The Ruin Of The Roman Empire: A New History, by James J. O’Donnell
It is not as if the author of this book is a total idiot. There are at least some things that the author gets right–Justinian’s attempt to re-conquer the Roman empire was ill-advised, especially in the wake of a plague that killed a large percentage of the population of his empire and made his successors ill-equipped to handle the many foreign wars that would beset them in the next few decades. The author correctly notes at the end of the book that it is by no means foreordained that civilization will succeed and that it depends on wisdom and some measure of pragmatism. The author is also generally right to praise the importance of healthy village culture as a necessary handmaiden to urban civilization in providing the food that is necessary for urban parasites to survive above and beyond the subsistence level. That said, the author says a lot of things that are just impossible to believe, and sometimes downright contradictory as when he tries to out-Procopius the Secret History as as critic of Justinian and claims that Alexander The Great was the one sane emperor of the ancient world, he of the paranoid murders of childhood friends and trusted advisers and all, lest we forget.
This sizable book of about 400 pages is divided into three parts and 8 large chapters. The book begins with a preface and an overture that sets the destruction of Rome in the 6th century by looking at the decline of Rome in the 5th century that precedes the events discussed in the rest of the book. The first part of the book then consists of two chapters that examine the world of the doomed Ostrogoth Theoderic (I), including a look backwards at 500 from Rome (1) as well as a look at the world that might have been (2) had Theodoric not gotten paranoid and killed his advisers. After that the author spends a fair amount of time with his bete noir Justinian (II) discussing what it was like to be Justinian (3), whom the author thinks to be not very wise and discerning, what opportunities were lost in the author’s mind by not focusing his attention on keeping the Balkans unified and tied to Constantinople (4), as well as the wars that were worse than civil that ended up destroying Italy (5). Finally, the author closes the book by looking at Gregory The Great (III), and discussing what it was like to learn to live again (6), the debris of empire that followed Justinian in Constantinople (7), as well as Gregory The Great’s life and career (8), after which there is a list of Roman Emperors, notes, suggestions for further reading, credits and permissions, and an index.
This book is not a really good example of history. It is the example of someone trying to force history to fit along with his prejudices against Christianity (despite his love for Pope Gregory The Great, who he insanely calls the last consul), of which there are too many examples in new histories. While the author is not completely misinformed he is nonetheless not the sort of person whose opinion can be taken seriously or as gospel truth. Indeed, in one section of the book he states various untruths while saying at the same time that everything he says is true, acting like a Democratic politician on the stump claiming that this time contemporary Western states know how to set the right level of taxation so as not to discourage entrepreneurial efforts (which is laughable when one looks at the meager economic knowledge of folks like Sanders, Warren, et al in our contemporary political scene). One wonders whether the author has actually ever pondered that the ancients may not be as dumb as he thinks they are or whether he is not actually as smart as he thinks he is. A bit more humility would have made this a far better book.