BMCR 2000.04.16

The Collapse and Recovery of the Roman Empire

, The collapse and recovery of the Roman Empire. London and New York: Routledge, 1999. xviii, 121 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm. ISBN 041517323X. $30.00/£20.00.

In 1968 Michael Grant gave up his position as Vice Chancellor of Queen’s University, Belfast to devote himself to writing full-time about the ancient world, “an inexhaustible theme” (p. 94). The outcome has been huge 21 books are cited in the Bibliography of this present work. Generations of students have good cause to be grateful for his translation of Tacitus’ Annals for Penguin (1956) while his readable biographies have brought Alexander, Caesar, Cleopatra, Herod and Constantine to wider audiences. There are also his specialist works on coinage, and in 1988 the three large volumes of Civilization of the Ancient Mediterranean (edited with Rachel Kitzinger) provided a huge range of concise essays on important aspects of Classical Antiquity. Few scholars have done more to bring readable and reliable books both to the academic world and the great reservoir of those interested in the period. Sadly the present book is not a worthy successor to this immense endeavour.

Grant had already straddled the theme of his newest book in volumes devoted to The Antonines (1994), The Severans (1996) and The Emperor Constantine (1993) as well as The Climax of Rome (1968). Now he has turned directly to the crisis of the Roman Empire in the 3rd century. The crisis, survival and recovery of the Empire is certainly important — “one of the most remarkable phenomena in human history” (p. 67) though surely not “one of the miracles of history” (p. xvii and “miracle” elsewhere). Between 235 and 284 no dynasty was able to establish itself, emperors came and went with great rapidity, and usurpers some known to us only from their names on coins sprang up on all sides. Great wars were waged on two or more fronts simultaneously and foreign armies regularly penetrated into not just the frontier provinces but the “unarmed” ones beyond. Cities that had seldom seen a Roman army for generations were captured and sacked even Athens and Antioch — while Rome itself was hastily provided with the walls it had not needed for four centuries. An emperor (Decius) was killed in battle (251) and a few years later another (Valerian) was defeated and led into captivity in Persia (260). Emperors seemed unequal to their task of repelling foreign foes. Civil wars were common and in the 260s usurpers in West and East seized control of large areas to create a Gallic empire and an eastern one for over a decade. Major territories were abandoned under military pressure (the Agri Decumates and Dacia) and huge numbers of barbarians were settled within the empire. The currency collapsed and desperate rulers, legitimate emperors and usurpers alike, demanded increased payments in money and kind to finance the wars.

The empire did recover, a new method of transmitting power was devised, internal unity and order was restored, most of the frontiers were reconstructed and in the East were even pushed forward. The currency was reformed and restored, cities recovered and the 4th century witnessed many signs of widespread prosperity.

But all was not as it had been. The long years of upheaval, war and crisis had caused ruptures in the threads that bound the early 3rd century to its classical past. Augustus or even C. Marius would have found many things in the empire of Diocletian, Constantine and Theodosius that were familiar and much to impress. But much, too, that had changed and would have seemed at odds with the Graeco-Roman culture of earlier centuries and the institutions of the Early Empire: changes in the army and bureaucracy, the peoples beyond the frontiers, the character of the cities and of the aristocracies everywhere, the eastwards political and cultural shift, costume, society, and, above all perhaps, the place of Christianity. Traditionally the 3rd century crisis has been held responsible for many of the changes.

A 4th century Polybius might have asked who would not want to know by what means and how so seemingly powerful and rich an empire, established and sturdy political and social system, and centuries-old culture, had suffered such calamities and so suddenly been taken to the brink of disaster. We should all want to know the roots of this great crisis, the dynamics of the period, the changes and the extent to which the world of Late Antiquity was a break from its Classical past.

This is a fascinating theme and richly deserving of closer scrutiny than it receives in a subject dominated by the period documented by Cicero and Tacitus. The Classical legacy still around us is in part what emerged from the 3rd century crisis while the world of the Middle Ages and later was very much the product of the Late Antique Christian Roman Empire that emerged in the 4th century. How satisfactory is Grant at recounting, exploring and explaining it all and putting it in context?

The book is disappointing; indeed it is baffling in many places and one wonders if it was submitted to an external reader. First it is very short: 87 pages of text and notes (excluding photographs and maps) — about 35,000 words. The organisation is poor and coverage uneven. Almost as an afterthought, it seems, it was felt necessary to explain what the world was that almost collapsed — provided at the end as an appendix (“The Greek and Roman civilizations that were now collapsing”). This appendix is no less than 30 pages in length (including a page and a half of illustrations), a third of the book. In contrast, the core of the book consists of ten chapters split into three parts and an epilogue. These range in length (inclusive of illustrations) from less than 2 pages to 13.

Even more notable is how the story is presented. Grant explains in the Introduction (p. xvii) that he has “not been afraid to quote” from other scholars even to an extent that might raise a charge of “patchwork or pastiche“, “But I have done so on purpose, because … it would be too egotistical to suppose that no one had written about the period at all, or to any purpose.” The result is often bizarre. Many chapters consist of little more than successive lengthy passages from these “other scholars” — not least Grant himself: all but eight lines of the 4 pages that make up ch. 5 (pp. 35-38) consist of quotations from Grant’s own publications. Many others are from very general books (e.g. Scherer’s Marvels of Ancient Rome and Dudley’s The Romans) rather than the specialist monographs and articles one might have expected. Elsewhere the equally lengthy quotations are drawn in many cases from entries in the 2nd and, in particular, 3rd edition of The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Indeed, chapters 1 and 4 might almost be said to have been written by J. F. Drinkwater. Excellent, concise summaries as these may be, one wonders if Grant could himself not have written a suitable summary as a piece of continuous prose.

The notes are quite extensive and often add a great deal which should have been in the main text. Unfortunately, however, they are often also simply a confusing mass of additional facts of doubtful use to any reader. Some items are baffling: p. 104 n. 2 tells us that “A.H. Armstrong, who studied Plotinus, died in 1997” though nothing by A is in the Bibliography.

The cover refers to the “lavish illustrations”. There are seven maps at the front ranging from one of “The Roman Provinces”, through five of parts of the empire, to a seventh of “The Administrative Dioceses of Diocletian”. In general the selection of material for Maps 2-6 is hard to explain. All could have made better use of what is already a smaller than usual page size. In detail: Map 1 – Syria Palaestina did not run so far east, to separate Syria and Arabia (and the latter was never called “Arabia Nabataea”). We are not told what date in the Roman Empire is intended; as the book is about the 3rd c, Britain and Syria should be divided, and where is Mesopotamia? Map 2 – Gallia etc but then Spain rather than Hispania. Why are Carpi and Burgundians located inside the empire? Map 3 – Gallia Cisalpina is an anachronism. Map 4 – scale wrong. The scales could have been more standardized throughout. Map 6, “Persian Empire”, is printed across the northern part of the province of Syria. Map 7 – Hispanae instead of Hispaniae; Augusta Trevivorum instead of Treverorum; Thrace instead of Thracia.

There are 27 photographs: 7 portrait busts and 20 coin images (mainly the obverse portrait). They are reproduced at a generous scale and the coins are generally sharp. It is interesting to see the portraits of (mainly) the emperors mentioned in the text. But more might have been offered. Instead of the repetition of the photo credit (mainly to Grant himself), could not the caption, if not the text, have explained something of why the image is there and what its significance is beyond showing a likeness of Probus or Gallienus or Diocletian? Indeed, the four photographs in the Appendix are not even referenced in the text and note 2 for ch. 3 on p. 99 seems not to know of the cover photograph. On p. 13 one sees a hint of the potential of the photographs in the remark “despite a great deal of vainglory on the imperial coinage”. The ways in which emperors are depicted in their official portraiture could have been very illuminating (as this reviewer learned as a student over 25 years ago from reading Grant’s comments on some of the same portraits in his The Climax of Rome). There is no integration of the illustrations into the text and one suspects that — to adapt Rostovtzeff’s famous remark — they are there to compensate the reader for the shortcomings of the text.

We are told, too, that the text is “lucid”. It is often wordy (pp. 75-76) and too inclined to such phrases as “I have said” and “as has already been said”, sometimes appearing on the same page (p. xvii). Indeed, the book begins (p. xvii) with a clumsy sentence and a typo — the first of many typos and errors. These are a few of the more striking: P. xviii – OCD vol II and III should be 2nd and 3rd editions. Several times in the notes the references to the OCD entries by J. F. Drinkwater are garbled to produce the phantom “J. F. Dobson”. In the Bibliography, the same “J. F. Dobson” is credited (it seems) with authorship of the entire 3rd edition of the OCD (but then so are R. P. Davis, B. H. Warmington and J. F. Drinkwater, and J. Whatmough, while A.H.M. Jones and H. Mattingly and B. H. Warmington are credited with the 2nd edition. We might add E. L. Bowie (quoted on pp. 64-5 and cited p. 105 n. 6), G. Giangrande (p. 65 and 105 n. 7) and E.T. Dodds and J. M. Dillon (pp. 57-59 and 104 n. 1)). The OCD is variously dated to 1920, 1970 and 1974 for the 2nd edition (actually 1970); the 3rd edition of 1996 is dated to 1966 in the Bibliography. Ogilvie is cited on p. 106 n. 20 as 1964 but in the Bibliography as 1996 and with a garbled title (it should in fact be Latin and Greek: a History of the Influence of the Classics on English Life from 1600 to 1918. On p. 107 n. 20, the book edited by Haase and Reinhold should be The Classical Tradition in the Americas and was published in 1994. Several items cited in the notes are omitted from the Bibliography and several items cited in full in the Bibliography are also set out in full in one or more notes. P. 32 the date of Florian should be 276. P. 42 the cross reference to chapter 6 is wrong. P. 71 Marathon was in 490 BC not 496. P. 110 Samsat/Samosata is in Turkey not Syria. P. 96 n.11 says there were not 20 or 30 usurpers as ancient sources report but “at least seven or eight”. He goes on then to name “the best known” giving us directly or by implication at least nine usurpers plus Odaenathus in the main text. P. 13 Odaenathus is said to have established himself as king (repeated in the quote that follows and in ch. 4 and notes) but in the note (p. 96 n. 15) we are told this is doubtful. Finally, something has gone wrong with the notes towards the end of the Appendix.

One wonders about the process of correction and even more about the editing by the publisher that so many blatant flaws and errors could get through.

The flaws, oddities and organisation distract from the content as they have done in writing this review. Does the text, short as it is, in fact contribute anything? That raises the question of the envisaged readership. Grant says the book is not intended to be “particularly, or essentially, scholarly” but to focus on what happened (p. xvii). In the Appendix we may infer more of his intention from the level at which he couches his justification for preserving and studying the Classics (pp. 75-82). The book seems intended for an interested, intelligent but not professional readership. Certainly few scholars are likely to benefit from it or find reason to cite it. On the other hand, it is a book so flawed as to be unlikely to appeal to anyone else and possibly one that should not be recommended. More than that, it barely rises above the level of telling a simple and very circumscribed story with many baffling gaps and no less baffling inclusions.

The reader should expect to find a background to the crisis and some account of how earlier generations (not usually cited by Grant) placed the origins of the crisis in the Severan period, the 2nd century or, indeed, in trends that go back to Augustus. The crisis did not suddenly spring up in 235. We need explanations as well as “what happened”. The northern peoples had inflicted major defeats on Roman armies in previous centuries. Why were they apparently so much more of a threat in the 3rd century than earlier? What, for example, was the role of increased “romanisation” of some of these peoples and the growth of confederations? Likewise why were the Persians more dangerous than the Parthians and why did they become less so in the later 3rd century?

We need to put the crisis in the context of the development of the Roman Empire in earlier generations. The character and organisation of the army was changing, not least in the early Severan period, a generation before Grant starts his story. We need, too, an explanation of the motives of the army in supporting then often abandoning so many usurpers. Why did civil wars and rebellion, so rare in the preceding two centuries, become common? Finally, away from the obvious military activity, we know that the coinage which collapsed had already lost half its silver content by the Severan period. In that same period we can see significant signs of eastern influences in public art, a foretaste of the late 3rd century onwards.

As for what emerged in the 4th century, there is much that is of the greatest importance. West and East had been affected differently by the crisis and we need to understand why and what the consequences were. The wars threw up a new element to join the old aristocracy everywhere: warfare and the reorganised army provided far greater opportunities for social mobility for men of often very modest origin to join the old aristocracy. There was a shift by the aristocracy from their traditional focus on the towns to the countryside, with a consequent change in the former and the appearance of elaborate villas everywhere with in Peter Brown’s phrase rich mosaics like Persian carpets. Indeed, Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity not cited remains a surer guide in its early pages to the changing world of the period from c. AD 150. The new world of the 4th century with its striking elements of continuity and of change emerge vividly from Brown’s pages. His illustrations are evocative and explained, and we can see graphically the shift from the still Classical art of Rome in the 2nd century to the rather different, almost medieval art of the late 3rd century onwards.

Finally, a sub-theme of the book seems to be that we should draw lessons from the near collapse of the 3rd century. Grant cautions us that although Rome did provide useful amenities to its peoples, the price of survival was the creation of something that “displayed a good deal of evil” and cites “militarism, over-taxation, excessive bureaucracy, dictatorial autocracy”. Apparently with developments in the European Community in mind, he concludes: “We must try to avoid the mistakes the late Romans made, and found necessary to keep their ‘civilisation’ going.”