BMCR 2020.03.12

Roman Emperor Zeno: the perils of power politics in fifth-century Constantinople

Peter Crawford, Roman Emperor Zeno: the perils of power politics in fifth-century Constantinople. . Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2019. xxii, 357 p., [8 p. of plates]. ISBN 9781473859241 £20.00.

Three years after publishing a monograph with the prolific press Pen and Sword on the fourth-century emperor Constantius II, Peter Crawford has produced a narrative history of the life and reign of the late Roman Emperor Zeno (474-491). It is engaging and comprehensive, and in the writing of it Crawford has read lots of secondary material and is generally up to date in his interpretations of secular politics, i.e. following the majority of modern scholarship in rejecting earlier models of ethnically-driven Isaurian and Gothic factions. For general readers this work is certainly more accessible than Kosinski’s The Emperor Zeno: Religion and Politics (Cracow, 2010).

The book is divided into 14 chapters which cover events before Zeno’s accession (ch 1-7), Basiliscus’ seizure of power in 475 (ch 8) and the rest of Zeno’s reign (ch 9-14), including discussion of relations with the Sasanians, Goths, the western Empire and internal problems with Illus and Zeno’s religious policies and the Acacian Schism.

Crawford writes clearly and provides much detail about a period that is not well covered by many modern scholars. The focus is on the emperor and politics, thus giving little attention to archaeology, economics, or Roman peasants. This makes the great complexity of the story of Zeno and the Roman Empire manageable in one volume, and allows for some coverage of background material, including the Huns, Roman relations with Persia, religious politics, and the reigns of Zeno’s predecessors Marcian (450-457) and Leo I (457-474). This is often quite brief, so that the complexities of the theological relationships between western and eastern Empires and in particular the Acacian Schism, are covered only fleetingly; Latrocinium, the name given by Pope Leo I to the Second Council of Ephesus in 449, is not a term accepted by all later writers. The Huns too are covered lightly, and a conventional reading of the Huns as a major threat has been preferred to Chris Kelly’s work on Attila (Attila the Hun or The End of Empire, 2009) which makes them look more like organized criminals than a serious threat to the Roman Empire.

Crawford is good at expressing the possibilities for any particular incident, though sometimes the accumulation of ‘might’, ‘maybe’, and ‘possibly’ becomes a little overwhelming. Endnotes sometimes contain comments on which opinions are held by which modern scholars, but most of the text simply refers to the fact that there are differing scholarly opinions on an issue. Occasionally knowledge is assumed about the nature of Roman institutions like the Constantinopolitan Senate (which did not function like the Roman Senate of the first century BC or AD). Rapidly glossed over too are the nature of consistory meetings, what an indiction was, or how to read fifth-century imperial coin legends.

Nonetheless, all of this may be very satisfying to the general reader who will also like the maps and the colour illustrations, but I suspect that students and professionals will be more critical. For most of the work, the primary sources are more often treated as ‘the sources’ than as individual authors writing in a time and place for a reason (although some sections of text and endnotes show that Crawford is well aware of the greater complexity). However, collecting what all the primary sources say risks masking the fact that not all sources are of equal value. Most readers would benefit from more clarity on the use by Procopius of Priscus or on the use of Theodore Lector by Theophanes, since these later writers interpreted their sources’ descriptions of fifth-century events using contemporary perspectives. Crawford often treats material from the sixth century and later in a positivistic fashion, even when coming from sources such as the Patria, Parastaseis, or Theophanes, sources which most scholars think need to be handled with great caution.

The fifty pages of endnotes contain extensive citations of primary sources that, like Bury’s great Later Roman Empire(1923), make it easy to know what ancient writers said about an event. However, there are a few oddities which will usually be comprehensible to specialists in the fifth century, but often baffling to others. Although the Mariev edition of the fragments of John of Antioch is cited in the bibliography, the notes refer to fragments inconsistently, using either Mariev’s numbering or that of Müller in FHG. Similarly, Priscus is mostly cited from Blockley, but sometimes from Carolla (or the English translation of Given), the Chronicon Paschale is usually referenced under year numbers but occasionally under the pages of Dindorf’s edition (and is sometimes known as the Pasch. Comp.), and Malalas is usually referred to by book and chapter, but sometimes by pages of Dindorf’s edition. Victor of Tunnuna is also cited as Victor Tonn. These sorts of infelicities can take place in adjacent endnotes, e.g. p265 n17 (Malalas 378, Chron. Pasch. 600) and n18 (Malalas XV.2, Chron. Pasch. sa 477) or p265 n31 (Zacharias V.1.4) and n32 (Ps-Zacharias V.1.5) or even in the same endnote 266 n39 (Zacharias IV.1.4; Ps-Zacharias V.2,5) nor is there an entry in the primary bibliography under Pseudo-Zacharias); a stray Chron. Min. I in endnotes (e.g. 271 n16) duplicates an adjacent reference to Prosper Tiro. The heavily compressed nature of the primary source bibliography is only likely to be of use to professionals who will probably not be misled by the suggestion that the Notitia Dignitatum was translated by AHM Jones, that the Collectio Avellana was translated by Coleman-Norton, or be confused by separate references to an Excerpta Valesiana and an Anonymus Valesianus. Like Kosinski, Crawford cites Chitty’s The Desert a City and Chuvin’s A Chronicle of the Last Pagans in Polish editions. There are a few challenging references: Agathias XIV.29 (= IV.29), Candidus 164, etc. (= p164 of Henry’s edition of Photius’ Bibliotheca, referred to only in the secondary bibliography as “Henry, R., Photius, Blibliothque[sic]”), Chron. Pasch. 296.17 (=?), Priscus fr. 144 (=?), Priscus, Hist. II.348-9 (a reference to Blockley’s Fragmentary Classicising Historians, vol. 2, p348-9 (= fr. 41.3). Most of these errors are minor, though n.b. Alahan is spelt wrongly (as “Alatian”) in the text, index, and in two separate entries in the bibliography and the Pamprenius cited as the author of an Isaurica should be Pamprepius (here Crawford has been misled by Wood’s typological error in 2009, 133, (not 134 as cited). Nor has Crawford been well-served by the copy editing, (“yolk” for “yoke”, three times; Makelles as a an epithet for the emperor Leo I has been turned into Marcellus, Hellekemper, Krauthmeier, Lanaido or Lainado, Pashoud, Rostovzeff, Verdansky in the notes, correctly Hellenkemper, Krautheimer, Laniado, Paschoud, Rostovtzeff, Vernadsky in the bibliography, accents have been lost from many names and titles, occasional repetition of notes ch3 n 9 = ch 3 n 11, and mixtures of Roman and Arabic numerals (p267 n69 = Anon. Val. 9.42, n 72 = Anon. Val. IX.42). Cataloguing such minor errors is petty, but there is a point where the pressure to meet a publication deadline needs to be resisted.

When writing a historical work, the target audience is often posed as a choice between academics, students, and general audience. Crawford’s work on the life and reign of Zeno is a good introduction for a general audience to the complexities of the late fifth-century Roman Empire, telling a series of long and complex stories compellingly in a traditional fashion. More advanced students will enjoy the read, but probably be frustrated by the positivism regarding the primary sources.