Scholia Reviews ns 12 (2003) 3.

David Rohrbacher, The Historians of Late Antiquity. London and New York: Routledge, 2002. Pp. viii + 324. ISBN 0-415-20459-3. UK£13.99.

Andrew Gillett
Macquarie University, Sydney

This useful and well-executed volume will be an aid for those teaching courses on the late Roman empire, and for researchers of earlier Roman or medieval history who require a sound introduction to the writers addressed, as well as for devotees of late antique historiography. Rohrbacher has surveyed a selection of late antique historians and major themes in their works, and produced accessible, well- researched accounts. Basically a reference work, this book has an advantage over encyclopaedic articles on its topics both in terms of length (chapters range from eight to twenty-seven octavo pages), and the unity of its theme, which permits useful comparisons between various authors.

The book is divided into three sections: a short introduction, giving a conservative thumb-nail sketch of major events in political and religious history from the mid-third to the mid-fifth centuries; twelve chapters on individual historians; and seven chapters on themes in their works. At the end of each chapter on an individual historian, references are given to editions and translations (including on-line); the notes and bibliography give useful orientation to the secondary literature. The chapters on the historians are the more valuable section of the work, though the thematic chapters (on historiography, government, the Roman past, religion, barbarians, and the emperors Julian and Theodosius -- one might expect Constantine in this company) provide solid overviews.

The authors treated here focus on the late Roman empire during the second half of the fourth century and first half of the fifth. The dozen historians represent the `sub-genres' of classicising historiography (Ammianus Marcellinus, Eunapius, Olympiodorus, Priscus), breviaria (Aurelius Victor, Eutropius, Festus), ecclesiastical history (Rufinus, Socrates, Sozomen, Theodoret), and Orosius, who is sui generis.

Excluded are earlier works (most strikingly Eusebius, an omission which will require some users of the chapters on the ecclesiastical historians to seek supplementary material elsewhere) and historical genres other than classicising and ecclesiastical historiography, most importantly chronicles (though Augustine's De civitate Dei, as arguably the earliest substantial work of historical theory, deserves a place in a survey of late antique historical thought). Also left aside are compositions after the late fifth century, perhaps most significantly Procopius; this choice also means that late antique works written outside the geographical boundaries of the Roman empire (e.g. Gregory of Tours in Frankish Gaul, the Armenian historians including Lazar and Sebeos) and in languages other than Greek and Latin (e.g. Syriac sources such as Pseudo-Joshua the Stylite) are not included. Neither are the miscellaneous works which can be regarded as historical monographs: Lactantius' De mortibus persecutorum, the two imperial biographies of Constantine and Theoderic known as the Anonymus Valesianus, and Jordanes' Getica.

Within the genres and time-period studied in this book, there are some laudable inclusions and notable omissions. The serious treatment of the three minor historians who produced breviaria is praiseworthy: Ammianus' full-length work, redolent of both Thucydides and Tacitus, may appeal more to classicists' tastes, and provide much of our raw data on the fourth century, but the potboilers of Roman history concocted by Aurelius Victor, Eutropius, and Festus surely give a better impression of such historical learning as most educated citizens of the late empire possessed (it is striking, though not mentioned by Rohrbacher, that Eutropius' work was translated into Greek, twice, the first time within a decade of publication). Given that classicising historiography is tacitly assumed to be the normative form of the genre, it is nevertheless a small pity that the only large-scale history beside Ammianus which is fully extant from the period, the Historia Augusta, a pseudo-historical continuation of Suetonius' Caesares, is barely mentioned.

Rufinus, who translated Eusebius' ecclesiastical history into Latin before appending the earliest extant continuation (and the only one originally composed in Latin), is a welcome inclusion, often overlooked by surveys of the church historians.[[1]] But Philostorgius, a direct contemporary of Socrates, Sozomen, and Theodoret, whose work is preserved in a substantial Byzantine summary, would have made the survey complete, and underscored the peculiarity of the striking cluster of ecclesiastical historians re- writing similar material in the 430s/440s, mostly at Constantinople. It is refreshing to see Rohrbacher's positive assessment of Orosius. Maligned, justifiably, as a poor historian, Orosius was as important as Eutropius for later centuries' knowledge of the past; he is also a unique source for the early decades of the fifth century, and he possessed a vision of history which was in many ways creative, if contorted. His ambivalent feelings about the security and exploitation inherent in imperial rule still strike a chord today.

While Rohrbacher's accounts of each historian are based on close familiarity with the texts, he also provides convenient summaries of important modern discussions and debates, with a particular emphasis on the most recent scholarship, especially in English. These assessments are usually judicious and can be used with confidence by readers. Errors of fact or interpretation are rare.

My few caveats include: (i) The chapter on Ammianus does not perhaps take adequate account of the insights into Ammianus' technical and intellectual bases offered by T. D. Barnes' recent monograph.[[2]] (ii) It is wrong to say that there were no other narrative historians contemporary with Olympiodorus: Gregory of Tours, Historiae 2.8f. preserves substantial fragments of two classicising Latin historians, Sulpicius Alexander and Renatus Profuturus Frigeridus, whose works may have been related to Olympiodorus'.[[3]] (iii) The assumption that fragments of Priscus preserved by Byzantine excerpters `probably preserve many of the highlights' (p. 92) is risky: where we have a text which is both fully extant and preserved by Byzantine sources, to act as a control on Byzantine practices of exception or summary (as in the case of Procopius' Wars, excerpted in the works of Constantine VII Porphyrogenitos and summarised by Photius in his Bibliotheca), the original may be very different from its Byzantine representation. (iv) The lost church history of Gelasius of Caesarea may not have been the first continuation of Eusebius' work: the work of the `Arian Historian' which underlies parts of the church history of Philostorgius may have been contemporary or earlier.[[4]]

Treatment of these late antique historians as a class produces some valuable insights. The intriguing synchronicity of the mid-fifth century Greek ecclesiastical historians has already been noted; the authors of the Latin breviaria probably did not write quite as close in time, but their relative proximity is nonetheless striking, especially as Eutropius and Festus were probably contemporary and rival holders of high office and perhaps wrote while in office. The public careers of Aurelius Victor, Eutropius, and Festus are all at least partially known, from Ammianus Marcellinus and other sources, whereas none of the other authors is attested anywhere except in his own pages, with the exception of Orosius and possibly Ammianus (a topic of major debate, summarised at pp. 15-17, 19, 29). The influence of the imperial court hovers over many of the works: Eutropius and Festus both dedicated their works to the emperor Valens, and may have been commissioned by him; both Olympiodorus and Sozomen dedicated their works to Theodosius II. Eutropius and Olympiodorus reveal their palatine milieu through style, Eutropius by his predilection for abstract substantives, characteristic of the chancellery prose of the Theodosian Code and other products of the court, Olympiodorus by his unclassical transliteration of Latin titles for governmental posts and citing of exact figures.

Rohrbacher does not dedicate space explicitly to historical works which are known to have been written but are now lost (e.g. the account of the civil war between Constantius II and Magnentius written by Faltonia Betitia Proba, or the history of uncertain scale by Virius Nicomachus Flavianus -- both authors, interestingly, Roman nobles, unlike all the extant historians). Nevertheless, he does make clear the importance to many extant works of two lost histories: the so-called Kaisergeschichte, a brief account of imperial and military history underlying Ammianus, all the breviaria, and other works; and the ecclesiastical history of Gelasius of Caesarea, a lost fourth-century continuator of Eusebius who was used by Rufinus, Socrates, Sozomen, and Theodoret.

The close connections between these twelve histories, because of common sources, time of production, careers and milieu of their authors, or intent, emerge profitably from Rohrbacher's surveys. This book is welcome for its presentation of late antique historians as a distinct category of authors, and its sound introductions to their works and to current scholarship.


[[1]] For example, G. F. Chesnut, The First Christian Histories: Eusebius, Socrates, Sozomen, Theodoret, and Evagrius (Macon, Georgia 1986[2]).

[[2]] T. D. Barnes, Ammianus Marcellinus and the Representation of Historical Reality (Ithaca and London, 1998).

[[3]] See F. Paschoud, `Note sur les relations de trois historiens des IVe et Ve siècle,' Antiquité Tardive 6 (1998) 313-16.

[[4]] See S. Lieu and D. Montserrat, From Constantine to Julian (London and New York 1996) 37.