Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.03.03

P. S. Barnwell, Emperor, Prefects, & Kings. The Roman West, 395-565. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993. Pp. vii + 248. $45.00. ISBN 0-8078-2071-7.

Reviewed by R. W. Burgess, University of Ottawa.

Barnwell's introduction states that this book, which is a revision of a 1987 Leeds Ph.D. thesis, is an examination of 'the extent to which "barbarian" government was influenced by its Roman predecessor' (p. 1). That is quite a topic for 175 pages plus notes and it immediately caused this reviewer to wonder how it could possibly be done. I checked the jacket blurb: 'Earlier studies have argued implicitly that the fifth century witnessed the disintegration of an ordered Roman governmental system and it s replacement by a series of disorganized "Germanic" administrations... [B.] shows that the law and government of the Barbarian kingdoms were more deeply indebted to Roman institutions than most previous historians have realized.' Law and government and administration? One quickly discovers that this is highly exaggerated and completely misleading. In fact, the book is little more than an attempt to catalogue the titles of administrative officials between c. 395 and c. 537, and to describe what these officials did while they were officials (where possible).

The work divides into three separate and distinct parts: Roman administration, Germanic administration outside Italy, and Ostrogothic administration (though the book itself is divided into 'The Emperor and the Imperial Court', 'Provincial Administration' (both Roman and Germanic), and 'Italy under Odoacer and the Ostrogoths'). B. is not trying to describe or explain post-Roman administration, so much as prove his thesis, which is that the administrative structures of the Visigoths, Burgundians, Franks, and Vandals were more Roman than 'most previous historians have realized' (we are never told who these historians are/were; B.'s few descriptions of their views are nothing but caricatures: cf., e.g., pp. 1, 125, 127 ['incompetent savages incapable of understanding Roman ways'], and 129) and, conversely, that those of the Ostrogoths in Italy were less Roman than hitherto realized. Consequently, he paints a tendentious picture of Roman survivals within the Germanic kingdoms. In his research B. seems never to have strayed far beyond the very narrow confines of nomenclature and function, and so clings to the fragmentary bits he has dredged up from the literary sources; whenever he tries to go beyond them -- and he is unfortunately inclined to rather reckless theorizing -- his general lack of knowledge of and feeling for the period vitiate his conclusions. A topic like this requires a vast background of knowledge and skill beyond the voluminous literature of modern scholarship: one must know the literary sources and their authors inside out, how they were produced, and what their purposes were; the epigraphic material; the military, political, and social history; the prosopography; and the archaeological evidence, since any discussion of the Germanic debt to the Romans must be seen in a general cultural and social continuum (as Pirenne, for all his other short-comings, realized). It is useless to pick titles out of a vacuum and attempt to find some kind of correlation without a great amount of background study and analysis. One need only be aware of the fact that R. Delmaire has recently produced two massive volumes (for a total of 1082 pages) merely on the sacrae largitiones, the res priuata, and their respective comites from the fourth to the sixth centuries, to realize how hopeless B.'s meagre attempt is.1

B.'s narrow, short (58 pages), and superficial accounts of the Visigoths, Burgundians, Franks, and Vandals presents a general view of Romanization hardly different from what any serious scholar would now routinely accept; the underlying premise behind these pages is, therefore, hardly ground-breaking. Unfortunately, as a general study of non-Italian Germanic administration, it is useless because of its tendentious approach. It makes perfect sense that old Roman titles would have continued to be used, that the duties associated with these titles would often have evolved and changed, and that new or revamped Latin titles would have been introduced for holders of offices unknown under central Roman control (B. utterly fails to realize the importance of the adoption of Latin by all the Germanic kingdoms). Since these kingdoms were far from the centre of Roman power in Ravenna and Rome, it is also no surprise that the structures adopted by the Germans tended to mirror diocesan, provincial, and even villa or household administrative structures (e.g. the maior domus, as B. fails to see; cf. p. 122).

B.'s comments on Ostrogothic Italy, on the other hand, are simply nonsense. He claims that Ostrogothic Italy was in fact less Roman than previously claimed (by whom? cf. p. 129). These arguments are even more tendentious than those for the earlier chapters, but worse still, since most of the evidence he uses derives from Cassiodorus, one is shocked at the end of the section to find out that B. thinks that Cassiodorus was a fraud and that the Variae are fictions. Because of (what B. thinks is) the anachronistic character of the Variae and the fact that Cassiodorus' career is known only from his own writings (B. forgets about his well-attested consulship in 514 without an Eastern colleague), B. claims that Cassiodorus fabricated his own career structure -- with the corollary that 'many, if not all, the documents found throughout the Uariae [sic] are not genuine' -- 'in order to provide a respectable set of Roman aristocratic credentials to use as a background against which to set his propaganda for the Ostrogoths' (pp. 167-9). What sort of 'propaganda' the Variae could possibly be and how they could be expected to operate are never explained by B.2 He further claims that Cassiodorus was a member of the 'provincial, rather than of the top flight of the Senatorial, aristocracy' (p. 168). B. must also assume that Cassiodorus also invented the 'top flight Senatorial' careers of his father and grandfather as well, but he never mentions them. He also fails to explain how such a provincial, pro-Ostrogothic hack as Cassiodorus ever became sole consul in 514, a dignity reserved for only the highest level of the Italian aristocracy, a dignity never held by Arator, one of B.'s examples of 'the highest Senators' (p. 168).3 And whom would Cassiodorus be fooling with his pro-Ostrogothic lies? Certainly not the senators whom B. identifies as the targets since they would have known in a second that he had not held any of the offices he claimed, and would have quickly noticed any deviations in the Variae from actual contemporary practice, since they actually held the offices that Cassiodorus was 'anachronistically' describing. If these senators were not supposed to have been able to see through the Variae, how can B.?

The first part of the work, on Roman administration (pp. 11-70), has no real connection with the rest of the book except as a distant comparison for what comes later and seems rather pointless. All the more so since B. has decided to work it all out for himself, based chiefly on fifth-century laws from the Codex Theodosianus, Sidonius Apollinaris, and fifth-century chronicles (as will be seen below he essentially ignores the Notitia dignitatum), rather than referring when necessary to A. H. M. Jones's Later Roman Empire, 284-602: A Social, Economic, and Administrative Survey (Oxford, 1964) and the Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire II (and elsewhere). Unfortunately B. dismisses most of the evidence of the chronicles as inaccurate or misleading, and seems to understand little about the CTh, especially with regard to its compilation and content. It has all been said better elsewhere.

One could go on for pages, noting B.'s errors and howlers (such as p. 203 n. 19 where King Herod the Great and his son Herod Antipas the tetrarch are identified, on the basis of Matthew 2 and 14, or pp. 126, 129, 150, 173, where B. claims that the Late Roman administration was ad hoc and therefore non-bureaucratic), and though one does not wish to condemn a book without full justification, space prevents detailed analysis. I have therefore chosen to examine a few of B.'s general problems.

The first major surprises awaiting the unwary reader appear in the first 3 pages. First, B. declines to discuss the fourth century, even as background to the fifth. This makes the fifth century extremely difficult to understand and later on much error arises from B.'s refusal to deal with the antecedents of fifth-century administration. This relates directly to B.'s general failure to see anything diachronically. Each section he examines -- the imperial court, provincial administration, the barbarian systems -- is presented synchronically, often with no thought or regard for the evolution of the offices or the terminology used to describe them. Related to this is his general failure to present his evidence in chronological order and even to give dates for the evidence he cites. And very often when dates are introduced, they are preceded by 'c.'. For instance, the following dates of Vandalic history, are all preceded by 'c.': 406, 419, 429, 435, 439, 442, and 455 (pp. 114-16). There is absolutely no doubt about these dates (any more than there is about 44 BC or AD 1066; I don't wish to get into a philosophical debate here), and for 406, 439, and 455 we even know the days of the month. Even the date of the deposition of Romulus Augustus is given as 'c. 476' (pp. 82 and 84). This perversity was imitated from the thesis director, Ian Wood, who is a well-known doubting Thomas when it comes to dates derived from non-narrative historical sources.

Next, B. announces that he will not be using Greek sources. He does not mean Eastern sources -- he uses many Eastern sources written in Latin -- he means works written in Greek. This is because, he claims, 1) Greek authors 'had little real interest' in the West, 2) even when they were interested their information was inaccurate (he quotes the famous fragment of Eunapius), and 3) even when their information was accurate 'there were misunderstandings and problems in translating official titles' (pp. 2-3). This last is the only justification that has any validity at all, but exactly the same problem exists for Latin sources in the West itself, as B. so often laments! Even so, it is hardly an excuse for ignoring the Greek sources. This unfortunately leads one to suspect that B.'s Greek is not what it should be.

Third, B. states that he has not cited 'all the relevant secondary literature', nor 'many of the well-known major histories of the fifth and sixth centuries', nor 'the prosopographical works relating to the period', but 'this should not be taken to mean that they have not been consulted with profit' (p. 3). Page after page this latter contention is proved false. Indeed, as a whole, the bibliography is hopelessly inadequate for the kind of study that B. wants to undertake. One gets the distinct feeling that B. tried to do it all directly from his few literary sources first, and that the secondary material was only added later.

As one progresses through the book, one encounters more of these surprises. For instance: '(t)he Notitia (dignitatum) does not appear to have been an official document and may, perhaps, have been produced by someone with an antiquarian interest' (p. 10; cf. pp. 34, 'out-of- date'; 41, 'anachronistic'; 63, 'antiquarian', 'may not reflect the reality of the fifth century'; 64, 'non-official'). I cannot imagine where B. ever got such a perverse idea. A book like this should cling for dear life to the Notitia and yet B. knows nothing about it and avoids it at every turn. One particularly sad result of this avoidance of the Notitia (and Jones's LRE) is that B. understands nothing about rank and hierarchy in the Late Roman administration. For instance, on page 54, after listing (incorrectly in two cases) five examples of senatorial careers from inscriptions and the CTh, he states 'There are many other examples of this type of movement from the court out into the highest positions of the provincial administration [viz. praetorian prefects] and, significantly, none the other way. The numbers are too great for this simply to be a matter of coincidence, and it may be assumed that it was a deliberate policy...' A quick glance at the Notitia would have shown B. that these officials were merely ascending the cursus honorum through regular promotions, and that the praetorian prefectures were the top posts (apart from the consulship). It is as if a Roman historian were to 'assume' that it was no coincidence but some deliberate policy that consuls and censors never became quaestors, aediles, or vigintiviri.

Let me offer one egregious example of neglect of PLRE II and let it stand for all such errors throughout the book (there are a myriad). 'In all, there is a total of twelve [provincial governors of Italy] for the whole period [c. 476-c. 553]... Many fewer -- only four Italian -- governors received rescripts after 394, and not many more are known from other sources: fewer still are attested for other western provinces. The fact that more Ostrogothic officials are known may lead to a suspicion that they operated in a rather different way from their earlier counterparts' (p. 158). A quick check of PLRE II (and III, which was not available for B.) does indeed reveal twelve provincial governors in Italy in the period 476-553. However, from 394-476 we know of 33 governors in Italy, twelve in Africa, one in Spain, eight in Gaul, two in Illyricum, and nine others of unknown provinces, for a total of 65, which isn't that much fewer than 12.

Overall this book is superficial, pedestrian, and descriptive, not analytical. When B. says something new it is usually wrong. Even the title is misleading and confused, especially the date of 565, which is Eastern -- the death of Justinian -- and therefore of absolutely no relevance to the topic he is discussing. As a thesis this may have passed muster (though I would not have let it through without major revision); as a book it is a failure.


  • [1] Largesses sacrées et res privata L'Aerarium imperial et son administration du IVe au VIe siècle. Collection de l'École française de Rome 121 (Rome, 1989), and Les Responsables des finances impériales au bas-empire romain (IVe-VIe s.): Études prosopographiques. Collection Latomus 203 (Brussels, 1989). B. refers to neither of these works.
  • [2] Cf. Peter Heather, Goths and Romans, 332-489 (Oxford, 1991), pp. 52-7, for Cassiodoran 'propaganda'.
  • [3] Given the comments B. makes about Cassiodorus, he seems to know very little about him or his work. For instance, he does not realize that the 'Senator' at the end of Cassiodorus' name is actually part of his name, not just an epithet (p. 225), and his description of Cassiodorus' chronicle as a 'Gothic history' indicates that he has never even read it (pp. 131 and 167).