The Ruin of the Roman Empire: A New History

Saturday, January 31st, 2009

Orson Scott Card open his review of James J. O’Donnell’s The Ruin of the Roman Empire: A New History with a summary:

He makes a very strong case for the idea that the “barbarians” who conquered Italy, Gaul (France), Iberia (Spain), and North Africa were largely romanized and thoroughly Christianized. They maintained Roman institutions — and trading patterns — largely intact, and while some things changed, the Roman Empire in the west was still a going concern.

Nobody knew that it had “fallen.” The same offices continued to be filled by the same sorts of bureaucrats.

While the Emperor in Constantinople never recognized any of O’Donnell’s heroes, most notably Theoderic, they continued to govern in the name of Roman authority, and they kept Latin as the official language of empire. Which is why the “hordes” of invaders left almost no linguistic footprint — the languages that today are called “Romance” are the children of Latin, not of the amorphous tribes that conquered these lands.

O’Donnell’s thesis is that the western empire only fell when Emperor Justinian made his famous attempt to “restore” the Roman Empire in the west. All he really needed to do was recognize the authority of the new rulers there and his purpose would certainly have been achieved; instead, he rejected them and invaded.

It’s not a pretty picture. Justinian did not attack barbarians slavering over raw meat in yurts; he invaded an Italy that was still obviously Roman, and systematically destroyed the all the people with the power and will to maintain the Roman system.

What he left behind was exactly the chaos that supposedly he came to heal. It was Justinian who destroyed the Western Roman Empire — or so O’Donnell claims.

Card says that it’s hard to take O’Donnell seriously though, when he has such an obvious political axe to grind:

Because O’Donnell, instead of making the case for his interpretation of ancient events, wants to make a grand, foolish analogy between Justinian and George W. Bush.

It’s as if he thought, while writing the book, “Justinian was stupid and destroyed what he thought he was saving, and everybody knows Dubya is stupid, too, so they must be the same.”

Here are his actual words: “He was a man of limited talents from the provinces, surrounded by gifted men who knew only too well how to reshape their world in the image of delusion about the position of the city [Constantinople] and its emperors in this world…. We may choose to call them Justinian’s best and brightest or, if you prefer, his neoconservatives” (p. 216).

A comparison between the bureaucrats of Constantinople and today’s Neocons, and between Justinian and George W. Bush, is so stupid that it makes it impossible to take O’Donnell seriously in his other assertions.

Leave a Reply