Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.07.31

Christian Witschel, Krise-Rezession-Stagnation? Der Westen des römischen Reiches im 3. Jahrhundert n. Chr.   Frankfurt am Main:  Marthe Clauss, 1999.  Pp. 421.  ISBN 3-934040-01-2.  

Reviewed by Michael Kulikowski, Smith College
Word count: 1125 words

This is a generally very good book, and I am in total sympathy with both its aims and its conclusions; but it does itself few favours. Because this is an unrevised German thesis, Witschel is fettered to one of the most rigid expository frameworks ever devised. We begin with many pages on the Forschungsstand, continue to many more of Quellenkritik, and are already at page 120 when we hit the substance of the book. This consists of one long chapter which traces third-century developments in three areas that W. identifies as the core-elements of the Roman world: the cities, the rural economy, and the defence of the frontier. From there we move to an equally long chapter that traces these themes province by province across the Roman West. And then we conclude with a three page Ausblick which asks whether the third century really was an epoch of Weltkrise.

One is pleased to discover that the answer is no. In fact, W.'s sets out to demonstrate that there are no good evidentiary grounds for viewing the third-century empire as a world in crisis. This is of course a very thesis-y kind of problem, and it gets a very thesis-y sort of solution, but when dealing with the third century this is no bad thing. Few historical eras have been subjected to such deterministic treatment, for so long, as has the third century. Even the most reflective scholarship tends to explain the differences between second and fourth centuries by a reflexive invocation of crisis. The tendency can be explained not just by the paucity of source material, but by the Tendenzen of the literary sources: already under the Tetrarchs the preceding era was systematically blackened, and to take our sources at their face value is like looking for an honest portrait of Richard III under the Tudors. The crisis-topoi of the ancient sources have all too often simply mutated into the crisis-topoi of modern scholarship. W. is at his best exploding the tralaticious commonplaces of standard narratives, and it is the long dominance of such commonplaces that gives this book, despite its heavy-handedness, a very genuine value.

W.'s Quellenkritik is a model of its kind, and he demonstrates how the sources generally invoked as evidence of crisis are not equipped to provide the answers we want of them. Thus the loss of the epigraphic habit obeys too varied a rhythm to correspond to a critical moment, coin hoards do not always represent desperation, and charting the construction of city walls does not help us map barbarian invasions. We know all this, of course, and W. says nothing particularly new. But he puts in one place a series of observations that repay any amount of reflection before one starts to write about the third century, or for that matter about the fifth, or the seventh, or the thirteenth. W.'s treatment of archaeological sources is likewise not new, but needs to be read by historians. As archaeologists have generally come to realize, sites cannot be excavated, dated and explained by reference to the scraps of literary evidence that happen to survive, and if dated on its own terms material evidence almost never tells us anything about histoire evenementielle. Site after site is now being re-excavated to correct old assumptions to contrary, but historians are not yet sufficiently aware of the circularity inherent in using older site reports to confirm this or that narrative event or trend attested by the literary sources. W.'s pithy statement of the problem (100-17) is an excellent corrective, and I hope it is read.

Elsewhere, one's reaction is similar. W. has read an enormous amount of material, and synthesised it in thematic chunks. The sections on both town and country are quite good, and the treatment of third-century curiales sensibly argues that changes in the self-presentation of the curial order, reflected in the decline of the epigraphic habit, do not necessarily represent a decline in enthusiasm for urban office-holding, much less for an urban way of life. The section on frontiers, by contrast, is half-hearted, as well as credulous about the Viennese dogma of 'Germanic revolution'. The sections on individual regions are a mixed lot, those on Gaul, Italy and Africa very good, those on Germany and Britain somewhat undigested.

The section on Spain, meanwhile, illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of the whole. W.'s reading is up-to-the-minute, so that the old topoi of Spanish decline (viz., Moorish raids under Marcus, proscriptions under Severus, Franks and Alamans under Gallienus and Aurelian, demonetization, desurbanización, and social malaise) beginning with a vor-Krise under Pius are missing entirely; these commonplaces dominated Spanish historiography for most of the past fifty years, and, though they live on in popular histories and textbooks, the current generation of Spanish scholars is vocal in denouncing them. W. follows their lead, and presents what is now undoubtedly the communis opinio, that Spain underwent a slow transformation from second to fourth centuries which involved a move away from industrial exports and led to a concentration of wealth in the hands of a relatively small, very rich and very largely rural, elite. Undoubtedly truer to life than the old crisis-model it replaces, this new consensus has problems all its own, which W. has not read deeply enough to recognize. Two examples will suffice. Though he is careful to acknowledge the scope of regional variation, W. never comes to grips with the fact that the valleys of the Baetis and Anas, along with the southern and eastern coasts, had always been, and remained, fundamentally different from the peninsula's interior, or with how profoundly their militarization affected the northwestern conventus within that interior. Secondly, W. seems not to realize that the new consensus is based largely on the sort of old archaeological evidence which is by its nature suspect, for the reasons he has himself outlined earlier in the book.

The Spanish example informs the final verdict, as I have no doubt that similar patterns will be spotted in the relevant places by those whose speciality lies elsewhere than mine. W. has given us a timely introduction to the ideas which now dominate their respective specialist areas, ideas which will no doubt gain universal currency before being challenged in their turn. The book is a tiring read; for a full quarter of its length footnotes occupy more space than does text. But W. does what he does with vigour and thoroughness, no one else has yet done so, and no one will need to for several years to come. I am glad this book was written, and am glad to have read it. It is a snapshot of a precise moment in scholarly time, and those of us working in that moment can all profit from the author's labours.

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