Two recent books on the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West at the end of the Fifth Century speak trenchantly in many ways to the current condition of Europe and North America. Peter Heather’s Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians (2007) and James O’Donnell’s Ruin of the Roman Empire: A New History (2008) offer different, almost irreconcilable, explanations of the legendary decline and fall; but in the minimum of their shared interest in the breakup and disappearance of a longstanding and seemingly eternal world polity, the two historians, whether intending it or not, caution us concerning our own hybris. Heather and O’Donnell are participants in a reawakening of interest in the latest phase of what Peter Brown famously dubbed Late Antiquity. Both men go far in persuading us that the late Fifth and early Sixth Centuries were important for the West, formative of the Middle Ages, and not to be written off as a mere sordid epilogue to greatness.
Heather argues in The Fall that immigration and barbarization drove Imperial coherence to the breaking point, bringing an end to ancient civilization. O’Donnell argues that historians have exaggerated the effect of immigration – strictly speaking, of Gothic immigration – while ignoring other, more direct causes. Indeed, much of The Ruin of the Roman Empire reads like a vindication of the Goths as heroic upholders of the genuine Imperial tradition. For O’Donnell the chief culprit of the Fifty Century calamity was not Alaric the Visigoth (395 – 410) or Odovacar the Ostrogoth (435 – 493) but rather the Eastern Emperor Justinian (reigned 527 – 565), a preening megalomaniac who bankrupted both West and East in vainglorious campaigns to reassert monarchic suzerainty over the by then autonomous regions of Italy, Gaul, and North Africa. Heather’s immigration and barbarization theory has much precedent and enjoys something like popular currency, quite apart from Heather. In the cinematic version of this theory, Rome’s northern marches fail, the Rhine congeals in a deep-freeze winter, and hordes of mad-eyed, bewhiskered Germans in boar-tusk helmets pour into the Western Provinces. They eventually knock down the gates of Rome after which they gleefully spread mayhem over what once was classical order. The fabled Dark Ages commence. For Heather it happened not so luridly, but with the same annihilating effect. People lacking in Romanitas displaced the Latin-speakers of Gaul, Iberia, and the Italian homeland itself and abruptly brought down the curtain on the noble vestiges of Hellenism and the Augustan Peace. O’Donnell, in defending the so-called barbarians, builds a powerful case for the selfsame Romanitas that Heather and others deny them.
Both Heather and O’Donnell must deal with the legendarily much-fraught calendar year of 476. It befell in that year that the last reigning emperor in the West, Romulus Augustulus (born 461 or 463), should abdicate his throne and go into retirement in Apulia. The “Little Romulus,” a mere fluke of an adolescent, agreed to the proposition on the insistence of Odovacar, who at the time ranked as the de facto military and political hegemon in Gaul and Italy. He had been slugging it out with various rivals, Latin and Goth, for ten years. The Goths, operating out of the Balkans, had regularly been demonstrating their power in Italy for a century, most impressively in Alaric’s capture of Rome after a siege in 410 and in the rather decorous “sack” of the city that followed. As Heather notes, “Odovacar had no interest in preserving the position of this notional ruler who controlled nothing beyond the Italian peninsula.” Having at the same time to stay prudentially in the good graces of the Eastern Emperor Zeno (425 – 491), Odovacar could thus not deal with the young and inexperienced Caesar so roughly or directly as he had dealt with his erstwhile battlefield opponents. The moment and its circumstances demanded conciliatory gestures and even a measure of generosity.
The Gothic victor in effect swore his allegiance to Zeno as titular ruler of the whole Empire, East and West, receiving in return the formidable title of “Patrician” and a diplomatic letter conceding his own practical dominion in the West. With that, “the western Empire was over,” and this was so, argues Heather, because power in the Latin-speaking former provinces had passed from the old senatorial, landowning families to the new Gothic elites, the agenda of the latter being tribal and peculiar rather than civilized and universal.
Thus, writes Heather, the Gothic predation in Italy had destroyed a unifying framework, built up and refined over centuries, that it could not replace. “The Roman state had consisted, at its simplest, of a decision-making centre – emperor, court, and bureaucracy – tax-raising mechanisms, and a professional army whose military power defined and defended the area of its dominion.” Furthermore, if Romanitas lay partly in the governing structures, it lay also partly in powerful traditions, successions, and prejudices. The senate, Rome’s aristocracy, provided the vessel for these latter: “Within the social circle of [the] landowners operated most of the cultural norms that made Romanness a distinctive phenomenon, and their participation in the upper echelons of the bureaucracy, the court and to some extent the army bound together the imperial centre with its many local communities.” After 476, “while substantial numbers of the Roman landowning class still survived in the west with their distinctive culture more or less intact, the centralizing structures of the Empire had gone.” “Romanness,” as Heather calls it, became a purely local and rural phenomenon, until it faded away into the early medieval landscape.
Aware that a strong argument exists for procedural continuity and persistence of tradition, Heather insists – with respect to Ostrogothic Italy, Visigothic Spain, and the Frankish and Burgundian realms – that “setting up independent kingdoms on former Roman soil involved substantial landed pay-offs to the non-Roman military followers of the new chiefs, giving new meaning to the distinction between these newcomers and the less privileged Roman landowner.” This motif of Latin-aristocratic dispossession by Germanic interlopers runs prominently through Heather’s exposition. When the Roman authorities of the early Fifth century contracted with one group of Germans to fend off another, or with coalitions of Germans to provide a fighting bulwark against the Huns, the contract generally stipulated land for the war leader and his lieutenants in compensation for their services. Land being a finite resource, the authorities could fulfill their agreements only by confiscation. Whether by persuasion, coercion, or a combination of the two, over the course of a century or so, Imperial fiat declared large swatches of hereditary property to be alienated from the old owners so as to satisfy the state’s debt to the Gothic condottieri.
The beneficiaries of the deal, being newcomers ethnically different from the dispossessed (as Heather sees it), felt none of the former senatorial obligations to the peasantry that farmed the land, but rather taxed and abused them for the sake of growing rich as swiftly as possible. Relations between countryside and urban center fell into exacerbated decline.
Finally, while the early Gothic inheritors (or usurpers) of the Western Empire carried on some features of the old order, and while “the odd Frankish or Visigothic king has gone down in the cultural annals for his Latin poetry,” the Goths generally disdained the “full Latin education,” so that, “by about 600, writing was confined to clerics while secular elites tended to be content just to be able to read, especially their Bibles,” because “they no longer saw writing as an essential part of their identity.” Heather’s story begins with the arrival in the Fourth Century in the Western Empire of Germans “in pretty large numbers,” then has them conducting what amounted to civil wars in Gaul and Italy for a hundred years, with concomitant destruction and dispossession, and ends, after their takeover as the de facto rulers, with the decay and disappearance of Roman society and Classical civilization. Archeology and retro-forensic population studies support Heather’s version of history in some respects: In Italy and Gaul from the late Fifth Century onward the evidence shows a decline in population, a shrinkage or abandonment and dilapidation of urban centers, and a thinning out of the density of settlement even in rural areas.
There is one item of evidence, however, that ought to inspire some caution in those who feel inclined to accept unreservedly Heather’s version of Rome’s Fall – the linguistic picture. The “pretty large numbers” of Germanic immigrants, who, on Heather’s word, held all the cards in the process of “social amalgamation” that they set in motion, never imposed their language on the subject populace. This fact is a stumbling block for the argument. Germanic languages are spoken today in Europe only where they were spoken before the Huns began pressuring the Goths in the late Fourth Century, with the exception of Britain – or rather England. In Iberia, Italy, and Gaul, the languages remain stubbornly Latinate. In Iberia and Gaul, on the other hand, Latin had long since permanently displaced the prior languages, most of which belonged to the Celtic division of the Indo-European Language Family.
O’Donnell’s Ruin of the Roman Empire covers more or less the same period and the same events as Heather’s Fall, but comes to quite different conclusions about them. In particular, as I have already mentioned, O’Donnell gives the Goths the role of active curators of the Imperial traditions and Latin customs; he sees something like an earlier, less catastrophic transition into medievalism as having been in prospect, which the westward designs of Justinian clumsily thwarted. For Heather, the decline of centrism, as one might call it, spelled disaster for the West, as did a critical demographic, or ethnographic, shift. For O’Donnell, it was precisely the notion of centrism, absolute and obsessive, that lay at the ideological heart of Justinian’s military policy towards the Goths and that, when put in practice, wrought a disaster for the whole Mediterranean world of the time.
As for Latinity and German-ness, O’Donnell’s treatment involves a small paradox: O’Donnell treats the ethnicity of the Goths, which Heather repeatedly emphasizes, as essentially a non-problem, because the so-called barbarians were by the time of Clovis (466 – 511) and Odovacar as Roman as anyone else; and this is despite the fact that O’Donnell attributes to the central player of his historical drama the deliberate creation of “Ostrogothic Identity.”
One way of appreciating what O’Donnell insists on as the late-Fifth and early-Sixth Century full Romanization of the Goths is to consider in parallel the careers of Constantine (272 – 337), the first Christian emperor, and Theoderic (464 – 526), the Ostrogothic war leader who became King, or more precisely “Patrician,” of Italy, over which he reigned from his palace-court at Ravenna in the first two decades of the Sixth Century.
Constantine, the Empire’s redeemer in its moment of early Fourth-Century crisis, hailed from the Balkans, in what is today Serbia. Many important players in Imperial politics in this period had a Balkan background. Constantine’s father, Constantius, enjoyed Patrician status and served as a key military commander under Diocletian. Constantine himself became a military commander in the West and undertook decisive action during the fractious epoch of civil wars following Diocletian’s abdication in 305. He owed his battlefield successes in part to his strategic foresight and in part to the impressive competency and fierce loyalty of his largely German legions. Although on becoming sole Caesar Constantine ruled from the East, his court while co-emperor in the West ensconced itself at Trier. Theoderic, like Constantine, hailed from the Balkans, where a large population of Gothic peoples had settled in the Fourth Century. He became a Foederatus, or contract-general, under Zeno, who sent him to Italy to settle matters once and for all with Odovacar, who, as the Emperor saw things, was failing to live up to his side of their old bargain.
Theoderic fought Odovacar into submission, deposed him and then killed him, after which he assumed Odovacar’s role as the de facto viceroy of Italy, with Zeno’s acquiescence. Theoderic’s Christianity, like Constantine’s, was Arian, but like Constantine he preferred toleration of competing sects to the quashing of heresy.
For O’Donnell, Theoderic looms as something of a Shakespearean character, a prince of no mean ability and of considerable ambition who, in Lear-like old age succumbs to envy and suspicion and himself makes possible the undoing of his own best achievements. O’Donnell insists that we stop picturing Theoderic as a horse-riding land-pirate on the lookout, Attila-style, for choice pickings and little else. Whereas “Theoderic’s life conventionally takes up part of the history of the barbarian invasion of Europe,” writes O’Donnell, “we must learn to live without that story.” O’Donnell never says so directly in a sentence, but he implies repeatedly that Theoderic could match Constantine, with whom in posterity he came to share the moniker of “Great,” in Romanitas, and could even compete with him in civilization: “He was brought up in the imperial court, and that exposure to monument and ceremony strongly shaped his ambitions for the Italian cities he made his own, including Rome itself. He had to be fluent in Latin, probably knew a fair amount of Greek, and also knew the Germanic language his troops shared… His self-presentation and his performances were consistently Roman, citizenly, imperial, and respectful of the old ways of the lands where he dwelled.”
Having consolidated his hegemony in Italy, as O’Donnell narrates, Theoderic devoted the thirty years of his reign to reconciling contending parties in a series of disputes over the Papacy, rebuilding Milan, Rome, Ravenna, and other cities physically, re-opening and policing the roads, and restoring financial and civic order within his realm, which included Sicily. He also managed diplomacy with the Frankish domain to his north in Gaul and with the Visigothic and Vandal domains in Iberia and North Africa respectively. It is worth considering what O’Donnell has to say first about the culture of Ostrogothic Italy and then what he has to say about the emergent but abortive pattern of post-imperial politics in the West.
Culture. Theoderic respected learning and the arts and drew to his court lively minds such as Cassiodorus the Younger (485 – 585) and Boethius (480 – 525). It is true that Boethius later fell fatally afoul of Theoderic’s ire and because Boethius made his own case in his perennial Consolation – a brilliant and moving dialogue about the vanity of earthly desires – later ages have sided with the philosopher rather than with the king. O’Donnell reminds us that evidence exists to suggest that Boethius was, in fact, involved in a plot, manipulated perhaps from Constantinople, against Theoderic. Without condoning Theoderic’s harsh sentence, the historian hints with justification that the philosopher might have been worldlier and less saintly than his carefully crafted legend divulges. Generally, avers O’Donnell, “civility and toleration were the hallmarks of Theoderic’s rule in Italy.” Theoderic himself took council from Boethius and other men of letters. He was certainly an educated man himself. From the king’s own hand time has bequeathed posterity no less one hundred and fifty diplomatic letters. One of them is a personal intercession by the king on behalf of the Jews of Genoa, whom the local bishop had treated unfairly in a matter concerning the rebuilding of a synagogue.
From Theoderic’s sponsorship, we have remarkable manuscripts such as the Uppsala “Gothic Bible,” a diversity of geographies and histories, and a vast Collection of Surveyors, intended to settle property disputes dating from the disruptions of the previous seventy-five years. Some of the Latin stylists of Theoderic’s court bore, as O’Donnell says, “seemingly Gothic names [such as] Athanarid, Eldevald, and Marcomir.” It is also the case that Theoderic’s architectural projects “speak to us of him” in a positive way. Of his tomb at Ravenna, O’Donnell remarks, “every attempt to discern barbarian influences and tastes in it has failed.” It is a late and splendid example of Roman Imperial style.
Politics. An important drift of O’Donnell’s narrative is that, after 476, and with the Gothic dominion, the post-Imperial West was settling into a natural, a stable, and even a rational pattern. The Franks, Visigoths, and Vandals had all established viable states in the disjoined provinces. The Empire was always large and unwieldy, virtually always in crisis: the Gothic successor-states represented a response to the break-up of the larger polity that, for a time, restored the various economies and elevated civic life to something resembling that of halcyon days. If the Gothic princes occasionally bumped elbows at the borderlands, they mostly got on well. During Theoderic’s reign, quasi-official policy meant basically to ignore the tiny doctrinal differences that plagued the Greek and Syriac realms of the Mediterranean world. Able to address its own needs without regard to contending factions of civil wars or pedantic rancor, the Western Church got a welcome respite, from which emerged the important groundwork for medieval monasticism.
But, as O’Donnell writes, Theoderic failed in one signal way. He left no heir. His death, in all likelihood preceded by a descent into senile dementia, therefore created the usual vacuum into which natural ambitions immediately and inexorably began to force their way. Theoderic’s more or less chance successor, after bitter squabbling and profligate wastage of civic capital, was Theodahad (died 536), a preening incompetent.
Theodahad’s immediate nemesis on assuming power also conspicuously lacked character. He was a new, pathologically insecure Byzantine Princeps with a Balkan background. Justinian had come to power in Constantinople by succeeding his uncle to the throne; he had been ingratiating himself, but never risking his position, for years. A lickspittle by training, he probably felt redeemed from his basic non-entity by trappings. Egged on by his virago of a wife Theodora, Justinian conceived the megalomaniacal plan forcibly to reunify the fissiparous ex-Imperium, repeatedly sending armies and fleets to Italy and North Africa to accomplish the errand. These expeditions achieved nothing, really, except Pyrrhic results for their petulant, learning-proof instigator. They drained the royal coffers, squandered the ships-of-the-line, and chewed up recruits by the tens of thousands. In their relentlessness, however, they produced increasing misery throughout the Mediterranean world. For Heather, as we have seen, Gothic dominion itself constitutes the “Fall of Rome.” For O’Donnell, Justinian’s wars – one of his chapter-titles describes them as “Wars Worse than Civil Wars” – fill that ugly office. It was the tax-hungry, control-obsessed, and vainglorious Justinian, not the Goths, who ushered in the Dark Age.
The campaigns of putative reunification left the Gothic principalities devastated, with agriculture in irreparable disruption, the cities depopulated, and the possibility of reconstruction non-existent. The lands never recovered and the way lay open, in the coming centuries, for the Jihad to do what it pleased in the Magreb and Iberia. Plague decimated Byzantium; and there too “Arab raiders” would soon begin their reduction of Greek Christendom to a pathetic rump-state, ripe for rape and pillage. As O’Donnell writes, “The story of Justinian’s empire after his death is an embarrassment to all who try, still, to praise him.”
If it appeared in the foregoing discussion that O’Donnell’s account of the Gothic pendant to Roman rule persuaded me more than does Heather’s, the perception would be accurate. I said, in my opening paragraph, however, that I regarded both books as offering lessons apposite to our own time and situation. I wish to sustain that judgment. Heather upholds the immigration-theory of the Empire’s disintegration. When Heather’s book appeared, indeed, a number of conservative commentators remarked it, calling admonitory attention to its author’s thesis that a kind of illegal immigration, or technically legal immigration by culturally inassimilable people, played a major role in killing off the largest, longest-lived, most functionally universal polity that ever existed. O’Donnell, as we have seen, rejects Heather’s immigration theory and, more than that, makes a persuasive and sometimes heartfelt apology for the much-maligned Goths, a new aristocracy picking up where an old one had abdicated its duty. Theoderic emerges in O’Donnell’s account as the last noteworthy advocate of Roman values; but he is also a prototype, in some respects, of a later image of Christian knighthood.
Those who read O’Donnell’s Ruin – and all educated people should do so – should take care to appreciate the radical nature of the book’s hypothesis: Precisely that a kind of sociopath étatisme, namely Justinian’s, killed the rational sequel, a congeries of smaller, economically interrelated states, to the always awkward world-embracing monarchy with its metropolis on the Tiber.
To weigh O’Donnell as heavier in the scales of conviction than Heather is not, I wish to say, to deny value to Heather. Our situation will become clearer by applying both historical arguments, Heather’s and O’Donnell’s, to it, in order to facilitate an objective analysis. The Roman Empire in the West did not, in fact, suffer fatally from an illegal immigration problem, as Heather posits; it suffered, as O’Donnell argues, from rampant aggression by a criminal politician from the Bosporus who, long before Louis XIV, believed in the notion, “l’état c’est moi.”
In the demonic self-aggrandizement of the incipient étatiste regime in the District of Columbia, from whose marshy precincts the cronies of Big Government today seek to rule rather than to govern, as the Constitution directs; and in the self-righteous diktat-style of the European Union, its bureaucrats ordering people around by non-appellate edict from their cozy Brussels ensconcement: In these conditions – might I modestly submit – our world currently and obviously does suffer (and suffers daily, hourly) from the arrogant superbia of wealth- and freedom-destroying madmen who, when they look in the mirror, see looking back at them The State, if not rather a Redeemer or some species of Gnostic deity. Ah, but note this: We also suffer from pronounced crises both of illegal immigration and technically legal immigration by culturally inassimilable people, many of whom wish to see us humiliated in our own countries, roundly impoverished, and made subservient to a mad god’s law. The two kinds of aggressive Puritanism, étatiste and Islamic, are already in an arrangement of foreboding synchronization in Europe, and might soon be also in the United States. Or else the pretty little Reconquista, enabled by the Multiculturalists, will serve in the USA, as Islam serves in Europe. Multiculturalism – that too is a puritanical religion.
The basically non-religious latitudinarianism of a previous age, which would never have permitted the existing scandal, has meanwhile given way, in the Twenty-First Century, to a new Puritanism that resembles Justinian bigotry or Islamic fanaticism (two similar things) more than it will ever resemble “barbarian” tolerance, like Theoderic’s. In other words, our situation is actually worse than the Roman situation, or rather the Western situation, at the beginning of the Sixth century.
The Latinate world of that day had merely to deal with the concupiscent madness of a Constantinopolitan pipsqueak elevated by the equivalent of soccer-hooligans to the throne and given command of the armies.
An ex-KGB officer, Igor Panarin, has apparently argued in a recent monograph that the United States will soon split up, as the Soviet Union did twenty years ago. That spontaneous disintegration of the Stalinist Empire was the best fate that could have overcome the superannuated Bolshevik experiment and its subject peoples. In one of history’s ironies, the European nation-states began their march into lock-step rule by apparatchiks at exactly the moment when their old enemy ceased to exist. The United States, too, under Bush I and Bush II and now Obama, has embraced a new doctrine of centripetal authoritarianism and coercive ideological reconstruction. The much-to-be-hoped-for failures both of the European Community and the socialist-in-fact-but-not-by-name Democrat-Party regime in the United States, followed by the genuine re-federalization of Europe and North America, might be the most providential turn of events as the world lurches stupidly into its Twenty-First Century “Globalist” delusions.
Thomas F. Bertonneau teaches English at SUNY Oswego.