Saturday, April 04, 2009

When empires fall

Why did the Roman Empire fall?

I remember a grade 11 history teacher answered that question by listing about a dozen or so reasons on the blackboard -- his items included everything from lead poisoning to moral decay to poor grand military strategy.

Given all those problems it made me think the real question wasn't why did Rome fall, but why did it last as long as it did?

Anyway, flash forward to present. I am now reading an interesting book called The Ruin of the Roman Empire, by James J. O'Donnell, which basically argues Rome's ruin was not brought about my outside invaders but by its own short-sighted emperors.

Or more precisely by the short-sightedness of one particular Byzantine emperor -- Justinian.

O'Donnell's argument is that Justinian religious intolerance (his move to stomp out "heretic" Christian beliefs) combined with his imperial over-reach (his ill-conceived wars in Italy and Africa and against Persia) fatally weakened Roman civilization, leading to the Dark Ages in the West and to Islamic conquests in the East.

Overall O'Donnell makes a strong case and also provides an interesting glimpse into an era that is much neglected - the time between Rome's fall and the onset of the Middle Ages.

My only complaint is that his desire to make his history relevant to today's reader is sometimes a little heavy-handed.

For instance, he describes Justinian's advisers as the ancient equivalent of "neo-conservatives."

But that aside, it's an easy-to-read history of a fascinating time.

1 comment:

johndoe124 said...

Rome fell because it no longer had any frontiers left to conquer at reasonable cost in order to bring tribute into the empire. Everything that Rome produced was for Rome. Consequently the emperors continually devalued their own currency until the infrastructure collapsed under the weight of their own debt. I suggest you read "The History of Money" by Jack Weatherford for a credible theory about the collapse of Rome. And if you're in the neighbourhood, give Obama a copy.