Scholia Reviews 16 (2007) 25.

David S. Potter, A Companion to the Roman Empire. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. Pp. xxx + 691, incl. 2 maps, 40 illustrations, 9 tables, a bibliography, and an index. ISBN 0-631-22644-3. UK£95.00, US$149.95.

D. B. Saddington,
University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

Traditionally, Roman history from Augustus to the crisis of the Third Century involved a detailed study of political and dynastic developments under the emperors together with their foreign policy, in effect, wars and provincial administration. One used Tacitus and other historians, and various literary sources. Increasingly their lacunae came to be filled by inscriptions, papyri, numismatics and even archaeology, what the Germans call the Hilfswissenschaften. Thus the approach in the first edition of CAH and briefer works such as Cary’s History of Rome.[[1]] But various aspects of Roman culture also attracted attention, the urban planning and the architecture of cities, sculpture, the economy, agriculture. These were usually called antiquities, as in Sir William Ramsay’s still valuable manual.[[2]]

This splendid Companion lays emphasis on rather different aspects of the Roman world. There is, however, a brief review of traditional history and of the auxiliary sciences and some antiquities, like Roman Law, survive. Full presentation is given to such modern concerns as gender, the body, and spectacle. The section on religion gives far more space to Judaism and Christianity than to the traditional Roman cults.

The old traditional history is called narrative. In this volume, G. Rowe discusses the period from 44 B.C. to A.D. 96 (pp. 115-25), M. Peachin that from 96-235 (pp. 126-52), D. Potter (the editor) that from 235-337 (pp. 153-74); this in 60 of the book’s 490 pages. In the section entitled ‘Administration’ C. Ando sets out ‘The Administration of the Provinces’ (pp. 177-92), H. Elton ‘The Transformation of Government after Diocletian’ (pp. 193-205), N. Pollard ‘The Roman Army’ (pp. 206-27), followed by ‘Greek Cities under Roman Rule’ (pp. 228-49) by M. Gleason and ‘Cities and Urban Life in the Western Provinces of the Roman Empire 30 BCE-250 CE’ (pp. 250-80) by J. Edmondson. The economy, agriculture, the family, leisure and spectacle are among the later themes offered. Part V is given over to literature and philosophy and VI, as noted, to religion.

In his introduction (pp. 1-19) Potter, examines a theme that often recurs in later contributions, the modern historiography of the empire and its influence on the study of the period. He has interesting things to say about such figures as Mommsen, Momigliano, and Syme, as well as distinguished American scholars. Then he analyses the position of the Senate down the years, looking at what expectations a senator might have of the emperor and how a senator should comport himself to achieve success. The chapter on documents (pp. 45-74) by T. Gagos and the editor rather strangely contains a long, but good, section on the administration of Egypt, which surely would have been better placed in Part III ‘Administration’. The first half of their chapter could have been extended to list the corpora of inscriptions most useful to students. The paragraph on the equestrian career (pp. 58-60) unfortunately omits the municipal and military positions normally held by equestrians before the procuratorships.

The chapter on the first period of the empire (pp. 115-25) is the most disappointing in the Companion. It is strange to see that the technical term ‘principate’ is not used in this section (in fact, it is defined nowhere in the whole work); instead the Augustan system is called a monarchy. This can be regarded as realistic -- it might even be possible to resort to the word tyranny, a term Cicero had no qualms in applying to Caesar’s dominance at Rome. But Augustus’ work was a brilliant piece of political engineering that deployed many aspects of Roman politics and was a good example of the achievement of civic stability after civil war. On page 115 Divi filius is misleadingly translated as `son of the Divine’ with a capital D, which suggests an 18th-century type of theology foreign to all but a few philosophers in Rome. On page 120 ‘the praetorian guard assassinated Gaius’ would be more accurately expressed as ‘an officer in the Guard’ -- Cassius Chaerea was supported by only a few other conspirators, and almost certainly by some senators. The chapter on the period from Nerva to the Severans (pp. 126-52) is more balanced, putting opposing views clearly and succinctly. It is interesting on the clash between the hereditary and the adoptive system of choosing the successor to a deceased emperor. The limits on, and range of an emperor’s actions is well set out. On page 138 ‘passed’ should be ‘passed away’.

On the provinces (pp. 177-92) Ando stresses the lack of a unitary bureaucratic structure in provincial administration. On the other hand (p. 192) he underlines the need to assemble the isolated documents found in the provinces for study in the aggregate. He is useful on fiscal officials such as the procurators as well as on the cities under their local aristocracies. In Chapter 11, on the army, Pollard outlines Augustus’ reforms, later developments and the role of the army in politics (for which see also Peachin, pp. 138ff.), the effect of the army on the economy and the rest of society and, finally, the reforms under Diocletian. This is a clear and well arranged survey. However, on p. 209 it is wrong to describe Cologne as a long-term fortress -- the legions were at Neuss and Bonn. On page 211 (cf. p. 223) it is incorrect to describe military diplomas as ‘discharge documents’ -- they did not give honesta missio but grants of Roman citizenship, sometimes even to auxiliaries who continued in service after their enfranchisement. On page 215 it is somewhat misleading to speak of ‘The Army in Politics’. The armed forces of the Roman empire consisted of several exercitus or armies of legionaries and auxiliaries, of varying origins and status, deployed in separate provincial commands along the frontiers. Given the distances involved and the rudimentary system of communication of the period it was extremely difficult for them to co-ordinate action. Even when a particular exercitus chose its own emperor, it could not always rely even on the tacit support of the other provincial armies. In fact, the legions often fought over the succession. Even the Praetorian Guard, compact as it was, did not always act as a united body. Otho had to suborn it with agents -- see above on Gaius. The role of the army in politics needs stricter definition.

The analyses of city life and city government in the East and the West by N. Gleason (pp. 228-49) and J. Edmondson (pp. 250-80) are valuable. M. Gleason (pp. 229-31) does not see a dangerous rift between asserting Greek culture and being a loyal subject of Rome. Paideia (p. 243) was valued by Greek and Roman alike. In fig. 12.2a the incident referred to is told in Acts, not the gospel of Luke. J. Edmondson has a good introduction on the conceptualization of an ancient city, of the shape of civic centres and the political activities carried on in them.

In Part IV, D. Mattingly gives a balanced account of ‘The Imperial Economy’ (pp. 283-97). He underlines the central concern of the need to supply Rome, especially with corn for the annona. He is interesting on new sources of information, such as the Greenland ice-cores providing evidence of pollution from metals and increasingly sophisticated nautical archaeology. The general picture remains uneven, with both primitivist features and evidence of significant advantages in technology. For ‘The Family’ (pp. 312-26) J. Grubbs gives an acute analysis of two unusual personal texts which give insight into the outlook of women, the Laudatio Turiae and the ‘Martyrdom of Perpetua’. To this is added a discussion of the Younger Pliny’s three wives. The editor underlines the place of spectacle (pp. 385-408) in Roman life. Due attention is given to the amphitheatre and other expensive shows like naumachiae. Drama and pantomime are sensibly analysed. The pay-off of spectacular entertainment for the emperor is duly signalled.[[3]]

In Part V, R. Smith (pp. 411-38) has a perceptive discussion of Roman and Greek imperial historiography -- it is good to have a judicious assessment of Josephus (pp. 432-36). K. Myers (pp. 439-52) follows on poetry. She adheres to a strictly chronological approach and has sensible things to say about the relation of the poets to the emperors. But one misses something on the poets’ poetry as such, or items such as Horace’s humour. J. Matthews writes on Law (pp. 447-91). He provides a valuable survey of the Digest and on the making of law in the principate.

In the final section, after a discussion of ‘Traditional Cult’ by D. Frankfurter (pp. 543-64), which has useful definitions of Roman religious terminology and illustrations from especially Eastern and Egyptian cults, but rather neglects the traditional twelve gods of Rome, there is (as noted above) a long section on Judaism and Christianity. This is valuable because these belief systems have traditionally been treated as phenomena somewhat apart from mainstream Roman history. Yet the Jewish Diaspora was widespread in the empire (see Y. Eliav on p. 565) and Christianity became the empire’s dominant religion. Y. Eliav is wide-ranging on the ‘Jews and Judaism 70-429 CE’ (pp. 545-86) but avoids discussion of the Jewish Revolt under Nero and other Jewish insurrections in his section on the historical framework (pp. 570-73).[[4]] P. Fredriksen (pp. 587-606) is a bit slick and somewhat too iconoclastic in her survey of Christianity. ‘Heresies’ and disputes were indeed widespread but the movement managed to cohere. M. Edwards on ‘Christian Thought’ (pp. 607-19) gives an instructive and dispassionate thumbnail sketch of Jesus being transformed into a cult figure (p. 608). The theology of the early church fathers is then set forth with acuteness and brevity.

The main drawback of a compilation of this kind is the absence of due attention to diachronical and synchronical frameworks.[[5]] Emperors appear at random, but to the non-expert how did the principates of Tiberius or Hadrian or Commodus differ? One needs more of the chronological approach such as that used by S. Myers in her discussion of the poetry in the empire. J. Grubbs’ pen-portraits of ‘Turia’ and Perpetua are superb, but how are they related? One was the wife of a wealthy aristocrat in Rome itself in the first century B.C. who exhibited traditional Roman values, the other the daughter of a (possible) town councillor in a province three centuries later, who rejected those values. The only links are their sufferings, that they were both women and Roman citizens. But during that period Roman citizenship had evolved out of all recognition. Generally speaking, the uninformed reader does not receive much assistance from the admittedly excellent accounts of aspects of Roman life that are given towards a central framework. Contextualization is needed.

It was a surprise to see American spelling adopted for a book published by a British firm. There are no footnotes, which has led to the insertion of sometimes disruptively long lists of authors and years of publication in brackets in the text itself, but overall this elegantly and carefully edited book is a resounding success. It will long be a valuable resource for those interested in central aspects of the culture of the Roman empire.


[[1]] J. B. Bury (ed.), The Cambridge Ancient History (Cambridge 1923-1939); M. Cary and H. H. Scullard, A History of Rome down to the Reign of Constantine (London 1979[3]).

[[2]] William Ramsay, A Manual of Roman Antiquities (London 1851 [many editions]).

[[3]] On page 400 ‘Cyndus’ should be ‘Cydnus’.

[[4]] On page 556 ‘supercede’ should be ‘supersede’; on page 572 the caption to fig. 28.2b ELAKOSUIAS should surely read (H)ELAKUIAS.

[[5]] It is instructive to compare the second edition of CAH X and XI. It devotes about three quarters of its space to political and administrative history and only a quarter to cultural issues.