Books History

Who Really Destroyed the Western Roman Empire? James J. O’Donnell’s “The Ruin of the Roman Empire”

Since the publication of Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity in 1971, there has been much debate over the extent of the “fall of the Roman Empire” in the Western World. In short, Brown’s thesis on Late Antiquity is that the period of Roman decline (ca. 300-500 A.D.) was really a period of cultural transformation. Brown’s thesis revolutionized the study of the period between ca. 150-800 A.D. No one in academia refers to this period as “the dark age” as is common in polemical television documentaries and popular consciousness. Far from a catastrophic fall, the Roman Empire in the West continued even after the deposition of Romulus Augustulus.

As far as I can tell from reading his other publications and listening to some of his lectures, James J. O’Donnell, a classical scholar and former Provost at Georgetown University, seems to have a high opinion of himself and his work (and that if you can’t follow him that’s on you and not him). It is safe to say that O’Donnell agrees, for the most part, with Brown’s general thesis. The Roman Empire didn’t fall in 476. Instead, it fell much later. A grandstanding and egotistical emperor from Constantinople named Justinian killed the Roman Empire in the West, not the barbarian overlord Odoacer.

The problem with O’Donnell’s book isn’t what he tries to present, it’s how he presents it. In sum, his story is about how the “Barbarian” successor kingdom, Ostrogothic Italy under Theodoroic “the Great,” was very much in the same mold of the old Roman Empire. The world of Ostrogothic Italy was vibrant, alive, and very much not a darkened and impoverished world as popularly imagined. Theodoric is a good king who tries to preserve the old Roman order and its principles. His kingdom is attacked by an egotistical Justinian and his conquests of Ostrogoth Italy leads to the true ruination of the Roman Empire. This isn’t too unsurprising from scholars of Late Antiquity, who, over the last 40 years since Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity, have come to see the period formerly referred to as “The Dark Ages” as a period of cultural and intellectual renaissance, and that the old infrastructure of the Roman Empire (mainly in the West), while in decline, was inherited by the new “Barbarian” kingdoms and was largely preserved to the best of their ability. The Barbarians is a bad name because of negative prejudices, in reality, they were already Romanized, civilized, and Christianized (albeit largely of Arian theological orientation). Truthfully, only the Huns would fit the stereotypes of “Barbarians” intent on destruction.

The first section is supposed to be about Theodoric, but it’s very scattered. He talks not about Theodoric, but also about Alaric, Stilicho, and Flavius Aetius (sure, some background reminders for the non-specialist is always welcomed, but not when it distracts from the wider narrative and the fact that these figures are a hundred years older than Theodoric). He uses euphemistic analogies of more contemporary figures like Napoleon or Thomas Jefferson to get his point across. He also uses Shakespeare references far too much to illustrate his point, like by calling Theodoric Othello and Justinian Hamlet. (An interesting use of Shakespearean characters too!) In the end, his section on Theodoric is poorly composed even if his theme that Theodoric really was “Great” is a worthwhile contribution to Late Antiquity and his thesis of Ostrogothic Italy as a light of civilization is compelling.

The second section is about Justinian and his egotistical conquests and view of himself. New commentary on Justinian is the focus of many Byzantinists. Some, the popular historians (Lars Brownworth and John Julius Norwich) argue Justinian as a positive and good emperor. Most professional scholars however, O’Donnell among them, share a harsher and more critical perspective of the emperor. He does do a good job in highlighting the nuances of Justinian’s reign and how his invasion of Italy really did more harm than good, paving the way for future invasions of the empire. This is the section that is best composed from my perspective, and is the only section you need to read to understand his theme.

The third section is about Pope Gregory in the aftermath of Justinian’s conquests, except, it’s not actually about Pope Gregory. We go all the way back to Julius Caesar at the beginning of this section (even beyond that too!). He spends time with Saint Augustine who lived roughly 150 years before the life of Gregory (varies depending on what time we’re looking at Gregory’s life). Rather than be about Pope Gregory, it’s really a very brief history of Christianity to the time of Pope Gregory. This section seems altogether separate from his book. It is hard to tell what O’Donnell’s point is. Is Western Christianity an inheritor of the Roman legacy (as many scholars now assert; O’Donnell seems to imply so)? Is Western Christianity something of a pretentious claimant (as some scholars also assert)? One is left wondering to what extend O’Donnell considers Western Christianity a preserver of the Roman inheritance and to what extent this sidetrack distracts from his overall thesis: Ostrogothic Italy was the continuation of the Western Roman inheritance until destroyed by the imperial pretensions of Justinian.

Furthermore, he uses rather harsh language (perhaps a result of his view of himself) in his bibliography. He refers to Edward Gibbon as a “short, fat man” (something that is totally unnecessary even if we’ve largely moved beyond Gibbonite scholarship and views). In explaining some of the other historian’s works he cites, he gives us his opinions about their work rather than just listing it in traditional reference format. He criticizes (but praises at the same time), for instance, Peter Heather’s The Fall of the Roman Empire as a dry and redundant narrative of the Barbarian incursions but states that he found his writing on Flavius Aetius worthwhile.

In the end, The Ruin of the Roman Empire is an important but crudely organized work in what we might consider the Continuation School of Late Roman scholarship (the view that the Roman Empire in the West continued after 476 and was continued by a combination of Western Christianity and the so-called Barbarian kingdoms, especially Ostrogothic Italy). The middle section (Act II) is the most worthwhile part of his book because O’Donnell actually deals a lot of time with his “main character” – Justinian without wandering asides. O’Donnell’s assertions are not altogether that radical as they may seem for those not well-versed in Late Antiquity literature and scholarship (they’re largely within the mainstream of the Continuation School). However, O’Donnell falls short in his organizing ability.

Our eminent author talks about people otherwise unimportant to his main points. In conclusion we have a book that threw a lot of material onto some pages with little formal construction, which hurts the book despite its important thesis. As an actual history with material and main theme (once picked out from the shotgunned material scattered throughout the pages), The Ruin of the Roman Empire is a superb book (and one that I tend to agree with concerning Late Antique scholarship). But it gets lost in sea of euphemism, unwarranted analogies, and too much time with unimportant figures and events to what O’Donnell was actually trying to accomplish.

A half century on, Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity remains the unrivaled work asserting that the Roman Empire didn’t catastrophically fall, it evolved and transformed into the Church and Barbarian kingdoms. O’Donnell attempted to write a book asserting the same for the 21st century. He sadly failed despite the contributions advanced from Brown’s book due to poor organization. It is a shame, too, because when he hits with his expose of the Ostrogothic world and Justinian’s pretensions, O’Donnell’s work shines with a bright light that leaves readers unfamiliar with the world of Late Antique scholarship possibly agreeing with his overall thesis. Instead, the reader unfamiliar with 50 years of scholarly debate in Late Antiquity is left confused and frustrated by the scattered ruminations and lack of organization even if there are flashes of brilliant insight. This returns us to O’Donnell. Brilliant as he is, his inability for us to follow him isn’t our problem. It is his. And no historian should let their own opinion of themself distract them from realizing when they should have done better in organizing and presenting their material. The Ruin of the Roman Empire could have been a great advancement on Brown’s original scholarship. Instead, the scattered ruminations and pretensions of O’Donnell harm a book that nevertheless have flashes of insight.

The Ruin of the Roman Empire
By James J. O’Donnell
New York: Ecco Press, 2009; 448pp.

*This review is adapted from my Amazon review.

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Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.

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