BMCR 2019.07.06

The Roman Empire in Late Antiquity, A Political and Military History

, The Roman Empire in Late Antiquity, A Political and Military History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. xii, 378. ISBN 9781108456319. £21.99.

Since the publication of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in the last quarter of the 18 th century, the history of the later Roman empire, roughly from the third to the seventh century, has been approached from very different stand points. It is well known that the Gibbonian perspective of decline and fall set a long-lived paradigm for Roman imperial historiography. It is also very well known that very rich and diverse new approaches have been introduced by eminent twentieth-century scholars, notably M. I. Rostovtzeff, J.B. Bury, A.H.M. Jones, and Peter Brown. They all have contributed to deepen our analysis of the history of the later Roman World, but they also made the same world more elusive with the introduction of new concepts of periodisation like ‘late Roman’, ‘early Byzantine’, ‘early Christianity’, ‘early Medieval’ and ‘late Antiquity’.

Hugh Elton, professor of ancient history at Trent University (Canada) is a scholar of Late Roman political and military history, known for his earlier books, Warfare in the Roman Europe AD 350-425, and Frontiers of the Roman Empire. He has also done important research in Roman archaeology, especially in the region of Cilicia in southern Turkey, where he has been conducting surveys. His latest book reviewed here, The Roman Empire in Late Antiquity, A Political and Military History, follows, as he himself claims in the introduction, the historiographic model of J.B. Bury’s History of the Later Roman Empire. However, Elton presents a larger chronological perspective than that of Bury.

This political and military narrative, largely organised chronologically, but with some thematic discussions, consists of eleven chapters and provides a narrative history from the reign of Gallienus to the end of Heraclius, both of whom were active in periods when maintaining unity in the empire was particularly difficult. The central claim of the book is that the nature of the aristocracy of the early empire changed from being a landed gentry to one defined by participation in imperial service, particularly in close association with the emperor, which allowed the imperial machinery to work very efficiently into the seventh century. The book is readily comprehended and read in three main parts (part one: chapters 1 to 4; part two: 5 to 7, and part three: 8 to 10) with one concluding chapter. In the introduction Elton challenges the dominant trend of the cultural historiographic approach of Late Antique studies, with the assertion that the “current study of late antiquity fails to understand the empire itself”. His own emphasis, however, is not on the decline of the empire but on its “survival” through the centuries. According to Elton “late antique studies mask the complexity and reality of the Roman world”, and this simplified cultural historical approach does not do full justice to the Roman state at work. He identifies the central phenomenon of the period between 260 and 641 not as Christianity but as the rising prominence and changing nature of an aristocracy in the service to the emperor. The centralised field armies were another defining aspect of the same period, because the inner circle around the rulers, the imperial consistory, was composed of the leading commanders of the armies. From this viewpoint, the chronological coverage of the book presents a period not of decline but rather of change and continuity. Indeed, Elton observes that “the empire always remained centred on the person of the Roman emperor, who ran the state through meetings”, “the empire required the consensus of the ruled” and “there was little that was new about the problems of the late empire”.

In order to show the survivability of the Roman state, Elton begins by presenting the imperial resources, administration, spending, and the travels of the emperor and members of the aristocracy. He begins sensibly with the reign of Gallienus, who went to great lengths to maintain an intact empire in the middle of the so-called third-century crisis. Conflicts with internal or external enemies on all fronts show Gallienus restoring order in circumstances that could have split the empire. The rest of the chapter provides details of events in chronological order up to the rise of Constantine as a single emperor and as the patron of Christians in the West, confirmed by the so-called edict of Milan in 313. Elton follows the chronological narrative emperor by emperor up to Galerius.

In chapters 2 and 3 Elton surveys the history of the Constantinian dynasty from the joint rule of Constantine and Licinius after the meeting in Milan in 313 to the death of Julian on the Persian frontier in the summer of 363. The sons of Constantine are treated under a single subheading and it is a pity that most of the reign of Constantius II is camouflaged under the subheading of the usurper Magnentius. Constantius II was an unlucky Roman emperor, who, although he fought strenuously to keep the empire intact both religiously and militarily, has been almost passed over in modern Roman historiography. Perhaps symptomatic of Constantius’ unacknowledged successes, even the hostile pagan Ammianus noticed that “he had lost nothing up to his last day” against Persians (25.9.3). The military situation between 260 and 395 is also closely scrutinized, covering the important issues of decision making, diplomacy, deployment of armies and imperial frontiers.

Chapter 4 continues the chronological narrative from the accession of Jovian to the death of Theodosius the Great, the last emperor of the united Roman empire. Elton, with painstaking attention to detail, does not leave out any prominent historical issue of the fourth century, including the Donatist and Arian controversies, civil wars, the foundation of a new capital, and the arrival of the Goths, a very long subsection, which covers more ground than the heading suggests.

Chapters 5 to 7 cover the period from the reigns of the sons of Theodosius to the fall of Odovacer, the first king of Italy. Elton treats the western and eastern emperors under individual subheadings with fairly detailed coverage of the ecclesiastical politics of the early fifth century, which culminated in the two councils of Ephesus and the council of Chalcedon in 451. Elton analyzes the empire’s means and ability to handle matters in a similar fashion to chapter three, focusing on the resources of the empire, its recruiting and organisational capacity, its flexibility in managing treaties and diplomacy. Apart from providing informative details on the empire’s Germanic enemies, he presents a critical account of the challenge posed by the Huns. With respect to the Huns, Elton moves beyond reliance on the pejorative observations of Priscus, who belittled Theodosius II’s government for not following a hawkish policy that would have deployed soldiers for military adventures. Elton additionally directs attention to the Persian and African frontiers in this period.

Chapters 8 to 10 take the reader from the rise of Anastasius in 491 to the fall of Phocas in 610 in the East. If we rely on the report of Procopius, Anastasius appears to have been the most efficient emperor of late antiquity in terms of fiscal matters, who left a full treasury at his death. Justin, uncle of Justinian, is traditionally seen in historiography as a parvenu and an illiterate man turned emperor. However, Elton justly questions this ancient judgment, emphasising that his previous imperial service must have required some degree of literacy. Elton leaves a deservedly prominent space for Justinian, who not only strengthened the backbone of the imperial administration by compiling Roman law, but also spent huge sums of money on wars and building projects, culminating in the construction of Hagia Sophia, still magnificently standing in the historical peninsula of modern-day Istanbul. Chapter 9 ends with the fall of the emperor Phocas, caught up in the second ‘Persian fire’, which was kindled amid the political turmoil of Maurice’s fall, when the Persian king used the brutal murder of his earlier protector in Constantinople as a pretext to make war against the Romans. Chapters 8 and 9 also cover church policies, military matters and internal unrest. In chapter 10 Elton details the resources of the empire and the practicalities of handling military situations in Europe, Africa and Persia. The Persian siege of Amida in 502 under Anastasius and the battle of Tagine in 552 during the Ostrogothic wars of Justinian are presented as test cases to show the capability of the Roman army and the military capacity of the empire in the sixth century. Elton examines the military situation between 491-610 by taking the resources of the empire into consideration, as well as the changing nature of military recruitment and organisation. Although he makes a comparison between the Huns and Avars as “fragile confederations” (p. 319), it is worth reminding that the Huns were active for only about two decades in both parts of the empire, whereas the Avars remained an effective power for about two centuries in central Europe.1

Hugh Elton’s story ends with the reign of Heraclius, who extinguished the ‘Persian fire’ but also witnessed the earliest phases of Islamic expansion in the Roman Near East, which effectively started with the battle of Yermuk in 636. Heraclius was a zealous but unfortunate emperor, almost trapped by the Avars in Selymbria, as his capital was besieged by the joint efforts of Avars and Sassanids in 626. Although he ended the last great war of antiquity by defeating the Iranians in the following year in lower Mesopotamia and thus restoring Roman control in the eastern parts of the empire, in the final decade of his reign the Islamic conquests shocked the Persians and Byzantines.

In his very short concluding remarks Elton observes the close relationships of the emperors to their aristocracy in the survival of the empire to the middle of the seventh century. Although he duly notes the changing nature of the imperial aristocracy, considering that this is the central claim of the book, a more comprehensive discussion on this topic would have been desirable.

There are a few slips to correct. Elton writes that “Novatian bishop Acesius refused to accept the Nicene creed” (p. 63), referring to Socrates ( HE, 1.10). In fact, Acesius did not refuse the creed, but would not take communion with the Nicene majority group. Elton also claims that the bishop of Rome was not represented at the Council of Nicaea (p. 62), whereas, although not present in person, he sent two presbyters who were held in high honour (Eusebius, VC, 3.7). On p. 61 Elton writes that the relics of the apostles were brought to Constantinople at an early date in 336 when Constantine was still reigning emperor. However, the matter of the translation of relics has been established as having happened during the reign of Constantius.2 Elton relies on written sources when discussing the capture of Jerusalem in 614 (p. 335) and does not mention archaeological reports that challenge the exaggeration of the literary sources.3 Despite these minor flaws, as undergraduate course material (the purpose for which the book was designed), The Roman Empire in Late Antiquity, A Political and Military History is a lavishly detailed and very useful book, particularly in terms of its chronological narrative. It also has a useful glossary for the basic technical terms related to Roman institutions. It includes a list of primary sources with their translations and editions into English at the end. A further reading list is provided after each chapter.


1. Walter Pohl, The Avars: A Steppe Empire in Central Europe, 567-822, (Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 2018).

2. David Woods, “The Date of the Translation of the Relics of SS. Luke and Andrew to Constantinople”, Vigiliae Christianae 45/3 (1991), 286-292.

3. Gideon Avni, “The Persian Conquest of Jerusalem (614 C.E.) – An Archaeological Assessment”, Bulletin of American Schools of Oriental Research 357, (2010), 35-48.