Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.03.19

Barbara Levick, Government of the Roman Empire. A Sourcebook.   London/New York:  Routledge Press, 2000.  Pp. 278.  ISBN 0-415-23237-6.  $75.00.  

Reviewed by John Aveline, Simon Fraser University & University of British Columbia (
Word count: 967 words

One of the most useful tools for the ancient historian is the sourcebook, a collection of primary source passages which serve to capture a particular era or theme. Levick's The Government of the Roman Empire: a sourcebook attempted to illustrate the administration of the first two centuries of Roman imperial government as well as the problems it faced which led to the crisis of the third century. The effort was successful enough that a second edition has been been produced fifteen years later. The current review will discuss the format of the book for those who are unfamiliar with it and then point out the changes/additions which have been made on the first edition. All references will be to the second edition and will include both the passage and page number (e.g., #32, p 38). The book is divided into twelve (12) chapters, each dealing with a different aspect of government (The Power of Rome; Structure; Force; Law; Financing; Communications, Transport and Supplies; Loyalty: the Role of the Emperor; Patronage; Assimilation; Failings; Resistance; Crisis?). Cumulatively there are 236 passages, six having been added to the first edition. Unlike many sourcebooks which have a collection of passages with, perhaps, some explanatory notes added, Levick's Government of the Roman Empire is more of a narrative with passages interspersed to illustrate each point or issue.1 Because the author's touch is so deft and the passages are allowed to demonstrate the relevant issues, this narrative never seems invasive or unnecessary. In fact, the effect is quite smooth and natural. Included in these narrative portions are explanations the author felt necessary to clarify any references in the preceding passage with which the reader may be unfamiliar. The scope of these explanations suggests that the intended audience is mainly undergraduates and non-specialists (e.g., #105, p.115 suffect consul is explained as being "substitute" consul). In fact, given the brevity of the introduction (less than two pages), there is no indication of the goals and audience of the book. It is left to the content of the book to answer these questions, something it does quite admirably. There is an index of passages cited in the back, listed alphabetically by author with a very brief description of the author and the time he wrote. There is also a select bibliography arranged by chapter. Perhaps most useful of all are the series of five maps which combine to present the Roman empire, a list of emperors with their standard names italicised and a list of weights, measures, currency and wealth. This supplementary material is phenomenally useful and not just within the context of this book. As has been noted, there have been six passages added as well as extra narrative and not just to supplement these new passages. The additions largely incorporate scholarship which has occurred during the past fifteen years, since the publication of the first edition. Two of the new passages are taken from inscriptions published after the first edition was produced (i.e., #86 (1989) and #160 (1986)). The bibliography has also been bolstered by eleven items (books and articles) which have been published after the first edition was written. Apart from this, the second edition is unchanged from the first. One oddity. Levick gives the appearance of being uninterested in the translation of the passages. In the Index of Passages, the Loeb and/or Penguin versions are cited as if the author merely reproduced them. This is, in fact, quite misleading. A quick comparison of the Penguins and Loebs with the translations provided by Levick show that the translations are entirely hers. This should be a matter of some pride as the translations are both accurate (which is vital for a sourcebook) and yet highly readable. The only quibble I could make concerns an edict of the praetorian legate, Lucius Antistius Rusticus, (#112, p.120) in which propter hiemis asperitatem annonam frumenti exarsisse is translated as "that the harshness of the winter has caused the price of grain to rocket" This rather anachronistic metaphor comes as something of a surprise. With respect to the layout of the book the following observations come to mind. While the date of each passage is given (as near as can be ascertained) at some point in the explanatory section which follows, it would have been a useful quick reference to have this information in the passage's heading. Some passages are cited somewhat inexactly, "f" being used rather than providing the end point of a passage (e.g., #57. W.H.C. Frend, JRS 46 (1956) 46ff or #23 Strabo, Geography 14, 3, 2f., p. 664f.). Occasionally the reader is left to go hunting as when MacMullen (1976) is suggested for a list of the pretenders to the Roman Empire. There is nothing to indicate that this book is listed in the bibliography under chapter 12. Where inscriptions are used, it might have useful if the ILS reference had been provided and, perhaps, even that for CIL. These points also suggest that the intended audience is not the specialist. A few typos were also noted. Tiberius is spelled Tiberiius (#148, p.159). On page 253 the reference to one of the Apuleius passages is given as #53. It is actually #52. Finally, on page 122 there is a promise of two following documents ("the two documents that follow"), but only one document, referred to in the index as a petition, follows and then the chapter ends. None of these minor matters should dissuade anyone from using this extremely valuable source text on Roman Imperial government. On the whole it is quite user-friendly and well laid out, so that it is easy to focus in on any one area (geographical or topical) of Roman government. It provides students and non-specialists with an excellent discussion of the topic and specialists with an important addition to their book-shelves.


1.   Compare, for example, N. Lewis and M. Reinhold Roman Civilization: Sourcebook, 2 vols. (Columbia University Press 1951 & 1955); Jo-Ann Shelton As the Romans did: a Sourcebook in Roman Social History (Oxford 1988); E.M. Smallwood (ed.) Documents illustrating the Principates of Nerva Trajan and Hardian (Cambridge 1966) and Documents illustrating the Principates of Gaius Claudius and Nero (Cambridge 1967); M.McCrum and A.G. Woodhead Select Documents of the Principates of the Flavian Emperors including the Year of Revolution AD 68-96 (Cambridge 1961).

Read Latest
Index for 2001
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:27:14, Friday, 03 April 2009