Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.10.31

Giusto Traina, 428 AD: An Ordinary Year at the End of the Roman Empire (translation of 2007 Italian edition).   Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2009.  Pp. xix, 203.  ISBN 9780691136691.  $24.95.  

Reviewed by Conor Whately, The University of Winnipeg (
Word count: 2980 words


[Table of contents is listed at the end of the review.]

The fifth century is one of the more important centuries for the history of Western Europe and the Middle East, as well as the transformation of the Roman world, and the evidence for it is notoriously varied and complex. For decades scholars of late antiquity would shy away from tackling fifth-century events, with A.H.M. Jones, for example, avowedly sticking with the extensive material from the fourth and sixth centuries. Some of this is due to the inherent difficulties in disentangling the details of the century's chronology, something complicated by the lack of an extant contemporary historical narrative. Nevertheless, scholars are now starting to fix their gaze on this neglected period, with Fergus Millar, for one, having recently drawn our attention to the rich material found in the Theodosian Code and the Acts of the Council of Chalcedon.1 Attila too, always a popular subject among non-academics, continues to harbour interest as a recent book by Chris Kelly demonstrates.2 The book under review here, 428 AD: An Ordinary Year at the End of the Roman Empire, is one of the most recent books to tackle the fifth century, and where other works have focused on more specific issues, this study offers a wide-ranging, if less-detailed, overview of the fifth-century Mediterranean world, and some of its more important people, in one particular year (428). This focus on one year is novel, though as we soon discover, Traina's choice of 428 is far from arbitrary, and more important events went on in this year than this reviewer, at least, had realized. With endnotes rather than footnotes and the style of this translation conversational, the primary audience is seemingly the general public (a bibliography is conspicuously absent): this reviewer found the book on the shelf of an ordinary, in other words non-academic, bookshop in Winnipeg. Nevertheless, the book is also likely to attract of the attention of scholars of late antiquity.

This fairly short book has eleven diminutive chapters, not including the introduction and epilogue, as well as a preface by Averil Cameron. As noted, the scope is wide-ranging, as Traina endeavours to cover as much of the Mediterranean as possible. The book is written as a pseudo-travelogue with the narrative moving from east to west, and back east again, with some glances towards the north. In the introduction, Traina, like Millar, highlights the richness and variety of the material available for investigation of the fifth century. He also admits that there was more cohesion between east and west at this time than he had expected, a confession which nevertheless paves the way for his discussion of the transformation of the ancient world.

The starting point, in chapter one, "The Travels of Flavius Dionysius and the End of Armenia", is the end of the Kingdom of Armenia, which he considers to be the most important political event of the time. This, for Traina, was a major defeat for Rome, and he frames his account with a look at the political organization of the empire at the highest levels, in the process hinting at Barnish's polycracy (p. 2), which is the notion that there was no dominant political group (military, civilian, etc.), but rather several with the individuals more important than the office itself.3 His list of the qualities needed for high-powered diplomats, such as "honesty and incorruptibility" and the suggestion that Roman military might was superior to that of their neighbour Sasanid Persia, I find a bit dubious (p. 2), for there was surely little to separate the two powers.4 On the other hand, his stressing of the complex relationship between warfare and diplomacy in the interactions between East Rome and Sasanid Persia is undoubtedly correct; his focus on this important event, which usually falls outside the register of most students of the late antique world, is refreshing, and unsurprising, perhaps, given the focus of some of Traina's past research.5

In the next chapter, "The World of Nestorius: Bishops, Monks, and Saracens", Nestorius, Theodosius II, and Antioch all feature prominently. Traina characterizes the election of the Syrian Nestorius as bishop of Constantinople as an important moment for the Christian communities in the East Roman empire, as this was meant to have strengthened ties between Constantinople and Antioch, to the advantage of the former. On the other hand, why this "constituted an important moment for the Syriac tradition" (p. 8) is not entirely clear, especially since Traina notes that Nestorius was not the first Syrian bishop of the capital. Traina describes Antioch's economic growth and prosperity during the fifth century, as well as its multicultural population, and the power of many of its officials, such as the governor of Syria and the comes Orientis. Traina also notes in this chapter the role of Christianity and the clergy in military affairs, the spreading of the worship of saints, and the popularity of heresies in frontier areas such as Edessa, which was home to a number of Arians, Manichaeans, and the doctrine of Marcion (p. 12).

In "On the Pilgrim's Road" the narrative continues its shift westwards, here with some discussion of the peoples inhabiting the landscape along the pilgrim's route through Asia Minor. Here Traina touches on the character of ancient travel as well as the Itinerarium Burdigalense, which describes this journey from Antioch to Constantinople, including the specific stages and distances. The primary focuses, however, are the warlike Isaurians and the persistence of paganism in the more isolated parts of the Roman Empire such central Asia Minor. He notes the opportunism of the former group of people: later in the century they reach the highest echelons of power. As regards the empire's religiosity he notes the state's fear of certain strands of Christianity, with Novatianism highlighted (p. 23).

Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern empire, occupies "The New Rome and Its Prince". Unlike the city of Rome, Traina notes that this capital lacked many vestiges of the empire's pre-Christian traditions, the implication being that the city was more easily able to evolve into a more visibly Christian city. Traina, perhaps conveniently, suggests a peak in building activity in 428, noting, for example, the completion of water storage tanks in 421, the Theodosian Baths in 427, as well as a number of fora, horrea, and public ovens (p. 28). Much of this chapter is concerned not only with the imperial city itself, but also with its chief occupant, Theodosius II. Traina notes the powerful influence of the empresses over his religious decisions, though he suggests that despite his reputation, among some, for being weak, he was in reality anything but, partially on the basis of his relative success in comparison to his western counterparts, and partially, somewhat paradoxically, by his decision to withdraw into the palace, so shunning active combat. For Traina it is largely his ascetic habits that garner such authority. Theodosius II's contemporary Sozomen, however, exaggerates the power of the emperor, referring to him as the ideal ruler.6

"The Anatomy of an Empire", chapter five, opens with the surprising statement "in 428, the empire was close to reunification" (p. 41). The rest of the chapter delves into this matter, with Traina suggesting that the impetus for this change was the coronation of Valentinian III. He suggests that this belief was fairly widespread. As regards the sources used, there are at least two problems. First, many of them are westerners, such as Augustine and Prosper, and one could argue that this group is in fact only concerned with the unity of the Western Empire, rather than East and West. Second, some, like Olympiodorus, are fragmentary, and so making broad claims on their underlying themes, such as "unity between East and West" (p. 43), is problematic given the incompleteness of the parts of the text that we have.

The late Republican and Imperial heart of the Roman Empire, Italy, is the focus of the next chapter, which is entitled, "From Ravenna to Nola: Italy in Transition". Traina notes that Rome was still the seat of the senate, and that the majority of its members were committed to upholding its traditions. He refers to the ever-changing fortunes of Christianity and the different forms of paganism, and the impact they had on the Italian peninsula, such as the seeming rise in religious tension (p. 57), exemplified by the assassination of a certain Pyrrhus in 428.7 The complex relationship between town and countryside features in this discussion, with some parts of the country, such as southern Italy, fairing better than others, such as the Apennine regions (p. 59ff). Traina also refers to the divergent fortunes of different parts of the country, with Ravenna growing in importance, and Rome still reeling from the Visigothic incursions.8

Generals, barbarian warlords, ethnic identity, and monks are the focus of the chapter, "Trial Runs for the Middle Ages". The interplay between "civilized" court officials and uncouth generals opens the chapter, with the identity and aspirations of the latter, with Aetius being the most notable, attracting some attention. There is a brief interlude in which Traina turns to monks, before he comes back to barbarization, generals, and the integration of non-Romans into the wider community, whether it is in Gaul or elsewhere. The ordinary character of 428 is again called into question, with Traina referring to the rise of Aetius, which includes his victory over the Franks, and to Nennius' fictitious claim that Vortigern summoned the Saxons to Britain, both of which are said to have happened in that very year. There are more points of contention in this chapter than some others, though I say this as a reviewer who has considerable interest in the subject matter discussed here. Whether the foederati, who frame much of this part of the chapter, really were a "separate social category" (p. 64) is debatable. I am also not sure that Procopius is necessarily a "chauvinist historian", at least in comparison to any other historian of antiquity. Traina also makes a passing reference to Germanus' (the subject of Constantius' Life of Saint Germanus) military education, an intriguing point which deserves further explication, given that we know so little about the training of officers.

In "Waiting for the Vandals", the year 428 is characterized, at least in part, as the calm before the storm of the great migration of the Vandals to Africa. 428 is the year of Gaiseric's accession, as well as a civil war involving the one who was, at that time, the leading man in Africa, Count Boniface, a man who was the rival of the "last of the Romans", Aetius. 428 is also the year that Augustine is said to have finished writing the City of God--which engenders some interesting remarks, including the suggestion that earthly salvation emanated from Constantinople (pp. 88)--and in which the Vandals are believed by some, or so Hydatius, to have converted to Arianism, which, Traina argues, paved the way for their invasion.9 When it did come, it would have momentous repercussions for the rest of the empire, with Italy losing its breadbasket, and so accelerate the disintegration of the Western empire. The East's second attempt to recover Africa in 468 was disastrous, while a later (536) initially successful attempt led to considerable instability. In the 420s, before the arrival of the Vandals, it is not clear whether the "empire looked on anxiously at the movement of peoples" (p. 83) quite as Traina claims, given the difficulties in communication and transportation, which were compounded by the loss of Roman military authority at sea at the end of the fourth and beginning of the fifth centuries. One could argue that Count Boniface was seen at the time as much more of a threat to Africa than the Vandals.

Egypt was often a hotbed for religious violence in late antiquity, and this issue is covered in chapter nine, "Pagans and Christians on the Nile". Traina notes that out of concerns for their safety, a number of non-Christians left Egypt for the, at the time, safer environs of Athens in Greece. Of course, a century later some of these same groups would be on the move again, though largely thanks to the closure of the Academy in 529, rather than from the fears of the same sort of violence that rocked Egypt, especially Alexandria, in the fifth century. Some of the trouble stemmed from the fact that it was the Christian bishops who were charged with dealing with religious disputes. On the other hand, Traina notes that the fifth century witnessed the flowering of Coptic literature with the language coming into its own, a process aided by the spread of Christianity. The elusive Blemmyans also merit some discussion in the chapter, with Traina noting their raids in south, and the problems this caused the soldiers and civilians who inhabited the region (pp. 100-103).

With chapter ten, "Easter in Jerusalem", Traina returns to the Near East. He notes that Easter was the most important festival for, and this was perhaps nowhere more visible than in Jerusalem, the fortunes of which had improved considerably with the Christianization of the empire. Traina also speculates that the "monasteries of Palestine contributed to the development of the economy" (p. 109), pointing to the improvement of an irrigation system in the Negev, and the presence of pilgrims. Surely there were a fair number of pilgrims in the late antique period, though we cannot quantify this traffic. Thus, positing that they had a significant impact on the regional economy is speculative at best, and regarding the volume of non-official traffic in antiquity, which we cannot quantify, I would suggest we err on the side of caution, with the numbers probably less than we might think. Local factors, such as regional stability, are likely to have played a bigger role in this economic development. Judaism also features in the chapter, with Traina noting that the position of patriarch, conveniently enough, ceased to exist before 429 (p. 113). It also seems that the Palestinian Talmud was nearing completion, if not already complete, by 428.

In the final chapter, "The Great King and the Seven Princesses", Traina returns to Sasanid Persia. In keeping with a major theme of this book--the continued unity of the empire in the face of the changes in its different regions--he states that "there was still an entity that could be defined as 'Rome'" (p. 117). With this he launches into his discussion of that other great, and unified, empire, Sasanid Iran. Theodosius II's contemporary was Bahram V, one of its greatest leaders, and under whom Traina argues Persia "experienced its period of greatest splendor". This image, like much of our information concerning Sasanid Persia, comes, largely, from later medieval works written in Arabic and Pahlavi, among others. Like his counterpart Theodosius II, Bahram V faced great challenges in this period mixed with some significant success. Armenia again fell under the Persian yoke, while there was military success against the Huns over the course of the decade, not to mention the minor conflict with Rome in 421/422. There are also legendary accounts of campaigns in India (p. 125). In closing Traina notes the relative harmony among the various religions in the Sasanid Persian Empire, which contrasts with the situation in Rome.

Traina closes his book with an epilogue in which we find the following words: "the imperial crisis and the arrival of new peoples were responsible for bringing the various and previously hidden elements of a complex and multiethnic world to the surface. The men of the fifth century appear more sensitive to this variety and this complexity, which had once been dismissed as things of marginal concern. It is true that the Mediterranean was no longer a shared geographical space. Yet, the empire left behind a clearly defined political dimension, which would continue for many generations" (p. 132). In his sweeping survey of the fifth-century Mediterranean Traina has managed to convey some of this variety and complexity. We also get some sense of this multiethnic world, with many, complementary shared identities, but which was, nevertheless, diverging politically and culturally. Traina provides us with snapshots of a number of interesting individuals, many of whom I have not mentioned in this review. To be sure, there is much that he overlooks, which is to be expected given the length of the book and the breadth of the material that he covers. On the other hand, the chapters seem to end rather abruptly, a point that hinders the unity of the book and, to a lesser degree, the strength of the argument. Although Traina is avowedly travelling round the Mediterranean, and so each chapter represents a different mansio on the tour, so to speak, I would have preferred more effort at connecting the chapters; geography aside, each chapter does not necessarily follow the next in a logical way. There are a number of points he mentions for which I think there might be other, more plausible explanations, some of which I highlighted in the paragraphs above. Plus, I am not sure that the people of the fifth century appear any more sensitive than their ancestors or descendants. Nevertheless, Traina has done the fifth century a tremendous service by describing it in such a lively and engaging style, and it is hoped that his book will help inspire research on this under-studied period.

Table of Contents

I The Travels of Flavius Dionysius and the End of Armenia
II The World of Nestorius: Bishops, Monks, and Saracens
III On the Pilgrim's Road
IV The New Rome and Its Prince
V The Anatomy of an Empire
VI From Ravenna to Nola: Italy in Transition
VII Trial Runs for the Middle Agesv
VIII Waiting for the Vandals
IX Pagans and Christians on the Nile
X Easter in Jerusalem
XI The Great King and the Seven Princesses


1.   F. Millar, A Greek Roman Empire: Power and Belief under Theodosius II (408-450) (Berkeley, 2006).
2.   C. Kelly, Attila the Hun: Barbarian Terror and the Fall of the Roman Empire (London, 2008).
3.   S. Barnish, S., A.D. Lee, and M. Whitby, "Government and Administration", in CAH 14 (Cambridge, 2000), pp. 164-206.
4.   J. Howard-Johnston, "The Two Great Powers in Late Antiquity: a Comparison," in A. Cameron (ed.), The Byzantine and Early Islamic Near East 3: States, Resources, and Armies (Princeton, 1995), pp. 157-226.
5.   "Moise de Khorène et l'Empire sassanide", in R. Gyselen (ed.), Des Indo-Grecs aux Sassanides : données pour l'histoire et la géographie historique [Res Orientales XVII], Bures-sur-Yvette 2006 [2007], pp. 158- 179; (with M.-L. Chaumont), "Les Arméniens entre l'Iran et le monde gréco-romain (Ve siècle av. J.-C.-vers 300 ap. J.-C.)", in G. Dédéyan (ed.), Histoire du peuple arménien, Privat, Toulouse, pp. 101-162.
6.   Note Sozomen's comments in the preface to his Ecclesiastical History. On Sozomen see P. van Nuffelen, Un héritage de paix et de piété: étude sur les histories ecclésiastiques de Socrate et de Sozomène (Louvain, 2004).
7.   The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire: Volume II, (Cambridge, 1980), p. 886.
8.   See also B. Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (Oxford, 2005), passim, for the fate of Italy in late antiquity.
9.   Hydatius, Chronicle, 89.

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