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Rome, Constantinople, and the Barbarians
By Walter Goffart
The American Historical Review, Vol. 86, No. 2 (1981)
Introduction: If the physical law of inertia applies to historical developments, then perhaps the Roman Empire was legitimately destined for eternity, and those who know that it did not endure are bound to ask what interrupted its tranquil course through the ages. On a superficial level, there is no mystery. Almost everyone agrees on what it was that turned Rome in unexpected directions. Edward Gibbon said that his narrative of decline and fall described “the triumph of barbarism and superstition”; Arnold Toynbee’s modernized version of the same phrase attributed the fall to “the ‘internal’ and ‘external’ proletariat.” These provocative formulations have a neutral alternative. No one seriously doubts that the Roman Empire in its final phase was most profoundly affected, on the one hand, by the Christian religion and, on the other, by those foreign tribes generally called “the barbarians.” If we wish to understand not just the fall of Rome but also the opening of the Middle Ages, we have to come to terms with these separate and highly complex phenomena.
Only the barbarians will be considered here. As Gibbon implied, Toynbee affirmed, and everyone else widely believes, they epitomized the “external” dimension of the fall of the empire. This perception is obviously true inasmuch as barbarians are, by definition, foreigners. Yet to acknowledge the ethnic or cultural distinctiveness of barbarians is not necessarily to maintain – as many historians have tended to do in recent years – that the Roman Empire, or part of it, was overcome by pressure from outside its borders. The dualism of internal and external causation has its classic statement in Polybius’s meditation on the fall of states, written in the second century B.C.: “And it is also all too evident that ruin and change are hanging over everything. The necessity of nature is enough to convince us of this. Now there are two ways in which any type of state may die. One is the ruin which comes from outside; the other, in contrast, is the internal crisis. The first is difficult to foresee, the second is determined from within. The latter had sole claim to Polybius’s analytical skills, leaving it for us to ask whether barbarians of the Christian era, like the Goths, Vandals, Huns, and so forth, may be adapted to his idea of an unforeseeable “ruin which comes from outside.” Although Polybius did not give concrete examples, much later incidents of unexpected calamity come readily to mind-most notably, the arrival of the conquistadores in America. No one would suggest, however, that what Rome experienced in late antiquity bore any resemblance to the fate of the Aztecs and Incas. The barbarian invasions definitely did not happen to an unsuspecting empire, as though mysterious beings had landed from outer space. On the contrary, Rome had always had warlike tribesmen at its gates and had centuries of experience in dealing with them.
See also our video interview with Walter Goffart