Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Lest Darkness Fall

My last Ancient History book finished was "The Ruin of the Roman Empire", by James J. O'Donnell.  Although an enjoyable read, the book has many shortcomings.  The narrative, which is very unfocused, concentrates on the reigns of Theodoric (King of the Goths), Justinian (the Byzantine Emperor), and Gregory the Great (the Pope who became by default, ruler of what civilization remained in Italy after the Gothic Wars).  The book is an easy read, even for non-scholars, and does offer some insights - like the nature of ethnicity in the Late Empire, the "Romaness" of the Barbarian Successor Kingdoms, the existence and conflicts between many different kinds of early Christianity - but the premise of the book (that the Western Empire didn't really fall in 476 AD, since the barbarians who ruled in its place were just a continuation of the old order in different clothing - and that things only completely collapsed after Justinian's ruinous wars of reconquest) is presented in an unbalanced manner with few footnotes or references.  To put it simply, O'Donnell feels that everything Roman is bad, barbarian is good, and if the Byzantines had just stayed out of the way, European culture would not have been as devastated as it was in the 5th century.  I just don't agree with this view of the Fall of Rome.  In my opinion, that event was catastrophic for the people living through it. Huge areas of Europe were depopulated, political and economic systems were destroyed, Rome became a small pastoral town on the Tiber, and most areas came under the equivalent rule of what was the local motorcycle gang.  Although I know that there is the alternate way of viewing these events, that the European world was simply changing culturally, and shifting its center of gravity from the Mediterranean to Northern Europe, I think it was more like a turn of the Wheel of Time as described by the Robert Jordan novels, where what had gone before the Fall became essentially the Time of Legends for the post-Classical World (just consider the scarcity of surviving Ancient literary sources compared to what we know existed that we no longer have access to).  Very much of Classical civilization was lost and it took Europe a full millennium to recover.  So, O'Donnell's book is a worthwhile read if you appreciate a good turn of literary phrase, but to get a more meaningful and complete understanding of the era covered, interested readers should search out additional books.

One side benefit that I did receive from my reading of "The Ruin of the Roman Empire" though, is that it reminded me of a different, wonderful, science-fiction novel of alternate history that I read decades ago in college - "Lest Darkness Fall", by L.Spraque DeCamp.  Unfortunately, after rummaging through my attic, I couldn't find my paperback copy of this book, purchased back in the 1980's, with the whimsical cover shown here.  Because of this, I will have to give my impressions in this posting from memory, and since the book is presently out of print, I'll have to search second hand sources in order to obtain a replacement.

"Lest Darkness Fall" is the story of a modern archaeologist (well, from 1938, that is), mysteriously transported through time to 6th century Italy, under the rule of the Ostrogoths just after the death of Theodoric.  Martin Padwell (the name of the modern protagonist, if memory serves me well) initially scrambles to figure out where he is, but quickly adapts, becoming a Classical era entrepreneur.  He builds a printing press to publish a newspaper, and then makes a fortune distilling liquor.  In order to keep his business enterprises functioning, Padwell is drawn into the politics of Ostrogothic Italy, wins the heart of a princess, reforms the military, defeats and convinces Belisaurius to switch sides to the Goths, and finally remakes Western Europe on the model of the early 20th  century USA.  In other words, civilization is preserved and "Darkness" doesn't fall.  The book ends with Padwell planning a nautical expedition to the New World to find tobacco, a fondness for which he still retains.  The book is  timeless, historically accurate and well researched, entertaining, and has all kinds of color describing what life may have been like at the end of the Roman Empire - lice, crazy Gothic cavalry charges, Byzantine treachery, arguments about the precise nature of Christ and how many angels fit on a pinhead.  All in all, a fantastic read for history and adventure buffs. An absolute classic, and one of the first alternate history novels ever written.  A much more entertaining way to consider the premises in "The Ruin of the Roman Empire" without the heavy-handedness of O'Donnell.  I've got to keep searching my old science fiction boxes for my copy or hope to get a replacement soon.  Or just maybe, the book may actually get reprinted once again.


  1. Pete, I agree with your comments on his analysis. If some crucial decisions were made by Justinian or the plague that ravaged the mediterranean world in the middle of his reign had not happened, the conquest of Italy would have been smooth and undevastating. All he had to do was let Belisarius finish his conquest and stay in command in Italy and there would have been a peaceful prosperous Italy re-united to the Empire. Justinian and Nixon have a lot in common with their paranoia. Conversely, even with this bad decision had the plague not occured then sufficient funds and recruits would have remained to finish off the Goths. The other thing he fails to mention are two other way points where circumstances conspired against full Byzantine recover. By 602AD, the Empire had weathered the storm, made peace with the Persians and beaten the Avars out of the Balkans. Had Maurice stayed in power and passed the throne onto his son there is a very strong possibility that the reconquest of all of Italy and probably Spain would have proceeded. The other way point was the successful defeat of the Perians by Heraclius in 628AD. Had the Arabs and Islam not come up so soon after the conclusion of the war, again a full recovery remained possible. It took an incredible series of bad luck to prevent a full Byzantine recovery in the Mediterranean.

    Paul G.

  2. And one wonders what would have happened if Belisarius had accepted the throne as Emperor of the West. In "Lest Darkness Fall", Justinian is tricked into releasing him from his oath of allegiance, and then he becomes essentially Magister Militum of the revived Western Empire. In the "real" world though, if he became the Western Augustus, could he have held the throne and eventually taken on the Barbarian Successor Kingdoms?