James J. O’Donnell’s ancient Rome is quite different from the Rome we all learned about in school – this is a Rome of complexity, of a vibrant – if ultimately corrupt and leaderless – political life even in its waning days.
This is a story of the Rome that lost its major breadbasket (North Africa) to invading peoples its wiser rulers and generals had earlier attempted to co-opt into the Empire in centuries past. This is a Rome so taken up with chauvinism and religious disputes over the merits of this or that form of Christianity that its people and its leaders failed to see the opportunities for compromise and inclusion that the so-called barbarian Christians offered; a Rome that now labeled as “barbarian” the very same peoples it had so assiduously courted in past centuries to settle its frontiers and staff its vastly superior armies.
Like the most famous of Western writers on the subject of Rome – Gibbon’s monumental “Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire” - O’Donnell too has a point of view to get across to his reader- a point that urges us to learn from the glories and the mistakes of the past so that we are not doomed to repeat them in our time. And O’Donnell’s point of view is as timely now as it ought to have been in the 5th century CE.
O'Donnell's point of view? It is this: Rome did not “fall” because of barbarian invasions or too much lead in their urban water pipes. No, the great and mighty Roman empire of old fell in large part because it refused to respond positively to the changes forced upon it – Ancient Rome clung too often to its storied past so tightly that it failed to grasp the opportunities for fresh points of view and fresh chances to strengthen itself through the energies of the so-called barbarians that Gibbons and others since him have blamed for the fall of the “cultured” Romans. The “illegal immigrants”/”barbarian invaders” of ancient Rome could have been the saviors of the Empire!
To drive his point home, O‘Donnell spends two chapters writing about these lost opportunities with chapters titled “The World that Might Have Been” and “Opportunities Lost” …. it can’t get much more direct than that.
Harkening back to his introductory chapter comments, O’Donnell points out in not so subtle prose that arguments waged and opportunities lost by the ancient Romans loom large in our modern world today – religious arguments over dogma, refusal to see immigration as a blessing rather than a curse, rigid concern with making society reflect the values of the past rather than the emerging values of a more prosperous future – O’Donnell infers again and again that we need to learn today what the ancient Romans did not.
Yes, THE RUIN OF ROME can suffer from too much detail at times – while we’re not confronted with dates galore – the glaring annoyance of many a student of history – we ARE presented with Roman and barbarian names enough to fill a modern city! But here’s my advice - If you read THE RUIN OF ROME for the sweep of the story that is told in these pages you will NOT be disappointed.
Though it is a work of nonfiction, the arc of THE RUIN OF ROME is not unlike that of a novel; we open with a chapter describing the late Roman Empire as it was titled “The World in 500”, move forward with chapters that take us into the last great flowering of Western Roman empire with what many see as “barbarian” rule under Emperors Odoacer and Theodoric and then the final rise of Roman might and glory under the great Byzantine-based emperor Justinian.
Our denouement to this once great world empire comes with the chapter “Learning to Live Again” and concludes with “The Debris of Empire” and “The Last Consul”; in closing giving us one last glimpse at a world with one last cautionary tale for our modern times as well, for this last look at Rome is through the eyes of a man O’Donnell describes as the last great leader of ancient Rome, a man who sought to hold together a world fast unraveling and a man who prophesied the end of great Rome; indeed, this last great leader of the ancient world was the prophet of….wait for it…..the biblical end of time itself – pronounced by the man now known as Pope Gregory the Great.
The irony of course is that while Pope Gregory – the last great ruler in the ancient Roman empire - was pessimistically engaged in self-described futile efforts to hold Rome together for what he “knew” would be the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth a quite different world was a-borning – a world where the memory of the Roman Empire would live on until our day – but too a new world that saw not the coming of God on earth but the final decay of Western Roman civilization into what we now call the “Middle Ages”.
History is written by the victors – or by those who survived - and so any one point of view must be seen as only of many. And so it is with the interpretation offered in THE RUIN OF ROME.
That said, In his Epilogue O’Donnell sums up this incredible –and true – tale with these words……”Old errors are easy to reenact…Today, as in the sixth century, a calm sense for the long view, the broad view, and a pragmatic preference for the better rather than the best can have a hard time overcoming the noisy anxiety of those who would transform – that is, ruin – what they do not understand. Civilization is a thing of the calm, the patient, the pragmatic, and the wise. We are not assured that it will triumph."
Available as a Podcast with additional excerpts from the book on the WBAA radio website.