Saturday, September 12, 2015

Parrothead Book Review Time



My first introduction to the study of history came from my high school world history teacher, Mr. Ron Edgerton. Before that the very concept of history was at best a hazy amalgamation of rumor, group assumptions, and bias opinions that were at times so flawed as to be almost comical. Mr. Edgerton introduced to me not only the organized study of history but the realization that you could always delve deeper into the details to understand the underlining causes to events that shaped the sad comedy of human civilization.

Conversely and veering slightly off on a tangent, I also learned from him that while I should appreciate the loser's viewpoint of history it would be dangerously misguided to build a worldview from such opinions. From there you can start believing such ludicrous ideas that the Confederacy, Nazi Germany, and Soviet Russia were honorable creations and begin making numerous excuses for their monstrous behaviors. In other words, history's losers more often than not have a huge axe to grind about their lost cause and will go to extreme measures to twist and even create facts out of whole cloth to muddy the already murky waters of history and justify present day actions.

Getting back on point, it was in Mr. Edgerton's class that I began to learn the ancient Rome Empire didn't fall in the year 476 AD. This greatly simplified statement runs counter even now to the many movies, books, and cheaply made documentaries that suggest all civilization ended with the reported death of the “last” Roman emperor, Romulus Augustus, in the year 476 AD.

But in Mr. Edgerton's class way hack in the early 1980's I learned that in an effort to stave off collapse and recover from a long period of civil war and barbarian invasions the Roman Empire had long since split itself into two separate parts. The Western Roman Empire centered not on Rome but the Italian city of Ravenna. And the Eastern Roman Empire which made the already ancient Greek colony city of Byzantium its capital changing the name to Constantinople after the death of that emperor in 337 AD.

It turns out that Romulus Augustus, nominally thought of as the last western emperor, was overthrown by a barbarian-soldier named Odoacer who represented himself as the client of a guy named Julius Nepo, who the Eastern Roman Emperor Leo 1 had appointed emperor of the west in 474. Turns out the young but unlucky Romulus Augustus was put on the western throne by his daddy, a guy named Orestes, which forced Julius Nepo to flee Italy. After the death of Nepo, Odoacer continued his rule of Italy under the authority of the eastern emperor using the title of patrician but is referred to as king in many official documents and was known to use the title himself several times.

With that history refresher out of the way I recently stumbled across a book on Amazon offering up the idea that what truly did in the western empire and later the eastern portion was not all the standard reasons all too briefly touched on in American schools but agents of the Roman Empire themselves.

Entitled The Ruin of the Roman Empire by James J. O'Donnell, the author makes the case that all those nasty illegal aliens...I'm sorry, I mean barbarians were in fact often times far more Roman than the cloistered and pompous men who never traveled beyond sight of their palaces in Constantinople.

To prove his point O”Donnell uses Theodoric the Great as his best example. Born in 454 AD, the son of a Germanic nobleman, Theodoric grew up as a hostage in Constantinople--this was done so his dad and people wouldn't do anything that might endanger the eastern empire—but while he was held Theodoric received a first rate education. It wasn't until his eighteenth birthday that Theodoric was returned home but his years living in Constantinople didn't stop him pillaging provinces of the eastern empire and even threatening the capital itself.

In an attempt to buy off the raiding barbarian the eastern emperor Zeno sent him west to Italy to kill Odoacer, the guy who may or may not have killed off Romulus Augustus. See, not only did Zeno want Theodoric out of his hair, Odoacer had supported one of Zeno's rivals for the eastern throne and this in effect killed two birds with one stone. On a little bit of a side note, never one to ask someone to do a job he wouldn't do, Theodoric actually killed Odoacer with his own sword after tricking the guy to come to a banquet to celebrate a treaty saying the two would rule Italy jointly. After that messy business was accomplished Theodoric settled his own people in Italy and founded an Ostrogothic kingdom based in Ravenna.

Unlike Odoacer though, Theodoric actually respected the agreement to act as Italian viceroy for Constantinople even though he avoided imperial supervision and treated the emperor as an equal. Nevertheless, under the reign of Theodoric, Italy had the longest period of peace and prosperity in centuries. He respected and upheld Roman law for the Roman population throughout his territory although he he did not allow intermarriage between Romans and Goths.

Like I mentioned earlier, while history normally says that the western empire fell in 476 AD, it was far less an actual collapse of civilization and more of it being broken up into mangled pieces. The numerous suicidal civil wars of the Third Century, initial barbarian invasions, and breakdown of internal trade generally shredded the structure of Roman life in western Europe to the point it was many centuries would pass before it even approached what it was before. Also, while the city of Rome had been sacked several times and was certainly dying, life did go on with surviving aristocratic families throughout the Italian peninsula still being appointed to fill senate and consuls positions. Although these appointments were strictly local, not imperial governments, that bird had long since flown and was now residing in Constantinople.

To his credit starting with Odoacer and even more so with Theodoric the various pieces of a badly damaged society started to come back together. Theodoric played the game of enforcing civil authority successfully by observing the old Roman traditions of religious tolerance, higher learning, and allowing the circus to continue. O'Donnell goes further to say that it wasn't just Theodoric's kingdom in Italy that was stitching a damaged civilization back together it was the Vandals in Africa and the Visigoths in Provence and Spain as well. The author makes the case that this barbarian-inspired recovery was well on its way to creating a kind of greater Roman “commonwealth” that could have possibly short-circuited a thousand years of darkness.

Personally, I found that aspect of O'Donnell's book a bit too optimistic. The Roman Humpty Dumpty was shattered mess and while I am only fifty, it seems human shortsightedness and even delusion wins out in most circumstances. It didn't really matter anyway, because the eastern emperor Justinian 1 was about to take the imperial stage and to grossly paraphrase a well known statement, he was going to burn the village down in order to save it.

*****

Another aspect of late Roman civilization that seem to escape modern Christians is that in 380 AD the Emperor Theodosius 1 made it the state religion. Not to cast my usual stones, I known people who believe the Roman Empire worshiped their borrowed Greek gods right up until the end. They assume this is one of the reasons the Roman Empire fell, along with their acceptance of homosexuality in daily life and other decadent behaviors that brought them down.

That being said the young Christian religion went through some complicated growing pains. Several factions arose debating various mundane ideas about the nature of Christ. All these factions like Chalcedonian, Nestorianism, Arian, Miaphysitism, and many others eventually started playing the political game, which as usual with religions got incredibly nasty. Nothing challenges the very idea of human intelligence greater that a group of fools debating whether or not god likes certain rituals and gets pissed off at others.

But when Justinian became emperor of the eastern empire in 527 AD he made it his personal goal to reunite all of the Roman world under his control whether the various peoples liked it or not. One of the ways he was going to reunite everyone was the imposition of his brand of Christianity on everyone.

By 527 AD the eastern empire had largely recovered, mainly through the efforts of the Emperor Anastasius 1 who reformed the tax system and placed the imperial coinage back on a firm footing. He was so successful that by the end of his reign the eastern empire was playing with substantial surplus. The Emperor Justin 1 came next but the main accomplishment during his reign appears that he kept the seat warm for his nephew without screwing up too much. Whether that was a good or bad thing depends on if you believe history might have taken a different path with his successor having to wait a little longer for his chance to throw the proverbial monkey wrench into the imperial geo-political situation.

Justinian comes in next with a “with us or against us” dream of recapturing the western portions of the Roman Empire and begins a long series of wars to do just that. In spite of it all Justinian is successful to a point reconquering most of north Africa, parts of Spain, and all of Italy. However the cost is so great he bankrupts the empire and O'Donnell quite frankly states that Justinian's insistence on religious unification, or synchronization (my word) so totally alienates the populations of the Middle East and North Africa that when the Arabs arrive several decades later they essentially don't really care who rules them.

Making the situation even more tragically funny, O'Donnell points out that all the western territory Justinian worked so hard to reclaim was to a great extent worthless. Far too much money and personnel were going to occupy lands that were either utterly destroyed from the wars of reconquest, in the case or Italy, or largely empty. Throwing more fuel on the unsustainable fire, the bumbling Justinian goes to war with the Sassanid Empire of Persia and has to deal with a new series of invasions on his Balkan frontier. Adding an extra helping of bitter icing on an already calamitous cake the eastern empire has to deal with a series of natural disasters from plagues, famines, and earthquakes from the 530's to early 550's.

O'Donnell rightly points out that Justinian should have just reinforced his frontiers, made nice with the Persian Emperor, left everyone to believe in god like they wanted, and all together just stayed in bed. It doesn't take long to figure out that the author despises Justinian and although his Highness did do a few thing right during his reign, it's hard to disagree with O'Donnell's basic attitude concerning the Bush-like emperor.

O'Donnell's closing point is that civilizations are fragile things that should be carefully nourished with both intelligence and tolerance. For any leader, rushing into situations like the proverbial bull in the china shop in an attempt to remake the world in their image has never proved a good idea in the long run. Countless empires sit atop history's dustbin because they refused to evolve with the times. The only problem with empires that refuse to adapt is that when they pass away like some elderly but vicious dinosaur they usually take a bunch of innocent victims with them.

The Ruin of the Roman Empire is not a perfect book for numerous reasons. I've read other reviews and many take issue with O'Donnell's basic thesis that the barbarians could have saved greater Roman civilization. Others, like me, found his sudden jumping around historical dates and places irritating. But I still very much enjoyed the book and highly recommend it for people who have a basic understanding of Roman history. And for that I still have to thank Mr. Ron Edgerton for everything his taught me.

2 comments:

Pixel Peeper said...

Wow - this is interesting. And way more detail than what I remember from history class in high school!

Beach Bum said...

Pixel: Mr. Edgerton was a great teacher, he pushed his classes to find out more. This is a great book, although like I wrote I couldn't really see O'Donnell's greater Roman commonwealth forming. At least not in the way I felt he seemed to be implying.