BMCR 2020.01.26

Ancient Roman Civilization: History and Sources 753 BCE to 640 CE

Ralph W. Mathisen, Ancient Roman Civilization: History and Sources 753 BCE to 640 CE. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. 560. ISBN 9780190849603 $59.95.

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[Chapter and section titles are listed below.]

Mathisen’s text is both an impressive and a practical addition to the offerings available for instructors of undergraduate courses on Rome. Following a more recent trend in publishing, the time span covered begins with the cultures of the Mediterranean before Rome’s founding and continues to the conquest of the Byzantine Levant by the Arabs in Late Antiquity. This chronological decision supports the primary aim of the book, as stated in the introduction, to contextualize Roman Civilization within and against competing cultures of the Mediterranean. As a consequence of the expanded focus, the Celts of Iberia and the Garamantes of North Africa receive as much discussion as the Greeks and Etruscans as important civilizations in contact with Roman ancestors.

The inclusion of material on other cultures and civilizations is very welcome, but can feel slightly cursory with certain topics. The Jewish background to Christianity is covered in just a few pages, while the Eastern mystery cults receive a few paragraphs. Depending on the student audience, instructors might be asked to supplement this material. The chapters on the late Roman world as a contested space for Christian culture are excellent, and they contain a number of valuable primary sources from Christian, Pagan, and legal works to explain the persistence of non-Christian traditions and the invention of Christian hierarchies. For instance, the murder of Hypatia of Alexandria is contrasted with the Life of Saint Malchus by Jerome. Overall, the wide selection of written primary source materials in translation are woven seamlessly in with the historical narrative. Short quotations from ancient authors are placed as blocks either at the start or within chapters, while longer selections follow the chapter bibliographies.

In addition to breaks for block quotations, there are images, maps, tables, or timelines on virtually every other page to make the work visually appealing and to break up large stretches of text. No doubt to keep publishing costs down, all of the images in the book are in black and white, except for the maps on the inner front and back covers. The images also serve as important primary source material for the cultures within and around Rome. The discussion of the “Dama Del Elche” bust is an example of how the text stresses the continuing, and often contested, discussion of artifacts and historical interpretation. This ornate bust of a woman from the fourth century BCE is contextualized in its Iberian origin, while Phoenician and Greek influences on the work are likewise credited. Earlier suspicions that the sculpture might be a modern forgery are considered and countered with the information that similar busts have been uncovered in recent years. Its history as a contested museum piece is referred to as part of the discussion. And the text mentions it was originally purchased for the Louvre, but it was returned to Spain during the Franco regime as a courtesy by the Vichy government.

The introduction of modern controversies also occurs with the use of small boxes inserted alongside the narrative. They include questions, such as whether or not non-mainstream cultures can still be marginalized, or whether or not other governments in history have produced politicians driven primarily by self-interest. Not every chapter or section contains these asides, so the instructor may use or disregard them as needed.

The selection of maps, timelines, and family trees is extremely useful and is sure to save instructors from dozens of questions from confused students. The exact relation of every member of the Julio-Claudians is simplified and repeated as the dynasty continues through its generations. Dynasties are placed in timelines with their successors, so the Flavians are visually explained as the successors to the Julio-Claudians. The dynasties, emperors, and usurpers of the third century are placed in a timeline with a selection of breakaway kingdoms that include the Illyrian, Gallic, and Palmyran rulers. Plentiful images of coinage and busts also help to distinguish the main historical actors discussed in the text. Likewise, and in a decision that is rare in textbooks, various barbarian enemies of Rome are placed in timelines and presented in images. The Goths, Vandals, and Ostrogoths receive a thorough treatment of their roles as invaders and allies, as do the successor kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxons, Burgundians, and Franks. Timelines are given for each of these barbarian dynasties and a discussion of ornate barbarian fibulae is included to raise questions about differences in discussing ethnicity, history, and culture. These important examples of the material culture of the barbarians help to deconstruct the term barbarian for undergraduates. A silver coin produced by the Iceni contextualizes Queen Boudicca’s rebellion.

Women’s roles in Roman history are happily not restricted to Lucretia, Boudicca, and Cleopatra in the text. Rulers such as Boudicca and Zenobia are discussed, but so are unnamed women such as female gladiators. The rumored freedom of Celtic women to engage in love affairs is discussed alongside their participation in politics and war. Sulpicia the poet is mentioned as part of Latin’s Silver Age. The entirety of the martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas is included as part of the Early Christian material. The role of the Imperial women as wives, mothers, and daughters is evenhanded. Theodora’s scandals in Procopius are included, but so is the role she played in “stiffening” Justinian’s backbone when he considered fleeing his capital during the Nike riots. The treatment of women in the text could be expanded, but presents a solid picture of their role in history.

The rise of the Arabs and Islam is explained quickly but thoroughly in the last chapter. The life of the Prophet and the basic tenets of Islam serve as background for the rise of an Arab Muslim Empire after 632 CE in the text. The role of the defeat of the Persian Empire and the strength it gave to the new Muslim armies and Caliphate is discussed only in passing. The conquest of Egypt and the Byzantine Levant receives a much more thorough treatment. The primary source document included is a selection of John of Nikiu’s Chronicle about the surrender of Alexandria. It is an excellent choice that quickly presents the military victory, and the initial peace treaty that marked the beginning of the Islamic Mediterranean Empire. The end of Byzantine power in Egypt and Syria forms part of the discussion of the chronological dating of Antiquity and Late Antiquity as eras that mark the end of “Rome” for the book. Overall, the depth and breadth presented on Rome in fewer than six hundred pages makes this an exemplary text and a wise choice for instructors looking for a single volume to cover the material.

For the convenience of readers, a full table of contents is included:

Part I The Origins of Rome
Chapter 1 The Wider World of Early Rome: Cultural Encounters 3
The Peoples of Western Europe
The Peoples of North Africa
The Greeks
The Peoples of Western Asia
Sources
Chapter 2 Archaic Rome (753-509 BCE) 55
Cultural Encounters of the Early Romans
Rome of the Kings
Sources

Part II The Roman Republic
Chapter 3 The Early Roman Republic (509-350 BCE) 79
The Creation of the Roman Republic
The Conflict of the Orders
Struggling to Survive
Sources
Chapter 4 The Expansion of the Roman Republic (350-120 BCE) 105
Wars in Italy
Wars in the Western Mediterranean
Warfare Spreads to the East
Sources
Chapter 5 The Impact of Expansion on Rome in the Second Century BCE 131
Economic Developments
What to Do with the Provinces
Social and Cultural Consequences of Expansion
The Agricultural-Military Crisis
Sources
Chapter 6 The Decline of the Roman Republic (120-44 BCE) 165
From One Crisis to the Next
An Age of Generals
Julius Caesar and the First Triumvirate
Late Republican Literature
Sources

Part III The Principate
Chapter 7 Augustus and the Invention of the Principate (44 BCE-14 CE) 205
The Second Triumvirate
The Establishment of the Principate
The Age of Augustus
Sources
Chapter 8 Julio-Claudians, Flavians, and the Consolidation of Empire (14-96 CE) 256
The Julio Claudian Dynasty
The Flavian Dynasty
The Origins of Christianity
Sources
Chapter 9 The Roman Peace (96-192) 301
The Antonine Dynasty
The World of the Pax Romana
Religious Diversity
Sources
Chapter 10 The Severans and the Third-Century Crisis (192-284) 343
The Severan Dynasty
The Imperial Crisis
Sources

Part IV Late Antiquity
Chapter 11 The Creation of the Late Roman Empire (284-337) 381
Diocletian and the Late Roman Empire
Constantine and the Late Roman Empire
Constantine and Christianity
Thinking of the Future
Sources
Chapter 12 The Christian Empire and the Late Roman World (337-395) 415
The Successors of Constantine
The Triumph of Christianity and the World of the Church
The Late Roman World
Sources
Chapter 13 The Fall of the Western Roman Empire (375-476) 459
A New Set of Problems
The Fall of the west
Sources
Chapter 14 The Barbarian Successor Kingdoms: The End of Antiquity in the West (476-751) 493
The Post Roman West
Barbarian Kingdoms
Classical Culture in the Post-Roman Empire
Sources
Chapter 15 Byzantium and Islam: The End of Antiquity in the East (402-650) 523
The Byzantine Empire
The Age of Justinian
The Rise of the Arabs and Islam
The End of Antiquity
Sources