The Ruin of the Roman Empire
James J. O’Donnell
Profile Books £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50
ACCORDING to the dust jacket, this book is “poetic, haunting and humane”. For this reader it veered from confusing to entertaining to — occasionally — patronising. That is not to deny that O’Donnell knows his stuff. He does, and he sets it out in a way that aims at interesting the uninformed. His matey tone, quips, and engineering of amusing parallels between ancient and modern give the impression that the chapters were originally lectures, imperfectly revised for publication.
He sets out to deconstruct an old-fashioned style of military and political history by writing the story of the ending of the Roman Empire in a fresh, direct style, and from unexpected angles. But the reader is not given enough of an outline of the outmoded, oversimplified approaches to understand what O’Donnell is reacting against.
It is perfectly true that the history of the ancient world has often been tidied up in the cause of a ripping yarn: the “I know what I think — don’t bother me with the facts” school of history, as it were. But every good Classicist knows that the history of scholarship on a particular subject is part of the subject itself. To understand this period of ancient history, we need to explain how it has been interpreted by previous generations, to clarify what new insights we can offer in our own time. And he is as prone as his predecessors to over-simplification — the emperor Augustus is dismissed in one footnote as a “cold-eyed brute”!
I did like the way he revised notions of barbarian invasion; and, despite some cheap gibes at Christianity, he is good at sketching how religion operated among the inhabitants of the late Roman Empire (although I am still puzzling over the assertion that “religion was at bottom a technique, sometimes rising to the level of a technology”). Answering the question whether
the Roman Empire still really existed in the early sixth century AD, he remarks dryly that it “was still fully alive and well and collecting taxes”.
The index is incomplete. When I wanted to check references in the main text to Sozomen and Virgil, I couldn’t find them.
The Revd Dr Hammond is Dean of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.