BMCR 1991.01.03

Roman Imperial Themes; Changes in the Roman Empire

, Roman Imperial Themes. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990. 551 pages. ISBN 0198144768.

A volume of the collected essays of a major scholar may serve a number of functions. It may prevent extra trips to the library; it may remind others of their own inadequacy, or of what they do not like in another’s work; it may even include items that have not been widely noticed. All in all, such a volume can be a good thing. In the present cases we are also provided with a chance to sit back and think about the way that the field has changed since MacMullen and Brunt began their long careers. Working in their very different ways, both have made enormous contributions to the study of the history of the Roman empire (not to mention, in B.’s case, the history of the Republic, classical Greece, and Roman intellectuals), and, looking at these two volumes, one is also struck very forcefully by the simple, though oft forgotten, point that Symmachus once made in a losing cause:

uno itinere non potest perveniri ad tam grande secretum.

M.’s style is discursive, his essays are suggestive rather than definitive, pointing the way for further research and thought. B. strikes with a sledge hammer. In each of the seventeen previously published essays reprinted here, B. seizes upon a well defined problem and wrestles it to the ground. In many cases one feels that these studies were intended to stand as the last word on a point, a feeling that is compounded by over sixty pages of very useful discussion of work that has appeared on these topics since the original publication of B.’s articles. In one case it appears that an article joined the collection to justify the inclusion of the further material—the six-page essay, “Josephus on the Social Conflicts in Roman Judaea” is accompanied by a fourteen-page discussion of Martin Goodman’s The Ruling Class of Judaea. The twenty-three-page additional note on chapter 4, B.’s “Charges of Provincial Maladministration under the Early Principate,” constitutes a fresh study of the subject, in cluding a valuable discussion of the development of the lex Julia repetundarum in the empire.

There are also some new essays (identified as such) in each author’s volume. B.’s are a study of publicani in the principate (354-432, virtually a monograph on its own) and an essay on “Roman Imperial Illusions” (433-80) that restates, at length, the view that Augustus aimed at the conquest of the world, a view that he had originally set forth in a long review of H.D. Meyer’s Die Aussenpolitik des Augustus und die augusteische Dichtung (also reprinted here). The study of the publicani is B. at his best, even though it is already in need of revision. While this book was in press the Neronian tax law of Asia was published (after much delay) in Epigraphica Anatolica 14 (1989). This document provides an enormous amount of information about the operations of the publicani from the Republic to the reign of Nero, and reveals much that is new about the relationship between this corporation and the state. “Roman Imperial Illusions” is less satisfactory, in this case, I feel, because B., having already made up his mind on the subject, has merely restated an old case without looking to any evidence that he had not already considered in 1963. New work, especially that of Claude Nicolet in Space, Geography, and Politics in the Roman Empire (Ann Arbor, 1990, and available in a French edition in 1988) has refined our knowledge of Roman ideas of geography in a way that would support B.’s argument. Other evidence, the tabula Siarensis for instance, could be adduced to help explore the tension between the ideological statements that B. discusses, and the practical application of these principles, a point that does not interest B. to any great degree. The final pages, reflecting on the crisis of the third century and the decline of the empire in the fourth, which suggest that “there are no signs of that martial spirit in the upper orders that had been manifest down to the time of Augustus” and that this had a role in the decline of the empire, will surprise most readers of Ammianus (and suggest that B. might be identifying the upper classes at Rome with the “upper orders” in the empire as a whole).

Taken as a whole, B.’s volume consists of studies of Roman interaction with the provinces, the focus of much of his work. This concentration means that a number of important papers, the study of the lex de imperio Vespasiani, the splendid article on Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations, and others on intellectual history have been omitted. I hope that these might be drawn together to form another book. We also do not get a general essay to tie things together such as the superb piece that introduces B.’s other volume of collected essays, The Fall of the Roman Republic, but what we do get is enough. The essays that are included here have long been central to the study of the empire and will long remain so.

M. includes three new contributions along with twenty-one that have been published already. The first is an essay on “An Abundance of Data in Ancient History,” which reads as an exhortation to the study of Roman social history, and places the essays that follow in an intellectual context. It may also be read as a fine response to the minimalist position taken in M.I. Finley’s Ancient History: Evidence and Models (London, 1985), and points out that we really do have a great deal to go on (much more than Finley was ever willing to admit). The second is a brief essay on “Ordinary Christians in the Later Persecutions,” stressing the importance of Christians who had avoided martyrdom for the survival of the church—a point that has recently been studied in more detail by O.P. Nicholson in his “Flight from Persecution as Imitation of Christ,”JTS 40 (1989), 48-65. The third is a long discussion of “The Historical Role of the Masses in Late Antiquity.” Here M. offers a series of “scenes” illustrating vertical power relationships between peasants and their urban patrons, between the poor and the rich in cities, between bishops and their flocks. The point that M. wants to make—that there can be no patron without a client, no bishop without a flock—may seem obvious, but it is the way that he brings his point out that makes this an important contribution. It may also be worth considering a bit further an issue that emerges from M.’s discussion. M. agrees with the common position that town and country existed in different cultural planes, but is the relationship really one of opposition, as Rostovtzeff and scholars since have argued? Or did the patronage relationships that M. sketches here work to draw peasants more closely into the urban culture, and was this something that was particularly significant in the east, where rural communities of monks played a vital role in urban doctrinal disputes? This may also lead to further thought about the impact on the rural population of different and changing patterns of urbanization throughout the empire. Did Coptic-speaking peasants, or Syriac-speaking shepherds and olive farmers have a different view of the world because of their proximity to Alexandria or Antioch than did an Isaurian or a Briton? This is an area where further examination of the archaeological record is likely to yield some interesting results.

Unlike B., who presents his essays in chronological order of composition, M. has arranged his papers according to various broader topics that have attracted his attention through the years: historical method, acculturation, art and language, religion and thought, sex and gender, social relations, groups and status. There are some real gems here, and M., who deals in questions rather than answers, has let them stand without further annotation. One criticism that can be levied against this volume as a whole is that the notes for all the articles are printed at the end, and no indication is given of the original pagination within the articles (an enormous pain for those interested in proper bibliographic form).

The approaches that the two authors take to their subject are too disparate to invite comparison. What is more important is the task that both have set themselves: to look behind the great authors and figures of the ancient world at the masses whom they described and dominated. In rereading B.’s papers, I remembered advising a student who was starting to study the history of the empire that a good thing to do in order to begin to understand how it worked was to read ten articles by Brunt. I might add that when the student wants to understand what it felt like to live in the empire, ten articles by MacMullen would be a good place to start. No historian of the Roman empire will want to be without either volume.