BMCR 2001.08.40

The Evolution of the Late Antique World

, , The evolution of the late antique world. Cambridge: Orchard Academic, 2001. xv, 253 pages : illustrations, map ; 23 cm. ISBN 1903283000 L 14.99.

It has been almost fifteen years since Peter Garnsey produced The Roman Empire: Economy, Society and Culture (REESC) with Richard Saller.1 The intellectual distance between 1987 and 2001 and the persistence of certain academic themes and interests inform Garnsey’s new volume, The Evolution of the Late Antique World (ελαὠ, produced in collaboration with his former student, Caroline Humfress (now at the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California at Berkeley).

First there are the obvious shifts in subject and nomenclature: from “Roman Empire” (delimited in the 1987 volume as “roughly 27 BC to AD 235” [REESC, 1]) to “the Late Antique World,” which, the present authors concede, eludes temporal description (“our primary interest is in the period from the third to fifth centuries, which we regard as the formative period of a longer age of transition” [ELAW, 3]). In addition, we have moved from a survey of “economy, society and culture” (a subtitle that, deliberately or not, invoked the rigorous historiography of the Annales school, whose flagship journal is, of course, Annales: Economies, sociétés, civilisations), to “the evolution of the late antique world,” a title that suggests less concrete and calculable development. From high Roman imperialism to Late Antique “transition,” from a thorough investigation of “economy, society, and culture” to a more fluid series of ruminations on “creeping change” (ELAW, 88), this new volume impresses upon its readers the ways in which the study of Roman history has and continues to undergo its own “evolutions.”

Similarities between the two volumes are also informative, signaling how the interests of scholars remain steady even as the academic ground shifts. Both volumes are “thematic” (REESC, 1; ELAW, 3) yet also attend to change over time. One description of ELAW might equally describe REESC, apart from the word “Late”: “Our slice of the Late Roman Empire is a good place in which to study the tension between tradition and innovation, the interplay between dependence on the past and novel events or initiatives taken by singular individuals which gave new direction to the historical process” (ELAW, 3). The “tensions” of REESC arose within the transition from Republic to Empire, illuminating how unprecedented expansion touched every aspect of life in the coalescing empire. The “tensions” under examination in ELAW arise from a new set of changes: in the style of government and monarchy, in the significance of legal and moral intervention by the government and, perhaps most significantly (in ELAW, at least) in the introduction of an entirely new and pervasive force in the lives of late antique individuals: the Christian church.

Finally, both volumes consider how these “tensions” affected life from the top down, beginning with empire-wide institutions (REESC: “A Mediterranean empire,” “Government without bureaucracy”; ELAW: “Emperors and bureaucrats,” “Law and legal practice”) and ending with the more amorphous social structures that might impart tantalizing glimpses into everyday life (REESC: “Social relations,” “Religion,” “Culture”; ELAW: “Religion,” “Morality and the family,” “Social radicalism—and its limits”). The result, in ELAW as much as in its predecessor, is a multifaceted analysis of life in the Roman Empire, a rich foray into “how things might have been” and why we, as students of this historical period, tend to see things the way we do.

The introductory chapter of ELAW quickly lays out those themes that have attracted the authors’ attention and their stated goal of giving “some enticement to the young to explore late Antiquity, while providing entertainment and provocation for the experts” (8). In the second chapter, “The Decline and Fall of the Principate,” the authors explain that the “demands of the army and the needs of the empire had combined to produce a new phenomenon, the soldier-emperor” (13). These soldier emperors were generally of humble birth and military background (Diocletian is, of course, the poster-boy for soldier-emperors in this chapter). The authors suggest that these soldier-emperors were far from single-mindedly militaristic. In fact, they argue that their own military expertise allowed them to refine government operations to function more efficiently, with several results: the increasing impotence of the Senate and the abandonment of the city of Rome (17), the enormous expansion of late imperial bureaucracy to take care of the other “business of empire” (such as “civil administration, the collection of taxes,…the judicial system, law and order” [19]), the creation of a new civil administration, and other “proactive” initiatives (such as Diocletian’s famous Edict of Maximum Prices, which the authors describe as “a flop, but a glorious one” [21]). In fact, much of this chapter reads as an encomium on the late imperial soldier-emperor, a figure who arose out of need but substantially improved the architecture of Roman government.

Chapter 3, “Emperors and Bureaucrats,” similarly defends the explosion of bureaucratic offices and the civil service in general in the later Roman Empire. The authors first describe this period’s new imperial ideology (divinized imperial figures increasingly remote from “the people”), outlining how the bureaucracy not only functioned to “run the empire,” as it were, but also as practicable conduits for inaccessible imperial power. The authors attempt to ameliorate our customary image of a “byzantine” network of scrappy civil servants constantly vying for bits of social status at the expense of the hungry peasant. Instead they point out how necessity (again) led to a more complex and efficient series of organs for administration and taxation (compared to the “rudimentary” system of the Principate). This chapter also contains a mildly interesting exploration of Max Weber’s categories of “rational” and “patrimonial” bureaucracy as applied to the later Roman Empire (41-46), and concludes with a discussion of the “social mobility” that inhered in the new civil service.

Chapter 4, “Law and Legal Practice,” attempts to undo the stereotypical (according to the authors) historical view of late antique law as “decadent and stagnant,” arguing instead that jurisprudence in the fifth and sixth centuries was a highly “‘creative’ evolution” that allowed Roman law itself to become a “creative transforming force” in the late antique world (58). The authors insist that the legal system evident in the Codes “highlight[s] creative jurisprudential activity” (61), and that even an obscure legal remnant like the Collatio legum Mosaicarum et Romanarum“stands as a testimony to the creativity of the late antique legal methodology” (63). The chapter contains an excellent overview of the “players” in late antique Roman law: the iurisperiti, the advocati, the iudices, and the evolution of the episcopal courts (also a site for “creative” judicial development). One set of players, however, is lacking in this chapter: the delatores, those figures who set criminal law (as opposed to civil law, which is the main focus of this chapter) into motion by “snitching” on their friends and neighbors (see, for instance, the laws de delatoribus at CJ 10.11). Attention to the continuing (and evolving?) methods of criminal enforcement in the later Roman Empire might have fleshed out this fine theoretical discussion of “creative” legal evolution.

Chapter 5, “Social Hierarchies and Cultural Identities,” approaches the more elusive aspects of late antique status and identity. Reiterating sensibly that in “the fifth century, the world was neither a cultural nor a political unity” (104), the authors explore the gaps and instabilities of common rhetorical “polarities” of late antiquity: free/slave, citizen/alien, curiales / illustres, and Romans/barbarians. Although they state they “are dealing with ideology, not reality” (99), they deftly demonstrate how often “ideology” impacted reality at precisely those points where these discursive polarities came apart, as in the spectacular rise and fall of the “barbarian” general Stilicho.

From social status to physical sustenance, chapter 6, “Daily Bread,” examines not only how scarce food resources were (or, at times, were not) distributed throughout the empire, but how the networks of distribution generated institutional and social relations. Imperial patronage and the ad hoc nature of grain distribution in major cities is discussed, as well as the evolution of the classical system of euergetism and its relationship to the new institutions of ecclesiastical charity. The authors point out “Christian charity moved into a gap left by pagan systems of redistribution” (127) but that most bishops in this period, “at the head of an increasingly rich and powerful organisation” (129), had themselves been born into the ranks of classical euergetai. Much of this chapter rehearses arguments made by Paul Veyne and, of course, by Garnsey himself.2

Chapter 7, “Religion,” is the longest and perhaps most ambitious chapter of the book. Even though the authors are skeptical of a wholesale “conversion” of the empire in the fourth century, they nonetheless posit that as “an immediate consequence of Constantine’s conversion the cities of the empire witnessed nothing short of a theological revolution” (134). That is, even if everyone did not become Christian, the manner in which all peoples in the empire came to conceive of religion was indelibly stamped by Christianity. Certain aspects of Roman religiosity carried over from the Principate, such as government intervention to ensure the pax deorum, the continued beneficence of the supernal upon the empire. But the central change attendant upon Christian ascendancy, according to the authors, was the “democratisation of theological reflection”: the ability of individuals to ponder “right-thinking” religion, and to engage in open theological competition or consolidation with their neighbors in order to ensure that their own “right-thinking” religion prevailed. Stricter legislation became necessary (to control this new “democratisation”), theological boundaries were erected (and abolished), impresarios arose to adjudicate religious opinion and action (monks, bishops, holy men and women), and religious competition could explode into civic unrest and violence. Framing religious legislation, monasticism, heresiology, and other aspects of late antique religiosity (none of which is entirely exclusive to Christianity) under this rubric of theological “democratisation” is ambitious and will hopefully provoke further discussion.

The next two chapters (ch. 8, “Morality and the Family” and ch. 9, “Social Radicalism—and its Limits”) treat almost exclusively Christian literature to gauge the evolution of moral structures in the later Roman Empire. The chapter on the family actually treats Christian writings about the family, without attempting to discern what impact Church Fathers’ discussion of sex, chastity, monogamy, and children might have had on non-elites: “It remains a question how obediently Christian families followed the instructions of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, how closely they approximated to the model family or families on display in the sources. For the patristic sources deal in prescription rather than description. Theology smothers social history” (187). This is an unfortunate concession from authors who so adeptly combined “rhetoric” and “reality” in chapter 5 and proposed a stimulating theory of late antique religion in chapter 7. Chapter 9 likewise treats “social radicalism” as a Christian phenomenon, asking whether radical Christian notions of egalitarianism might have led Christians to reject such traditional institutions as slavery or wealth. (The chapter includes an artful rhetorical reading of the anonymous Pelagian treatise “On Riches,” memorably summing up one of the arguments as: “Riches are to avarice as babies are to sex” [200]). The authors conclude that “[s]ocial radicals are not to be found in the front ranks of Orthodox Christians of late Antiquity, but on the fringes, typically among extreme ascetics” (213). There is no discussion of the possibility of non-Christian “social radicalism.”

The final chapter, “Immoderate Greatness and the Ruin of Rome,” stands apart as a historiographic exploration of why Gibbon should have blamed Rome’s decline and fall on its “immoderate greatness,” that is, its overreaching of its geographic and political potential. Gibbon’s ideas are placed in their eighteenth-century context, drawing out the comparison with Gibbon’s “moderately great” Europe. The authors themselves do not explicitly state it, but a glance back at the first few chapters of ELAW elicit from this historiographic chapter one of the predominant subtexts of this volume: the later Roman Empire was not monstrous, immoderate, or decadent, but rather precisely what it needed to be in order to function in a coherent and efficient manner.

Throughout the ten chapters that comprise this book, the ideas of “necessity” and “creativity” stand out, underscoring the manner in which fruitful social solutions arose from exigent situations—”necessity is the mother of late antiquity,” perhaps. The authors take the word “evolution” in their title seriously. The question of individual agency in late antiquity dissolves into the tide of social and cultural forces. This comment from the chapter on late antique law is typical: “[T]he study of Late Roman Law as a whole has (until quite recently) suffered the same fate as the study of late Antiquity in general; it has been described either as a period in decline from a past golden age, or a period ‘in limbo’ waiting for the middle ages to be ushered in. . . . [L]egal sources other than the Theodosian or Justinianic compilations. . . can tell us about how legal developments were forced by everyday life” (54). It is the “force of everyday life” that the authors are attempting to describe in these ten chapters, a deliberately elusive and evocative quarry.

Readers will have few complaints about this volume since it delivers what it promises: a series of “slices of Late Roman life” filled in with various interesting reflections, theories, and propositions. The precise question of audience remains unclear; different levels of expertise seem to be assumed in the different chapters. Chapter 4, “Law and Legal Practice,” concisely describes the institutions of late Roman law with dates, tables, and definitions, such that an undergraduate in an introductory course in late antiquity would find it useful. By contrast, the chapters on “Religion” or Gibbon seem to presume familiarity with terms of discussion and debate fitting for a more advanced graduate student or professional. Throughout the volume, some terms are defined (such as “tetrarchy,” “equestrian,” and “liturgy”) while others remain unglossed (“Flavii” and “Aurelii,” “Arian,” “homoousian,” and “Neoplatonist”). On one page in the chapter on “Religion,” the authors carefully define “anchorite” but then do not define “cenobite,” “stylite,” or “dendrite” (147). Despite such unevenness, it is fair to say that there is enough in this volume to educate the attentive undergraduate and stimulate the erudite scholar.

It might be wished that the production values were somewhat better, but this can scarcely be laid at the authors’ feet. The “List of Dates” in the front matter is useful, synoptically presenting emperors’ reigns with significant events (xii), while the “Map of the roman empire [ sic ] in the late fourth century AD” (xiv-xv) is a grainy reproduction that less helpfully cuts off almost all of Africa (apart from Mauretania Caesariensis) in order (it seems) to display most of the Russian steppes. Most of the dozen figures (including coins, statuary, papyri, and ivories) are reproduced in this grainy fashion, often floating freely on pages without explicit connection to the text. The index and bibliographies are complete without being overwhelming, and the authors have also provided a brief list of websites pertaining to late antiquity (only one of which, at the writing of this review, had moved from the address given). Lapses of production are only mildly irritating, however, and detract very little from this collection of stimulating and productive essays which will hopefully, as Peter Brown’s jacket blurb promises, “invigorate the subject” of late antiquity.


1. Peter Garnsey and Richard Saller, The Roman Empire: Economy, Society and Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).

2. Paul Veyne, Le pain et le cirque: Sociologie historique d’un pluralisme politique (Paris: Seuil, 1976), abridged in English translation: Bread and Circuses: Historical Sociology and Political Pluralism, tr. Brian Pearce, intro. Oswyn Murray (London: Penguin Press, 1990); Peter Garnsey, Famine and Food Supply in the Graeco-Roman World: Responses to Risk and Crisis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988) and Food and Society in Classical Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).