Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.04.47

Inge Mennen, Power and Status in the Roman Empire, AD 193-284. Impact of empire, 12.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2011.  Pp. xii, 305.  ISBN 9789004203594.  $141.00.  



Reviewed by Jesper Majbom Madsen, University of Southern Denmark (majbom@hist.sdu.dk)

Table of Contents

In this book Inge Mennen offers what she calls a slightly revised version of her doctoral dissertation accepted at Radboud University and published as the 12th volume of Brill's Impact of Empire series. Let it be clear from the beginning that Mennen has written an interesting, elegant and scholarly analysis of a turbulent and complicated period of the Roman imperial administration, which will be helpful to both specialists and students at all levels. The decision to publish the thesis close to its original form works to Mennen’s advantage because the discussion of the relevant theory and the sections where terms such as power and status are defined, often cut out of other thesis publications, allow the reader to follow the detailed and well considered reasoning of the theoretical framework on which her arguments rest. Mennen’s specific aim is to explore the administration, appointment policies and social hierarchies between 193-284 CE in order to define changing status and power relations between the highest ranking representatives of imperial power at the central level (p.2).

The introduction opens with a thoughtful definition of power and status based on the works of political and social scientists. Mennen uses Robert Dahl’s definition of power as a process where one individual has power over another to make the latter do something he/she otherwise would not have done. Mennen describes how later contributions have added further to the understanding of power relations but points out that Dahl’s definition of power corresponds with the available ancient evidence and thereby offers a practical point of departure (p.6). Mennen follows Weber’s understanding of status as something based on the life-style and exclusionary practices such as marriage conventions, customs and living arrangements (pp.7-8).

From here, Mennen moves on to consider the source material, which she divides into memorial epigraphy, historiographic evidence and administrative documents. Mennen’s analysis is based on study of careers and lives of individuals, for which prosopographical research is fundamental, but she is fully aware of the merits and limitation of both the material and the methodology. For the historical account Mennen relies on the works of among others Cassius Dio, Herodian and Historia Augusta. The reader is warned that the view of Cassius Dio is influenced by his senatorial background and that his opinion of emperors and others who rose to the top was influenced by his senatorial expectations and cultural ties to Greco-Roman culture. This careful approach to Dio is no doubt justifiable and Mennen applies similar care when working with the Historia Augusta, warning the reader of the many problems attached to the use of the HA, which is described as mixture of reliable information, anecdotes, inventions and falsified stories. Mennen notes that the information in the HA should be viewed with scepticism but not rejected out of hand as some of the information on emperors and administration is confirmed by other sources (p.15). No doubt this is a methodological choice that has been used before, but it would have been both helpful and interesting if Mennen had laid out a more detailed discussion as to how and when the HA is reliable and when it should be dismissed before integrating the source in the analysis.

In chapter one, ‘The impact of crises on the position of the senatorial elite,’ Mennen discusses how the political hierarchy developed from the late 2nd to the late 3rd century. Focus is directed towards the senate’s political and military influence and how the military crises gradually led to a change in the power relation at the top of the imperial administration and in the status of senators, equestrian officers and not least in emperorship, which gradually from the middle of the century onwards went to equites with solid military careers behind them. Mennen describes how the military crises forced emperors to rely increasingly on army officers and local authority and how the pressure from outside threats kept emperors at the border surrounded by troops from the outskirts of the Empire. Consequently, Mennen argues, this development complicated the communication between senate and the military elite and thereby the emperors' capacity to legitimise their power.

Chapter two, ‘The position of the senatorial elite,’ addresses the social and political status of the senate. Here Mennen shows how senators continued to fulfil an important role in the imperial administration. Military posts were gradually re-directed to equestrian commanders but senators maintained their privileged position in Rome and Italy and held on to the non-military provinces. Once again Mennen draws on Dahl’s theories of power and provides a thoughtful discussion of the changes in both status and power which the senatorial elite had to accommodate. Chapter two is followed by a very helpful survey of the careers and family relations of senatorial elite families from the period under discussion, where Mennen not only offers the biographic information but also ties the families together.

Chapter three focuses on the high-ranking equestrians, which Mennen divides in two groups: members of the Empire’s educated elite such as jurists, sophists and other intellectuals, who in the 2nd century replaced imperial freemen as secretaries, and members of the highest level of the equestrian ordo, who assumed an increasingly important role in both the army and the civic administration. Mennen shows how the status and function of the equestrian intellectuals were closely tied to the presence of the emperor and his focus on non- military matters. Consequently, the activities of educated equites were reduced from the 230s, when the military got first priority. Equestrian military professionals, on the other hand, improved their position. Mennen shows that from the beginning of the Severan dynasty, emperors appointed provincial governors from the equestrian ordo and that in the course of the 3rd. century military professionals who had required equestrian status became increasingly influential. The development is driven by emperors’ need for qualified military expertise, pointing once again to the unstable political situation from the middle of the 3rd century. From here Mennen moves on to comment on the social status of the senatorial ordo, arguing that even though senators lost their position in the top of the military hierarchy, their social position was, if not unchanged, then at least still significant, as is suggested for example by the practice of admitting high-placed equestrian officers to the senatorial ordo.

In chapter four, ‘High-ranking military officers,’ Mennen turns to an illustrative comparison of the reigns of Septimius and Gallienus and concludes that Severus did not depend on the military elite to the same degree as Gallienus. The reason, Mennen argues, is again the difference in the military situation between the end of 2nd /beginning of the 3rd century and the reign of Gallienus in the middle of the 3rd century. Gallienus did experience a relatively peaceful period between 262 and 267, but the most significant difference between the reign of Severus and that of Gallienus was that Severus’ military engagements were both successful and geographically focussed, while Gallienus was faced with simultaneous and geographically diverse external threats. Also — and according to Mennen, perhaps more importantly — Severus had the advantage that it was he who had initiated most of the external military conflict, while Gallienus was forced to assume a more responsive strategy.

Mennen's study of the changing power and status relation between the highest level of Roman imperial administration is a well written analysis of a highly complex and methodologically challenging period, and offers a clear and coherent contribution to scholarship. Mennen draws on the available evidence and treats both the literary and epigraphic records with great care. All in all Mennen's study will be of great interest to those in the field of 3rd century imperial administration and of the period in general.

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