BMCR 2004.07.25

Rome and the Barbarians, 100 B.C. – A.D. 400

, Rome and the Barbarians, 100 B.C.-A.D. 400. Ancient society and history. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. xiv, 461 pages : illustrations, maps ; 23 cm.. ISBN 0801873061 $49.95.

It is always an event when, after years of work in the scholarly trenches, a prolific author produces a work of synthesis and reflection on his or her field. Burns has been writing and teaching about barbarians and Romans for a quarter of a century. The present volume speaks of careful maturation in the lecture hall, both in the way ideas are shaped and in the topics considered. Those who teach the same subjects as does Burns will be struck throughout by the aptness with which complicated historical changes, derived in all their laborious detail from works of primary scholarship, are here conveyed with pith and vigour. Anyone who has struggled to convey to a class the manifold ways in which the establishment of a legionary fortress revolutionized the life of a region will envy Burns’ pedagogical fluency.

The book begins with two chapters that consider the general problem of Roman-barbarian relations, their titles sufficient to convey their contents: ‘Sometimes Bitter Friends’ and ‘Recognition, Confrontation and Coexistence’. Burns goes on to a long chapter on Caesar’s Gallic wars, then turns to ‘The Early Empire and the Barbarians: An Overview’. A primarily archaeological chapter on ‘Perspectives from Pannonia’ follows, while a pair of chapters on barbarians in the third-century crisis and barbarians in the later empire conclude the book and together occupy more than a third of it.

Despite the generic use of barbarian in the title, it is explicitly the Rhine-Danube frontier that most concerns Burns, and the collective ‘Germans’ and ‘Germanic’ do regrettably crop up to describe one or another variety of barbarian that no Roman would have regarded as German. Despite this, the nature of the northern barbarians is handled soundly throughout: the tiresome focus on ethnicity that obtains when early medievalists turn to Roman-era barbarians is mercifully absent. Indeed the decision to begin extensive discussion of literary evidence with Caesar, and to relegate the Germania to a few dismissive pages, demonstrates the conceptual integrity of a volume which implicitly argues that what we can study meaningfully is the continuity or change of Roman and barbarian behaviours, not barbarian peoples, tribes, or Traditionskernen.

The book as a whole is characterized by the same sort of conceptual soundness. Burns is right to emphasize that the slowness with which Roman government became territorialized is key to understanding evolving relations with the barbarians during the principate (strangely, by using the third-century coinage barbaricum for much earlier periods, he ascribes a greater territoriality to the non-Roman world than to the provinces). His focus on the importance of personal patronage in developing paradigms of interaction is likewise very sensible. On the third century, Burns is surely correct to stress that the northern barbarians were a tertiary factor in imperial instability, trailing well behind usurpation and hostilities with Persia. That in the last half of the third century a full generation on both sides of the frontiers grew up without the benefit of traditional economic interdependence is a significant insight, and one that helps make sense of events on the frontier in the tetrarchic and Constantinian periods. An important theme running through the book is the environmental impact of Roman conquest, Roman government, or indeed its absence. This theme brings forth evocative comparisons and illustrations that clearly came from the classroom and are well worth borrowing.

The book’s great defect, and one that will make it a menace in the hands of students, is the copy-editing. This can only have been the work of a singularly puzzled computer program. Simple slips are everywhere, ‘lightening’ for ‘lightning’, ‘ascension’ for ‘accession’, ‘merger’ for ‘meagre’, ‘where’ for ‘were’ and many, many more. Others sow real confusion — ‘diseased’ for ‘deceased’, ‘prerequisites’ for ‘perquisites’, ‘invisibility’ for ‘invincibility’, ‘stratographic’ for ‘stratigraphic’, ‘censor’ for ‘censer’. Roman names and English calques on Latin words, are particularly prone to disfigurement: Antonius Pius for Antoninus, Salonius for Gallienus’ son Saloninus, Innonentius for Innocentius, vexallations from vexillations, Seutonius, Velleius Patercullus, etc. Modern toponyms fare little better: Petonell for Petronell, Slovena for Slovenia, Drobrudja for Dobrudja. Latin titles are unstable (the Historia Augustae, Orbis Romana), and the grammatical number of oppida and Alamanni is quite various. Factual slips are not absent: the Social War did not take place ‘early in the reign of Sulla’, AD68 was not the year of four emperors, Attila’s sons, not his brothers, went to war upon his death, and errors in the nomenclature of Republican gentes sometimes make it quite impossible to know which Aemilius or Scipio is being credited with what action.

For all that, this remains a substantial work of synthsesis. Its roots are in the classroom and its strengths lie there as well. Anyone who teaches barbarian history to undergraduates will come away from it with new ideas about how to do so.