Bryn Mawr Classical Review 02.04.14


David S. Potter, Prophecy and History in the Crisis of the Roman Empire. A Historical Commentary on the Thirteenth Sibylline Oracle. Oxford: Clarendon, 1990. Pp. xix, 443; 2 Maps. ISBN 0-19-814483-0. $110.


Reviewed by John Vanderspoel, University of Calgary.

P.'s book, like others in the Oxford Classical Monographs series, is the amplification of a D.Phil. thesis completed and examined at Oxford University. The main part of the work is a study of the thirteenth Sibylline Oracle, but Potter offers much more than simple text and commentary. An extensive introduction examines "The Economic and Political Situation of the Roman Empire in the Mid-Third Century AD" (3-69), "Historiography in the Third Century AD" (70-94), "The Sibylline Oracles" (95-140), and "The Thirteenth Sibylline Oracle" (141-157). Brief preliminary remarks on the manuscripts and editions of the oracle (161-165) are followed by the text and translation (166-177). A detailed commentary (179-347), almost one page per line, forms the heart of the book. Five appendices on various topics (351-397), a Bibliography, and two Indices (one on sources cited, the other general) complete the volume. The scope of the commentary is impressive. P. thoroughly discusses a wide range of problems, though he might have saved some pages by simply referring the reader to other sources on some occasions when he quotes them at length in his text or in footnotes. As the subtitle indicates, the issues are primarily historical, but others, e.g., textual and philological points, are discussed as necessary or desirable. There is some overlap with the Introduction, but this could hardly be avoided when the Introduction is in part a synthesis of arguments in the Commentary.

For the average reader, the Introduction will be the most useful part of the book, especially the political and economic history of the Roman Empire from 232-275 (the oracle, or what is left of it, covers c. 244-262), a period for which a solid discussion has long been necessary. Many of P.'s conclusions are supported by detailed analyses in the Commentary, to which there is frequent reference. The sum of this Introduction and the Commentary is both a survey of the period and a thorough examination of its problems. If other scholars will from time to time find themselves in disagreement with P.'s conclusions, they will nevertheless thank him for presenting the relevant evidence. One could perhaps wish that the details were present in the Introduction, but that would make much of the Commentary superfluous and the Introduction both too long and too recondite.

It is impossible to do justice to such a book in a short review, but a few points may be made. One of the striking points to emerge from P.'s discussion is the ignorance of inhabitants of one part of the Empire about contemporary events elsewhere. Even the relatively educated, such as the authors of the oracle must have been, seem to rely for much of their information on either the official propaganda, whether this be art or official announcements, or on gossip (see 135-139 and passim). This does not encourage reliance on the other written sources for the period. At many points, P. discusses their value and reaches a rather pessimistic conclusion, rightly in most cases, since even important events are often bungled by writers not very distant from the events themselves, or at the very least by later authors dependent on them. P.'s work on the relationships of various writers about the third century is valuable, though this will be controversial. Among other conclusions, he accepts the previous suggestion by F. Graebner (363, n.28) of an additional narrative history (beyond Enmann's Kaisergeschichte) for the third century and adds new arguments for its existence in Appendix II, "Sources for the Mid-Third Century." In his view, the work was written in Latin, but depended heavily on Greek sources. To my mind, a Latin history such as this is a necessity; I am less enamoured of the need for a Greek Kaisergeschichte to explain similarities between various Latin historians in the fourth century. Eunapius might, after all, simply be using in the original those Greek sources which the epitomators found in paraphrase or translation in the Latin historian. It is, however, unlikely that the problems of source criticism for these writers will ever be completely solved.

In the final analysis, P. has given us a marvellous work of scholarship on a period too little understood by most. No one will read this book without a better understanding of the third century A.D. as a result. For this reason, it is particularly unfortunate that the book's price will curtail its circulation.