BMCR 2007.10.05

A Companion to the Roman Empire

, A companion to the Roman Empire. Blackwell companions to the ancient world. Ancient history. Oxford: Blackwell Pub, 2006. xxx, 691 pages : illustrations, maps ; 26 cm.. ISBN 0631226443. $149.95.

Table of Contents

Currently, Companion volumes are all the rage among certain publishers. Oxford, Cambridge, Brill, and Blackwell continue producing Companion volumes for an array of topics, and there is no sign of any decline in production or sales. Through the employment of an indefinite article in the title, Blackwell emphasizes that their contribution is one option among the many available Companions. According to the Blackwell website description, the intended readers for A Companion to the Roman Empire include “an international audience of scholars, students, and general readers.” While such a target audience may worry specialists who distrust a project developed for a broad constituency, they will find that their fears are ill-founded. David Potter has assembled an impressive array of scholars whose essays in this volume provide overviews and summarize the current state of scholarship on a variety of topics. A Companion to the Roman Empire succeeds in meeting the needs of its diverse audience and also offers a few surprises for anyone who thinks they know what ‘the’ Companion to the Roman Empire must include. David Potter makes clear in his historiographically-based introduction that this volume is not the garden-variety Companion that would have been written in previous decades. Instead, he states that he intended the volume first to emphasize interactions between groups that would previously have been studied in isolation and second to move away from a focus on domination to “the discourse of dominance and inferiority” (12). In this he and his fellow contributors generally succeed.

The text is divided into six sections of unequal length: Sources, Narrative, Administration, Social and Economic Life, Intellectual Life, and Religion. The historical narrative sets the volume timeline as 44 BCE – 337 CE, but the topical chapters are not necessarily constrained to these dates. Since there are so many chapters, I will summarize the contents and make directed remarks where appropriate.

The first section, Sources, opens with Cynthia Damon’s chapter on the literary evidence. Written in a comfortable style, her chapter provides a useful primer on the literary sources as a group. William Metcalf then provides a clear discussion of the numismatic evidence. The reader who has no familiarity with numismatics or is otherwise intimidated by the field should come away with increased comfort and confidence, knowing the key available resources, the state of the field, and some background with which to start. The third chapter, by Gagos and Potter, starts well, with attention to documentary evidence such as inscriptions, papyri, etc, and includes discussion of resources and the difficulties associated with various types of documents. The chapter then gets bogged down in a case study of Imperial administration of Egypt. The case study demonstrates the differences between inscriptions and papyri, but is so detailed that perhaps it should have been placed in the Administration section. Lea Stirling’s chapter on art, architecture, and archaeology summarizes the current state of these three disciplines. Appropriately in a volume devoted to the discourse between groups, the final chapter of this section is James Rives’ discussion of interdisciplinary studies. His treatment is clear and instructive for readers unfamiliar with the importance of interdisciplinary studies.

The second part of the volume treats the historical narrative. Greg Rowe covers the early empire from 44 BCE-96 CE, Michael Peachin presents the middle empire (96-235 CE), and David Potter deals with the later empire (235-337 CE). Of the three, Peachin expands most on the narrative by using the second part of his chapter to discuss what an emperor in this period actually does. Peachin also provides numerous family trees that help keep the familial participants and their connections straight. All three chapters are well written and take recent historiography into account. The narrative section would have been improved by the employment of a few more maps. While publishers understandably wish to keep down production costs, it is amazing that in a volume of nearly 700 pages there are only two maps, neither of which communicates the period prior to 117 CE.

The administration of the empire is the topic of part three. Clifford Ando focuses attention on provincial administration. Hugh Elton provides a clear and sensible discussion of the reforms credited to Diocletian and Constantine. Nigel Pollard places the Roman military (as an institution and a field) in the broader imperial context and communicates the current state of research on the topic. Maud Gleason and Jonathan Edmondson tackle urban life, the former in the Greek east and the latter in the west. All five chapters are clear and continue the trend of emphasizing interactions between different groups as well as between the center and periphery. Ando and Pollard do a good job of treating the empire as a whole while the last two chapters do not focus excessively on any one city. The earlier discussion of administration in Egypt provides a complementary addendum to this section. The major flaw of part three again revolves around the lack of maps. This omission limits the impact of all chapters, especially the two on urban life. Edmondson’s chapter includes various city plans, but these plans lack the broader geographical context that would have been useful.

Part four covers social and economic life in seven chapters. David Mattingly opens this part with his presentation of the Roman economy. In this chapter he introduces the field as well as various aspects of the economy. In chapter fifteen Dennis Kehoe surveys the relationships between landlords and tenants, and the agricultural economy. Judith Evans-Grubbs navigates the Roman family across time and evidentiary problems by focusing on three individuals: the wife in the “Laudatio Turiae”, Pliny the Younger, and Vibia Perpetua. In what should be required reading in any class treating Roman society, Amy Richlin dives into the topic of sexuality in the Roman Empire. What sets her chapter apart from the rest is the imaginative manner in which she uses Alfred Kinsey’s studies of sexuality to tackle the current state of research on sexuality, while also demonstrating a way of capitalizing on limited evidence and reaching beyond our preconceived notions. Veronika Grimm sets out to explain the unexpected topic of food and consumption. Her chapter is useful for getting a sense for food studies, but it is nearly exclusively literary, devoting too little attention to archaeological reports. Garrett Fagan ably addresses the topic of leisure. He opens with a definition and then introduces aspects of leisure including literature, taverns, banquets, and baths. David Potter contributes a nice chapter on spectacle, which includes games, munera, and theater. He moves beyond focusing on each spectacle in isolation, treating aspects such as the relationship between performers, owners, patrons, and audience members. Like the previous section, this socio/economic analysis suffers from the need to cover more than three centuries. Given the span, the most any of the authors can do is to summarize his or her topic. Although Grimm’s chapter is useful for understanding literary treatments of food it is overlapped by Fagan and seems out of place in such a broad Companion. A more surprising oversight is in the lack of discussion about freedmen, slaves, and non-Romans or outsiders. While it is true that Potter should be saluted for trying to move this Companion beyond the traditional discourse of dominance, surely the relationships between these omitted groups and the rest of Roman society merits more treatment than it has received here.

Part five devotes six chapters to intellectual life. Rowland Smith initiates this section with a chapter dedicated to the “Construction of the Past.” Smith’s discussion is heavily influenced by an interdisciplinary approach that makes for refreshing reading on an old topic. Sara Myer’s survey of poetry provides a discussion of key poets of the early and middle empire. Unfortunately, in a chapter that provides such good historical context for the poets before 138 CE, no attempt is made to explain why so little poetry from the earlier period survives afterwards. Readers seeking an explanation in this otherwise good chapter will remain confounded. In a chapter that many readers will find useful, Jonathan Rife presents Greek fiction in its historical and social as well as literary contexts. John Matthew’s chapter on Roman law is good, but since it is primarily concerned with law as a source for understanding the history of the empire it would have been better placed in the Sources section of the book. In the longest chapter of the volume and perhaps the most useful chapter of part five, Ann Hanson offers an excellent introduction to Roman medicine. Sara Ahbel-Rappe closes the intellectual section with a survey of Roman philosophy.

David Frankfurter opens the sixth and final part (Religion) of the volume with a strong chapter on “traditional cult.” He includes splendid discussion of terminology, biases, and new approaches before proceeding to a survey of his topic. In a disappointing chapter, Yaron Eliav tackles Jews and Judaism. The disappointment is not in the quality of the prose, but in the author’s attempt to cover too much material (Eliav even pushes his material out almost a century further than any other contributor) in a short chapter in a broad Companion. As a result, the argument and narrative suffer from lack of space for expansion and the reader gets lost. In her survey of early Christianity, Paula Fredriksen conveys the complicated nature of the religious and historical context and carries her narrative up to Diocletian, but avoids engaging with Constantinian issues. The final chapter of this section, Mark Edwards’ “Christian Thought”, covers the intellectual context of Christianity, but skips over Constantine and then wanders out to the fifth century. The Religion section as a whole is helpful, but heavily skewed in favor of Christianity. Given this bias the avoidance of Constantine’s reign is surprising. Several topics, including the imperial cult and eastern religions other than Judaism are omitted entirely, thus resulting in a dissatisfying treatment of religion in general during the Roman Empire. I should conclude by noting the general successes and failures of this volume. Most of the essays are written in a clear, engaging style appropriate to the intended audience. The editing is generally good with few typographic and spelling errors. The generous citations spread throughout the essays provide numerous titles for readers seeking more information on any topic. There is one general sixty-page bibliography at the end of the essays, thus minimizing repetition common in bibliographies attached to each essay. The black and white illustrations are well-reproduced, although, as noted previously, the lack of maps is a significant omission. In addition to the several specific criticisms noted previously, one is inclined to wonder why the volume ends with the death of Constantine and not with the end of his dynasty or the permanent split of the Roman Empire into East and West. The choice of periodization in any broad Companion is difficult and will please as many readers as it irritates, but in this case the closure at 337 seems excessively arbitrary in a A Companion to the Roman Empire as a whole. It denies the reader an opportunity to see how the administrative reforms of Diocletian and Constantine (covered by Elton in this volume) reverberated in the period that followed, or how Christianity and population migration impacted the empire. On the other hand, at nearly 700 pages, the Companion is already a heavy and expensive book. Compromises had to be made and the reader can be thankful that Potter did not compromise in his selection of scholars and topics.