Sunday, March 24, 2019


Alex Imrie, The Antonine Constitution: An Edict for the Caracallan Empire. Impact of Empire, 29. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2018. Pp. xv, 175. ISBN 9789004368224. €94,00.

Reviewed by Lydia Schriemer, University of Ottawa (

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Precious little is known about the motivation behind the promulgation of the Constitutio Antoniniana (abbreviated here as CA), and as a result this topic has already been the subject of considerable study. Based on his doctoral dissertation at the University of Edinburgh, Alex Imrie's monograph examines the CA and seeks to offer a comprehensive assessment of the motivations for extending the franchise to all the inhabitants of the Roman Empire. He justifies his work by saying that the many previous studies have taken the CA outside of its cultural and historical context and have only assessed it against individual motivating factors. He argues that this has resulted in an exaggeration of the importance of such individual factors and maintains that his study will, for the first time, bring together all potential factors in order to make sense of the CA itself, within its proper context.

The book contains an introduction, five body chapters, an epilogue, and an appendix. The introduction begins by discussing the research goals and moves on to provide a brief literature review that notes that research on the CA can be divided into roughly three areas: the Giessen papyrus, the effects of the edict, and the rationale behind the edict. He concludes that the area of study that remains the most controversial is that of Caracalla's motivations in promulgating the edict. He divides the possible motivations into two groups: practical and propagandistic.

Chapter 1 provides both the historical and the literary context for the CA. The first half of the chapter sketches the major historical events that happened in the Empire between the death of Commodus at the end of 192 and the promulgation of the edict in 212. This time span is appropriate because the author discusses the Severans' rise to power throughout the volume. The second half of the chapter discusses the literary evidence for the period in question and for the CA itself. The CA does not feature prominently in extant contemporary sources, and those that do mention it do so often erroneously and only in passing. Of these, Cassius Dio bears particular scrutiny since he was an eyewitness. Here too, the CA is mentioned only briefly and only as part of Dio's critique of Caracalla's financial circumstances. Despite Dio's bias, Imrie advocates for a judicious use of his Roman History. He emphasizes that the relative lack and unreliability of contemporary works on the edict and its effects ought not to deter modern scholarship on the subject.

Since brief contemporary mention of the CA can also be found in the works of Ulpian, it is in this context that Imrie brings up the crucial question of the emperor's role in the formulation of edicts such as the CA. He shows that Caracalla was unorthodox in his judicial role, moving beyond legal precedent, and acting more independently than his predecessors. He concludes that Caracalla himself was thus likely the driving force behind the CA and not his jurists. The argument is not convincing, however, both because of the lack of available evidence (a perennial problem) and because it is only possible to establish that Caracalla would have at least approved of the edict. There is, however, no reliable method of demonstrating Caracalla's personal influence on any of his legislation or iconography. Although Imrie does accept that the edict was likely conceived by Caracalla, the appropriate support for this hypothesis is thus simply not available. The weakness of this argument is unfortunate, because the remainder of the book rests on the assumption of Caracalla's personal involvement in, and therefore his personal motivations behind, the CA. Chapter 1 concludes with an examination of the one major contemporary source for our knowledge of the CA: the Giessen papyrus (P.Giss. 40).1 Imrie proposes that its style and contents are also indicative of Caracalla's personal influence in its creation. He further suggests that, since the edict was promulgated at a critical point in Caracalla's reign, directly following the assassination of Geta, the CA can be seen to address short-term legitimacy issues as well as more long-term financial and military goals. He develops these suggestions in the following four chapters.

In chapters 2 and 3, Imrie examines the two practical rationales for the CA that are most commonly discussed. Beginning with the fiscal rational, he scrutinizes Dio's accusation that the franchise was extended simply to extend the taxable population. A more long-term perspective is necessary here, however. Severus' building program, his military reforms, and his manipulation of the coinage are salient predecessors to Caracalla's tax reforms, numismatic debasement, and creation of the antoninianus. In this context, Dio's suggestion, in concert with the references to taxation in the Giessen papyrus, seems convincing. Nevertheless, Imrie insightfully notes that since the imperial coffers were apparently not terribly strained at this point, the CA must have had a further motivation. Turning to the "military rationale," Imrie prioritizes the continuity between Caracalla's military policy and that of his father. He proceeds to discuss the influence that the CA would have had on the army in terms of legionary recruitment. Since the basic requirement to be a legionary was citizenship, the CA would necessarily have opened up the pool of eligible candidates for military service. With increased enlistment and increased pay, Caracalla would have needed increased cash. He suggests that, as with Severus, Caracalla's financial issue of was one of liquidity, linked to the need to pay soldiers. Thus, the two practical rationales, the fiscal and the military, are inextricably linked.

Following his examination of the practical rationales, Imrie proceeds to discuss in chapters 4 and 5 what Caracalla's propagandistic reasons might have been for issuing the CA. He focuses primarily on two topics: imitating Alexander and securing the Empire. The first point uses literary comparison to discuss Alexander the Great's influence on the CA. He concludes that this association is impossible to prove, although certain Alexander-inspired literary tropes do indeed seem to be present in the CA. He keenly notes, however, that the desire for a "brotherhood of man" is a problematic topos that cannot be securely attributed to Alexander at all and is thus not a valid point of comparison here. In the same vein, the sources that mention Caracalla's obsession with Alexander are challenging, particularly because of the paucity of media, such as coinage, epigraphy, portraiture, and sculpture, that support these claims. Instead, Imrie concludes that Caracalla's interest was part of a tradition of Roman emperors seeking inspiration, a militaristic image, and even legitimacy from association with Alexander.

Beyond the mild Alexandrian tropes, the CA also seems to serve a further propagandistic purpose. Imrie's argument that the CA served to bolster Caracalla's public image and legitimacy in a politically fragile time is convincing, because of its indirect relationship to Geta's murder. He argues that Caracalla's legitimacy was strengthened in three distinct ways. First, the religious ideology in the CA portrays the enfranchisement as an act of piety, while re-inventing the events surrounding Geta's death. Caracalla frames the CA as an act of thanksgiving worthy of the consensus of the entire Roman world. Second, Imrie suggests that the generosity of the entire edict serves to establish Caracalla's character in a positive light, which would certainly have been necessary after the brutal murder of his own brother. He then neatly draws on numismatic evidence to support these first two strands of ideology. Third, he proposes that the extension of citizenship made all new citizens beholden to Caracalla personally in a type of reciprocal exchange relationship. Undoubtedly, Caracalla could have expected an increase in tax revenue as a result of increased enfranchisement, but Imrie argues that such a show of imperial beneficia would also have traditionally been associated with goodwill and loyalty on the part of the recipients. While the evidence here is slim for such a patron-client relationship, it is clear that Caracalla promulgated the CA because of what he stood to gain from it, whether that be tax revenue, an increase in military enrolment, or increased loyalty.

A brief, four-page epilogue summarizes the conclusions and ends with a call for further, more nuanced work on the contexts of the CA, particularly on the life and reign of Caracalla. Following this, the appendix contains a reconstructed text and translation of the Giessen papyrus with notes. Since this papyrus is at the root of much of the scholarly debate surrounding the CA, Imrie provides his own version of the text. From the accompanying apparatus criticus, it is apparent that this version is heavily based on the ten previous editions and offers no new readings. Nevertheless, the decision to accept one reading over another is well defended in the notes on the basis of Imrie's own reading of the papyrus.

In conclusion, this book is a good introduction both to the CA and to related scholarship. Chapter 1, on historical and literary contexts, makes the topic accessible and interesting to a broad audience of specialist and non-specialist readers alike. The discussion of the practical rationales in chapters 2 and 3 is comprehensive and summarizes, with added nuance, the general state of scholarship on the matter. These chapters approach Imrie's broad question of intention by looking at two of the practical effects of the edict and suggesting that they in turn were likely motivations for its creation. The discussion of the propagandistic rationales in chapters 4 and 5 is slightly more challenging, with chapter 4 being a literary comparison and chapter 5 a discussion of Caracallan ideology. Since the effects of propaganda are hard to quantify, these two chapters rely solely on a discussion of intention. Imrie seems to recognize this challenge, at least in practice, with the result that chapter 4 compares the CA to common Alexandian tropes in literature and chapter 5 discusses the role that the CA might have played in Caracallan ideology and propaganda. Imrie's portrayal of all these potential rationales suggests that Caracalla would have had all these factors in mind when he subscribed the edict, which does seem unlikely. Rather, based on a nuanced discussion of intention and effect, Imrie might have been better served to discuss the propagandistic intentions alongside the likely fiscal and militaristic effects of the edict. These chapters would also have benefited from a brief discussion of propaganda and its place in the Roman world. That being said, the addition of numismatic evidence to this volume is a welcome inclusion that adds considerable depth. As Imrie concludes on the basis of his foray into the Caracallan world, much work remains to be done on this deep and complex topic.


1.   The most recent edition is P.Giss.Lit. 6, published in 1994.

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David Alan Parnell, Justinian's Men: Careers and Relationships of Byzantine Army Officers, 518-610. New approaches to Byzantine history and culture. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. Pp. xi, 228. ISBN 9781137562036. €85,59.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Buchanan, University of Findlay (

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David Alan Parnell's book builds on both his PhD. dissertation, Justinian's Men: The Ethnic and Regional Origins of Byzantine Officers and Officials, ca. 518-610, submitted to Saint Louis University in 2010, and his subsequent research on the ethnicity and military and social careers of army members during the age of Justinian I, defined as the period of the reigns of Justin I through Phocas. The thesis of the book is that an officer's social relationships with other officers, the men assigned to him, and the emperor were as least as important as the officer's rank or position. To develop this thesis, Parnell has divided the book into nine chapters, including an introduction and conclusion.

Chapter One, the Introduction, establishes the methodology for the book. Parnell uses the principal contemporary historians and chroniclers of the period, including Procopius of Caesarea, Agathias of Myrina, Menander Protector, Theophylact Simocatta, Marcellinus Comes with his anonymous continuator, and John Malalas (p. 7). He then employs social network theory to evaluate the social issues and relationships that affected the operation of the army, in a matrix of different relationships ranging from professional to family contacts.

Chapter Two addresses the structure of the Byzantine army in the sixth century. Parnell's principal source is the Notitia Dignitatum, supplemented by material from his primary sources. He divides the Byzantine army into two divisions, the field armies (comitatenses) and the frontier armies (limitanei), supplemented in many areas of the frontier by non-Roman soldiers serving under their own officers under treaty to the Empire (foederati). He then uses the Strategikon of Maurice, supplemented with Justinian's legal code and other primary sources, to describe the ranks and positions within the army. After discussing the various scholarly positions on the nature of recruitment, Parnell concludes that it was largely voluntary. He also argues that soldiers generally advanced through the ranks based primarily on length of service, while officers advanced partly on merit and partly on personal interest and recommendations from their superiors, including the emperor.

Chapter Three discusses the ethnic identity of Roman army officers, and how that identity affected the careers of the officers. Parnell begins this chapter with a careful discussion of recent scholarship on the meaning of identity, and in particular, ethnic identity, in the sixth century CE. He then seeks to develop rough statistics for the percentage of Roman and non-Roman men who served in the military during this time. To do this, he has created a database of 772 men documented as having served in the army, using his primary sources plus a few additional literary sources and material derived from The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire (PLRE). This database itself is not included in the book, but he uses it to assess the ethnicity of these men, primarily using their names and any descriptions given in the sources, augmented by information on their family if available. Using his criteria, he finds that roughly seventy-six percent were likely Roman and twenty-four percent were likely non-Roman. He also concludes that while the Byzantine army was roughly thirty percent non-Roman from 518-540, the percentage increased slightly to thirty-six percent from 541-565, and then fell to roughly eighteen percent from 566-610, perhaps as a result of decreased recruitment from non-Roman areas and an increasing identification of former non-Romans as Roman. Romans were slightly more likely to hold the highest ranks, while non-Romans held many of the command ranks below that level. Parnell's conclusion is that the Roman army was still uneasy about non-Roman general officers, although it accepted many senior non-Romans into the army, and indeed into general officer positions. However, cultural identity was not a significant restraint on career advancement or relationship building for non-Romans.

In the fourth chapter, Parnell discusses the effect of any relationship between officers and the emperor. He gives several examples to demonstrate that Justinian I at least tended to appoint people with whom he was familiar and whom he regarded as loyal and competent to hold the position of general. Thus, family members and members of Justinian I's personal guards were more often selected for senior positions. Furthermore, Justinian I was inclined to forgive his generals for abuse of their authority or incompetence if they were personally loyal to him. He was even willing to forgive some indications of disloyalty if he thought that he could trust them in another position. Parnell reminds us that officers were often competitors and sometimes usurpers of emperors. The conclusion of this chapter is that emperors were most concerned about their own longevity in their position and had to balance the general competence and popularity of officers against the possible threat that they posed. This balance explains much of the interaction between officers and emperors.

The fifth chapter addresses the social networks of officers. Parnell starts from two related arguments; the first is that, although an officer's relationship, if any, with the emperor was most important, his secondmost important relationships were with other officers because they provided support in an often unclear bureaucracy; the second is that the social networks of officers were critical to the functioning of the army because they encouraged cooperative behavior and sometimes supplanted the official hierarchy. In support of these arguments, Parnell cites discussions of army factions in Agathias and Procopius. For example, he dissects the social networks of Belisarius and Narses in Italy in 538-539 as reported by Procopius, and concludes that the mutual suspicions of these factions was a factor in the losses that occurred. He also concludes that the networks permitted generals to exert control over the army through the cooperation of junior officers. As a result, the generals carefully explained the reasons for their decisions to their subordinates to maintain cooperation. Parnell acknowledges that factions within armies were also common in antiquity but argues that the problem was more serious in Justinian's time because generals were operating in western areas outside of the military bureaucracy of the eastern Mediterranean, and so the factions substituted for an unclear hierarchy in an army far from the imperial government.

Chapter Six deals with the officers and their families. Parnell looks at the incidence of nepotism in the army and concludes that while many families had several generations of members in the military, there was little evidence that senior officers procured official military positions for their sons or younger relatives. Emperors used members of their own family in official positions, and Justinian in particular employed cousins, nephews, and in-laws as generals. However, although multiple family members might serve in the military, they rarely shared the same position, and the emperors maintained personal control over the appointment of officers to senior positions, thus preserving authority over the military. Parnell then considers the impact of wives and children on members of the military, largely using Procopius' description of the impact of Antonina on Belisarius and the desertion of Illyrian soldiers to protect their families from a Hunnic invasion. He concludes that soldiers with families placed a high degree of importance of them and would balance their needs against imperial needs, notwithstanding the disapproval of historians such as Procopius.

In Chapter Seven, Parnell discusses the relationships between officers and their soldiers. He begins this chapter by noting that there is limited evidence in this area because while historians would identify principal generals, they rarely identified lower-ranking soldiers except as part of a larger homogenous group. While acknowledging that speeches in classical histories may have little to do with what was actually said, he discusses speeches to soldiers to convince them not to sack the local population and speeches to soldiers dividing booty as examples of the interaction between officers and their soldiers. Then he addresses reports of individual soldiers who were praised for good conduct, reports of individual soldiers given specific missions and reports of soldiers who were criticized for misconduct. Finally, he addresses reports of soldiers who had grievances against their officers, for example, for failure to pay them regularly. He concludes that officers rarely had personal relationships with soldiers, although there were mutual expectations of good leadership and good execution, and of regular payment and fair division of booty.

The eighth chapter discusses public perceptions of the army. The record is scant, so Parnell uses his sources' discussion of various desertions and mutinies to support his conclusion that desertions were often caused by monetary concerns, especially when pay was late, or survival in the face of an enemy of greater numbers. He further argues that the public, while appreciating the physical security that local soldiers brought, was probably also wary of them because of enforced billeting, extortion of more food supplies than authorized and other abuses. Parnell concludes this chapter by noting that the sixth-century army was generally successful and professional, even in the face of periodic delays in pay, and that Justinian's loyalty to his senior officers generally resulted in continuity and opportunities for professional growth. He also states that civilian government and society remained vibrant without demanding major changes to the military or rebelling against it, evidence of a general acceptance of the military by the public.

The ninth and last chapter is a short conclusion that sums up the conclusions of the previous chapters and reinforces Parnell's argument that the sixth century was a diverse vibrant world in which friendships, alliances, and various collective strategies were used to encourage social and financial success.

In summary, the strength of this book is that it uses social network theory plus an in-depth analysis of the literary sources to assess the impact of social relationships behind military operations and the often-fraught relationship between general officers and emperors. In this regard, this book adds significantly to the scholarship in this area. In addition, there are very few typographical errors.1 A weakness of this book is that, with a handful of exceptions, it relies largely on Anglophone scholarship. European scholars such as Jean-Michel Carrié, Fritz Mitthof, Bernhard Palme, Giorgio Ravegnani (except for his 1998 book on Byzantine soldiers in the years of Justinian), and Constantin Zuckerman are not cited, nor is Giovanni Ruffini, who wrote in English about social networks in Byzantine Egypt, a comparable period.2 Another weakness is that the book relies almost entirely on literary sources, except for the epigraphic, archaeological and numismatic evidence incorporated into the PLRE. I also found the chapter on ethnic identity to be problematic because of the relatively small number of people identified in the sources, the bias of the sources towards senior generals and notorious incidents, the difficulty with using names as an indicator of ethnic identity, and differences in how the various sources described their subjects. That said, this book is easy to read and is useful not only for understanding the relationships between the military and the imperial government in late antiquity but also for a source for military history in general.


1.   As a rare exception, the speech of Pharas the Herul, is shown in Chapter 3, footnote 45, as from Procopius, Wars book 4, chapter 4, section 15, whereas it is at book 4, chapter 6, section 15.
2.   Giovanni Ruffini, Social Networks in Byzantine Egypt (Cambridge University Press, 2008).

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Friday, March 22, 2019


C. T. Hadavas, Ancient Greek Epigrams: A Selection. Lexington, KY: C. T. Hadavas, 2018. Pp. xxxiv, 144. ISBN 9781727440225. $12.95.

Reviewed by Floris Overduin, Radboud University Nijmegen (

Version at BMCR home site

This reader contains 85 epigrams, selected by the author as reading material for students at the intermediate level of their study of ancient Greek literature. The author's concern for useful study material has already been exemplified by similar readers on Lucian, Aesop, Euripides' Cyclops, and less common texts, such as the Gospel of Thomas, or the Pinax of Cebes. A collection of Greek epigrams is a sensible addition. Earlier anthologies of Hellenistic and Imperial Greek poetry, such as those by Hopkinson1 (not mentioned in the introduction or in the bibliography) offer excellent sections on epigram, but they are both aimed at more advanced students, and their epigram sections are of limited scope within their larger respective projects. A dedicated and inexpensive reader is therefore to be welcomed.

The setup of Hadavas' reader is diachronic, starting with Simonides and ending with Diodorus in the first century CE, and divided over four chapters: (i) Late Archaic and Early Classical Epigrams, (ii) Early Hellenistic Epigrams, (iii) Later Hellenistic Epigrams, and (iv) Epigrams of the Early Empire. This division gives the impression of a clearly delineated, yet fairly evenly spread choice of material. Within the chapters, however, the balance is very much towards the core Hellenistic material. The first chapter only contains eight epigrams, whereas the second chapter contains thirty nine poems, the bulk of which is formed by Callimachus (twenty three epigrams). The third chapter, although labelled 'later Hellenistic' (twenty eight poems), only consists of Meleager and Philodemus, augmented only by a single epigram of Archias. The final chapter, although divided over six poets, only contains ten poems. Although there is nothing inherently wrong with this selection — all poems selected are valuable in their own right, and one need not be surprised by the predominance of, e.g., Callimachus — it is not overly ambitious either. Considering the limited attention paid to later epigram, the volume could have been called 'Hellenistic epigram', as Hellenistic poets make up eighty percent of this reader. Not only is their no room for relevant later poets such as Lucillius, Nicarchus, Strato or Leonides of Alexandria (not to mention Palladas), the selection of Hellenistic material itself is also somewhat surprising: Anyte is present with six epigrams, but Nossis is absent. Against twelve epigrams by Meleager, there is only one by Posidippus (and none from the Milan papyrus). Leonidas of Tarentum — not a minor poet — is included only three times; Asclepiades five. Without stressing the point too much, and conceding that it seems unfair to judge a book by what it is not, one can conclude that the selection was not essentially designed to be representative or to offer a broad palette of Greek epigram through the ages. The author does, however, point out that, although his selection is a personal one, he has made sure all of the four main epigrammatical domains (sepulchral, dedicatory, erotic, epideictic) are represented in this reader (p. vii).

What does this reader offer? The 34 pages of introduction cover the very basics of the development of the genre, a 'how to read an ancient Greek epigram section', a 'very short history of the texts', a very short section on influences, overviews of the poets treated in this volume, a three page list of 'rhetorical/literary figures and grammatical terms', a short bibliography of texts and translations, six pages on meter, and the obligatory list of abbreviations (with the interesting 'C-to-F' for 'Contrary to Fact'); some abbreviations are, however, missing from the list, such as 'intran.' on p. 13. It is odd that Nisetich's translation of Callimachus is listed in the main 'bibliography' and not in its 'translations' section. It also would have been useful to list all books mentioned in the introduction in the bibliography, many of which are absent. The rhetorical/literary figures list is elementary, but helpful. I very much doubt, however, that the inclusion of pluralis maiestatis (p. xxii) is appropriate for the epigrams treated here; 'poetic plural' may be as far as we can go. All in all, what we get is a bit of everything: the three short paragraphs on influences are too short to really be helpful (but serve as a place to park the useful references in the notes), but the six pages on meter are not to be complained about. It is also convenient that each poem is given a brief descriptive title in the table of contents, which makes it much easier to find what one is looking for. For an intermediate reader, the student could do worse.

After the introduction, it is time for business. The author's choice to present one epigram per page is attractive; for longer epigrams two facing pages are reserved. Ease of use and legibility have been given attention. The author did not refrain from listing multiple references, so that Callimachus' epigrams can instantly be traced by both their AP number and their place in Gow & Page, in addition to their number in Pfeiffer's edition, which is much more user-friendly than an appendix with comparative numeration. Slightly less convenient is the fact that the epigrams are numbered per author, rather than continuously: "1. Posidippus" is followed by "1. Callimachus".

The Greek text is followed by all of the poem's vocabulary beyond the very basics (presented alphabetically), and then the commentary per line, which mainly deals with grammatical or syntactical issues, or hints at possible translations, although points of style or context are sometimes included too. Often the author quotes solutions from earlier commentators (Sider on Philodemus is frequent) or editors (Fain). For points of grammar the student is often referred to Smyth. Sometimes (as on p. 88–89 or 94–95) vocabulary and commentary are swapped, presumably to avoid sections going over the page.

After that, further additions vary per poem. Sometimes a fourth delineated text block is added with a brief running commentary pointing out issues of style or aesthetics. These blocks may contain points of interest as explained by the author, but sometimes they contain large citations from dedicated scholarly publications, such as Alexander Sens' commentary on Asclepiades, Livingstone & Nisbet's introductory volume to Greek epigram, or simply an entry from the OCD (as in the case of ἡταῖραι on p. 89). Alternatively the fourth text block prints a literary translation, ranging from 1793 to 2005. One gets the impression that the choice of translation is rather arbitrary: is it included (if it is given at all) simply because it was available, whether old (1911, 1889) or more recent, or did it happen to be on the author's shelf? Or are they meant to be playful examples of what a literary translation may look like? If translations are deemed useful, then why not include one for each single epigram? Conversely, why are some epigrams given a purposeful stylistic treatment and a translation (or even two), whereas others are given a translation only, and yet others no further treatment at all, lacking the fourth text block with either translation or additional stylistic commentary? The leading principle here, as the author makes clear, is that translations and the like are only included if they do not inhibit the epigram's treatment to stay on one page, or on two facing pages, fitting besides or below the Greek text. Additional translations are compiled in the appendix, 'on account of spatial constraints' (p. 133).

The line-by-line notes to the epigrams, primarily intended for basic reading, are overall very useful, short when then can be, long if this is what the text requires. The indebtedness to Gow and Page is obvious, as the author often picks out one or two useful remarks from their commentaries. As observed above: to have all you need on one page (or two facing pages) is very convenient, and attention has been paid to a pleasant page layout. The author is also to be praised for not glossing over difficulties of interpretation, always trying to make the best of it, even when the Greek is particularly elliptical or elusive. This is particularly welcome at the intermediate level, when a student still often lacks the experience or the confidence to decide what may be meant. The author's approach ensures that the student's doubts will be based on the difficulties of the Greek, not on his own lack of knowledge.

Overall, this is quite a nice volume. For students of intermediate Greek, it offers lots of basic instruments for reading, for a very modest price. The brief introduction touches on many relevant aspects and references are up-to-date and to the point. The somewhat conservative choice of poems, despite my reservations, ties in with general idea about the canon of Greek epigram, and the author is to be credited for not leaving out the more difficult poems.

Typesetting and printing is overall decent, apart from a glitch on p. 24, where the top half of a complete line has been erased; a blank line is missing in the bibliography on p. xxiv. There are a few minor mistakes in proofing, although the Greek itself appears to be correct: 'stong' (p. 3) for 'strong'. 'Geoghagen' (p. 12) should be 'Geoghegan', as printed correctly on p. 14. Aithiops (p. 49, cited from Nisetich, where it is printed correctly) should be Aithiopis. 'beingthat' (p. 114) lacks a space. Somewhat unconventionally, words lemmatized are taken from the Greek text complete with their gravis accent, rather then taking the acutus accent, as is common practice for oxytone words in isolation.


1.   N. Hopkinson, A Hellenistic Anthology, Cambridge 1988. N; Hopkinson, Greek Poetry of the Imperial Period, Cambridge 1994.

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Wednesday, March 20, 2019


Lukas de Blois, Image and Reality of Roman Imperial Power in the Third Century AD: The Impact of War. Routledge monographs in classical studies. London; New York: Routledge, 2018. Pp. x, 312. ISBN 9780815353737. £115.00.

Reviewed by Jane Sancinito, Oberlin College (

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Whether in legal, military, political, or economic matters, there can hardly be a scholar more qualified to venture an opinion, let alone produce a definitive statement, on the situation in the third century CE than Lukas de Blois. In this volume, de Blois has carefully assembled the work of decades into a comprehensive treatment of imperial power in this challenging period, including a new and convincing argument regarding the positive influence of bureaucratization on the imperial system. The monograph is structured around notions of different kinds of power, drawing explicitly from the theoretical framework of Michael Mann.1 It considers, in turn, both the true state, and representation, of imperial power through Mann's lenses of economic, military, political, and ideological power.

Following the introduction, chapter two, "Wars," offers one of the best summaries, if not the best, currently available for the political and military events of this period. De Blois is careful in his use of source material and uses this chapter to establish his parameters for defining the "crisis of the third century."2 In the chapter, de Blois maps out the crisis as a period of escalation (231-249), the crisis itself (249-268), and a time of recovery (268-284). He sees the earlier, Severan period as more stable, politically and militarily, but rightly acknowledges the changes in imperial representation and policy made by the Severan emperors.

The three chapters that follow address different sources of imperial power and form a natural trio. Chapter three assesses economic sources of power, looking most carefully at taxation, the productivity of imperial domains, mining, and coin debasement. It is perhaps in this chapter that the book most directly earns its subtitle, "the impact of war," as de Blois addresses the decline of the empire's tax base and agricultural productivity as a result of military events. The literary sources of this period paint a bleak picture of the state of things. Though de Blois addresses the biases of these sources to an extent in his Introduction, and more specifically in the notes, in the main text he occasionally seems over-ready to accept the reports of doom and gloom and to treat issues like attempted tax-evasion, which occurred in all periods in the Roman Empire, as particularly serious in the third century without further elaboration. 3 He is more measured in his treatment of mining and the imperial domains, for which he openly admits that our data is too insufficient to paint a full picture (p. 155). De Blois treats the infamous debasement of the century and eventual inflation accurately and with care, without blowing the matter out of proportion to the other economic challenges of the period.4

The fourth chapter, on military and political sources of imperial power, offers the strongest arguments in the book, regarding the struggle of emperors in this period to retain control of the army as it became more and more challenging to guarantee victory and adequate logistical support. His most powerful arguments follow this section and track the steady transition of political and administrative power in the empire from senators to career bureaucrats in military and government positions. In the latter case, particularly, he argues that this shift in practice became the saving grace of the Empire. He is clear that senators retained social power, and that they actually gained authority in Italy in the absence of the emperor, but argues that the professionalization of administration increased imperial stability and offered emperors more skilled and experienced candidates when they sought to appoint governors or other important officers. De Blois also makes an interesting argument that, despite increased financial liabilities and greater insecurity of the borders, locals in provincial and war-torn areas seem to have responded with displays of greater loyalty to the imperial center. He attributes their behavior to the mounting evidence that, without the empire, chaos was imminent. He rightly recognizes the paradox of such a statement (p.204), but makes a strong case for the importance of imperial unity for local populations, even as they became disenchanted with the growing burden of supplying an empire engaged in constant warfare on multiple fronts.

The fifth and final chapter turns to ideological sources of imperial power. It is here that the "image" of the title becomes literal as de Blois considers the visuals of imperial representation alongside the rhetoric of eunoia and good imperial behavior. It is also in this chapter that de Blois directly addresses the potential distance between "image and reality," and its consequences. He covers a wide range of sources that were significant tools for developing and maintaining ideological power, including panegyrics, coin iconography and legends, imperial titles, dynastic claims, portraiture, and divine associations. He argues that while these ideological sources of power had long histories and could often be claimed with minimal effort, if the projections of ideological power did not align with reality, they could not be used to compensate for weakness in imperial power on other fronts.

De Blois concludes that there was a general decline of traditional forms of imperial power in this period, leading to, in the main, short term, stop gap solutions that had serious ramifications in the years that followed. While he sees benefits in some of the measures, in particular the increased reliance on an experienced bureaucracy and the military reforms of Gallienus, he recognizes that the overall trend was toward greater dependency on the military, which often ruled the emperor more than the emperor ruled it, particularly if the emperor could not demonstrate personal military prowess and ensure victory for his troops.

The book has a generally clear style, though the reader does occasionally get bogged down in detail. This is felt perhaps most heavily in the second chapter, where the naturally dizzying historical events are not helped by de Blois' tendency toward long paragraphs, the publisher's restriction of maps to the front of the volume, and the general use of chapter endnotes for citation. The latter two restrictions make the use of the book in hard copy challenging, but will prove significantly more so to those who prefer to do their reading digitally. The text is free of obvious error and the bibliography is free of major omissions.

De Blois has crafted a fascinating approach to the third century that makes the most of his undeniable expertise. The book will be of interest to any who wish to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the period, have an interest in imperial power, or to specialists in the period's political, military, economic, or ideological history.


1.   Mann, M., The Sources of Social Power I: A History of Power from the Beginnings to AD 1760, Cambridge 1986.
2.   De Blois addresses this complex topic in his introduction (I.4 Status quaestionis). His approach mostly considers the opinions of the contemporaries as his justification for the label of "crisis," though he duly addresses the historiography of the field, including its debts back into the 19th century. De Blois is current with the argument that rejects the notion of a widespread and comprehensive crisis (mostly supported by archaeological findings, of which, it must be admitted, de Blois makes rather limited use), but he argues in chapter two that the burdens of warfare and political upheaval elsewhere would have been partially borne by regions that were not directly in the line of fighting. Thus, he contends that, even if some areas were free of conflict and direct destruction, there were still prices to be paid for being part of an interdependent empire.
3.   This is most true with de Blois' use of petitions and religious texts. For the former, there are several works on the social implications of legal texts that might have been useful, such as Bryen, A., Violence in Roman Egypt: A Study in Legal Interpretation, University of Pennsylvania 2013 and Connolly, S., Lives Behind the Laws: The World of the Codex Hermogenianus, Indiana University Press 2010, whom de Blois includes in his bibliography, but makes little use of. For the latter, de Blois' reading on the state of traditional religion is undeniably correct, but there is more that might have been done with early Christian sources in this period. The view of this population on what makes a good emperor is very interesting, as would have been de Blois' thoughts on them.
4.   That said, De Blois makes no statement about hoarding or the scale, growth, or decline of monetization in this period. The issue of debasement needs to be tied to the number of coin users and how they were using the money they had. In general, and fairly naturally for his main argument, de Blois focuses on urban situations and assumes that imperial pronouncements were met with obedience, even in a time that saw frequent usurpations. Thus, he rightly reads P. Oxy. 12, 1411 (p.161ff) as a sign that some had been rejecting imperial coinage, but does not state whether he has any reason to believe that this order was obeyed. If even some were no longer accepting coinage, but soldiers were still predominantly paid in coins, there are serious implications. Most of these would support de Blois' overall argument of the decline in economic power experiences by the emperors of the third century, but they are not explored in this volume.

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Dominik Berrens, Soziale Insekten in der Antike: Ein Beitrag zu Naturkonzepten in der griechisch-römischen Kultur. Hypomnemata, Band 205. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht Verlag, 2018. Pp. 459. ISBN 9783525310533. €100,00. ISBN 9783647310534. ebook.

Reviewed by Jula Wildberger, The American University of Paris (

Version at BMCR home site


Dominik Berrens provides a sensible, down-to-earth exposition of ancient ideas about and presentations of those insects that correspond, more or less, to what we call bees, wasps, and ants. The genus term "social insects" derives from Aristotle's definition of "political" animals at the beginning of the Historia animalium (p. 38). He covers the Greek and Latin textual tradition from the beginnings to late antiquity, including the Septuagint and the New Testament, but does not discuss art, material culture, or epigraphic and papyrological evidence. The merits of this monograph are its comprehensiveness and its thematic organization. In my view, whenever critical decisions are made, Berrens shows good judgment. His translations are reliable and, as far as I could judge, he is generally well informed as much as one might expect with such an overarching and interdisciplinary subject.1

Berrens introduces his work as a contribution to our understanding of ancient "concepts" (Konzepte), in the sense in which this term is used in the disciplines of linguistics and cognitive science (1.1.1, pp. 11-14), but himself realizes the limitations of such terminology (p. 13) given that, e.g., it is not clear who the human bearers of those concepts might be or to what degree a highly sophisticated literary or rhetorical artifice can be treated as testimony for concepts shared across a society or social class. Sometimes Berrens observes systematic differences between Greek and Roman authors and the corresponding cultures, e.g., that only Roman authors use military vocabulary to describe the beehive (p. 268), but apart from distinguishing sources, he does not systematically address the importance of the wide chronological and geographic range of his material.

What he gives his readers is a thorough and detailed overview of the facts mentioned in the ancient texts, the origin of such ideas, terms, topoi, and images, as well as their use and tradition in different contexts, genres, and key authors. He compares the assumptions of ancient authors with the understanding of modern biology (an overview is given in section 1.4), often suggests explanations for mistaken beliefs, and shows how ignorance in one area, e.g., procreation, could reinforce or lead to false beliefs in another area, e.g., gender or species. As two further sources of greater or lesser accuracy Berrens identifies anthropomorphism and the degree of practical interest in these animals. Insects were perceived as human-like and exemplary in their sociability and cooperation and thus often interpreted in human terms. Thus, when Aristotle associates the sting of bees with a weapon and thus masculinity, this prevents him from identifying stingless drones as male and worker bees as female (p. 218). In addition to such epistemic anthropomorphism, as it were, Berrens also describes deliberate anthropomorphism as a literary or ideological choice.

The structure of the book is thematic. After the introduction (chapter 1), Berrens discusses ancient concepts of Art ("species" or "kind") and clarifies how far removed ancient terminology is from our modern understanding of genetically defined species. Distinctions could be made by a variety of criteria. Bees were regarded as three different 'kinds': the queen, the workers, and the drones, which should be identified with the so-called thieves and were sometimes treated as different species, an alien intruder the bees had to ward off. Accordingly, conceptions of bees and drones differed significantly. In contrast to the proverbially lazy and useless drones, characteristic of bees were highly organized, monarchic societies, some degree of intelligence, active food production and storage, hard and shared labor, and both physical and mental purity. Berrens recommends that we refrain from trying to identify modern species with ancient kinds, e.g., when trying to find counterparts for the animals referred to with different words for 'wasps' in Greek and Latin. Because of their appearance, wasps were more closely associated with bees to which they were regarded as inferior (less organized, e.g, and more aggressive). As concerns ants, the ancients counted a number of animals, some of them fabulous, under the names murmex and formica respectively, probably including spiders and even Pantherinae. The paradigmatic type, however, corresponds to the small black Mediterranean ant of the genus Messor that builds its colonies in the ground and is a grain-gathering herbivore. In contrast to that of bees, ant society was regarded as leaderless (anarchos), but highly cooperative and structured. Another key difference was the fact that ants collect and store but do not produce food, a difference explored, e.g., by Vergil for the contrasting bee and ant similes for the Carthaginians in the first and the Trojans in the fourth book of the Aeneid (pp. 247-250). The third and fourth chapters cover ancient theories about the procreation and ontogenesis of social insects and bougonia, the spontaneous generation of bees from the carcasses of oxen. Berrens rejects the theses that The Greeks encountered bougonia as a common occurrence in Egypt and North-Africa or that there was a confusion with larvae of Eristalis tenax. Instead of venturing an explanation of his own, he points to assumptions of ancient natural science that would have made such a process seem much more plausible than it appears to us nowadays. The findings in chapter 3 form the basis for chapter 5 on the gender of social insects. Here Berrens recommends distinguishing between assumptions about biological sex and social gender based on characteristic roles, such as defense (masculine) or care for the young (feminine). Among the various sources, he finds only one author (Arrian in the Discourses of Epictetus, p. 235) who clearly identifies the queen bee as female. The social femininity or masculinity of that animal varies, and its masculinity is most pronounced when it is described as leading the swarm (e.g., pp. 243, 272f.). The chapter also concerns remarks about gendered attributions of insect features to women (the name Melitta, for example; purity and virginity in Christian texts, section 5.2) and men (in the case of the name Murmex, p. 231). Chapter 6 on society discusses imagery pertaining to all social insects (their appearance as a mass or swarm of individuals and military imagery), much of which amounts to tracing the reception of similes in the epic tradition, and then the three types (bees, wasps, and ants) separately. Anthropomorphism appears as a ubiquitous feature in most of the texts and is particularly pronounced in the Roman and later imperial authors. The authors stress the bees' devotion and subordination to their king, but in ants their devotion to each other. The last two chapters address the role of social insects in religion and divination and their role as "providers of imagery for the production and reception of literature" (chapter 8).

A fine-grained table of contents facilitates quick access to relevant passages. Nevertheless, an index rerum in addition to the index of cited passages would have been helpful because sometimes topics pop up in places where one would not necessarily expect them even though their position makes sense within the flow of the argument. For example, mourning bees are discussed in a section on their purity and cleanliness (2.3.4) and the topical reference to bee-rich Hybla in the section on poetic bee imagery (chapter 8, p. 375). The summaries at the end of each chapter remedy this lack to a degree since they follow the sequence of presentation and mention at least all the major topics covered.

Probably in order to keep chapters reasonably self-contained and to mention all facts relevant to a theme, the account sometimes becomes a bit repetitive for those who read the whole book from cover to cover. Another disadvantage of the thematic structure aimed at displaying generally shared concepts is that it downplays Berrens's achievements in addressing generic conventions and matters of source criticism, tracing traditions, and explaining variations with reference to the particular aesthetic or ideological agenda of individual authors. A chapter summarizing his findings in this respect would have been useful in its own right but also with a view to the question of concepts. Berrens discusses how seminal literary texts can generate ideas and impact even technical writing, e.g., when Columella's assertions about swarming are shaped by Virgil's fictions about a civil war among bees (p. 262), while careful neutrality in Aristotle's scientific account may be distorted through anthropomorphic attributions of male kingship roles by authors such as Pliny the Elder (p. 270). One of my favorites of this type is Berrens's plausible explanation for the variations on the theme of gold-digging giant ants in Northern India (section 2.10). He rejects attempts to find a factual basis by identifying those mysterious ants with some kind of rodent or scaly anteater. Instead, he shows how the Greek tradition originates with Herodotus (3.102-5), who may have heard a version of a local story and to whom the idea of ants the size of a fox or a dog would not have seemed so implausible, given that everything in India appeared larger than life (pp. 130f.). He shows further how the original account was transformed in Hellenistic traditions, when Greek authors had learned about a feline predator "ant" (murmex); how it served as inspiration to the Attic comic poet Euboulos for dreaming up "Gold-digging ants on Hymettos" (2.10.3); and how this, in turn, gave a Second Sophistic lexicographer (Harpocration) explaining Pl. Resp. 405b3f. the idea to invent an Attic tale about the matter.

In sum, this is a useful book for whoever is interested in social insects or in texts featuring these animals. It conveniently brings together disparate sources and literature and may show many avenues for further research. Berrens definitely succeeds in demonstrating a central thesis of his work, that researching ancient discourse about social insects "always reveals something about ancient ideas concerning human beings and their society too."


1.   Berrens has read widely on the subject, but I believe that I observe a certain underrepresentation of French secondary literature, such as (to name just two book-length studies): Gilles Tétart. Le sang des fleurs: Une anthropologie de l'abeille et du miel. (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2004), or the classic by Raymond Billiard. Notes sur l'abeille et sur l'apiculture dans l'antiquité. (Lille: Le Bigot, 1900).

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