Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.08.01

David S. Potter, The Roman Empire at Bay, AD 180-395. Routledge History of the Ancient World.   London/New York:  Routledge, 2004.  Pp. 762.  ISBN 0-415-10058-5.  $25.00 (pb).  



Reviewed by David Engels, University of Aachen (david_engels@hotmail.com)
Word count: 3479 words

In The Roman Empire at Bay, Potter aims to offer an extensive yet readable survey of two crucial centuries of Roman history, which are generally considered as the beginning of the downfall of Roman rule over the Mediterranean. P. focuses on the structures of Roman government, the consequences of the rise of the Neo-Persian empire as a powerful rival, the intellectual circles of the Roman Empire and their often oppositional roles, and, as the last and most important feature, the ascension of Christianity to the position of leading religion. P. concentrates mainly on the internal struggles within the ruling elites and declares the inefficient centralization of power in the imperial court as a major reason for the loss of governmental efficiency that provoked the ossification of the Empire and its inability to respond spontaneously and ingeniously to the new threats challenging Roman rule.

I argue that the rise of the court bureaucracy in the early third century was at odds with earlier traditions of decentralization. Decentralized power strengthened the hands of emperors who were able to negotiate between different interest groups, avoiding, if they were successful, excessive dependence on any other class. (p. xi)

The narrative text of The Roman Empire at Bay (pp. 1-581) consists of a preface, 5 major parts, each divided into chapters and sections, and a short conclusion, enhanced by 5 maps and 17 plates. The notes to the narrative text occupy pages 582-715 and are followed by a detailed bibliography (pp. 715-751) and an index (pp. 752-762); all quotations of ancient authors are given in English translation.

The first part of the book (pp. 1-82) gives a succinct description of the shape of the Roman Empire and lays the foundation for further understanding of the complex structures of the Later Roman Empire. P. describes numerous issues, ranging from the ecology of the different regions of the Roman empire and the various legal divisions of the territory to the power structures within the governing classes and the role of the emperor. P. insists above all on Roman rule's traditional faculty of adaptation and flexibility, which on the one hand guaranteed the local communities enough liberty to deal successfully on their own with minor problems and to keep a certain amount of self-administration and independence, while on the other hand furnishing a flexible pattern of civilizatory guidelines to which the majority of provincial citizens could subscribe without losing their own cultural identity.

In part two of his work (pp. 83-214), P. describes the reshaping of the old imperial order from Commodus to Maximinus Thrax (180-225). He insists on the traditional process of the passing of imperial power from one emperor to the next, defining the classical conditions of accession to government as follows:

The stages upon which the drama was played out were three: the palace, Forum, and praetorian camp, which were separated from one another by less than a mile. [...] The security of the emperor rested upon his ability to control events in the Forum and the camp from the palace. If he failed to maintain control of events in either location, there were no institutional safeguards to prevent anything from happening. (p. 98)

This was to change during the beginning of the third century. Accession to power depended more and more heavily on local forces, whose (irregular) military support of a new emperor during the first critical days after the death of his predecessor would prove vital for the encouragement of the neighbouring legions and the establishment of a power base. P. closes this part of his book with an extra chapter on the intellectual trends of the early third century, giving a broad overview of the different literary, philosophical and rhetorical traditions of this age, whose developments were still closely defined by the influence of classical tradition, which determined even the literary style an emperor (or mostly his secretary) had to adopt in his writings. The framework of these cultural guidelines proved a successful instrument in harmonizing the different intellectual tendencies of the empire, providing one common symbolic language, to which even the Christians had to conform (sometimes rather unconsciously) but which presented at the same time a certain danger:

For all its strength, the classical tradition was also a source of great weakness. The assumption that foreign wisdom was essentially Greek did not help people understand the world at large. [...] It inhibited an ability to realize that situations that had been static for centuries were on the verge of change, and perhaps to see clearly what was happening within the empire itself. (p. 213)

It should be stressed that P.'s broad and detailed analysis of the interdependences between the new Christian thought and classical culture contrasts vividly with the lack of a general introduction to early Christianity. Of course, it should be taken into account that The Roman Empire at Bay is part of the series 'Routledge History of the Ancient World' and therefore cannot summarize extensively the development of the preceding ages without repeating the main features of other works in the series which treat the issue at length. Nevertheless, the rather abrupt chronological introduction of this and other similar issues can cause problems in the general understanding of the developments and sometimes requires much previous knowledge, which contrasts with the general aim of providing an understandable and readable introduction to the topic, evident, for example, from the very basic introduction to the main features of the empire like those of the first chapters of the book.

A rather short third part (pp. 215-298) is devoted to the failures of the Severan dynasty and the emergence of the new order of Diocletian, the longest period considered in P.'s book (225-299). The most important development of the first chapter is the rise of the Sassanid Empire and its attacks on Roman territory as a result of which the political initiative shifted from the West to the East. Here too P. gives only a brief summary of inner-Persian developments (217-225), complete enough to assure sufficient understanding of subsequent developments but unsatisfactory in itself since the fundamental differences between the Parthian rule and the Sassanid are only superficially stressed. The Sassanids forced the Romans to develop new strategies and rethink their governmental structures, which seemed too decentralized and loosely knit to withstand a compact assault on the Euphrates-front. But even if the tendency towards greater centralization and the reform of the army permitted the Empire to drive back the neo-Persian troops, it nevertheless profoundly changed the nature of Roman rule:

Greater efficiency does not necessarily mean better government. The inherent inefficiency of Antonine government allowed plenty of space for local initiative, while the diverse bureaus of government allowed space for different individuals to find a niche within the administrative apparatus. [...] The centralizing tendencies of Severan and post-Severan government, driven above all by a need for cash to pay an ever more demanding military apparatus and to fend off new enemies from outside, threatened to upset the balance of power between the central and local governments, the balance of local and imperial cultures. (pp. 239f.)

The tendency to tighten the grip of imperial power even on the local governmental level led finally to the partial dissolution of the Empire through the rise of the empire of Gauls and the expanding Syro-Arabian realm of Palmyra. This crisis could be resolved only through an even more centralized restoration of the imperial government and the destruction of the rival realms, which was mainly to be the work of Aurelian, made possible by the decline of the monarchic power of the Sassanid King of Kings after the 260's. In the coming decades the new rule assumed forms of oriental idealization which assured the emperor the necessary authority to assert his influence and allowed him to dispense with his personal presence on the various battlefields, which had proved to be a major reason for the end of a great number of third century "soldier-emperors". But paradoxically, the reunification of command and the centralization of the Empire meant the delegation of parts of the imperial power to formally designated imperial successors, thereby leading to the de facto establishment of shifting sub-realms within the Empire itself, a system culminating in the complex system of Diocletian's Tetrarchy. Other important features of this new rule were the large scale application of heavy cavalry and the ever expanding importance of the comitatus, the emperor's attendant mobile military force, in contrast to the inflexible frontier legions.

In the fourth and longest part of his survey (pp. 299-440), P. considers the age of Constantine between 299 and 337. He first gives an overview of the religious developments of this crucial era, concentrating on Manichaeism (an excellently written introduction to the main features of this often underestimated religious factor of the late imperial intellectual world), Christianity (together with Manichaeism the two groups that would soon come into conflict with the government of Diocletian), and philosophical renewals of paganism by Plotinus and Porphyry. Through a thorough analysis of the major religious writings of this period, P. shows how imperial vocabulary influenced the schemes of thinking in these communities, and also how these communities managed to transform past and present realities through their writings in order to push their own points of view:

Aside from an interest in the divine, the common thread that draws the three groups [...] together is the centrality of narrative to the definition of their positions within the Roman Empire. It is plain that there was not a great deal of sympathy between them, and that is all the more significant, as they nonetheless contended for authority using analogous presuppositions. (p. 332)

The next chapter is devoted to the attempt of reconstruction and the final collapse of the Tetrarchy between 300 and 313 after the crisis following the abdication of Diocletian. After a very extensive description of Constantine's rise to power, P. summarizes the main features of the Constantinian empire from 313 to 337. He also describes the foundation of Constantinople and stresses that the city was intended more to commemorate the supremacy of Constantine than to outdo Rome or to advertise the new imperial religion of Christianity. But in accordance with his mainly prosopographical and institutional approach to history, P. is concerned above all with the development of the main governmental structures and the situation of the aristocracy and the local elites. He insists that the Constantinian policy represented the culmination of a transfer of power from the traditional elites of the Antonine age, who were now nearly cut off from access to the emperor, to the new court-aristocrats who defined their hierarchical position only through their utility to the emperor, and no longer through their lineage. On the other hand, the centralization of the empire and the end of the process of splitting up old provincial structures into much smaller, less independent units (e.g., the size of the legions was reduced) were, paradoxically, followed by a greater tendency for governors to identify themselves with the ruled, so that an ever widening gap opened between the central and the local level of power.

As the gap closed, the lower level of government got further and further from the palace, and more opportunities opened for the ambitious officials to create patronage networks for themselves within their various areas of government. (p. 400)
The last chapter of the fourth part is devoted to the situation of Christianity in its first decades as the dominating religious feature of the Roman Empire. After comprehensive sketches of the different heresies (Donatists, Arians, Athanasians, etc.), P. stresses the political role of Christianity in the new empire and underlines that Constantine was concerned to use both Christianity and imperial traditions to assert his own power and solidify the empire. In this sense, Constantine's attitude towards non-Christians was marked by a traditional and pragmatic approach rather than by a zealous missionarism.
In a sense his handling of the internal controversies of the church mirrors his handling of the relationship between Christians and non-Christians, for just as he could insert Christian doctrine into existing practice, so too could he insert imperial government into existing structures of the church. His empire was neither polytheist nor Christian. It was both. (p. 435)

The fifth and last part of The Roman Empire at Bay (pp. 441-575) is devoted to the period between the death of Constantine and the definitive division of the Roman Empire into an eastern and a western part after the death of Theodosius the Great (337 to 395). P. first describes the aftermath of Constantine's death and the general situation of the empire and shows how the centralization of the empire, the elimination of alternative local styles of government and the new process of recruiting the army from territories beyond the frontiers had created a new understanding of "Roman-ness" associated less with personal background and more with the defense of the cultural achievements of the ancient heritage, an understanding which therefore reached even into "barbarian" lands and paradoxically led to the creation of a new class of officers and officials with interests more and more concentrated on local issues, but also made possible the later assimilation of Roman cultural features by the moving German tribes.

The chapter "The struggle for control" is largely devoted to the figures of Constantius, Julian and their immediate successors. While Constantius' edict imposing a capital penalty upon those who offered sacrifices or cultivated the images of the gods attacked the very foundations of the polytheist cults, Julian's revival of polytheism (at least according to his own, often eccentric and Christianized understanding) was not of lasting influence because his reign

was marked by catastrophic failure and appears to be of little consequence for the history of economy, social structures, art, or letters. For all that the conversion of Julian was a vastly less significant historical event than the conversion of his uncle, he struck contemporaries like Ammianus and Libanius as a vital figure in their lifetimes. [...] The champions of lost causes may often achieve greater sympathy than the victors. (p. 496)
The end of Julian's reign and his successor's peace treaty with the Persian Empire is interpreted as a sign of the end of Roman hegemony because it involved the loss of control over the security of the Empire's borders and, because of the surrender of Nisibis, the loss of Rome's hegemonic position in the Near East.

This approach continues through the last chapter, which describes the end of Rome's hegemony (not to be confused with the demise of the Roman Empire). While P. assumes that the new style of government introduced by Diocletian and Constantine did not threaten the health of the empire, he asserts that Julian's and Valens' personal failures to maintain the internal security of the empire led to the disintegration of effective imperial control. After comparing the very different careers of St. Augustine and Alaric and their respective attempts to follow contradictory definitions of Romanness, the former following his intellectual examples, the latter the ascension of German tribesmen in the imperial army, P. concludes:

Rome's loss of the ability to preserve the integrity of its boundaries marked the true end of its hegemonic position in the western world. By losing its hegemonic position, by losing the ability to control its own frontiers, by losing ability to control access to administration, the Roman state lost its ability to define what it meant to be Roman. (p. 528)

It should be mentioned here that despite some general remarks on the use of Germans in the Roman army and the career of Alaric, the important issue of the migration of German tribes into the territory of the Roman Empire is discussed in a somewhat sketchy fashion. A general introduction to the particularities of this development would have been welcome. After a description of the battle of Adrianople as the end of the eastern Roman army as an effective fighting force, P. concentrates on depicting the different emperors and their courts between 364 and 395, underlining the loss of imperial authority due to the growing importance of courtiers and high military office-holders. The ever more marked divergence of interests between the different groups like the court factions, the pagan or Christian intellectuals, the army, and the people could no longer be harmonized by the emperors, who increasingly became tools in the hands of their subordinates, and this provoked a general loss of long-term direction in Roman policy which ultimately led to the breakdown of the Western Empire and the reduction of the Eastern remnants to a powerful but no longer hegemonic regional power.

P. ends his book with a conclusion (pp. 576-581) recapping the major features of his description such as the importance of exaggerated centralization, intellectual overconfidence, fossilization of the military structures, etc.

P.'s book provides the reader with an excellent, well-structured, and compact overview of 200 years of Roman history, but there are some slightly negative points which need to be mentioned.

The reader will look in vain for a commentary on the general development of older and newer scholarly contributions to the main theme; P.'s The Roman Empire at Bay is therefore (in his main text) an authoritative narrative presentation of history, not an analysis of the (many) open questions. Dissenting scholars involved in research or arguments related to specific subjects are never explicitly mentioned and can be found only in the notes placed at the end of the book. This organization has the advantage of streamlining and simplifying the text itself, but keepss the reader from getting involved in the scholarly discussion.

A further point of criticism is the lack of a comprehensive survey of historical research on the downfall of the Roman Empire. If one considers that it is mostly this period of Roman history that motivated scholars like Montesquieu, Gibbon, Seeck or Spengler to create their own historical masterworks, and that the period of the Later Roman Empire has been one of the most controversial subjects in European historiography, it is regrettable that P. has lost the opportunity to give a general overview on the different theories concerning the downfall of the Roman Empire and to explain the reasons of his own specific approach to the topic.

The lack of introductory chapters on early Christianity, on the Parthian and Sassanid empires, and on the Germanic tribes has already been mentioned; even if the series 'Routledge History of the Ancient World' should be regarded as an attempt to sketch the complete history of antiquity and therefore logically presupposes knowledge of the previous publications, this could prove a major difficulty for a reader unacquainted with general features of Roman history of the first two centuries. This is even more disturbing as the lack of a general introduction to these features contrasts with the huge amount of information on numismatic or prosopographic questions, so that some additional chapters would not have much changed the overall size and structure of the work.

Furthermore, the "readability" of P.'s book must be mentioned. Even if it is a very well-written and readable text, the rather imposing length of the book and the already mentioned, sometimes overwhelming amount of prosopographical information on nearly every person appearing during the narrative gives the book a scope that makes it difficult to read completely. Besides, the specialist or the general reader who wants to obtain a broad general impression of the third and fourth centuries will certainly use only some chapters or these parts that he is specifically interested in rather than consulting the book as a whole.

Finally, it should be mentioned that, in my opinion, there should have been more than five maps, three of which are in any case of little use (map 1, the Mediterranean basin, is simply not recognizable; maps 3 and 5, of a part of the Balkans and of the area around Sirmium, are not detailed enough). Also, the bulk of illustrations consists nearly completely of representations of coins (from the fine collection of the author himself), so that in spite of the very good introduction of numismatic evidence into the main arguments of the book, other art-historical material is somewhat lacking. At least, a time-table with an array of the main chronological elements would have been more than welcome (but this is perhaps due to the guidelines of the Routledge series).

In spite of these minor negative points, of which only one, the lack of a general survey of old and recent research, is really disturbing, P.'s The Roman Empire at Bay is an excellently written, well-documented, clearly structured, very complete and extensive book. Extremely well furnished with numismatic and prosopographical evidence and including the latest scholarship, it cannot be ignored by future scholars of the third and fourth centuries and will certainly take the place of many previous works on the subject.

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