Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.03.25 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.03.25

Lukas de Blois, Image and Reality of Roman Imperial Power in the Third Century AD: The Impact of War. Routledge monographs in classical studies.   London; New York:  Routledge, 2018.  Pp. x, 312.  ISBN 9780815353737.  £115.00.  

Reviewed by Jane Sancinito, Oberlin College (


Whether in legal, military, political, or economic matters, there can hardly be a scholar more qualified to venture an opinion, let alone produce a definitive statement, on the situation in the third century CE than Lukas de Blois. In this volume, de Blois has carefully assembled the work of decades into a comprehensive treatment of imperial power in this challenging period, including a new and convincing argument regarding the positive influence of bureaucratization on the imperial system. The monograph is structured around notions of different kinds of power, drawing explicitly from the theoretical framework of Michael Mann.1 It considers, in turn, both the true state, and representation, of imperial power through Mann’s lenses of economic, military, political, and ideological power.

Following the introduction, chapter two, “Wars,” offers one of the best summaries, if not the best, currently available for the political and military events of this period. De Blois is careful in his use of source material and uses this chapter to establish his parameters for defining the “crisis of the third century.”2 In the chapter, de Blois maps out the crisis as a period of escalation (231-249), the crisis itself (249-268), and a time of recovery (268-284). He sees the earlier, Severan period as more stable, politically and militarily, but rightly acknowledges the changes in imperial representation and policy made by the Severan emperors.

The three chapters that follow address different sources of imperial power and form a natural trio. Chapter three assesses economic sources of power, looking most carefully at taxation, the productivity of imperial domains, mining, and coin debasement. It is perhaps in this chapter that the book most directly earns its subtitle, “the impact of war,” as de Blois addresses the decline of the empire’s tax base and agricultural productivity as a result of military events. The literary sources of this period paint a bleak picture of the state of things. Though de Blois addresses the biases of these sources to an extent in his Introduction, and more specifically in the notes, in the main text he occasionally seems over-ready to accept the reports of doom and gloom and to treat issues like attempted tax-evasion, which occurred in all periods in the Roman Empire, as particularly serious in the third century without further elaboration. 3 He is more measured in his treatment of mining and the imperial domains, for which he openly admits that our data is too insufficient to paint a full picture (p. 155). De Blois treats the infamous debasement of the century and eventual inflation accurately and with care, without blowing the matter out of proportion to the other economic challenges of the period.4

The fourth chapter, on military and political sources of imperial power, offers the strongest arguments in the book, regarding the struggle of emperors in this period to retain control of the army as it became more and more challenging to guarantee victory and adequate logistical support. His most powerful arguments follow this section and track the steady transition of political and administrative power in the empire from senators to career bureaucrats in military and government positions. In the latter case, particularly, he argues that this shift in practice became the saving grace of the Empire. He is clear that senators retained social power, and that they actually gained authority in Italy in the absence of the emperor, but argues that the professionalization of administration increased imperial stability and offered emperors more skilled and experienced candidates when they sought to appoint governors or other important officers. De Blois also makes an interesting argument that, despite increased financial liabilities and greater insecurity of the borders, locals in provincial and war-torn areas seem to have responded with displays of greater loyalty to the imperial center. He attributes their behavior to the mounting evidence that, without the empire, chaos was imminent. He rightly recognizes the paradox of such a statement (p.204), but makes a strong case for the importance of imperial unity for local populations, even as they became disenchanted with the growing burden of supplying an empire engaged in constant warfare on multiple fronts.

The fifth and final chapter turns to ideological sources of imperial power. It is here that the “image” of the title becomes literal as de Blois considers the visuals of imperial representation alongside the rhetoric of eunoia and good imperial behavior. It is also in this chapter that de Blois directly addresses the potential distance between “image and reality,” and its consequences. He covers a wide range of sources that were significant tools for developing and maintaining ideological power, including panegyrics, coin iconography and legends, imperial titles, dynastic claims, portraiture, and divine associations. He argues that while these ideological sources of power had long histories and could often be claimed with minimal effort, if the projections of ideological power did not align with reality, they could not be used to compensate for weakness in imperial power on other fronts.

De Blois concludes that there was a general decline of traditional forms of imperial power in this period, leading to, in the main, short term, stop gap solutions that had serious ramifications in the years that followed. While he sees benefits in some of the measures, in particular the increased reliance on an experienced bureaucracy and the military reforms of Gallienus, he recognizes that the overall trend was toward greater dependency on the military, which often ruled the emperor more than the emperor ruled it, particularly if the emperor could not demonstrate personal military prowess and ensure victory for his troops.

The book has a generally clear style, though the reader does occasionally get bogged down in detail. This is felt perhaps most heavily in the second chapter, where the naturally dizzying historical events are not helped by de Blois’ tendency toward long paragraphs, the publisher’s restriction of maps to the front of the volume, and the general use of chapter endnotes for citation. The latter two restrictions make the use of the book in hard copy challenging, but will prove significantly more so to those who prefer to do their reading digitally. The text is free of obvious error and the bibliography is free of major omissions.

De Blois has crafted a fascinating approach to the third century that makes the most of his undeniable expertise. The book will be of interest to any who wish to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the period, have an interest in imperial power, or to specialists in the period’s political, military, economic, or ideological history.


1.   Mann, M., The Sources of Social Power I: A History of Power from the Beginnings to AD 1760, Cambridge 1986.
2.   De Blois addresses this complex topic in his introduction (I.4 Status quaestionis). His approach mostly considers the opinions of the contemporaries as his justification for the label of “crisis,” though he duly addresses the historiography of the field, including its debts back into the 19th century. De Blois is current with the argument that rejects the notion of a widespread and comprehensive crisis (mostly supported by archaeological findings, of which, it must be admitted, de Blois makes rather limited use), but he argues in chapter two that the burdens of warfare and political upheaval elsewhere would have been partially borne by regions that were not directly in the line of fighting. Thus, he contends that, even if some areas were free of conflict and direct destruction, there were still prices to be paid for being part of an interdependent empire.
3.   This is most true with de Blois’ use of petitions and religious texts. For the former, there are several works on the social implications of legal texts that might have been useful, such as Bryen, A., Violence in Roman Egypt: A Study in Legal Interpretation, University of Pennsylvania 2013 and Connolly, S., Lives Behind the Laws: The World of the Codex Hermogenianus, Indiana University Press 2010, whom de Blois includes in his bibliography, but makes little use of. For the latter, de Blois’ reading on the state of traditional religion is undeniably correct, but there is more that might have been done with early Christian sources in this period. The view of this population on what makes a good emperor is very interesting, as would have been de Blois’ thoughts on them.
4.   That said, De Blois makes no statement about hoarding or the scale, growth, or decline of monetization in this period. The issue of debasement needs to be tied to the number of coin users and how they were using the money they had. In general, and fairly naturally for his main argument, de Blois focuses on urban situations and assumes that imperial pronouncements were met with obedience, even in a time that saw frequent usurpations. Thus, he rightly reads P. Oxy. 12, 1411 (p.161ff) as a sign that some had been rejecting imperial coinage, but does not state whether he has any reason to believe that this order was obeyed. If even some were no longer accepting coinage, but soldiers were still predominantly paid in coins, there are serious implications. Most of these would support de Blois’ overall argument of the decline in economic power experiences by the emperors of the third century, but they are not explored in this volume.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010