Rome’s fortunes during the twilight of its empire have long fascinated scholars and public alike. The traditional tale will be widely familiar: prolonged decline, catastrophic collapse, the inexorable rise of the papacy from the ashes. Recent years, however, have seen this long-established narrative overturned in significant ways. As with the history of Late Antiquity generally, the Eternal City’s fate has come to be seen as far more a story of continuity over calamity, transformation rather than tragedy.
Michele Renee Salzman’s The Falls of Rome is a significant contribution to this historiographic reorientation. Proposing to strike a new path between “catastrophist” and “continuist” paradigms, Salzman argues that scholarship has underestimated the Senate’s role in reconstituting Rome’s physical and social fabric in the wake of political crisis between the fourth and sixth centuries CE. What emerges forcefully from her narrative is the senators’ political autonomy: their willingness to not only collaborate with, but also reject imperial (or royal) authority in order to secure their own interests. Stemming from this, Salzman also effectively demonstrates the prolonged marginality of the bishops of Rome when compared to the secular elite until the mid-sixth century. In her eyes, the fortunes of Rome and the Senate were inextricably entwined.
The volume begins with an introductory chapter that concisely locates Salzman’s intervention in the context of prevailing frameworks (Chapter 1, “Approaches to the Fate of the Late Antique City”). Salzman finds the interpretive lenses of both the “Decline and Fall” and “transformationalist” schools wanting. The former, Salzman argues, has underestimated the fundamental solidity of the institutions and economic resources of the Roman elite; the latter, however, also risks smoothing over the “harsh breaks” (p. 20) wrought by political crisis. She also argues that a macro-historical approach, which places Rome’s history in a broader transregional or Eurasian perspective, risks losing sight of individual agency and the dynamics of social relations. By contrast, Salzman adopts the perspective of elite “resilience” – a term adapted from social-scientific theory to refer to “the marshalling of resources to reorganize and restore social formations even in the face of fractures and swerves” (p. 18). This, Salzman argues, offers insight into why the senatorial aristocracy (used restrictively to refer only to individuals of senatorial rank from “established Italian or Rome-based families” ) continued to invest in Rome’s rebuilding. Ultimately, Rome did not truly “fall” so long as the “competitive prestige culture” (p. 25) through which such individuals could obtain and exercise power continued to exist.
Each of the next five chapters focuses on the events and aftermath of a political crisis in which Rome took center stage. The first of these (Chapter 2, “The Constantinian Compromise”) is an effective treatment of the reconciliation of the Senate and the emperor Constantine following the defeat of his rival, Maxentius, at the Milvian Bridge in 312. Salzman shows that cooperation was beneficial to both parties. Rather than diluting the power of senatorial aristocrats, Constantine’s reforms opened new opportunities for prestigious office and financial reward; in return the emperor could count on local support and enhanced legitimacy. These rewards, moreover, were not the exclusive preserve of Christian converts, but rather accrued to established pagan families. Against this background, and contrary to the claims of later papal ideology, the bishops of Rome were hardly catapulted to prominence. In fact, they continued to enjoy little influence on an imperial stage, and even within the city itself their authority in religious matters was contested by the secular aristocracy – as it would be for much of the period covered by this volume.
Salzman next tackles the occupation of the city by the forces of the Gothic general Alaric (Chapter 3, “Responses to the Sack of Rome in 410”). Beginning with the events of the crisis itself, Salzman emphasizes the role of the Senate in attempting to mediate between Alaric and the emperor Honorius’ court at Ravenna. This independence was also manifested in the acclamation of the senator Priscus Attalus as emperor in 409. While Attalus has often been seen as no more than Alaric’s “puppet,” Salzman argues that his elevation was a senatorial response to the ineffectiveness of the imperial court in resolving the situation. Turning her attention to the aftermath, Salzman deploys epigraphic evidence to show that the “competitive reconstruction efforts” (p. 116) of the years following 410 created new opportunities for the senatorial aristocracy to accrue prestige and influence with the emperor and his generals.
Taken together, the next pair of chapters treat the tumultuous decades of the fifth century in which the Western Roman Empire disintegrated. Whereas, in many accounts, this period heralded the Senate’s demise as a political force, Salzman shows that the senatorial aristocracy not only remained in the city (rather than, for example, fleeing to their rural estates or to Constantinople), but also turned their attentions swiftly to its restoration. As she argues in Chapter 4 (“Rome after the 455 Vandal Occupation”), the continued attraction of restoring buildings and competing for high office was not the result of some “vague sentimentality,” but rather because Rome’s social arena continued to offer the institutional and symbolic means for acquiring political power (p. 150). Making deft use of textual and epigraphic sources for this period, Salzman positions the senatorial aristocracy alongside the emperors and the ascendant military elite (embodied by the figure of Ricimer) as the third major force in imperial politics. While active Roman bishops such as Leo I attempted to assert their local authority – through, for example, liturgy, material aid, and building works – it remained contested by non-Nicene military elites and the secular aristocracy.
The narrative picks up with the events that led to the deposition of Romulus Augustulus in 476 and the accession of the barbarian general Odoacer as ruler of Italy (Chapter 5, “Why Gibbon Was Wrong”). Here, Salzman compellingly argues that an alliance of interests between senatorial aristocracy and military elite brought about a situation whereby a resident western emperor was simply no longer desirable or necessary. The removal of the western emperor did not, therefore, herald the Roman Empire’s “fall” in the minds of the senators. Rather, as Salzman emphasizes, the entente forged between the Senate, the Roman clergy, and the military elite based at Ravenna ensured that the rhythms of senatorial sociability could continue unhindered.
This arrangement persisted after the fall of Odoacer in 493. With Cassiodorus’ Variae, Salzman shows that the Senate wielded considerable influence in the Italian kingdom and enjoyed close – if not entirely uncomplicated – relations with the Ostrogothic king, Theoderic, for most of his reign (Chapter 6, “The Fall of Ostrogothic Rome and the Justinianic Reconstruction”). The equilibrium between king, Senate, and Church was upended by the arrival of the armies of the eastern emperor Justinian in 535. On top of the substantial economic and social dislocation caused by nineteen years of ruinous warfare in the peninsula, the reforms of the 554 Pragmatic Sanction “removed the structural supports” of the senatorial aristocracy’s power (p. 299). Reforms to the fiscal system eroded the incentives for senators to hold high office; at the same time, the administrative role of bishops and military commanders was increased as a counterweight to the influence of local landowners. It was only from the Gothic Wars onwards, argues Salzman, that the papacy’s star was in the ascendant; not coincidentally, only now do we see scions of aristocratic families occupying the see of Rome. As treated in the conclusory chapter (Chapter 7, “The Demise of the Senate”), these developments caused senatorial aristocrats to lose their prominence in civic life to the papacy and the Eastern military elite over the course of later-sixth and seventh centuries. This was, in Salzman’s words, “the final fall of Rome as an ancient city – that is, one in which the ideal of civic society inspired senatorial aristocrats and ambitious men to senatorial status to serve the state” (p. 301).
The Falls of Rome offers a rich and compelling narrative that makes important contributions to the historiography of the Eternal City and of Late Antiquity more broadly. Errors and infelicities are few and do not detract from the force of its arguments. There is, for example, a tendency throughout the text to refer to European non-Romans as “Germanic” or, more frequently (and distractingly), “German.” While such usage risks implying a commonality of identity and interest between figures as distinct as Stilicho, Ricimer, Gundobad, Odoacer, and the seventh-century Byzantine exarchs – all referred to as “German” (e.g., pp. 99, 198, 330) – it does not affect Salzman’s otherwise careful analysis of their role as agents in Rome’s social arena. In sum, The Falls of Rome is a persuasive study of elite social reproduction that amply demonstrates how and why Rome remained a symbolically potent locus in Late Antiquity.