Book review: James J. O’Donnell’s The Ruin of the Roman Empire

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This is a book review about James J. O’Donnell’s recent volume on the 6th-century Roman Empire — it deals of course with the issue of “why did Rome fall?”  O’Donnell’s writing is amusing and makes interesting comparisons between the Emperor Justinian and George W. Bush, in that they both set the stage for the future ruin of their respective empires.  This was published previously at — but I’ve decided to bring it back to Docudharma, especially since youse guys have decided to stick around!  

There are a number of prominently-listed causes for the fall of the Roman Empire, and the truth is always in dispute on this matter because the theories are all only as strong as the limited historical and archaeological evidence which supports them.  The fall-of-Empire debates, moreover, are quite fun in this day and age because polemic writers like to compare imperial corruption in this day and age to that of the Roman Empire.

What is usually meant by the “fall of the Roman Empire” is the loss of about 60% of its territory over the 5th century (after Christ), including Italy itself.  After that, there was of course an “Eastern Roman Empire” which lasted two more centuries, until about the 640s, at which point the “Eastern Roman Empire” loses Egypt, Palestine, and Syria to the Muslims and becomes a merely regional entity.  After that the historians give up on the concept of the “Roman Empire” and refer to the “Byzantine Empire.”  I suppose this is so because they don’t want to lose the association of the Roman Empire with something vast, and the Roman Empire after, say, 698 (when Carthage was lost) was relatively quite small, about the size of Greece and Turkey combined.

At any rate, I suppose that of all of the depicted “causes” of the loss of the Roman Empire in the west, my favorite is that depicted in Goldsworthy’s How Rome Fell.  The reorganization of the Roman Empire under Diocletian (284-305 CE) had increased the bureaucracy forty-fold, and so the Empire was in the hands of competing bureaucratic factions which gave the Emperor so much business that the Empire as a whole was typically divided up among two or more different Emperors, which caused its own set of problems.  Thus competent emperors in the late period (e.g. Valentinian I) had to play off factions against each other, whereas incompetent emperors merely had their throats slit.  

There is also, of course, the position of Peter Heather, who argues that the barbarians had become strong enough by the 5th century to dismantle the Empire in the west — but you have to ignore an awful lot of tomfoolery among the Romans themselves to arrive at this position.  The main example, of course, is in those momentous years of the idiot emperor Honorius, who was ruled largely by his court and by the magister militum (head of the Army) Flavius Stilicho, who stripped the border guard in order to deal with an invasion of Italy by the Visigoths in 402 CE.  As a consequence of this, a huge army composed of various Germanic tribes crossed the then-frozen Rhine River in the last day of 406 CE, and thereafter much of Gaul, Spain, and Africa passed out of the domain of the Roman Empire.

Moreover, there is the enticing theory of Ramsay McMullen, who argued that the disparity in wealth between rich and poor in the later Roman Empire in the west was so great that at some point nobody could be found to care about the Empire itself.  The poor didn’t care; they were no longer stakeholders in the Empire, and the rich, that dozen or so families who owned most of the wealth, didn’t care because it was just easier to bribe the officials to avoid payment of taxes.  So the revenue-strapped state hired lots of barbarians to join the armies, and (according to this theory) at some point the barbarians in the Roman Army switched sides.  However, I would wager that one major point at which the barbarians stopped being barbarians was in 408, when the court of the (idiot) emperor Honorius had the magister militum Stilicho decapitated, and then launched a vendetta against Stilicho’s army, much of which then joined the Visigoth army of King Alaric.  Another event, no doubt, at which the later Roman Empire in the west collapsed, was the murder of the magister militum Aetius, whose main claim to fame in this day and age was to have been depicted in a TV miniseries about Attila the Hun.  Aetius was the fellow who (in 451 CE) organized the barbarian armies (which had by that time settled within the borders of the Roman Empire en masse) to defend what was left of the Empire in the west against Atilla.  But in the end, like Stilicho, he was killed by his emperor, in this case Valentinian III.  So you see, history is guided by trends, but shaped by events, which are caused by living, breathing people capable of free will.

Perhaps a solid screw-up event for the Roman Empire occurred earlier on, in the disastrous Battle of Adrianople (now Edirne, in Turkey), in the year 378 CE.  The most vivid depiction of this catastrophe remains to this day in the manuscript of Ammianus Marcellinus, of which a good portion remains lost to this day.  The emperor Valens, less competent brother of Valentinian I, sent an army out on a broiling hot (and super-humid) day in August to confront a band of Visigoths who had been invited into the Roman Empire some time earlier by the Romans.  Valens could have waited for Gratian, then ruling in the west, to send an army to work out a deal with the Visigoths.  But nooo, Valens had to be The Man, and so an army of hot, dehydrated Romans, with him at the head, met the Visigoths.  While the two sides were in negotiations, war broke out between the troops themselves, the Romans were slaughtered, and Valens’ body disappeared thereafter.

After that disastrous battle, there was a permanent barbarian presence inside the boundaries of the Roman Empire which never left.  The Romans themselves did not have the manpower to eradicate it — at any rate, the barbarian kingdom within the borders was seen by the emperor Theodosius (who succeeded Valens in the east) as a source of troops which he could use to fight off usurpers to the imperial throne.  Look!  Manpower!  Never mind that they’re not our people.  If you want to read a wonderfully-written account of that story of decline and fall, I can heartily recommend Friell and Williams’ Theodosius: The Empire At Bay.

All of which exists as a preface for the volume discussed in this diary.  The plot of The Ruin of the Roman Empire is pretty straightforward: we are treated to an expansive prologue, much like what I’ve suggested above, in the first part of the book.  The second part of the book deals with Justinian, and the third part deals with the drab history after Justinian’s death.

The main question to be asked of O’Donnell, then, is this: when did he think of the Roman Empire as having “fallen”?  O’Donnell, like many authors, leaves this as an open question, though from the beginning he suggests a gradual disintegration from the disintegration in the west to the disintegration in the east:

The century or so from 476 to 604 CE reflects human plans and wishes with their successes and failures, showing how rulers who could not understand their world as existing on a continuum much older than themselves squandered countless opportunities.  (p. 43)

An interesting thing about O’Donnell is that, for him, the “sub-roman” barbarian kingdoms which came after the disintegration of the Empire proper in the west still count as “Roman.”  All of that warfare?  Feh!  It didn’t really wipe out the whole civilization.  (Well, the Germanic peoples did dismantle the unified Empire, parting it out for various kingdoms and sacking Rome a couple of times to boot — but that’s another story.)  In particular the Ostrogoths, barbarian conquerers of Italy, wanted for the most part to be good Romans, and to back this up they hired a good Roman bureaucracy to govern the Ostrogothic Kingdom in the era of King Theoderic.  

Contours of the Ostrogothic Kingdom: from Wikimedia Commons

So, even though the Empire as an Empire existed only in the east after 476, Roman civilization in Italy was said to continue through at least Theoderic, who died in 526 CE.  In this regard, O’Donnell extols the Roman-ness of the Ostrogothic Kingdom, suggesting that (from what we know) Theoderic was like the Emperor Hadrian (i.e. in the old Roman tradition of statesmanship) in his meting out of justice, and his kingdom maintained all of the important civilized Roman traditions: religious tolerance, higher learning, the circus.  In literature this was the age of Boethius, author of the Consolatio Philosophiae.  A picture of a festival in this era is granted us from a letter written by Cassiodorus:

On the climactic night of the festival, we are told, when the priest or bishop began his prayers, the water in the baptismal spring sensed what was about to happen and rose exultantly to meet the prayers from above.  A course of man-made steps led down into the spring, with the water regularly covering five of them, but the two higher steps remained dry, except when the prayers began and the water welled up spontaneously — miraculously — to facilitate the baptism.

And in the evening, songs were sung in the tents and shelters, songs we shall never hear, for the real life of ancient times always escapes us.  This corner of the ancient world had changed little with the coming of Christianity or with the coming of Theoderic and saw little reason to change.  People took prosperity and social order for granted.  The only cloud on this sunny scene was the king’s concern at reports that such a throng with goods and money might attract marauders. (174)

Oh, sure, there’s ugliness in Cassiodorus’s treatment of slavery, as the abovementioned festival featured a slave trade — but this was thought normal in that era of history.  The implication of O’Donnell’s narrative here is clear: Roman civilization wasn’t lost when the emperors in Italy were replaced by kings, and it didn’t die of its own accord.  It was extinguished, for the most part by the war waged by the Emperor Justinian against the Ostrogoths.

Cassiodorus later in life in his monastery, from Wikimedia Commons

O’Donnell of course tells the story of how after Theoderic’s death the emperor Justinian, in the east, was to challenge the succession of the Ostrogothic throne (in Italy) by invading Italy, and waging a long and destructive war which reduced Italy to rubble.  Justinian was also to exploit succession problems in the Vandal kingdom in Africa to invade there, too.  Justinian’s invasions were part of a partially-successful (and unnecessarily drawn-out) program to reconquer the western 60% of the Roman Empire for himself.

(Justinian, from the mosaic at San Vitale in Ravenna: photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Justinian, then, earned the villain role for O’Donnell, and is regarded in The Ruin of the Roman Empire as the proximate cause of the destruction of Roman civilization.  Justinian stood accused of a building program and a war-fighting program which exhausted the realm’s resources while winning for the realm a lot of basically unproductive territory (which was to be invaded thereafter by a new group of barbarians: the Lombards or Longobardii, who settled in Italy three years after Justinian’s death.  Moreover, Justinian is said to have bankrupted the Empire with profligate spending.

Justinian is also not looked upon kindly here for his attempts to impose religious uniformity upon the Roman Empire.  O’Donnell argues that his intolerance toward the Monophysites of Alexandria played a contributing role in the eventual loss of Egypt to the Muslims in the century afterward.  And of course Justinian’s closing of the Academy in Athens (its patrons were suspected of paganism) was not good for intellectual life in the Empire.

Justinian as a religious monarch resembles Stalin, and as a political monarch he favors Milosevic: outwardly in control, using ideological purity as a weapon to ensure control, and in the process inadvertently fueling the sympathies and ambitions of all those who simply did not agree.  (224)

Hamlet would have made a terrible king.  Justinian, intellectually arrogant, priggish, not as well educated as he thought he was, and alternating between indecisiveness and rashness, shows us how Hamlet would have turned out.  (p. 224)

O’Donnell takes his argument to the next level in the middle of the second part of his book: “So where did Justinian go wrong?  What should have been done?” (p. 243)  O’Donnell suggests that Justinian might have avoided all of those wars and concentrated upon the fortification of the Balkans, while at the same time not striving so hard for an authoritarian religious “unification” of the Empire.  It’s hard to imagine someone of Justinian’s character carrying out O’Donnell’s prescription.

Any historian writing in this era needs historical chroniclers to depend upon, and for mid 6th-century (CE) historiography one has a number of sources, but above all Procopius.  There is btw some Procopius online, though I gather the folks running that site didn’t want to spend a lot of time translating the uneventful text “On Buildings.”  The “Wars” is of course a history of Justinian’s term as Emperor, and the “Secret History” was a document hidden away from the Emperor’s eyes which displays all of Procopius’s intense and secret hatred of Justinian.  O’Donnell seems to side with Procopius’s “Secret History” here, although Procopius’s attack on the Empress Theodora defies belief for him.

The person after whom I’m named, Cassiodorus, makes an appearance here.  Cassiodorus is of course the anti-hero of his time, pursuing a distinguished political career and at the end of his life squirreling away a bit of learning at his monastery in Squillace for the dark ages to come.

The third portion of this book, after the narrative of Italy’s death, tells the story of the growth of Christianity and of monasteries in the 6th century, and recounts the history of the eastern Empire up to the Muslim conquest of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine, and thus the division of the Roman world into Muslim and Christian portions which continues to this day.  Justin II and Tiberius II are regarded as irrelevances, and O’Donnell doesn’t think that Maurice or Phocas or Heraclius had much of a chance to save the larger Empire, much as he might admire them, pretty much because they had to inherit an Empire that was irreparably ruined by their predecessors.  Heraclius, of course, lost much of his Empire to the Muslims, and died in 641 CE a broken man.

There is a coda to O’Donnell’s long tale, about Pope Gregory (540-604 CE), but it for some reason seem difficult for me to connect to the rest of O’Donnell’s more immediately engaging tale.  “In the end, Gregory the Great was wrong to anticipate the end of the world.  It had already arrived” (p. 384), we are told, but this somehow diminishes, rather than enhancing, Gregory’s importance.  O’Donnell sometimes loses me: but mostly he’s entertaining.

At any rate, having chosen a well-recounted history to recount, O’Donnell thickens the historical pot with elaborate descriptions of what life was like back then.  When deciphering ancient documents, O’Donnell takes you to the documents themselves, telling you what they say and questioning their straightforward nature so as to give you a “whole picture” as far as it can be assembled more than fourteen hundred years after the fact.  Moreover, O’Donnell is very much accessible as a writer — one need not be familiar with advanced historical analysis in order to enjoy this volume.


The period of O’Donnell’s book is usually given as the end of “Antiquity” and the beginning of the “Age of Faith,” or at least this is how it’s recounted in the historiography you saw some time ago in Will and Ariel Durant’s fat volumes.  Civilization in western Europe socked itself into monasteries and waited for the long run, as the heritage of Classical philosophy fell to the Muslims to develop.  Thus something qualitatively different emerges in history at that time.

Sometimes, analyses of the end of the Roman Empire attempt to explain its bad end by virtue of the fact that the Empire wasn’t versatile, that it couldn’t adapt to changing circumstances.  Aldo Schiavone (The End of the Past) suggests that Roman civilization was incapable of further innovation beyond that which it had already implemented.  Schiavone’s thesis is really interesting to me, because he starts by asking why there was a Dark Ages — why couldn’t the Roman Empire devise some form of technical progress that would allow it to grow directly into the civilization we currently enjoy, without the thousand-year period which actually separated our civilization from theirs?  His answer was that Roman civilization did not have the sort of dynamism that one could see even in mercantile society in the later Middle Ages, because it was based upon an agrarian, aristocratic social order which did not grant freedom to its labor force.  

At any rate, our civilization’s problems are significantly different from theirs.  If ancient Rome was too inflexible, too incapable of conceiving technical progress, the civilization of the capitalist world-system post-1500 seems to have fallen under the spell of the commodity-form, and thus too incapable of viewing the natural world which supports it as being anything more than an ensemble of commodities.  Rome was too slow; we are too fast.  Instead of being static, our society is cancerous in its relationship to the natural world (and, by extension, to its living labor force).  Our weakness is in being unable to break out of the commodity form to some sort of reckoning with the natural world which will permit of authentic sustainability.  We are screwed unless we can become one with nature, and thus our problems of decline and (possibly) fall are fundamentally different from Rome’s.

As for when-exactly the Roman Empire fell, I’m in favor of either a very late or a very early date.  If we are to imagine the Roman Empire as a big, secure empire, then it ended in 406 when masses of barbarians rushed across the frozen Rhine, later to establish themselves as Frankish, Sueve, and Vandal Kingdoms.  If we are to consider the death of any Roman Empire at all as the final date, then I would argue for 1204, when the Crusaders sacked Constantinople.  


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  1. where O’Donnell compares Justinian to Bush…

    • rossl on January 10, 2011 at 00:56

    I find the Romans very, very interesting.  I don’t know too much about them – mostly what I’ve learned from 5 years of taking Latin – but they’re fascinating.

    And now I’ve got to go study the Aeneid for a test, actually…

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