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Rome on the skids

The Fall of the West: The Death of the Roman Superpower, by Adrian Goldsworthy The Ruin of the Roman Empire, by James O’Donnell

18 March 2009

12:00 AM

18 March 2009

12:00 AM

The Fall of the West: The Death of the Roman Superpower Adrian Goldsworthy

Weidenfeld, pp.560, 25

The Ruin of the Roman Empire James O’Donnell

Weidenfeld, pp.448, 25

The Fall of the West: The Death of the Roman Superpower, by Adrian Goldsworthy

The Ruin of the Roman Empire, by James O’Donnell

These two fat, well-sourced books about the decline of ancient Rome run, until they limp, in relay. Adrian Goldsworthy begins his leg from the end of the second century AD, the term of the Antonines (under whom Edward Gibbon could imagine himself happy, so long as he was a patrician), through the nervous three centuries which ended with the incursions — here seen more as forceful immigrations — of the Huns and the Goths.

After Alaric’s irruption in 410 into Italy, the rulers of the once-master Latin race absconded from Rome to marsh-girt Ravenna where they dawdled until the arrival, in 489, of the Goths led by the Arian Theodoric, self-appointed legate of the eastern emperor. His reign began with a literal coup d’état in the vivisection of King Odoacer, with whom he had sworn to share the throne, and ended with the judicial murder of his grey eminence, the philosophical Boethius. In between, Theodoric is seen as an enlightened arriviste interested more in preserving the past — and holding the ring between Arian Goths and trinitarian Romans — than in predatory innovation. Mr Nice Guy with a bit of a temper, he even protected Genoa’s Jews, despite their being ‘devoid of God’s grace’.

James O’Donnell has doubts concerning Boethius’ legendary innocence: he thinks he probably was involved in fin-de- régime intrigue, if only on behalf of his two sons whom Theodoric had already made joint consuls and who were spared their father’s fate. The philosophical grandee had a rope tied very tightly around his head and was then bludgeoned to death. All or nothing was often the game in ancient politics.

In their accounts of Theodoric, Goldsworthy and O’Donnell overlap. Where the latter finds time at least to cite Odoacer’s cry, when cut down as he prayed, ‘Where is God?’, Goldsworthy fails to dramatise the scene at all. Neither mentions the meta- Gibbonian Thomas Hodgkin’s telling detail that the kneeling Odoacer was sliced vertically in half. Theodoric remarked, as if it proved his point, that Odoacer seemed not to have a bone in his body.


O’Donnell’s narrative concentrates on the eastern empire and, in particular, on Theodosius and Justinian. He holds the great autocrats responsible for a sequence of disastrous decisions, theological and diplomatic, which led to the contraction of Byzantium until Constantinople became an autumnal golden apple which, in 1453, Mehmed II had no difficulty in plucking. This severe assessment spawns blithe predictions about what would have happened had Theodosius dumped the theology or Justinian his profligate use of treasure to retrieve an empire which even Belisarius’ blitzing generalship could not secure. It thus does small honour to the agility with which, over eight centuries, the Byzantines fought to conserve their tight corner of the Mediterranean, despite never having sufficient legions to play the old Roman zero-sum game: join us, or get licked.

Bribery, conjugal diplomacy, side- switching, mutilation, deviousness (literally, in the famous case, uncited here, of the Huns whose well-primed guides showed their advance party such a rugged route to the City that the main body preferred to ride roughshod elsewhere) and the secret weapon of ‘Greek fire’ kept the eastern empire intact, if rarely glamorous. Edward Luttwak’s account of its groggy resilience, in The Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, figures in the bibliography but has scant influence on the text.

O’Donnell reckons that the religious dogmatism and undemocratic centralism of those prototypical Stalins, Theodosius and Justininian, engendered the spiritual isolation of the lower orders. Obsessed with doctrinal divisions between homo- ousians and homoiousians, the high clergy turned into spiteful theoreticians with small pastoral concern. By the seventh century, an iota’s worth of difference meant that the Arabs in particular were out of the spiritual loop. Mohammed’s logically uncomplicated revelation of a singular God fused them into surgingly aggressive imperialists.

O’Donnell’s case against Justinian is well made, but when he tells us that the latter’s wise and mature contemporary, Vitalian, would have been a better emperor, one recalls the Tacitean mot concerning Galba: ‘Consensu omnium capax imperii, nisi imperasset’ (by general agreement worthy of the purple, had he never worn it). How can anyone be so sure that Vitalian would not have bottled it, just as Galba did? One can imagine a wry Cavafyan epitaph on the subject.

When we are also told that Alexander the Great — ‘a right-minded man even if he did drink too much’ — would have united the clashing civilisations of the Mediterranean and the Middle East, it is as if Peter Green, notably in his terse Alexander and the Hellenistic Age, had never put paid to W. W. Tarn’s sentimental reading of an Alexander with an ecumenical mission. Goldsworthy, with his impressive military knowledge (his prose, if scarcely masterly, is certainly quartermasterly), shows that problems of communication, mobility and supply made Rome’s western borders permeable even by quite small groups of refugees/raiders. Mutatis mutandis, a long-term Alexander, whatever his tarnished genius, would have been similarly stretched. How could he have welded his conquests into ‘calm, patient, pragmatic’ homogeneity? And if he had, the tedium of administration would surely have goaded him into picking a fight with someone, or else drinking himself into an only slightly later grave.

The fractiousness of the Middle East is more a consequence of Alexander than something his longevity might have prevented. His empire broke up due not only to the several ambitions of his generals but also to the geographical incoherence of the territories which genius and greed had procured. O’Donnell goes from imperial to empyrean:

Humankind might yet find a way to build a commonalty of culture and purpose to link the peoples of Europe, western Asia and south Asia — to achieve . . . Alexander’s dream. Such a confrontation and eventual coming together would be painful and difficult to imagine, and neither devout Muslims nor devout Europeans will accept any future we can now envision — but the importance of finding one is undeniable.

Who can fail to recognise the prating of an academic used to a captive audience? The devout are the least of our worries.

Goldsworthy begins by claiming that Rome was never abandoned but ‘shrank massively’. Two pages later, we are alerted to ‘massive differences’ between Rome and any modern state. ‘None of this means it is impossible to learn from the past, simply that it must be done with considerable care and a good deal of caution.’ The botox of platitudes is used again and again to fill out an informative text. Within a few more pages, equestrians are said to have ‘massive influence’ and the Romans are ‘forced to massively increase’ their military spending. A modern Odoacer might cry, ‘Where’s style?’

If Rome did not quite fall, it certainly slipped, and was pushed, not least by those who sought entry to its markets and amenities. Even Augustus’ empire never stopped abruptly at its borders: slave-traders went back and forth supplying the two-footed oil which kept civilisation primed with energy. When the ‘barbarians’ took over the levers of power, they soon decked themselves in the robes and manner of those they had displaced, just as Christianity took over administrative units (dioceses and vicarages) which pagans had ordained. Did not Gregory the Great assume the same priestly title, Pontifex Maximus, as Julius Caesar?
If the Treaty of Rome holds modern Europe together, it is after an antique fashion: today’s VAT inspectors are yesterday’s publicans.

It seems not to occur to our two massive historians that, whether or not history has ‘lessons’, its previous chroniclers certainly have something to teach them: if Gibbon indulges in period irony, if Tacitus is too deliciously tart, and Trevor-Roper too snidely anti-clerical to be quoted without deferential sneers, such writers made elegance an arm of criticism, wit an aspect of perception. Today’s clichés certify a decline from the intelligence of the past. A classless commonalty may be an amiable, sententious fancy; but prose without class marks a slipshod culture, at home with academico-journalese. 


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