Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.04.07


J.R. Martindale, The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire. Volume III: A.D. 527-641, in two parts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Pp. xlvi + 1-760 (first part). Pp. vi + 761-1575 (second part). ISBN 0-521-20160-8.


Reviewed by James J. O'Donnell, University of Pennsylvania.

The Later Roman Empire isn't what it used to be. When the first volume of this magisterial reference work was published in 1971, covering the years 260-395, it was the logical successor to A.H.M. Jones's The Later Roman Empire: A Social, Economic, and Administrative Survey (Oxford 1964), and Jones was the leader of the authorial team. Alan Cameron's Claudian had just been published the year before, and T.D. Barnes's Tertullian and Peter Brown's The World of Late Antiquity appeared in the same year. The learned world stood at the turning point between studies in the "Later Roman Empire" and "Late Antiquity". The usefulness of prosopography in the period could be surmised from the works of Otto Seeck, mainly in the fourth century, and isolated collections by J. Sundwall for Ostrogothic Italy and K. Stroheker for Frankish Gaul, but nothing comparable to PLRE had ever been undertaken for the period. More than a biographical dictionary, it was almost a census report on the aristocracy of the time (and their hangers-on).

The first volume at 1100-odd pages was imperfect, as Barnes among others was swift to point out (in many places incautiously dependent on Otto Seeck, for example), but it made a revolution in working methods and brought a vast corpus of disparate evidence together for easier consultation. The second volume, covering the years 395-527, appeared in 1980, bulking in at 1300-odd pages. Jones had died in the year of the first volume's appearance and J. Morris, the other name on the original title page, died just before the second volume, leaving Martindale at the helm. But by now the project had acquired an eminent editorial board of great range and breadth, at least half of whose current members were barely fledged as scholars when the first volume appeared. The second volume was perforce much more independent in its gathering and assessment of data, and the third continues in that spirit. (On the other hand, the current chair of the committee is the redoubtable Philip Grierson, who resembles Ronald Syme and Nicholas Hammond in the length and fruitfulness of his post-retirement career -- his remarkable energy [those who saw him playing squash in his 70s know what I mean] has clearly meant much to the endeavor over the last decade.)

In general, the project has held to a steady course to completion, and some choices made early have continued to be felt as minor hindrances. The dates of inclusion for each volume were chosen for their historic significance, but that means that the letters of Symmachus, for example, comprise evidence that is reported now in the first volume (for those whose careers flourished by 395), now in the second; and the 527 break between volumes 2 and 3 has broken up Cassiodorus' Variae similarly. The first volume already reported "barbarians", but as time has passed and the atmosphere of late antique studies has enriched itself in many directions, the editors have found it necessary and possible to cast the net wider. In this volume, they came to a halt in the face of the question of how much Arabic evidence to consult, and took a minimalist but useful decision.

For if the "Roman Empire" never "fell", it is at least clear that the aggressively exclusionist self-understanding of the governing elite of the Mediterranean world was transformed in the years between 260 and 641, and boundaries that once seemed (but were not) etched in stone had proved over time to be very sandy and very water-soluble. The "moral boundary" on the Roman limes (to use a phrase of Alfoldi) turned out to be a thing of the imagination, and not a very generous imagination at that. By 641 the diversity and individuality of the Mediterannean world and its dependencies were the order of the day, and the loss of political hegemony exercised by the masters of one of the longest-running military dictatorships in history brought with it -- so effective, and so attractive, had the authoritarian impulse been -- relative economic disarray whose fruitfulness would be seen only long after the fact.

The greatest value of the work is that it now exists to cover a period that has badly needed it. If the fourth century had already been relatively well served by reference works, the sixth has been far from equally lucky. Take the case of Comentiolus, for example. Not a name, I venture to suggest, that many readers of these lines will be in the habit of invoking. He was a Thracian officer who first appears in 583 on an embassy to the khan of the Avars. In the next year, he appears commanding forces attempting to drive the Slavs from Thrace, and for the following five years he was active in the Balkans: the sources so far are Byzantine historians like Theophylact Simocatta and Theophanes. He then turns up in Spain in 589, where an inscription from CIL records his work strengthening the fortifications at Carthago Nova. He next appears fighting on the Persian front, supporting the claim of Chosroes to regain the Persian throne as a Byzantinophile shah. Another four years seem him fighting the Avars again in Thrace. Loyal to his emperor Maurice, he fought in defense of Constantinople against the coup of Phocas, and was executed when the coup succeeded. In the assemblage of a gallery of careers like that we can see the resilience and ambition of the Byzantine regime, and sense as well the constriction that kept a Thracian fighting so often close to home. The range of sources on which the entry draws is wide, and the judgment and care to bring the material together are impressive. To do that over the range of the sixth century, in Latin and Greek territories and to some extent beyond, is the contribution this volume is uniquely suited to make.

So the newest PLRE looks like an old friend. There are some differences. The preface makes a good case that evidence of this period for various reasons needs to be presented more fully and with more context, but the result can be dramatic. The longest entries I can find in the first volume run to about six pages; the second volume is more or less consistent with that, though there are perhaps more of the longer entries. But here suddenly we find Belisarius, Justinian's general, given a generous 42 pages -- not a word wasted, but a dramatic change nonetheless. The stemmata in the back are more abundant, with the caution necessary that family trees of barbarian royal families are not quite as reliable as those of Roman gentes.

So far, a mighty achievement. Where that achievement goes now is a serious question. The earlier volumes had promised addenda and corrigenda at the end of volume three, but reasons of space make that impractical. The plan reported now is to publish a further volume four or five years hence; at the same time, announcement is made of a Prosopography of the Byzantine Empire to take up the task from the year 641. It must now be asked whether it makes sense to imagine these further "volumes" as print publications at all. A prosopographical work like this is already a hypertext database, mined with cross-references. The inconvenience of flipping between the three (really four) volumes is notable, but is something we have learned to live with in the world of print culture. But are we now to see our library budgets taxed another $300 in a few years to add a volume that will substantially complicate and encumber the use of the tool? If the volume is of any bulk at all, it will require that every user of any volume begin with the addenda and work back -- for the original volumes cannot point you forward to the yet unpublished addenda. Is not now the time for Cambridge Press to consider actively transforming the existing three volumes into an electronic database that could then be presented as an integrated whole, constantly updated and corrected? The Prosopography of the Byzantine Empire could then be not a separate work but a logical continuation of the same database, and we need not wait until a period of 100 or 150 years of entries are all complete to begin to have them posted to the existing database.

If there could be an e-PLRE, exciting new lines of inquiry could be pursued. My copy of the first volume has down the margins of every page a coded series of pencilled letters for "pagan", "Christian", "semi-pagan", "semi-Christian", "pagan then Christian", "Christian then pagan", etc. That took me weeks of assiduous reading and was a very imperfect form of analysis. With e-searching, more complicated indexing could be done by the researcher in seconds, and corroboration, cross-reference, and further refinement of questions speeded as well. Stemmata and other family members could be found in an instant; persons of dubious heritage or affiliation could be juxtaposed to several different contexts and compared. And the old boundaries between volumes would disappear. It is not reasonable to expect that the e-product would be greatly cheaper than the paper volumes. But to undertake such a project now would guarantee that this important work of reference would continue to live and to animate the ongoing transformation of late antique studies that it has done so much for already. PLRE deserves not to become a relic. Its conception was a brilliant vision; to renew that vision now would be the fairest form of tribute to those who have labored so many years to make it what it is.