Today seems like an appropriate day to dive into the #swipefile for a history lesson—or rather, a history lesson about a history lesson. In this case, a piece of history that didn’t exactly go as we may have been taught:
Rome Didn’t Fall When You Think It Did. Here’s Why That Fabricated History Still Matters Today
I came across this article thanks to a friend on Facebook who shared it there. In true #swipefile fashion, it’s potentially useful to your messages and content both for the story it tells and for the implications of that story.
- From the title of the post we know what the two-part big reveal is going to be: that (1) Rome didn’t fall in the year 476 as most of us were taught and (2) that difference between fact and fiction matters.
- The 476 date is important, though, because, that is when “the barbarian commander Odoacer forced the teenaged Western Roman emperor Romulus Augustus to resign his office.” [So, like many mistruths, both intentional and not, it’s rooted in fact.]
- 40 years later, a fellow by the name of Marcellinus Comes marked that assumption of power as when the “Western Empire of the Roman people … perished.” [Yeah, except that’s not what happened!]
- Note that at this point the Roman Empire was already split into two: the Western and the Eastern Roman empires. Odoacer took over the Western Roman Empire. Marcellinus’s false history came along at a time when the Eastern Roman Empire wanted to get its hands back on the Western one.
- In service of that desire, Marcellinus produced a very early example of revisionist history—where some later group of people essentially rewrites the story of an earlier group, usually to make the latter group look better to future generations.
- In this case, the revisionist history was “as a pretext for a devastating war.” [Would that this were the only example of this happening in history. Alas, no.]
- That’s part 1 of the big reveal (with more detail to come). Part 2 comes next, with the author explaining that the fact/fiction gap in this case, “shows how history can be misused to justify otherwise unpalatable actions in the present—and how that misuse can also distort the lessons future generations take from the past.” [So, yeah, facts are important.]
- I won’t weigh you down with some of the contextual details that come next. Mostly they add up to: Odoacer’s rise to power came after a series of other coups, so it was not terribly special in and of itself.
- Not only that, Odoacer didn’t actually change much in the Western empire. The emperor that Romulus Augustus had attempted to replace was still around and was still put on the coins that Odoacer had minted. The Senate met. People in government still spoke Latin. Roman law was still the rule.
- Things didn’t even change much when Odoacer was also overthrown after 17 years. This new guy, Theoderic, “proved even more successful than Odoacer in reviving Italian fortunes after the political chaos of the mid-5th century.” He expanded the Empire and repaired important buildings (including the Colosseum, though that may have begun under Odoacer).
- Contemporary accounts actually described Rome as thriving, not declining. One even suggested Theoderic be considered “as a rival to Alexander the Great because he had sparked a Roman ‘Golden Age.’” [Doesn’t sound like much “falling,” does it?]
- So, what gives? As the author notes, the “answer lies not in Italy, but in Constantinople.” It was there that yet another coup—this time by Romans living in Constantinople—was brewing.
- When Marcellinus “interpreted” the various dates and invasions as being when the Western Roman Empire started to decline, he was essentially helping his boss—the “heir apparent” to the Eastern empire, Justinian, justify an invasion. The goal? To restore the Western empire to its “previous” glory [which, again, it hadn’t lost!].
- You can guess what happens next: Justinian invades Rome and the territories of the Western empire. While he did manage to expand the empire back into those territories, the long sieges and battles essentially wiped out some of Italy’s largest cities.
- To wit, the population of Rome dropped from ~500,000 just prior to Odoacer assuming power to around 25,000 after 30 years of battling. “Milan, once Italy’s second-largest city, was razed to the ground in 539 with its entire population either killed or enslaved.” [Yikes.]
- Or as the author puts it, “The Eastern Roman Empire had recovered Italy—and destroyed much of it in the process.”
- While that destruction was evidence that the Roman Empire had fallen, it fell as a result of Justinian’s actions, not Odoacer’s. Justinian’s actions not only reversed the progress of Odoacer and Theoderic, they destroyed what Justinian was trying to save.
- I’d say picking the wrong time and blaming the wrong person for the fall of Rome—for 1500 years—is a pretty big “revision.”
How you could use it…
As the author explains:
Rome’s story … does not warn us of the danger of barbarous outsiders toppling a society from within. It instead shows how a false claim that a nation has perished can help cause the very problems its author invented.
And therein lies one of the primary ways you can use this particular #swipefile: to show how dangerous certain stories (by which I mean well-told, believable lies) can be.
That leads to another immediate potential use: to show how important it is to seek out information that goes against (disconfirms) what we believe, or want to believe, is true. As another of this week’s #swipefiles explains, “Humans’ evolved faculty for reasoning is not aimed at arriving at objective truth…it is aimed at defending our arguments and scrutinizing others’.”
We, humans, live in that gap between objective and subjective truth. But the more we can see how our understanding of both kinds of truth is rooted in the stories we tell—and why—the more we can close that gap, both within ourselves and with others.We, humans, live in that gap between objective and subjective truth. But the more we can see how our understanding of both kinds of truth is rooted in the stories we tell—and why—the more we can close that gap, both within ourselves and… Click To Tweet
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