Friday, September 4, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Péter Kovács, Marcus Aurelius' Rain Miracle and the Marcomannic Wars. Mnemosyne Supplements 308. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2009. Pp. xviii, 301. ISBN 9789004166394. $154.00.
Reviewed by Andy Fear, University of Manchester

This book gives the reader an exhaustive discussion of the "rain miracle" which is said to have occurred in Marcus Aurelius's campaigns across the Danube. Kovács has undertaken a heroic task, as virtually nothing about this incident, or the wars in which it occurred, is not disputed. The structure of the volume is a little odd. The first 9 chapters deal strictly with the rain miracle, the tenth is simply a list of the scenes to be found on the column of Marcus Aurelius and would have been better suited as an appendix, while the eleventh reverts to a discussion of the miracle. There is then a highly detailed excursus of 2 chapters which discuss the Marcomannic Wars in general, followed by a final chapter then reverts to the issue of the date of the rain miracle.

Kovács approach to his subject is perhaps inevitably predominantly literary, albeit his discussion of the Column of Marcus Aurelius could have been the openning point of his exposition. After a brief discussion of previous work on his subjectthe first chapters give a list of all ancient and medieval references to the rain miracle. These are dealt with individually, the original text is cited and a translation given. There then follows a brief discussion and bibliography of each citation. While translations are present in this section of the work, this is not always the case in other parts of the book, and there is a strong assumption that the reader will know both classical antique languages. Large amounts of Latin and Greek are quoted in the original and, given his very close reading of ancient texts, these quotations often form key parts of Kovács's arguments. Kovács's approach to the sources is sensitive but at times perhaps his grip wavers and the approach is a little naive. Orosius is cited as a separate source from Jerome at times, but draws directly on Jerome's Chronicle for his data (p. 217), Strabo's comments about the lack of profit to be had in Britain (oddly spelt Brittannia) are accepted at face value without any exploration of whether imperial propaganda could have played a role in their formation (p. 257). In general, given the great stress Kovács places on them, a prolonged discussion of the reliability of Dio, his epitomators, and the Lives found in SHA would have been of great value.

Kovács follows his survey of the sources with an interesting discussion of the use of the miracle in the medieval period. From this it becomes clear how much more popular the story was in the Greek East as opposed to the Latin West. Sadly this theme is not explored in depth.

After looking at the literary evidence, Kovács turns to our other available evidence. In his chapter on coins he makes a strong case that no coins of Marcus Aurelius can be linked to the miracle. The depiction of the miracle on Marcus Aurelius's column is also discussed. This chapter provides a good introduction to the column, though some controversies about what is depicted and the nature of these depictions are perhaps played down a little. Little time is spent on the strange depiction of the rain god himself. This is a pity since, as Kovács notes, it bears little resemblance to the iconography of known classical deities and a more prolonged discussion would have added further value to an interesting exposition.

A good case is made that the rain miracle started its life in a now-lost report by Marcus Aurelius to the senate in which the emperor attributed the miracle to an abstract, unspecified divinity, perhaps having an aspect of Jupiter in his mind. The unspecific nature of the report allowed a Christianised version of the miracle to evolve rapidly along with several other rival pagan versions which attributed the miracle to the Egyptian god Arnuphis or the magus Julian Theurgistes. Kovács demonstrates convincingly how these pagan versions of the incident are later accretions to the story.

Kovács then discusses the Marcomannic Wars in general. Again, this is a meticulous synthetic reading of our difficult literary sources. Accounts of the Marcomannic Wars are rare in English and these chapters will provide a valuable new account of the wars and the sources available for their intepretation. Kovács argues for a date of AD 169/170 for the debacle which led to the barbarian incursion into Italy. He sees Galen as the key piece of evidence (p.199), who comments that in the autumn of AD 169 he was able to avoid participation in the war because the emperor hoped to finish it rapidly. As Kovács points out, such a strategy would only have been possible prior to the major defeat of Roman arms. The point of the wars is seen as policing rather than annexation. This leads Kovács to reject the statement in SHA vita Marci that the emperor would have reduced these areas to new provinces in a further year had he lived. Here, as in his treatment of sources, the reader can discern the continental rather than English-speaking approach to Roman history. Kovács accepts the notion of Augustus's consilium of constraint which has been challenged in English-speaking scholarship since Brunt's review of Meyer's "Die Aussenpolitik des Augustus", in JRS 53 (1963) and Wells's The German policy of Augustus: an examination of the archaeological evidence, Clarendon Press, Oxford (1972). neither of which are cited in the bibliography.

In the final chapter Kovács returns to the rain miracle on the Column of Marcus Aurelius and arues that while our literary sources place the miracle in AD 174, the column shows us that it must have occurred in AD 171. Again, given Kovács's premises this is an eminently reasonable position, more argument about what the column depicts would have been useful at this point.

In summary, this is a book which delivers much more than it initially promises. It tackles a specific problem in a detailed and thoughtful manner. However, the chapters on the Marcomannic Wars have a much broader focus and will be of great value to those with interests in the reign Marcus Aurelius and Roman Imperialism in general (and to English-speaking students in particular).

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