‘The Fall of the Roman Empire’

by Arthur Ferrill.

After much goading by various folk who found my little article on Julius Caesar of interest, I herewith give a couple more quick reviews from works recently read by myself, which I found to be of interest.

My thanks to Mike Cox, Garry Puller, Geoff Tromans and Dave Stevenson for nudging me along!

In Arthur Ferrill’s book, ‘The Fall of the Roman Empire,’ the author’s central theme is the part played by the Roman military system in the gradual decline, and final collapse of Empire. As a military historian professor Ferrill tells how, ‘…many twentieth – century historians have ignored or relegated to second place the purely military aspects of Rome’s fall.’ (Page 7)

The chronological period covered is roughly from the second century AD, until AD 476, the year Ferrill selects as the end of Empire. (Page 15).  Between these dates he considers that, although many factors can be attributed to its demise, the gradual watering – down of her military strength became one of the main factors in her collapse.

Ferrill’s book relies heavily on secondary source material, interspersed here and there with gobbets from primary sources in order to bolster his thesis. In the first two chapters of the book much is made of the writings of Edward Gibbon, A.H.A Jones, Theodor Mommsen, Ardant du Picq, and others, as if these are required as touch-stones which enable the author to press on with his own theory. His select bibliography is also taken up by a great amount of secondary material, while his ‘End Notes’ are headed, ‘Except in rare instances references are to modern discussions only’. Ancient sources are fully cited in Jones 1964 and numerous other modern works referred to in these notes.’ (Page 172) Having to obtain four or five other books in order to read one does seem rather tiresome.

The book is well written, and Ferrill’s logic stays on track throughout the work, however, like the Roman Empire itself, it tend to tail-off towards the end as the author gallops through personalities and events without too much depth. Also it would have been better if Ferrill had compared and contrasted the Roman army of the Republic and early Empire and how they may have sown the seeds of decline. If he had used the writings of Tacitus, Dio,  Polybius, Plutach, together with the primary sources that he does use, then a much better understanding of the whole structure of Roman military changes would have presented a broader picture; I will give a few examples:

Marcus Licinius Crassus


Marcus Crassus
Marcus Crassus

Ferrill only mentions the Marcus Licinius Crassus as an example of how much money one Roman could amass as a private fortune. (Page 26). No mention is made of his campaign against Spartacus, which came as a complete shock to the internal stability of Rome itself, or, for that matter, of his campaign against the Parthians that ended at Carrhae in 53 BC, when the Roman army suffered its worst defeat since Cannae. Here Ferrill should have considered why, after Crassus’s army had been destroyed by masses of mounted archers, had the Romans not adopted this type of cavalry themselves?

What effect did the various Civil Wars have upon the Roman army? One feels that there must have been a considerable amount of defection by the auxiliary troops during these periods of civil strife within the empire itself, causing old allies of Rome to question the stability of the whole system, while also looking to their own chance of autonomy. Even now, in the twenty-first century, there are continued rumberlings of self-government, how much more so during the power struggles that plagued Rome?

As well as the Civil Wars, Ferrill does not deal with the effect of ‘one man rule’ on Rome’s decline. It would have been interesting to see some kind of comparison between the Republic and Empire dealing with this issue. Would the senate have dealt with the problems of frontier differently; would the senate have gone so far in conquest? This last point would, of course have had to bring in the moral purpose behind Roman conquest.



When he does quote from primary sources, Ferrill tends to give a false impression on the merits of the Roman army, during what he considers to be its prime. When quoting from the historian Josephus (The Jewish War), Ferrill says that, ‘…the Roman tradition of military discipline combined with their system of tactical organisation, was the most effective in the history of the world.’ (Page 29) Indeed, Josephus even backs up this view when he states, ‘…we Roman’s (sic) alone are exercised for war in time of peace.'(Page 29) What Ferrill does not go on to say is that Josephus himself had to admit that there were times when even the great roman military machine was, ‘Completely at a loss?’ (The Jewish Wars VI, 27 page 235)


josephusAlso Ferrill says that in comparison with the Germans, the Roman system of training was far superior, and that the Germans were, ‘…not trained to fight in a line either in the first or the fifth century. (Page 30) He goes on to state that, ‘…on the whole there is a detectable sameness of organisation- or lack of it- in all barbarian armies, at least in comparison with the refined drill and training of the Roman legions.'(Page 30) This same “detectable sameness” could also be found within the structure of the legions, once away from the open battlefield (the Varian disaster of AD 9 is just one example) they were not able to adapt to any other type of warfare.

I mention all the above, not with the intent of “nit picking,” but only to point out that Ferrill’s book should be treated only as an addition to our understanding of the Roman military system. If the book was written for other military historians, then it does seem like preaching to the converted. To the military thinker the Roman army had just as much to do with her decline and fall as any other factor. To the layman, coming to Ferrill cold, there should have been more comparisons and explanations of the early Roman military system, as well past events, which helped to shape its methods and structure.

Basil Liddell Hart.

basil_hartPerhaps the most dominant feature of the Second Punic War was Rome’s ability to recover from any disaster which overtook her. No small part in this was played by the Roman Senate, which time and again were able to rally the people to fresh efforts. The citizen- farmers of the Republic were levied in emergency for defensive purposes, and the fighting quality of these early legions became the backbone of what was to become a truly magnificent fighting force.

One of the main drawbacks to the army during this period was poor leadership. One consul replaced another in rapid succession so that no coherent strategy could be maintained. Also the habit of placing two consuls in charge on alternate days did nothing for any constructive plans being utilised during a campaign. Only with the election of Scipio Africanus to command the Roman forces in Spain (210 BC) do we see a first rate general with the ability and hindsight to bring the war to a victorious conclusion.

Scipio Africanus

scipioScipio had all the attributes of leadership that made him one of the great commanders of history. With his grasp of grand strategy, together with his tactical skill, he was able to show just how professional the Roman army could be. All of this was tempered by Scipio’s self-control and moderation, plus his magnetic influence over his troops. While Hannibal Barca was also a great general and leader of men he, unlike Scipio, never grasped the overall requirements needed for true leadership.

The military historian, Basil Liddell Hart (1895-1970) had fought as a British officer during the First World War, and his book, A Greater Than Napoleon: Scipio Africanus, was first published in 1926. One should keep this in mind when reviewing his work, for although Liddell Hart does not seek to force his ideas upon the reader, there is nevertheless a strong influence on contemporary perceptions of warfare by the fact that the author was writing at a time when he and a handful of others, notably General J.F.C.Fuller, had seen the follies committed by commanders on all sides during the Great War and were trying to analyse how such mistakes would not be made again.

There is, I feel, a trait running through the work, which now and then shows, if not intentionally, how Liddell Hart viewed archaic methods of warfare. One example being his mention of how, in his wars, Scipio made the cavalry into an effective mobile force of decision (one has to consider here the possibility that if Hannibal had not been deprived of his Numidian cavalry, what the outcome of the battle of Zama would have been?), ‘It is an object lesson to modern general staffs, shivering on the brink of mechanisation, fearful of the plunge despite the proven ineffectiveness of the older arms in their present form.’ (Page 97)

Hannibal Barca

hanibalWhen discussing the leadership of Scipio in comparison to others Liddell Hart tells us that the “test” of good leadership rests on three main points; 1. As a general; 2. As a man, and 3. As a statesman. (page 249) However, when discussing the leadership of Scipio I feel that it is necessary, in order to obtain a fair assessment, to gauge the times and the tempo of the war being fought, and then, by the same criteria ask oneself at what level of strategy, grand, military or just operational, did the command operate?

The author states, ‘In conducting policy, through war and peace he (Scipio) indeed attained a concord which aptly fulfilled the musical definition.’ (page 6) This analogy with music is valid, but only in as far as one must realize that in those ancient times the Roman application of grand strategy used national resources to achieve its objectives which had been set out by the Senate. When the nation was at war, military strategy represented the application of military resources to the commander in the field so that he might achieve his objectives. (See Polybius: The Rise of the Roman Empire, page 317. VI 13-18).

Here is the fundamental difference between the way in which Scipio was able to operate and the way that Hannibal, if we are to believe Polyibius, in defiance to the Carthaginian senate, went to war with Rome on his own initiative. Scipio always had the political motive in mind, that being to bring about a lasting peace through victory in war. Liddell Hart, although decrying the Roman’s for not sending Scipio reinforcements, shows the difference between the character of Hannibal and Scipio. ‘He (Scipio) the servant of the republic is the one exception to the rule that throughout the history of war the most successful of the great captains have been despots or autocrats.'(page 103).

As a strategist Scipio was able to comprehend the vulnerability of Hannibal’s invasion of Italy, and used, what was to become Liddell Hart’s own personal preference – The Indirect Approach- through Spain and eventually across to North Africa. Once again Liddell Hart makes a comparison with his own times on Scipio’s peace terms, ‘202BC – 1919 AD! What moderation compared with the conditions of Versailles? Here was true grand strategy – the object a better peace, a peace of security and prosperity. Here were sown no seeds of revenge.'(page 194).

As a tactician, Scipio never fought a battle without some element of surprise, secrecy, and above all security. The storming of Cartagena (Spain) in 209 BC was, to Liddell Hart, ‘…a lesson in his (Scipio’s) consummate blending of the principles of surprise and security, first in the way he secured every offensive move from the possibility of interference of mischance, second in the way he “fixed” the enemy before and during his decisive manoeuvres.’ (page 62).

Liddell Hart does not let us forget that the, “Greater than Napoleon,” is meant to show that Scipio could achieve victories just as great as the little Corsican, while at the same time show him a thing or two about endowing inferior forces with the potential for the “indirect approach,” rather than going head-on for their main field army. This, of course, was Liddell Hart’s point. The main mass of the enemy’s forces was not the main objective. He had seen this at first hand, together with its tragic results, during the First World War.

For Liddell Hart the attributes of leadership that made Scipio Africanus one of the great captains of history were his grasp of grand strategy, to secure a prosperous peace; his tactical skills, albeit with an army far more professional than the Carthaginian’s, and his character, ‘…which included his moderation, self-control, his human sympathy and his magnetic influence over his troops.’ (page 271) The latter itself springs from a successful and respected style of command.

Like Scipio’s campaigns, Liddell Hart’s book will stand the test of time, and his final paragraph sums-up his justification for writing it, ‘To ignore the influence of war as a world- force is to divorce history from science, and turn it into a fairy-tale.’ (page 279)

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