The Ruin of the Roman Empire: A New Historyby James J. O'Donnell
The dream Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar shared of uniting Europe, the Medi-terranean, and the Middle East in a single community shuddered and then collapsed in the wars and disasters of the sixth century. Historian and classicist James J. O'Donnell—who last brought readers his masterful, disturbing, and revelatory biography of Saint… See more details below
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The dream Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar shared of uniting Europe, the Medi-terranean, and the Middle East in a single community shuddered and then collapsed in the wars and disasters of the sixth century. Historian and classicist James J. O'Donnell—who last brought readers his masterful, disturbing, and revelatory biography of Saint Augustine—revisits this old story in a fresh way, bringing home its sometimes painful relevance to today's issues.
With unexpected detail and in his hauntingly vivid style, O'Donnell begins at a time of apparent Roman revival and brings readers to the moment of imminent collapse that just preceded the rise of Islam. Illegal migrations of peoples, religious wars, global pandemics, and the temptations of empire: Rome's end foreshadows today's crises and offers hints how to navigate them—if present leaders will heed this story.
O'Donnell (Provost, Georgetown Univ.; Augustine: A New Biography) argues that the Roman emperors seated in fifth-century Constantinople eventually toppled their empire, while the barbarians-the Vandals, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, etc.-traditionally held responsible for the fall, could have helped create a coherent Mediterranean identity had different strategic choices been made by Rome. This refreshing historian admits that the view he presents is controversial and can and should be debated. The book opens with an introduction to the Roman world through the eyes of the merchant Cosmas. Readers begin to understand the far-flung nature of the Roman Empire, the infrastructure that supported trade, and the cracks appearing in the empire's foundation. The rest of the work is divided into three parts, following Theodoric, a Romanized Ostrogothic king who ruled in the now backwater city of Rome and did much to unify and bring a short-lived peace to the region; Justinian, an emperor who sat on the throne in the imperial capital of Constantinople and tried to enforce theological homogeny in all his subjects; and Pope Gregory, who saw the events of his time unfolding and understood they spelled an end to the world as he knew it. O'Donnell's vivid prose describes the empire's various regions, making it easy for readers to imagine the world as it was at the empire's close. Highly recommended for academic libraries and all libraries with collections in ancient history, Roman history, or classical studies.
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The Ruin of the Roman Empire
Rome in 500: Looking Backward
Rome didn't see many emperors in the fifth century. Nero's death let fall a diadem, and in the year 69 CE, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and finally Vespasian grasped at it. Tacitus drily observed that the success of such provincial generals revealed the "secret of empire"—that emperors could be created somewhere other than at Rome. From Augustus to Nero, Rome had been the only obvious dwelling for an imperator, and Tiberius's self-exile to Capri brought scorn and salacious gossip about what he was up to while swimming with slave boys. After 69, emperors spent more and more time with their armies and on the frontiers. Hadrian in the early second century and the Severan emperors around 200 were away almost as much as they were home. The succession of disasters during the third century had kept emperors far from the capital, fighting each other and managing the frontiers. After Diocletian imposed his military order, he and his successors established a string of imperial cities that followed the frontier: Trier to survey the Rhine; Milan, Aquileia, and Sirmium (modern Sremska Mitrovica on the Save River in Serbia) to watch the Danube without abandoning the Rhine; Constantinople between the Balkans and the eastern provinces; and Antioch in Syria.
Rome was a nice place to visit, but a military backwater. Even many successful emperors never saw it during their reigns. Constantinople, on the other hand, was a palace town, almost constantly aware of the presence of an emperor after Theodosius's death in 395. The military cities in the west lost their prestige when in402 the emperor Honorius retreated to the swamp-protected Italian city of Ravenna, with its Adriatic port offering ready sea communication to Constantinople. He and his brother Arcadius in Constantinople stood at the head of a long line of emperors who were mostly figureheads, dwelling in the capital and delegating military leadership to the able.
Through all this, Rome's emperors cosseted and cared for the city when they had time enough to pay it attention, but dramatic losses befell the city as well. The senate still met, traditional offices were filled, and the old families clung to wealth and position, but their numbers were greatly diminished. By the sixth century, there may have been only a very few dozen active senators, linked together in fewer than a dozen families. The pedigrees by which these people claimed "ancient nobility" were often sketchy as well, for Constantine's revolution and the army he built two centuries earlier produced many rough-bred military husbands willing to marry into distinguished but impoverished families grateful for the protection and sometimes ill-gotten wealth of their new sons.1 As long as these old families were certain of their prerogatives, they were content to surrender their power to the new men. The city needed the subsidies rich families could provide and clung as well to its ancient self-esteem, but power was another matter.
And Rome's numbers dwindled. The city achieved a population of 1 million or so in the second century, but an estimate by Richard Krautheimer, a scholar who knew that late antique city as no other, brought it down to 800,000 by 400, when Constantinople and Ravenna eclipsed Rome's real function as a capital. Rome lost half of that in the next fifty years, marked by Alaric's brief sack of the city in 410, and it lost another half or three-quarters by the late 400s, when the Vandal raid of 455 was only the worst of a half century of indignities. There may have been only 100,000 or so people left by 500. The fortunate followed power to other capitals, while others died, failed to reproduce, or fled to the countryside.
Emperors had lived from time to time in Rome as late as the 470s, when Romulus was briefly on the throne, but in 500 there came a grand visit like nothing seen since Theodosius more than a century before. Only twice after that date would empire revisit its cradle, for consular games in 519 and for a brief stopover in 663. When Charlemagne arrived to have himself crowned emperor in 800, his business was inventing the new while pretending to cherish the old, and the medieval emperors who followed knew they were foreigners and usurpers in the city of Romulus and Augustus.
To the naked eye, Rome was Rome as it had always been; to the historical eye, change was everywhere, and continual. The Rome of Augustus had acquired, in the third and fourth centuries, sturdy new perimeter defense walls towering forty or fifty feet over everyone from imperial dignitaries seeking a grand entrance to farmers bringing produce to market. Fourth-century sources let us count the visible monuments of the city: twenty-eight libraries, six obelisks, eight bridges, eleven forums, ten basilicas, eleven public baths, eighteen aqueducts, nine circuses and theaters, two triumphal columns, fifteen fountains, twenty-two equestrian statues, eighty golden statues, twenty-four ivory statues, thirty-six triumphal arches, and the more pedestrian necessities as well: 290 granaries and warehouses, 856 private baths, 254 bakeries, and 46 brothels.
Even when Constantine took to Christianity after 312 CE, Christians and traditionalists alike were reluctant to introduce church architecture into the city's historic core. Traditionalists feared the intrusion, Christians the contamination of proximity to the ancient gods. So the great early Christian basilicas stood guard around the core: for example, Saint Peter's shrine on the Vatican hill across the Tiber from the walled city proper; or the church of the Holy Cross, just inside city gates on the east side of town; or the basilica of Saint Paul, some little way outside the walls to the south. In 391, Theodosius had solidified seventy-five years of increasing suppression of the old religious rites by banning sacrifice and public performance of religious cult activities. With that, the great temples in the forums and on the Capitoline and Palatine hills fell silent, protected only by the superstitions of new and old believers alike who prudently feared offending the old gods gratuitously. Churches began to edge closer to the center of the city during the fifth century. The basilica of Santa Sabina took high ground on the Aventine to the south, where Juno, Isis, and Diana had once prevailed; and Great Saint Mary's (Santa Maria Maggiore) stood on the Esquiline north of the forums. Closer to the center the churching of Rome would come, with Pope Felix IV in the 520s transforming the city prefect's great audience hall on the Via Sacra, a few dozen yards from the original forum, into a church honoring saints Cosmas and Damian. Eventually, in the 630s, Pope Honorius consecrated the senate house itself as a church in honor of a martyr who bore an emperor's name—Saint Hadrian, of the early fourth century. By 500, the bishop of Rome had his own church of Saint John Lateran, inside the city but nearly against the walls, at the end of the Caelian on the southeast side. By the time of Pope Gregory's reign in the 590s, at least half a dozen smaller churches had been erected.The Ruin of the Roman Empire. Copyright © by James O'Donnell. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Meet the Author
James J. O'donnell is a classicist who served for ten years as Provost of Georgetown University and is now University Librarian at Arizona State University. He is the author of several books including Augustine, The Ruin of the Roman Empire, and Avatars of the Word. He is the former president of the American Philological Association, a Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America, and the chair of the Board of Directors of the American Council of Learned Societies. He is seen here at an ancient monastery on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire, in Syria.
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