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Just as a wren is no tyrannosaur, so was, say, the England of Bede incalculably different from the Roman province of Britannia.
“Transformation”, the word favoured by many historians to describe the decline of Roman power, hardly does the process justice.
Consuls continued to be elected, the senate to sit, chariot races to be held in the Circus Maximus.
Most saliently of all, in the eastern half of the Mediterranean, the Roman empire was still strong.
It is still possible to find history books that give a very precise answer to this question.
The curtain came down on the Roman empire, so it is usually claimed, on 4 September 476, when a young man by the name of Romulus Augustulus was formally stripped of the imperial purple by a Gothic chieftain and packed off to retirement near Naples.
Likewise, the notion of a , a “Roman-ness”, surviving into the Middle Ages, and perhaps beyond, upsets the categorisation of the Roman empire that most of us have as a phenomenon purely of the ancient world.
It is important, of course, not to take revisionism too far.
Rudyard Kipling, the supposed laureate of imperialism, wrote a poem, “Recessional”, to mark the occasion – but it was the very opposite of jingoistic.It is as though US commentators, trying to plot a course ahead for their country, were to look to Caesar Augustus as an exemplar. The US, for all that it has a Senate and a Capitol, is self-consciously a young country, planted in a new world. Dynasties may have come and gone, waves of barbarians may have washed over it again and again, the emperor himself may have been replaced by a general secretary – but no rupture such as separates Barack Obama from ancient Rome divides Xi Jinping from the First Emperor.The “China dream”, in its essence, is simply the dream that the “Middle Kingdom” will regain what many Chinese see as her ancient birthright: a global primacy, at the heart of world affairs.Ruled from a city pointedly christened the Second Rome, it remained the greatest power of its day.Constantinople had many centuries of life in it yet as a Roman capital.
There is a taste here, perhaps – just the faintest, most tantalising taste – of a counterfactual: one in which Rome did not fall.