Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.03.10


Michael Maas, John Lydus and the Roman Past. Antiquarianism and Politics in the age of Justinian. London and New York: Routledge, 1992. Pp. ix + 240. $45.00. ISBN 0-415-06021-4.


Reviewed by John Vanderspoel, University of Calgary.

In this slender book, which won the Routledge Ancient History Prize for 1990, M. argues that John Lydus was much more than a simple antiquarian. Instead, his Lydus looks backwards to the Roman past for its relevance to the time of Justinian and to that emperor's reforms. The book, in fact, is more about the circumstances Lydus found himself in than about Lydus himself. Only one short chapter (Ch. 2: Portrait of a Bureaucrat) is about the man himself. Bits and pieces occur elsewhere throughout the book, but a detailed biography is lacking. Other than the three chapters on the three surviving works (de Mensibus in Ch. 4; de Magistratibus in Ch. 6; and de Ostentis in Ch. 8), portions of the book are devoted to "Changes in the Age of Justinian" (Ch. 1), "The Ideological Transformation of Tradition" (Ch. 3), "Paganism and Politics" (Ch. 5), and "Lydus and the Philosophers" (Ch. 7). Framed by an Introduction and a Conclusion, the text runs to 118 pages. An Appendix on sources mentioned by Lydus, the notes, a bibliography and an Index follow. The brevity of the work contributes to the impression that M. has not exhausted any number of topics that he might have chosen to examine in greater depth. What we have here is an impressionistic sketch of Justinian's age and especially of his reforms and of Lydus' works. M. is clearly on the right track: Lydus straddled the fence between the past and the present with both feet planted squarely, one on each side. His career, evident especially in his writings, is a constant attempt to alleviate the discomfort caused by a fence just a little taller than his legs were long; the pain sometimes shows, and it did not help that Justinian was standing firmly on the side of the present, with his foot sometimes on Lydus' toes.

The emperor's (and M.'s) practice can best be seen from an example. Lydus wrote about the praetorian prefecture in de Mag.; Peter the Patrician discussed the magister officiorum in the same generation. M. points only to an awareness of history. True enough, but why? Perhaps Lydus and Peter responded to Justinian's reforms by glorifying the past, implicitly criticising the emperor. The de Mag. certainly points in this direction. But Justinian jettisoned elements of these offices which he felt were no longer necessary. Did he base his conclusions on treatments written by none other than Lydus and Peter? In that case, the extant de Mag. is a revised version, all the more biting because Justinian had rejected Lydus' views. Be that as it may, M.'s discussion is not as complete as it might have been.

The Appendix too could have been more useful than it is for those interested in what was available to an antiquarian in the sixth century; naturally, the impressive list of authors cited by Lydus may reflect the use of handbooks, a practice M. mentions occasionally. In spite of its general utility, however, the Appendix offers a few errors of fact, or one can sometimes go a little further than M. does. Nor is it entirely complete. I noticed the following in particular. Surely, Praetextatus the Hierophant is Vettius Agorius Praetextatus (cf. PLRE, I, 723), described as a hierophant among his other priesthoods on CIL 6.1779 (= ILS 1259). Dositheus the grammarian is listed as "Dositheus [? of Alexandria] III BC" in the Appendix, but correctly at 162, n.44 as "possibly of the fourth century AD"; he was perhaps from Asia Minor (cf. Kaster, Guardians, 278). It is somewhat disconcerting to see Caesar identified as "(G. Julius Caesar)" as if his name were George or Gunther. Not all will be happy to see [Terentius] Varro dated to the second century B.C. Apollonius does not have a date at all; given Lydus' interest in philosophy and religion, this is almost certainly the sage of Tyana. Anysias in the text (62) becomes Anysius in the Appendix. Missing entirely are the following from de Mag. 1.47: Aelian, Aeneas, Celsus, Catiline (not the conspirator), Cato (not listed for this passage), Onesander, Paternus (not listed for this passage), Patron and Renatus. If the omissions depend on criteria for inclusion, M. ought to have mentioned what they were. In the final analysis, M. has fulfilled his intent to show that John Lydus was not "a mere proprietor of an exotic pawn shop full of other people's ideas" (8). Instead, Lydus integrated the views of the past into his vision of the present. It must have been a disappointment to discover that Justinian lived in a different present, because the emperor saw the past differently. Lydus wanted the past to shape the present; Justinian was happy enough to let the past serve the present.