Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.03.39

Olivier Hekster, Rome and Its Empire, AD 193-284. Debates and Documents in Ancient History.   Edinburgh:  Edinburgh University Press, 2008.  Pp. xix, 183.  ISBN 9780748623044.  $40.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Andrew G. Scott, Hendrix College (
Word count: 1744 words

Hekster's book provides an introduction to the period AD 193-284, commonly known as one of crisis and instability. The volume is part of the Debates and Documents in Ancient History series, the goal of which is to present current evaluations of relevant issues combined with texts in translation; it is intended for "students, teachers and all those interested in the history of the Roman empire" (vii). The book is brief (86 pages of analysis, plus another 65 of primary texts in translation) and advanced readers would benefit more from Potter's recent offering.1 In this volume Hekster takes on the difficult task of looking at a complicated period of Roman history in isolation and in a brief compass and is ultimately successful in providing an adequate and thorough introduction to the major issues of the "short" third century.

The volume is divided into two parts: "Debates," which contains an introduction, five chapters, and a conclusion, and "Documents," which includes select primary sources in translation.

The introduction, "History and Narrative," stresses the general instability of the third century, the main theme of the work, and it presents as topics for subsequent chapters the attempts and failures to establish dynasties, aggression from Germanic tribes and the Sassanids, plague, and economic insecurity. The introduction also discusses the primary sources for the period in question.

The first chapter, "A Capital and its Provinces," is divided into sections that analyze the situation at Rome and in the provinces. In the first section, Hekster suggests that, whereas Rome had previously been stable (with the exception of the civil wars of 68-69), the year 193 ushered in a long period of volatility. To emphasize the instability at Rome, three hypothetical lives are presented: one man living from 150-200, the second from 200-250, and the third from 250-300. According to this analysis, which seems a bit too broad to be effective, matters got progressively worse as time went on. Turning to the provinces, Hekster cites brigandage, soldiers making demands on the local population, and fighting on the frontiers as major problems. The effect of these problems on the provinces is difficult to assess, and regions are not treated individually (most likely due to lack of space). The chapter concludes with a discussion of the fragmentation of the empire (e.g. Palmyra) and the decentralization of Rome (primarily a product of constant campaigning by the emperor).

Chapter 2 addresses the issues of "Economy, Armies, and Administration," and a brief introduction presents the agricultural and financial problems of the period, as evidenced by the decline in inscriptions, building dedications, and shipwrecks; the drop in precious metal content in coins; the disappearance of banks in the West; and indications of economic instability in Egypt. Given the scope of the book, none of these issues can be discussed in detail, and for full comprehension several (if not all) require a broader timeline than can be given. Additionally, the third century saw many problems with the military, which centered on its large pay increases and extension of privileges under the Severans. Large payouts to foreign enemies contributed to the deteriorating financial situation of the empire and perhaps affected the soldiers, who were unhappy with their pay losing value through coin debasement. Hekster stresses the importance of a "military man" as leader of the empire in the third century, a point that is further made in chapter 4. The final section in this chapter addresses "Consequences of change." With the increased demands to be on campaign, the emperor formed greater connections with military men both for his imperial staff and in local communities, at the expense of the senators.

Chapter 3 examines "Law and Citizenship," with a focus on the rise of jurists during the Severan period and the purpose and consequences of the Constitutio Antoniniana. The analysis here becomes more focused as the work moves to a more specific issue. The rise of jurists was a result of the large number of legal appeals and the need for someone to deal with them in a systematic manner (thus making it normal to have a jurist serve as one of the two praetorian prefects). Another reason for the pronounced position of jurists in this period may have been Severus' interest in law, which had a subsequent effect on the system of patronage. This discussion of jurists leads to the Constitutio Antoniniana, and the different sides of a long and complex scholarly debate are presented clearly. While Hekster first follows Dio's assertion that increased tax revenue was the main purpose for the extension of Roman citizenship, he finds this explanation insufficient, and instead suggests that the periphery of the empire had become too difficult to ignore. Appeasement of the gods, the enhancement of Roman identity, and the creation of political advantages for Caracalla were also possible reasons for the Constitutio. Consequences of the measure include many people taking the name Aurelius, in recognition that Caracalla had bestowed this new privilege on them; Roman practice being adopted; Roman law extending its reach; and there perhaps being a greater centralization of the religion of the empire around the figure of the emperor. Hekster, however, is quick to point out that local identity rarely disappeared and local law and custom often supplemented official Roman statute.

Chapter 4, "Development and Perception of Emperorship," argues that because there were so many emperors, who often ruled very briefly, from 193-284, it became difficult for the emperor to present himself as the center of society. This point is complicated by the fact that making the emperor the focal point was instrumental in keeping the empire together. The third century also witnessed an emphasis on becoming emperor through the military, though the real change was the inability of most emperors to form a dynasty. Military virtues were expressed in the imperial coinage and imagery from the same period, and the discussion of the self-presentation of the emperor leads to an analysis of his reception in the empire. The third century saw an emperor who had to be available to his subjects and who therefore spent less time at Rome. Cities still acclaimed the emperor, but had to be careful not to do so too quickly for fear of supporting an emperor who would be quickly overthrown by a foe, potentially plunging the city into disgrace. Cities' lasting desire to be named neokoros shows that they were still paying attention to the emperor. The final portion of this chapter addresses worship of the emperor. Asserting the divine aspects of being emperor remained one way for emperors to exert control, but this was complicated in the third century by the fact that emperors no longer received their own state temples; and, by the time of Maximinus, Herodian suggests that divi had lost status.

The main focus of Chapter 5 is the persecution of Christians, with a final brief section discussing the continuity of religion during the period. Martyrdom developed in the third century, as persecutions became organized and Christianity became a problem for Rome, since it forbade sacrifice to the gods. Hekster goes on to assess the measures taken by Decius and Valerian. The final section addresses "Continuity and Change in third-century religion"; it notes the rapid expansion of Christianity in the third century, along with the rise of Manichaeism and oriental cults. Finally, Hekster recognizes the continuity of traditional worship, as stressed by documents such as the Feriale Duranum.

The Conclusion has two sections. "Fragmentation and unification from 193 to 284" observes that never before were there so many emperors and usurpers in so little time, and never before had portions of the empire seceded. Religious fragmentation occurred, and outsiders gained prominence. On the other hand, unification can be seen in the fact that the emperor became more important, the sense of Romanness increased, Roman law became universal, and possibly the first steps toward a unified Roman religion were taken. The second section asks, "A third century crisis?" Here Hekster reviews modern scholarship and points out that while the third century used to be seen as a time of crisis, it is now more commonly viewed as a period of change and transformation. Some areas saw very little change, the dominant troubles had their origin in earlier ages, and Romanness did not die out in the third century, but survived well into the fourth.

Part II ("Documents") contains sources in translation (literary, epigraphic, papyrological), as well as images of coins, statues, and relief sculptures. This section shows how varied the sources for this period are and provides a good overview for the student. Readers should be advised that not all sources are included and that conflicting accounts of the same issues are seldom incorporated. Some areas could be improved here. References in Part I read, e.g. "II 16 13.7844," without a page number, and it can often be cumbersome to locate the primary source. Literary sources are often excerpted, but it is not clear when the translator is omitting large portions of the text. Inscriptions and coins do not always have a reference to where they can be found outside of this volume. Finally, the translator does not indicate the original language of the text. Despite these shortcomings, this final section is useful in that it pulls together, in translation, a wide variety of primary sources, and it should prove valuable for students and instructors.

The volume concludes with sections on "Further Reading" (very helpful in letting readers know what primary texts have not been included in Part II and in recommending modern scholarship), "Essay Questions" (helpful to student and instructor alike), and "Internet Resources."

Despite being forced to treat very large topics within this brief period of time, Hekster provides a fine overview of the problems and issues of the third century. The chronological segmentation of the Roman empire, however, raises several questions, the most obvious of which is why the years AD 193-284 should be considered a unit at all, and Hekster expresses discomfort with this division (e.g. "nor should any period really be looked at in isolation," p. 86). Numerous issues and problems of the third century had precedents in previous periods, and it is rightly pointed out that the great amount of continuity within the period of the Roman empire extended across several centuries. In all, however, this book, with its presentation of current views on important issues, selection of primary texts, and extensive citation of up-to-date scholarship, provides a good introduction to the third century.


1.   Potter, D.S. The Roman Empire at Bay, AD 180-395. Routledge 2004.

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