Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Ruin of the Roman Empire: A New History by James J. O'Donnell

James J. O'Donnell, The Ruin of the Roman Empire: A New History

(Ecco: 2008) 448 pages
Verdict?: Provocative, stimulating and entertaining 5/5.

It is rare for a book to give a well-worn topic a new perspective and rarer for one which does so to be as accessible and entertaining as this. Or as provocative. Following in the wake of other excellent recent books on the "Fall of the Roman Empire", notably Peter Heather's weighty The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians and Bryan Ward-Perkins' The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization, O'Donnell takes the reader on a lively and colourful tour of the world of the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Centuries and the people who can give us an insight into the end of Classical civilisation and the beginning of the Middle Ages. In the process, he examines some old ideas from some new and sometimes controversial angles and seems to deliberately and rather gleefully couch things in ways that will raise some hackles. All that makes for a roller-coaster of a read on what could strike some as a fairly dusty subject.

The essence of O'Donnell's thesis, and his provocation, can be summed up in his book's subtitle: "The Emperor who brought it down, the barbarians who could have saved it". The idea that the Empire was brought down by a Roman Emperor (he's referring to Justinian I) and could have been "saved" by barbarians would strike traditionalist Classicists as both heretical and absurd, but the subtitle is a deliberate teaser for what is actually a nuanced and well-argued position, even if it is not always a wholly convincing one on every point.

Essentially, O'Donnell argues that the traditional date for the "Fall" - September 4th AD 476 - is only one of several dates which could be taken as the "end" of the Empire and gives good evidence that it was not seen as the "end" at the time as widely or as fully as modern writers tend to assume. He argues that in many respects, though clearly not all, the "Empire" continued in form, many functions and even in name under Odovacar, Theodoric the Great, the Visigothic kings and the Vandals. What destroyed this post-Imperial "Empire"-without-an-Emperor was Justinian's ill-considered attempts at reconquest, which plunged Italy into decades of destructive war, wrecked the surviving institutions of the Empire and left the west open to barbarians who were far less Romanised and civilised than the Goths and Vandals.

Continuity or Catastrophe?

The old Nineteenth Century idea of the barbarians who entered the Empire in the Fourth to Sixth Centuries as wolfskin-wearing savages from the primeval forests and the steppe has been abandoned long ago. Even the more "barbaric" of the invaders, such as the Angles, Saxons and Frisians who invaded Britain, were from frontier regions which had been heavily influenced by Rome for centuries. And the main players were more Romanised still - by 476 some of them had been living inside the Empire for almost a century and the Goths Theodoric led into Italy or the Vandals Gaiseric led across the Straits of Gibraltar were largely Christian, substantially Latin-speaking or at least bilingual or multilingual and armed, dressed and equipped more or less like the Romans they came to dominate. Theodoric' s men had been soldiers of the Empire for a generation, even if they were sometimes soldiers in various forms of revolt:

If there were any primeval forest dwellers in those communities, they were the ones their smarter, more acquisitive and more ambitious cousins left behind … by the time people like Theoderic’s followers find themselves in Italy, they were there not as barbarians but as Roman soldiers, bearers of the distinctive frontier culture of the north, to be sure, with styles of dress, religion, and speech that differentiated them from the settled southerners, but that made them nonetheless part of the same imperial community.
(O'Donnell, p. 121)

But here is where O'Donnell gets pointedly provocative. He deliberately emphasises this point to a high degree. When introducing Theodoric, for example, he writes of him as a young man from the edge of the Empire who was educated and raised at the Imperial court until the age of 18 and who then took up military roles in the Balkans pretty much like many of the other ambitious Roman soldiers and generals O'Donnell has already mentioned. He manages to describe the career of this canny Imperial player for about a dozen pages without once using words like "tribe" or "warband" or even "Goth". Of course, he knows precisely what he's doing and, at the end of this summary turns to the reader and draws attention to what he has just done and why. Doing this certainly does change the way the reader, who may have read other more traditional versions of Theodoric's story, looks at who he was and how he fitted in with the Imperial system.

And it is not like it is really unusual for a writer to do this about a "barbarian". Many traditional histories of the period write about people like the Emperor Zeno without so much as a hint that his original name was Tarasicodissa and that he was an Isaurian warrior from Armenia. Or that the Emperor Leo I was a member of the Bessian tribe of Thrace. The idea that these men were less "barbarians" than Theodoric and his men does not really make much sense, yet the traditional view means that Theodoric still gets presented as an "Ostrogoth" while Zeno and Leo rarely get presented in the same way.

The first section of the book, therefore, presents a vivid overview of the post-Imperial "Empire" viewed with this "continuity" perspective. It is important to note here, however, that O'Donnell is not plumping for some wholesale "continualist" position and arguing that "the Empire never fell" and that the whole business of the collapse of the Western Empire was a bloodless and pleasant transition from one type of ruler to another. He specifically points to Bryan Ward-Perkins' eloquent counter to that idea and cautions that, in some ways and some places at least, the end of the Empire was every bit as violent, bloody and destructive as the traditional picture would suggest. In Britain, northern Gaul and parts of inland Spain, in particular, this was very much the case from the mid-Fifth Century onwards.

That said, his emphasis on continuity is backed by good evidence. Under Odovacar, Theodoric, Gaiseric and others, traditional offices continued to be filled, poems written, elegant dinner parties attended, games held, ceremonial observed and so on, pretty much as if nothing much of note had happened in AD 476. One example of this is an inscription to Theodoric found by the Appian Way near Rome which begins:

Our Lord the most glorious and celebrated King Theodoric, victor in triumph, ever Augustus, born for the good of the state, guardian of freedom and propagator of the Roman name, who has tamed the nations ...

(O'Donnell, p. 145)

The noteworthy thing here is not simply the act of putting up a dedicatory inscription to commemorate some building work sponsored by a ruler or the traditional formulas being applied to an "Ostrogoth" rather than a Roman, but the use of the formula "ever Augustus" for the Gothic king. Clearly he is not being called an Emperor - he is specifically called "King" - but he has equally clearly slotted fairly neatly into the role of an Emperor nonetheless. And there are many similar examples of how, as O'Donnell argues it, the new rulers of Italy, Spain, Gaul and Africa were restructuring the Roman west in some ways but leaving things much as they were in most others.

In some respects, however, O'Donnell does push this too far. It is true that anyone who combs through the evidence of Ostrogothic Italy looking for elements that are uniquely "Gothic" or even Germanic usually comes up with very little. But O'Donnell de-emphasises the little that can be found to the point of it being virtually invisible in his narrative. As Romanised as the Goths in Theodoric's regime were, they still spoke at least some Gothic or spoke Gothic some of the time. They were still distinctive enough in dress and accoutrements to be identifiable as "Goths" (regardless of whether they actually had any Germanic ancestry at all). And they were still Arians while their Roman neighbours were Catholics.

O'Donnell goes so far as to argue that Theodoric constructed a purely ethnically Gothic identity and history for himself and his Amaling clan only towards the end of his life, when he was frustrated by increasing Eastern Imperial refusal to accept or accommodate his new world order in the west. He never presents any evidence for this interpretation however. All regimes certainly have a tendency to paint a romantic picture of their origins and to shape their image of themselves, but the idea that Theodoric's Germanic roots were largely a "construction" and only emerged at the end of his career does not seem to be based on any clear evidence that I know of. Indeed, Herwig Wolfram - the scholar who, literally, wrote the book on Germanic "ethnogenesis", the fluidity of Germanic tribal identity and the near total obscurity of any of the prehistory of the Germanic groups of this period - still attributes some aspects of Theodoric's reign to distinctively Germanic cultural elements. He pursued some wars against the Rugians, for example, that don't seem to have made much sense in terms of grand strategy but seem to have been driven more by the Germanic rules of blood feud than the chess game of post-Roman relations.

Overall, however, O'Donnell makes his case well enough - prior to Justinian's wars of reconquest things in the West were in battered shape in most places and in total collapse in many. But in Ostrogothic Italy, Vandal Africa and Visigothic Gaul and Spain, at least, the old structures either survived, were patched up or were rejigged and adapted to a new basis for the old civilisation. Not the Empire, of course, but close enough to it to raise an inscription to a Germanic king who had repaired a Roman road calling him "ever Augustus". Then along came Justinian ...

Enter Justinian

Justinian has generally not been treated kindly by many modern historians and O'Donnell is no exception. The picture he paints is fairly typical: Justinian and his uncle and predecessor Justin took the stable and prosperous Empire they inherited from Anastasius and, through a combination of pride, ideological fanaticism and religious intolerance, left it financially bankrupt, religiously polarised and militarily broken. He saw the Germanic rulers of the West simply as heretics and alien usurpers and struck out at them as enemies of Roman civilisation and, in the process, did far more to wreck what was left of that civilisation than the Romanised barbarians had ever done; leaving the West shattered and open to other, far more barbaric barbarians.

Again, there is a lot of merit to this view and overall O'Donnell substantiates it well and with a certain acidic vividness of language, such as when he says of Justinian "as a religious monarch [he] resembles Stalin and as a political monarch he favours Milosevic" or writes:

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.
(O'Donnell, p. 224)

In O'Donnell's view, Justinian failed on several fronts. Firstly, he was an arch-conservative and reactionary who saw all deviation from his views as dangerous dissent to be crushed. He championed the Chalcedonian position on the nature of Christ to a fanatical degree, alienating the Monophysites who made up the majority in his Empire. He also pursued a policy of crushing remnants of pagan culture, driving many intellectuals into exile in Persia, to the benefit of Persian and, later, Arabic intellectual culture. Secondly, he pursued policies against Persia and in the Balkans that were to have dire consequences for his successors. Finally, his policy in the West was quixotic, wrong-headed and wasteful and it ultimately destroyed the very things he thought he was trying to restore, "mistaking Rome for civilization and the opponents of Rome for opponents of civilization", he destroyed both.

Again, some of these views have dissenters - for example, Chris Wickham has recently argued in his The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages, 400-1000 (to be reviewed here soon) that "[Justinian's] Italian war would have been less of a mess if Justinian had put more, not less, money into it" (Wickham, p. 94). The fact remains, however, that Justinian did spend an estimated 21.5 million solidi on the Italian campaign against the Goths and, with it, bought himself a fractured wasteland. And this is in the context of an Empire which, in a good year, brought in just 5 million solidi in tax revenue and consumed most of that in administration. His "victory" in Italy was ultimately a political and financial disaster for which his successors had to pay.

The Ruin of Rome

The final part of the book focuses on the man O'Donnell calls "the last consul of Rome" and who history knows as Pope Gregory the Great. Gregory is depicted vividly as a figure straddling the Roman past and the early Medieval future; a man living - quite literally - in the ruins of the world that Justinian's disastrous policies created. Here is a man who was a vastly wealthy landowner and a member of the old Senatorial class that was now, in the post-Justinian world, finally fading to nothingness. And Rome - long since abandoned as a capital and strangled of the status, the taxes and grain that once artificially inflated its population - has become a city of ruins and the scars of Justinian's wars, with its remnant population clustered around the churches on its outskirts, its centre abandoned and the Forum on its way to becoming a cow pasture. The grim apocalyptic world of Gregory is vividly depicted as both the mournful consequence of Justinian's wrong-headedness, a shadow of what might have been and a hint of new beginnings still some centuries off.

Vividness is the lasting impression O'Donnell's excellent work leaves the reader. Throughout the book he manages to not simply explain complexities such as the convoluted theological disputes of the period or motivations behind Gregory's Moralia on Job, but he succeeds brilliantly in bringing the period to life. Vignettes such as the Emperor appearing on his balcony over the Hippodrome to engage in dialogue with the powerful chariot racing factions of Constantinople or Theodoric's stately and dignified visit to Rome in AD 500, to be greeted with ceremonies and acclamations fit for an Emperor make the characters in O'Donnell's story live and illustrate his themes in a lively manner.

O'Donnell aids this by his conversational and almost chatty tone and some subtle humour. Many of his chapters' subtitles have amusing modern cultural references in them: "Northern Exposures" or "A Country for Old Men". And there are references to current affairs tucked into his descriptions of ancient events. Cosmas Indicopleustes' abortive attempt at establishing a Biblically-inspired flat earth geography is said to have been motivated by his belief that the universe is "intelligently designed". Justinian's doctrinaire and reactionary advisers are called his "neo-conservatives". And O'Donnell draws attention to Julian's campaigns in what is now Iraq, which began with quick victories and ended in disaster thanks to his lack of an "exit strategy.

Overall, the book is a thought-provoking, vivid and dazzling read. True, some of his provocative arguments are a little overstated and the sections of "what if" counterfactual history about Justinian's lost opportunities and their potential implications for our time are a bit high flown. But this is a solid, erudite and remarkable contribution to a topic which has been well-served by other excellent books in recent years. Highly recommended.


Stalin\'s Ghost said...

Excellent review mate. I'm about halfway through it myself, up to the point where he's going over the events in Theodoric's reign - so I admittedly only glanced briefly over the latter half of your review so I'd be going into those parts without a prior opinion.

It's definitely a well written, intellectual work. I certainly enjoyed his chapters "looking back" on Roman history, and how relatively little things changed. I particularly like his more moderate stance on how things lead up to 476. Unlike so very many modern scholars outside Ward-Perkins and Heather he's quite willing to portray events as rather tumultuous in the West outside of Italy; albeit not necessarily as events of cultural as opposed to those of economic decline.

Subscribed! - StalinsGhost/Greg Wild

gregwild said...

Excellent review mate. I'm about halfway through it myself, up to the point where he's going over the events in Theodoric's reign - so I admittedly only glanced briefly over the latter half of your review so I'd be going into those parts without a prior opinion.

It's definitely a well written, intellectual work. I certainly enjoyed his chapters "looking back" on Roman history, and how relatively little things changed. I particularly like his more moderate stance on how things lead up to 476. Unlike so very many modern scholars outside Ward-Perkins and Heather he's quite willing to portray events as rather tumultuous in the West outside of Italy; albeit not necessarily as events of cultural as opposed to those of economic decline.

Subscribed! - StalinsGhost/Greg Wild

Anonymous said...

Great review!

nickydespinoza said...

A most pertinent and thought-provoking review! Full marks, however, are NOT to be awarded to the creator of the blog title, boasting as it does a first year mistake in basic Latin of frankly embarrassing proportions: 'armarium' is neuter, and thus its adjective should be neuter too, in order to agree with it. ARMARIUM MAGNUM, please! If it matters enough to the author to give the blog a latin title - and all credit for that - it should matter, a fortiori, that the Latin should be correct.

Tim O'Neill said...

nickydespinoza will be pleased to see some subtle but substantial cosmetic and content changes to the blog. He will also be happy to know that I wrote "Armarium Magnum" 100 times across the walls of Pilate's palace in letters 10 feet high.

"We like 'doers' in this organisation, Brian ... "

Romanes eunt domus.