Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1998.11.29

Michael Grant, From Rome to Byzantium. The Fifth Century AD.   London and New York:  Routledge, 1998.  Pp. xiii, 213.  ISBN 0-415-14753-0.  

Reviewed by Mark Handley, History, University College London
Word count: 1588 words

In his Introduction Michael Grant states that his From Rome to Byzantium has a number of aims; to explain why it was that the Eastern Empire survived when the West fell; to give Asia Minor its due place in Byzantium, and the fifth century its due place in the study of history; 'to look behind the smog-corroded urban blight of the present Constantinople [sic] to locate its early soul' (p. xii); and to provide 'a series of comments on some of the situations that existed and arose' in the fifth century (p. xiii). It is fair to say that in a short book of only 140 pages of text, including epilogue and appendices, Grant has set himself a very large task.

The book fails to achieve any of these aims, except the last. There is nothing which could be termed a discussion of the 'early soul' of Byzantium, while, even according to the index, discussion of Asia Minor outside the Introduction is limited to the chapters on 'Architecture' and the 'Human and Divine Form', as well as the occasional statement on the role of the Isaurians. Grant does deal with the ending of the Roman Empire in the West, but he does it in a very second-hand and piecemeal way. There is nothing here which has not been said before, and indeed it seems that Grant himself has not decided what he thinks his answer should be. On page 34 we are told 'it is possible to make a strong case for ascribing the fall of the western empire to financial inadequacies', yet earlier on page 28 we had been told that 'once the empire was divided, the west, the weaker partner, was bound to fall', while earlier still (page 23) Grant had argued that he blames the fall 'chiefly upon pressure from the Germans along the northern frontier'. Such contradictory comments are never resolved by Grant, indeed if anything Grant seems to come down, somewhat unhelpfully, on the side of inevitability (see pages 22, 43, 44, 48). It is also disappointing that there is little in the way of discussion of the original source materials, and even less of archaeology or recent historical work.

Instead of getting that which we had been promised it is, perhaps, not overly unfair to say that From Rome to Byzantium appears to be little more than an agglomeration of lengthy quotations from modern writers which have been strung together with minimal comment. Grant himself states in the Introduction, 'I have introduced a good many quotations from modern sources' (pages xii-xiii). This is a massive understatement. The quotations are largely from earlier works by Grant himself along with Gibbon, Bury and others. The example of Chapter Three on 'Constantinople', which contains just thirty-six lines of text other than quotations is indicative. Because of this weight of quotation there is very little, if any, room for original work in this book.

The book does have quite a large number of illustrations and maps. But even these are not without their problems. The photo of Theodoric's Mausoleum at Ravenna is placed in the Appendix entitled 'Africa, Spain, Gaul'. When we turn to the maps we find a number of problems. The Map of the Western Provinces (page 6) provides a number of mysteries; why is it labelled with the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms of Mercia, Wessex and Northumbria; why are Hispania, North Africa, Italy and Britannia marked with no cities, yet Ireland is marked with a city at 'Coleraine'. Moreover, why is the city of Arles placed so far inland? There is also a city marked in northern Gaul whicb has no name attached to it. Turning to the Map of Eastern Europe (page 32), we have to wonder quite how the province of Dacia found it way so far south of the Danube, and how Nicopilis ad Istrum got so far to the east. The Map of Italy and Sicily (page 2), has another anonymous town, while the River Frigidus in northern Italy does not flow north-south as it is marked, but rather almost east-west. Inconsistency of spelling is another feature of the maps with some town and river names in Latin, while for other we have modern names. Indeed each of the six maps are riddled with errors and inconsistencies. It is unfortunate that the maps are indicative of the rest of the book.

Even the few comments we have from Grant are sometime facile in nature. Just a few examples must suffice. On page 23 we are told 'the fall of Rome remains a most historic event'; on page 68, 'the gradual collapse of paganism remains an interesting phenomenon'; on page 117, 'the taste for sarcophagi...also continued actively, and they displayed some very effective reliefs, reflecting, once again the tastes of the time'; on page 120, 'fifth-century Byzantium, was, in many aspects very different from our own culture'; and on page 146 we are told that Antioch 'was very rich, and its experts were well informed (especially about the resurrection)'.

Grant also includes some rather strange argumentation in this book. Thus in the chapter on 'Religion' Grant quotes himself to say that 'The Monks and Nuns of ancient times are in some ways less comparable to modern monks and nuns than to modern drop-outs, supporters of gurus; or others - not necessarily with any religious motivation' (page 75). He then goes on to say that Monasticism 'remained a fundamentally eastern phenomenon, so that it can hardly be blamed exclusively, for the fall of the western Empire' (page 75). Quite how monasticism could be blamed at all is never explained, yet to argue that it was restricted to the East ignores centres in Gaul such as Lerins, Arles, Vienne and Marseilles, not to mention known monasteries in North Africa, Italy and Spain. In another example on page 14 Grant argues that one of the reasons for the city of Rome's vulnerability was 'the need to import all its food', yet, on the very next page, the fact that Constantinople 'had to draw 175,200 tons of wheat yearly from Egypt' is taken as evidence for the strength and vitality of that city. As a final example it will no doubt come as a surprise to many that in the chapter on 'Literature' Grant can state that 'Since Cicero and Caesar there had been no first-class literature - until Augustine' (page 77). Scholars of Virgil will no doubt be amongst the most surprised by this statement. Other statements are also problematic, such as the argument on page 129 that the Vandals split the Mediterranean in two. The excavations at Carthage, and the widespread trade in North African pottery and amphorae argue effectively against such a view. Simple errors also appear in the book, for example on page 37 we are told that Stilicho died in AD 468, instead of 408, and on page 188, we are told that Symmachus, who died in 402, might have been 'the original source for 476 as the year of the final fall' of the western Empire.

Most of the references in the book (other than those to Michael Grant publications) are extremely outdated; we have Gibbon, Bury, Baynes, but more recent historians are few and far between. Thus when Jordanes is discussed (page 147) we do not find references to Goffart's Narrators of Barbarian History, just as when Priscus is discussed (page 190), we find no mention of Blockley's Fragmentary Classicising Historians. Many of the notes are also without page numbers, such as Chapter 1 notes 17 and 18, Chapter 3 notes 6 and 8, Chapter 4, notes 12, 18, 26, and many others. In other cases the footnote numbers do not match up with the footnotes such as notes 8 to 14 in Chapter 1, while in some cases the note bears no relation to the text such as note 2 to chapter 4. Moreover, the note to Chapter 7, note 18 (page 155) reads 'See above Ch.7, n. 18'. Another example of a severe lack of proof-reading or editing can be found in note 4 Appendix 3 which reads in part; 'Part of Italy remained in Byzantine hands until the eleventh century.tinian, there had been dissension in he Byzantine high command in Italy'. Grant provides an annotated list of fifth-century writers (pages 184-191), but the references supplied in the text are unnecessarily and almost exactly duplicated in footnotes. Even a cursory glance at this section by an editor or proof-reader would have corrected these errors.

Two final comments can be seen as further characterisation of this book. On page 36 Grant makes the argument that one of the problems with the army in the West was that it was made up of Germans, who would necessarily be unwilling to fight other Germans, while on page 119, he is able to argue that people were conscious of the landmark of the year AD 400 and the beginning of the new century, and that this created some sort of millenial expectation. The fact that AD dates would not be invented until much later by Dionysius Exiguus, and that therefore, no one was aware of the new century, does not seem to have occurred to Grant.

This is a poor book. It provides little that is not quotation, and the little is does provide is really not worth reading. However, as a book given to undergraduates to either foster a spirit of criticism, or to provide a reader of Gibbon and Bury, it may yet be seen to serve a purpose.

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