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The Ruin of the Roman Empire: A New History Hardcover – Deckle Edge, September 16, 2008
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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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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
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The most prominent citizens of the Roman empire in its most prosperous times lived far from Italy (mainly in the cities of the east) and owed their wealth to many factors, of which the Roman peace was only one, and not indispensable. Local cultures were distinct from each other. Dissolution often threatened the hold of the imperial regime over its far-flung realms - between 235 and 284 dissolution very nearly prevailed, when the longest-reigning emperor of that period was a usurper too marginal for more serious but shorter-lived contenders to bother taking time to exterminate. The remaking of empire in 284 and after, first by emperor Diocletian and then by Constantine, was intended as an expression of continuity, though much had to change in order to create a stable new regime.
If Rome did not fall in 202 BC (its victory in the second Punic War) or 476 AD, when did Rome fall? The sacking of Constantinople in 1453 is suggested by Gibbon. The balance of power in medieval Asia Minor had tilted strongly toward the Turks 200 years earlier, when the other Roman Empire and its allies and friends, the crusaders, overthrew the Christian empire of Constantinople. Mehmed the Conqueror dismantled the dilapidated city's rump of an empire in 1453, securing Turkish domination. Mehmed saw himself as the successor to the Roman emperor, and thus in a way Constantine's fundamental vision was sustained intact till 1924 - the last gasp of the Ottoman empire.
Nero's death let fall a crown, and in the year 69, provincial generals Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and finally Vespasian grasped at it, from outside Rome. 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. Rome was a military backwater and 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 in 402 emperor Honorius retreated to the Italian city of Ravenna, with its Adriatic port offering ready sea communication to Constantinople. He and his brother Arcadius in Constantinople stood at the front of a long line of emperors who were mostly figureheads, living in the capital and delegating military leadership to the able.
Rome's emperors continued to care for the city when they had time, 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 less than a dozen families. Their pedigrees were often sketchy as many rough-bred military husbands post Constantine married into distinguished but impoverished families grateful for protection and the sometimes ill-gotten wealth of their new sons.
Rome had a population of 1 million or so in the second century, but it was estimated to fallen to 800,000 by 400, when Constantinople and Ravenna eclipsed Rome's function as a capital. Rome lost half of that in the next 50 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 distinguished itself as the world of a half century of indignities. There may have been only 100,000 left by A.D. 500. The fortunate followed power to other capitals, while others died, fled, or failed to reproduce.
To the historical eye, change was everywhere and continual. The Rome of Augustus had acquired, in the 3rd and 4th centuries, sturdy new perimeter defense walls towering 40 - 50 feet. Fourth-century sources counted 28 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, 290 granaries and warehouses, 856 private baths, 254 bakeries, and 46 brothels.
The sixth-century brought farmers diverting some of the aqueduct water for mills and irrigation (allowed because maintain the aqueducts was expensive and difficult, especially as demand fell), the grain supply no longer flooded the city at the tax collector's command every year - the government in Africa kept its grain or sold it at market prices. Gladiatorial contexts in the Colosseum ended under mainly Christian emperors, probably because they lost popularity or competition from chariot racing. Wild beast hunts lasted into the sixth century, with loses devoured by their would-be prey. In the 470s individual senators and families had their names carved on their own particular seats.
Rome and much of what it had conquered were unready for empire - the Romanization of the west came about through establishment of colonies of retired soldiers and the extension of institutions of Roman government and taxation to the new countries. A little emperor worship and a lot of taxpaying were enough to satisfy the government, and Latin was the language of prestige among elites - unless you knew Greek. Carthage, destroyed in 146 BC, then reborn from the ruins, might claim to be the second city of the west, but there was no serious candidate for third. Much of the countryside of Gaul and Spain, as one moved farther from the Mediterranean, was still underdeveloped. Bordeaux and Tours marked the rough limits of real urbanization and Romanization in Gaul, the their rivers flowed westward, away from the Mediterranean and thus were not good trading partners for the rest of the empire.
Frontier societies on the Rhine and Danube were the liveliest places in the Roman west - a thriving military where tax revenues gathered elsewhere were spent to support soldiers and officials who were in many respects economically idle and useless. Those living across the river were immune from Roman taxation, but attracted by the spending on the frontier. They also learned from the Romans, especially the German barbarians.
No Roman ruler seems to ever have had a coherent notion of what would become of the world beyond Rome's northern frontiers (Britain and Ireland). The Arabs seemed eternally negligible, the Sahara made a satisfactory defensive barrier to the south. Rome settle for stasis and imagined that could be permanent. Rome chose to be the captive spectator and passive victim of events across the Rhine and Danube. Every emperor from Augustus on shares blame for that passivity.
It all started with a refugee crisis. Stretching from the Dnieper River in Ukraine to the Great Wall of China is the natural home of those who flourished on the grasslands of the steppes. Horsemen of the steppes moved across the map at speeds unimaginable for human transport anywhere else in the world; they also learned raiding and elbowing locals aside. Their western enemies called them Huns.
In 373, the Huns began to move into lands where the Romans would hear of them. Locals moved deeper inside the Roman territory. Eventually, the Roman army set out to make an example of the visitors, whom they had offended with their own high-handedness - only to be themselves thrashed. The expanse beyond the river turned into a non-man's land - nothing but threats for the Romans. Rome would fight the rest of its wars on the northern frontier inside its own boundaries.
Then came the Vandals, and others. Once they (and the Visigoths) crossed Roman boundaries, they sensed their own power - and their unity was strengthened by being demonized by the Romans. Losing Africa and its abundant grain, meant the Roman Mediterranean would never again be a unified empire.
Marcellinus wrote that after 476 A.D., Gothic kings held Rome. Never mind that there was another western emperor (Julius Nepos) whom Constantinople recognized, and was still in business as late as 480. There also came a push to establish a single form of Christianity throughout the world. This led to ruinous wars of the 530s through the 550s, and made the desired unity impossible to attain. It did, however, ensure its subjects would worship Christ for 900 years, though not with one voice.
In the 6th and 7th centuries, Roman emperors were compelled as never before to attend to worlds beyond their frontiers.
Emperors flunked basic economics. No Roman emperor had a reasonable idea of the prosperity of his realm, except in the most general terms and mainly long after the fact. No emperor could say, if asked, what steps he/his government might take to improve or weaken the economic fortunes of a region, except that conquest of neighbors might provide plunder and imported wealth, and that tax relief would make the emperor popular. It is a miracle, therefore, that Rome survived as long as it did.
Justin II should have made peace at the eastern frontier on a basis of agreed spheres of influence and a common interest in trade. Justinian should have made his way to the eastern front - Persia, where he would have been welcomed. Likely contact with India and China would have occurred. Instead, Muhammad's heirs did so, and the world hasn't been the same since. Justinian also should have cemented relations with the west.
Peacemaking east and west would have left Justin II ready for the most critical task - pacification and development of his homeland in the Balkans. O'Donnell also suggest that Justinian should have taken religion a bit less seriously. Instead, he ended up confirming Egypt in its hostility to the throne and his religion, and seeing Syria turn decisively against the metropolis as well. Overall, Justinian never fought a war he should have fought, and was too eager to fight the ones he needed have. Thus, a self-inflicted ruin of the Roman empire.