Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.10.24

David Rohrbacher, The Historians of Late Antiquity.   New York:  Routledge, 2002.  Pp. xxix + 394.  ISBN 0-415-20458-5.  $75.00 (hb).  ISBN 0-415-20459-3.  $22.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Paul B. Harvey, Jr., CAMS/History/Religious Studies, Pennsylvania State University (
Word count: 1267 words

We may agree on the need for an accessible, scholarly introduction in English to the historians of late antiquity reflecting the revolution in post-Constantinian studies occurring in the 1960s.1 Students and (no small audience) those classicists and historians not expert in the still-evolving field of "late antiquity", not to mention that rare beast, the "general reader" (who may be observed hesitantly sampling the "history" and "religion" offerings on the shelves of modern booksellers), lack a readable and reliable guide in English to the historical writers of the fourth and fifth centuries. Michael Grant's 1970 survey The Ancient Historians remains valuable not least because Grant concluded his discussion and analysis of the usual historiographic suspects with admirable surveys of Eusebius and Ammianus, but Grant took into account only those two historians of the Constantinian and subsequent eras.2 Albrecht Dihle has offered fair, comprehensive, and straightforward description, but minimal analysis, in his handbook of literary productions from Augustus to Justinian,3 while Averil Cameron has given us of late two very sophisticated discussions, one explicit, another implicit, of historiography in the 4th and early 5th centuries.4 These surveys and expert appraisals are valuable for the different audiences intended, but what we still need is an introduction to the topic written by a scholar informed of the full range of critical texts and modern scholarship on the surviving literary opera of well-studied and oft-translated figures such as Eusebius, Ammianus, Rufinus, Socrates, Sozomen, and Eunapius. That historiograhic/historical handbook would also comment on the significant fragmenta well-discussed by Blockley,5 in addition to introducing the reader to little-known works such as the "Origo Constantini Imperatoris".6 And to complete a portrait of the historiographic landscape of the fourth century, we also expect that handbook to sketch, if only in outline, some portrait of the epitomators and antiquarians of the age.

Rohrbacher proposes to fill this need by offering chapters on Ammianus, Aurelius Victor, Eutropius, Festus, Eunapius, Olympiodorus, Priscus, Rufinus, Sozomen, Theodoret, and Orosius. Few will quarrel with the authors R. has chosen for discussion, but some may query the absence of certain missing persons: the continuator of Aurelius Victor; the anonymous antiquarians who penned the (non-Hieronomynian) "de viris illustribus" and that odd essay, the "origo gentis Romanae".7 And then there is Eusebius himself, without whose model several of the authors treated here would surely not have written and whose "Ecclesiastical History" constitutes an subtext to much that is in this volume. While omission of the prolific historian of early Christianity might be excused by the substantial bibliography on Eusebius, readers nonetheless would have benefitted from R.'s assessment of the political bishop of Caesarea's opera not just the "Ecclesiastical History" but also his "de vita Constantini", which is of considerable historiographic (and hagiographic) significance for our understanding of what constituted historical writing in late antiquity.8

R.'s discussions of individual historians describe and fairly assess their works in terms of modern scholarship, but in attempting to locate each author fully in context, R. often gives the reader far more biographical information (and speculation) than his aim requires. For example: this reader fully concurs that to comprehend the context and reception of Orosius' "History against the Pagans" (composed, Orosius asserted, at the injunction of Augustine), we certainly do need to know how Augustine used, then ignored and (this reviewer would argue), at the end of book 22 of the "City of God", ultimately rejected tacitly Orosius' concepts of secular and divine time. But do readers require yet another rehearsal of the relationship of Rufinus to Jerome to understand better Rufinus' translation and extension of Eusebius? Readers may find it informative, moreover, to learn of Theodoret's position on the Nestorian controversy, but we are not shown how that doctrinal stance affected his historical methods.9

R.'s chapters on the individual historians constitute the foreground for a general summary chapter on "historiography", where the major topics are "Self-presentation" and "Speeches, letters, and documents". The latter topic illustrates adequately the continuity of classical rhetorical set-pieces in late antique writers, notably Ammianus, while drawing attention to the extent to which the followers of Eusebius did and did not adorn their continuations of his history with documentation (a polemical device going back, of course, to Josephus, in his "Antiquities of the Jews"). Here again the intended audience requires more information on Eusebius, particularly when, as in his summary of what Theodoret accomplished by emulating and (R. rightly urges) re-establishing Eusebian historiographic style, R. draws specific attention to Eusebius (p. 162).10 R.'s discussion of "Self-presentation" is indebted explicitly to John Marincola's Authority and Tradition in Ancient Historiography (1997); he might have enhanced his discussion of historians' authorial assertions and extended Marincola's analysis by critical inquiry of the rhetorical tropes and topoi in the prefaces of the historical works he has selected for scrutiny: these prefatorial assertions also demonstrate continuity with the past and adherence to, as well as offering examples of authorial variation within, the norms of a hallowed genre.11

R. next offers chapters on government, the Roman past, religion, barbarians, Julian the Apostate and Theodosius I. These chapters ostensibly discuss how the historians he has earlier presented address the topics of these individual chapters, but this entire section (almost half of the book) reads, in fact, as though it were a separate treatise setting out the author's own perception of fourth century history. (That observation readers may find especially applicable to R.'s discussion of ancient perceptions of Julian.) Furthermore, these "topical" chapters are not integrated with the earlier historiographical discussions as well as one might wish, although each chapter ends with a summary "Conclusion". Perhaps the intended audience should indeed be reminded that in ancient Mediterranean societies any work of history will reflect the perceptions of some member (because literate and educated) of the "elite" (p. 178), but the chapter on "The Roman Past" does not in fact incorporate substantive discussion of the historical antiquarianism of the era (as noted above), nor does R.'s seventeenth chapter on "Barbarians" sufficiently indicate (see p. 226) that modern scholarship has demonstrated well the generic-mimetic quality of (say) Ammianius and Jerome's "ethnographic" descriptions.12 This reader put aside this text regretting that these latter chapters had not been better integrated into the chapters on historians and historiography -- or reserved for another monograph.

R. is versed well in recent, pertinent bibliography; his bibliography will be a tool of utility for students of late antique historiography and history. Yet there are some surprising omissions: certain significant French and Italian studies, as well as less-obvious, but standard Anglophone editions and translations, are not brought to the reader's attention.13

R.'s "Text and translation" note for each historian considered is a valuable resource for those who consult this volume. R. cites a standard critical text and notes available translations. In several instances, however, R. refers the reader to the 19th century renderings in the oft-cited, oft-reprinted, currently available on-line compilation S(elect) L(ibrary of) P(ost-) N(icene) F(athers), but surely neophytes should be given discriminating direction. Some of those versions cited by R. are extremely precise, while others are analogous to what Rufinus did in his translation of Eusebius: paraphrase of the original, rather than precise translation.

Finally, there are a number of odd (and easily-avoidable) errata in this text, demonstrating anew that modern editorial houses demonstrably do not employ fact-checkers and proofreaders and (surprisingly) that the author's grasp of topography and chronology is not always firm.14

On balance, then, a good introduction for the neophyte in "late antique" studies, with solid bibliographies, helpful reference notes, but no particular methodological surprises or analytical stimulus. The informed reader will wish to supplement R. with other resources.


1.   We think, of course, of A.H.M. Jones' 1964 rewriting on a massive scale of J. B. Bury's 1889 History of the Later Roman Empire: A.H.M. Jones, The Later Roman Empire 284-602: a social economic and administrative survey, 2 vols. (Oxford: Blackwells, 1964; same pagination in the two-volume edition: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964). And we continue to learn from the prolific scholar Peter Brown, who introduced the Augustine of theological and doctrinal authority and debate to secular literary and historical scrutiny: Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: a biography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967; new edition: 2000).
2.   Michael Grant, The Ancient Historians (NYC: Scribner's 1970), chapters 22-23 (pp. 343-54); a more recent work by Grant, Greek and Roman Historians: Information and misinformation (New York: Routledge, 1995) is a handbook aiming at identifying and illustrating those characteristics distinguishing ancient historiography from "modern" historical writings.
3.   Albrecht Dihle, Greek and Latin Literature of the Roman Empire from Augustus to Justinian (1989; English edition, translated by Manfred Malzahn, who rendered very well the tenor of the German original: London & New York: Routledge, 1994), 422-26, 465-85.
4.   Explicitly: A. Cameron, in Cambridge Ancient History: vol. XIII: The Late Empire: A.D. 337-425. Averil Cameron and Peter Garnsey, eds. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 684-91; implicitly, A. Cameron, in Late Antiquity: a guide to the postclassical world. G.W. Bowersock, Peter Brown, and Oleg Grabar, eds. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 1-20.
5.   R.C. Blockley, The Fragmentary Classicizing Historians of the Later Roman Empire . 2 vols. (Liverpool: Cairns, 1981, 1983)
6.   The first part of the "Anonymus Valesianus": Jacques Moreau, cor. ed. Velizar Velkov, Excerpta Valesiana. (Leipzig: Teubner 1968): pars prior: 1-10. See (e.g.) T.D. Barnes, Phoenix 43 (1989), 158-61.
7.   These texts are included in the Pichlmayr & Gruendel Teubner edition of Sextus Aurelius Victor (1966).
8.   Eusebius "de vita Constantini"; see now Averil Cameron & Stuart G. Hall's fine translation with an important historical and historiographic introduction: Eusebius. Life of Constantine (1999) in the "Clarendon Ancient History Series". I draw attention here to a recent, but as yet apparently little-known, excellent translation of Eusebius' "Ecclesiastical History": Paul L. Maier, Eusebius. The Church History (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1999). For Eusebius' historiography, Robert M. Grant, Eusebius as Church Historian (Oxford, 1980), remains essential, of course to be supplemented by Timothy D. Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius (1981), and the bibliography (if not all of the essays) in Harold W. Attridge and Gohei Hata, eds., Eusebius, Christianity, and Judaism (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1992).
9.   Rufinus: see esp. Philip R. Amidon, The Church History of Rufinus of Aquileia: Books 10 and 11 (New York: Oxford, 1997).
10.   And for Theodoret, see now (a work R. could not have consulted) Theresa Urbaincznk, Theodoret of Cyrrhus: The bishop and the holy man. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002.
11.   Tore Janson, Latin Prose Prefaces: Studies in literary conventions. "Acta Universitatis Stockholmiensis-Studia Latina Stockholmiensia" 13 (1964); Elmar Herkommer, "Die Topoi in den Proömien der römischen Geschichtswerke." Tübingen dissertation, 1968.
12.   Ammianus Marcellinus 22.15.3 (Arabs), 31.2.1-11 (Huns); compare the contemporary description of "Saracens" in Jerome's "Malchus" 4f. See Brent Shaw, "'Eaters of flesh; drinkers of milk': the ancient Mediterranean ideology of the pastoral nomad," Ancient Society 13/14 (1982/83), 5-31 = Rulers, Nomads, and Christians in Roman Northern Africa (London: Variorum, 1995), ch. VI. Ammianus' description of the Huns has been frequently discussed; among the more reliable studies are W. Richter, "Die Darstellung der Hunnen bei Ammianus Marcellinus," Historia 23 (1974), 343-77; John Matthews, The Roman Empire of Ammianus (Baltimore 1989), 332-55: XIV.2: "Nomads: Huns and Saracens."
13.   For example: Orosius is perhaps best studied (but surely not studied well in the translation to which R. directs his readers) in Adolf Lippold, Aldo Bartalucci, and Gioachino Chiarini's two vol. edition, with critical text, translation, and useful (if now somewhat dated) notes, in the valuable Mondadori "Fondazione Lorenzo Valla" series of "Scrittori Greci e Latini" (Orosio. Le storie contro I pagani [1976]). The "Cistercian Studies Series" now offers a range of generally-reliable translations (no critical text), often with expert introduction and annotation. R.'s simple reference (p. 130) to R.M. Price's Theodoret: History of Monks (CSS 88 [1985]) indicates neither the historical and historiographic utility of Price's edition nor (no doubt unintentionally) reveals to the uninformed reader that Theodoret's "collection of about thirty lives of monks of the eastern desert" is exceptional for including a fair proportion of female ascetics.
14.   A mere sample: p. 93: Rufinus was born in Concordia, "a small town in northwest Italy" (no: west and south of Aquileia); Gennadius of Marseilles (active in 470) was a "near-contemporary" of Rufinus (dead in 410); p. 137: Orosius delivers a letter to Augustine in Africa, then sets out for Africa (read: Spain).

Read Latest
Index for 2002
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:28:13, Friday, 03 April 2009