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. … 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. ”

    This seems to fit with what I am reading in “Twilight of Authority” by Robert Nisbet. He says that today’s modern state with its centralized power and insistence on equality among all citizens, is a sharp contrast with the feudal system of the Middle Ages and came about with the rediscovery of Roman law (in the late Middle Ages/Renaissance?). The society of the Middle Ages was built on family and other intermediate ties between the individual citizen and the sovereign, whereas Roman (and now modern) society was based mainly on the individual’s relation to the state, with no mediating “buffers” — or something like that.

    1. There’s much to what you say. However, if the modern age is imitating Rome, as usual they’re screwing it up. To be an admirable Roman to other Romans, one would indeed need to show patriotism toward the Res Romana – in that sense, an individual Roman did indeed have a direct relationship with the state, the state being here seen as the embodiment, however imperfect, of the thing loved.

      But the Roman society that created and sustained that ideal, again, however imperfectly, was made up of families, both patrician and plebeian. These families – the Gentes – acted as little states within the state, managing affairs within their members, theoretically being the law among those members. Practically, a patrician acted as the local judge and business permit issuing agency on his turf. If you had a problem, you brought it to your local patriarch for judgement; if you wanted to do anything like run a business or buy land, you’d definitely need to check in a get permission. The relationships were detailed, semi-rigid, and reinforced via shared meals at the villa to which you, a client, were expected to regularly attend.

      So, the modern world picks up the end result – the feeling and even the reality of a commonwealth held by every free man and embodied in a Republic – and skips the family relationships that sustain and to a large extent ARE the commonwealth.

  2. I’m finding that this is apparently a rare book. Out of print and the cheapest used copy I have found is $65. Not available on Kindle (except in the UK). The library’s only copy is a reference copy. Bummer!

  3. Very interesting review. I picked this old book up looking for references about how as you say “our emotional foundations were laid by Greek-flavored Hebrews via the New Testament” But I found a much more interesting thing about a wondering nobility with a long memory. Here applied to the origins of the Goths and just as easily to the wandering remnant of the conquered tribes who’s strange story curiously became the religion of Rome. (Though Lafferty makes clear he does not believe these are not the same people even though they share many cultural similarities such as circumcision) “The high nobility of the Goths, reappearing out of the north after half a millennium, remembered Rome. There is the feeling that they remembered her with revenge.” So many references that can not really be verified and no sources are sited but if it is all a work of fiction it is a fantastic one. The bit about the roman allegiance to state over family does ring some bells, my thought is that what we’re seeing in recent decades is part of a much older cultural program such as might be described by that “amorphous gray wave” which the master general Stilicho could do nothing about but we’re not scholar enough to understand it yet.

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