Tuesday, December 16, 2008

2008.12.23

Olivier Hekster, Gerda de Kleijn and Daniëlle Slootjes (ed.), Crises and the Roman Empire: Proceedings of the Seventh Workshop of the International Network Impact of Empire, Nijmegen, June 20-24, 2006. Impact of Empire v. 7. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2007. Pp. xiii, 448. ISBN 9789004160507. $179.00.
Reviewed by Peter Fibiger Bang, University of Copenhagen (pbang@hum.ku.dk)

This volume doubles as a book on the question of crises in the Roman Empire and as a Festschrift dedicated to Lukas de Blois. As indicated by the subtitle, the collection groups together the papers given at one of the workshops organised by the "Impact of Empire" network of which de Blois was among the founders and, until this meeting where he retired, the successful chairman. The broad spread of papers reflects the wide-ranging and catholic interests of the honorand. There is much of interest in these papers, though precisely what catches the eye will depend on personal preferences. This reviewer thought Drinkwater and Peachin's two analyses of the Principate, reinterpreting Mommsen's notion of the most "illegitimate" form of government, both lively and stimulating. John Rich and Luuk de Ligt offer instructive and learned discussions of the preconditions and details of the Gracchan crisis of the Late Roman Republic. Manders and Horster make interesting observations concerning Roman coinage as a medium of "propaganda". However, as will also be clear from this list, the issues dealt with in this book are fairly disparate and the whole is not strongly focused. Clearly some lack of coherence can be tolerated and certainly must be expected from a Festschrift.

The content is organised under 4 headings plus an introductory part and an epilogue. "Crisis and The Empire" contains nine papers on life and rule in various Roman provinces and aspects of the character of imperial government and power such as aristocracies and military commands, all mostly in the third century AD. The six papers of "Crisis and the Economy" focus on the demography and land issue in late republican politics as well as the Antonine plague and its possible consequences. Another six papers, "Crisis and the Emperor", bring the emphasis back to the third century AD and deal with issues of imperial ritual and representation. Finally the five papers of "Crisis in (Legal) Writing" treat aspects of late antique literary culture.

During the last decades the twin notions of crisis and decline have become problematised as a form of historical explanation. Too often change has automatically been taken as a symptom of crisis or decline rather than merely transformation; and too often, the notion of crisis has been utilised in a totalising fashion. Severe problems in one field of activity are immediately and crudely read into developments in other spheres. But art and philosophy do not necessarily conform to the same rhythms as say the military or economic life. Two to three generations separate the onset of the Antonine plague, identified by Jongman in this volume as the beginning of serious imperial decline, and the 50 years of internal division and succession struggles which followed the fall of the Severan dynasty and which Liebeschuetz in his contribution insists mark a period of real and serious crisis for the survival of the Empire.

Work in the 1990s by Strobel and Witschel on the third-century crisis of the Roman Empire pointed out how often crisis had simply been taken for granted in the scholarly literature and showed the need for a much more circumscribed and analytically precise application of this concept.1 This challenge seems to have been the starting point of this volume. But instead of just staying within the third century, the editors have laudably sought to broaden out the perspective to include discussions of crisis in other periods of Roman history. In this enterprise, they have been only partly successful. The comparative discussion which could have emerged out of such a project does not happen. A few intimations apart, there is very little attempt to examine the notion of crisis as a form of historical explanation, how is it used, which sort of assumptions have shaped the concept, how can it be analytically differentiated. What dominates the collection, is Wolfgang Liebeschuetz' common sense reassertion, which does service as the analytical introduction, that "crisis", understood as a set of serious problems and challenges which threatened the continuation of Roman rule, cannot be wholly written out of, indeed must remain central to the history of the empire in the 3rd century AD. While this intervention may in many respects serve as a salutary antidote against exaggerated revisionism, it does not really alleviate the need for a more systematically worked out classification and definition of crisis (and decline) that could tie the volume together. Instead the reader is served with a series of more- or less well-connected papers that either discuss specific aspects of individual crises or deal with phenomena dating from periods customarily thought of as characterised by a state of crisis. All in all, however, these various papers provide the reader with a good sense of a range of issues and topics which at the moment attract attention and stir up debate among Roman historians dealing with the 3rd century AD and to a lesser extent the late Republic.

Notes:

1. Karl Strobel, Das Imperium Romanum im "3. Jahrhundert": Model einer Historischen Krise? Stuttgart 1993; Christian Witschel, Krise, Rezession, Stagnation?: der Westen des römischen Reiches im 3. Jahrhundert n.Chr., Frankfurt am Main 1999.

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