Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.06.34

Fergus Millar, A Greek Roman Empire. Power and Belief under Theodosius II (408-450). Sather Classical Lectures, 64.   Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2006.  Pp. xxvi, 279.  ISBN 978-0-520-25391-9.  $24.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Edward Luttwak, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, DC (
Word count: 1487 words

This valuable work by an eminent author is not a history of the long and eventful reign of Theodosius II. It is primarily a cultural study of the emergence of the distinctive Greek-speaking polity ruled from Constantinople that would be described as "Byzantine" more than a millennium later. It began with a mere accident: the Roman empire was conjointly ruled by three augusti until 17 January 395, and when Theodosius I died his son Honorius simply continued to rule as before from Italy, while his other son Arcadius did the same from Constantinople. The territorial demarcation--which followed Diocletian's earlier division in simply bisecting the Mediterranean basin--was purely a matter of administrative convenience. That laws issued in the name of one augustus were valid throughout the empire was merely the formal affirmation of a political unity whose continuation was taken for granted and which was a very great strategic asset, for it allowed imperial forces to act conjointly against separate enemies.

Only language and the associated literature separated East and West and then only to a degree: while many other languages were also spoken, Latin was the only official language in all the provinces ruled from Italy, while Greek was the language of public affairs as well as of most though not all educated speech in the provinces ruled from Constantinople--except for some of the Balkan provinces. Originally brought by legionary garrisons, Latin prevailed in Praevalitana, Epirus Nova, and, less definitively, Moesia Prima and Dacia Ripensis. In the time of Theodosius II and for one more century after it, Latin remained the legal language--that is of the emperor's letters to his officials (or very rarely to the people or the senate) that contained introductory explanations, sundry orders and threats of punishment, which were then called constitutiones and that we take for "laws", though such (leges) did exist in our contemporary sense as well, in the form of decrees publicly presented. Latin was retained in the constitutiones until the later legislation of Justinian. It was not until after 534 that his new laws (novellae) were issued in Greek but by then Latin was only a hallowed remnant in a Greek state, even though Justinian himself was born a Latin speaker.

Millar begins with the societal and political interaction of the two languages. Their literary cultures had long been distinct in a very asymmetrical fashion: while in happier times Latin-speaking elites had included admirers of Homer, the Greeks steadfastly ignored Virgil. As literacy waned in the West, both pagan writings (notably histories) and a great mass of theological and more especially Christological Greek writings persisted and even flourished in the East, along with some Coptic and Syriac hagiographies and chronicles. That any metropolitan use of Greek disappeared in the West (Greek-speaking enclaves long lingered in remote southern Italy) while any comfortable use of Latin waned in the East (it was still taught in law schools) complicated enormously the doctrinal debates of the Church. Their "rhetoric of persuasion" was necessarily resistant to translation. That there was infinitely more to the Christological controversies than over-subtle verbal distinctions is proven by that very fact: even larger differences than those which fractured Constantinople from Alexandria and Antioch, and would much later fatally divide Rome and Constantinople could have been "lost in translation ", had there not been fundamental disagreements about the very nature of Christianity.

Millar's next chapter ("Security and Insecurity") is not a potted history of the manifold vicissitudes in which the West was submerged while the East survived, in which the different responses of each side to Attila's Huns played a very large role (indeed in a forthcoming book I argue that an entire new strategy originally emerged from their successful deflection). Instead there is a brief structural overview shaped by a skeptical but possibly insufficiently skeptical view of the Notitia Dignitatum. The dubious computation of 300,000 troops is rehearsed once more, followed by a brief overview of relations between Theodosius and his tottering relatives in the West afflicted by both invaders and usurpers, and a survey of the different Eastern frontiers and the threats facing each. The East certainly did not lack for them. The nomads of northern Africa were not a strategic threat but they did damage the prosperity of Libya and Egypt. M. is not trying to write a military history but rather to illustrate the governance of the empire at a time when bishops were increasingly assuming secular responsibilities to supplement overburdened imperial officials and replace decayed local government. He makes excellent use of the evidence of the letters of Synesius, magnate by birth and bishop by duty of Ptolemais in Cyrene, to evoke a "vivid picture of...[the] complex relations between the cities, the civil governor (praeses), the Dux, and the Church...on the one hand, and their tribal enemies on the other" (p. 60). Millar goes on to cite a letter of c. 410/11 addressed to Anysius, dux Libyarum that asks him to consider the urgent needs and great merits of a locally deployed force. As it happens, the page that would have listed the units of the dux Libyarum is missing from all manuscripts of the Notitia Dignitatum, so the letter of Synesius should complement the detailed lists for the other duces that was used to compute the aforementioned troop total of 300,000. But alas it cannot, for the force that Synesius deemed so, the mounted and probably Hunnish Unnigardae, numbered only forty yet "they gained the greatest and most glorious victories"; Synesius appeals to the emperor to send another 160. In a rare lapse, Millar fails to relate these actual numbers to the baseless Notitia Dignitatum computations that simply assume strengths of 500 and 1,000 for different types of formations which may have had 12 or 120 or less probably 1,200 for all we know.

The Sasanids were the greatest strategic threat as the empire's only rival of comparable advancement--e.g. they could raise, equip, feed and deploy thousands of elaborately armored cavalrymen--and they were assisted by Bedouin auxiliaries, against whom the empire's own Bedouin auxiliaries, especially and significantly converts to Christianity, were the most effective answer. It was the very good fortune of the empire at the time that the otherwise aggressive Sasanids were mostly quiescent.

So the salient threat was on the Danube frontier. Had it collapsed as the Rhine frontier did, the eastern empire would most likely have collapsed as well. Instead the Danube frontier was ultimately restored in spite of deep and dangerous incursions by the Huns.

Under the heading of "Integration and Diversity" M. focuses on the question of language, the transition from "dual lingualism", a not altogether elegant neologism for the concurrence of Latin and Greek in different parts of the empire. It was not only in the State that Latin was anchored but also in the Church, though not in the East. For that at least we have precise information from the acta ("non-verbatim summaries" in US bureaucratese) of three contemporary church councils summoned by the augustus in Constantinople. The language in which each bishop spoke is noted in the acta, and almost all spoke Greek because few Western bishops could travel so far in such perilous times. In the two councils at Ephesus the monophysite Christology prevailed while in the third, held at Chalcedon in 451 a year after the death of Theodosius, a Trinitarian compromise prevailed but the Christians of Syria and Egypt closest to pure Jewish monotheism would accept no compromise. Again M. is no ecclesiastical historian, and it is secular evidence that he extracts from the acta (on whose use by historians Millar offers guidance in an appendix).

That leads to a strong chapter on relations between Church and State. Millar depicts the emergence of the conventions that governed relations between emperor and patriarch, shaped at a time of fierce controversy within the church, amidst the increasing persecution of heretics, Samaritans and Jews. Because of the assertion of imperial authority within the church, fractures within Christianity emerged at this time at the very center, not in remote peripheries: Nestorian Christians would find refuge as far as China, but Nestorius was Patriarch of Constantinople before being branded a heresiarch.

In the concluding "Persuasion, Influence, and Power" Millar deploys the scant evidence to reconstruct persuasively the functioning of the court as a governing mechanism, duly mentioning the sometime de facto chief minister Chrysaphius, cowardly eunuch and appeaser in Gibbon, evil eunuch and extortionist to the churchmen, intriguer eunuch and loser in Priskos of Panium, but significantly with the rank of spatharius (swordsman bodyguard) rather than a bedroom (cubiculum) rank, and likely inventor of the winning strategy that deflected Attila westward and would deflect many a danger in subsequent centuries.

M.'s approach is not only strictly documentary but almost philological; there is no stretching of the evidence nor lengthening of it with plausible inference, futile remedies that not all avoid so rigorously. And the text is very well written.

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