Review of “The Ruin of the Roman Empire: A New History” by James J. O’Donnell

We all know that the Roman Empire “fell” some time around 476 A.D., the date of the deposition of Romulus Augustulus, traditionally seen as the “last” Roman emperor. But maybe not, at least according to James J. O’Donnell, a distinguished classicist and provost of Georgetown University. In O’Donnell’s view, set forth in The Ruin of the Roman Empire (2008), the “fall” or end of the Roman Empire is exceedingly difficult to pinpoint. One reason is that the Empire persisted in the east (headquartered in Constantinople) until at least 1453 when it fell to the Ottoman turks. [That’s when Edward Gibbon identified the “fall” in his magisterial History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.] And even then, the Ottomans continued to refer to their empire as “Rum” [Rome] until it was formally disbanded in 1924 with the establishment of the modern Turkish state.

O’Donnell’s book focuses on the part of the empire governed from the city of Rome, particularly in the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries. And even there, the “fall” was not at all obvious. The Empire in the third century was especially chaotic, with emperors typically lasting only a year or two before being assassinated and replaced by some ambitious general or warlord. The chaos ended in the late 3d century with the ascendency of Diocletian, who moved his base of operations eastward to what is now the Croatian city of Split. His successor, Constantine, moved the capital even farther east to Byzantium, which he modestly renamed Constantinople.

As the capital migrated eastward, the empire’s control over the western provinces (Gaul, Spain, and Italy) lessened, but that did not mean they became more barbaric. O’Donnell argues that the western provinces interacted a great deal with their “barbarian” neighbors to the north and east. Indeed, most of the consuls of Rome during the 4th through 6th centuries were born outside the titular boundaries of the “Empire.”

The Rhine and Danube rivers marked the official boundaries of the empire. But O’Donnell points out that rivers make very ineffective boundaries between civilizations (mountains and deserts are much more effective) because they attract people. Hence, citizens of the empire and their ostensibly barbaric neighbors had plenty of intercourse (double entendre intended) across those waterways. Tribes close to the empire adopted many of the customs, dress, institutions, and habits of the people within the empire.

O’Donnell portrays the movement of people and tribes around and across the empire’s boundaries as a bit chaotic, but more peaceful than generally described in most western literature. He appraises Attila the Hun as the most overrated villain in western history. In his view, the Huns were not so much repelled in battle as simply assimilated by a mutually recognized superior culture.

Rome may have been sacked by the Vandals in 455, but it quickly reorganized. Odoacer, son of Edoco (a Hun) became leader of the western empire and assumed the title of “king” rather than emperor, but provided wise leadership and stability from 476 to 493. His successor, Theoderic (sometime called “the Great”), ruled from 493 to 526 upheld a Roman legal administration and scholarly culture and promoted a major building program across Italy. In 505 he expanded into the Balkans, and by 511 he had brought the Visigothic Kingdom of Spain under his direct control and established hegemony over the Burgundian and Vandal kingdoms.

Coin depicting Flavius Theodoricus (Theodoric the Great). Roman Vassal and King of the Ostrogoths. It is only known a single piece of this coin, from the collection of Italian numismatic Francesco Gnecchi, now in Palazzo Massimo, Rome, via Wikipedia

Thus in O’Donnell’s view, Rome had not fallen in the mid 5th century, but was well governed until at least 526, admittedly by Visigoths and descendants of Huns. The bete noire in his telling is Justinian, who ruled in Constantinople from 527 to 565. The split of the empire into two halves, the Latin speaking west and the Greek speaking east, was not something he could abide. He was driven to unite the entire empire by a need to unify Christian beliefs. The western rulers tended to be tolerant of various forms of Christianity, whereas he was a devoted follower and believer in the teachings of the Council of Chalcedon.

O’Donnell does a nice job of explaining the various forms of early Christianity. As he says:

Jesus and his first followers…offered a variety of assertions about Jesus’s relationship with the supreme divine being….There is simply too much scripture for it all to make sense.”

Arian theology, a belief held by the majority of the people in the West, but not by the bishops of Rome, insisted on distinguishing Jesus from God. The Nicenes, on the other hand, said that Jesus and God were of “identical substance,” homo-ousios in Greek. The Council of Chalcedon attempted to solve the issue with a doctrine O’Donnell characterizes as “both-and,” asserting both the godhead and manhood of Jesus at the same time. O’Donnell opines:

“…the Chalcedonians put forth a logical construct, yet still quite difficult to grasp and comprehend, and they made this incomprehensibility into a virtue, at least far as they could. If scriptures were contradictory and confusing, they represented not conflict, but rather a lofty, divine logic that mortals could not grasp, and became evidence of the truth of a logically paradoxical doctrine.”

So Justinian set out to unify the empire, both politically and religiously. His armies set out from Constantinople to conquer Italy, north Africa, and Spain. They also picked fights with the Persian Empire to their east. Although they were often successful in battle, they pretty much ruined the economies of the western provinces. Moreover, not only were they ultimately unsuccessful in subduing the western provinces, they may have weakened their own empire as a whole as well as the Persian Empire so much that neither they nor the Persians were able to withstand the onslaught of Islam, wich began shortly thereafter.

O’Donnell’s book provides a welcome insight into an historical period not well known or understood today.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2008

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