James J. O’Donnell’s The Ruin of the Roman Empire is a poorly edited book laced with a tendentious thesis: that Justinian ended a glorious period of multicultural amity and synthesis. The poor editing shows insofar as the book is far too long, and the author is given to prosaic flourishes. The thesis is shoehorned into contemporary sensibilities. In hindsight, the Gothic Wars were a total disaster, but obviously that was not Justinian’s intent.
Obviously Boethius plays a major role in the book. But perhaps more interesting in our current age is Cassiodorus. While Boethius died, and also contributed a philosophical work which influenced early medieval thinkers, Cassiodorus spent his last decades preserving the cultural inheritance of the ancient world. Cassiodorus’ life spanned an enormous cultural distance. He was born in the late 5th century when Rome was still a large city, albeit under Gothic rule. The Gothic hegemony over the West Roman domains can be thought of as analogous to the Arab conquests of the Near East of the 7th century: the fundamental underlying structure of society remained unchanged. It was the wars of the 6th century which wore Italy down to the point where Rome was a shadow of itself by the end of Cassiodorus’s life.
One can make their own judgments of whether Cassiodorus succeeded or not. But he was conscious that something was happening in the West, and he had to do something. A new age of barbarism was being born. Civilization’s locus was moving to the east.