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A New History

By James J. O’Donnell

Pub Date: Sept. 16th, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-06-078737-0
Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

A vigorous history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire—which, as Georgetown University Provost O’Donnell (Augustine, 2005) notes, happened precipitously over three centuries.

Recent historians have been more kindly disposed to the “barbarians” of old than their predecessors, and O’Donnell is in this camp, giving modestly approving notes on Attila (a “bad cop” more than a sociopath), Theodoric and various Huns, Goths and Vandals. He also observes that life in the late Roman Empire was pretty Hobbesian: “People took ill more often [than today], lingered longer in sickness, were crippled for life by trivial accidents, aged rapidly, and died young”—and, as if all that were not enough, lived in a world of human and animal effluvia. If they were rich, those Romans had less effluvia to deal with, for, O’Donnell writes, the rich really were different from the poor, living in a society that “coddled them and crushed the many” and that evolved elaborate social and ideological codes to explain why this should be the natural order of things. Class division, then, was one element of the empire’s collapse; when only a few benefit from life in a given society, then its defenders are likely to be few too. Just so, as O’Donnell memorably puts it, Rome was suffering from a “crisis of illegal immigration” by virtue of its collapsing frontiers and porous borders, to say nothing of those encroaching Huns. Early to arrive were the Goths, who came in peace but, maltreated by the soldiers of the Emperor Valens, replied with force and developed a siege mentality that would serve them well and the empire poorly. Theocratic inflexibility, imperial overreach and the ineptitude of the leadership at other points sealed Rome’s doom as well. In this regard, O’Donnell has a pleasing way of showing how disparate causes can form a perfect storm, as they indeed did, at least from a privileged Roman’s point of view.

A capable, fluent updating of Gibbon—essential for students of late Roman and early medieval history, and easily accessible to lay readers.