BMCR 2006.12.35

A Greek Roman Empire: Power and Belief under Theodosius II (408-450). Sather Classical Lectures, Vol. 64

, A Greek Roman Empire : power and belief under Theodosius II (408/450). Sather classical lectures ; v. 64. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. xxvi, 279 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0520247035. $49.95.

Table of Contents

Although he has written on practically every aspect and period of Roman history, Fergus Millar has always shown a marked preference for the “Greek” provinces of the early Empire. His first book on Cassius Dio1 was a study of a Greek Roman, or a Roman Greek, and the way in which he functioned within the Empire, and in many ways A Greek Roman Empire represents the institutional and social counterpart of the same subject. This is a book that brings together several strands of Millar’s work, on the Emperor and the imperial system, on the Romanisation and integration of the Eastern provinces, and on the role of Hellenism, combined with his gift for systematic and analytical use of the source material.

To explore the notion of a “Greek Roman Empire”, Millar has chosen the reign of Theodosius II, “the first extended reign by an Emperor born in Constantinople” (4), during which the separation with the West became a tangible reality despite the lingering rhetoric of unity that still prevailed. In six chapters, reflecting the six Sather Lectures delivered in 2002/03, Millar gives a masterful analysis of the workings of the Empire under Theodosius II and of the ways in which the imperial court handled the multiple difficulties that arose both at the centre and in the most far-off regions. For this he uses a body of evidence that is incomparable in its wealth, namely Theodosius’s legislation and the acts of the Church councils. These are classic and much-discussed sources, but never had they been put to use in quite this way before, and this is without hesitation one of the greatest achievements of this book. Millar breaks down those two collections into the documents they were made up of, and treats each of those documents as individual sources. Repeating after others that the Codex Theodosianus was in its essence a collection of letters sent from the imperial court to individual officials in the provinces as answers to demands that had reached the court, Millar contrary to others actually accepts the consequences of that statement and uses the individual “laws” precisely as the results of exchanges of letters between local officials and the emperor. The same treatment is given to the council acts, and what emerges from the whole is a very vivid image of the complex channels of communication, influence and persuasion that prevailed within the empire and in provincial relations with the court.

Through a survey of the situation on the different frontiers (Ch. II, “Security and Insecurity”), and of imperial involvement in the Church (Ch. IV, “State and Church”) and in Christian controversy (Ch. V, “State Power and Moral Defiance”), Millar shows in detail how firmly the citizens of the Empire held the presumption that questions, however minor, relating to their area, however remote, could—and should—be brought to the attention of the emperor. And so indeed they were in many cases, perhaps not as directly as the official presentation would have it but through a series of powerful intermediaries who would push each demand or suggestion up the hierarchy. A careful examination of the sources has allowed Millar to identify a number of those intermediaries, not only famous ones like the Praetorian Prefect of Oriens Anthemius but also less well-known ones who were further down the scale. They were essential parts of a structure that allowed, for instance, bishops of not-so-important cities in the provinces to get access to the imperial court, because they knew “to whom persuasion or bribery should be directed” (201). One such petition has actually been preserved in its original form on papyrus. It was addressed to Theodosius II and Valentinian (between 425 and 450) by Appion, bishop of Syene in Upper Egypt, and was returned to him with an answer in Latin and an autograph greeting formula by the emperor himself (incidentally, the only surviving autograph of a Roman emperor).

Millar also argues quite convincingly that at the Court end of the process, decision-making was “collective” in the sense that it was most often the result of “consensus, or competitive influence, among a quite extensive group of officials” (226). It was because of this that one can detect no break whatsoever in the continuity of government after the death of Arcadius despite the fact that the new emperor was only seven at the time of his accession, and that nominally at least, he drew up the various laws in person. Millar shows how, contrary to the alternative solution of appointing a regent, “a collective system involving provincial officials, high officials at Court, the Praetorian Prefects above all, and household staff, could have ‘carried’ a juvenile Emperor as symbolic ruler until such time as he attained a degree of adult authority, and might decide for himself between competing influences and pressures” (227). And the evidence he adduces indicates quite clearly that the diffusion of power, influence and responsibility was not only a function of the emperor’s age, since it continued until the end of Theodosius’s reign, a period even better documented than the beginning. The actual weight of Emperor’s opinion is of course difficult to assess, since the fiction of direct access and response was maintained in most of the sources, but evidently there was much competition going on behind the scenes to win it over. These conclusions are arrived at through a painstaking analysis of the evidence, especially the many letters and memoranda that circulated within power circles and that have been preserved in various forms, often embedded within narratives or appended to other documents with complicated editorial and text-historical backgrounds, so that their extraction and use as independent sources for the history of power networks is a feat in itself.

One of the important points made by this book is that however specific Church matters may seem to us today, they were treated by the emperor in much the same way as all the other questions that arose. Negotiation, influence, exchange of letters, memoranda and imperial decisions were part of the picture here too, both in the day-to-day relations between the Court and the Church hierarchies, and in more critical situations such as arose during the Nestorian controversy and at the beginnings of the Eutychian debate, which led respectively to the two Councils of Ephesos. It is a pity that Millar does not actually make this argument explicitly, even though his analysis amply demonstrates it. Upholding proper religious behaviour and correct belief was arguably considered one of the emperor’s duties from Diocletian onwards, and thus his meddling in “Church matters” should be seen as no more surprising than his meddling in military ones. It is only the increasing power and drift towards independence of the Church itself as time went by and under the influence of the very subversive monastic movement that the received truth of separation between secular and ecclesiastical affairs gradually imposed itself. Millar’s “observer’s narrative” of the interaction of State and Church clearly shows that under Theodosius this process was still under way.

Another important theme that runs throughout the book is that of language use within the “Greek Roman Empire”. It should be said at the outset that Millar does not attempt to give a socio-linguistic map of the eastern provinces, but rather to assess the use of the various languages in official and public contexts, that is in relation to the main subject of his book, the imperial system under Theodosius II. This is why, despite the focus on the East, the discussion concentrates mainly on Greek and Latin; and in this respect, the overwhelming importance given to Greek is justified, since it was not only the lingua franca of all the eastern regions, but also the only language other than Latin recognised by the administration (although as early as the third century the jurist Ulpian conceded the use of local languages in a number of legal transactions). What Millar argues, and succeeds to show in great detail, is that Latin was by this time an internal language of the imperial administration, while Greek was the language of communication in most of the imperial and administrative relations with the Empire’s inhabitants, and even with members of the higher clergy, who were evidently not expected to know Latin.

This widespread use of Greek among Church officials is reflected in the acts of the councils, which Millar is the first to use to such a purpose. The documents quoted in the acts, as well as the spoken interventions and the comments or introductory lemmata are a treasure-house for the cultural and linguistic history of the Orient, and until now they had been totally neglected by scholars working in those fields. Among other things, they show that occasionally a bishop did not (or would not) speak Greek and thus translations had to be made. The importance of this observation is downplayed by Millar, who is more impressed by how few such cases there were than by their actual existence, and by the fact that most of the bishops in the Acta understood no Latin. However, the fact that individuals without a working knowledge of Greek could become bishops in the first half of the fifth century is surprising to say the least, and the underlying reasons deserve to be more thoroughly investigated.

On the issue of languages, the imperial perspective adopted by Millar gives Latin a prominence that it did not otherwise have in the eastern Empire by this time. He is probably right in seeing the reign of Theodosius II as a key moment in the shift of balance between the two languages even within the imperial court. However, despite the fact that Greek was becoming more and more pervasive, Court discourse tried to uphold the fiction of Latin well after Theodosius II. Still in 553, Justinian would rule in his Novella 146 that Jews should read their holy books in a language that was understandable to all in the assembly, namely either Greek, or a local language, or “the ancestral language (we mean the Italian one).” So it is hardly surprising that under Theodosius more than a century earlier the symbolic power of Latin should have still been so strong.

One may of course take issue with a number of ideas contained in this book. One of them, perhaps the most irritating to students of the other cultures that were part and parcel of the eastern provinces, is the slightly triumphalist and Hellenocentric view of the Later Roman Empire, perfectly expressed in the statement that “as a historical phenomenon, this ‘Greek Roman Empire’ represented the fulfillment of over a thousand years of the progressive extension of Greek culture” (15). Without falling into the “affirmative action” trap, it should perhaps be more strongly stated that this was a multicultural Empire, and that the time of Theodosius II was precisely the time when most of the constituent cultures were becoming more assertive of their identity. And although Greek was the vehicle through which they could communicate this identity to the rest of the Empire, their own perception and assertion of it increasingly went through the use of their own language. Millar does make a concession to Syriac, because it acquired a public role in the Church, but gives little attention to languages that were not so fortunate.

Quibbles aside, the sheer mastery of the workings of the empire but also of the structures and intricacies of the Church and its hierarchy, a subject in itself, is here unsurpassed. Millar succeeds in combining the traditional administrative and military approach to the Later Roman Empire with the most recent advances in such trendy fields as network studies or frontier studies, while never losing sight of the importance of “persuasive discourse” (152) and the “rhetoric of empire” (157), both citations from famous late antique scholars who are on the traditionalists’ blacklist. This fresh look on some age-old debates from a real Romanist is indeed very welcome, and it forcefully demonstrates that any understanding of the Later Roman Empire must take all the above elements into account. Millar shows how intimately the very real and pervasive changes in “style”, literature, and religious beliefs and practices were dialectically related to the imperial government and its regional and local extensions, including the Church, which was not only a spiritual guide but also an institution of power and authority, and in many cases, of coercion. In their Preface to Millar’s collected essays titled Rome, the Greek World and the East (2002-2004), Hannah Cotton and Guy Rogers confidently (and justifiably) state that his books “have transformed the study of ancient history.” Let us hope that this latest one will help transform the study of late antiquity, positioned as it is on middle ground between a number of conflicting views of the period so that it makes them seem much less irreconcilable than before.


1. A Study of Cassius Dio (Oxford 1964).