Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.09.02

John Matthews, Roman Perspectives: Studies in Political and Cultural History, from the First to the Fifth Century.   Swansea:  Classical Press of Wales, 2010.  Pp. xvi, 406.  ISBN 9781905125395.  $100.00.  



Reviewed by John F. Donahue, The College of William and Mary (jfdona@wm.edu)

[Titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Rather than gathering a collection of disparate essays, John Matthews, one of the foremost Roman historians of our generation, has carefully chosen only those topics from his long and distinguished career that will allow him to emphasize a specific theme: the “formation of the cultural perspectives within which contemporaries viewed the world in which they lived"; that is, to understand not only what our sources say, “but why they say it in the way that they do.” (viii) To be sure, this objective is immensely important to our understanding of ancient history, yet it is one that is difficult to achieve, since it requires not only a high degree of analytical sophistication but also the application of such analysis to sources that are inherently difficult to interpret. Nevertheless, the author succeeds admirably in this endeavor, with the result that the reader profits immensely from Matthews’s erudition and wide range of interests.

The volume consists of 17 essays written between 1974 and 2009. Of this total, 11 have appeared already in earlier conference proceedings and other collections but have been revised and re-published in this volume in order to make them more accessible to a wider audience. Chapters are grouped by topic in a diachronic arrangement that moves from the early Principate through the fifth century.

If we turn first to the previously published essays, we find two of them treat modern historians much admired by Matthews — Edward Gibbon, the great 18th-century historian of ancient Rome, and Ronald Syme, the most renowned ancient Roman historian of the 20th century. In “Gibbon and the Later Roman Empire: Causes and Circumstances,” (Chapter 1) Matthews cogently argues that Gibbon, although he had only literary sources at his disposal, was much more than a historian of decline; rather, he was capable of producing a work of optimism that was more attuned to historical causation and circumstances than a man of his time was expected to have or that we generally give him credit for. In “Ronald Syme, Constantine the Great and the Second Roman Revolution,” (Chapter 3) Matthews posits that Constantine could have provided another Augustus for Syme, and the subject matter for a second Roman Revolution, this time with Ammianus Marcellinus instead of Tacitus as the guide. The notion is an appealing one, especially since, as Matthews shows, the fourth century contained all of the elements that Syme found most intriguing — “civil war, dynastic upheaval, social change, systematic propaganda and the transfer of power to new groups” (49) — features, not coincidentally, that were also evident in the rise of Fascism in Europe in the 1930s during the time of Syme’s own intellectual formation.

Three additional essays focus on some of the author’s deepest interests — the political, social and cultural life of the fourth century. “Ammianus and the Eternity of Rome” (Chapter 9) argues that Amminus’ view of the urbs aeterna was closely tied to the care with which emperors and their supporters protected the empire. Matthews carefully argues that one group that Ammianus did not hold in high regard in this scheme were Christians, whose contenders for the papacy were largely concerned with the ostentation of urban life, thereby rendering themselves unworthy of the ideals of Ammianus’s Rome. In “The Letters of Symmachus” (Chapter 10) Matthews provides a nuanced rehabilitation of Symmachus as a letter writer who not only reveals much about the social, political, and diplomatic horizons of the fourth century but also provides us with a critical lens through which to observe the art of maintaining social relations in an age of change and conflict. In “Four Funerals and a Wedding: This World and the Next in Fourth-century Rome,” (Chapter 11) Matthews shows how four weddings and one funeral of fourth-century elites, both pagan and Christian, reveal much about the similarities and differences in the concept of life on earth and beyond among writers of this period. Especially noteworthy here is the author’s highly critical assessment of Jerome, one of the key sources for this topic, whom Matthews regards not as a key player in the conversion of the late Roman aristocracy but as a propagandist and self-promoter who was not above disregarding the intended meanings of a text to suit his own aims.

A final sequence of four essays takes as its theme late Roman law, another area in which Matthews has made substantial contributions during his career. Here the reader will find much of value on topics such as the challenges that Roman law pose for the historian, both in general (“Roman Law and Roman History” [Chapter 13]) and in the case of a particular author (“Ammianus on Roman Law and Lawyers” [Chapter 14]), as well as the important place of Roman law in the ‘post-Roman’ period (“Roman Law and Barbarian Identity in the Late Roman West” [Chapter 15], and “Interpreting the Interpretationes of the Breviarium of Alaric” [Chapter 16]). Among those essays appearing in this volume for the first time, one is struck at first by the diversity of Matthews’ interests. This is evident in topics that deal with the nature of power in antiquity (“Power in the Classical World — A Three-Cornered Dialogue: Thucydides, Thomas Hobbes, Tacitus” [Chapter 2]); Latin inscriptions (“A Last Will and Testament” [Chapter 6]); the historiography and prosopography of the early Empire, ("Tacitus, Acta Senatus, and the Inauguration of Tiberius” [Chapter 4]; and “Six Tales of the Equestrian Order” [Chapter 5], respectively), cartographic interpretation (“The Cultural Landscape of the Bordeaux Itinerary” [Chapter 8]); and Augustinian studies (“Children’s Games in Augustine’s Confessions” [Chapter 12]).

Of these essays, Chapters 4, 5 and 6 are especially noteworthy for underscoring the author’s theme of understanding the cultural world in which the Romans lived, with each essay treating very different, and often quite challenging, source material en route to this objective. In Chapter 4 Matthews focuses on Tacitus’ account of the senatorial meeting of September 17, 14 AD concerning the inauguration of Tiberius (Annales 1.11-15) and carefully parses the account to distinguish the actual record of the meeting (acta senatus) from the historian’s own comments on the proceedings. As Matthews admits, it is sometimes difficult to separate acta from commentary in Tacitus’ prose, yet the effort pays handsome dividends, for it allows us to see how Tacitus employed his sources and how he chronicled the decline of senatorial freedom into adulatio of the emperor by referencing the very source in which this sycophancy was first expressed.

Chapter 5 offers a refreshing sketch not of senators, whom we might expect as the typical focus of imperial-era sources, but of six equestrians, including Pliny, Columella, and Suetonius. None of this material is particularly novel, but Matthews utilizes the available literary and epigraphical sources in such a way as to produce vignettes that sharpen our understanding of social realities such as the relationship between the senatorial and equestrian orders and the interaction between provincial and Italian origins. Chapter 6 focuses on the so-called “Testament of Dasumius,” a first-century inscription which, although fragmentary, remains one of our most complete accounts of a Roman will. While the inscription raises numerous interpretative and technical challenges, Matthews provides a careful text and translation (including notes and an appendix) based on the latest scholarship and, most importantly, a commentary that argues for the provincial origins and equestrian status of the testator, who, unlike his senatorial contemporaries, shows little reluctance in advertising his multiple manumissions. This prompts Matthews to observe, quite rightly it would seem, that there is “more than a touch of Trimalchio about him.” (153)

The author is to be commended for successfully uniting these essays around a common theme and for presenting his arguments in clear and compelling prose. Indeed, this volume reveals a truly impressive level of learning, and it serves as a masterful reminder that, if we are truly to understand history and those who have recorded it for us, we must always to do so with a critical eye upon the larger cultural forces that inevitably contribute to shaping that history, however daunting that challenge may be.

Table of Contents

Preface vii
Abbreviations xv
1. Gibbon and the Later Roman Empire: Causes and Circumstances 1
2. Power in the Classical World-a Three-Cornered Dialogue: Thucydides, Thomas Hobbes, Tacitus 21
3. Ronald Syme, Constantine the Great and the Second Roman Revolution 41
4. Tacitus, Acta Senatus, and the Inauguration of Tiberius 57
5. Six Tales of the Equestrian Order 85
6. A Last Will and Testament 111
7. Travel, Diplomacy and the Diffusion of Ideas in the Roman Mediterranean and Near East 157
8. The Cultural Landscape of the Bordeaux Itinerary 181
9. Ammianus and the Eternity of Rome 201
10. The Letters of Symmachus 215
11. Four Funerals and a Wedding: This World and the Next in Fourth-Century Rome 255
12. Children’s Games in Augustine’s Confessions 275
13. Roman Law and Roman History 291
14. Ammianus on Roman Law and Lawyers 311
15. Roman Law and Barbarian Identity in the Late Roman West 327
16. Interpreting the Interpretationes of the Breviarium of Alaric 343
17. Macsen, Maximus, Constantine 361
Bibliography 379
Index 395

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