The Eternal Decline and Fall of Rome: The History of a Dangerous Idea

Oxford Univ. Aug. 2021. 320p. ISBN 9780190076719. $27.95. HIST
For over 1,700 years, politicians, warlords, and would-be emperors declared that Rome was declining and only they could restore it. Watts (history, Univ. of California San Diego; The Last Pagan) has written a largely successful survey of the political idea of Rome’s decline, which still has currency in the present day. Watts argues that Rome’s declines were often illusory and that these baseless narratives were often powerful enough to incite Romans to violence against those deemed responsible. Watts’s book is as much a historiography of Rome as it is a history; he analyzes how ancient and more current writers interpreted past events to respond to falling dynasties, the spread of Christianity, the arrival of Islam, and the dramatic shifts in what it meant to be Roman. Supporting this thesis requires a book of enormous scope, and the flurry of emperors, battles, cities rising and falling, heresies coming and going, can become a bit much. A narrower focus on specific ideas of Rome’s decline and restoration would have strengthened the argument.
VERDICT While not as strong as Watts’s last work, Mortal Republic, this is still a compelling read. It will find an audience among classicists as well as readers interested in contemporary discourses concerning American decline and possible renewal that draw from the narrative of Rome.
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