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The Ruin of the Roman Empire: A New History Hardcover – September 16, 2008

3.6 out of 5 stars 31 customer reviews

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From Publishers Weekly

The Roman empire was not invaded by barbarians in the fifth century, says classical historian O'Donnell. Rather, these tribes—Visigoths, Vandals and others—were refugees who crossed into the empire in search of a place to settle. These migrants were turned into enemies by Rome. O'Donnell (Augustine), former provost of Georgetown, supports this controversial thesis by drawing on primary sources to analyze the geopolitical errors that led to Rome's fall. Emperor Theodoric, he says, had preserved social order and prosperity among the various peoples of the vast empire. But seven years later, Justinian squandered that good order. He failed to make peace with Persia in the east by not emphasizing a common interest of trade; he failed to establish good relations with the kings of the western Mediterranean and to develop his own homeland, the Balkans; finally, by banning certain Christian sects, he alienated some border regions and sowed the seeds of rebellion. These failures not only divided the empire, they made it vulnerable to attack from peoples that had once been friends. O'Donnell's richly layered book provides significant glimpses into the many factors that leveled a mighty empire. 20 illus. and maps. (Sept.)
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From Booklist

Traditional histories of the “decline and fall” of the Roman Empire in the west portray a centuries-long decline, ending in that final overthrow of the last western emperor in AD 476. The Eastern, or Byzantine, Empire, endured until the capture of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks, in 1453. Historian O’Donnell presents a more nuanced and probably more accurate view in an engrossing and wonderfully descriptive portrait of late antiquity. O’Donnell’s focus is the sixth century, when the reimposition of imperial control over lost territory in Italy and the west was still feasible. As O’Donnell illustrates, the city of Rome had long ceased to be the center of the empire; commercial hubs such as Alexandria and other prosperous eastern cities were more influential. It was the failure of the elites of this civilization, particularly the emperor Justinian, that made the loss of western territories irrevocable. As he explores his thesis, O’Donnell provides a sweeping panorama that includes diverse Christian sects, surprisingly civilized barbarians, and ordinary humans striving to survive in an unstable world. --Jay Freeman

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco; 1St Edition edition (September 16, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060787376
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060787370
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.4 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (31 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,051,837 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Hardcover
For a couple hundred years after Gibbon's time, the common wisdom was that Rome's empire in the West finally fell to overwhelming and violent barbarian invasions during the 5th century CE (although the precise date and the underlying causes were much disputed). In the 20th and 21st centuries a newer theory gained much ground, claiming that Rome did not fall but merely transitioned from a more or less unitary classical culture to a very decentralized early medieval world over perhaps 200 years (and with migrations rather than invasions). According to this view, the new rulers in the West were well-assimilated into the Roman polity and perpetuated its culture. James J. O'Donnell, author of this book, is a firm adherent of the "no fall" school, but with something of a twist. He believes that there was a fall, but one that came in the 6th century CE and later and at the hands of fellow "Romans," sent from the imperial capital of Constantinople.

Justinian I's attempt to recreate a united empire under his rule by dispossessing the "barbarian usurpers" in the West and in Africa, says O'Donnell, was not only misguided but catastrophic for both West and East. It resulted in the complete ruin of the City of Rome, the fragmentation and devastation of all Italy and the fatal crippling of all of Roman culture in the rest of Western Europe and North Africa. In the East Justinian's policy uselessly sacrificed large amounts of limited (indeed, irreplaceable) resources in pursuit of a hopeless dream while diverting imperial attention both from areas essential to the empire (the Balkans) and from critical problems (the rising power of Persia).

Justinian enjoys few modern admirers and Justinian-bashing is nothing new in historical writing.
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Format: Hardcover
As the song has it, "Just a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down." Appropos of this book, a shovelful of bias makes the history go down. The book is essentially a review of the Roman Empire (or its remnants) in the sixth and early seventh century -- a very important and often neglected transition between the ancient and the medieval world. The author, James O'Donnell, is exceptionally learned, well-credentialed, and has all has facts straight as far as I can tell. He writes an exceptionally readable history of what often makes for boring or obscure history, but he does it by being deliberately partisan, tendentious, and funny. He makes the following exceptionally provocative claims: (a) that the rump of the Western empire under Theoderic and the Ostragoths was really only a continuation of the old Western Empire in new clothes; (b) that the Western Empire did not "fall" in the fifth century, but was ruined by Justinian's "conquests" in the sixth; (c) that Theodoric and the Ostragoths were more "Roman" than the Byzantines who "re-conquered" Italy in the mid-sixth century; (d) that Theodoric was one of the greatest men who ever lived; and (e) that Justinian, as an imperial disaster, ranks somewhere between Stalin and Bozo the Clown.

In actuality, historians are deeply divided in their evaluations of the principal personages who dot O'Donnell's pages, and the historical conclusions which abound in them. Some think Justianian was a great man, some think he was a mixture of great successes and great failures, and some think he was ultimately a failure -- though none that I am familiar with rate him as low as O'Donnell.
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Format: Hardcover
O'Donnell attempts to tell the history of the Roman Empire through our modern multicultural sentiments. He is somewhat successful at removing the biases of the historians of antiquity - but then steers the history directly through the biases and modern day worldview.
The book's biggest downfall, however, is the lack of focus. He shows his knowledge by bringing in Wagner-playing Ipods and various Shakespeare characters. However, he fails to provide a compelling narrative. Whole sections often appear to do nothing more than show off his literary knowledge, rather than advance the narrative. With a little more focus, this book could have potential.
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Format: Paperback
The publisher of a book generally determines its title with the aim of boosting sales. Since the "The Fall of the Roman Empire" has been used many times, the publisher opted to use "Ruin" instead of "Fall", but I do not think that either is very accurate for this book. I think that this book should more accurately have been titled "The Good, the Bad and the Last Consul", as it is about the reigns of three men - the good Gothic King Theoderic, the bad Emperor Justinian, and Pope Gregory, whom the author likens to the last Consul (although he was not actually a Consul).

This is a book that tends to veers off on tangents and, in my opinion, these tangents tend to obscure what is being said. As near as I can figure, the main ideas of the book are that:
1. The Gothic invasion and conquest of the Western Roman Empire did not destroy the empire. It remained Roman, but under new management - a management that produced peace and stability, and was generally better than that which it replaced.
2. Justinian ruined not only the Western empire, but also the Eastern Empire, and he was at least indirectly responsible for all of the ills that followed in the next 1500 years.

These are interesting theses, but I do not think that the text completely supports them. The author clearly shows that Justinian's conquest of North Africa was largely bloodless, but except for its effect on religion (which was accepted by most of the common people) did not alter things very much, so how did this "ruin the empire"? His invasion of the rest of the Western Empire was confined to Italy (and not all of it), so the rest of what had been the Western Empire was not even directly impacted.
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