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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

Arther Ferrill

The Fall of the Roman Empire: The Military Explanation

London: Thames & Hudson, 1988. 192pp. ISBN-13: 978-050027-495-8.

The primary cause of Rome’s fall was not internal weakness, as some historians have argued, but the deterioration of the Roman army. Arther Ferrill in his book, The Fall of the Roman Empire: The Military Explanation, believes twentieth-century sensibilities have clouded the issue of Rome’s fall discounting the military mechanism that made Rome a superpower in the ancient world. Ferrill persuasively argues against the position of Late Antique scholars who perpetuate the myth that the barbarians were innocent of the atrocities ascribed to them and that they positively influenced Roman civilization for the better, not the worse. Rome’s ability to make war made it great and its inability to maintain strong discipline, high morale, and capable leadership proved a fatal blow to the stability of the Empire. This was due, in part, by the added influx of barbarian tribes and their incorporation into the Roman army as allies. Barbarians were a cancer that contributed, according to Ferrill, to the incompetence of the Roman army and the downfall of the Empire. Bad habits crept into the army via the barbarians and spread quickly through the ranks. Ferrill is convinced ‘barbarization’ was a plague that exponentially quickened Rome’s fall. Those familiar with Ferrill’s other works will be pleased with this volume. It follows the general format of his other works and is supplemented with illustrations and maps. This book is an excellent introduction to Roman military history in the Late Empire.

The first chapter considers the historical debate surrounding the decline and fall of Rome. Ferrill highlights the opinions of Edward Gibbon and A.H.M. Jones. Though Gibbon is a universally recognized authority on Roman history, Ferrill believes that Jones offers a more accurate assessment of Rome’s fall. Jones was intimately acquainted with the internal mechanisms that made Rome tick and attributed Rome’s demise to external pressures. This conclusion bears considerable weight because Jones, a scholar whose specialty lies outside the realm of war, lays the blame for Rome’s demise at the feet of the barbarians. Try as hard as he might, Peter Brown cannot dissuade Ferrill from the opinion that the barbarians orchestrated, however unlikely, a coup that crippled the Empire.

The second chapter deals with the grand strategy of the Roman Empire. Ferrill begins his discussion with Constantine’s recall of frontier troops to the interior. The Roman army was a well-oiled machine that utilized logistics and supplies efficiently and effectively. Roads connected Rome to all her frontier provinces facilitating the freedom of movement and communication that gave Rome an air of invincibility and grandeur. On the whole, these factors give the Roman army a psychological edge by boosting morale. Some historians have suggested that Rome fell because it could not fight a war on more than one front. Ferrill retorts that diplomacy would have effectively neutralized multiple threats along the frontier and Rome could choose not to engage the enemy and avoid war. Ferrill contends that everything depended on the Army’s ability to fight. Forts, walls, and any other sort of imposing structure were of secondary importance. Diocletian proved to be a strong general and Emperor who restored the frontiers and reorganized the Empire. He was succeeded by Constantine, a man who adopted the defense-in-depth strategy that would eventually handcuff the legions from imposing stability along the frontiers: “The grand strategy of Constantine took a terrible toll in military efficiency and esprit de corps.” (p. 50)

The third chapter addresses the crisis on the frontiers and begins with Julian’s botched campaign in Persia. Ferrill briefly outlines Julian’s miscalculations and tactical errors and fails to mention Ctesiphon at all. However, Ferrill does focus on the diminished morale of Julian’s troops and their deflated self-confidence. In the West, Ferrill touches upon the untimely death of Valentinian, who he calls, “the finest Emperor-soldier since Diocletian and Constantine.” (p. 57) An excellent summary of events provided serve as a necessary backdrop to the battle of Adrianople and the strained relations between the Goths and the Eastern Romans. Ferrill, using Ammianus Marcellinus’ account of the battle of Adrianople, argues that Adrianople was not won by Gothic cavalry but by Roman tactical blunders. It is a myth propagated by many historians, according to Ferrill, that barbarian cavalry was superior to Roman cavalry and that they proved decisive at Adrianople.

Theodosius bequeathed his empire to a trusted general named Stilicho. Stilicho served as regent while the Emperor Honorius was underage. Stilicho was loyal to the vision of Theodosius by adopting a policy of accommodation with the barbarians and desiring a united Empire. Ferrill believes had Stilicho abandoned Theodosius’ policies, the Roman Empire may have bounced back from the impending debacle of ad407 to 410. Stilicho was out of his depth in the political arena and could not offer a satisfactory answer why he had been able to defeat a Gothic army on more than one occasion yet unable to capture or kill their leader Alaric. A wave of xenophobia swept through the Western Empire like wildfire and Stilicho was martyred as a barbarian sympathizer who secretly plotted the creation of a barbarian state. Though prone to making mistakes, Ferrill judges Stilicho favorably, especially in his military capacity.

The grand strategy employed in the fifth century revolved around disbanding the legions along the frontier and consolidating power in Spain, Gaul and Italy. In order to control these regions, Roman employed the Visigoths as shock troops. Although Roman armies consisted of no more than 20,000 troops in a given battle, superiority in numbers did not ensure victory. “Discipline and training, sophisticated logistics, the techniques of siege warfare, military engineering, a professional system of command, and high morale based upon justifiable confidence had given Roman armies an edge no barbarian horde could hope to match.” (p. 127) Ferrill’s arguments and assumptions find encouragement and reinforcement in the writings of Vegetius. This short section is an outstanding introduction to Vegetius, the problems experienced by the Army of the Late Empire, and Vegetius’ prescription to revitalize an ailing behemoth to its former glory.

 The arrival of the Huns was both a blessing and a curse. Initially, the Huns were used to do the dirty work of the Empire but when the Huns unified under Attila, they became an imminent threat. Why did Attila attack the West? The Eastern Empire refused to pay the annual gold tribute they had paid for some years. Angered, Attila took out his frustration on the West. To make matters worse, Valentinian’s sister Honoria pledged her hand in marriage to Attila if he would free her. He agreed … but required half the Empire as a suitable dowry. Aetius and his federates, a hodge-podge of nationalities, faced the Huns at Chalons where they narrowly escaped annihilation. The most humiliating aspect of this battle was the minor role Roman infantry played and the insults hurled by Attila. Valentinian rewarded Aetius by personally killing him. In turn, Aetius’ supporters killed Valentinian. This left the door open for the rise of Ricimer, a bloodthirsty barbarian who ran the Empire into the ground. The Vandals took advantage of the instability of Italy by seizing North Africa, entrenching themselves there despite a concerted effort by both halves of the Empire to reconquer Africa. Roman influence shrank in Gaul, and was completely removed from Britain and North Africa. Rome found itself in a tailspin it was unable to survive because of a weakened army and enemies (barbarians) assimilated in every level of society.

Those familiar with Ferrill’s work in general may be surprised how often the author addresses historiographical debates in this volume. Most revolve around military issues but a few encompass political considerations too. This writer selected a few historiographical controversies that gave him pause for consideration and resulted in a re-shaping of his own historical understanding of the period. Constantine’s adoption of the defense-in-depth strategy was motivated by political rather than military considerations. Modern historians applaud Constantine’s strategy because its focus on a central reserve is a method employed in the modern world. The strategy had far-reaching consequences resulting in the creation of an elite force in the heart of the Empire that was pulled in every direction to meet new threats diminishing its war-making capacity. The frontier troops, however, were all but forgotten. “Troops that are not expected to defeat the enemy can hardly be blamed for wanting to avoid him altogether. Indeed as time went by, the frontier troops of the Roman Empire became virtually worthless while the mobile army was expected to do all the fighting.” (p. 46) Constantine severely mismanaged “Rome’s effective combatant manpower” by dividing his troops into two categories: border troops and mobile troops. If fear of intrigue and secret enemies was removed, perhaps Constantine would not have adopted the defense-in-depth strategy and Rome would have been able to maintain the borders.

The Goths are remembered primarily for their impressive performance at Adrianople smashing Roman legions with their mounted cavalry. Using Ammianus’ account of the battle, Ferrill concludes that “for the most part Gothic warriors fought on foot as infantry.” Furthermore, Ferrill debunks the old-fashioned view that Adrianople was, “a medieval battle involving large numbers of cavalry as simply not sound.” (p. 60) Rome was the superior force and should have easily defeated the Goths. The Roman Emperor Valens was “driven by jealousy into a hasty and precipitous assault” resulting in his death and a humiliating defeat (p. 61). If Valens had only waited for Gratian’s forces to arrive or had taken into consideration the extreme heat of the day, the outcome may have been different. An Emperor driven by a lust for glory and honor is bound to make rash decisions and miscalculations that, individually, may be corrected and/or adjusted; but a series of poor tactical decisions create a domino effect that proves insurmountable to even the most capable commanders.

Ferrill points an accusatory finger at those historians “who see this period as one of transformation rather than collapse.” He charges that they, “either ignore, dismiss, or ridicule the evidence of human suffering in the age of invasions.” Erik Hildinger (author of Warriors of the Steppe) provides an excellent introduction of the warrior cultures of the Steppe and their clash with the West. Hildinger agrees with Ferrill’s premise that the barbarians, especially the Huns, were a vicious, brutal, and cruel people who were conditioned by a harsh climate and bitter life on the Steppes. The Vandals are also highlighted in Ferrill’s study as a destructive force in North Africa. “Unfortunately it has become a common mistake,” observes Ferrill, “to let sympathy for twentieth-century oppressed minorities blind us to the savagery of ancient barbarians (p. 137; cf. 141).” Archaeological evidence in North Africa has recently been unearthed and reveals “evidence of blind, gruesome bloodshed” under Vandal occupation (p. 137). A topic threaded throughout Hildinger’s study and touched upon in Ferrill’s is the barbarian tactic of terror. Terror was used with success in the West but was primarily a tactic employed perfectly in the Middle East by the Mongols. The Huns, however, used terror expertly under Attila and inspired unquenchable fear in their enemies. This tactic would evolve under Genghis Khan and Tamerlane in a modified version Hildinger termed “calculated terror.”

Ferrill’s analysis may not satisfy some scholars but his case is systematically presented and cannot be brushed aside. Rome was built through conquest and maintained by policing its borders with crack troops. When Rome was unable to manage the frontiers and was plagued by internal divisions, the barbarians capitalized on an opportunity to advance themselves at the future cost of the Empire. The fall of Rome is dated at ad476 though traces of the decay are strongly visible in the events leading and following ad410. The deterioration of the Roman army, however, is the chief culprit according to Ferrill. Once feared, the Roman legions in the Late Empire were now openly mocked by Attila. Soldiers grumbled at the severity of their tenure and were disgruntled with their barbarian “allies” who were treated leniently and were paid handsomely. Ferrill unequivocally attributes the fall of Rome as a failure to meet external and internal threats with a strong military response. Sometimes his single-mindedness can lead him to conclusions that challenge popular beliefs and schools of thought, but he does so with the conviction that his faithfulness to the sources will vindicate him, no matter how unfashionable it may be.

Christopher Berg

Sam Houston State University <>

Page Added: August 2011