Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.10.23 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.10.23

Rene Pfeilschifter, Die Spätantike: der eine Gott und die vielen Herrscher. C.H. Beck Geschichte der Antike, 6156.   München:  C.H. Beck, 2014.  Pp. 304.  ISBN 9783406660146.  €16.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Peter Van Nuffelen, Universiteit Gent (


Most histories of the ancient world now include Late Antiquity and the book under review is the last instalment of the six-volume series C.H. Beck Geschichte der Antike (but the second to be published). The series is targeted at a wide audience: written in a smooth style, with a focus on narrative, the volume has minimal notes, but there is a bibliographic section, understandably heavily geared towards German publications. The title is also due to the series’ imperatives: all volumes have a bipartite subtitle.

A brief introduction sets out the three characteristic features of the period, according to Pfeilschifter: political and social instability leading to the collapse of the state; the triumph of Christianity; and the multiplication of rulers. The subtitle is thus more than an editorial one-liner to catch the eye. The subsequent chapters discuss four sub-periods: the tetrarchy, the fourth century until the death of Theodosius I, the fifth century until the accession of Justin I, and then the sixth and seventh century until the death of Heraclius (641). A brief epilogue assesses Late Antiquity as an independent historical period and its perception (or lack thereof) today.

It is of little use to summarise each chapter individually, covering, as they do, the better-known events of the period. The narrative has two characteristic features. First, the book contains a series of overviews that consciously focus on the political and institutional narrative, giving less attention to cultural history. This happens in conscious (if not explicit) opposition to the focus on religious and cultural changes in the wake of Peter Brown’s work.1 Second, the narrative is conservative in its choices: the narrative flows from well-known episode to well-known episode, thus following the schema of the historical record provided by late ancient historians and moulded into a standard narrative by modern scholarship. The highlights hardly need rehearsing: Diocletian; the Milvian Bridge; Christian infighting; the decline of the curiales; Julian; Adrianople; the barbarian invasions and the fall of the empire; Stilicho as the undertaker of the empire; the sack of Rome in 410; the codifications; the Huns; Justinian; the decline of secular learning; Heraclius’ wars. To Pfeilschifter’s credit, it must be said that he inserts more systematic sections in the chronological narrative in which general features of the period are discussed (e.g. the decline of the city). The story is told with verve and takes into account recent scholarship, in particular in the last chapter, where Pfeilschifter draws on his habilitation.2 Nevertheless, the book remains an up-to-date version of a well-known story. As such, it is a mostly reliable guide to what could be termed the current consensus, but it does not open up new horizons.

The popular nature of the book may explain some short-cuts in the argument, an absence of diversity of opinion, and some exaggerations and oversimplifications: e.g. p. 30 where it is said that ancient moral argument does not know the idea of conflicts of interests but only notions of good and bad behaviour; p. 37: coercion in religious matters did not pose a problem to the ancient mind, as Greco-Roman religion was about performing rituals and not about belief; p. 44 the fact that Diocletian had a palace built in Split is not a reason for his abdication, it only proves that he had planned to do so; p. 49, where the emperors are characterised as gangsters; p. 65: I doubt that the number of bishops was high in relation to their flocks;3 p. 71 I fail to see why the status of Arius as a presbyter was very important in his failure to see his theses adopted; p. 78 the discussion of monastic life would have profited from drawing more clearly a distinction between organised monastic life and individual lay piety outside of strict clerical control; p. 111: the intervention in theological debate by Theodosius I does not have to mean that he believed himself inspired by God; p. 113: the assessment of religious violence under Theodosius I is too negative; p. 135: “the impact of the sack of 410 was greater than that of 9/11”; p. 178: emperors were not the only ones to decide the outcomes of church councils.

Some errors remain: p. 47: Constantine was not proclaimed Caesar but Augustus by the troops of his father; p. 85 The “homoeans” do not derive their name from the Greek term homoiousios but from homoios; p. 96-98: the account of the destruction of the Serapeion seems to be written without looking at the sources; p. 110: the narrative seems to suggest that Gregory of Nazianzus become bishop of Constantinople only at the council of 381; p. 118: in theological debates the various sides did not simply proceed on the presumption that they held the truth and wished to defend it at all costs (there is sufficient evidence for discussion and debate), see also p. 152 where the idea of the end of debate in late Antiquity is propounded.

In short, it is to be hoped that this book succeeds in increasing interest in Late Antiquity among lay readers in Germany. For scholars, there are a few nuggets here and there, but the image of Late Antiquity propounded by Pfeilschifter will surprise few of them.


1.   See e.g. S. Mitchell, A History of the Later Roman Empire. The Transformation of the Ancient World, Malden: Blackwell, 2006.
2.   R. Pfeilschifter, Der Kaiser und Konstantinopel: Kommunikation und Konfliktaustrag in einer spätantiken Metropole, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2013.
3.   See R. Van Dam, "Bishops and Clerics during the Fourth Century: Numbers and Their Implications", in: J. Leemans, P. Van Nuffelen, C. Nicolaye, S. Keough, eds., Episcopal Elections in Late Antiquity, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2011, pp. 218-242.

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