I just finished The Ruin of the Roman Empire. I thoroughly enjoyed this book for many reasons. First, it fills in my favorite little nook of history, which is the time between the classically established fall of the Roman empire and the Carolingian Renaissance. It’s a period of time more or less absent from most western civ classes. A lot of the wars and conquest history we learn skips right over this period. A people’s history might not find much to like either, but there are a few significant things from this period that are more mundane but that are huge, for example the codification of Roman law, which is the basis of law in all but a few countries (the two main exceptions are 49 states of the US, and Commonwealth Countries, and those ruled by sharia law).
Anyway, this is a bit of an odd history book. The author goes out of his way to spice up the history by injecting very ‘oos imagery and language in talking about the Roman empire, and the book is essentially a polemic against Justinian. It’s a polemic I tend to agree with, but it’s much more opinionated than you might be used to.
So, what’s this authors answer to the perennial question why did Rome fall? He rebuts the notion that it was barbarian invasions. No, the “barbarians” became the “Romans” as he shows. Was it Christianity as Gibbon argues? Probably not, because the Church wasn’t all that organized and there were lots of “Christianities” going on at the time. So if it wasn’t the barbarians was it imperial overstrech? Not exactly.
He argues that Justinian’s fascism (he doesn’t use the word fascism, but describes it exactly) sets up the coup de grace of the Islamic conquests by weakening the successor kingdoms in the west, alienating the southeast with religious fanaticism, and by failing to reach an accord with Persia. I agree with all of this. So, how did they get into such a position in the first place? Here’s the interesting point.
O’Donnell argues that the Imperial overstretch was a problem not just because the system couldn’t pay for itself (and he points out clearly that the Romans had no idea how economics worked and were shooting in the dark in this regard anyway) but because Rome lost its “idea of itself.” By this he means that after the Roman empire reached a certain point, it didn’t know what to do anymore. Keep conquering? But what would that mean? It was already such a huge place full of so many cultures.
I don’t think the author says this just to make another point about the fall of Rome. I don’t think it’s a mistake that he’s using all of the language and discussion of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think he is carefully, discreetly arguing that the United States is undergoing to same kind of ruin do to its imperial wars that have nothing to do with expanding the idea of the United States. We know that because even as we claim to be expanding democracy in those counties (which would be “our idea of ourselves”) we both know that we’re not really doing that and know that we’re not capable of really making those countries into new Americas or part of America, even if they do become some kind of