Thursday, 12 June 2014

A review of Doug Lee's From Rome to Byzantium

From Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.06.23 (12 June 2014)

A.D. Lee, From Rome to Byzantium AD 363 to 565: The Transformation of Ancient Rome (Edinburgh History of Ancient Rome). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013. pp. xxii + 337. ISBN 978-0-7486-2790-5. £29.99 (paperback). Gavin Kelly, University of Edinburgh (


This history of the Roman empire from the death of Julian to the death of Justinian is the eighth and final volume in the Edinburgh History of Ancient Rome, and the fifth to be published (we await volumes on early Rome and the empire from Tiberius to Commodus). (1) Each of the eight volumes is by a separate author, and while the General Editor, John Richardson, has not quite maintained the original plan of shepherding all eight to the press within two years, which would have been a miracle of scholarly husbandry, the overall achievement is nevertheless impressively efficient. The series places a stronger emphasis on chronologically ordered narrative than rivals with other publishers do. Covering the late Roman period, where in recent years social and religious change have received more scholarly attention than political and military history, this is welcome, and A.D. Lee, as the author of important studies on diplomacy, warfare, and religion in the period, is a well-qualified guide.

The work falls naturally into three smaller periods, each with different challenges for the historian: two well-attested and heavily studied ones – the post-Constantinian empire of the later fourth century, and the age of Justinian in the sixth century – and in between them the long fifth century, when eastern and western empires diverge and the sources become more lacunose and the historiographical problems greater, especially those surrounding the ending of Roman power in the west. Accordingly, following a scene-setting chapter on ‘The Constantinian Inheritance’, Lee divides the work into three chronologically organized Parts (I. ‘The later fourth century’, II. ‘The long fifth century’, IV. ‘The age of Justinian’) and one diachronic Part (III. ‘Longer term trends’).

Part I, ‘The later fourth century’, covers the period 363-395. Though the starting date is presumably an imposition of the series, Lee makes the case for the division of the empire between Valentinian and Valens in 364 rather than that between the sons of Theodosius in 395 as being the fundamental moment of separation of east and west (one can see it prefigured long before, of course). This part begins with chapters on political and military history (2. ‘Emperors, usurpers and frontiers’), one on religious history (3. ‘Towards a Christian empire’): the division of political and religious topics into successive chapters is maintained in all three narrative parts of the book, and works reasonably well. The bias of chapters on religion throughout is towards what might be called ecclesiastical history (emperors, heresies, councils, anti-pagan legislation) above the more fashionable sociological approaches to religion, though Lee is by no means blind to the latter. The third chapter of the section focuses on Rome and New Rome, which also offers the opportunity to treat the senatorial aristocracy.

Part II (‘The long fifth century’), covers 395 to 527, and its chronological breadth leads to a more thematic treatment overall. The first chapter of the section (5. ‘Generalissimos and imperial courts’) boldly combines the different trajectories of east and west in the first half of the fifth century, and is followed by chapters on ‘Barbarians and Romans’ and on ‘Church and state, piety and power’ (again, primarily ecclesiastical history, though with a few pages on holy men). The last two chapters of the section treat the resurgent east and the post-Roman west separately (8. ‘Anastasius and the resurrection of imperial power’, 9. ‘Rome’s heirs in the west’). Lee chooses to include some highly insightful pages on the emperor Justin (519-527) in the ‘long fifth century’ section, deliberately resisting the trend, begun by Procopius, of treating his reign as an overture to his nephew’s.

In Part III, on ‘Longer term trends’, Lee’s themes of choice are urbanism and the economy, both of which enable broad geographical coverage over the longer durĂ©e. A subsection on ‘education and culture is included in the cities chapter. Part IV, ‘The Age of Justinian’, comprises once again separate chapters on politics and religion (12. ‘Justinian and the Roman past’, 13 ‘Justinian and the Christian present’) and finally a relatively short closural chapter that includes the briefest flashforward to the turmoil of the great war against Persia and the Arab invasions of the seventh century. A slightly later formal terminus might have worked, though I have no quarrel with 565; on the other hand it is welcome that the series as a whole takes the story into the sixth century and avoids the traditional trap of identifying the end of Roman rule in the west with the end of the Roman world in either west or east.

The book has many virtues. Accuracy, as Housman remarked, is a duty not a virtue, but Lee is extremely accurate in comparison to some of his competitors. The only errors I spotted were trivial or arguable ones (p. 45: is it not anachronistic to think of Thessalonica, a city of the Illyrican prefecture, as being ‘eastern’ when Theodosius moved there in 379-80? It had been ruled by western emperors since 317 and only became attached to the east long term in the 390s). University students must surely comprise the majority of the target audience and Lee does not forget the book’s didactic purpose. Scholarly quarrels are generally kept out of the text (a prudent exception being explicit discussion of the controversy between Goffart and others on barbarian settlements in Chapter 6), but the footnotes tend to highlight stimulating and up-to-date works, not solely though predominantly Anglophone, in a manner that bright students will be able to make excellent use of (this is particularly welcome when many ancient history textbooks either lack annotation at all, or only have endnotes – hardly a good example if students are expected to produce properly referenced work themselves). Illustration is not lavish, but there are twenty-two well-chosen, well photographed and well-captioned pictures, as well as eight maps, not all as good as they might be: the larger-scale ones cut off Britain and pointlessly include most of the Sahara; those showing provinces lack boundary lines.

My one reservation about the book arises from a decision which was presumably not Lee's: that the last volume of this multi-author history should cover a period of over 200 years. I have no argument with the terminus, as I have said, but it is striking that the previous volume in the series covered a mere eighty years, and the one before that (dealing with the third century, the worst attested period in imperial history), ninety years. A great deal of material is crammed into 300 odd pages, but to balance the other volumes in the series it would have worked better to divide the period into two or even three volumes. Lee has space to introduce some interests of his own beyond what had to be covered, but I cannot help feeling that a more detailed canvas would have given the work a greater degree of individual flair to go along with its undoubted authority. He foregrounds both familiar and unfamiliar source texts from the period, but discussion of them is usually curt; there could have been more on the practice of administration, among many examples. In short, a fine achievement, but I wish it were longer.

1. The first seven volumes in the series are as follows: 1. Guy Bradley, Early Rome to 290 BC: The Beginnings of the City and the Rise of the Republic (forthcoming); 2. Nathan Rosenstein, Rome and the Mediterranean 290 to 146 BC: The Imperial Republic (2012), reviewed at BMCR 2014.05.13; 3. Catherine Steel, The End of the Roman Republic 146 BC to 44 BC: Conquest and Crisis (2013), 4. J.S. Richardson, Augustan Rome 44 BC to AD 14: The Restoration of the Republic and the Establishment of the Empire (2012), reviewed at BMCR 2012.09.45; 5. Jonathan Edmondson, Imperial Rome AD 14 to 192: The First Two Centuries (forthcoming); 6. Clifford Ando, Imperial Rome AD 193 to 284: The Critical Century (2012, reviewed at BMCR 2012.11.31), 7. Jill Harries, Imperial Rome AD 284 to 363: The New Empire (2012).

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