The Ruin of the Roman Empire by James J O'Donnell

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The Ruin of the Roman Empire by James J O'Donnell

Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Chris Bradshaw
Reviewed by Chris Bradshaw
Summary: James J. O'Donnell turns conventional wisdom on its head, arguing that the fall of Rome was in spite of the Barbarians not because of them. Deduct half a star from the rating if you're a complete novice!
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 448 Date: February 2009
Publisher: Profile Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-1861979353

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The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is the traditional starting point for those studying the demise of Rome. Gibbon's masterwork suggests that the great empire collapsed in large part due to violent invasions from barbarians such as the Visigoths, Vandals and other non-Romans. In The Ruin of the Roman Empire classical scholar James J. O'Donnell, in line with much modern revisionist thinking, turns this argument on it head. Rather than being a destructive influence, the barbarian kings within the empire tried to retain the good things about Roman rule. The real blame for the fall of Rome can in fact be attributed to Emperor Justinian.

The book is divided into three main parts. O'Donnell firstly examines the world of King Theodoric of the Ostrogoths. Using Theodoric as his primary example, he shows how outsiders were assimilated into the Roman Empire. Rather than being a destroyer, Theodoric preserved and maintained order amongst his disparate people and came as close to restoring the Western Roman Empire as many more illustrious names. He left a golden legacy for Justinian, a legacy which the Emperor largely squandered.

This squandering forms the basis of part two of the book as Justinian aimed to restore the empire to its former days of glory. This would mean removing the influence of barbarians from the western empire and uniting it with his centre of operations in Constantinople. Through a combination of ignorance and arrogance Justinian's strategy was doomed to failure. His warmongering wasted resources and petty internal squabbles took his eyes off the main dangers facing the empire, most importantly the growing power of Persia. The more he tried to restore the old order, the more he hastened its decline.

Part three centres on Pope Gregory and provides a fascinating look at the rise of Roman Catholicism.

As befits a former professor of classics The Ruin of the Roman Empire is incredibly well researched and packed full of detail. What is less expected is that the professor has at times a very amusing turn of phrase. How many academics would describe Theodora, wife of Justinian as Nancy Reagan with a lurid past? O'Donnell shows how many ideas and concepts from the Roman era are relevant today. His description of Justinian as a religious monarch resembles Stalin and as a political monarch he favours Milosevic encapsulates in a nutshell everything that was wrong with Justinian's rule.

The revisionist case in The Ruin of the Roman Empire is very well argued. Even those readers who don't subscribe to the author's theory will find plenty to admire. O'Donnell's writing style is occasionally somewhat affected but The Ruin of the Roman Empire is by and large very readable. Scholars of the ancient world will get the most out of this book but there is still plenty for the non Roman expert to chew on. Reading this will certainly make a visit to the British Museum far more enlightening.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this book appeals to you then we think that you might also enjoy I Wish I'd Been There: Twenty Historians Revisit Key Moments in History.

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Buy The Ruin of the Roman Empire by James J O'Donnell at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Ruin of the Roman Empire by James J O'Donnell at


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