Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Version at BMCR home site

Scott McGill, Cristiana Sogno, Edward Watts (ed.), From the Tetrarchs to the Theodosians: Later Roman History and Culture, 284 - 450 CE. Yale Classical Studies 34. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. ix, 321. ISBN 9780521898218. $95.00.

Reviewed by Richard Flower, Sidney Sussex College, University of Cambridge


This Festschrift celebrates the seventieth birthday of John Matthews, the eminent historian of late antiquity. It contains thirteen essays grouped together in three sections: the first of these, 'Politics, Law, and Society' is particularly concerned with continuity and change, tracing the transition to late antiquity in a variety of areas of Roman life and literature. The second, 'Biography and Panegyrics', contains a series of incisive readings of individual late-antique texts, connected not only by their biographical and autobiographical subject matter, but also by their concern with education and instruction. The final part of the volume, 'Faces of Theodosius I', examines the reign of this emperor from a range of angles, paying particular attention to the upheaval and uncertainty of its early years. The contributors have often engaged with the other essays within their section, thereby seeking to imbue the collection with a greater unity of theme and argument.

The opening chapter, by David Potter, takes unity as its theme, surveying Roman history from the earliest days of provincial conquest down to the fifth century AD, in order to identify 'three phases of imperial self-definition', which are termed 'ethical', 'legal' and 'administrative' (15). The first, republican, section of the chapter is concerned primarily with the acquisition of territory, and discusses both the formal practice of deditio in fidem and the expectations it placed on Roman behaviour. After moving through the concept of imperium in the late Republic and early Principate, the discussion of late antiquity tells a story of developing regionalism and reliance upon local ruling classes (demonstrated by, amongst other examples, a survey of the families and careers of Maxentius' praefecti urbis), culminating in the failure of empire. The chapter thus combines grand narrative with moments of close analysis to produce a brief history of Roman attitudes towards government and integration.

Peter Garnsey's chapter on patronage has a similarly broad chronological sweep, although its intention is to stress continuity in the presence and importance of this practice. As such, the section on the Republic involves significant critical engagement with the work of Peter Brunt.1 Garnsey's argument is formed, at least in part, by following Andrew Wallace-Hadrill in widening the role of patronage 'from the hub of politics to, more broadly, society, ideology, and cultural experience' (41). After a section on the Principate which praises the work of Richard Saller, the final part of the chapter, on the later Roman empire, presents this period as one in which patronage co-existed with the sale of offices, without necessarily bringing these two forms of advancement into conflict.

Cristiana Sogno picks up from the end of the previous chapter to consider the practice of arranging marriages within the élites of the late-Roman West. The core of this illuminating paper is an analysis of the correspondence of Symmachus, who recommended men of his acquaintance to the fathers of potential brides, stressing the social benefits that would accrue to all concerned. These actions are compared here with similar episodes from the letters of Pliny the Younger, with Sogno concluding that the discrepancies between Pliny's 'portrait of the ideal husband' (62) and Symmachus' 'utilitarian' letters were more the product of differences between the authors than changes in the practice of matchmaking. The chapter also contains a brief but extremely interesting excursus on some letters of Augustine concerning a bishop arranging the marriage of a ward of the church.

In the first of two chapters on Constantinian legislation in the Theodosian Code, Jill Harries discusses the sweeping changes in the regulation of testamentary practice attributed to Constantine by Eusebius of Caesarea. This forms part of a wider exploration of the specifically Christian interpretations of legislation made by the bishop-biographer in his Life of Constantine. The first major section of the chapter provides a welcome reminder of many of the problems encountered by readers of the Code, including the mixture of proactive and reactive legislation and the extension of specific instructions into general laws. Harries then moves methodically through both surviving Constantinian rulings on the wording of wills and earlier Roman legal opinions and decisions to argue convincingly that, contra Eusebius, Constantine did not institute a wide-ranging reform of legal practice and that his statements conformed with the general trend of Roman attitudes in this area.

Serena Connolly rounds off the first section by exploring change over time in the form and ceremony of encounters between emperors and subjects who sought privileges and favourable rulings. The core of this paper is a detailed and interesting discussion of CTh 7.20.2, which purports to record the preliminary petitioning by a group of veterans, as well as the emperor's decision. After surveying the problems involved in dating this encounter, the chapter considers how the actual proceedings might be reconstructed from the surviving account and then compares them with other descriptions of similar episodes, both earlier and later. Through speculating on the contexts in which other, briefer decisions in the Theodosian Code might have been delivered, Connolly argues that CTh 7.20.2 is 'a programmatic text for Constantine's reign' (114), illustrating the increased prominence of ritual and acclamation under this emperor.

The next chapter, by Edward Watts, provides a fine exploration of Christian transformations of the classical tradition of philosophical biography. The piece surveys the history of this 'genre', considering both form and purpose, and concluding that 'its entire narrative worked to make readers predisposed to respond positively to the teachings of a particular school or thinker' (122). After giving some attention to Iamblichus' On the Pythagorean Life, the chapter considers, in turn, Eusebius' biography of Origen, Athanasius' Life of Antony and Augustine's Confessions. Watts carefully explicates the context and innovations of each text and its reworking of received models of biographical literature in response to different circumstances and concerns. This paper thus provides plenty of scope for further study, including of the interplay within such texts of the classical literary tradition and the Christian models of 'philosophical biography' provided by the Gospel narratives.

Josiah Osgood's paper delves into the early passages of Paulinus of Pella's Eucharisticos, frequently neglected by modern readers who are more interested in the juicier accounts of barbarian destruction and depredation in the poem's later sections. The focus here is on accounts of and attitudes towards traditional education, and the paper provides an informative discussion of Paulinus' youthful instruction, which is compared to the vignettes found in late-antique schoolbooks. The second half of the chapter is a detailed exploration of Paulinus' later reminiscences and judgements on his education, teasing out the importance of parallels to the writings of Augustine and Ausonius, but also considering how this text might fit into a broader late-antique concern: how to critique the classical literary inheritance while simultaneously recognising the status that its acquisition and display provided to the educated élite. Overall, this piece is an acute discussion of a largely overlooked author.

Scott McGill takes as his subject another relatively minor poet: Phocas, a grammarian and author of a verse Life of Virgil. This chapter is concerned with Phocas' innovations and departure from his source, the prose Life by Donatus, by endowing the childhood of Virgil with a number of new prodigies, which foretold his future literary prowess. Through close analysis of the text, McGill demonstrates convincingly that Phocas drew upon Virgil's own Fourth Eclogue, as well as adding a story about bees that appeared in the biographies of other ancient authors, including Plato. The chapter then attempts a reconstruction of the intended responses by Phocas' audience, speculating about what meaning should be ascribed to the addition of such fictions to a work of poetic biography, assuming that his readers could easily distinguish the 'fundamentally historical' from 'deliberate rhetorical embellishment' (168).

Susanna Elm provides an incisive discussion of Gregory of Nazianzus' two orations against the emperor Julian, arguing persuasively for their historical importance. After surveying changing attitudes towards both Julian and these texts, this chapter considers two aspects of Gregory's portrayal of the defunct emperor: as an actor in a theatrical and unreal form of rule, and as a condemned criminal, whose law would be overwritten by God through Gregory's own stēlographia. The piece concludes with a brief but fascinating mention of the presentation of Constantius II as the ideal emperor, in stark opposition to Julian himself, thereby creating a model for Christian kingship. As such, Elm offers an invitation to place these invectives within the broader story of the transformation of classical literary forms in the fourth century.

The final section of the volume opens with a paper in which Peter Heather returns to old territory to consider Themistius' speeches during the early years of the reign of Theodosius I, with particular emphasis on Oration 15. Heather here takes the reader through a detailed survey of the problems faced in building up support for a new emperor and the ways in which Themistius presented both Theodosius and the Gothic peace of 382 to a potentially sceptical audience. The portrait of the orator that emerges is that of 'a spin doctor, selling regimes and their policies to the Senate of Constantinople' (189). The second half of the paper moves on to deliver a sharp riposte to Michael Kulikowski and Guy Halsall, answering their views about both the terms of peace in 382 and the composition of the army that followed Alaric in 395, as well as bringing these arguments into a larger narrative of the fall of the West.2

Neil McLynn uses Gregory of Nazianzus' poem De vita sua as the basis for a thoughtful and persuasive account of Gregory's brief and ill-fated tenure as bishop of Constantinople. While Heather offered Themstius the spin doctor, McLynn provides a portrait of Gregory the lobbyist, able to employ techniques similar to those of his philosophical contemporary, but also astute in maintaining a certain distance from the regime: 'He neither glories in his intimacy with the emperor, as a eulogist might do, nor assumes the ominous authority of a prophet' (216). This chapter presents a robust challenge to the commonly reproduced image of Theodosius pursuing a determined ideological and theological programme from the beginning of his reign, substituting for it an emperor still finding his way in unfamiliar territory.

Brian Croke presents a detailed survey of the impact of Theodosius I on Constantinople, arguing that the city was relatively neglected by the successors of Constantine, only really becoming a true capital and imperial home in the 380s. The chapter moves through ceremonial innovations - for imperial births, birthdays, proclamations, dies imperii, marriages and funerals - and building projects, including the new forum, churches and martyria, as well as the translation of relics to the city. The discussion of Theodosius' engagement with his imperial predecessors is particularly informative, both in his attempts to link his dynasty, iconographically and architecturally, with Trajan and Hadrian, and in his creation of an imperial mausoleum complex, for which he went 'to considerable lengths to bring together in a single precinct in the imperial capital every imperial corpse he could find' (253).

The final chapter, by Mark Vessey, is a thought-provoking piece on Latin historical writing at the end of the fourth century. It starts out by tracing 'the gradual extinction of Roman historiography in the west' (269), taking in Pacatus' panegyric on Theodosius I and then analysing the conclusions of both Ammianus Marcellinus' history and the Historia Augusta in order to argue that the authors of both these works were describing contemporary history as suitable subject matter for panegyrists, rather than historians. The second half of the chapter examines Jerome's 'Chronicle', presented here as the beginning of a new tradition, not least in its interest in the lives and deaths of famous authors, who were given a space in his historical record alongside emperors and kings. Vessey states that 'Latin literary history begins with Jerome in Constantinople' (282), drawing out how this, like the contemporary changes in historical writing, demonstrated the declining centrality of Rome itself.

John Matthews maintains, as one might expect, a strong presence throughout this volume, both in the discussions of his work which frame many of the chapters and in his frequent appearances in footnotes. The editors sum up his style of scholarship by stating that, 'in a field of study where grand military, economic, and religious narratives often predominate, Matthews stands out as a proponent of close, analytical history' (2). The influence of this approach, with its close attention to particular texts and episodes, is strongly felt in the papers that make up this volume. Yet, as the editors also state in their introduction, it is often the case that scholarship of this kind allows broader themes to be better understood. Matthews has been the author of not one, but several such studies on different aspects of late antiquity, and these thirteen essays form an extremely interesting and fitting tribute that highlights the broad interests and impact of its dedicatee.


1.   P. Brunt, The Fall of the Roman Republic, Oxford, 1988.
2.   M. Kulikowski, 'Nation versus Army: A Necessary Contrast?' in A. Gillett (ed.), On Barbarian Identity: Critical Approaches to Ethnicity in the Early Middle Ages, Turnhout, 2002, 69-84; G. Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568, Cambridge, 2007.

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