The Plight of Rome in the Fifth Century AD
Mark Merrony
218pp, 25 black-and-white illustrations and two maps
Hardback, £105

In his new book on ancient Rome, how does Dr Mark Merrony (a former editor of Minerva) handle the legacy of Edward Gibbon (1737–94), who is regarded as the premier historian of the period? Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788, changed how people saw ancient history.
Like any history, it was as much a reflection of the society of the author's time as a commentary on ancient times. According to Gibbon, Rome lost its way. It was besieged by the new faith of Christianity that brought new values. Barbarians were both streaming through the gates and defending the Empire. Rome was so powerful that it took centuries to collapse, but its demise was inevitable. Some countries banned the book but, then as now, this might have boosted sales. Gibbon's views were clearly influenced by the Enlightenment, but the question remains – is his central thesis still relevant?

It is here that Merrony's work fills a void. Since Gibbon, many writers have reassessed the decline of the Roman Empire (27 BC–AD 476), but The Plight of Rome in the Fifth Century AD does so by using material culture.
The title of the book is, however, somewhat misleading. For although the 5th century AD is covered in greater detail, it starts in the 1st century BC with Julius Caesar. Emphasis is paid to building inscriptions and coins, while large-scale archaeological surveys and the sources of mineral wealth are also covered. Gibbon's foci, using primary literary sources to explore the Roman state, the rise of Christianity, and the fall of the Roman West and then the Roman East, are distinct from those of Merrony, but, in many ways, the two works complement each other.

Merrony suggests that in order to support such a grand military machine, Rome had to provide vast amounts of wealth through conquest in order to pay the troops. It is estimated that state expenditure on the military was 60–70 per cent of total revenue. When Rome was lacking a war, it had to dip into other revenue streams, such as agriculture, to pay the military. With the Empire splitting in the 5th century, the shrinking military acted as less of a buffer to invasions. Territory was lost and, over time, the downward spiral accelerated. Merrony summarises decades of large-scale surveys. Objects of everyday life, such as evidence of olive oil production or pottery scatters, convey the truth on the ground, which might be hidden by official sources. When barbarians sieze agricultural land and take over gold and silver mines to mint their own coins, power can rightly be said to have shifted.

It is a common refrain that the historians of previous ages were so skilled that there is little left for moderns to do other than perhaps fill in some of the blanks. While veneration of former literary titans is admirable in some cases, it can obscure the fact that every generation needs to define the past on its own terms. This is where this book excels, for it considers the material evidence for the ancient Roman economy and uses the information to gauge the state of the military.

While the idea that winning wars was necessary for the economic system to work is simple, synthesising the evidence is not, but Merrony constructs a solid thesis to explain the decline and fall of the Western Empire.
Murray Eiland