Sometimes the later Roman empire seems very long ago and far away, but at other times, when we explore Edward Gibbon's famous claim to have described the triumph of "barbarism and religion", it can seem as fresh as next week. And we always know that we're supposed root for the Romans. When I began my career as historian thirty years ago, I was all in favor of those who were fighting to preserve the old order. "I'd rather be Belisarius than Stilicho," I said to my classes often enough that they heard it as a mantra of my attitude — preferring the empire-restoring Roman general of the sixth-century to the barbarian general who served Rome and sought compromise and adjustment with neighbors in the fourth.
But a career as a historian means growth, development, and change. I did what the historian — as much a scientist as any biochemist, as the German use of the word Wissenschaft for what both practice — should do: I studied the primary evidence, I listened to and participated in the debates of the scholars. I had moments when a new book blew me away, and others when I read the incisive critique of the book that had blown me away and thought through the issues again. I've been back and forth over a range of about four centuries of late Roman history many times now, looking at events, people, ideas, and evidence in different lights and moods.
What I have found is that the closer historical examination comes to the lived moment of the past, the harder it is to take sides with anybody. And it is a real fact that the ancient past (I'm talking now about the period from 300-700 CE) draws closer and closer to us all the time. There is a surprisingly large body of material that survives and really only a handful of hardy scholars sorting through it. Much remains to be done: The sophist Libanius of Antioch in the late fourth century, partisan for the renegade 'pagan' emperor Julian, left behind a ton of personal letters and essays that few have read, only a handful have been translated, and so only a few scholars have really worked through his career and thought — but I'd love to read, and even more dearly love to write, a good book about him someday. In addition to the books, there is a growing body of archaeological evidence as diggers fan out across the Mediterranean, Near East, and Europe, and we are beginning to see new kinds of quantitative evidence as well — climate change measured from tree-ring dating, even genetic analysis that suggests that my O'Donnell ancestors came from one of the most seriously inbred populations (Ireland) on the planet — and right now the argument is going on about the genetic evidence for the size of the Anglo-Saxon migrations to Britain. We know more than we ever did, and we are learning more all the time, and with each decade, we get closer and closer to even the remote past.
When you do that, you find that the past is more a tissue of choices and chances than we had imagined, that fifty or a hundred years of bad times can happen — and can end and be replaced by the united work of people with heads and hearts that makes society peaceful and prosperous again; or the opportunity can be kicked away.
And we should remember that when we root for the Romans, there are contradictory impulses at work. Rome brought the ancient world a secure environment (Pompey cleaning up the pirates in the Mediterranean was a real service), a standard currency, and a huge free trade zone. Its taxes were heavy, but the wealth it taxed so immense that it could support a huge bureaucracy for a long time without damaging local prosperity. Fine: but it was an empire by conquest, ruled as a military dictatorship, fundamentally dependent on a slave economy, and with no clue whatever about the realities of economic development and management. A prosperous emperor was one who managed by conquest or taxation to bring a flood of wealth into the capital city and squander it as ostentatiously as possible. Rome "fell", if that's the right word for it, partly because it ran out of ideas for new peoples to plunder, and fell into a funk of outrage at the thought that some of the neighboring peoples preferred to move inside the empire's borders, settle down, buy fixer-upper houses, send their kids to the local schools, and generally enjoy the benefits of civilization. (The real barbarians stayed outside.) Much of the worst damage to Rome was done by Roman emperors and armies thrashing about, thinking they were preserving what they were in fact destroying.
So now I have a new mantra for my students: "two hundred years is a long time." When we talk about Shakespeare's time or the Crusades or the Roman Empire or the ancient Israelites, it's all too easy to talk about centuries as objects, a habit we bring even closer to our own time, but real human beings live in the short window of a generation, and with ancient lifespans shorter than our own, that window was brief. We need to understand and respect just how much possibility was there and how much accomplishment was achieved if we are to understand as well the opportunities that were squandered. Learning to do that, learning to sift the finest grains of evidence with care, learning to learn from and debate with others — that's how history gets done.
The excitement begins when you discover that the past is constantly changing.