Michael Grant, The Severans: The Changed Roman Empire. London and New York: Routledge, 1996. Pp. xvi + 117, incl. 32 black and white plates. ISBN 0-415-12772-6. UKú25.00.
University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg
Routledge has given us another book from Michael Grant Publications Ltd. The natural person who lurks under this entity in which the copyright vests might consider changing its name to Michael Grant Industries Ltd. The author's book tally is in the fifties, a remarkable figure even for a scholar regarded essentially as a popularizer, 'perhaps the greatest popularizer we have known in this century', as a reviewer of an earlier Grant work put it.[]
This volume is a kind of sequel to Grant's 1994 study of the Antonines.[] A brief introduction, which begins as if the book is indeed only a section of a longer history, gives an overview of the Severan period and directs our attention to the topics on which the author is going to focus. The first four chapters are devoted to an outline of the political history and personalities of the dynasty from Septimius Severus to Severus Alexander, with the praetorian guard and prefecture highlighted in chapter 2. The remaining chapters (5-12) proceed thematically, covering provincial policy and the Constitutio Antoniniana, the army, finance, the influential women of the dynasty, jurists (Papinian, Paulus, Ulpian), the Greek novel (with focus on Longus), art and architecture, and paganism and Christianity. There is a short epilogue, an appendix on the literary sources, a bibliography, and a general index.
This summary might suggest that Grant has provided a comprehensive treatment of one of the less well-known periods of Roman history, a valuable introduction for the specialist in other branches of the Classics, the student, and the educated general reader alike. In fact he satisfies the needs of none of these, and the book must unhesitatingly be pronounced a failure. The fault lies above all in its scale. The main text, including the epilogue and appendix, runs to only 90 pages, to which are subjoined 13 pages of notes. A book as brief as this, which ranges at the same time over a variety of topics, allows no scope for serious historical analysis. Some themes are properly emphasized: the importance of Septimius' army reforms, for instance, or the centrality of the fiscus in the politics of the period. But there is little argument and still less problematization of Severan history; what we get is a sketch, attempting to present a multiplex view of a forty-year phase in the life of the Roman Empire in impossible compass.
The sense of superficiality and fragmentation which results is compounded by the slapdash manner of composition. No care or trouble has gone into this book. In parts Grant has shamelessly pillaged his earlier publications and those of others for passages of text chosen not for some especially happy formulation or striking phrase, or because they offer an effective way in to discussion of a particular issue, but because they save him time and effort. Over half of the longest chapter, on art and architecture (pp. 60-73) is made up of such quotations, two of them unencumbered by references. The following chapter, which also makes use of this technique, is even more disjointed. It is plain that the book has been dashed off with the scantest regard for style or flow; I should not be surprised to learn that it had been written by dictaphone and printed unrevised, which would explain (for example) the appearance within eleven lines of the sentences 'The new emperor was the son of Julia Soaemias, Varius Avitus Bassianus, commonly known as Elagabalus' and 'The 14-year-old son of [Julia Maesa's] daughter Julia Soaemias, whom we know as Elagabalus ...' (p. 24), or the atrociously constructed 'The sculptors are Asian, and there is also evidence of African influence, since Lepcis Magna was in Africa and Septimius came from Africa and Lepcis, so that we see depictions of the African gods Hercules and Bacchus' (p. 69, on the Arch of Septimius at Lepcis). An enthusiastic editor with a box of blue pencils would have spared the author some blushes, and might at the same time have picked up slips of other kinds, such as the reference to the temple of Terra Mater 'taking place' (plate 9) or the glossing of a comment on the Jews under Septimius (p. 80) with the note 'Caracalla's wet-nurse was said to have been a Christian' (p. 105 n. 18; nn. 18 and 19 have presumably been transposed).
But no amount of editing of this kind could have spared this book a bad review. Even in a superficial history we should expect sufficient explanation to meet a reader's more obvious queries (what, for instance, were the 'indulgences' initiated by Caracalla [p. 49]?), and clearer thinking: the discussion of the financial implications of Septimius' Parthian campaigns (pp. 39-42) simply goes round in circles. Other passages are merely bizarre. Describing Septimius' character, Grant writes (p. 13) that he was superstitious, and was said to have regarded his rule as predestined. 'But he caught smallpox in Egypt, and for the rest of his life suffered from bad feet -- though it is difficult to attribute this to smallpox -- which limited his physical activity.' The text which accompanies the picture of the Baths of Caracalla (plate 31) tells us that they are still used for performances of opera, 'although audiences have found it somewhat disconcerting when huge fragments of the ancient structure fly off the main fabric and fall to the ground.' A passage on p. 4 reads as if the author is writing for 10-year-olds: 'Septimius's wife Julia Domna was clearly a remarkable person. She did not, however, rule the empire, because her very powerful husband did that.' The fact is that Grant has not confronted the questions central to any academic publication: what exactly do I want to say, to whom do I want to say it, and how can it best be said? Instead of a serious popular history, informative and focused, or an entertaining one, rich in anecdote, we get thoughts off the top of the author's head on a variety of topics, not all closely related to the period under scrutiny: Longus may not even have written under the Severans (as the author admits, p. 54), and, if it could be established that he did, Daphnis and Chloe would still tell us little about the Severan age specifically (this chapter [pp. 53-9] is generally one of the worst parts of the book, a third of it devoted to a synopsis of the novel riddled with confusion, error, and misrepresentation;[] we are also told [p. 84] that Longus was 'one of the most prolific writers of antiquity').
A full list of this book's shortcomings would be long, and it was for a copy-editor, not this reviewer, to provide it. We are all grateful to Routledge for its vigorous commitment to Classics publishing, and understand the need for commercial enterprises to make money; but serious academic publishers ought to ensure that what goes under their imprint does not fall below an appropriate standard. In this case the publisher has capitalized on a famous name to put out -- at a high retail price -- a book that, though attractively presented, is a shambles. It is not only our 'greatest popularizer' whose reputation has been dented by The Severans.
[] Who this reviewer was I do not know; the dust jacket merely attributes the words to Greece and Rome, identifying the work concerned as The Rise of the Greeks (London 1987). But P.J. Rhodes, who reviewed this book in G&R 35 (1988) 217, said nothing of the kind.
[] The Antonines: The Roman Empire in Transition (London and New York 1994).
[] The author states (p. 101 n. 7) that the summary is adapted from G. Anderson, Ancient Fiction: The Novel in the Graeco-Roman World (London and Sydney 1984); but the faults are his own, and they imply a startling lack of familiarity with the text itself.