I’ve read a few of Michael Grant‘s books now, and this one begins in typical fashion. Grant gives a brief overview of the history of the period (in this case, the Roman Empire from Marcus Aurelius to Constantine) before discussing the changes in architecture and art during that era. His thesis is that the third century, often seen as nothing more than a period of military emperors, chaos and decline, is in fact a fascinating series of gradual changes – and not necessarily for the worse.
The first part of the Climax of Rome is a bit of a mixed bag. The changes in artistic style are interesting, but the chapters come across as slightly disjointed with sudden jumps between eras (the book does cover a long period of time). The military and political history (often the focus in this period) is rather skimmed over. This all comes to make sense later.
The book really shines is the second half, when Grant gets onto the topic of philosophy, literature and religion. He traces developments in style and genre, and manages to link them to the political situation. In the face of ever more authoritarian government, the culture drifted towards more personal, self-reflective styles – Marcus Aurelius’ stoicism, Galen, the neo-platonic thought of Plotinus, early Christian thinkers, and the rise of the novel as an artform.
This was, in a sense, a form of climax for classical culture, in not necessarily a high point. Alongside this, the success of legal writers in the 3rd century and developments in architecture would lay the groundwork for medieval Europe. Was this the true peak of the Roman empire? Grant admits this would have been a “gloomy place for the majority” and far from an egalitarian or democratic society, and the succession of military crises would make it hard to see the 3rd century (or even the revival under Diocletian and Constantine) as a military high point. Yet, this period is hugely influential in the move out of the Classical world and into Medieval Christendom and I will definitely be looking for further reading on the subject.