Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2012.11.57 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.11.57

Lucy Grig, Gavin Kelly (ed.), Two Romes: Rome and Constantinople in Late Antiquity. Oxford studies in late antiquity.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2012.  Pp. xv, 465.  ISBN 9780199739400.  $85.00.  

Reviewed by Raymond Van Dam, University of Michigan (


The city of Rome was one of the extraordinary accomplishments of Roman imperial rule. Rome was the first city in world history to have a population of one million residents, and its population seems to have remained steady for the three centuries from Augustus to Constantine. In part this great size and its long duration were contingent on the city’s fortunate location. Increasing numbers of people moved to Rome already during the later Republic, as refugees from warfare in Italy, as displaced peasants, and as slaves, while the spoils of vast overseas conquest provided food and other resources. The migration of people and the supply of provisions could intersect so readily because the Mediterranean (and the Tiber River) provided transportation for bulk commodities. But in part too great size and its long duration were possible only because of a longstanding commitment by emperors. For centuries only emperors had the authority to underwrite the extraction of grain from provinces, its conveyance to ports in Italy, and its distribution at Rome. Great size was a consequence of political decisions, not an organic outcome of the ancient economy. Senators could not take over this burden on their own. By the later fourth century the population of Rome had dropped by almost one-half. But despite that reduction in size, during his tenure as prefect of Rome Symmachus still panicked when considering that emperors might renege on their commitment to the grain supply.

The supply of Rome was the single most important factor for creating economic integration in the Mediterranean world. After the fourth century the supply of Constantinople would play the same role in the economy of the eastern Mediterranean world. As a result, because the ancient economy was so closely linked to political power, cultural values, and social relationships, the outlandish bigness of Rome and Constantinople should be an important aspect of modern discussions of imperial politics, economy, and culture. Understanding the many meanings and significances of Rome and Constantinople raises significant questions about the best interpretive perspectives to adopt.

Two Romes is an important book, and the chapters are uniformly excellent discussions of their particular topics from the later Roman empire. Almost all the chapters adopt a very focused perspective that highlights specific moments within the cities. These chapters are not so much directly about Rome and Constantinople, as rather analyses of ancient texts about the cities, or of distinct characteristics of the cities, or of events that happened in the cities. The chapters hence offer an album of snapshots of the cities rather than an epic movie, more a series of two- dimensional skylines than three-dimensional landscapes or four-dimensional timescapes. In interpretations that rely primarily on close readings of texts, perhaps huge cities are just too big to bring into focus.

The authors and titles of all the chapters are listed below. Several ancient texts receive expert, and often compelling, new interpretations. Benet Salway suggests that the primary destination of the traveller who recorded his route in the Itinerarium Burdigalense was Constantinople, in order to conduct business with Constantine and his court. The desire to extend this trip to the Holy Land was therefore a subsequent outcome of first visiting Constantinople; Jerusalem had not been the initial destination. John Vanderspoel discusses the oration that Themistius delivered before Constantius at Rome in 357. Themistius was the spokesman for an embassy from the senate at Constantinople, and in the final section of his published oration he linked the emperor’s success to his support for the new capital. Because this connection might have seemed offensive at Rome, Vanderspoel argues that this ending was not delivered as part of the oration at Rome. Neil McLynn suggests that a canon issued by the ecclesiastical council that met at Constantinople in 381 was not meant to acknowledge the new capital’s superiority. In his perspective, because the eastern bishops had never accepted the primacy of Rome, by “awarding the bishop of Constantinople second place to Rome, they were…awarding him nothing.” These bishops were intending to neutralize the church of Constantinople, not promote its authority. Andrew Gillett highlights Claudian’s use of verse panegyrics in epic meter. His discussion nicely contrasts traditional prose panegyrics, which were addressed by the orators to the emperors or other powerful men being honored, with these new epic panegyrics, in which “the panegyrist speaks for the honorand to the audience.”

John Matthews provides an extensive commentary and translation for an administrative inventory of the buildings of Constantinople from the early fifth century. Because this inventory was somewhat similar to the regional catalogues of Rome from late antiquity, it suggests the possibility of directly comparing the physical layouts of the cities. By offering just such a comparison Bryan Ward-Perkins emphasizes how monumental construction might have reflected the opposing trajectories of the two capitals. The surviving churches at Rome from the fifth century may have been larger than those at Constantinople, but their decorative marble columns and capitals were almost all recycled from abandoned classical buildings. In contrast, the new churches at Constantinople used newly quarried marble carved in the latest styles.

Other chapters discuss the infrastructure of the cities. James Crow’s discussion of the water supply for Constantinople is a fascinating account of the underlying vulnerability of the new capital. In a city that was almost an island, fresh water was in short supply. The lengthy aqueduct completed by the emperor Valens provided water for the new districts of the city included within Constantine’s walls. But because these districts were higher than the districts of old Byzantium, any subsequent disruption in the water supply severely affected the new baths and cisterns. In 626 the Avars effectively turned off the spigot by cutting the aqueduct. Carlos Machado surveys aristocratic houses at the two capitals. At Constantinople imperial patronage shaped the urban space, but at Rome aristocrats appropriated for their own private use public building materials such as statues and decorations, public spaces such as streets, and even the public water supply. Machado also gives examples of multiresidential buildings (insulae) that were converted into large aristocratic residences. In a parenthetical remark he suggests that this trend indicates demographic decline at Rome. This observation deserves elaboration, because during the fourth century the population of Rome, based on the estimates of Jean Durliat, apparently dropped by 50 percent to a mere 500,000 residents. The old capital was emptying out.

Consideration of these longer demographic trends underscores some intriguing oddities. Mark Humphries discusses the residence of Valentinian III at Rome for most of the decade before his death in 455. Not only had the bishops of Rome not yet created a papal Rome, but bishop Leo needed the emperor’s support for his assertions of papal primacy. One way that Valentinian III demonstrated his authority was by restoring the Colosseum. Subsequently the supremo Odovacer and king Theoderic of the Ostrogoths followed his lead. The oddity is that by the early sixth century the population of Rome had fallen to perhaps 60,000 residents. By then almost the entire population could have fit into the Colosseum. The demographic collapse of Rome also affects Philippe Blaudeau’s discussion of the ecclesiastical politics among the bishops of big cities, Alexandria as well as the two capitals, during the later fifth and early sixth century. Although the bishops of Rome continued to insist on their priority, by then Rome was about one-quarter or one-third the size of Alexandria and perhaps one-tenth the size of Constantinople. This vast discrepancy in population underscores the discrepancy Blaudeau stresses between Petrine ideology and Realpolitik.

The chapters in this book now need to be integrated into discussions of bigger themes and longer transitions, not just about Rome and Constantinople, but also about capitals and big cities in other premodern empires. For Rome some complementary perspectives are already available in Rome the Cosmopolis, ed. C. Edwards and G. Woolf (2003). In this excellent book some of the chapters discuss the high mortality rates due to endemic diseases and the consequent need for constant immigration, because large premodern cities could sustain their populations only by “importing” new residents. These sorts of studies emphasize statistical modeling and the judicious use of analogies from comparative studies. In their introduction to Two Romes Lucy Grig and Gavin Kelly provide an extensive overview of the modern bibliography about the two capitals from Constantine to Justinian. Their introduction highlights the realization that with regard to economy, demography, culture, and religion, Rome and Constantinople were not just static sites. They were also deeply implicated in networks and processes of authority. From one perspective, an overseas empire was necessary to ensure the supply of these capitals: big cities could not survive without the concentration of resources. But from another perspective, rulers demonstrated their power by extracting and centralizing resources: the integration of ancient empires required the presence of big cities and their excessive demands. Future studies of Rome and Constantinople in late antiquity will want to combine the predominantly textual studies of Two Romes with the comparative and theoretical perspectives of Rome the Cosmopolis.

Authors and Chapters

1. L. Grig and G. Kelly, “Introduction: From Rome to Constantinople”
2. L. Grig, “Competing Capitals, Competing Representations: Late Antique Cityscapes in Words and Pictures.”
3. B. Ward-Perkins, “Old and New Rome Compared: The Rise of Constantinople”
4. J. Matthews, “The Notitia Urbis Constantinopolitanae
5. J. Crow, “Water and Late Antique Constantinople: ‘It would be abominable for the inhabitants of this Beautiful City to be compelled to purchase water’”
6. C. Machado, “Aristocratic Houses and the Making of Late Antique Rome and Constantinople”
7. M. Humphries, “Valentinian III and the City of Rome (425-455): Patronage, Politics, Power”
8. P. Van Nuffelen, “Playing the Ritual Game in Constantinople (379-457)”
9. R. Rees, “Bright Lights, Big City: Pacatus and the Panegyrici Latini
10. J. Vanderspoel, “A Tale of Two Cities: Themistius on Rome and Constantinople”
11. G. Kelly, “Claudian and Constantinople”
12. A. Gillett, “Epic Panegyric and Political Communication in the Fifth-Century West”
13. B. Salway, “There but Not There: Constantinople in the Itinerarium Burdigalense
14. J. Curran, “Virgilizing Christianity in Late Antique Rome”
15. N. McLynn, “‘Two Romes, Beacons of the Whole World’: Canonizing Constantinople”
16. P. Blaudeau, “Between Petrine Ideology and Realpolitik: The See of Constantinople in Roman Geo-Ecclesiology (449-536)”
17. A. Kaldellis, “From Rome to New Rome, from Empire to Nation-State: Reopening the Question of Byzantium’s Roman Identity”
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