Darrell Schweitzer wrote a wonderful introduction to The Fall of Rome for an edition that never saw print. He talked about the way history was written during the Roman Empire and immediately thereafter. The job of the historians then was to create something beautiful that also recounted the history. From that point of view, The Fall of Rome succeeds beautifully, it is deeply fun to read and also shows us a perspective on the Goths that most of us would ever have considered.
It is a fabulistic history. It gives us the accurate bones, but with flesh that must be somewhat fictional. Darrell Schweitzer points out the example of the conversation between Alaric and the ghost of his father. No-one was there to report the dialog, and no transcript has survived. Yet the story becomes part of the background for Alaric’s dual loyalties between the Goths and the Empire.
Did the Gulf of Corinth freeze at Alaric’s command to let his army escape Stilicho? Most likely not, but this story tells us he did make an unlikely escape. Alaric and/or his supporters may have also used the story of this improbable escape to help build up his own mythos in his time.
Lafferty tells us as much, I think, by including the little bit about Atrox Fabulinius (which could be english-ized as “Atrocious Liar”). Essentially, the truth is in there, but in this case history serves story, rather than the other way around.
And what a story it serves! This is a book you can read for the great overarching story of the collapse of the Res Romana, for the narration of strategies and battles and shifting loyalties, or just for the sheer joy of Lafferty’s word-craft. I frequently would have to stop and revel in individual sentences or paragraphs. For example, the paragraph early in the book where he is discussing what remnants and artifacts survive to tell us about the culture of the Goths in the early 5th century AD.
"The dance is something with no survival, lacking verbal or pictoral record. The Goths may have had it. If they painted, it was not in a medium or on a material that has survived. Their history was unwritten. Their scientific speculation may not have gone beyond mead-table discussions and arguments. There is no record of their early philosophy. Since they were Germans, they must have constructed philosophical systems; and also, since they were Germans, these would have been erroneous."
And that’s not even the best line in the book, merely the one that was on the top of my mind from recent conversation.
Darrell Schweitzer’s introduction is included in his book The Fantastic Horizon: Essays and Reviews, and reprinted with his kind permission in Feast of Laughter, Volume 3.