As part of my read through The Decline & Fall, here’s a quote that sums up Roman attitudes to religion rather succinctly, but may say even more about the English Enlightenment.
The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.
I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did. Guy De La Bedoyere (an expert on Roman Britain who often featured on archaeological TV show Time Team) has gathered together as many cases as he can of people in Roman Britain – rich/poor, slave/free, native or not. There often isn’t much to go on, and that means that De La Bedoyere speculates on who that person may have been – the guesswork is based on a solid foundation, what we know of Roman society and so on. But even with this, there isn’t much to say in the majority of cases. This means that we get a paragraph on one figure, then a paragraph on another, then a paragraph on another and it starts to feel like a dense wall of half formed information (welcome to archaeology!).
The author structures the book very loosely in a chronological fashion, but this means that the subject changes constantly. One case might highlight a social concern, the next economic, the next something more military. I thought Invisible Romans by Robert Knapp managed to structure a similar idea in a much more readable way. But Britain fundamentally was out of the way, and was different to the East of the empire, or to Italy, or even to Gaul so De La Bedoyere does have less information to go on. Themes do emerge – the upper class that was always just passing through temporarily, the freedmen and women, the ethnically diverse population of soldiers.
To end this post on a high – some figures do stick in the mind, even on the slightest of information. Gaius Severius Emeritus, a centurion who left a rather snippy note complaining of the insolent wrecking his local town. The potter of Aldgate/Pulborough who the author repeatedly brings up as an example of notably bad craftsmanship. All we have is a few fragments of badly made pottery, but that is enough to give a sense of something. And of course the curse tablets from Bath, “Docimedis has lost two gloves and asks that the thief responsible should lose their minds [sic] and eyes in the goddess’ temple.”.
Half Vandal. If it matters. Which it probably does. In this book Ian Hughes is all about defending the Roman general’s reputation. He’s not unreasonable about it, but there’s a lot time spent piecing together a plausible narrative from opposing sources and a generous view of the actors’ behaviour. In that sense it’s very balanced, and Hughes does convince in showing the weak position of the Western Empire – demoralised, under-resourced, with the crucial path through Illyria to Italy in the hands of an uncaring Eastern empire. Hughes does present Stilicho as a canny politician who identifies these weak spots and does his best to solve them.
Boosting the armies moral and fighting defensively helps the first two. The last is difficult – first Stilicho aims at taking a leading role in both halves of the empire, then he aims at a more direct reshuffling of provinces. Maybe some of this is later propaganda, maybe other parts are mistakes on Stilicho’s behalf. Stilicho had his break as much through family connections as his talent, and remained more a political general than a battlefield leader. In the end it doesn’t end well for him or the empire in the hands of less capable successors.
Ian Hughes has written a number of books on this period for Pen & Sword (I previously posted on his book Imperial Brothers, about Valentinian and Valens). This one suffers from the same narrowness of scope as some of the others, but does do a better job of setting the background (it feels odd that the rushed introduction actually covers similar ground to Imperial Brothers itself). It might be nice to see a longer book from Hughes, one where he doesn’t have to do that kind of recap – but on the other hand, a longer book might not allow such a focus on a single character.
Way back at the start of this blog, I read and reviewed his book Dividing the Spoils. In that he charted the growth of the successor kingdoms to the empire of Alexander the Great. I guess this book covers the fall of one of those kingdoms, Macedonia. More than that, it covers the end of hellenistic Greece. Ultimately though, it’s a book about Roman imperialism. Waterfield is open about this from the preface, he believes Rome’s conquest was deliberate, cynical and self serving: no accidental empire or well meaning peace keeping.
I believe that the Romans were more aggressive imperialists in this period than used to be commonly held before the first edition of Harris’s War and Imperialism in Republican Rome in 1979—that they did not go to war only when they were truly threatened (though they might pretend they were), nor were they dragged into entanglement with the east by accident or a series of accidents (Gruen, simplified), nor were their eastern wars purely the result of factors systemic to the Mediterranean world of the time (Eckstein, simplified).
Don’t worry – this is no polemic. Waterfield offers a fairly balanced account of Rome’s policy in Greece from the First Illyrian war in 229BC to the Achaean War in 146BC. In brief, we find Rome challenging the existing hegemony of the Macedonian and Seleucid kings. The Greeks get to know the Romans, finding them greedy and brutal. The Romans get to know the Greeks, finding them an extravagant but tempting influence. The Roman attitude shifts from the soft approach (the greek loving Titus Quinctus Flamininus who “liberated” the cities from the Macedonians), to the hard (the looting of Lucius Aemilius Paullus). Finally, after almost a century of dividing and conquering, the kingdom of Macedonia fell and the Romans squashed any chance of other Greek states taking its place.
The book has had its share of criticism. Waterfield presents Rome as unusually brutal, but doesn’t really explain how their hegemony and coercion differs from the coercion of states closer to home. When Rome goes to war it’s belligerent, when Macedonia does it’s the done thing for a Hellenistic king. The Roman destruction of Corinth was shocking, but so was Alexander the Great’s destruction of Thebes. On the plus side, this is a period of history that often gets missed over in favour of the second and third punic wars during the same period. Just like Dividing The Spoils, Waterfield writes accessibly and brings to life the main characters and sources. Correctly balanced or not, the insights into the Roman methods of “remote control” are fascinating. The wars with Carthage are still going to be the best place to start with second century Rome, but this is well worth reading for a look beyond that.
Yes, I have just read two biographies of Constantine very close together. It actually works, both books have a certain focus. And with the reliability or paucity of the source material, there are different interpretations to be set out.
Like David Potter’s book, Stephenson also takes some time to set the scene. For Potter that was the administrative and imperial state before and after Diocletian. For Stephenson, it is the religious state of the Roman empire in the late third century. Where Potter was happy to sideline the topic of religion, Stephenson wants to set out his views on Constantine’s conversion: a real conversion but due to his identification of the Christian God as a pagan style victory giving god. This is contrasted with early Christian pacifism and an army that was among the slower parts of society. While Potter was sharp and analytical, Stephenson (although clearly knowledgeable) doesn’t build his arguments quite as tightly – they sometimes seem a bit speculative.
The book doesn’t just focus on religious issues. The military and governmental sides are also covered, making the book perhaps more rounded that Potter’s. One interesting discussion looks at Constantine’s development of Rome and Constantinople. After looking at how Constantine adapted the work of his rival Maxentius in Rome, he suggests that another rival Licinius started work on Constantinople before having his contribution more successfully removed from history. Both authors do see a similar motivation in refounding the city, as Potter described the previous use of Nicomedia as an administrative centre. Ultimately the emperor was looking for a fresh start in his own image.
As a character both pictures of Constantine feels similar in many ways: determined, ruthless but often tolerant and morally led in decision making. Despite twisting religion to suit his own views and ends Paul Stephenson’s Constantine feels less cynical than David Potter’s. Stephenson does though point out the bias of our biographical sources – usually religious – and suggests that our image would change if we had accounts from other backgrounds. This is probably the best introduction to the emperor that I have read (actually, I’d suggest Mike Duncan’s podcast), but it’s not without its odd twists and nuances – particularly some of the speculation. Personally I preferred Potter for the better defined scope and analysis.
Constantine must be among the best known Roman emperors, but it sometimes seems like there are less popular history books and historical fiction on him than I might expect. I guess that makes sense in a way, what exciting narrative scenes exist are too wrapped up in his conversion to Christianity – not exactly a fashionable topic. It seems hard to find writing about Constantine that isn’t really part of the larger story of the rise of Christianity or the decline of the Empire. His great predecessor Diocletian feels even more obscure. Maybe the story is too political, not enough scandal and sex appeal?
This book by David Potter bills itself as a biography of Constantine, but it’s more limited than that: the majority of the book sets up the role of the Emperor and his administration before and after the reforms of Diocletian. Constantine only really comes into play after the first third, and only really gains power in the final third. Potter looks at how Constantine conformed to and retreated from those conventions as Emperor. The focus is there rather than his Christianity or his military exploits – though clearly both are covered as part of a general picture. It’s an interesting take, and it does help to put his career and decisions in proper context.
David Potter paints a complex picture of Constantine. A man whose religion and image would be carefully adjusted over time. He is astute enough to dismiss some of the mythical stories – the failed assassination attempt by Maximian, for example – and set out our ignorance on others – the circumstances of the death of his son and exile of his wife Fausta, As a character Constantine comes across as power hungry and ruthless, but also cautious and tolerant. It’s a detailed and authoritative portrayal, but unfortunately one that can come across as a little dry and perhaps a little lop sided in places.
This was one of the first proper history books I bought, back in 2007. Fresh from Robert Harris‘ Cicero first novel and Tom Holland’s Rubicon, I overreached. It’s a fascinating, interesting, well written book, but it is a lot more academic than either of those. I enjoyed it, but being unfamiliar with the details of the debate on the end of Rome I didn’t really get the most out of Heather’s arguments. More recently, I read his The Restoration of Rome and found it to be a much lighter book than my memories of this. Inspired by this and my improved understanding of Rome in the intervening decade, I decided to return to The Fall of Rome.
Peter Heather has the same stylish way with words that he showed in the more recent book ( one quote that stood out: “Clovis, in particular, seems to have enjoyed the merry crack of axe on skull”) but the popular analogies don’t come quite as frequent or quite as broad. This is a much more serious book, which tries to set out a middle ground between the ideas that Rome either fell entirely because of internal decline, or that it collapsed solely due to the external force of the invading barbarians. As he states near the start, no one seriously takes either opinion so a middle opinion was always inevitable; but he does have some points to make about the exact role that the Huns played in the process.
In Heather’s opinion the western movement of the Huns sparked the movements of other peoples, and it was these that caused the real damage to the empire. There had been similarly fierce nomads before – the Sarmatians in the first century BC – but this did not have the knock on effect because the Germanic tribes that bordered Rome were too small and localized to have the same impact. In the face of Roman power large confederations of tribes formed and united into even bigger ones. Once these were forced to move, real trouble was unleashed.
The book covers both this argument and the surrounding history with some skill. It’s not overly populist, but Heather uses anecdote and colour where appropriate. On the other hand, he compares the archaeological record against established ideas and offers conservative and plausible figures on numbers. I’m glad I returned to the book, and even after my intervening decade of reading about Rome felt that I was reading a unique and valuable account of the topic.
I once read the criticism of Adrian Goldsworthy that he has a tendency to just report facts and evidence without adding much in the way of interpretation or conclusion. And that is sort of true of this book, but like Philip Parker’s The Empire Stops Here it covers such an area and such a time period that it is hard to criticise the book for lacking a grand conclusion.
The two books actually cover some similar ground but Goldsworthy records some of the attitudes and experiences of the Roman empire (both as the Republic and fully fledged empire), while Parker seemed more concerned by the physical geography of the empire. There’s nothing hugely new, but it’s a well written summary of how the Romans operated – economically, their laws, their taxes – and how parts of the empire were integrated in so successfully. There’s not much narrative, and some material is a little dry, but the explanations are clear and well written. His comparison of banditry to car crashes does linger in the mind – an ever present danger, but one that would easily be risked by most people.
The author largely suspends judgement on the morality or success of the empire, but does describe the brutality of Roman repression and that a push for security (as opposed to prosperity) was the main driving factor of the empire’s operation. It’s not exactly a damning condemnation of the empire, but neither is it much of an endorsement. It’s not state of the art academia, but Adrian Goldsworthy has written an interesting and relatively accessible book on a wide ranging and often complex topic.
As far as historical fiction authors go, Harry Sidebottom has good credentials – DPhil in ancient history at Oxford, where he has continued on in a teaching role. This knowledge definitely shows in this novel from 2008 (the first of a series called Warrior of Rome). It is set in the 3rd century AD, not one of the most fashionable eras but a lively one nonetheless. The empire is being (just about) ruled by a series of short-lived military emperors as pressure is put on it from both external and internal sources. This story has an officer of barbarian/Angle origin in the Roman army, Ballista, sent east to defend a city against a huge Persian force.
The setting is very good, there’s a host of characters from various backgrounds and a ton of suitable classical references (Satyricon by Petronius is mentioned a lot). Unfortunately for me, something doesn’t quite click – there’s plenty of plot but none of it really draws me in. The barbarian background of Ballista feels a little unecessary. The characters feel like they have a history, but you get the nagging feeling that that backstory might be more interesting.
Would I read more of the series? Probably. It did pick up as I got further into the book. The setting and the detail that Sidebottom provides would allow be enough for me to give it another go. One to check out from the library.
This book, from 2011, tries to give a sense of what life was like for non-elite Romans: the poor, slaves, freedmen (outside the high profile imperial ones), soldiers, prostitutes, gladiators, bandits, and just ordinary men and women. The sources here aren’t as dramatic as those for the trials and tribulations of the imperial family or high ranking senators. There is a lot of reading between the lines in literature (Apuleius’ The Golden Ass and Petronius’ Satyricon for instance), more esoteric works (Artemidorus’s dream interpretations) or funerary inscriptions.
This meant that it ended up covering similar ground with other books I have read recently – Jerry Toner’s How To Manage Your Slaves (which I was sure I had posted on – that may have to be written), Mary Beard’s Laughter in Ancient Rome, Jerry Toner’s Popular Culture in Ancient Rome, and Robin Lane Fox’s Pagans and Christians. With this, the sections on “ordinary men” and slaves in particular rehashed a things I had already read. The other books mentioned above have greater depth to them, and weaved the ideas and quotations into greater themes. In comparison this book had a wider range, but skipped through each topic rather quickly.
Some of the chapters on society’s fringe groups were more interesting for me – much of the material on soldier, prostitutes and gladiators was new to me. Again, it was rather dry compared to some other authors – the material is set out there and the reader is often left to come to their own impressions and conclusions. This does have its advantages, being allowed to actually read through selected portions of the sources is rather nice. There are interesting discussions on how to judge material based on its intended audience, especially on topics like sexuality or societal roles.
As with many of the other books mentioned, there are generalisations here – material is taken from across the span of the empire – in both time and space. Often from 1st and 2nd century Rome or Greece, but also from Egypt or Palestine (the bible does pop up as an occasional source). This is understandable.
Overall, it’s a very well put together work. It’s probably more informative than enjoyable, but it is definitely an accessible and extensive introduction to an area that is only starting to come under the spotlight.