Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.6.5


François Paschoud and Joachim Szidat, Usurpationen in der Spätantike: Akten de Kolloquiums "Staatsstreich und Staatlichkeit," 6.-10. März 1996, Solothurn/Bern. Historia Einzelschriften 111. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner,1997. Pp. 174. DM 78,-. ISBN 3-515-07030-3.

Contributors: T.D. Barnes, R. Delmaire, A. Demandt, N. Duval, E. Flaig, F. Kolb, J. Martin, V. Neri, F. Paschoud, J. Szidat, and E. Zimmermann.


Reviewed by Michael Kulikowski, Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto.

Usurpationen in der Spätantike is the volume of proceedings of a colloquium on 'Staatsreich und Staatlichkeit' held at Solothurn and Bern from 6 to 10 March 1996, and contains lightly revised versions of eleven papers presented there. Egon Flaig writes on possible means of constructing a model for understanding usurpations in late antiquity, building upon his earlier work on usurpations during the Principate. Frank Kolb and Jochen Martin each present essays on conceptualising the emperor and imperial power in late antiquity. The former examines the novelties and continuities of Diocletian's reforms, while the latter offers a more synthetic approach, taking in the whole period between Diocletian and the later fifth century. Joachim Szidat argues that the Caesar Julian was not a usurper from the moment that he was acclaimed as Augustus by his troops in February 360, but rather only became a usurper in April 361 when, the senior emperor Constantius having failed to recognise him, the two came to an open break. Valerio Neri and François Paschoud discuss the literary manifestations of late antique usurpation, the first tracing the development of the equation between usurper and tyrannus in the literary sources, the latter looking at points of detail in the Historia Augusta's lives of usurping emperors. T.D. Barnes restates and builds on his earlier discussions of dynastic politics and the problems of the succession to Diocletian and Maximian in the first half-decade of the fourth century. Roland Delmaire looks at the magistrates and officials of fourth-century usurpers, and from this evidence draws conclusions about the bases of their power. Noel Duval provides a long survey of imperial residences, while Alexander Demandt offers a short interpretative essay on the limits of imperial power. Ekkart Zimmermann, finally, attempts to relate modern sociological models of government and state authority to the interaction of emperors and usurpers in the fourth century.

As the foregoing brief synopsis suggests, Usurpationen in der Spätantike is rather a mixed bag. Its shortcomings are endemic to volumes of this sort. No matter how carefully-worded a call for papers, some contributions will inevitably relate to the stated theme only tangentially. It therefore becomes the task of the editors, if the proceedings are published, to impose on the various contributions a retrospective coherence. A recent and exemplary case is the Cambridge volume on fifth-century Gaul, edited by John Drinkwater and Hugh Elton. Despite the hugely varying quality of the contributions, each was set in a plausible relationship to all the others by the diligence of editorial introduction. By these standards, the present volume fares rather poorly, and Szidat's attempt to relate the various contributions to one another in a brief introduction is very perfunctory. We should in fairness note, however, that the Cambridge volume took more than three years to get from conference to print, while the present work took well under a year. Its contents, then, are nothing if not current.

That being said, some are also better than others. In a brief review, one can hardly do justice to the varied topics covered by the contributors, but some of the papers are more in keeping with the volume's title than others. Neither Demandt nor Kolb has very much to say on the subject of usurpation, and Demandt in particular says nothing he has not already said in his volume on Der Spätantike. Duval's essentially archaeological survey is perhaps the least relevant to the volume's stated concerns, though as a bibliographical guide to the problem of fourth-century imperial residences it should prove very useful. immermann's 'Der Staatsreich und seine politischen und gesellschaftlichen Voraussetzungen', as the editors themselves recognise somewhat apologetically (p. 13), illustrates that theoretical models derived from eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century history shed very little light on the problems of fourth-century politics. By contrast, Szidat, Barnes, Paschoud, Neri, and Delmaire all offer detailed treatments of specific topics which will be of real value to those with special interest in them. Before turning to the individual contributions, however, we may take note of two general points.

The first is the intense preoccupation of most of the German contributions with points of constitutional theory. Kolb, Martin, and to a lesser extent Demandt, expend a good deal of energy on attempting to define the nature of imperial authority and legitimacy, and therefore by contrast usurpation, in universally applicable terms which can take into account the very diverse evidence of our sources. Flaig shows precisely the same tendency in arguing that in fact no universal principles of legitimacy or authority can be derived from the extant evidence. By contrast with these papers, the French and Italian contributions (and also Szidat on Julian) show a very pragmatic approach to constitutional problems, taking each case of usurpation on its own terms and reading it in the context of contemporary events. Neither approach is necessarily better than the other, but the juxtaposition of the different national styles of scholarship is certainly interesting.

A second point, however, is rather more problematical. Many of the contributors link the observable diminution of imperial power from the end of the fourth century onwards to the rise of 'Germanic' generals and a presumed germanisation of the army. The interaction of Arbogast and Valentinian II is, understandably enough perhaps, taken as a symbolic illustration of this trend. Now, there can be no doubt that some emperors in the later fourth and fifth centuries had ceded the means of ruling to their magistri militum and patricii, but this had nothing to do with their being Germans. Regardless of their names, these generals were Roman, participating in Roman politics as members of a Roman elite. A large body of recent work in English has shown as much, while other studies have rightly emphasised the essentially deracine character of the imperial army and the fluidity of ethnic identification and self-identification in the period. The germanisation of the fourth-century army is a very dubious proposition, and it is somewhat disturbing to see the sharp nineteenth-century dichotomy between Germanitas and Romanitas still being used as an explanatory category for anything at all, let alone for the collapse of the western empire.

Despite this reservation, there is much of value in the volume. We may single out in the first place the first essay in the book, Egon Flaig's 'Für eine konzeptionalisierung der Usurpation im spätrömischen Reich', which extends into the fourth century the arguments of his Den Kaiser herausfordern (Frankfurt, 1992). These are essentially that the Roman empire was from the time of Augustus an 'Akzeptanz-System', that is to say a constitutionally indefinite entity, in which the power and legitimacy of an emperor rested on, if not the support, then at least the acquiescence of the politically significant power-groups in society. The main thrust of this argument is to deny the existence of a dynastic principle at Rome, and one need not agree with Flaig's conclusions to find the points worth raising; the effect is to impose sharper conceptual efforts on those who think that dynastic sentiment played a decisive role even in the politics of the Tetrarchy, let alone later in the fourth and fifth centuries. Flaig also emphasises the change in the nature of usurpation between the third and fourth centuries, that is, that while, before Diocletian, a usurper had to challenge, defeat, and replace a reigning emperor, afterwards he had only to win support in one region and then be accepted as an equal of the reigning emperor(s).

This observation is not especially novel. It is, however, important, and also the most significant structural fact about the government of the fourth-century empire. As such, it plays a role in the way most of the essays in this volume understand the usurpations they discuss. Martin's article, 'Das Kaisertum in der Spätantike', is noteworthy in this respect, synthetic where Flaig's is polemical. Martin surveys the ways in which imperial power was understood in late antiquity, and therefore the ways in which it was transferred and challenged. He rightly notes the undercurrents of dynastic prerogative in succession politics (pp. 48-9), which he sees as one of the criteria of legitimacy in an emperor, but also emphasises the crucial importance of acceptance into the imperial college by the senior reigning Augustus. Going further chronologically than most of the other contributors, Martin goes on to discuss the way in which orthodoxy became an important factor in the legitimation of emperors at Constantinople in the fifth and sixth centuries.

We may, finally, cite Delmaire's 'Les usurpateurs du Bas-Empire et le recrutement des fonctionaires' as the most generally useful contribution to the volume. He systematically examines each of the century's usurpations, from Maxentius, through Magnentius, Julian, Procopius, Magnus Maximus, and Eugenius, to Constantine III and Jovinus, and lays out the evidence for the officials they are known to have appointed to positions in their governments. In tabular form, he shows the offices each appointee held before participating in the usurper's government, posts held under the usurper, and the fate suffered after the usurper's defeat. This is a revealing exercise. First, Delmaire's tables emphasise how few supporters of each usurper our sources record, and how little we know of them as individuals. By bringing home the limits of our knowledge, this should have the salutary effect of curbing excessive generalisation about usurpers' governments. Furthermore, while recognising the statistically valueless size of his sample, Delmaire's evidence suggests first that usurpations generally rested on the middling levels of the imperial hierarchy because the risks of failure were too high for the upper echelons, and second that these risks were primarily those of confiscation and exile because wholesale vengeance against a defeated usurper's officials was unknown.

If Delmaire's paper is the most useful in the volume, that is not to deny the worth of many of the others. Szidat on Julian presents a wholly convincing case, echoing in its specific observations on legitimacy and authority many points made in Martin's wider-ranging synthesis. Neri's lexical study of the term tyrannus is, one imagines, definitive, and also interesting for its own sake, while Paschoud's insights into the fictional usurpers of the Historia Augusta will be useful for those concerned with that text. These studies, however good, are very specific and of uncertain value to non-specialists. The book as a whole lacks coherence, and no individual scholar is likely to want every article it contains. For libraries, it is a necessary acquisition, given the quality of some of its contents. For private scholars, however, it is an expensive luxury of very moderate utility.