Book Review: The Plight of Rome in the Fifth Century AD


by Mark Merrony

New York: Routledge, 2017. Pp. xxvi, 220. Illus., maps, tables, append., notes, biblio., index. $155.00. ISBN: 1138041971

The Roots of the Fall

Beginning with the origins of the imperial system in the civil wars of the last century BC, British classicist Merrony (Wolfson College, Oxford University) offers a somewhat revisionist view of the causes of the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West five centuries later.

Merrony argues that imperial finances were heavily dependent on plunder from military campaigns, plus agricultural productivity, and natural resources. These sustained the army, which absorbed some two-thirds of Imperial revenues. Over these five centuries, as the military fortunes of the empire declined and territorial expansion ceased, imperial income fell, exacerbated by a decline in agricultural output, while natural resources were becoming depleted. The cumulative effect of these factors all contributed to further lack of military success, particularly in the west, where the empire “fell” in the late fifth century.

This is an interesting idea, but there are some problems. At its peak under Hadrian and Antoninus (AD 117-161), the empire was mostly at peace, and thus lacked a steady supply of plunder yet was doing quite well. And while Merrony is, of course, correct about the depletion of natural resources, he should have spent some time on the decline of agriculture, a result of a global cooling trend that began about AD 200. In addition, while he does discuss the deleterious effects of repeated civil war on the economy and manpower of the empire, Merrony makes only a few comments about the repeated bouts of plague that began in the second century, which had a devastating effect on the empire’s population. And, of course there’s the question of why the empire in the East managed to survive, to which Merrony should have devoted more attention.

The Plight of Rome in the Fifth Century, a volume in the series “Routledge Studies in Ancient History,” is interesting, but primarily for the serious student of the Roman Empire.


Note: The Plight of Rome in the Fifth Century is also available in several e-editions

StrategyPage reviews are shared with The New York Military Affairs Symposium


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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