The Ruin of the Roman Empire

Peter Jones on a vibrant new look at the Roman empire's collapse

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Reviewed by: Peter Jones
Author: James O’Donnell
Publisher: Profile
Price (RRP): £25

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The author begins with a simple question: when did the Roman empire in the west end? The traditional date is AD 476, when Odoacer, a German who had served in the Roman army, rebelled, took Rome, sent the young emperor Romulus Augustulus into house arrest near Naples and made himself – what? Not precisely emperor, but a ruler effective enough for O’Donnell’s argument.

In 493 Odoacer was murdered by his successor Theoderic, king of a united Gothic peoples (the Ostrogoths), who again ruled Italy perfectly satisfactorily till 526. Neither had much of an empire to speak of, but they administered their territory like Romans, acknowledged the emperor of Rome’s eastern half in Constantinople, maintained relations with the popes, and so on. It was empire-lite.

The only serious attempt to restore the former glories of a ‘real’ Roman empire in the west was made by O’Donnell’s villain of the piece, Justinian, emperor of Constantinople 527–65. Taking the view that God was calling him, Justinian set about turfing out the Visigothic, Vandal and Frankish rulers in the west to reimpose ‘proper’ Roman authority over them. He had some success in North Africa and Spain and a hard-won victory in Italy, to little serious advantage. What it did was lay the foundations for the idea of Rome, propped up by the papacy as a ‘Holy Roman Empire’ from Charlemagne onwards, a façade finally brought down by Napoleon in 1806.

It is here that O’Donnell finds the moral of the story. For him, Odoacer and (especially) Theoderic were realists. Thoroughly Romanised themselves – Germans had been fighting in the Roman army for centuries – they understood and appreciated the Roman way of doing things, but also knew the imperial game was up. So they concentrated on doing, in the old way, what could still be done.

For O’Donnell, Justinian was blindly trying to recreate a past that had long gone. Perhaps: but the empire lived on in the east. The Persians had an empire. There was nothing anachronistic about Justinian trying his luck again in the west. If there was a villain, would not the eastern emperor Heraclius make a better choice, losing three-quarters of his empire’s wealth by the 630s?

But a brief review cannot do justice to the lively, teeming canvas – political, religious, social and cultural – that O’Donnell paints, the extraordinary personalities that emerge, and his stimulating, sometimes baffling, judgements. (“To see [Justinian’s] Hagia Sophia and… great church… in Jerusalem as testimonies to his weakness and short-sightedness is to
see them as they really are”).

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I wish, however, he had eschewed the subtext. He moralises unashamedly about nations learning to live together and respecting borders, especially in the Middle East. He rather implies that Romans Should Have Known Better, as if they were touchstones for and guardians of proper liberal values. One can hardly avoid the conclusion that the book hides an admonitory lecture, directed at the foreign policies of George Bush. Coming soon: Obama, the new Theoderic?