Scholia Reviews ns 8 (1999) 30.

Michael Grant, The Collapse and Recovery of the Roman Empire. London and New York: Routledge, 1999. Pp. xviii + 121, incl. 7 black-and-white maps and 27 half-tone illustrations. ISBN 0-415-17323-X. UK£20.00.

John Hilton
Classics, University of Natal, Durban

In an autobiographical note (p. 94) at the conclusion of this book, Grant reveals that he resigned from an academic post at the age of 51 in order to devote his time fully to writing books on ancient history and classical civilisation. A biographical detail of the author provided by the publisher states that he was born in 1914. For the last 35 years, therefore, Grant has successfully been producing, among many other things: studies of personalities such as Caesar, Cleopatra, Jesus, and St. Paul; translations of Roman historians; historiographical, historical, and literary surveys; numismatic collections; mythological reference works; archaeological illustrations of Roman and Pompeian society; and an atlas of ancient history. These books, some translated into languages other than English, stand in large numbers on the shelves of not only academic, but more significantly, public libraries throughout the world -- for Grant writes above all for town rather than gown. At a time when many ancient historians and classicists are contemplating life outside of the academy, the appearance of yet another work by Grant thus raises a number of questions, such as: What aspect of classical antiquity does he believe will attract general interest in the closing years of the millenium? Does he have anything new to say on the subject? Does he offer value for money?

Grant states his theme in a brief introduction (pp. xviif.), and I shall illustrate his 'patch-work' style (by his own admission on p. xvii) by quoting this passage in full:

'The interesting thing about this period is that the Roman empire -- of which the past history, together with that of the Greeks which it inherited, is summarily added in an Appendix -- showed every sign of collapse. But it did not collapse -- it went on, in the west, for another two hundred years, and in the east for far, far longer. Why and how was this? I have never seen this issue frankly and adequately discussed.' (p. xvii)
This quotation is not untypical of Grant's writing in the book: the syntax is rather relaxed, the punctuation casual, the vocabulary restricted, the dating probably intentionally vague, and the thought serendipitous (the reader must try to find a happy connection between 'past' Roman and Greek history, the collapse of the western Roman empire in the fifth century, and the fall of the Byzantine empire in the fifteenth). Moreover, the word 'frankly' illustrates Grant's overtly subjective interpretation of ancient history. The effect of all this is engaging, the tone is chatty and informal, and the reader senses the enthusiasm of the author for his subject. Grant's personal interest in this period of history is clear from the fact that he evidently supplied his own photographs of coins (as often, greatly magnified from the originals) used to illustrate the book, and quotes extensively from his own previous discussions of the subject.[[1]]

The main body of the book is divided into three parts. Part I, 'Collapse', contains three short chapters sketching the reasons for the loss of imperial control by the Roman emperors in the third century. They are: Chapter 1, 'The Succession of Emperors' (pp. 3-15); Chapter 2, 'The Germans' (pp. 16-19); and Chapter 3, 'The Persians' (pp. 19f.). The brevity of these chapters (and this criticism applies to the book as a whole) is further attenuated by large illustrations, some of which occupy an entire page. This is perhaps understandable in a book that is written for a popular readership, but twenty-seven substantial illustrations over a total of 68 A5 pages means that the discussion lacks coherence and the argument becomes unfocused and fragmentary. The situation is exacerbated by Grant's practice of lifting substantial chunks of text from the work of other scholars, his own previous publications, and standard reference works such as the latest edition of the Oxford Classical Dictionary.[[2]] Grant's defence is that 'it would be too egotistical to suppose that no one had written about the period at all, or to any purpose' (p. xvii), but in fact this devalues the book, at the very least, and betrays the reader's expectation of obtaining fresh insight into the history of the period from it. For this reason alone this publication is unsuitable for students, who may be moved to similar intellectual shortcuts after looking it over.

Part II, 'Recovery', consists of four chapters, each focusing on a different factor that presumably was responsible for the reestablishment of control over the empire: Chapter 4, 'Strong Emperors' (pp. 23-34); Chapter 5, 'The Army Reconstituted' (pp. 35-38); Chapter 6, 'Diocletian' (pp. 39-43), Chapter 7, 'Coinage and Finance' (pp. 44-49); and Chapter 8, 'State Religion' (pp. 49-54). The reader is left to infer how the recovery of the Roman Empire in the third century was the result of military and financial reforms of 'strong emperors', since Grant fails to make this entirely clear, despite his own introductory comments quoted above. For example, he concludes his argument in his epilogue (pp. 67f.) as follows:

'Nevertheless, the empire did not collapse, but survived . . . This is an extraordinary story, which has partly escaped us. It has escaped us because the ancient accounts of what happened are incomplete, inadequate and biased, so that it has been very difficult to build up a modern account. In actual fact, the survival of the empire, in the face of intolerable odds, is something of a miracle, and one of the most remarkable phenomena in human history . . . It is the task of the present book to outline this collapse and recovery. As already stated, there is not much that is reliable among the sources . . . ' (p. 67)
Thus Grant returns in his final pages to state, rather redundantly, what he had outlined in his opening as the problem to be investigated (p. xvii), without adequately discussing, for example, the economic context in which the 'recovery' is said to have taken place. It is also not made clear how the adoption of the cult of Sol Invictus by Aurelian contributed to this process. The charge of irrelevance applies all the more to Part III, 'Away from Politics', which consists of a chapter on 'Philosophy and Personal Religion' (Chapter 9, pp. 57-61) and 'Heliodorus and the Aethiopica' (Chapter 10, pp. 62-65).

A possible explanation for the lack of focus of the book may lie in a fundamental dilemma facing the author. On the one hand, he clearly believes that the 'recovery' of the Roman empire in the third century holds important lessons for our own times; on the other, the means by which this was achieved are to be avoided at all costs. Thus he states that 'militarism, over-taxation, excessive bureaucracy, [and] dictatorial autocracy' are things to be shunned in current plans to 'establish the new Europe' (p. 68). But these were precisely the reasons for the continuation of the Roman empire in the third century -- the military reforms of the 'strong emperor' Gallienus (p. 35) together with Diocletian's drastic reforms of the tax-collecting process (p. 44). These should therefore surely be considered essential and successful, if not desirable, ways of ensuring the 'survival' of Europe today against 'those outside it' (p. 68), rather than minor and regrettable blemishes on the record of western civilisation. Conversely, if 'dictatorial autocracy' in Europe is unacceptable today, then it must have been so in Roman times. No other virtues, other than the euphemism of 'superior organisation' (ibid.) and the building of baths, bridges and roads in the provinces (the familiar Monty Python defence) are attributed to the Roman emperors to explain how they preserved their autocratic rule. In any case, as already noted, the economic and ideological underpinning of these structures are not discussed fully.

Grant's insistence on the relevance of the third century to our own times leads him to make some unashamedly imperialistic and chauvinistic statements. Thus he states on p. 68 (I shall abbreviate the quotation -- again to demonstrate the author's practice throughout the work):

'It is more than doubtful whether we can ever extend the western world as far to the south-east as the Romans did. Nevertheless, the Roman imperial phenomenon does ring a bell, because it does contain points of relevance to what is happening today, or rather to what will be happening before long. For what is likely to be happening, although not all of us will be alive to see it, is a confrontation between the western world and those outside it. . . It (sic) also attacked the Roman Empire . . . The point at issue is survival -- the Roman empire survived, and so, in all probability, will the West today.'
To some extent, this point of view recalls the 'total onslaught' mentality associated with the 'Groot Krokodil' ('the Big Crocodile', the nickname given to the former president of South Africa, P.W. Botha, because of his relentless pursuit of political opponents). Members of Botha's government believed that there was a 'campaign by foreign (esp. communist) countries and South African left-wing movements against the Nationalist government and its policies, believed to be aimed at weakening South Africa through offensives in the military, economic, psychological, social, political, and cultural spheres' (ODSAE s.v. 'total onslaught').[[3]] Grant does not appear to be quite so paranoid, admittedly, but many 'Western' readers who are concerned with current issues of cultural identity and the status of minorities, not to mention non- 'Western' students of ancient history and classical civilisation, will presumably disagree emphatically with his rather pessimistic view of international relations. But it is much more a matter of concern that Grant does not adequately describe the cultural complexity of the Roman Empire in the third century.[[4]] Instead, even Heliodorus (who most probably lived in the fourth century rather than the third)[[5]] is described as a 'Greek romancer' (p. 64) instead of a Syrian from Emesa, whose novel, though written in Greek, shuns cases of Greek depravity and idealises the Ethiopian gymnosophist, Sisimithres, and the Ethiopian ruler, Hydaspes.[[6]] Cultural identity is a complex issue in the novel and Grant's obscure statement that 'His [i.e. Heliodorus'] work has a somewhat oriental look; but his attitudes to "race" need reconsidering' (p. 105 n. 4) does not adequately address the problem. As in his previous book, Grant generally gets the novelists wrong.[[7]] To my knowledge there is no evidence whatsoever for Grant's view that Heliodorus visited Rome (p. 105 n. 3).

Such difficulties may explain why Grant in the end abandons the complexities of the third century and instead devotes his longest and most coherent discussion to an appendix on 'The Greek and Roman Civilisations that were now Collapsing' (pp. 69-94). This appendix provides no less than a survey of the cultural achievements of the Greeks and Romans in twenty-five pages under the following headings: 'History', 'Sources', 'Our Heritage', 'Religions', 'Archaeology and Architecture', and 'Art and Sculpture'. Most of this material is again extensively based on Grant's own work, on Stobart and others,[[8]] and the standard reference works.

This review has become increasingly negative and protracted, which is regrettable. Grant's publication record is impressive and many of his books are useful, even indispensable in some cases. Many of the criticisms brought against his works may be discounted on the grounds that they have brought the Classics to people who otherwise would not have read them. Nevertheless, Grant's readers have always included serious students of the discipline, and do so now perhaps even more than before. For these readers above all this book will not provide value for money, or tell them anything substantially new about the Roman empire in the third century.


[[1]] Principally from The Climax of Rome: the Final Achievements of the Ancient World, AD 161- 337 (London 1968); The Army of the Caesars (London 1974); The Roman Emperors (New York 1985); The Emperor Constantine (London 1993).

[[2]] Simon Hornblower & Antony Spawforth (edd.), The Oxford Classical Dictionary (Oxford 1996[3]).

[[3]] The quotation is taken from P. Silva et al., A Dictionary of South African English On Historical Principles (Oxford 1996) s.v. 'total onslaught' (ODSEA). According to this entry, it was not Botha but Magnus Malan, an ex-general and Minister of Defence, who first coined the phrase. The idea may have originated in the French colonial experience in Algeria where Malan served briefly in the 1960s. The amnesty hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have shown something of the human cost of such thinking. The ODSEA s.v. 'Groot Krokodil', suggests that the name was a parody of the traditional African practice of giving leaders of stature honorific titles.

[[4]] The complexity of cultural identity in the late Hellenistic world is meticulously investigated by S. Swain, Hellenism and Empire: Language, Classicism, and Power in the Greek World, AD 50-250 (Oxford 1998).

[[5]] For the latest and most authoritative statement on the date of Heliodorus, cf. J.R. Morgan, 'Heliodorus', in G. Schmeling (ed.), The Novel in the Ancient World (Leiden 1996) 417-56.

[[6]] For a comprehensive and insightful discussion of Heliodorus' impact on the ideology of Ethiopia, see D.L. Selden, 'The Aithiopika and Ethiopianism', in R.L. Hunter (ed.), Studies in Heliodorus (Cambridge 1998) 182-214.

[[7]] M. Grant, The Severans: The Changed Roman Empire (London & New York 1996), reviewed by J.H.D. Scourfield in Scholia ns 7 (1998) 2. The electronic version of this review may be found at: l.

[[8]] J.C. Stobart, The Grandeur That Was Rome (London 1912).