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Book Review: Ruin of the Roman Empire: A New History

I recently finished the audiobook version of:

O’Donnell, James Joseph, and Mel Foster. 2009. The ruin of the Roman Empire a new history. [Solon, Ohio]: Playaway Digital Audio.

Author James O’Donnell is currently provost of Georgetown, but was previously a professor of classics. His book was narrated by Mel Foster, who I thought did a good job of appropriate narration on material that was usually academic, but sometimes veered toward the snarky. Mr. Foster handled both tones of writing well.

Dr. O’Donnell’s book has three main divisions: The Roman Empire around 500 CE, just prior to the reign of Emperor Justinian; Justinian’s reign (527-565) and that of a few successors; and a look at the Western part of the failing empire during the reign of Pope Gregory the Great (590-604).

One flaw of any non-fiction audiobook is the lack of access to an author’s notes. So I cannot make a fully informed decision about Dr. O’Donnell’s evidence for ideas that even he admits may spark controversy. Having said that, he uses quotes from classical texts well to make his point. He also does a good job of bringing ancient authors to life, which helps readers to understand what biases they may have had in their writing.

Dr. O’Donnell posits that the main reasons that Rome (as represented by the Byzantine Empire ruled out of Constantinople) fell were:

  • Lack of interest in the peoples and regions beyond the Empire’s borders
  • Obsession with conformity in religious belief under Emperor Julian, which alienated the largest Christian cities of the east.
  • The waging of unneeded wars on the periphery of Empire while doing little about growing alienation in the Balkan heartland near the capital.

Along the way he attempts to rehabilitate the reputation of Theodoric the Great and other “barbarian” rulers that Dr. O’Donnell sees as Roman in education, outlook and ruling style. Based on the material he presents, I find him successful. But this is the first time I’ve even thought about Theodric since my Western Civilization course back in the 1980s.

We also learn more about the competing versions of Christianity in the period of late antiquity and how the particular doctrines nearly universal in the West can be traced back to Emperor Justinian.

Overall, I think the book is an engaging listen and I think the print version would probably be good too.

 

 

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