Stephen Mitchell, A History of the Later Roman Empire AD 284-641. Blackwell History of the Ancient World. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Pp. xv + 469. ISBN 1- 4051-0856-8. UK£19.99.
R. Malcolm Errington
Philipps-Universität, Marburg, Germany
This volume of the on-going Blackwell History of the Ancient World is a very welcome addition to the growing collection of modern overviews of the Later Roman Empire. It is gratifying that a return to narrative history and a unified one-man view of the period is once more an acceptable approach for a major publisher (narrative history being by no means as out of date, nor as easy to write, as those who choose to regard it as old- fashioned like to think). Mitchell offers a convincing argument for the precedence of ‘political’ history in the broadest sense, since this is not only a convenient principle of structuring past time but also a major real structural element that provided the living framework within which changes in social practice and mental attitudes took place. He deliberately places his book as a counter-model to the ‘tendency to study social attitudes rather than social structures, popular activity in preference to high culture, mentalities rather than educational patterns, issues of personal or community identity rather than questions of national politics’ (p. 8). Moreover, it is consciously modernising in the best possible sense, drawing lessons for the interpretation of the Later Roman Empire from the rapid collapse of political structures that had seemed destined for eternity until they were suddenly gone, which we have experienced in the modern world over the last twenty years. The book can for this reason alone be thoroughly recommended.
This does not mean that it is always easy going. The Later Roman Empire, where so much was happening at the same time at different levels in various regions, inevitably produces a very dense narrative. Furthermore, written source material of one kind or another is available in quantities and with characteristics that threaten to overwhelm the historian of the ancient world, accustomed as he is to wholly inadequate sources. It is therefore important and sensible that Mitchell devotes a whole chapter to ‘The Nature of the Evidence’ (Chapter 2, pp. 13-46). Without aiming at encyclopaedic information, which would have produced a quite different type of book, Mitchell characterises the main types of information available to the historian, drawing attention to the specific tendencies of each type of source and the problems historians face in making use of them. Particularly important for the period in general are the material relics -— artefacts of various kinds and archaeological remains —- and Mitchell is careful throughout the book to draw on the results of modern art- historical and archaeological research and to incorporate its findings in his composite picture.
Two narrative chapters follow, full of exciting events, which take the story from Diocletian to Justinian (pp. 47- 100). Mitchell successfully combines narrative history with emphasis on trends; he notes in particular the significance of the Gothic problem and the importance for the history of the time of the inadequate integration of the Gothic immigrants into existing Roman social, governmental, and religious structures. Religious developments, which occupy an enormous mass of the source material for the period, are also set happily into the political context that created them, and the relatively minor importance of religious affairs in the imperial priority-list before the time of Justinian, where governmental and especially military priorities always dominated imperial thinking, is adequately emphasised. The narrative of fifth-century events is less cohesive than that for the fourth century, almost inevitably as fragmentary and disjointed as the events themselves. Justinian, however, rescues the narrative, as he tried to rescue the empire, by offering an identifiable purpose and in Procopius a thorough and contemporary narrative historian as main source.
Chapters 5-10 discuss systematic aspects of the period, always drawing attention to the political context within which the structural elements that Mitchell treats took place. Chapter 5, ‘The Roman State’ (pp. 155-90), makes good use of iconography to illustrate the ideology and priorities of the imperial government, pointing out the significant absence of Christian symbolism before the reign of Justinian; security, achieved through taxation and military expenditure, was top priority throughout, bureaucracy and law-giving served above all this central priority. Change in traditional city life and societal structural changes related to the spread of Christianity are also given close attention.
Chapter 6, ‘The Barbarian Kingdoms’ (pp. 191-224), gives an excellent and differentiated survey of the ‘New Powers’, drawing attention to their differences as well as their similarities. Mitchell characterises their way of life and their social structure and shows the different ways in which the various groups adapted to existing conditions. The main emphasis here is inevitably on the West. Chapter 7, ‘From Pagan to Christian’ (pp. 225-55), offers an excellent introduction into the historical complexity of the problem of the ‘Christianising’ of the empire, surveying the state of religious diversity in the third and fourth centuries, and showing the development of doctrinal problems as a major ecclesiastical issue as being a result of Constantine’s acceptance of Christianity. Here again the critical importance of the reign of Justinian for the assimilation of Church and State is rightly emphasised. The religious theme is continued in Chapter 8 (pp. 256-300), where more personal factors for conversion are reviewed, and especially the prominent and reasonably well-documented examples of Constantine, Julian, and Augustine are discussed in the context of the development of the idea of defining identity through religious affiliation. Chapters 9 (pp. 301-28) and 10 (pp. 329-70) deal with the political economy and associated societal changes. Mitchell emphasises the importance of the urban communities as mechanisms of regional and even empire-wide economic stimulus, especially the ‘Great Cities’ Rome, Constantinople, Carthage, Alexandria, and Antioch. Regional surveys serve to relate the political narrative to the structural discussion, Mitchell emphasising that when the major cities collapsed the regional economies which they had both stimulated and exploited also collapsed. This development was regionally diverse, always related to the ability of the imperial government to maintain the regional administrative infrastructures that generated taxation income and thereby guaranteed security. No real ‘global’ empire-wide, general picture emerges from Mitchell’s account, simply because there was none, merely different regional histories.
The book ends with two narrative chapters on the post- Justinianic world, emphasising the problems caused by natural disasters (especially the plague), the ongoing energy-sapping wars in Italy and Africa, but above all the challenges presented by Sassanians and Arabs, Avars, Slavs and Lombards. The story is complex, perhaps too complex for the brief treatment it receives here, though it was clearly an attractive proposition to bring the book to an end with the first successful onslaughts of Islamic forces.
A select bibliography (pp. 425-45), a chronological list of emperors (pp. 446f.), and a detailed index (pp. 448-69) complete this very welcome modern account of the Later Roman Empire.